By Gil Bailie
Crossroad, 293 pages, $24.95
The Gospel and the Sacred
By Robert G. Hamerton-Kelly
Fortress, 175 pages, $14 paper
The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred
By James G. Williams
Trinity, 288 pages, $16 paper
The Sacred Game
By Cesareo Bandera
Pennsylvania State University Press, 318 pages, $16.95
In 1947, in response to Arthur Koestler’s anti-Stalinist novel Darkness at Noon , a French philosopher produced one of the most horrifying books ever written. Though many of his contemporaries thought Maurice Merleau-Ponty (and not Jean-Paul Sartre or Albert Camus) to have the finest philosophical gifts of his generation, what makes Merleau-Ponty’s Humanism and Terror so horrifying is not simply that it exhibits a first-class mind pimping for Stalin and the Moscow Show Trials of the 1930s. What makes it so horrifying is that Merleau-Ponty is right”obscenely right, immorally right: violence can found culture, terror can preserve stability, the unanimity created by the sacrifice of a scapegoat can become so complete that it includes even its victim.
In 1972, a French literary critic returned to the question of the violent root of culture. But where Merleau-Ponty, uneasy with his own analysis, turned away from further investigation, Rene Girard has relentlessly pursued the effect of violence through literature, anthropology, psychology, and biblical criticism. In a stream of books- Violence and the Sacred (1972), Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978), The Scapegoat (1982), Job (1985), and A Theater of Envy: William Shakespeare (1990)”and a torrent of articles and interviews, Girard has relentlessly pursued what even he laughingly calls his idee fixe : the way in which scapegoats found, preserve, and unify culture.
The pursuit has cost Girard something of the influence in American and European academic circles that he gained in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1961, he published Deceit, Desire, and the Novel , a study of desire and the way in which triangular relations form between characters in the works of certain novelists (especially Cervantes, Proust, and Dostoyevsky). In France the influential Marxist critic Lucien Goldmann gave the book the sort of major review that founds a young critic’s career”praising it primarily, I think, because Girard seemed to provide (in the humanistic Marxism line once held by Georg Lukacs) a way to use great literature to criticize bourgeois life without relying upon the Freudianism that dominated literary criticism at the time.
That promoting Marxism was not Girard’s actual intent has since become clear. Though the ultra-conservative critic Thomas Molnar once accused Girard of positivism and antireligious materialism, the postmodernist radical Hayden White has more believably accused him of medievalism and reactionary defense of religion. But through the 1960s, with the (still untranslated) studies of Dostoyevsky that followed Deceit, Desire, and the Novel and with a series of powerful essays (partially collected in the 1978 To Double Business Bound ), Girard became a major figure in literary criticism and an important player on the American university scene. (Reared in France, he has spent his career teaching in America, recently retiring from Stanford.) The publication of Violence and the Sacred , his sortie onto the anthropology battlefield over which the structuralists and post-structuralists were fighting to the death, was greeted”by literary critics, at least”with ecstatic reviews.
Given the generally radical and overwhelmingly antireligious bias of modern literary criticism, this importance granted a Roman Catholic thinker represents a considerable anomaly. But there was a certain coyness about Christian faith in Girard’s literary and anthropological work through the sixties and seventies”a certain tempering of the wind to the shorn lambs of the literary fold, perhaps, or even a certain jesuitical misdirection. In a recent book-length interview with Michel Treguer, Girard speaks of his return to Catholicism in 1959. Only the most careful reader, however, could have discovered Christianity in Girard’s early writings. Michel Serres seemed eccentric and willful when, in his review of the 1978 study of psychology, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World , he failed to mention that the book concerns the revelation of Christ. But many reviewers missed the implications of Christian revelation in the 1972 Violence and the Sacred . The influence of that earlier book and the place of its central chapters in anthologies of modern literary criticism may owe a great deal to this anti-Christian misreading.
As the possibility of misreading Girard’s ventures into biblical revelation became less plausible, however, Girard’s acknowledged influence on literary criticism began to wane. Despite the contemporary interest in victimization, citations by literary critics to his writings have became rarer and direct studies of his work (such as the feminist attacks by Sarah Kofman and Toril Moi) have became more combative. In recent years, Girard’s stock in the academic establishments of France and America has very much declined. But this decline has been matched with a gain, as a number of writers, banding together as the Colloquium on Violence and Religion, have taken up Girard’s notion of the sacrificial scapegoat and devoted themselves to its application. Like Leo Strauss, Ernest Becker, and Eric Voegelin before him, Rene Girard has been transformed into something of a sect in America, with disciples, translators, and proselytizers.
To some extent, the transformation may have had a good effect, releasing Girard from the ghetto of literary criticism and pointing him in directions he needed to go”notably with Fr. Raymund Schwager’s application of Girard’s work to orthodox Christology in Must There Be Scapegoats? (1978) and with Andrew McKenna’s analysis of philosophy’s hidden violence in Violence and Difference (1992). But this development may have had an unhappy effect as well, over-extending his thought and yet simultaneously narrowing it into a Girardian System. Both these effects”the good and the bad”are visible in four books published by Girardians in the last year: Cesareo Bandera’s literary study, The Sacred Game ; James Williams’ new edition of his 1991 The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred ; Robert Hamerton-Kelly’s study of violence in Mark, The Gospel and the Sacred ; and Gil Bailie’s account of contemporary culture, Violence Unveiled .
Of the four books, Bailie’s Violence Unveiled is the best introduction to the Girardian topics of violence, culture, and sacrifice. It is an easily accessible and beautifully crafted analysis that moves freely from Greek literature to current news stories, from Aztec myths to Captain Cook’s experience in Tahiti, and finds in them all the grounds for a persuasive biblical and anti-violent Christian apologetics. Specialist and nonspecialist alike will find Bailie’s book rewarding; I recommend it highly. In The Sacred Game , the Spanish scholar Cesareo Bandera presents a much more technical study of the sacred in the poetical epics and philosophical aesthetics of both Classical Antiquity and the Renaissance; specialists will find Bandera’s introduction and his chapters on Virgil and Renaissance poetry especially fruitful.
With Williams’ The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred and Hamerton-Kelly’s The Gospel and the Sacred , however, the problems of Girardianism”of Girard’s insights taken as a scientific system”begin to come clear. Both books contain biblical readings that specialists will find interesting and provocative, and Williams includes a marvelous conclusion that applies his biblical exegesis to contemporary social analysis. But in his introduction Williams briefly indulges the temptation to make Girard’s anthropology of revelation systematic, while Hamerton-Kelly succumbs completely”devoting twenty-four pages (out of 175) to a systematic appendix on the theory of the generative mimetic scapegoating mechanism (or the GMSM, as he constantly abbreviates it).
Girard himself, however, denies that there is any Girard System. Following a tradition dating back to Descartes’ 1648 Conversation with Burman, French intellectuals often use interviews to put on record major qualifications of their work, and Girard has insisted in dozens of interviews that he has no theory. If a Rabelais shows up, he jokes with Rebecca Adams, he will do hilarious things . . . with our use of the word theory.’ . . . The next generation will wonder what could move so many people to go on endlessly writing the most convoluted prose in a complete void of their own making, disconnected not only from the reality of their world but from the great literary texts, of which recent theory has been making a shamelessly parasitic use.
The desire to follow a French tradition, however, may not be the only reason that so much of Girard’s thought appears in interviews. Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World is an aggravating book to read, primarily because it consists entirely of interviews with a pair of psychiatrists, Jean-Michel Oughourlian and Guy Lefort. We quite deliberately left out all concessions to the reader, the introduction superfluously notes. But Girard’s resignation to using the form of an interview”his inability throughout the 1970s to produce a straightforward book on the anthropology of Christian revelation”originates, I believe, in his desire to avoid the tar pit of quasi-science in which Freud found himself so deeply mired.
Rather, beginning with what he calls a dense intuition, a block penetrated little by little, Girard has moved in his investigations since 1959 from an observation of desire in the novel to an observation of revelation in the Gospel. The great texts are deeper, stronger, and larger than our readings; they interpret our theories rather than allow our theories to interpret them. Things Hidden is a convoluted, difficult work that begins as anthropology’s critique of biblical revelation and turns into revelation’s critique of anthropology. At his best, Girard has simply let the progress of his reading”first in literature, then in anthropology, then in psychology, then in biblical theology”strip away the outer layers of his dense intuition to reveal the Cross.
This progress has sometimes exposed him as an opsimath, discovering important theological texts only late in his career. Though Fergus Kerr (in his defense of Girard against John Milbank’s objections in the 1990 Theology and Social Theory) reports that Girard was not aware of parallels between his own analysis and St. Augustine’s until others pointed it out to him, Girard observes in the interview with Treguer that three-quarters of what he has to say is already in St. Augustine. Though in 1978 he dismissed with surprising offhandedness the sacrificial theology of the New Testament’s Letter to the Hebrews, in the 1993 interview with Rebecca Adams he mocks his own earlier dismissal and reasserts the importance of that text. The more orthodoxy Girard discovers, the more orthodox he becomes. This progress of discovery may be what preserved him from anthropology’s quasi-scientific reduction of all religions to a single phenomenon of the sacred: Girard sharply criticizes the inability of the greatest minds in the modern world to grasp the difference between the Christian crib at Christmastime and the bestial monstrosities of mythological births.
The insight on the edge of which Merleau-Ponty trembled in 1947 is an insight into the failure of mythology after Christ: the election of a scapegoat may in fact have worked to found culture in the days before biblical revelation, but the Gospels reveal how it works, and an understanding of how it works destroys the possibility of it working. If we know the victim to be innocent, we can still pronounce him guilty, but we will not succeed in being drawn together”we will not succeed in founding a culture”with the pronouncement.
Human desire is not essentialized, Girard argues against Freud; it does not come naturally packaged in such mandatory Freudian shapes as the death instinct, the Oedipal longing of the boy to possess his mother, or the woman’s envy of the male phallus. Desire is instead mimetic (as the great novelists have all seen), and we learn what to desire by watching the desiring of others. The key to understanding how the sacrifice of a scapegoat once worked to found and preserve culture lies in Girard’s notion of desire. Underneath cultural scapegoat myths there lurks the desperate hope of controlling the outbreak of swirling, undifferentiated desire”mimetic desire gone mad in a cultural crisis in which imitation imitates imitation and violence breeds upon itself.
Some Girardians seem to envision a pre-cultural state of primal violence and thus to open Girard’s thought to Milbank’s complaint that what little we know of ancient history offers no evidence that cities and towns were actually born in riot and mayhem. To interpret scapegoat myths, however, we need not posit a primal violence. We need only notice that every culture manifests in its myths a deep terror of the breakdown of all distinctions and the mimetic escalation of violence. Against this threatened violence of all against all, cultural myth poses the solution of another violence: the violence of all against one, the violence in which the scapegoat”the sin-eater, the disease-carrier, the heretic, the witch, the Jew”is arbitrarily selected as the source of the cultural breakdown and murdered, sacrificed, or expelled.
It is tempting to pause and note that by the elimination of the scapegoat, the cycle of mimetic violence ceases and the culture is able to establish its violence”preventing distinctions and forms. Indeed, Girard devoted most of Violence and the Sacred to analyzing the ways in which much religious ritual reenacts symbolically both the original mad mimetic violence of a culture and the cultural foundation achieved by the sacrifice of a scapegoat. Ritual thus serves the important cultural purpose of reinforcing and transmitting the lessons learned in a scapegoat-broken cycle of violence. The scapegoat, perceived as simultaneously the cause and the solution to violence, becomes the sacred: the single locus of both divine terror and divine blessing, the unity of the two manifestations of the holy famously described by Rudolph Otto.
The more interesting point, however, and the one that has occupied Girard for the last twenty years, is the impossibility of our ever knowing that this is in fact how myth works. The story of the scapegoat ought to be impenetrable. Myth serves primarily to hide the arbitrariness of the victim and the fact that the innocent victim is a victim at all. If we know the victim to be arbitrary, we cannot succeed in making him sacred; if we know the victim to be innocent, the cycle of violence and the breakdown of culture cannot be solved”as they were not solved in Athens, for instance, by the innocent Socrates’ death.
We have in cultural anthropology, however, one set of religious texts that seems to take the side of the victim. Often in the Old Testament and overwhelmingly in the New, the mythology of scapegoat sacrifice is penetrated and thereby rendered ineffectual. Christianity is a religion, as Paul Dumouchel puts it, that should not exist. Girard is entirely serious in his anthropology of revelation, but he means the opposite of the reduction of Judeo-Christian revelation to a general anthropological category of sacred religion. Judaism and Christianity are fundamentally anti-sacred in their partisanship for the victim, and this is only possible (logically, scientifically, anthropologically) if Judaism and Christianity actually do have a divine revelation”if the Bible, to put it bluntly, is true.
There are obviously dangers in this sort of thesis-driven biblical interpretation. Any study that lifts up one interpretive strand tempts us to pit certain biblical texts against others, and Williams in his readings must struggle against the temptation to dismiss the passages that run counter to his thesis. In a way that perhaps fails to do justice to the history of Hebraic texts, both Hamerton-Kelly and Bailie seem unduly willing to take the prophets as the center of the Old Testament.
Worse, this sort of biblical interpretation may tempt us not only to pit Christian revelation against Jewish religion (an opposition for which there is ample precedent in the New Testament), but to pit Christian revelation against the Jews. Robert Hamerton-Kelly has struggled in recent years against charges that his biblical scholarship betrays an animus against the Jews, and a careful reading of his work reveals that such charges are not true. But by beginning his study of the Gospel of Mark with a strong, visceral image of the bloodstained Temple in Jerusalem at the time of Christ, Hamerton-Kelly seems to admit the worse charge that the Gospels themselves are anti-Semitic (a charge Girard himself vehemently rebuts in a 1993 essay in the journal Biblical Interpretation).
There are also theological and ecclesiological dangers in this sort of thesis. That the Church has not always been true to the spirit of the Gospels is undeniable, but this fact does not invalidate the Church. Any reading of Christian history as a development in understanding a single Gospel theme risks, for example, Teilhard de Chardin’s sort of evolutionary theology, with its consequent dismissal of patristic and medieval formulations. Hans Urs von Balthasar, in his brief critique in Theo-Drama , complains of Girard’s too easy rejection of St. Anselm’s account of the Atonement (as though God finds it necessary to defend His honor). In a weak moment at the end of Violence Unveiled, Bailie seems near to saying that the Church is something we must outgrow.
What the Girardian analysis can help us see, however, is the way in which Christianity itself contributes to our current cultural crises. Hitler sacrificed millions of Jews to found what turned out to be a twelve-year reich, Stalin made scapegoats of millions of counterrevolutionaries to preserve a regime with only fifty more years of life, and every little dictator since has slaughtered his own victims to create or maintain an ephemeral authority. Thousand-year cultures are not founded by sacrifice anymore, for the process of scapegoating no longer seems to work very well. Everyone in the world has learned the Christian demythologizing of sacred violence too well, and no one trusts sacrifice to do what it once did.
Of course, the Serbs still undertake ethnic cleansing, the Iraqis still speak of the Kurds as a disease, the Chinese still hunt down counterrevolutionaries”for there is no other way they know to try to maintain themselves. The culture-founding violence of the sacred is the only method we know for ending the culture-destroying violence of mimetic desire. Gil Bailie, throughout his book, and James Williams, in his conclusion, trace the appearance and breakdown of the scapegoat mechanism in innumerable contemporary events. Bandera similarly includes in The Sacred Game a fascinating Marxian Epilogue in which he traces the sacrificial logic of Marx’s analysis of money (though its relation to the rest of his book is not immediately apparent).
Maurice Merleau-Ponty was entirely right when he defended the objective need of the revolutionary state to sacrifice subjectively innocent scapegoats, just as the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt was right when he spoke in the late 1920s of the state’s need to kill its political enemies on strictly existential-ontological grounds. But Merleau-Ponty and Schmitt were nonetheless self-defeating in their attempts to describe the process (when we understand how a myth works, it stops working), and they were too late besides. The consistent failure of sacrifice in modern times, the escalation of apparently insoluble violence, and the strange cycles of mimetic victimization into which we have fallen (in which victims compete for notice of their victimization) are all results of the universalizing of Christian revelation’s invincible demythologizing of the sacred.
What has been lost in the universalizing, however, is the specificity of Christian revelation. This unspecific universality is presumably what historians mean when they speak of contemporary culture as the post-Christian age. The pre-Christian sacred scapegoat can no longer preserve culture, and we face the collapse of all our cultural distinctions in a mad cycle of mimetic violence. But despite this, or even perhaps because of this, Girard suggests that we may at last have reached the moment for a new cultural appropriation of Christian revelation”of those things hidden since the foundation of the world. Violence can no longer cast out violence, Satan can no longer cast out Satan, and only our return to the gospel can save us.
Joseph Bottum is Associate Editor of First Things .
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?