Monday, 1 March 2010

Caillois and Eliade

I finished reading Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane today. An unpleasant book. I have an aversion to intellectual crudeness of this kind, with all his generalizations about “religious man” vs. “non-religious man”. I'm also a bit repelled by his hatred of modernity. I get the feeling that he is driven less by curiosity and more by disgust at secular modernity and that his sole aim is to shoot down that bird.

I'm more fond of Caillois’ book Man and the Sacred. Caillois seems genuinely interested in exploring the experience of the sacred and as a result his book becomes intellectually engaging and stimulating. To Caillois the sacred is fascinating and intoxicating but at the same time dangerous. It belongs with phenomena such as love and ecstasy. To Eliade, the sacred is something that needs to be defended against revolution, a church rather than a dance. Maybe the difference can be explained, in part, by the difference in context: Caillois works in a French tradition and is influenced by Mauss and the surrealists. Eliade writes in German and is under the spell of the Weberian thematics of Entzauberung. The tones of the respective works are polar opposites: Cailliois writes if addressing an intellectual equal, Eliade as if he already knew all about the subject.

Eliade is obviously attracted to Heidegger. Take the discussion of dwelling. So many echoes of Heidegger. Today, he writes, we see a desacralization of the human dwelling (Eliade 1957:50). But to genuinely dwell means to create a world, to repeat the world of the gods, to make it a sacred space. “The house is not an object, a 'machine to live in’; it is the universe that man constructs for himself by imitating the paradigmatic creation of the gods, the cosmogony” (ibid 56f). Oh dear Eliade, you call forth so many memories of Heidegger - the temple in Paestum, the foundation that is also the creation of a world... Really, I'm getting quite nostalgic here. It warms my heart. You even link holiness to the city. But what about the poor people outside it? What about the nomads and beggars. You don't even mention them. You prefer to glorify the master - the household father, the king, God. After all, he is the one who founds and builds the dwelling, the city, or cosmos. But please tell me, what are we then to make of cities that sanctify not their centers, but their margins? Cities that are more like Kyoto than Angkor and that, precisely out of religious sensitivity, disperse their most sacred sites in the mountains, in border regions or along rivers? Amazingly, there is almost nothing in your book that is helpful in order to understand the holiness of margins, of wandering, of statelessness and of homelessness - an idea of holiness that is opposite to yours. There is only a single sentence. "Those who have chosen the Quest, the road that leads to the Center, must abandon any kind of family and social situation, any ‘nest’, and devote themselves wholly to 'walking’” (ibid 184). Here the center is no longer that of the city; it's a center that decenters the latter - that says: "That building over there is not Mount Meru. Don't be deceived by worldly centers". This is a quite good sentence. I admit that. Quite good. But how atypical of you!

For the rest we are fed with blunt generalizations such as: “For profane experience... space is homogeneous and neutral” (ibid 22). Really? Oh Eliade, you are quite devious, but I see through your trick. First you denounce the secularized world as dreary and homogeneous. If I then object with the obvious fact that there is a variety of secular experiences – struggle, love, friendship, Debordian dérives... –  in which space doesn't at all appear homogeneous, then I know that you have already prepared an ambush a couple of pages ahead, where you will be ready with your usual spare argument (but it's getting a bit worn out by now) and you will tell me: Yes, but those experiences that you mention are nothing but faint shadows of the original experience of the sacred, so even you who tell yourself that you are so liberated and secular are actually still parasitizing on religion! Oh, how triumphant you sound: “To whatever degree he may have desacralized the world, the man who has made his choice in favor of a profane life never succeeds in completely doing away with religious behavior” (ibid 23, cf similar passages on pp 204-213). There, finally, is your rebuttal of Weber’s thesis of the disenchantment of the world: it is a surface phenomenon. Religion will always persist, whether we are aware of it or not...

I can hear you laugh here. Well, you laugh as much as you please. I prefer reading Caillois.


Caillois, Roger (2001 [1939]) Man and the Sacred, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Eliade, Mircea (1959 [1957]) The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, Orlando: Harcourt Inc.

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