How can the process of acceptance of a loss be translated into a spatial realm in the same terms of the Turner’s three phases of a rite of passage?
Critical Practice Paper 3
«Here is a tribe of stones, a people of stones, an obstinate tribe, which is ever marching and ever shouting and calling voicelessly. Against the background of native grasses, trees, nettles and blackberries, exotic Hebrew letters are still talking about those who lived here and passed away»
Anna Kamienska, Times of Stones
In his Last Landscapes, Ken Worpole beautifully described cemeteries as «pivotal landscapes, places where life and death, past and present, the material word and the spiritual world are held in balance».
When I first “met” the Brompton Cemetery I felt there was more in that place than the common sense of sadness and fear driven by our collective unconsciousness about cemeteries.
The atmosphere was filled with memories of human stories.
There were latent presences among the words of its epitaphs.
«You walk for days among trees and among stones. Rarely does the eye light on a thing, and then only when it has recognized that thing as the sign of another thing: a print in the sand indicates the tiger’s passage; a marsh announces a vein of water; the hibiscus flower, the end of winter. All the rest is silent and interchangeable; trees and stones are only what they are».
A hidden language of metaphor underpins Calvino’s description of one of his invisible cities. A deeper meaning lies behind these words.
Tamara is a “city of signs”, a place where nothing is lost, where the soul of everything never dies.
The author reads the world through the words of his imagination and each invisible city is presented to the readers as a thought experiment, an idea, a fear, an aim.
Exploring its “invisible” side is the way I have looked at the Brompton Cemetery.
This place means transition to me, in the metaphysical sense of the word.
In its temporariness lies its essence.
Its hushes emerged through lights and shadows among the Victorian walkways and the deep arcades; its voids were the most eloquent part of the speech.
This is where the intangible became tangible and the evidence of an absence made a new presence.
But that’s the end of my journey. Ant I believe that its beauty lies beneath the paths I have walked along to reach the end.
Getting lost as an urban wanderer
«I lost track of time, becoming lost in that other way that isn't about dislocation but about the immersion where everything else falls away»
I felt lost in a city, not because of its unfamiliarity to me, and I have loved this sense of loss. To me, as an over rational person, that was the most unconsciously desirable aim.
Getting lost is not only a matter of geography; it is a reminder of our being, here and now, in connection with our surroundings.
From this point of view, it is an identity issue: we are here and now because we are in a specific place and time.
Exploring the city as an urban wanderer opens out a wider perspective upon the meaning of “walking”. In fact, the sense of those places that give an essence to our being can only be gained on foot.
«I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about tree miles an hours. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.»
Walking allowed me to achieve a loss of control; to slow down those frenetic rhythms that overwhelm my life, immersing me in a frozen atmosphere where past and present are folded into each other.
The action of walking through the suburbs of London without a specific “where to go” projected my rational thoughts into a completely unknown dimension.
There was something hidden beneath the appearance along that journey. Aims, voices, places.
That walking was pervaded by absences.
Borders, liminal and unusual spaces, those that lie far from the vivid core of London, are so poetic and life embracing to me.
Their decay masks silent plots built over the years throughout people's actions. They are left behind by most, but witnesses and guardians of their memories.
Here is where my imagination flows, losing a physical connection with the environment, traveling around unfamiliar realms.
Here the unfamiliar enchants me, challenging my ratio and pushing me to an unconscious desire of an unknown journey.
My walks through the city, stimulated by echoes, smells and latent atmospheres, became the place of my thoughts, their transition and destination.
Because, when you give something to a place, somehow, it gives it back to you.
Since the eighteenth-century psychology and geography have been merged in a science called Psychogeography, whose leitmotif is well represented by this poem:
«I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe»
Starting from the idea of the imaginative reconstruction of the city, William Blake remapped the London of the eighteenth-century as he walked its streets in accordance with his own imagination as an urban wanderer, a nostalgic traveller successor of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.
The figure of the urban wanderer, promoted by Thomas De Quincey, the first Psychogeographer, became a flâneur in the nineteenth-century Paris, described by Edgar Allan Poe as a jungle in which The Man of the Crowd must adapt or perish.
The journey through the street became both directed and transformed by the dictates of the unconscious for the Surrealist. Indeed, the practice of Automatism was not simply confined to automatic writing but also extended to walking: Surrealism’s domain was the street and the stroll was a crucial practice in its attempts to replace our mundane existence with an appreciation of the marvellous.
After the Second World War, the lack of political radicalism resulted in a new avant-garde fuelled by revolutionary sentiments. In 1957 the Situationist movement, under the grip of Guy Debord, produced a series of statement that defined terms such as Psychogeography, Dérive and Détournement.
Debord defined Psychogeography in his Introduction à une critique de la géographie urbaine (1967) as «the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized, or not, on the emotions and behaviours of the individuals».
The actual results of these experiments were absent but, although Situationism was a failure, the practice of walking was not at its end.
Ian Sinclair, a contemporary Psychogeographer, writes in his Lights Out for the Territory (2003):
«Walking is the best way to explore and exploit the city: the changes, shifts, breaks in the cloud helmet, movement of light on water. Drifting purposefully is the recommended mode, tramping asphalted earth in alert reverie, allowing the fiction of an underlying pattern to reveal itself».
Sinclair talks about «lines of force» that lies beneath the city. He recalls the spirit of the Surrealist and their desire to unearth hidden aspects of the city as they drift through the streets.
In search of lost times
In our contemporary urban environment ruins and abandoned spaces have the strength to evoke absences, material and immaterial, bringing them to life.
Inside ruins, objects fall out of their previously assigned context to recombine in arbitrary combinations, a random, disordering which is shaped by where things land or have been thrown.
What is aesthetically fascinating about contemporary ruins is their lack of a formal design.
These buildings seem to be disregarded for their non-existence of an intrinsic artistic and historical value. Beneath a static appearance they sound vivid and alive. Their unconventional beauty can be described in Kant’s terms as sublime,
«A pleasure that arises only indirectly; it is produced by the feeling of a momentary checking of the vital powers and a consequent stronger outflow of them, so that it seems to be regarded as emotion, not play, but earnest in the exercise of the Imagination. Hence it is incompatible with charms; and as the mind is not merely attracted by the object but is ever being alternately repelled, the satisfaction in the sublime does not so much involve a positive pleasure as admiration or respect, which rather deserves to be called negative pleasure.» 
Being representative of something that is gone, they inspire latent images of loss and absence. In the mean time, ruins embrace the idea of a presence within a non-appearance.
People experience loss in different ways and afterwards, whether it is material or spiritual, they tend to transform it in a new entity.
This transition consists in a back and forth process of accepting the absence.
Everyone, in his inner self, has a cognitive map of loss and absences. Some of them live in our mind as ended entity; some others are “in limbo”, waiting to become remote memories or to generate new presences.
Even though the word loss, by its nature, has a negative meaning, being related to a lack of something, it is worth being unfolded under its cathartic aspect.
In this sense, it can be considered as a constructive step in the process of shaping our own identity.
Moving back to our past, by exploring hidden drawers of our soul, is not an easy goal to achieve without regrets or nostalgia about something that is gone.
In this journey, the time plays a significant role: the more a memory of a loss is pervading and recurring, the more it monopolises our thoughts.
The environment we are surrounded by is also relevant to go back over an absence: our senses are surrounded by visual, sonorous, tactile and olfactory stimuli, that people inevitably associate with memories.
Marcel Proust has treated this theme in his In search of lost time (1913/1927). The theory of involuntary memory was based on the assumption that sights, sounds and smells trigger our memories.
«An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. ... Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? ... And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.»
Encounter with the Brompton Cemetery
Here it comes my encounter with the Brompton Cemetery, a suburban garden cemetery in the West London.
Cemeteries are places of conflicts and juxtapositions.
The walled cemeteries capture an architectural ambiguity of being both a walled room and an open space in the landscape: shelter and exposure, absence and presence, at one and the same time.
“Tumulus” and “Tomb” both come from the same Greek word, meaning a swelling, reminding us that bodies rarely entirely disappear from the earth surface: their presence remains marked, naturally or culturally by an irruption of some kind in the landscape.
Burial ground and cemeteries somehow seem to fix a time and a place in a culture for ever, carrying the past into the present and even into the future in perpetuity. One can feel a melting sense of presence and absence simultaneously, together with the suspension of time.
Despite its being an icon of stillness and eternal sleep, the Victorian Brompton Cemetery embodies a sense of transition and temporariness.
People “passing by”, together with the Cemetery’s own “community”, create a sense of melancholy, coexisting in the same time and place.
Their physical distance seems to be filled by Nature that looks after ruins, bringing them far from the oblivion.
We are surrounded by places that tell stories. Some of them raise those particular stories to a sole existential experience where the dialogue between the Earth and the human nature is embodied in a dilapidated stone.
Inhabitants of headstones and catacombs are hedged in by Nature in its effort to re-join their physicality to the Earth and their soul to the Atmosphere under the guise of fresh gems.
A cemetery, by its nature, is a place of absences. And what really fascinates me is its being representative of people’s attachment to their human physicality.
The Brompton Cemetery is the emblem of their purpose to keep their dead closer to this world, by materialising them in a tangible and concrete form, as the headstones are.
The cult of death, as a cultural phenomenon and a collective practice, has faced with the issue of beginning and end.
The notion of death among Eastern cultures differs greatly from that of a secularized Western world, which frequently considers death as the end to be avoided.
In his The hour of our death (1981), Philippe Ariès explores European attitudes toward death and dying over the last thousand years, together with the meaning of death to the individual and community, from the Middle Ages until nowadays.
In medieval Europe, Christianity had domesticated this monster by establishing a comprehensive set of beliefs and practices that Ariès calls the "tame death." Death was merely a transition to eternal life. The individual was understood as an integral part of the community and not as autonomous and isolated. Therefore, death and dying were communal events, supported by specific prayers and practices that "tamed" the unknown.
The communicability of death and decay reached a peak in the middle of the 19th Century. By that time, a large number of private and commercial burial sites had emerged in both Britain and France. Such sites were located almost uniformly on the outskirts of towns or cities, away from the traditional churchyard sites.
The great urban Victorian cemeteries were designed to be places of beauty, contemplation and instruction for posterity, with a culturally and socially optimistic perspective upon the future.
In his On the Laying Out, Planting, and Managing of Cemeteries, and on the Improvement of Churchyards (1843), J.C. Loudon wrote
«A garden cemetery and monumental decoration afford the most convincing takers of a nation’s progress in civilisation and in the art, which are its result.»
Being one of the “Magnificent Seven” cemeteries that opened between 1833 and 1841 in the countryside around London, Brompton Cemetery has been built over a market garden consisted on a flat and treeless rectangle site half a mile long.
Benjamin Baud’s inspirational concept was to create an immense and immersive open-air cathedral with a central nave (Central Avenue) that runs to the high altar (the domed Chapel) through the prominent colonnades of the Great Circle.
Today, wandering around this garden cemetery has a different meaning and taste from the past, making us aware of the evolution of the human’s perception of death.
In the centuries that followed its foundation, Ariès's “tame death” changed result from the gradual replacement of community-oriented personal identity with today's radical individualism and the gradual sequestration of death to a position behind the scenes, so that dying and death become remote from ordinary experience.
Nowadays we encounter “invisible death”.
Death is no longer “tame” because we deny its existence so, effectively, we no longer develop personal and communal resources to give it meaning.
We have lost the cultural means by which mortality can be invested with social significance.
Death's invisibility enhances its terror.
People are scared about something unfamiliar and by any chance provable. This fear is part of human’s collective unconscious.
In The Significance of Constitution and Heredity in Psychology (1929), Jung wrote:
«The existence of the collective unconscious means that individual consciousness is anything but a tabula rasa and is not immune to predetermining influences. On the contrary, it is in the highest degree influenced by inherited presuppositions, quite apart from the unavoidable influences exerted upon it by the environment. The collective unconscious comprises in itself the psychic life of our ancestors right back to the earliest beginnings. It is the matrix of all conscious psychic occurrences, and hence it exerts an influence that compromises the freedom of consciousness in the highest degree, since it is continually striving to lead all conscious processes back into the old paths.»
In his lecture The Concept of the Collective Unconscious (1936) to the Abernethian Society at St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London, he said
«Archetypes constitute the structure of the collective unconscious - they are psychic innate dispositions to experience and represent basic human behavior and situations. […] Birth, death, power and failure are controlled by archetypes. The religious and mystique experiences are also governed by archetypes.»
Rite of passage
Philosophers and non-philosophers have discussed the idea of death as an inevitable universal event. According to most of the religions, man’s being is non-finite in this existence and what comes after death is valued higher than being in the world here and now.
In the West, with the growth of scientific knowledge, particularly from the 17th century onwards, man’s intellectual interest shifted towards science and technology and religious faith in eternal life began to decline.
The individual became more preoccupied with the material side of the world, his finitude and solitude in the face of death.
In his Being and Time, one of the greatest existentialist thinkers of the 20th century, Martin Heiddeger, gave new existential significance to the meaning of death.
Understanding the phenomenon of death involves grasping the Being of human existence (Dasein) as a whole, which is being towards death.
But facing one’s own death is radically different from being concerned with the death of others. Dasein cannot experience its own death: as long as it exists, it is not complete, but, when it dies, there is no longer there.
How, then, does Dasein lift itself up to authenticity?
Through being towards death. Through a particular state of mind: dread.
One has to transcend one’s everyday inauthentic mode of Being, in order to understand his finitude. This is not an explanation of death itself, but more a phenomenology of our relationship to it.
On the contrary, Karl Jaspers didn’t impose an ontological structure upon human beings. He defined Dasein as a mode of being which manifests itself as the empirical self with a temporal dimension, and Existenz as a non-objective entity that transcends time.
Jaspers offered a possibility for Existenz to merge into Trascendence, ultimate reality.
Indeed, despite the end of one’s empirical being, Existenz is not subject to death. As Existenz we are concerned with the significance of death and how we relate to it. In order to grasp Dasein’s finitude we have to deal with the constant presence of potential death and the concrete reality and necessity of it.
Although death destroys us phenomenally, existential communication is preserved: it is eternal.
In the analysis of both Heiddeger and Jaspers there is a hint of religious notions. With the traditional view, death signified the end of our being on which judgement will be passed and on which the possibility of a higher for of being depends.
Although both philosophers have taken up this point, only Jaspers developed a similar concept of transcending death, not as a person or Dasein but as Existenz.
At the present time, despite a general scepticism about the possibility of life after death, the individual is able to get rid of the terror of facing death only through his belief in survival, which is based on one of pure faith.
Human’s responses to death have always involved ritualistic practices based on beliefs that come from religion, tradition and culture.
In his Rites de Passage, first published in French in 1908, Arnold Van Gennep conferred his term “rite of passage” both to rituals accompanying an individual’s or a cohort of individuals’ change in social status, and to those associated with seasonal changes for an entire society.
He distinguished three phases in a rite of passage: separation, transition and incorporation.
The first one demarcates sacred space and time from profane or secular space and time, including symbolic behaviour, which represent the detachment of the ritual subjects from their previous social statuses.
During the transition, the subjects pass through a period and area of ambiguity, a sort of social limbo.
Eventually the third one, called incorporation, includes symbolic phenomena and actions which represent the return to a new, relatively stable and well-defined position in the total society.
It is an enhanced status, a stage further along life’s culturally prefabricated road.
Death in itself is an irreversible rite of passage for the individual who experiences it, but, for the community the subject was a member of, it implies secularised rites among all the different cultures and religions.
Arnold Van Gennep argued then that in funeral ceremonies the “separation phase” plays the most important part of the rite.
The passage from one status to another is often accompanied by a parallel passage in space. It may involve a pilgrimage or a crossing of many frontiers before the subject reaches his goal.
This spatial symbolism may be the precursor of a real and permanent change.
The transition phase implies what Gennep calls margin or limen, an interval when the past is momentarily negated, suspended, or abrogated, and the future has not yet begun, an instant of pure potentiality when everything, as it were, trembles in the balance.
Liminality is a temporal interface whose properties partially invert those of the already consolidated order, which constitutes any specific cultural “cosmos”.
It inverts without subverting the status quo. People play with the elements of the familiar and defamiliarize them. Novelty emerges from unprecedented combination elements.
In his From Ritual to Theatre (1982), Victor Turner expanded on the work begun by Van Gennep. According with him, an extended liminal phase is frequently marked by the physical separation of the ritual subjects from the rest of society.
Sign of their preliminal status are destroyed and sign of their liminal non-status applied.
Turner used the term anti structure to define both liminality and communitas, meaning by it not a structural reversal but the liberation of human capacities of cognition, affect, volition, creativity etc.
He distinguished analytically three components of liminality.
The first is the communication of sacra, where secret symbols are communicated to the ritual subjects in the form of exhibitions of sacred articles (relics, masks, instruments, "what is shown"), actions (dancing, "what is done") and instructions (mythical history, "what is said").
The symbols represent the unity and continuity of the community, they are simple in form, but, because of their multivocality, they are often given complex cultural interpretations.
The second is the ludic deconstruction and recombination of familiar cultural configurations, which refers to the exaggeration or distortion of the characteristics of familiar articles in the sacra.
Familiar objects are often presented in distorted, deviant or grotesque forms (in smaller or larger shape, in other colours). These representations force the ritual adepts to think about their society, they provoke the ritual subjects to reflect on the basic values of their social and cosmological order.
The last is the simplification of the relations of the social structure, in which the only remaining structural characteristic in liminality is the authority of the ritual instructors over the completely submissive and obedient adepts.
Between the ritual subjects the socio structural distinctions disappear in favor of an absolute equality.
Turner's approach takes into account not only what is said about ritual, but also the relationships among ritual performances, myth and religious belief; the manner in which ritual symbols are manipulated and handled by the ritual subjects; the meaning and efficacy of single ritual symbols as well as their relation to other symbols at all ritual stages; and the field contexts, both social and cultural, in which the symbols appear.
For Turner there is in ritual an essential element of religious belief.
Indeed, the third phase of the ritual process, the incorporation, can be considered, from a religious point of view, the equivalent of the end of the process of purification, called catharsis.
The word catharsis is derived from the Greek κάθαρσις, which means cleansing and releasing a strong emotion. This last act has an emotional component and a cognitive aspect and the final result is a positive change, a new consciousness.
According to Aristotle, catharsis is the marking feature and ultimate end of any tragedy. He writes in his Poetics (Book VI, c. 350 BCE)
«Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; […] through pity (pathos) and fear affecting the proper purgation (catharsis) of these emotions.»
Traditionally, a tragedy is divided into five acts. The first act introduces the characters in a state of happiness, or at the height of their power, influence, or fame. The second act typically introduces a problem or dilemma, which reaches a point of crisis in the third act, but which can still be successfully averted. In the fourth act, the main characters fail to avert or avoid the impending crisis or catastrophe, and this disaster occurs. The fifth act traditionally reveals the grim consequences of that failure. According to Aristotle, tragedy necessarily involves hamartia, catastrophe, hubris, anagnorisis, peripeteia, and catharsis.
Aristotle argued witnessing tragic drama simply forces us to temporarily experience the dangers of transgression and teaches us a basic cautionary tale at a deep, truly terrifying emotional level.
«You have witnessed horrible things and felt painful feelings, but the mark of tragedy is that it brings you out the other side.»
His use of the word catharsis is not a technical reference to purgation or purification but a beautiful metaphor for the peculiar tragic pleasure, the feeling of being washed or cleansed.
Wisdom is central to Aristotle's view of tragedy and the tragic hero's experience: the tragic experience is not meaningless, and its meaning, at the conclusion, is not wasted on the tragic hero. Only the tragic experience itself completes the hero's journey to a deeper understanding of him or herself and the workings of the cosmos.
After reading the Brompton Cemetery in terms of architectural components and meaning related to the cult of death and its ritualistic practice, I found a strong correspondence between its formal attributes and the Turner’s three phases above mentioned and illustrated.
The semantic structure of separation, transition and incorporation can be transferred to this specific spatial realm, becoming representative of a journey toward a new condition, which implies a loss of a previous status.
The Central Avenue can be read as a metaphor of the first phase called separation: its linearity suggests the action of keeping the distance from something or someone; its length alludes to the slowness of this process. The act of walking along this path is characterised by movements across boundaries and instability.
It announces an end unpredictably achievable.
The prominent colonnades of the Great Circle evoke the second phase called transition. They insinuate a sense of precariousness, chaos and uncertainty. Walking through them makes people feel lost in an unsafe vortex without a precise destination to reach.
There is not only one focal point but many perspectives are widely opened at the same time and gaze.
The Domed Chapel with its high altar is the conclusion of the journey and of the last act, the incorporation. Here is where the loss is replaced and compensate by a new entity, weather material or immaterial it is.
Stillness and intimacy take over the atmosphere of the chapel, strong and impressive.
The whole process is pervaded by a sense of internal conflict due to the juxtaposition between past and present. The goal to achieve is blurred and undefined until the end.
My personal experience of the Brompton Cemetery went beyond its religious and spiritual nature.
The act of “deconstructing” the site led me to an in-depth understanding of the spirit of the place and its structure, essential to reread and reinterpret it through its primary elements.
I found this practice an effective and consistent methodology of analysis, in order to transfer upon any spatial realm external categories derived from the human mind.
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