Mellon Seminar Reflection 11: Rites of Passage

I spent last week reading older materials published in the early 1900s and then in the 1960s about rites of passage (life crisis, induction, and calendrical rites). I found the material exhilarating. I went back to Arnold van Gennep who wrote a book in French in 1908,

The Rites of Passage

. I found the work to be very complex and thought-provoking which I wasn't expecting. The experience makes me even more determined to study materials written before 1960 (or some might even say 1980). Just because we have learned some things since then, doesn't mean that the older studies have no value or that their methodological approaches are empty.

I also learned that we need to reread these materials because their reception history in secondary literature has misread or devalued the original material in such a way that the secondary discourse no longer is faithful to the old author. For instance, in van Gennep's work, I found very complex and nuanced thinking, far more than contemporary references to him grant him. His biggest 'receiver' was Victor Turner who famously studied the 'limen' or state of marginality that novices-intitiates find themselves in when going through rites of passage. Turner refers again and again to van Gennep in one brilliant essay after another, crediting van Gennep with the idea that rites of passage are characterized by three stages: a stage of separation from normalcy; a stage of liminality or marginality; and a stage of aggregation into normalcy restructured.

Van Gennep does say this, but not quite as directly as we are led to believe. He, in fact, nuances it substantially. First he analyzes these three, not as stages or phases, but as three kinds of rites of passage, thereby subdividing rites of passage into rites of separation, transition, and incorporation. He explains that these types of rites of passage are not developed to the same extent by all people in every ceremonial pattern. Rites of separation are prominent in funeral ceremonies, rites of incorporation in marriages, transition rites in pregnancy, betrothal and initiation. He says, "Although a complete scheme of rites of passage


includes preliminal rites (rites of separation), liminal rites (rites of transition), and postliminal rites (rites of incorporation), in specific instances these three types are not always equally important or equally elaborated" (11).

He also understands that rites of passage may include other forms of rites. Marriage ceremonies might also include fertility rites; birth ceremonies might also include protection and divination rites; etc.

At any rate, these examples serve my point today. Secondary discussions of authors, particularly older authors who wrote before 1960, work to homogenize the author and simplify his or her contribution. Then they can more easily be attacked for what they didn't do (even if they in fact did!). When I read van Gennep, I found his work to be very aware of the problems of classification and the acknowledgment of historical complexity and specificity. We can learn much from him still.