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Initiation: The First Wound




Excerpted from
From Chivalry to Terrorism; War and the Changing Nature of Masculinity
By Leo Braudy, Ph.D.

Physiological and biochemical factors are therefore only the beginning of trying to define maleness, let alone masculinity. The physical body exists in a social context that shapes how it is perceived by both the person who possesses it and everyone else who experiences it. Much of the early social perception of what traits constitute a man is mediated by cultural rituals generally grouped under the name of initiation. Although such rituals purport to take place in the eternal present of the spirit, they are also grammars of belonging to a specific tribe or community. According to Arnold van Gennep, the early-twentieth-century anthropologist who first analyzed initiations across a variety of cultures, there are generally three stages in the ceremonies: a separation from former status, a liminal world of transition between stages, and a reassimilation into the group, when a new status is recognized. As the genetic inheritance must interact with environment and history in order to produce an individual, so the ongoing mythic definition of masculinity is in constant interaction with actual events and actual bodies. Through these rituals, an individual male's personal experience of biological change is transformed into a tribal and a cosmic experience as well. A man is described and in the process he is shaped.

Crucial changes that the male body undergoes are often connected to a particular rite of initiation, in which the passage to tribal membership is confirmed by a physical wound. Sometimes the wound, that payment in flesh. brings the infant male child into the tribe, as in the rite of circumcision shared by so many cultures (at varying ages), including the Jewish, the Turkish, and the Masai. This physical removal of part of the genitals is the moment of official entry, when the child receives a mutilation that links it with others of the same gender.

Female circumcision, with its explicit denial of sexual pleasure (even with an approved male), defines the woman as the property of her tribe, her family, and, later, her husband, without a history or autonomy of her own. Male circumcision in contrast identifies the young boy with the past, present, and future structures of tribal power and authority. Similarly, while female circumcision is an explicit and extensive wounding that removes the clitoris and often the labia as well, male circumcision usually limits the effect of its wounding to the less extreme and therefore more figurative snipping off of the foreskin. Both represent passages from one identity to another, but their results are virtually opposite: the male child is symbolically freed from his dependence upon his mother to become a man, with all the potential rights and privileges of that status, while the female child is defined as subject to male authority and deprived of an autonomous sexual power.

Circumcision generally, with some important exceptions, occurs in infancy, but more elaborate initiations occur to mark the point when the boy becomes a man. Such ceremonies carry the individual outside of himself and confirm his membership in a group of adult males. But the transition also hides a paradox: although designed to contrast with the rhythms of everyday life, and claiming a connection to the eternal, it cannot be tailored for every individual. Accordingly, the ceremony is often celebrated before most young boys are in fact sexually mature. As a result, male initiation (like circumcision itself), while it seems to commemorate the successful transition to manhood, may also instill a sense of inadequacy arising from the constant need to be tested. In many tribes the initiated may even return to the world of women until his biological or social time as a man has truly come. So, when the Trojan War loomed, Thetis, the mother of Achilles, dressed him as a girl and hid him among the women of Scyros, because she knew that manhood and battle would mean his death.

Ritual wounding sometimes precedes, sometimes accompanies, and sometimes even follows other rituals of change from childhood to adulthood, like the Vision Quest of the Plains Indians, the accession to arms in the ancient Germanic tribes, the initiation into the world of the book in the Jewish bar mitzvah, or the wearing of the toga by the Roman citizen. It may include as well extensive mutilations: the cutting of a deep groove in the underside of the penis (subincision) practiced by some African tribes, the perforated earlobes of Incan royal males, or the piercing of the chest, thighs, and biceps by long needles with weights attached to them that was part of the rituals of some Native American groups. In the vast variety of initiation rituals, the implicit question always seems to be "Can the candidate endure the pain?" To help him endure, elaborate preparations are made-incense is burned, potions are drunk-because the successful completion of the ceremony is a confirmation of the immortality of the tribe even more than it is the achievement of the individual. The initiation of the wound thus brings together spiritual life, warrior life, and political life. It presents the social world as a place whose rules must be known and whose rituals must be followed, in which the candidate must move from the unripened sexual identity of childhood into a world of adult gender difference, to ally with one gender and learn its ways, especially as they differ from those of the other. Subjective masculinity must give way to or at least merge with cultural masculinity. Being a man is thus a willful act, celebrated by the tribe, while being a woman is the default or natural state. Male initiation is complex and public, while menarche, even though young girls may also experience it as a wound, usually happens in private, whether there is any subsequent celebration or not.

The tribal rites of gender initiation described by ethnographers and anthropologists presage more "civilized" inductions into either all-male or male-dominated institutions such as sports and the military. They are more explicit versions of the assimilation to social norms in the nineteenth-century European novel when heroes and heroines marry, although there the price paid is usually more symbolic and the loss more spiritual, signaling the end of the freedom and self-development that made both the main character and the story itself interesting.

It may be hard to see a warrior being tested beneath the dark suit of the Victorian male embarking on marriage, but as a ritual it does signal an acceptance of the most valued norms of society. Modern industrial society, however, has few if any central rituals of initiation that all experience in any uniform way. Beyond the example of those sports teams and military units that bear the names of animals or primitive tribes, initiation in the modern world has little of the imaginative cachet of the primitive tribe or even of medieval and Renaissance forms of initiation. In fact, the implication is entirely opposite. From an expansion of the infant into identity with the adults of the tribe, initiation in adult male society has become instead a contraction of all that was inventive and vital in the childhood world: melodrama replaces myth. As this pattern of restriction developed in the nineteenth century, a countervailing effort appeared in the rise of anthropology itself (including the studies of van Gennep), which was fascinated with exactly those "primitive" but more exciting and seemingly more self-expanding forms of initiation that European society had left behind.

Instead of a central set of ceremonies, what principally remains are the cherished rituals of a wide variety of ethnic, religious, and social groups, which, in addition to less violent rites of passage, may often include the physical wounding of oneself or others: the saber-cut cheeks of German military cadets before World War I; the need to commit murder to be a "made man" in the Mafia and many street gangs; the torments of drunken fraternity hazing; the metal staples pounded into the chest of some American military cadets, to prove they can "take it"; and the tattoos and scarifications that in both primitive and modern cultures proclaim acceptance into the group after the price is paid in flesh.



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