Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The sacred and the profane

I read a book today that I probably should have read forty years ago -- Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane, not the first book you'd think of in considering gentrification, but surprisingly relevant. It's mostly about the sacred, but he likes to insist that the non religious experience is -- well, he thinks it's informed by the religious, but I think that's a bit contentious; I'd settle for "analogous to" the religious.

Among his examples: no matter how secularized you are, the place where you grew up holds a special significance for you, distinct from other, more mundane, spaces. It's akin to a sacred space. Eliade goes on to describe the religious experience of the home village as a kind of holy space; those who attack the home village appear to the religious as demons.

In Manhattan, although the place where you grew up may be sacred -- or, at least, specially significant -- it's most likely either not there anymore, or if still there, transformed beyond recognition. Eliade doesn't attempt any analysis of the forces of the profane, but in the city you don't need to be a prophet to see them. They are developers, their political support, and all their minions from landlords on down, tagging along and swaggering around our mayor like the devil's entourage in The Master and Margarita, eager to ride the golden calf for a good buck.

So many outside devils are invested in the sacred and profane ground of the city, it's hard to imagine keeping them at bay. And the spirit of the city, even that ground itself, seems to reject roots. It's not enough to preserve the sacred places -- brash new renters rush to fill old, storied buildings here. It's not enough to preserve the community -- communities themselves transform occupationally, educationally, economically and culturally in this fluid ecology.

What needs preserving in a city is the sense of place. Later on in his book, Eliade describes initiation rites through which adults enter into a sacred relation with their environment and learn the true names of the deities. In the city, even these names are easily hidden. They are the names of the families who lived here, of the communities who built here, of the artists who created here, of the children that grew up here. Who remembers them? History in Manhattan wanders the streets like a phantom unseen, unheard, unnoticed, except by the occasional flaneur, the ghost-seer who posts on his blog the latest loss of yet another sacred place, unnoticed by the armies of the profane.

I am continually impressed with the sense of place among the residents and former residents of Chinatown. Of all Manhattan, Chinatown may retain the strongest sense of place. It is a world apart from the rest of New York, not because it is an ethnic enclave, but because it is a space that still belongs to the community that lives there. But it's a community divided between ownership and labor. I wonder how long it will last.