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Colloquium On Violence & Religion



COV&R-Bulletin No. 9 (Oct. 1995)


Cesáreo Bandera, The Sacred Game: The Role of the Sacred in the Genesis of Modern Literary Fiction. University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994. Pp. 318; no price available.

Our modern era is still dominated by the belief that religion is a thing of the past. According to the well established secularization theory, modernization results in the decline of religion. The last decades, however, have shown us rather painfully that this modern belief is simply empirically wrong. Fundamentalism, religious nationalism and religion in general have become more important in recent years. The humanities, especially sociology, were more or less unable to predict this rise of religious movements. Peter L. Berger even speaks of a complete failure of sociology in this regard. The reason for this failure is the humanities' belief in the secularization theory.

Cesáreo Bandera's new book means hope for the humanities. Bandera, who is a Professor of Romance Languages, reconstructs the development of our modern world--the genesis of modern literary fiction in particular--without submitting to secularization theory. He insists, to the contrary, on the thesis "that there is no such thing as leaving the sacred entirely behind" (p. 39). In a chapter on Marx he illustrates this thesis in a powerful way. Despite Marx's attempt to leave the sacred fully behind, his way of thinking remains governed by the logic of the sacred. Bandera uses the insights of René Girard's mimetic theory to explain this logic. According to Girard's theoretical approach, the sacred is rooted in the scapegoat mechanism, the sacrificial killing or expulsion of a victim. In Bandera's view, Marx's attempt to get rid of the sacred adheres to the sacrificial logic of the sacred. It is the sacrificial expulsion of the sacred and remains therefore in the realm of the sacred. Is therefore desacralization completely impossible? No, Bandera shows only that all violent ways to struggle against the sacred are futile and prolong the sacrificial world of the sacred. In his eyes it was the nonviolent spirit of Christianity that led to our desacralized modern world. Modern literature, to take Bandera's main example, was made possible by Christianity. At the basis of Bandera's study "lies the conviction that there is no such thing as a conflict between Christianity and a purely 'secular,' nonreligious man, but only between Christianity and the old sacred." (p. 16)

In the first half of his book Bandera introduces us into the frightening ambivalence of the sacred by dealing with Plato, Aristotle, and Virgil. These three thinkers help to understand our modern era if we focus on the way modern thinking went beyond them. In the case of Plato, Bandera concentrates on the sacrificial expulsion of the poets. He compares Plato's recommendation to expel the poets with the Renaissance moralists' "war against poetry" and shows the similarities between these two attitudes. At the same time, however, Bandera also makes clear that desacralization had already taken place at that time. The Inquisition, which--contrary to Plato's theoretical attempt--had the means to expel the poets, did not persecute poets. In the watchful eyes of the Inquisition poetry was not important enough. This marginality of poetry meant freedom and enabled poetry to reflect on itself. According to Bandera, it was the modern classic authors like Cervantes and Calderón who came closest to the spirit of Christianity that made this desacralization possible. Like the moralists they discovered the sacrificial character of poetry and theater, but unlike them they were not scandalized and reacted therefore in a nonsacrificial way: they were able to see the connection between their own "poetic fiction and the sacrificial mechanism that lay at the root of human culture" (p. 87). Although Aristotle did not--like Plato--recommend the expulsion of poetry, his thinking is rooted in the sacred, too. He is the perfect example of the sacrificial tendency of philosophy to expel the sacred by avoiding any contact with it. According to Bandera, Aristotle is "the best concealer of the old sacred" (p. 107). The most impressive case in Bandera's book is his chapter on Virgil. Bandera uncovers the sacrificial levels in Virgil's Aeneid, which is governed by the logic of the sacred: "One head will be given up for the sake of many." According to Bandera, Virgil knew the truth about the sacrificial foundation of the world, but lacking the nonsacrificial answer of Christianity, he tried to conceal this truth. His poem is "a colossal, brilliant cover-up" (p. 144).

Bandera's main counterexample to the old world of the sacred is the vision of the great modern classic, especially the work of Cervantes and Calderón. They reveal that it is the faceless crowd that persecutes the victim and focus on the individual member of the crowd to remind him of his responsibility. In accordance with the true spirit of Christianity they know that the desacralized modern world forces us to renounce the search for the victim altogether. In Bandera's eyes only this hope can "sustain the freedom of the modern poet" (p. 301).

From the point of view of the history of ideas Bandera's chapter 5 "Historical Signposts" is the most important one. In this chapter he challenges Hans Blumenberg's thesis about the self-assertion of the modern age and shows that this thesis is built on the absence of the Cross. To understand the development of our modern desacralized world, Bandera recommends to focus on the Crucifixion, instead. Contrary to the majestic Jesus of Romanesque crucifixes, the spirituality of the devotio moderna emphasized the human sacrifice at the Cross and the suffering humanity of Christ at the end of the Middle Ages. This new perspective is the dawn of the modern era. It made modern individualism possible and it is also the root of modern liberal thinking. The emphasis on the individual is a system-breaking element that opens up every sacrificial system. This new view on the Crucifixion is the essential prelude to the nonsacrificial awareness of the great poetic masters like Cervantes and Calderón.

Superficially Bandera's book looks like a contribution to the relationship between the sacred and modern literary fiction. It is, however, a book that goes far beyond that particular question. The Sacred Game is one of the most important books on secularization in general and will significantly change our old views on the development of our modern world. Hopefully it will be translated into other languages soon.

Wolfgang Palaver