I’ve been reading the work of one of the earlier theorists of the twentieth century, Roger Caillois. He’s not so well known as some of the later writers, but he has some extremely useful approaches to certain questions, one of which is the relationship between the sacred and the profane. I need to write about this at length for work, so I’m writing about it now to see whether I can explain it to myself sufficiently clearly.
The sacred, Caillois argues, is at the heart of every religion; or perhaps it is better to say that religion is the consequence of a society organizing itself around what it contends to be sacred. I should point out at this stage that Caillois is an anthropologist, and three quarters of his book concerns what we might term primitive societies, now lost to the passage of history. But their rituals and customs show Caillois how the ruins of the modern sacred used to look in bygone times, and helps him to trace the shifting balance of the sacred and the profane across the life of our civilization.
The sacred, he contends is the X-factor that adheres to certain places, objects, dates and notions. It’s a kind of magical power, a supernatural electricity, that is almost too powerful for ordinary mortals to touch, and must be ring-fenced for our safety, as much as for its own protection. As such it can be understood always as a force, in comparison to the profane, which is bound up with earthly materiality. The profane is the everyday, the ordinary, the banal, that which is degraded and potentially degrading in comparison to the sparkly and illuminating sacred. But the profane is also safe, for all that it is boring, whereas the sacred is full of danger, because of its excessive, contagious power. The two are essential to one another and maintain a rigorous balance in their relationship, a balance that controls what Caillois calls ‘the order of the world’. Hence if a society requires the good favour of the gods, for war-mongering or economic prosperity, it will offer up a sacrifice to them, thus placing the gods in their debt and provoking the desired recompense. The meridian point between the sacred and the profane becomes, in this model, the finely balanced point where the harmony of the world rests. There must be equal traffic between the two worlds to maintain order.
Yet because the sacred can be understood as a force rather than a thing, its nature is inevitably ambivalent; forces can be used for good or evil, a force is open to interpretation or manipulation, it is only once the force has crossed the boundary between the sacred and the profane that it becomes incarnate and therefore fixed in some way. This would explain the radically opposing polarities of the sacred, Caillois argues: God and the Devil, white and black magic. The same degree of hypnotic fascination adheres to both, the same reaction of simultaneous reverence and fear. The purest forms of salvation and damnation adhere to this realm, as well as the extremes of agony and ecstasy, and flowing out across the border into the profane world are both revitalizing energies and destructive forces. But whatever is touched by the sacred, Caillois proposes, is never the same again. The effect of the sacred is to make the object in question untouchable in the profane world, and to make the subject a little less human, for human and divine cannot coexist, and the presence of one requires the diminution of the other.
However, the sacred and the profane exist in a reciprocal relationship that means each must dance around the other. Caillois’s essential ‘order of the world’ is at stake here in their overlapping effects and consequences. Caillois suggests that the stability of our social organizations is guaranteed by a complicated play of sacred and profane elements. We fear excess, change and innovation for their destabilizing effects, and yet they are wholly necessary to prevent our societies from stagnation. And so, Caillois makes another distinction within the sacred, differentiating between the sacred that coheres: the religious rites and practices that structure the day and mark the seasons of both man and the natural world, and the sacred that welcomes dissolution, and that used to motivate times of festival in the ancient world. These festivals lasted several days and were close to what we might call orgies, periods of time in which the normal rules did not apply, in which people set aside all their rules and practices and threw themselves into transgression. Often they marked times of transition, from one ruler to another, from times of war to times of peace, and they offered a period of excess and renewal that meant settling back down to regulations and routines was easier to do.
Now Caillois points out that this kind of festival barely remains in existence. As life became industrialized, so society could no longer spare its members for adherence to religious rites and practices, and the sacred became something negotiated between the individual and God. The turn to mysticism, in particular, in the twentieth century is understood by Caillois to be a consequence of organized religion’s breakdown. But he asks us to consider the longevity of the sacred and the profane as a kind of mental attitude within the individual. A distant echo of our long-lost ancestor’s relationship to the borderline between safe regulation and dangerous excess. The attitude of the profane, Caillois argues, is about abdication of desire, about the management of resources, about following rules and placating authority. But the sacred still works its magic in us, when (Caillois says) ‘a value imposes itself upon us as a reason to live’, when a principle or an issue seems bigger than we are, and more important than life itself. Then we feel the relation to the divine, in the urge to exceed and exhaust ourselves in the reckless pursuit of some glorified end. The delight in the X-factor has never truly left us, and the transformation of the sacred is just as much about making us feel like gods as offering us distant idols to worship.