Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The paradox of ritual in American culture

Victor Turner explains that we need “anti-temporal” rituals in order for humor to operate. Bill Bryson's humorous take on American culture works by setting up certain aspects of American culture as fixed rituals—such as baseball, diners, and McDonald's—and then humorously observing their success or demise.

In Dr. Lukacs' American Literature class, we interpret most classics of American literature as struggle between the old world of Europe and the new world of the great American frontier. The old world is history and civilization; the new world is nature, both in the biological sense and the philosophical sense of the natural rights of liberalism. America is timeless, a place where one can always come to start anew, and this timelessness is constantly at risk of being overtaken by the contingencies of history, the necessary evils of construction and governing and trading.

Bill Bryson doesn't enter into this debate of Nature versus History. But his return to America is constantly marked by this tension, beginning with his “coming home.” Bryson and his family seek a fresh start—a constant American desire—in an old place: Hanover, with its Dartmouth legacy and old-fashioned Main Street (1). Bryson constantly refers to his youth, the days before baseball playoffs had been invented, before motels were owned by major corporations, and before garage doors were automatic.

The irony in so many of Bryson's examples is that he treats as sacred what was originally intended as revolutionary: drive-in theaters, portable diners, junk food. As James Turner writes:
Thus we have two kinds of anti-temporality: the perenially sacred, rooted perhaps in the primordial manifestation of the eternal, generative unmanifest, the Logos, that was “in the beginning,” but was Son of the beginningless fathering will to manifestation; the perennially sacrilegious, human freedom to resist and even transgress the culturally axiomatic, the most sacred texts, the mightiest rulers and their commandments.
In “A Slight Inconvenience,” Bryson informs the reader that most household appliances were invented in America. I would argue that a washing machine or a microwave is an example of Turner's “perenially sacrilegious,” because they are devices that transgressed the cultural reality of work. However, these devices, as Bryson points out, now have a “devotion” (186). America is always trying to shortcut the eternal, the sacred, and the “beginningless” in order to start anew. America is a country that is constantly redefining itself.

Because of this constant redefinition, Bryson's book already seems out of date at some points. Who remembers the days when baseball playoffs didn't occupy the entire month of October? And the technological issues faced by Bryson and his computer are far different today. Even when Bryson mentions McDonald's, I'm reminded that Chipotle, along with other healthier restaurants, is beginning to eat into McDonald's profits. Perhaps even Ronald McDonald can pass away. This isn't a criticism of Bryson's book—I think he's even better at self-deprecation than David Sedaris—but an endorsement of its fundamental premise: America is always changing. I doubt that the “farming village in the comely depths of the Yorkshire Dales” with a pub and a baker's wife who would slice your bread for an extra penny will have changed much if Bryson returns in two decades (Bryson 285-286). And, if it has, it will be a true societal shift in England, not an expected change.

Bryson's writing brings two truths to the surface. Firstly, he helps us in asking what are the true anti-temporal, eternal rituals of American life? Shopping? Lawsuits? Waste? Or is it:
baseball on the radio, the deeply satisfying whoing-bang slam of a screen door in summer, insects that glow, sudden run-for-your-life thunderstorms, really big snowfalls, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July, the smell of a skunk from just the distance that you have to sniff the air quizzically and say “Is that a skunk?”, Jell-O with stuff in it, the pleasingly comical sight of oneself in shorts. (3-4)
Even at Bryson's best attempts to define an “eternal” America, I'm left wondering if there's anything but our landscape that could never change—and even that is at risk of destruction and suburbanization. The paradox of America is that it's a country in a state of constant re-invention. It's tempting to interpret Turner such that a ritual-less America can never be funny. But Bryson's second truth is that living in America can be humorous, and that the constant flux of life's daily rituals means we will always be able to laugh at our culture. As Bryson says of the order of cable re-runs, “It has been like this for years, as far as I can tell, and will stay like this forever” (237).

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