- The Sacred Game: The Role of the Sacred in the Genesis of Modern Literary Fiction
When we consider the early relations of philosophy and literature, we most often think of Republic X and about degrees of separation between reality and its image. That is a mistake, according to Cesareo Bandera, who shows in his deft reading of Laws that Plato expelled the poets chiefly because of their threat to the difference between sacred and profane: their mournful harmoniae polluted sacred rites. In this Plato is closer to the religious world examined by Durkheim, where the absolute difference between sacred and profane alone guarantees all other differences. Aristotle is shown to be starkly misleading here, since his Poetics discuss tragedy as if it had nothing to do with the ritual practices in which it originates. His vaunted realism can only save poetry—and ontological appearances—by ignoring, by virtually expelling the sacred from its purview.
This expulsion of the sacred from the horizon of our rationality is the thematic core of Bandera’s argument about modern literary fiction as it [End Page 189] emerges in the Renaissance. He does not bring the religious back to our attention to enthrall us with it anew, but to explain via formidable literary and historical scholarship how we stand with respect to it, and how we misunderstand our enlightened disrespect for it. Our modern scientific spirit, our really amazing freedom of inquiry, has a different genealogy than we commonly suppose.
It is not primarily philosophy which grounds our humanist irreverence, but our Western religious tradition, which Bandera reads, along with René Girard, Roberto Calasso, and Marcel Gauchet, as a uniquely desacralizing agency in culture. His book’s central endeavor is to expand the implications of Girard’s sacrificial theory of social formation across close readings of ancient and Renaissance literature and criticism in order to show the constraints on rationality within a culture where the sacred veiled human violence. According to this view, that veil is rent irreparably with the revelation of the innocent victim as the vantage point from which to interpret the murderous fury of the crowd, however ritualized as awe for the god(s), or as art. A stunning analysis of Virgil (with an assist from Michel Serres’s reading of Lucretius) reveals a writer holding back from his appalled understanding of violent foundations. With the Renaissance, art is cannily deritualized; not pious Aeneas, born of a goddess, but Don Quixote, born in prison, sets the course for modern fiction.
Bandera’s astute readings of Renaissance literature and criticism shed decisively new light on the significance of this axial period, poised at the fulcrum of his argument. His vast and probing research reminds us how modern literary fiction nourished its self-consciousness and freedom amidst lavish and vehement debate over mixing the human and divine. Stripped of the taboos limiting classical thought, the sacred’s monopoly on violence had eroded to reveal individual culpability—but also vast, new possibilities for thought and action. A clear ethical impulse accompanies these readings, in which Calderon and Cervantes are shown to deprive us of a sacred alibi for human violence, which is now a matter for me to resolve with my neighbor. Organically cultural imperatives lose ground to a sense of individual responsibility, which Bandera traces back to the historically documented ascendancy of devotio moderna in late medieval Europe.
Despite and because of debates over its cultural role, Renaissance literature’s very marginality freed it to explore every dimension of human error. And we learn how those who unwittingly conspire to resacralize it, from Tasso and Shelley through Arnold and Frye, only continue to play the sacred game that caused shudders in Plato and inspires just plain silliness among our own critical anarchs and demystifyers.
Bandera’s net is cast wide and deep, including a bracing debate with Milbank and Blumenberg, whose sweep he emulates successfully, and whose powerful analyses he corrects. Witty and adroit scrutiny of our “sacred allergy” extends...