27 October 2010

the element of sacredness

Apart from the precarious and random luck that makes possession of the loved one possible, humanity has from the earliest times endeavored to reach this liberating continuity by means not dependent on chance. The problem arises when man is faced with death which seems to pitch the discontinuous creature headlong into continuity. This way of seeing the matter is not the first that springs to mind, yet death, in that it destroys the discontinuous being, leaves intact the general continuity of existence outside ourselves. I am not forgetting that the need to make sure of the survival of the individual as such is basic to our desire for immortality but I am not concerned to discuss this just now. What I want to emphasise is that death does not affect the continuity of existence, since in existence itself all separate existences originate; continuity of existence is independent of death and is even proved by death. This I think is the way to interpret religious sacrifices, with which I suggest that erotic activity can be compared. Erotic activity, by dissolving the separate beings that participate in it, reveals their fundamental continuity, like the waves of a stormy sea. In sacrifice, the victim dies and the spectators share in what his death reveals. This is what religious historians call the element of sacredness. This sacredness is the revelation of a continuity through the death of a discontinuous being to those who watch it as a solemn rite. A violent death disrupts the creature's discontinuity; what remains, what the tense onlookers experience in the succeeding silence, is the continuity of all existence with which the victim is now one. Only a spectacular killing, carried out as the solemn and collective nature as religion dictates, has the power to reveal what normally escapes notice. We should incidentally be unable to imagine what goes on in the secret depths of the minds of the bystanders if we could not call on our own personal religious experiences, if only childhood ones. Everything leads us to the conclusion that in essence the sacramental quality of primitive sacrifices is analagous to the comparable element in contemporary religions.

Georges Bataille, Erotism (1986: 21-22)