Thursday, November 3, 2016

Something I Read #18 – Mircea Eliade

Actually, I should say "something I've re-read," and not for only the second time.

From the close of Mircea Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (trans. Willard R Trask, NY: Harcourt, Inc., 1987, 1959).

Yet the contents and structures of the unconscious are the result of immemorial existential situations, especially of critical situation, and this is why the unconscious has a religious aura. For every existential crisis once again puts in question both the reality of the world and man's presence in the world. This means that the existential crisis is, finally, "religious," since on the archaic levels of culture being and the sacred are one. As we saw, it is the experience of the sacred that founds the world, and even the most elementary religion is, above all, an ontology. In other words, in so far as the unconscious is the result of countless existential experiences, it cannot but resemble the various religious universes. For religion is the paradigmatic solution for every existential crisis. It is the paradigmatic solution not only because it can be indefinitely repeated, but also because it is believed to have a transcendental origin and hence is valorized as a revelation received from an other, transhuman world. The religious solution not only resolves the crisis but at the same time makes existence "open" to values that are no longer contingent or particular, thus enabling man to transcend personal situations and, finally, gain access to the world of spirit.

This is not the place to develop all the consequences of this close relation between the content and structures of the unconscious on the one hand and the values of religion on the other. We were led to refer to it in order to show in what sense even the most avowedly nonreligious man still, in his deeper being, shares in a religiously oriented behavior. But modern man's "private mythologies" – his dreams, reveries, fantasies, and so on – never rise to the ontological status of myths, precisely because they are not experienced by the _whole man_ and therefore do not transform a particular situation into a situation that is paradigmatic. In the same way, modern man's anxieties, his experiences in dream or imagination, although "religious" from the point of view of form, do not, as in homo religiosus, mark part of a Weltanshauung and provide the basis for a system of behavior. An example will show the differences between these two categories of experiences. The unconscious activity of modern man ceaselessly presents him with innumerable symbols, and each of them has a particular message to transmit, a particular mission to accomplish, in order to ensure or to re-establish the equilibrium of the psyche. As we have seen the symbol not only makes the world "open" but also helps religious man to attain to the universal. For it is through symbols that man finds his way out of his particular situation and "opens himself" to the general and the universal. Symbols awaken individual experience and transmute it into a spiritual act, into metaphysical comprehension of the world. In the presence of any tree, symbol of the world tree and image of cosmic life, a man of the premodern societies can attain to the highest spirituality, for, by understanding the symbol, ­he succeeds in living the universal. It is the religious vision of the world, and the concomitant ideology, that enable him to make this individual experience bear fruit, to "open" it to the universal. The image of the tree still quite frequently appears in the imaginary universes of modern nonreligious man; it is a cipher of his deeper life, of the drama that is played out in his unconscious and that concerns the integrity of his psychomental life and hence his own existence. But as long as the symbol of the tree does not awaken his total consciousness and "open" it to the universe, it cannot be said to have completely fulfilled its function. It has only partly "saved" him from his individual situation – for example, by enabling him to resolve a deep crisis and restoring his temporarily threatened psychic equilibrium; but it has not yet raised him to spirituality – that is, it has not succeeded in revealing one of the structures of the real to him. (210-12)

"[S]ince on the archaic levels of culture being and the sacred are one" . . . a phrase that might be my theory of the aesthetic in a nutshell. Of course, having been crammed into a nutshell, it necessitates a hell of a lot of unpacking.

The book never itself speaks to the idea of the aesthetic. Nevertheless, it is a book I highly recommend for anyone interested in literature and the arts as an aesthetic – as opposed to merely cultural – endeavor.