René Girard’s `Thriller’ About Culture, Violence And The Sacred – Fr. Michael Kirwan S.J.

July 3, 2012

Without publicizing it, Sancho Panza succeeded, over the years, in diverting his demon (whom he later called Don Quixote) away from himself. This he did through reading many novels of chivalry and crime in the evening and night hours, so that this demon set out unstoppably to do the craziest things. However, because of the lack of a preordained object (which should have been Sancho Panza himself), these harmed no one. A free man, Sancho Panza serenely followed Don Quixote on his ways, perhaps out of a certain sense of responsibility, and had of them a great and edifying entertainment until the end of his days.
(Franz Kafka, The Truth about Sancho Panza)

We have no choice but to go back and forth, from alpha to omega. And these constant movements, this coming and going, force us to construct matters in a convoluted, spiraling fashion, which eventually runs the risk of being unsettling and even incomprehensible for the reader … I think one needs to read [my work] like a thriller. All the elements are given at the beginning, but it is necessary to read to the very end for the meaning to become completely apparent.
(Rene Girard, Celui par qui le scandale arrive, pp. 87-8)


For over forty years the French American cultural critic, Rene Girard, has been writing a `thriller’ about culture, violence and the sacred. In a dozen books, and in numerous articles and interviews, he does indeed seem to shuffle obsessively back and forth, between a few key insights — like a detective or a spy-catcher, looking for the vital clues.

The question which possesses him is both ancient and still relevant: what are we to make of religion? This means asking about the origin and function of religion, and it also means getting to grips with a curious paradox. The paradox is this: in pre-modern societies, religion was accepted as the force which united a society and gave it cohesion (the Latin word is religare, `to bind’), but in the modern era religion is largely treated with anxiety and suspicion, because it is seen as a source of division and conflict.

For most people today, religion is safest when regarded as a matter of purely private concern. Professor Girard offers a way of understanding this paradox, though it is a theme which he feels can only be approached in an indirect way. To many who have tried to engage with his work, his admission that there is a necessary difficulty and obliqueness about his style will come as no surprise. Whether things are made any easier by reading Girard with the same gusto as we might read Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or a classic Agatha Christie novel, is another question.

This intriguing comparison should not mislead us into seeing Girard’s work as entertainment or literary escapism. Just the opposite is true: the urgency, the `thrill’ of Girard’s work is the possibility of gaining original and challenging insights into some of our contemporary world’s most agonizing problems. Can we learn something about the complex interrelation between secular modernity and the religiously inspired terrorism which conceived the September 11th atrocity? Or about patterns of provocation and resistance, entrenched and ritualized in long-term conflicts such as Northern Ireland or the struggle for Palestine? Or about the bitter polemics concerning the `sacredness’ of life and reproductive `rights’ in the United States? Or about the kinds of stigma which attach to people living with HIV/AIDS?

The excruciating questions about religion’s ambiguous relation to different forms of violence are not new at all, but in the last four years have literally exploded into our awareness with a new ferocity. In fact, Girard’s work has anticipated this very recent development by four decades — all the issues mentioned above have been addressed, either by Girard himself or by thinkers inspired by him, using the theoretical approach he has been developing.

In its literal sense, theoria means a `looking at’ evidence from a particular perspective. Or, to put this another way, a special kind of `imagination’, as this word is used by Archbishop Cauchon in the epilogue of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan (1924). Here is a conversation between two churchmen, one of whom, de Stogumber, is speaking of the traumatic effect upon him of witnessing St Joan’s martyrdom:

DE STOGUMBER: Well, you see, I did a very cruel thing once because I did not know what cruelty was like. I had not seen it, you know. That is the great thing: you must see it. And then you are redeemed and saved.

CAUCHON: Were not the sufferings of our Lord Christ enough for you?

DE STOGUMBER: No. Oh no: not. at all. I had seen them in pictures, and read of them in books, and been greatly moved by them, as I thought. But it was no use: it was not our Lord that redeemed me, but a young woman whom I saw actually burned to death. It was dreadful: oh, most dreadful. But it saved me. I have been a different man ever since, though a little astray in my wits sometimes.

CAUCHON: Must then a Christ perish in torment in every age to save those that have no imagination?

There is surely a touch of racism here: Cauchon is French, so he naturally feels superior to the less sophisticated, less `imaginative’ Englishman. And Cauchon does seem to be right, up to a point. When human beings behave cruelly and atrociously — `man’s inhumanity to man’ — their actions suggest something like a catastrophic failure of imagination, a sheer incapacity to put themselves in the place of the victim who is being abused, tortured, or made to disappear. In the worst cases, such as genocide, there is even a refusal to acknowledge that the victims are human beings at all. As for de Stogumber, there is pathos in what he says about the inadequacy of even the holiest representation compared to `the real thing’, and about his capacity for deceiving himself, even about his own experience: `I had been greatly moved — as I thought:

Girard is concerned with some of the same issues explored in Shaw’s play: the representation of martyrdom and suffering, the adequacy of the Christian revelation. But there is one important difference which we can point to straightaway. Shaw’s character Cauchon rather superciliously implies that this `imagination’, the correct and humane way of looking at things, is somehow an obvious or natural point of view. Christ has shown us the meaning and reality of suffering, and that should be enough. Only the asinine dullness of (other) people stands in the way of our creating a truly sympathetic and harmonious world. Those like Cauchon (and of course Shaw!), who happen to be blessed with intelligence and sensitivity, can only roll their eyes in exasperation with the de Stogumbers of the world.

Rene Girard’s tone is different, and more humble. His interest in this `perspective of the victim’ began as a close reading of important works of literature, from authors such as Proust, Dostoevsky and Shakespeare. Later he turned his attention to anthropological and mythical texts (especially the Oedipus and Dionysus cycles), and later still to close readings of the Jewish and Christian scriptures. These varied sources have convinced him that this power of empathetic imagining, far from being something that we should expect of human beings, much less take for granted, is actually something miraculous.

If we look at the history of the world and its civilizations, imaginative sympathy for the victim is in fact a very rare quality. In most cultures, the exact opposite applies, because the weak and vanquished have no rights at all. If and when this sympathy comes about, it does so as the result of a titanic struggle within a person and within a society. The struggle is nothing less than what de Stogumber describes as a kind of `conversion’. And it is not just for the dull and unimaginative; it is a conversion which even some of the most sensitive and creative spirits known to humanity have had to undergo.

In the spring of 1959, after 26 years as an agnostic, Girard’s work on five European novelists (Cervantes, Flaubert, Stendhal, Proust and Dostoevsky) had led him back to an interest in Christianity. To varying degrees, the life and work of each of these authors displayed a similar pattern: each author underwent a `conversion’ experience, which liberated him to go on and write his most important works. At the same time, Girard was impressed by a common concern in these writers, namely their understanding of the nature of desire as `mimetic’ or imitated (a concept we will explore in more detail below).

The more mature the works of each of these authors, the more explicit and developed is their understanding of the mimeticism of desire. But even this interesting discovery by Girard would have remained on a purely intellectual level, if a sudden health scare had not intervened and caused him to reassess his own beliefs. The questions were now real-life and not just `literary’. Girard returned to the Catholic Church he had left behind in his childhood, and `mimetic theory’ was born.

Put very simply, this is a theory which seeks to elucidate the relationships — one might say the complicity — between religion, culture and violence. It has become standard to describe the theory as having three parts: the mimetic nature of desire; the scapegoat mechanism as the way in which societies regulate the violence generated by mimetic competition; and the importance of the Gospel revelation as the way in which this scapegoat mechanism is exposed and rendered ineffective.

It would not be too schematic to suggest that the three phases correspond to three academic disciplines or approaches with which Girard has been involved: literature; cultural anthropology; and theology or biblical study. At the risk of being even more schematic, one could match off each of the three phases with one key book by Girard, namely Deceit, Desire and the Novel (French original, 1961), Violence and the Sacred (1972), and Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World (1978). It is the second of these books that caught and staggered the imagination, with Le Monde declaring that `the year 1972 should be marked with an asterisk in the annals of the humanities’. A philosopher, Paul Dumouchel, sums up:

Beginning from literary criticism and ending up with a general theory of culture, through an explanation of the role of religion in primitive societies and a radical reinterpretation of Christianity, Rene Girard has completely modified the landscape of the social sciences. Ethnology, history of religion, philosophy, psychoanalysis, psychology and literary criticism are explicitly mobilized in this enterprise. Theology, economics and political sciences, history and sociology — in short, all the social sciences, and those that used to be called moral sciences — are influenced by it.
(Dumouchel, 1988, p. 23)

There are three structural elements of mimetic theory:

1.    That our desires are to a large degree imitated or derived through `mimesis’;

2.   That societies have a tendency to channel the violence which arises as a result of mimetic interaction by means of a process of `scapegoating’, which underlies not just religious practices (such as sacrifice) but also secular institutions;

3.    And finally, that the revelation which occurs in the Jewish and Christian scriptures is the primary force responsible for showing us the truth about this hidden violence, and for enabling alternative ways of structuring human living.

There are some more abstract methodological reflections, as well as some of the principal objections to the theory (Chapter 4); and lastly to consider how the theory might develop in the future (Chapter 5). Each of the three expository chapters begins with a precis of its content.

In the remainder of this writing, I would like to address some particular features which help us understand why mimetic theory is so energizing for some people, and so easily and vigorously dismissed by others. I hope light can be shed here by establishing five pointers or characteristics which will orientate us in the delicate task of `discovering Girard’.

Firstly, as we have seen, Rene Girard admits to a difficulty within his own work, which he appears to suggest is unavoidable. The insight that is to be won is inseparable from a particular kind of intellectual struggle which the reader has to undertake — precisely like reading a challenging and convoluted espionage novel. Anyone diving headlong into Violence and the Sacred or Things Hidden can soon find themselves disoriented and discouraged by the sheer fertility of ideas and references. This difficulty should not be overstressed, however.

Michel Serres has remarked that Girard’s ideas can be understood by an 11-year-old child, and one gets the impression that this simplicity and accessibility is more off-putting for some academics than the alleged convolution of Girard’s thought. Unlike some other contemporary theorists, who view language with such a mistrust that they seem to be working against the very medium in which they communicate, Girard believes in the possibility of communicating his ideas lucidly, and attempts to do so with humor and style.

Secondly, and related to this first point, there needs to be a clear distinction between Rene Girard’s work, and `mimetic theory’ as such. The theory now has a life of its own, as other scholars take on its central insights and re-fashion them, even if they disagree with Girard on significant points. Since the early 1990s a Colloquium has been in existence for literary scholars, theologians, psychologists, lawyers, etc. `to explore, criticize, and develop the mimetic model of the relationship between violence and religion in the genesis and maintenance of culture’, so it has become very much a collaborative and interdisciplinary effort. One example of this should be mentioned here: Girard has in several contexts expressed his indebtedness to the work of the Swiss Jesuit theologian, the late Raymund Schwager, who made a highly significant theological appropriation of Girard’s anthropology. While my book Discovering Girard is above all an elucidation of the thought of Girard, it will also seek to be attentive to these important collaborative influences, including that of Schwager and his colleagues at the University of Innsbruck.

The third point is a stylistic one, which affects the way Girard’s writings should be approached. Girard has been described as the `hedgehog’ thinker who `sees one thing’, as opposed to the fox who `sees many things’. Sometimes his eagerness to give testimony to his insight has led to over-reaching generalizations, which have then to be retracted or qualified. A prime example would be the discussion of `sacrifice’, which at first he refused to acknowledge as a suitable term to be used in the context of Christianity. Discussion with Schwager brought about a change of opinion on this, as he has readily acknowledged on a number of occasions.This in itself is unproblematic, except that the `retractions’ often appear in sources which are less accessible than his major works.

As is customary with French intellectuals, he will often develop or nuance his theory in interviews (the 1986 Festschrift for Girard lists 29 published interviews, and there have been many more since then). So, anyone reading Things Hidden for an account of what Girard believes about sacrifice would be seriously misled, because of his change of emphasis since this book appeared in 1978.

For this reason, I have proposed a threefold division of Girard’s work:

  • Three `classic’ texts (Deceit, Desire and the Novel; Violence and the Sacred; Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World)
  • Girard’s other books, consisting mainly of literary or biblical ‘readings’ in which mimetic theory is put to work (such as the books on Job, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare)
  • Important but less accessible sources, such as interviews in journals, or in books not translated into English, where significant developments of Girard’s thought are set out. As it is the literature in this third category which will be least familiar to a general English reader, I try to make special reference to it.

Fourthly, and to schematize this presentation even further, it is important to see the three parts of the mimetic theory as a conversation with some of the `big guns’ of modern thought. Much of what Girard has written is dependent upon the insights of three authors: Hegel, and more crucially Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Girard’s judgment on the last two of these authors is the same: they come very close to the truth about mimetic desire, but do not quite make it over the finishing line, and in fact mislead us all the more because they are so near yet so far.

This is why Girard’s thinking may well have a familiar feel to it: his account of mimetic desire has clear affinities with Hegel’s desire for `recognition’ by the other (‘desiring the desire of another’) as this is set out in the Phenomenology of Spirit; his account of violence as the origin of culture (otherwise referred to as  ‘originary violence’) bears a strong resemblance to Freud’s description of the primeval murder in Totem and Taboo; and Girard’s endorsement of the Christian revelation is very precisely an acceptance of Nietzsche’s challenge, `Dionysus versus the Crucified’ — except that where Nietzsche opts for Dionysus, Girard chooses the Crucified. As a coda to each of the individual chapters — on mimetic desire, scapegoating, biblical revelation — I will offer a brief analysis of each of these three important philosophical themes, in so far as they have an impact on Girard’s project.

A fifth and final point returns us to the literary theme with which we began. Girard is not afraid to think on the large scale: he offers a general theory of religion, and is prepared to take issue with major figures like Freud and Nietzsche. Much of the critical resistance to Girard stems from a judgment that this kind of thinking is outdated and inappropriate. This charge will be examined more closely in Chapter 4 below, but in any case it can be said that Girard’s main interest, his passion, lies elsewhere. From his earliest training as decipherer of medieval manuscripts, Girard has always been, quite simply, a reader of texts. He enjoys writing and talking about the great novelists and playwrights (at least those whose writings promise fertile ground for his theory), and seems in the end to be more comfortable discussing Dostoevsky,Joyce, and above all Shakespeare, than doing just about anything else. And it is here that a much humbler type of activity is under way, since Girard’s approach to literary texts is not much more than the application of two common-sense principles.

  1. First, great literature refers us to the `real world’, and should be taken seriously as a commentary on the conflicts and passions of real people and real societies.
  2. Secondly, the most articulate critic of a writer will be the writer himself, looking back from a standpoint of mature and tranquil reflection, so that the later works of Shakespeare or Camus can and should be used as a critical guide to the earlier ones.

One has to ask whether such an approach amounts to a `theory’ at all. It draws us once again to the question as to what kind of a body of knowledge we have here, which startles us with its mixture of psychology, anthropology, biblical revelation, literary-critical judgment. Does Girard offer a `system’ which floodlights the whole of human reality with a searing white light, or is this not rather an anti-systematic array of carefully angled spotlights illuminating particular texts and situations — this novel or that play, a historical chronicle, a newspaper article, an Amnesty International report?

Where is the authentic contribution of Girard’s version of mimetic theory to be found: is it in the earthquake and whirlwind of his evangelical clarion call in the face of both modernity and post-modernity — his heroic `voyage to the end of the sciences of man’ — or should we listen out for the still small voice of his close and judicious literary readings?

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