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87 15 Sacrilege A sanctuary, a sacred precinct, is a dark or radiant place marked out by prohibitions and taboos, separated from the profane sphere. To encounter there the sacred is to encounter the power of what is separated from, what marks the limit of the world of work and reason, of calculation and appropriation. Sacred precincts are places of sacrifice. Modern world religions, which have striven to rationalize themselves, regard sacrifice—of goods, other animals, even of firstborn children—as traits of primitive and superseded religions. Yet, Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss argued that sacrifice is the most universal, perhaps the most fundamental of religious acts.1 In a sacrifice something supremely precious—our finest harvest and livestock, our firstborn son—is set aside from all use, separated from the profane sphere. What is set apart from all profane use is separated absolutely, definitively, in being destroyed. In a sacrifice the burning and killing reveals the separate, sacred, power that limits the space of all work and reason. In sacrifice of the food from the harvest the violent, indomitable power of the flames blazes over human works. The knife that tears open the body of the sacrificial victim tears apart the protective hide or skin exposing the writhing turmoil of spilt organs, reveals the violence of a stag or boar taken from the wilderness—the inner violence of its life—reveals anonymous untamed forces in the child. The knife of the shaman, the priest, Abraham reveals the unintelligible core of life and the inner impersonal violence in the composition of living things. The sacrificial priest leaves the profane sphere to perform the sacrifice and acts in the name of the people. Bringing to him of their harvest and livestock, a beast of the wilderness, or their firstborn child, they participate in his deed. Those who perform sacrifice identify with the victim. The Aztec priests covered themselves with the blood of the sacrificial victims, excoriated them, and pulled the skin of the victims over their naked bodies. And we who consign to the sacred sphere our resources, the game from our hunt, our children, identify with them, identify with the victims. The stag or wild boar sacrificed would have sustained and nourished us. How could we not identify with our firstborn 88 V I O L E N C E A N D S P L E N D O R child, sacrificed to the mountain god Yahweh? At the moment of the blood sacrifice, the participants find their identity slashed with the knife. When the fire blazes on the sacred victim, it blazes too on us. The communication continues in feasts where immense resources are consumed and in saturnalia where we abandon our sense of ourselves and controlling will and find ourselves possessed with the forces of pounding music and dance and with violent, erotic, excessive compulsions , and with the forces unleashed in the forests and rivers by night. I had gone, one evening, to see an exhibition of photographs taken in rural Poland by a student in the fine arts department. After a while I saw people passing to a room behind the photograph exhibit and joined them. There we saw a man, powerfully muscled and virile, naked, hanging upside down, his feet bound by a rope looped over a hook in the ceiling. Up against opposing walls of the small room there were stands with piles of knives on them—butcher knives, serrated knives, hunting knives. Against the other walls there were stands with guns and boxes of bullets. On the walls there were maps of the country with the numbers of people killed with such weapons in each of the states the prior year. For I think some forty-five minutes we stood around, viewing the man hung from the ceiling and looking at the stands in a kind of brutalized silence. This muscular young man naked and hung upside down exhibited human life at its strongest, now in a position of extreme vulnerability . The provocation, the temptation to cruelty surged in us. We glanced at the piles of knives and guns and the numbers of people cut down everywhere in the country and trembled before the abyss that we felt gaping open about us. Finally one of us took a knife and cut the rope; the man fell to the floor. I heard a student I knew, Andy, who was standing near me, muttering, “The show is not over like that,” and saw him spring...


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