When, in The Godfather, Virgil Sollozzo, Captain Mark McCluskey and Michael Corleone meet for dinner at Louis’ Italian American Restaurant in the Bronx, I suspect none of them reflect on the liminality of the moment. Their minds are, understandably, on other things. Yet the restaurant is betwixt and between: a neutral, non-place where none of the New York five families can claim ownership. Outside all territorial boundaries, its attraction lies in a resistance to categorisation; if it belongs to no-one then it belongs to everyone. This confers safety but also, paradoxically, threat. To McCluskey and Michael at least, the place is unknown. It is Virgil Sollozzo, an ironic echo of his namesake guiding Dante through Hell and Purgatory, who acts as cicerone – instructing his companions on the mysteries of the menu: “try the veal – it’s the best in the city”.
Liminality infects the scene in other ways. For Michael, the shooting of McCluskey and Solozzo represents a true rite of passage. It is liminal in the original anthropological sense – the shooting is a rite that accompanies transition: from outside the Corleone family to inside. Michael’s status, authority and identity are now in flux. Victor Turner observes how ritual subjects are suspended between the positions assigned by law, custom, convention and ceremony. Their previous identities are erased; their clothing indicative of a loss of status; their behaviour is passive, humble. Think of Michael, fleeing New York for temporary exile in Sicily. He dresses like a peasant; he succumbs to local custom; when courting Appolonia, he is Michael yet not Michael. Mary Douglas notes how the unclear or contradictory is regarded as unclean or ‘polluting’. Consequently, as neophytes are structurally ambiguous and therefore ritually polluting, they are commonly secluded from the realm of culturally defined and ordered states/statuses. Such transgression is symbolised by the shootings. To kill a police officer transgresses mafia code and so Michael needs to be physically and psychically excluded.
The restaurant suggests a further liminality. This is where people come to eat. It is a social place. Yet it is also a place of business. While McCluskey chews his veal and drinks the red wine, Michael and Sollozzo talk business: alliances, demergers, strategic re-alignments. In a perceptive study of business dinners, Sturdy observes that ‘meals are indeed valued as liminal spaces where the burden of many of the rationalistic rituals of the organisation is suspended, lessened or proscribed’ (Sturdy et al, p.930). The transaction of business has escaped the physical confines of the workplace to colonise another space. It confuses work time and social time and the rituals of business conversation intertwine with those of eating and socialising. For the frustrated consultant in Czarniawska and Mazza’s analysis of management consulting and liminality, a client’s invitation to dinner means that ‘I kept consulting (to a certain extent) till midnight’ (Czarniawska and Mazza, p.274). In this case, colonisation has turned to conquest.
Sturdy views such business meals more benignly. For some of the consultants and the clients they study, liminality was ‘a regular haunt’ and thus ‘a relatively comfortable space’ (p.952). It is also a space that stimulates stories. When the CEO and the partner of the consultancy firm meet at an up-market restaurant in a converted castle, the former talks of his past successes (no doubts as stories). Meanwhile when the more junior members of their respective teams visit an Italian restaurant (sound familiar?) for ‘pizza and a beer’ they swap ‘accounts of how weekends were spent’ and share ‘sporting stories and jokes’ (p.946). For those listening, such stories convey rich contextual knowledge: what it takes to succeed within the political and social culture of the client organisation; the likes, interests and motivations of colleagues and clients. Such revelations simultaneously offer and reinforce trust. It accretes with each story told. When interviewed later, the participants talked not only of the knowledge they had gained but the rapport and relationships developed. For Sturdy, it is the environment that facilitates this: the ‘suspension of the routines of rationality…provided a space where information could be traded’ (p.947).
But to conclude at our beginning. In Martin Parker’s study of how food and eating in the Mafia are symbolically deployed as a representation of community, he notes that ‘food, it seems, is one of the ways in which business can be more like the Mafia, in which the commensality of the common table can (partially) rub out the instrumentality of working for money, and perhaps even hide hierarchy for a moment’ (Parker, p.994). But, unlike in business perhaps, transgression of community – to ‘go against the family’, if you like – exacts a heavy penalty. And what better way to throw such transgression into sharp and bitter relief than by transgressing the act of commensality itself.
‘It was only after the company of men had broken bread together that the violence that followed could mean what it was intended to mean. For the bullets to be about more than greed and brutality, about some territorial or hierarchical dispute, the community needed to be re-imagined around a table. The Last Supper had to be re-enacted. And after such a demonstration of care over the sanctity of boundaries, the community could continue to claim that it believes in honour and justice.’ (p.999)
Maybe, it was this symbolism that infused the events of November 30, 1982 in San Giuseppe Jato, Sicily. Cosa Nostra boss, Rosario Riccobono, was invited to lunch with Toto Riina, capo di tutti capi – an annual barbecue to celebrate the festive season. Riccobono, dressed in his smartest suit, was disarmed ‘as was de rigueur on these festive occasions of friendship and trust’ (Robb, p.83). When, after many courses and many different wines, he was ‘slumped in a digestive doze’, Riccobono was awoken with the words “Saru [nickname for Rosario], your story ends here” (Stille, p.112). Riina, armed with a cord, then throttled him while his men held the unfortunate ‘Saru’ down. So, the business dinner – this coalescence of commerce and commensality – not only has the power to bring stories to life but, so it seems, to bring them to a close too.
Douglas, M. (1966), Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Routledge.
Parker, M. (2008) ‘Eating with the Mafia: Belonging and violence’, Human Relations, 61(7), pp. 989–1006.
Robb, P. (1999), Midnight in Sicily: on Art, Food, History, Travel and La Cosa Nostra. The Harvill Press.
Stille, A. (1995), Excellent Cadavers: the Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic. Vintage.
Sturdy, A., Schwarz, M., Spicer, A. (2006) ‘Guess who’s coming to dinner? Structures and uses of liminality in strategic management consultancy’, Human Relations, 59(7), pp. 929–960.
Turner, V. (1969), The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Aldine Transaction.