The Sacred And The Profane

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.

6 thoughts on “The Sacred And The Profane

  1. Interesting. Not sure I agree with this though. It doesn’t seem to hold true to modern Judeo-Christian religious practice; that is, unless you consider it profane rather than sacred. It seems that the church is where, too often, there is an abdication of desire and following rules, placating authority. The Church, for centuries, has played a role is instituting order within society. But, perhaps what Caillos is saying is that because of that role in structuring society, a shift away from the sacred makes the role of organized religion seems irrelavant to many because we cannot sate our primal desires for the divine within organized religion?

    I do concur on the dichotomy between the sacred and the profane, the holy and the common, although I think the idea of the profane (human) nearing the sacred (divine) causes a diminution of both seems contrary to the teachings of most religions as I know them (not that I’m an authority by any means). Seems to me that the common preaching is that the attainment of the divine cannot be achieved completely by man, but the seeking of the it, while it leads to a diminishment of the person (if not, why then would some religious foresake all comforts, material possessions, etc.), it cannot detract from the divine itself.

  2. Ah good – normal service is resumed! Lots of new ideas to mangle my brain and a previously undiscovered phenomenon in the universe of theory – the planet Caillois. At this rate I’ll soon improve my score on University Challenge!

    If I’m understanding you, the sacred seems to be that which man cannot control or understand in the self and in the outer world. What is out of control is dangerous and threatening. Creativity is enabling and elucidating, but baffling in its sources. Again a force that is inexplicable seems to be operating in the world. Both appear outside the normal. Some means of encompassing these qualities into human existence has to be found – which is to create a category called the sacred. This gives us a means of dealing with what we otherwise cannot understand, even a way of negotiating with it. The developed version of this is organised religion. Was Caillois of Catholic extraction, by the way? It seems to me that as a result the decline in organised religion’s status concerning the outer world is as much to do with the rise of science. This gives understanding of what was once mysterious and removes it from the realm of the sacred, sometimes giving us control as well – the harnessing of power, etc. Even what we do not know we can believe would be explicable if we had the right information and theories, which we might have in the future. What is more difficult to deal with remains the individual, human nature. Perhaps the move towards a more solitary relationship with the sacred is part of the move away from big religion, which used to interpret for us, to the personal, which broke through with the Reformation – the Bible in the vernacular, etc. I’m using the Christian tradition because I don’t know enough about other belief systems, of course, which is a limiting factor. Initially I was a little confused when you said that he said (I think I hear a pop lyric in the background – name that tune – I can’t at the moment), that the profane was an abdication of desire. I realize I’m thinking of desire for the material, possessions, which so underpins our existences in the affluent parts of the world – a default position. I take it he means the desire for the spiritual, the big crusading idea, the overriding emotion. In the public sphere today such a thing is suspect, a threat to the status quo, a questioning of our investment in the power of the material, or am I just preaching here? Goodness, sorry to go on like this!

  3. Maybe I am dense, or just disagree with Caillois, but I don’t quite understand why “human and divine cannot coexist.” Don’t most religions teach that there is something divine within all humans? And what of when gods take human forms like Christ or Krishna? Or am I missing the point?

  4. I am looking above my head, and there your post is, floating tantalizingly. But this little bit I sort of got: ‘a value imposes itself upon us as a reason to live’. Incredibly profound.

    There is some sort of energy I am picking up on in contemporary culture, where we are tracing the lines between the spiritual versus the scientific, the sacred and the profane. Something similar happened when Darwin’s Origin of the Species was published and society underwent the first wave of industrialization. Not sure what it all means, but fascinating stuff.

    Oh, I sound SOOOO intelligent!

  5. Hey, fantastic comments people. I’ll do my best to answer them, although there are parts of Caillois I don’t understand myself.

    Cam: Caillois would see the role of the church as that form of the sacred that coheres, that takes the powerful supernatural elements of the divine and makes them safe and accessible to people. The rituals of the church venerate the sacred but the trained priests act as intermediaries, not letting ‘ordinary’ people get too close to the elements that represent the mystery of the divine. As to your second point, Caillois would be more interested in the saint, who gives up ordinary human pleasures in order to be closer to God. I suppose Catholic priests accept chastity, which takes them away from the profoundly human business of carrying on the race. Human and divine do come together in the church in Caillois’s theory, but to accede to the divine, to be divine, is not to be as human as the rest of us. As for the other way round, well, if relics are taken from their place of safety they are considered to be defiled or in danger, no? (I’m shaky on this point myself).
    Bookboxed – I do love your comments. Yes, Caillois was writing at a time of some interesting Catholic revival in France, although I don’t think he was a religious man himself. He would agree with you entirely (and states as much) that science and the explanatory attitude is at the heart of religion’s decline. As for the profane limiting desire, he means it in a more metaphysical way. The profane, in Caillois’s understanding is a kind of attitude that seeks regulation, ordinariness, safety, the familiar. It stops our desires from getting out of hand, so that we can continue to lead the life we know. There’s a very profane side to church services that beseech us to give to charity, to live in moderation, to regulate ourselves. If desire becomes tinged with obsession, excessiveness, magic, then its moving towards the attitude inherent in the sacred, which seeks to overthrow all limits and embrace the madness. Think of medieval saints again and you’ll get Caillois’s drift.
    Stefanie – Caillois will agree that the human and the divine coexist (that’s probably me expressing him poorly), but he understands them as a kind of economy, a series of weights and balances. If a man wants to be a saint, if he wants to take on the divine, he will have to give up his human pleasures and comforts. Equally it’s difficult even now not to bargain with the gods a little, and believe that what we renounce ends up in the credit column of our spiritual balance sheet.
    LK – you’re quite right you know. Terry Eagleton, one of my favourite theorists, says that now that we are in a post-theory society (ie we don’t like the postmodernists any more one of the big questions we’re turning to concerns the spiritual. So you see, you’ve got your finger right on the pulse!

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