An Unintelligble Formality

'A formality is no less sacred for being unintelligible.'

In between other things I've been cracking through Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy.  It's not a hard read and I'd really recommend it, filled as it is with characters sinister, eccentric and melancholic in a world equal to them. More specifically this world is the crumbling castle of Gormenghast. In this sense the novels are microcosmic. The world is a stage as they say, and this world is Gormenghast and we can read into the various characters messages about our world. Fundamentally the book deals with change and the melancholic resistance to it. Gormenghast is steeped in tradition and ritual but all of them are meaningless. Every day, Sepulchrave, the ailing patriarch of the limited cast of characters, must perform curious, archaic rituals like scratching a moon on a certain door or looking at a certain thing at a certain time. Or walking a certain corridor. Or standing in one place for a few hours. This is watched over by the ever-attentive Master of Ritual, a role filled by various characters throughout the progress of the story, last of all the Machiavellian and malignantly elegant Steerpike (pictured).

Steerpike is our primary agent of change. It's here that the old, crumbling, unquestioned decay of the castle comes up against its first weevil of discord. Gormenghast, even as it has decayed over the centuries from whatever forgotten role it once had, is infinite. The very concept of change or rebellion is not only unthinkable, it simply doesn't exist. There is no alternative that a comparison could be drawn upon and desires formed and so the rituals continue. Gormenghast is an isolated island of timlessness. A begrudging melancholia seizes all the characters, ultimately they all work for the sake of it, for the ritual and because a formality is no less sacred for being unintelligible. 

There's something magnetic about this phrase that appears about three-quarters of the way through the first book - Titus Groan. It manages to convey a respect of the stubborn that seems somehow romantic. I'm not sure where Peake's ideological loyalties lie. It's clear that Steerpike and the other agents are the various insidious forces of change that gripped post-war Europe when the books were being written - Commintern most of all. Just before this phrase Steerpike waxes rhetoric on the importance of equality to bring fairness while absent-minedly picking the legs off a beetle in a clear and simple parody of the Stalinism gripping Eastern Europe. Yet here we are, as readers with sympathy only for the melancholic 'old guard' running though choreographed rituals of long forgotten meaning simply because they must be done. Because that is the law.

An obvious and equally seemingly pointless ritualistic culture to draw comparisons to would be the Pacific cargo cults. Here, island civilisations would attempt to recreate the airbases of the US military - planes, parades and all - in order to call back the gift of cargo and the supplies it brought. There are differing definitions here though. The cargo cults hope for a result. The rituals carry with them the hope of an answer from the 'other.' In Gormenghast, the meanings are forgotten, the rituals exist for their own sake. 

Some cargo cults are still running strong and it might be that as time progresses and technologically advanced civilisation penetrates these cultures deeper, they might maintain these archaic rituals while the meaning, the history, even the technology of planes and parades is forgotten and all that remains is the unintelligible formality.

We could even scale this up, The Near Future Laboratory have a couple of projects looking roundly at this but I'm interested in what happens further afield, in wider systems when something like say... the nation state just becomes an unintelligible formality which no one can remember what exactly it is for beyond its branding and history and these rituals continue ad infinitum.

Sum ego sic dico...