These are my favorite lines from a short clip out of the movie Paris Je T’aime (Paris, I love You). The film consists of a series of different scenes filmed by a number of directors in different arrondissements (districts) of the city. There are several good ones and some that are a little strange. (A vampiric Elijah Wood?) I have used one particular clip from the film, “Bastille,” many times to illustrate the complexity of ritual. It’s also a beautiful sequence in its own right, and I always feel a bit guiltily using it to exemplify something else. Watch it below:
Aside from the insights the clip gives about the fragile nature of love, which deserve further exploration, we can extract at least two important points about ritual in our lives. The first is seen in the rituals of the wife. I mentioned yesterday that rituals are sometimes developed with an eye toward efficiency (ease of remembrance, etc.) Yet there are many times when ritual is not efficient; it is seemingly extravagant or wasteful. Particularly in these cases it looks illogical to the outside observer. The protagonist was annoyed by the fact that his wife kept items she didn’t need, planned to do things she did not do, and repeated activities that irked him. These were the things that had attracted him to her originally, but they had become a bother. We could give several explanations for this, one being that only because his feelings had changed, the actions of his wife bothered him. In other words, it was not her actions that were annoying but his changed attitude toward them. While true on one level, this is only part of the story. The rituals themselves underwent a change as well. For the man, the meaning of the symbols was transformed, and he did not participate in them the same way. His change in relationship with his wife’s rituals, and by extension his wife, involved a change in both his thinking and his acting, but it is not easy to say if one or the other came first. It is very difficult to understand, in fact, how exactly his attitude changed. Indeed, he had fallen in love with another woman, but was that the cause or the effect of his relationship with his wife? He experienced, in a sense, a sort of conversion, and its location cannot be precisely marked. We tend to mark it with the subject (“He fell out of love,” “He got selfish,” etc.), but that overemphasizes one—albeit important—variable at the expense of others.
The second point about ritual begins with the key quote I noted in the title. In hugging his wife, taking pleasure in and with her, enjoying an action that he had previously disliked, he narrates, “By acting like a man in love, I became a man in love again.” Much to our chagrin, love, in terms of its felt emotional presence, is not always or often the prerequisite for its cognitive appearance. To put it another way, one is not usually “struck” by love. This only takes place by obscuring the context of its appearance, failing to see the social and psychological markers that coincide with an emotional response of surprised attraction. Whenever movies depict an impending arranged marriage, the male figure inevitably says to the female something to the effect of, “You will learn to love me in time.” That strikes us as artificial and more than a little creepy, but it is in fact quite probable. It is certainly as probable as the lastingness of marriages that are born out of “falling in love.”
The point is that by “acting” in the particular way that I think one does when expressing a type of relationship, the feelings that accompany that relationship can subsequently appear. It is perhaps for the sake of simplification that we often make decisions based upon what we like, or what we surmise we like based on previous experience. Yet we also know that we can dislike something and then grow to like it. For a trivial example, when I was in my early twenties I thought coffee was the most disgusting drink ever created. I thought to myself, “If you have to make yourself like it, why drink it in the first place?” Then, somehow, in the span of a year I went from drinking no coffee to being a daily coffee drinker. I participated in the actions of coffee drinkers, all the while thinking myself not “really” a coffee drinker, and somewhere along the way became one. While we would like to prioritize the mind as taking the primary role in these processes, it is usually not the case. I did not wake up and decide to like coffee one day; the man in the clip did not set out to un-love his wife, much less love her again, yet by participating in the actions of a man who loved his wife, he came to embody that role again.
What this tells us about ritual activities is that it is inaccurate to suggest that if one is “acting” out the ritual, if one does not possess the right emotional state or the correct knowledge about it, that it is somehow artificial or insincere. On the contrary, it is actually when ritual becomes static, when its meaning is determined and fixed for the individual without possibility of change, that it becomes meaningless. When the symbol becomes equivalent to the thing signified, the mystery of their dynamic is exposed and they lose all potency. The signified ceases to exist. It is precisely this reason that ritual is so important to religion. It helps create and maintain the divine. But it is the possibility of the ritual not signifying correctly that gives it its power, and ironically, the attempt to prevent some possibilities is the closure of possibility altogether.
Your thoughts on the clip? Which came first: the ritual or the feeling (or thinking)?