Ceasar at the Sacred Grove

I’m posting on Lucan’s Civil War in conjuction with my friends at waggish.

Goethe’s apophthegm “nemo contra deum nisi deus ipse” was a major preoccupation of Hans Blumenberg. One way to explicate this enigmatic remark is historically. For one god to have the room to exist, another god sometimes needs to go away. So, on the simplest level, one god sometimes has to supplant another god. The project of genealogy would be to show the artificial nature of these transitions. Lucan, in book 3 of the Civil War, undertakes just such a genealogy. Presaging Caesar’s accession to the divine pantheon, Lucan details his deforestation of a sacred grove “because it is in his way.”

Marked by “savage rites of Gods whose altars were piled with dire sacrifices,” the sacred grove has less to do with calm repose than the memory of a barbaric cult. “Every tree was bathed in human gore.” The trees will be appropriated by Ceasar for his war effort. But they have been nourished by a long history of human suffering. The forest fed by carnage gets utilized for carnage. It’s a natural history of destruction.

“If the past that marveled at gods deserves belief, birds were scared to roost on those tree boughs and beasts made no dens there.” The past, Lucan tells us by including it in the narrative emphatically deserves belief . Despite its “god intoxicated” and superstitious nature, the idea that birds and beasts wouldn’t build homes in this locale deserves our attention. First of all, the forest can and will be used to build siegeworks. Hewing it into houses seems like a bad idea. Furthermore, the anthropomorphization of the birds and beasts contains hidden wisdom. Of course, its primitive to believe in some kind of sympathetic order of nature that would listen to human screams and refrain from building bird’s nests. It’s insane to “marvel at gods.” It’s also deeply human. We can’t disown the notion that the world would be responsive to human suffering, even as we can’t believe it.

“When worshipped in common forms, forces are not so feared. It adds to the terror greatly to not know the gods they revere.” The sacred grove has lain “inviolate for ages” while the cult which used to worship there has ceased to exist. The very unfamiliarity and terror of the grove has saved it “dense with timber, intact through prior wars, among other hills stripped bare.”

First of all, nature is artifactual. Its not that the grove has lain inviolate beyond the reach of human civilization. Its not that chance has spared the grove from rapacious real estate moguls. Rather, the grove has become an enclave of “nature” precisely because of human cultural activities. Much like the Korean DMZ or the exclusion zone around Chernobyl, the grove is a product. Like Rousseau and Derrida, for Lucan, nature is always already artifice.

“Ceasar sends the axes to chop down this wood because it is in his way.” It’s in his way in more than one sense. First, it’s blocking the path of the army. Second, the forest gestures to a fear of something greater than Ceasar. Ceasar can’t have you fearing things more than you fear him! Finally, it mars the landscape. Ceasar assumedly wants to reshape nature more radically than his predecessors. He needs to leave a literal mark on the place.

Ceasar’s men are terrified by the order to chop down the grove. Their “strong hands trembled” at the task. Seeing their hesitation, Ceasar “dared to be the first to heave and raise a double bladed axe…driving deep the blade into the trunk now violated.” In heaving the axe, Ceasar enacts his own exit from the world of humans and animals. Neither his soldiers nor the beasts and birds were able to overcome their trepidation and use the grove for mundane purposes. Ceasar uncannily feels no compunctions. He interrupts the order of nature.

Ceasar acknowledges and surpasses the old gods. After massacring the trees, he tells the men to “just credit me with the guilt.” Ceasar thinks he can handle it. “Ceasar’s wrath outweighed the wrath of gods,” whatever function the gods served in reducing contingency has ultimately been usurped by Ceasar. If the old gods were synchedoches for a larger class of terrifying natural occurrences, then Ceasar turns out to be scarier than whatever terrors inspired human sacrifice in the sacred grove.

Ceasar’s appropriation of the sacred grove for siege works would at first blush seem to be a perfect example of what Giorgio Agamben calls “profanation.” His essay, “In Praise of Profanation” defines profanation as removing something from sacred commerce and returning it to general use. Ceasar removes the trees from the sacred precinct and makes them into siege works. For Agamben, the only alternative to profanation is secularization, which represses sacrality but preserves the structural interrelationships of the sacred as such.

Agamben wants to combine profanation with a robust notion of play. For Agamben, play involves a mimicry of the original use of something, while “emptying” it of “any obligatory relationship to an end” and thus “makes them available for a new use.”

Yet, the dichotomy of secularization and profantion doesn’t capture the full nuance of what Lucan describes. Ceasar does make the trees available for a new use. This new use “reproduces and mimics” (to use Agamben’s locution) the old use. After all, the trees were nourished by violence and now will be used for violence. But the element of play is missing– we start with one obligatory structure and we move to another, even scarier structure.

For Agamben, this move from one obligation to another characterizes secularization. But Ceasar is no demythologizing Enlightenment thinker. If anything, he wishes to instantiate a new religion.

If our foray into Agamben’s essay teaches us anything, it’s that Agamben was just too optimistic in setting up the binary of secularization and profanation. One is meant to be more emancipatory than the other. But even if war is just playtime for Ceasar, something Lucan suggests in Book 2 when he says “Ceasar…enjoys no way of passage unless blood is shed” it isn’t emancipatory or fun for anyone else. Maybe it was delusional to think that we could find a way of removing an object from sacred commerce entirely, a sort of exit from the economy of the sacred. Maybe myth just doesn’t end, and only begets new myths.

While Ceasar was deforesting the sacred grove to create siegeworks, his enemies were “thrilled” because “who would think that one can injure gods and get away with it?”  They think Ceasar will receive divine comeuppance for his behavior towards the sacred grove. What they don’t realize, and here we do leave the economy of the sacred, is that “Fortune saves many guilty men, and nature’s divine powers can only vent their wrath on unlucky wretches.”

Observing the whole panorama, Lucan can make wry remarks about fortune and nature. But he cannot prevent the birth of a new god. You can watch new gods get born. You can watch old ones die. You can expose the structure of how this all plays out. But ultimately, you can’t stop the process. In embracing a genealogy, Lucan discounts the possibility of demythologization.

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