Monday, January 10, 2011

Commodifying the Soul

In yesterday’s New York Times, city critic Ariel Kaminer describes three forays into ritual observation of the New Year. “A new year, a new opportunity to cleanse the soul and start afresh. Isn’t that what everybody says?” she begins (on p. 22), and then soon goes on to observe, “I’m not sure where my soul resides, but wherever it is, it’s probably a terrible mess.” She writes wittily and vividly about three very different encounters, beginning with scaring off a family of tourists while standing in Central Park, holding an egg to various parts of her body and uncomprehendingly chanting kabbalistic invocations.

So much for five-dollar rituals off an internet site. (I’m not making this up, and apparently neither is she.) If the two ritual consultants she subsequently visits have better credentials, her experiences with them don’t prove much more meaningful. In the last paragraph of her column, she writes: “as much as these women charge for expert consultations... the mere fact that New York can support a blessing business is in itself cheering.”

It’s a clever quip, and an artful parting shot. And sadly demonstrates at the same time that, yes, perhaps her soul is in a terrible mess. Not a mess unique to her, certainly, or entirely a mess of her own making, or any worse than the mess lots of people’s souls are in, whether they consider themselves to have a spiritual life or not. But the mess that comes of turning even the quality of your inner life into a commodity that you shop for; of going to someone for spiritual counsel not in a relationship of trust, but as a smart (and smart-ass) modern consumer buying a service.

Could the exchanges she relates have turned out differently? As she describes them, they’re all about the externals of some simple ceremonies. There’s no way of knowing much about the thick texture of her interactions with the advisers who led her through them, of how effectively they invited her to drop down out of the role of arch observer to take seriously any unfulfilled longings for change and growth that might have led her to seek them out, had she not simply been covering her beat. In short, it’s dicey to speculate how these experiences gone so badly and comically awry could have turned out to her genuine good. Claiming to sell enlightenment– running a “blessing business”–is if anything less admirable and more soul-destroying than trying to buy it. There’s nothing cheering about the prospect that New York or any city can support such an enterprise, though of course many cities can–often in the form of evangelical Christian megachurches preaching a “prosperity gospel.”.

But the way Ms. Kaminer writes, it’s hard to see whether any of the three practitioners she profiles is actually doing such a thing, and in fact I rather think not. Even the loopiness of her five-dollar internet egg ritual might have come to good: twenty minutes of web-surfing for more creditable sources on Kabbalah to supplement its eccentricity would have at very least given her some insight into the meaning of the invocations she was instructed to perform.

The fact is, ritual is a sort of language. It has a vocabulary and a grammar, and what seems like meaningless babble to an outsider conveys rich significance only between those who share the dialect. Like any language we learn, we learn through immersion, repetition, and a relationship of cooperative trust with those who speak it already. The creation of non-traditional personal ritual is even more precarious, and even more dependent on the authenticity of the connection between those who are devising it, precisely because they have to cobble such a language together as they go, creating as it were a kind of spiritual pidgin. In this, the simple-minded adoption of half-understood practices from a tradition one has barely grazed is perhaps merely the inverse of Ms. Kaminer’s skepticism. But at very least, such incomprehension has good will on its side.

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