Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

To read René Girard is to want to slap one’s forehead and say, "Of course, why didn’t I think of that?" If I might pump up the volume on my praise a bit more, he is the direct opposite of that sad figure in George Eliot’s masterpiece Middlemarch , the Rev. Mr. Casaubon, who spent his whole adult life pathetically trying to complete a "Key to All Mythologies," a project that brought both him and his marriage to ruin. But Girard has pulled it off, at least in my estimation: Here we do have a key to all mythologies.

Although he started off as a medieval historian, Girard became more and more interested in literary criticism¯to be sure, in the dreary debunking mode that would soon become the métier of the deconstructionists. But his outlook made a significant turn when, in the spring of 1959, he began work on a study of five novelists (Cervantes, Flaubert, Stendhal, Proust, and Dostoyevsky) that eventually was published as Desire, Deceit, and the Novel . He had been an agnostic for the previous twenty-six years, but a health scare forced him to reconsider his past convictions, abetted by the experience of his brother’s suicide earlier, where he noticed how difficult it was for his family to come to terms with that tragedy without apportioning blame.

The combination of these two events must have got under his skin while he was writing the book, for Desire, Deceit, and the Novel bears no resemblance to the poststructuralist efforts common in France at that time. As he recounted in an interview in 1997, he discovered that his earlier constant reliance on the "hermeneutics of suspicion"¯always harping on the bad faith of the writers he was studying¯was gradually leading him to a concept of original sin: "An experience of demystification if radical enough, is very close to an experience of conversion." And so we are not surprised to learn that, while writing Desire, Deceit, and the Novel , he returned to his Catholic faith.

As an added bonus, Desire, Deceit, and the Novel is brilliant, a tour de force of teeming insights, one piled on another¯proof that literary criticism can sometimes make for a thrilling read. Taking a cue from Aristotle’s remark in his Poetics that "man is distinguished from the other animals by his capacity for imitation," Girard saw how each of his chosen novelists depicted a protagonist who was besotted by a literary model he or she wanted to mimic.

Thus Don Quixote spent his life trying to emulate the fictional knight Amadis de Gaul; Madame Bovary modeled her life on the adulteresses she read about in romances; and the narrator in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time openly says, "I was incapable of seeing a thing unless a desire to do so had been aroused in me by reading." In Notes from Underground , the narrator¯a petty bureaucrat obsessed by what others (might) think of him¯crashes a banquet put on by his former school chums (now mostly successful army officers) and tries to be noticed, all the while loathing them: "Smiling scornfully, I paced backwards and forwards on the side of the room opposite the sofa . . . . I was trying with all my might to show that I could do without them; meanwhile, I purposely made a clatter with my boots, coming down hard on my heels. But it was all in vain; they didn’t even notice."

"Every man hath business and desire," says Hamlet to Horatio, and that’s the key to Girard: Besides the needs we share with the other animals, we also have desires, or more exactly, learned desires¯born purely out of imagination and mimicry¯which Girard dubs "mimetic desires." (Think here of the advertising and fashion industries, the "worship" of Hollywood stars, on and on, and everything Girard says falls into place.) But as Quixote, Bovary, and the "underground man" all show, these desires can never be fulfilled. In a deft formulation, Girard says that "masochists are always fascinated artisans of their own unhappiness."

This inevitable frustration always leads to resentment, which will collectively build up in society until it gets focused, like lightning in a charged atmosphere, and lands on a scapegoat. But the scapegoat can only purge this collective frustration when the sacrifice of the victim becomes society’s conscious act, meaning when the scapegoat is ritually slaughtered. This is the insight of Girard’s next great book Violence and the Sacred , whose title nicely encapsulates, and is encapsulated by, this central thesis: "Violence is the heart and secret soul of the sacred."

Girard’s anthropological book is interesting in its own right, but I want to get to Girard’s later discussion of the Bible in perhaps his most theological work, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning . In this fascinating book, Girard shows no worries about some obvious formal parallels with the scapegoating rituals of other societies and the Christian doctrine of the Atonement.

He does not feel threatened by these parallels because he also sees a fundamental difference between scapegoating and Christ’s victimhood. In a provocative essay, "Nietzsche and the Crucified" (in The Girard Reader ), he remarks: "Resentment is the interiorization of weakened vengeance. Nietzsche suffers so much from it that he mistakes it for the original and primary form of vengeance. He sees resentment not merely as the child of Christianity, which it certainly is, but also as its father, which it certainly is not."

Given the sordid history of Christian anti-Semitism, witch burning, heretic hunting, and the like, this gnomic passage might sound like special pleading on Girard’s part. But his retort to that more-than-obvious objection is subtle: Because of its doctrine of the Atonement, Christianity is uniquely placed to recognize these episodes as rank deviations from its true message; and thus it is from Christianity that society has learned to take the side of the victim. As he says in The Scapegoat :

The invention of science is not the reason that there are no longer witch-hunts, but the fact that there are no longer witch-hunts is the reason that science has been invented. The scientific spirit, like the spirit of enterprise in an economy, is a by-product of the profound action of the Gospel text. The modern Western world has forgotten [Christian] revelation in favor of its by-products, making them weapons and instruments of power; and now the process has turned against it. Believing itself a liberator, it discovers its role as a persecutor.

If you want to know why liberalism instinctively identifies with certain classes of favored victims but is so ruthless in its politics, there’s your answer. Crying crocodile tears over the genocide in Sudan is permitted provided we don’t do anything about it; and while we’re at it, let’s enjoy watching White House aides get their just deserts in court. Still, that’s better than approving the Islamist government of Sudan perpetrating the genocide. And that vestigial identification with the victim we owe to Christianity, however reluctant we are to act on our narcissistic pro-victim indulgences. As Michael Kirwin, author of a fine (if occasionally repetitious) monograph, Discovering Girard , says: When we see the scapegoating mechanism at work, this "makes us instinctive partisans for the victim. This history is the product not of an Enlightenment rationality, banishing the darkness of religious superstition, but of the evangelical impulse itself." Even as early as Desire, Deceit, and the Novel , Girard was on to this liberal ruse:

Promethean philosophy sees in the Christian religion only a humanism which is still too timid for complete self-assertion. The novelist, regardless of whether he is a Christian, sees in the so-called modern humanism a subterranean metaphysics which is incapable of recognizing its own nature.

In another book, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World , Girard drives home this point even more polemically, when he points out that utopianism (that ultimate project of imaginative mimetic desire, now become a full-blown monstrous Leviathan) issues directly out of modern humanism and is its true "subterranean metaphysic":

The more people think they are realizing the utopias dreamed up by their desire¯in other words, the more they embrace ideologies of liberation¯the more they will in fact be working to reinforce the competitive world that is stifling them . . . . All modern thought is falsified by a mystique of transgression, which it falls back into even when it is trying to escape.

Again, if you want to know why contemporary art keeps preening itself on its "daring transgressions," you’ll find the answer in Girard. Also, if you’re a puzzled secularist, wondering why religion is making such a comeback in the headlines, you need only go to Girard for the answer. As Kirwin rightly notes: "Girard has explicitly distanced himself from Marcel Gauchet’s claim that Christianity has brought about the end of religion in the world. Rather, he suggests our current humanism will be perceived as merely a short interval between two forms of religion." (I don’t think Girard has been at all taken off-guard by the resurgence of militant Islam.)

Of course, that still leaves open the question of what that "second form" of religion will look like in the future, to which Girard has only this quintessentially Christian answer to give: "What makes our hearts turn to stone is the discovery that, in one sense or another, we are all butchers pretending to be sacrificers . . . . One thing alone can put an end to this infernal ordeal, the certainty of being forgiven."

All well and good. I hope readers of this short panegyric will find Girard as helpful in their Holy Week meditations as I have. But I can’t help but feel that he has left one question hovering unaddressed: theology. As he said in a passing remark in the introduction to I See Satan Fall Like Lightning , "[This] present book means to be a defense of our Judaic and Christian tradition, an apology of Christianity rooted in what amounts to a Gospel-inspired breakthrough in the field of social science, not of theology."

Perhaps I say this because I’m a theologian by craft, but that concession seems to leave a lot of questions hanging¯above all this one: What is God doing in all this? After all, the Bible says that "God so loved the world that he sent his only Son" and that Christ "did not regard equality with God something to be grasped but emptied himself of his divinity, taking on the form of a man, indeed of a slave, being obedient unto death, even death on a cross." Both these verses use active verbs and thereby assert a direct divine involvement in the cross. Indeed, this is what the doctrine of the Atonement as understood by all the ancient fathers and medieval theologians means . (Anselm is especially clear on this point.)

Not surprisingly, that most Anselmian of contemporary theologians, the Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, took issue with Girard on just this point¯most directly in the fourth volume of his Theo-Drama , subtitled The Action (or "plot"). There he points out, tellingly, that in Violence and the Sacred the words God and Christ never appear (although Balthasar concedes God and Christ are present throughout the book implicitly). But, more to the point, Girard adopts a position on the Atonement, Balthasar claims, that is oddly redolent of the early Karl Barth:

Girard’s synthesis is a closed system, since it wants to be "purely scientific," jettisoning all "moribund metaphysics." All philosophy is secularized religion, and religion owes its existence to the covert scapegoat mechanism. There is therefore no such thing as a "natural" concept of God. This brings us back to the "theology" of the young Barth (and also to Barth’s later theology insofar as he regards the analogy of being "as the invention of the Anti-Christ"); for Girard, religion is the invention of Satan.

Yes, Girard is surely Catholic in his deepest instincts. He accepts Christ’s divinity and his birth from the Virgin, for example. But by accepting these doctrines, Balthasar points out, Girard has "explode[d] his allegedly pure scientism." Perhaps this is why we always hear the words power and violence in Girard but rarely the word justice . "Can it be proved scientifically," Balthasar asks, "that the justice for which men long is nothing but power in disguise?" (Odd how Girard echoes here not just the early Barth but also the mature Nietzsche.)

Here’s the real problem: By completely bracketing out the question of divine involvement in the event of the cross, Girard cannot make clear how Christ can bear the world’s sin "unless we suppose that men themselves load this sin onto him." But, for Girard, what are these "sins" that men pile on him? Without an adequate concept of justice, whether philosophical or theological, Girard cannot even speak of sin, properly defined:

Girard maintains a complete hiatus between naturalism and theology; they are not even linked by an ethics. In his view, the "omnipresence of violence" means that distinction between "good" and "evil" is illusory [another Nietzschean motif!]. Accordingly, he does not speak of "sin" but of "hostility."

All that said (and I think Balthasar’s objections hit their target), Girard is no doubt an immensely fertile thinker, even¯and perhaps especially¯for the theologian. A careful study of this prodigious mind opens up vistas that are hard to gainsay. Not least, he shows how superficial are those liberal objections to the Atonement, now heard so often, that the New Testament’s doctrine of the Atonement is but a Jewish or pagan projection of patriarchal child abuse onto the godhead. (Not for nothing do many feminists object to Girard, prompting one dissenter in their ranks, Jennifer L. Rike, to wonder aloud if their criticisms might not indicate a reluctance to confront the issue of violence in women as well as in men, as Kirwin rightly notes.)

The issue of sacrifice, no matter how primitive it might seem to us in our sanitized culture¯where we studiously ignore even so obvious a fact as how meat reaches our tables¯just won’t go away; in fact, it comes close to reaching the very core of the gospel. For making that clear in our obtuse age, we owe a debt of gratitude to Girard. As Balthasar says, "Girard’s system, with its clear, inherent contradictions, has brought us face to face with this very concrete question [of God’s involvement in the Atonement], and to that extent it has rendered us a service."

Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles