Recovering Meanings Lost in Interpretations of Les Rites De Passage

By Zhang, Juwen | Western Folklore, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Recovering Meanings Lost in Interpretations of Les Rites De Passage


Zhang, Juwen, Western Folklore


One century ago, French folklorist Arnold van Gennep (1873-1957) published his book Les Rites de Passage (1909) , which was first translated into English in 1960 and later into more languages.1 The concept of "rites of passage" has become basic to some disciplines and the phrase has found its way into everyday speech. As folkloristics enters the twentyfirst century, its search for new perspectives ( Western Folklore 1993) or its own "grand theory" (Dundes 2005) continues. The folklorist Dundes considers the model of the "rites of passage" to be one of the theories fundamental to folkloristics (2005:388). Dundes writes, "It is probably fair to say that no example of folkloristic analysis has had more impact on the scholarly world than this classic study" (1999:100-101). It is in this spirit that the present essay looks at Arnold van Gennep as a folklorist, re-examines the original model of the rites of passage as well as subsequent redactions, and interprets the concepts of "marge" (margin; marginality) and "transition" in their contexts.

Folklorists all over the world have been looking narrowly at the model of the rites of passage through the anthropologist Victor Turner's development, but not attempting to re-examine the model in new social and academic contexts, although (ethnic) identity has become the key issue in disciplinary studies and the discipline itself is experiencing a "margin" or "liminary" period. Those who only focus on Tuner's notions in applying the model of the "rites of passage" would fail to see the meanings in van Gennep's original articulation. For example, in developing the model of the rites of passage, there have been some misunderstanding of van Gennep's original ideas, which led to attempts to revise the model (i.e., from the three stages to two stages, separation-incorporation,2 to disregard the rites of passage by "emphasizing the periods of transition in the life cycle"3) , or to equalize "rites of passage" to "life-cycle" or "lifecrisis" rites,4 and limited application in folkloristic studies in comparison to some anthropological studies (e.g. by Douglas 1966; Turner 1969). A key reason could be the translation of the terms like "marge," which was based on the theoretical orientation framed by the social and academic contexts in the 1950s and 1960s; and another could be the changing meaning of "margin" or "marginals" in the past decades in social practices and in folkloristic studies. As reflections, this study tries to retrieve the meaning of "marge" and the multiple structural layers of the model, and suggests possible applications in broader ritual and social contexts.

ARNOLD VAN GENNEP AS A FOLKLORIST

Arnold van Gennep's personal and scholarly life has been well documented in biographical accounts (K. van Gennep 1964; Needham 1967; Belmont 1979; Zumwalt 1988). Throughout his humble life as a dedicated and prolific folklorist, van Gennep never had a chance to teach or research in an academic institution in France. His "separation" - willingly or not - from the French academy constituted an interesting phenomenon that has been treated in a few discussions elsewhere (Belmont 1979; Zumwalt 1988; Bélier 1994).

Arnold van Gennep is considered to be "the father of formal processual analysis" (Turner 1969:166), the pioneer of structuralism (Senn 1974:230; Dundes 1999:101), the father/founder of French ethnography (Belmont 1979), and the master of French folklore (Zumwalt 1988). His works constituted a bridge between the works of the late nineteenth-century folklorista and the ethnology of the day (Belmont 1980) .5 He played a key role in the establishment of the academic status of folklore studies in France, and he is also "considered as one of the most representative figures of European folkloristic scholarship" (Cocchiara 1981:495).

Being an overly ambitious scholar (Dundes 1999), but a folklorist in particular, Arnold van Gennep might be one of the few individuals who most conspicuously guarded and nurtured the academic discipline of folkloristics in the early twentieth century. …

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