Over the holidays, I visited a number of bookstores as I traveled around for festivities, and was particularly interested in history and anthropology books since non-fiction is my current trend in prose. In comics, I seem to be jumping off the deep end in fantasy world-building, particularly impressed when a creative team seems to be able to present the logic behind the world they’ve made so that you, the reader, can almost keep constructing the world in your mind based on the logic they’ve presented you with. Collections I’ve read over the holiday that seem to do this are The Spire (Boom Studios), Klaus (Boom Studios) and The Black Mirror Batman cycle (DC Comics). But back to the prose, which does have a comics intersection.
As a comic scholar looking at comics through the lens of psychoanalysis and anthropology in recent years, I had occasion to come across the works of philosopher and historian of religion, Mircea Eliade. His book on Shamanism [Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy] made a massive difference for me in approaching a lot of the mystical elements we see represented in comics (The Invisibles for one), and his concept of “Eternal Return” helped me investigate Neil Gaiman’s Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?[Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return]. I have always found him remarkable readable even for a person who’s not a specialist in religious history or anthropology like me. To get back to my story, I found a newly printed edition of a book I’d never heard of by Eliade in my holiday wanderings, and it looked shortish and manageable for a light read, so I picked it up. This was The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion.
I read it fairly slowly over a few weeks, but each time I read a chapter or sub-chapter I felt like some really basic observation had changed my way of thinking. This book, I learned, was actually groundbreaking when it was published in 1959 because no-one had really tried to pin down the elements of ritual and sacred thought that condition modern society still. Things we do simply out of tradition or a sense of the familiar without observing our own actions more closely. For me, it helped lay bare the underlying structure of modern life that may be very far from our ancient ancestors but assuming we are totally separate beings would be a dire mistake. Some of the topics Eliade discussed were the way we view and revere our living spaces, our social gathering spaces, our reaction to the natural world, and event our rites of passage in society. The book can’t help but surprise you with the ways in which we still follow the established motions ingrained by our ancestors, even if we might update our interpretation of those actions.
But the point I wanted to make is actually a little different regarding The Sacred and the Profane. In this work, Eliade put forward one of his most enduring concepts that still influences the study of religion in many cultures today–and that is the concept of mythic time. He proposed that time operated differently in the context of myths, so that when myths were retold in archaic societies, audiences understood they were taking part in a time-before-time, an era before time began. They were themselves taken outside of time to experience the myth when hearing the story. And Eliade posited that this feature of thought is one most visibly evident still, even in modern society, through the act of reading. We continue to experience what essentially used to be viewed as “sacred time” when we leave our surrounding reality and experience a story. It makes sense. Reading stories often leaves you with a sense that you’ve been “somewhere else”, and time has been in a suspended state.
The upshot of this experience in archaic societies was a sense that they had partaken of a deeper, underlying meaning in the universe. Meaning exists in sacred time and can be discovered there if you venture there. When we read books, we often find the experience to be life-changing and meaningful. We may even feel ourselves changed by the experience, more able to find or even create meaning in our own lives. I find this particularly true of comics where I am both shown stories and told them at the same time–the absorption I feel can be so complete that I don’t know how long I’ve been reading at the time that I’ve been interrupted or stop reading. So, next time you have that feeling, and it adds meaning to your life, remember–you’re discovering mythic time again just like human beings have been doing since the first stories were told.