Saturday, September 02, 2006

Time to Sacralize the Profane

The Sacred and the Profane. This is how Mircea Eliade, historian of religions, distinguished between two conceptions of time. The former typifies Non-Western traditions. It is time as a cycle. Sacred time revolves culturally around what Eliade called the Myth of the Eternal Return, the archetype of time as a recursion, anchored by a Golden Age, the perfect state of the universe’s origin. In Sacred time, all durations aim to return the world to its original perfection. Religious ordeals and ceremonies attempt to re-instate the aboriginal condition, ritually, through theatrical re-enactments.

Any digression from the perfection of origins is a descent into folly, into degeneracy. Novelty is to be avoided. Innovation is a cosmic error. The obligation of culture is to assist nature in its striving to cycle back, through seasonal, lunar, generational and the countless other natural cycles to re-establish the perfection of the aboriginal world.

The challenge to this conception came from the West. Profane time—the unidirectional, linear time of history—is a brainchild of the Western mindset, originating in Judaic tradition. (After plowing through Thomas Cahill’s "The Gifts of the Jews", I gather this is the guy’s point.) From the Profane conception grows the modern notion of historical progress. Events are going somewhere. Time does not just cycle back endlessly recapitulating the past. There IS something new under the sun. And limited only by our powers of invention, the future is open-ended, tending toward infinite novelty.

Or?

Is the linearity of historical time merely apparent? Think about the apparent flatness of the Earth. To the casual observer, the Earth’s surface is an endless expanse. But that apparent flatness is an artifact of the enormity of the Earth’s circumference. So it is with Profane time. The apparent progress of history occurs within a cycle of such enormity that it is not perceived as an overarching, cyclical context for history. Hence, time seems flat.

But natural and human histories unfold within the stellar life cycle. Recognizing this context re-sacralizes time. All of our inventiveness serves the needs of the stars. To recognize historical advance as the recursion of the stellar life cycle is to transmute the profane into the sacred. This is how profaned humankind (re)claims its sacred place in nature.