Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Mauss / Bataille (part 2)

There is a strong thematic unity between the teachings of the great French ethnologist Marcel Mauss and the work of the so-called 'philosopher of evil', Georges Bataille. This is the second in a short series of posts in which I take up the relations between the writings of the two men. In this post I examine one of Mauss's most famous works: "Essai sur la nature et la fonction du sacrifice" ("Sacrifice. It's Nature and Functions", written with Henri Hubert in 1899), so that I may show in an upcoming post how Bataille built his mystical-philophical technique on the foundations laid by Mauss.

In Mauss's and Huberts stunningly erudite work on sacrifice (500 footnotes for 100 pages of text!), they defined sacrifice as a procedure which consists in establishing a means of communication between the sacred and profane worlds through the mediation of a victim, that is a thing or a person that in the course of the ceremony is destroyed. The consecrated victim serves as a intermediary between the person who accomplishes the sacrifice (the sacrifier) and divinity to which the sacrificed is adressed. The sacrifier enters into communication with the divinity to whom the sacrifice is offered up.

Schematically, rites of sacrifice take place in three stages. The first stage is the entry, in which the sacrifier and victim, as well as the place and instruments, are introduced into the world of the sacred. The second stage is that of the consecration, in which the sacrifice and communication with the sacred actually takes place. The third and final stage is the exit, which marks the re-entry of the sacrifier into the profane world. The actual scheme varies according to the specific function of the sacrificial ritual. In a ritual which serves to exorcise some demon from a possessed person - in effect a rite of desacralization - the second and third stages will be accentuated. In a rite which functions to give sorcerous power to a weapon the first two stages will be stressed.

The book also deals with the sacrificial rites in which a god is the victim: the sacrifice of the god. For Mauss, it is in the sacrifice of a divine personage in which the idea of sacrifice attains it's highest expression. Mauss's theory proposes that for the god to take on the role of a sacrificial victim, there must be an affinity between his nature and that of the victims. So that he may come to submit himself to sacrifice, the god's own origin must be in the sacrifice itself. The god is a localization, concentration and accumulation of sanctity which is organized in the rite of sacrifice.

The sacred world with which communication is established in sacrifice, is in fact the world of the social. Society does not only - like a divinity - establish moral rules, it has the power to call forth or inhibit conduct, irrespective of any utilitarian calculation of beneficial or harmful results. Furthermore, society has a stimulating and invigorating effect on it's members: in a crowd one becomes capable of exalted emotions and conduct of which one is incapable when left to one's individual resources. Society is to it's members what a god is to the faithful.

Thus, sacrifice may be said to establish communication between the profane, utilitarian world of the individual on the one hand and the sacred, destructive world of the social on the other hand.

To be continued...

Post scriptum

Of course, in the penultimate paragraph I also use some material from Durkheim's 'The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life'.

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