From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America 15.2 (1995): 107-13.
Copyright © 1995, The Cervantes Society of America

Bandera, Cesáreo. The Sacred Game: The Role of the Sacred in the Genesis of Modern Literary Fiction. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994. 318 pp.

     It is surprising that literary criticism in the age of theory offers relatively few examples of deep discipleship, for theory promotes a kind of neo-Aristotelianism in which the original pronouncement enjoys almost unchallenged authority, so that those who follow upon a Derrida or a Hillis Miller can, like Aquinas citing Aristotle, hope to establish the sufficiency of their postulations with the declaration that philosophicus dixit. True, one's students perhaps too often demonstrate an unquestioning faith in the utterances of the philosophers of literature, but the multiplicity of theorists tends to ensure that several voices, rather than just one, will be heard, sooner or later. Feminist criticism is, I believe, especially and blessedly free of recourse to absolute authority, even as its practitioners are joined in an enterprise that far transcends issues pertaining to a mere method, approach, or construct. Hispanism, deeply averse to the theoretical, provides still fewer cases of devotion to a single mistress or master than do the other disciplines. Paul J. Smith's almost doctrinaire Derridianism is a major and rare model of real discipleship. Another, as close or closer, is Cesáreo Bandera's adhesion to the teachings of René Girard, first manifest in his Mímesis conflictiva of 1975 and now even more fully formulated in The Sacred Game.
     The paradox in literary studies, with mentoring systemic to them, is that they, like parenting, encourage both subservience and independence. Devoted discipleship intensifies the contradiction between dedication to doctrine and the need for the mature mind to be able to function on its own terms. This difficult relationship resembles that Renaissance creative procedure known as imitatio, in which a new work is unimaginable apart from some authoritative precedent but in which the new work struggles to establish its own identity


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variously and contradictorily, often in stages of submission to precedent, rivalry with it, and strivings to surpass it. With its prologue by René Girard, Mímesis conflictiva is in large part an act of homage to the master, his teachings applied to a couple of the major monuments of Golden-Age Hispanic literature, a move adumbrated by Girard himself with his analysis of La novela del curioso impertinente in Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque as far back as 1961. The Sacred Game, appearing almost twenty years after Mímesis conflictiva, is the study in which the student would surpass the teacher. To attempt to do so is no small undertaking, for Girard himself does battle, in books like Violence and the Sacred, with the greatest figures in Western thought and culture, so as to propose and impose his theory of the sacrificial function of religion, above all Christianity, in the origin and evolution of human society, one that he presents as more satisfactory than Darwinian evolution. It would be hard to be more inclusive than Girard when he advances a single accounting for all culture and all meaning. However, Girard takes a rather dim view of the modern secular mind, precisely because of its aversion (Bandera describes the response as an allergic one) to the sacred: “The failure of modern man to grasp the nature of religion has served to perpetuate its effects. Our lack of belief serves the same function in our society that religion serves in societies more directly exposed to essential violence. We persist in disregarding the power of violence in human societies; that is why we are reluctant to admit that violence and the sacred are one and the same thing” (262).
     In their insistence on the inescapability of religion, these remarks appear to me to be the embryonic idea of The Sacred Game, which undertakes universally to delimit human cultural response by the brackets provided in the all-inclusive interplay, or dialectic, between the so-called sacred and the so-called profane, the binary opposition generative of Bandera's book. Yet in a departure at least of emphasis from the master, Bandera discerns a positive role for some of the most celebrated literary artifacts of our present secular, individualistic society, or at least a less negative role. For it would seem that the greatest philosophers and artists have been caught by Girard and Bandera in a vast scheme to conceal the hideous truth that religion is indissolubly bonded to violence and violence to religion, and that this unholy alliance is what both causes and sustains society and culture, no matter how brilliantly and eloquently the poets and philosophers strive to turn us away from the horror of an unvarying fundamental perception. In a marvelous modern extension of Covarrubias's Fingen los poetas, Bandera assigns the lowest rank in his hierarchy to fictionalizers (he deploys the category of poets and poetry in the Germanic sense of Dichtung and indeed his tract, with apologies to Goethe, might well be called Dichtung und Wahrheit), but at the same time the critic confers upon such as Cervantes and Calderón a high value because, in an entropic process that he labels as “thinning down,” they are less successful than their predecessors at hiding the sacrificial truth. This is not unstinting praise.
     In The Sacred Game itself there is much to praise. It is an impressive enterprise related to Hispanism and the study of Calderón and Cervantes only in a minor fashion. It appears to progress from monument to monument, with extensive

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analyses of Plato, Aristotle, Vergil, Renaissance epic as a failure, Cervantes, Calderón, and a particularly compelling deconstruction of hapless Karl Marx. It is simply, clearly, and urgently written; and one feels compelled to admire the range of Bandera's passion. Few Hispanists could or would venture to address a historical succession of the greatest works in the Western canon with or without the assistance of René Girard. Most decidedly, The Sacred Game is a work with a thesis and I think it best to divulge that thesis in Bandera's own words:

This historical progression from the breakup of the sacrificial idolatrous system toward a deepening sense of individual responsibility and therefore, freedom, in the face of the crucified describes the trajectory that, in a certain sense, is traveled in reverse by the existential intuition of the great poets, both dramatic and narrative, who would become the classics of modern literature. As we have seen in Cervantes and Calderón, they begin with the plight of the individual who, in one way or the other, shows herself unable to sustain the burden of her individual, non-transferable, responsibility and freedom, and will end up with the vision of a primitive and violent system of intersubjective relationships in which the individual loses her freedom completely and / or innocent victims are sacrificed to keep the system in place. What I have been trying to say is that this poetic intuition, which is probably the most decisive in the genesis of modern literature, would not have been possible without that historical progression in the Christian consciousness and experience of the system-breaking event of the Crucifixion (254).

     I am abundantly and painfully aware that Bandera's exegesis draws great strength from the conviction that the ontological existence of the sacred is absolute, so that his argument presents itself as irrefutable. One can only position oneself with respect to the premise, not deny it, even though no evidence whatsoever is adduced in support of the basic contention. That for Bandera is self-confirming and self-evident. This seems to me to be a highly unfortunate mode of reasoning, but rather than engage in sterile debate with it, I will offer as my major criticism of The Sacred Game its extreme dogmatism, especially disheartening because it aims to close out the discussion. In 1869, in his inaugural address as the thirty-four-year-old president of Harvard, Charles William Eliot, a professor of chemistry, declared that “[p]hilosophical subjects should never be taught with authority. . . . The notion that education consists in the authoritative inculcation of what the teacher deems true may be logical and appropriate in a convent, or a seminary for priests, but it is intolerable in universities.” In 1882, when he was asked to endorse an investigation that would reveal “the harmony between true Christianity and true Science,” Eliot objected, declaring that he did not hold the view “that impartial investigation is possible in any branch of knowledge if the inquiry is made with a view to demonstrate a proposition already assumed to be true” (I quote from Bruce Kuklick's The Rise of American Philosophy, 134). Eliot's principles not only launched over a century of unprecedentedly fruitful study both at Harvard and in the nation's centers of higher education, but also are as useful and as liberating in 1995 as they were in 1869. Bandera's universalist method of absolute and unqualified asseveration, his

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“alls,” “onlys,” and “everys” are profoundly constrictive and retrograde, for they substitute doctrine for dialogue.
     Bandera's sequence of great authors who react variously to the awful hidden truth seems to suggest that his method is a zeitgeistlich, Spenglerian one and such an approach appears to be most pertinent in his treatment of the devotio moderna and of Karl Marx. However, just as Marx founds his construct of historical process on an extremely narrow span of time, the years between 1789 and 1848, so Bandera bases his chain of responses on a sole event, the sacro-violent Ereignis that finds its cure in the Christusereignis. Since discussion inevitably returns to the sacro-violent-cum-Christian nexus, the real result is ahistorical and anti-historical monotony, a uniformity proudly admitted by Bandera in the Marxian context: “The fact of the matter is that the fundamental structure of the sacred, the sacrificial structure, has remained basically unchanged since time immemorial across all kinds of forms of material production and material intercourse. That sacrificial structure has operated at all levels of hunting, nomadic, or agricultural societies, for example, in rural or urban communities” (278). Here one notices how in Bandera's logic, every premise in the syllogism or the sorites is “distributed,” i.e., universal. More alarmingly, the whole panorama of human change is limited to a single perspective. A more anti-historical point of view would be difficult to imagine. Just following Bandera's words on p. 279, Marcel Gauchet is cited to the effect that what Gauchet calls the “Neolithic revolution” took place without producing any systemic religious or cultural alterations. I take the “Neolithic revolution” to be that shift in acquiring food from hunting and gathering to subsistence farming and stock-breeding which would have radically changed the function and status of women. I do not exactly know what Gauchet means by “systématiquement,” but for woman to have lost considerable worth and freedom as her role moves from that of forager to that of breeder of men strikes me as being a profound cultural innovation. The recoverability of prehistoric cultures is itself a vexed question, but one seriously doubts whether any human institution is immune to change, exempt from time.
     Another methodological issue raised by The Sacred Game is the place of the text in critical analyses of it. Before the New Criticism, literary texts were more or less subject to a rather limited notion of history. Keniston could read, and usefully read, the poetry of Garcilaso as a kind of emotional biography, éducation sentimentale. By putting the text first, the New Criticism effected one of those revolutionary changes so obvious as now to seem no change at all. Especially with poetry, the yield from the New Critical shift in emphasis was sensational. But the sometimes excessive proximity of interpreter to interpreted revealed a dangerous tendency to myopia. Advening shortly after the apparent triumph of the New Criticism, theory again introduced distance into perspectives on the verbal artifact, and with distance a new vision and control, for the production of literary meaning came to be understood as systemic and so quite revealingly akin to other modes for generating significance. In structuralism and postructuralism the temptation has been to subordinate literature to non-literary systems, whether Saussurean or Lacanian, and so return to the situation that

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obtained before the New Criticism. Nonetheless, the finest criticism has “saved” the perhaps non-existent text by securing its primacy according to a loose set of rules of literary evidence of which the principal tenet is that the work itself is the best evidence of itself. But such an assumption is far from excluding other circumstances that throw light on the main issue, so that all relevant circumstantial evidence is both welcome and admissible. It is difficult, but rewarding, to balance the claims of the literary work upon which the critic concentrates against those of other pertinent systems.
     Yet Cesáreo Bandera is, in The Sacred Game, detained by no such difficulty. He subordinates literature to the sacred at the lowest degree of his rigid hierarchy: “The experience of the sacred precedes and grounds all ideology as well as all theology and poetry” (15). “The anthropological and historical context from which the Cross derives its meaning and upon which it impacts with devastating force is prior to and far more universal than philosophy. The Cross owes absolutely nothing to philosophy; nor, for the same reason, does it owe anything at all to Western culture, to the ‘language of the West,’ whereas Western culture could not exist without it. In the final analysis, it is not the Cross that must account for itself before the tribunal of philosophy, but the other way around” (243). My heart goes out to the philosophers here; but it does so with the full realization that, even though by far a lesser phenomenon, literature will not escape the inquisitor's summons (indeed, the role of literature in The Sacred Game is that of the accused) and be found even more wanting, guiltier still, than its more significant companions in crime.
     It accordingly does not require a very vivid imagination, if Bandera's opinion of literature is low, to conceive how little of his esteem is enjoyed by those implicit apologists of it, the literary critics. These are, in fact, by and large ignored, much as Girard, in A Theater of Envy, has dismissed what he calls “the Shakespeare Establishment.” I will leave it to the philosophers and theologians to fend for themselves; but in the case of the Aeneid, for example, the omissions are amazing. No critical opinion dating after the 1960s (except for Mario de Cesare's of 1974) is cited, not even that of so eminent a commentator as Michael Putnam, whose “Aeneid VII and The Aeneid” is most pertinent though, of course, at variance with the Bandera thesis. The section on the alleged failure of Renaissance epic omits so much as to mention the Araucana of Ercilla or any analysis of Hispanic heroic poems save Frank Pierce's. In the recapitulations of Mímesis conflictiva that thinly constitute the sections on Don Quixote and Calderón, not one critic of Cervantes is cited, and only one commentator on Calderón, Edward Wilson. These discussions are deplorably weak and deficient. Girard's theory of mimetic desire simply cannot be made to account for the whole literary output of Cervantes, nor can a brief analysis of two or three of Calderón's “tragedies” based on Girard's view of the connection between violence and the sacred even begin to represent Calderón's total dramatic production of over two-hundred plays.
     The Sacred Game is reductive. Irrespective of time, place, circumstance, and all antecedent analysis, each work is measured by a single and absolute standard of value, its writer's proximity to or distance from the thought of René

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Girard: “. . . Marx could not have fully known how closely the logic of the market economy he was so brilliantly analyzing reflected the logic of what actually happens ‘in the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world’” (270). “The only thing that Popper lacks is an articulate theory of the sacred capable of explaining the social mechanism that keeps idolatry and superstition in place” (259). Or, with reference to the violence with which the Aeneid concludes: “The sacrificial institution is the only cultural frame of reference in which death, violence and suffering can find meaning for any given society. It is the only mechanism that can transform such a terrifying matter into social forms of human existence” (132). This “explains” how Turnus's death founds Rome. Or “the idea that a historical experience of the sacred could be instrumental in the revelation of a victim who, in spite of being a scandal to everybody, despised and accused by the crowd, is without guilt, could only appear frightening to Plato. Within the Platonic system it is simply inconceivable that God could be the breaker of collective sacrificial unanimity, that God could be on the side of a victim unanimously found guilty and despicable. That is, of course, the radical, the immense, difference that separates Plato from the Judeo-Christian revelation” (63). Thus Bandera's investigations into Plato, Aristotle, Vergil, Cervantes, Calderón and Marx amount to a series of invidious comparisons in which each artist or thinker fails, to a lesser or greater degree, to measure up to René Girard.
     That Girard has made a significant contribution to critical thought is, I believe, undeniable. His more valuable insight is the wonderfully obvious one of mimetic desire, which, because of its broad applicability, has in a sense ceased to be the property of its originator. The critic who has most successfully appropriated triangular desire is Eve Sedgwick, who in her Between Men has transformed Girard's rigid model: “. . . it would perhaps be easiest to describe this book . . . as a recanting of, and a refocusing on, René Girard's triangular schematization of the existing European canon in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel” (17). The marvel in this appropriation is its shift from the dogmatic to the dialectic: “. . . I mean to situate this book in a dialectically usable, rather than an authoritative, relation to the rapidly developing discourse of feminist theory” (17). Perhaps the greatest failure in both Girard and Bandera is that they both arrogantly refuse dialogue. Consequently, the most signal void in The Sacred Game is the absence from it of gender, precisely the revolutionary contribution of Sedgwick as she modulates from the autocratic to democratic exchange. Bandera is not unaware of this fatal omission. He does strange and unfortunate things with pronouns, as is evident in the citation from page 254, where, seeking equilibrium between female and male, he deploys the grammatically feminine “her.” Even so, that possessive adjective is, in the context of El médico de su honra, dramatically and tellingly misplaced. For in the play the person who is unequal to the challenge of freedom is male, Gutierre, and not the in the main powerless Mencía. The seemingly liberal adjective consequently further victimizes the victim. Indeed, the introduction of the female into the Giraldian schema of mimetic desire considerably undermines the postulate of randomness in the fusion of violence with the sacred, because there the victim, far from being the product of indifferent choice, tends horribly and overwhelmingly to be female, a noun that

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in the three major Romance languages is also feminine. The reader of The Sacred Game should entertain no illusions. This is a masculinist text which, despite a few occasional and maladroit adjustments, unabashedly subsumes the female under the male and repeatedly universalizes human beings under the rubric of “man.” No female author or thinker is even considered in The Sacred Game, not even Jane Harrison. Moreover, in the ultimate object of Bandera's disdainful address, the “modern poet,” this person is exclusively of the male gender: “. . . it concerned him precisely in his role as poet . . . like a quicksand on which he stood . . . the human truth he discovered . . . this is why his discovery tended to make him humble . . . about his own poetic task” (301; all emphases mine).
     Bandera, in his first page and a half, alludes to the reaction of a distinguished Spanish literary critic to his book on the Poema de mío Cid as an undifferentiated allergic one: “Esta cosa me da alergia” (1). As an asthmatic atheist, I also wish to attest to my own allergic response. But it is not, I hope, undifferentiated. I believe that I have identified the allergens active in The Sacred Game, its bigotry, its dogmatism, its sexism, its disdain, its refusal of dialogue. Biological asthma is, alas, the body's bronchial misreading of threats like pollen, dust, and spores from the outside. My spiritual asthma in response to Cesáreo Bandera's The Sacred Game is, I fear, a dismayingly clear reading of its massively misguided menace. Sedgwick redeemed mimetic desire by introducing the female into the void between men and thus generalizing the concept, for every human being can place herself or himself at some point in the opposition of male to female. But Bandera's confrontation of the sacred with the profane is a wasteland, a literal no man's land. And as for his premise that the sacrificial construct is all-embracing, nego maiorem, maiorem nego.

Robert ter Horst
University of Rochester

Prepared with the help of Sue Dirrim
Fred Jehle Publications of the CSA HCervantes