Sunday, December 10, 2006

Meaningful inauthenticity

Fountains Abbey - Wedding
It would be easy to be cynical about what is happening here. Picturesque remains of a bygone age combined with the sentimental illusions evoked by a white wedding. "Who do they think they're kidding?" would be one reaction. "Mostly themselves" would be the automatic reponse.

Maybe. Maybe not. Obviously, none of us can have the slightest idea about the reality of this choice from the point of view of those involved. Without figures to hand, I cannot say how many people go for the picturesque setting to celebrate their wedding. There's a Unitarian chapel in Styal that in Spring and Summer needs a conveyor belt to manage the wedding parties passing through it. The villagers tend to sneer at them but I have some sympathy with folk who really don't have much consumer choice here.

What most of us think we're doing when we get married is very traditional: we're choosing a partner for life, someone that we're going to live with until we live no more. On the scale of the choices we make, not much comes close to that one in its consequences. We reach out for reinforcements, for the warmth of companionship to reassure us that we are not alone. Lots of people help, especially the ones that have known us and will continue to populate our little world. Others' eyes witness what we do and, in some way, guarantee it.

With our friends and family taking the secondary roles in our story, we acknowledge that there wouldn't be a story without them. But there are other narrative threads that must occupy the foreground at times. One of these is generational: the previous generation giving way to the current one just as the current one must one day give way to the next. This is one of those fundamentals that are so easy to forget if we persist in the delusion that 3.5 billion years of evolution are all about us. A wedding taken seriously will make you feel the star of the show, but will also remind you of you place in the scheme of things. And the scheme of things goes way back.

That's one story, but there are others, ones you could identify with culture or tribe and family. A ritual, an agreed and long-lasting set of actions, words and images, perform this function. All of these things are part of the bedrock of the structure you start to build with the wedding; they are a hedge against the uncertainty of the future you are making a claim on.

In the deracinated lives that most of us live, within the most revolutionary culture that has ever existed, we don't have much choice when it comes to long-lived, charged-with-meaning rituals. Intellectually, it is all too easy to undermine them, deconstruct them - you don't even have to understand much about them to do so. What we're less good at is building the bigger story that we can call on and all can make use of. What is left then but to rope in the unthreatening, but reassuring remains of a past that was more proficient in this field?

I took this photo at Fountains Abbey in July. I have no idea who the people are. In the unlikely event that they can be recognised, I hope that they take no offense at my use of them for idle reflections.

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