Probably the most famous line in Gustave Flaubert’s voluminous correspondence is the following:
L’auteur, dans son œuvre, doit-être comme Dieu dans l’univers, présent partout, et visible nulle part. (To Louise Colet, December 9, 1852)
The author, in his work, must be like God in the universe, everywhere present, and nowhere visible.
The basic analogy between the author and God strikes us as banal; the point we recall is the nowhere visible that reflects Flaubert’s post-romantic ideal of the impersonal “realist” novelist, dogmatically respected by Zola and the naturalists, for whom, in contrast with writers before 1848, the novelist’s persona must be excluded from the world of the novel.
We understand this text as revealing a truth about authors. But we must learn no longer to leave the sacred exclusively to those engaged in religious activity, to priests and saints and theologians, as though the rest of us were unqualified to have insight into it. Flaubert’s line about the author is just as much a revelation about God.
The religious institutionalization of the sacred has been a powerful force throughout the history of civilization, a force against which, for only the first time self-confidently, the emerging modernity of the Enlightenment largely defined itself. Yet today, when religious institutions have lost much of their overall influence as well as virtually all relevance to our understanding of the natural world, it is all the more important to remain aware that the sacred remains no less pertinent to human activities and interactions.
Although we tend to split off the sacred from other aspects of culture, it is as central to the human as every other aspect of the ontological transcendence that defines us, and that cannot exist without it. I am increasingly persuaded that GA’s major task may well be to rehabilitate the sacred as an anthropological concept, demystifying it of its taboo status outside the religious domain. As Roy Rappaport grasped, the sacred, like language, is coextensive with the human.
Read in this way, few statements affirm more clearly than Flaubert’s the unity of human culture, from the sign to ritual and art. The God/author is the controlling subject of the world of his creation in the arts and, more humbly, in language itself. Although we rarely think of it, we take for granted that when reading a novel, watching a film, attending a concert, we voluntarily become passive spectators of a scene that, unlike the scenes of everyday life, takes place explicitly under the aegis of a “sacred” creator. Nor would we choose to experience artworks in the absence of a desire to inhabit a world for which a human subject, analogous to God for the believer yet requiring only a temporary “leap of faith,” can be held wholly responsible.
The 20th century experimented with the historical limits of all the diverse art-forms. In each case we can understand these experiments as testing the limits of the artist’s sacred power; each act of creation is founded on the premise that the work in question, however unsatisfying it may appear to us at first glance, will nonetheless respond to our act of faith by granting a satisfactory resolution to the desires it generates.
In the case of music in particular, we have clear physiological criteria for distinguishing harmonious from inharmonious sounds. Although anyone can slap paint on a canvas or put some words together and call it a “poem,” only a skilled musician can credibly create music in public or on paper. Yet given these credentials, we are willing to give the benefit of the doubt to what may sound to us like pure cacophony in hopes that, through keeping our faith with the creative intention of the composer, some new form of musical coherence will emerge.
The other day I was reading a novel in which an unhappy and not very successful man loves a younger woman, whom he hopes he can entice to marry him. Throughout much of the story his desire appears wholly unrealistic, but toward the end it begins to seem increasingly possible.
By this stage, having been led to sympathize with the protagonist despite some unpleasant traits, I “wanted” him to succeed. Finally, when his only rival, whom the lady had clearly favored, left the area without even saying goodbye to her, let alone proposing marriage, I became hopeful that there would indeed be a “happy ending.”
But I was wrong. Not that in retrospect I was really surprised; the overall tone of the novel was hardly one of happily-ever-after (in fact, on learning of his rejection, our hero commits suicide). But the important point in the present context is that, in my hope for his success, my attitude toward the author was so to speak one of prayer: I wished that the fellow could be made happy, while at the same time recognizing that I had no power to make him so, and could only submit myself to the author’s sacred will.
In some cases of this type, of course, we feel justified in maintaining an active disagreement with the author, and will speak of turns in the plot that strike us as “unfair” or “unjustified.” And even in a work that is generally admired, if we remain unconvinced that divine justice has been done, we may strike it and perhaps its author from our personal pantheon. Indeed, part of the interest in experiencing new works of art lies precisely in our freedom to judge their author’s intention on the basis of our own intuition of sacred/cultural providence.
Today, when wokism incites people to express a priori contempt for Bach and Beethoven as dead white males, those steeped in Western culture have lost much of their former self-confidence in its “judgment of taste.” David P. Goldman in particular has ironically noted that it is in the autocratic “Eastern” world of China that the respect for, and performance of, the great Western musical classics is now at the highest level, while our orchestra directors increasingly concern themselves with diversity, equity, and inclusion.
The question behind all this continues to be: why indeed do we care about such things? Why do we feel obliged to carry out an act of faith in “believing” in a writer or artist or composer, so that we feel let down when this faith is disappointed? After all, artworks are not religious scripture. When we speak of a detractor of Hamlet or the Mona Lisa as “blaspheming,” the term is given and taken with a grain of salt. But before we reach for the saltshaker, we must recognize that the similarity cannot simply be dismissed, given the proportion of our time and emotional energy most of us spend absorbed in worlds governed by their creator’s fictional sacred.
The 20th-century history of cultural criticism, particularly that of literature, reflected an increased awareness that our attitudes toward God and toward the artist are versions of the same thing, that there is a significant homology between religious texts and literary ones. That René Girard among others became interested in anthropology through his activity in literary criticism reflected a growing intuition throughout the last century that artworks, and literary works in particular, provide the most important documentation of fundamental anthropological relationships, both those of a given epoch and in general. Although students are often asked to “read the Bible as literature,” the more important development is that over the past century our more astute critics have found insightful ways of reading literature as Bible, or what Northrop Frye called secular scripture.
How then does the explicit focus on the connection between our experience of literary texts and the anthropology of the sacred advance our understanding of the human? To adopt this focus is not to reject previous analyses that have failed to take the sacred explicitly into account; on the contrary, like M. Jourdain’s discovery that he had always been speaking in prose, explicit focus on the sacred merely clarifies the category into which criticism and the study/enjoyment of literature have always fallen. But this realization obliges us at the same time to realize that the sacred plays a far greater role in our “secular” lives than we generally admit.
Religious sects have often placed a taboo on secular and/or religious art. We usually interpret the first of these interdictions along the lines of “forbidding amusements,” such as dancing or playing games—setting aside for the moment that such activities too contain a sacred element—rather than as a way of safeguarding the sacred from profanation, as with the interdictions on creating images of Islam’s Prophet or the Jewish One God (even whose name in any language is never written or pronounced by Orthodox Jews, who write “G-d” and in Hebrew refer to him as Hashem, “the name”).
But although the tension between art and religion is obvious in such cases, it is noteworthy that the interdiction, e.g., of the theater in Calvinist Geneva, is never referred to as a ban on the idolatry of the author-Subject. In contrast, we recall that in ancient Greece, the Homeric and other epics, and later, stage plays, were performed at religious festivals. The glory of polytheism, whose esthetic benefits at least have not lost their power, was that one needed make no hard distinction between a human’s and a god’s subjectivity in their domains of authority. The Greek tragedian’s interpretation of the actions of gods or of men was not required to pass a test of canonization; public performance was tantamount to consecration.
For the sacred is implicit in every artifact of human culture. The originary hypothesis recognizes its role not simply in novels or paintings but in the sign that was the unifying element of the originary scene, making it the saving alternative to potentially deadly individual attempts at appropriation.
This is in no way to deny the difference between the mediation of the sacred in the communication of a sign, a sentence, or a narrative told for a practical purpose, in contrast with a narration or an artwork that reconstitutes the originary creation of the human scene. But it is a difference only of degree.
We accept the other’s subjectity, his controlling role in a communication of which we can be only passive recipients, with respect to everyday utterances, although we would not think to put this mastery in parallel with God’s role in his creation. The scene of language in this minimal sense is not experienced by the speaker as analogous to the universe created by the artist, into which the hearer is expected to enter in a respectful silence that has a clear similarity to that of the faithful in a religious ceremony. Indeed, the separation between these two modes was the basis for the distinction I drew in The Origin of Language between “formal” and “institutional” representation.
Yet it is nonetheless true that the authorial role is not reserved to artists; it is a normal human one that requires no contact with the world of art or of religion to adopt. Each child learning language experiences the power it gives him over his listeners, and will at a certain point typically attempt to prolong it, proudly showing parents and teachers his drawings or recounting his adventures for the pleasure of holding their attention. In contrast with their passive training for religious activities, young humans have no difficulty in spontaneously adopting the authorial sacred.
On the other hand, we must resist any temptation to take such activities for granted as though they were mere extensions of the “natural” attributes of our fellow primates. Just as even the most intelligent animals do not point, they do not author; birds sing but do not compose, which is no more than to say that they have no concept of subjectity, of being the Godlike composer, a concept that depends on the exclusively human idea of the sacred, of ontological transcendence.
In these ominous times, if we are to arrive at a deeper understanding of the human in its specificity as a means to preserve our Abrahamic culture from decadence, we must above all learn, or relearn, our originary relationship to the sacred.