Thursday, February 23, 2017

Religions of Lament by Elias Canetti

The face of the earth has been changed by the religions of lament and, in Christianity, they have attained a kind of universal validity.  What is it then which has endowed them with their power of resistance?  What is it that has procured for these religions originating in lament their peculiar persistence during millennia?

The legend around which they form is that of a man or a god who perishes unjustly. It is always the story of a pursuit, a hunt, or a baiting, and there may   also be an unjust trial. In the case of a hunt, the wrong creature will have been struck down, the foremost hunter instead of the animal which is being pursued.  This animal, in a kind of reversal, may have attacked the hunter and wounded him fatally, as in the story of Adonis and the boar.  This is the one death which should not have taken place, and the grief it arouses is beyond all measure.

It may be that a Goddess loves and laments the victim, as Aphrodite Adonis. In her Babylonian shape the goddess’s name is Ishtar, and Tammuz is the beautiful dead youth. Among the Phrygians it is the mother goddess Cybele who grieves for Attis, her young lover. In Egypt it is Isis who has lost her husband Osiris. But it can also happen – and this is the later and no longer mythical case – that a group of relatives and disciples lament the dead, as they do Jesus, or Husain, the Grandson of the Prophet and the true martyr of the Shiites.

The hunt, or pursuit, is pictured in all its details; it is a precise   story, very concrete and personal. Blood always flows; even in the most humane of all Passions, that of Christ himself, we find wounds and blood. Each of the things which compose the Passion is felt to be unjust; the further removed from mythical times, the stronger becomes the tendency to prolong the passion and to fill it out with human details. The hunt, or baiting, is always experienced from the point of view of the victim.

Around his end a lamenting pack forms, but the lament has a particular tone; the dead man has died for the sake of the people who mourn him.  Whether he was their great hunter, or had another and higher value for them, he was their savior. His preciousness is stressed in every possible way; it is he, above all that should not have died.  His death is not recognized by the mourners. They want him alive again.

It begins with the few faithful who stand beneath the cross; they are the kernel of the lament.  At the first Whitsuntide there were possibly 600 Christians; at the time of the Emperor Constantine about 10 million.  But the core of the religion remains the same; it is the lament. Why is it that so many join the lament?  What is its attraction? What does it give people?

To all those who join it the same thing happens: a hunting or baiting pack expiates its guilt by becoming a lamenting pack.  Men lived as pursuers and as such, in their own fashion, they continue to live.  They seek alien flesh, and cut into it, feeding on the torment of weaker creatures; the glazing eye of the victim is mirrored in their eyes, and that last cry they delight in is indelibly recorded in their soul. Most of them perhaps do not divine that, while they feed their bodies, they also feed the darkness within themselves.  But their guilt and fear grow ceaselessly, and, without knowing it, they long for deliverance. Thus they attach themselves to one who will die for them and, in lamenting him, they feel   themselves as persecuted. Whatever they have done, however they have raged, for this moment they are aligned with suffering.  It is a sudden change of side with far-reaching consequences. It frees them from the accumulated guilt of killing and from fear that death will strike at them too. All that they have done to others, another takes on himself; by attaching themselves to him, faithfully and without reserve, they hope to escape vengeance.

Thus it appears that religions of lament will continue to be indispensable to the psychic economy of men for as long as they remain unable to renounce the killing pack.

Crowds and Power, " The Pack and Religion"; (1960)

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