Archive for the ‘Understanding Violence’ Category


Anthony Robbins

September 11, 2013

I would normally shy from self-help as a learning genre and seek answers in exploring the spiritual or in my connection with Jesus Christ through prayer. But I do have to acknowledge that Tony Robbins is an engaging speaker and will tell you things that will help you. “The defining factor [for success] is never resources; it’s resourcefulness.”

“Explore your web — the needs, the beliefs, the emotions that are controlling you … so there’s more of you to give … and so you can appreciate what’s driving other people. It’s the only way our world’s going to change.”


Buried Secrets 3 — Patrick Radden Keefe

July 25, 2013
“I’m totally open -- totally transparent,” Steinmetz told me when we sat down. “I never lie, as a principle.” He resents the idea that he is secretive, and believes that he simply protects his right to privacy. “I don’t consider myself a public person,” he said.

“I’m totally open — totally transparent,” Steinmetz told me when we sat down. “I never lie, as a principle.” He resents the idea that he is secretive, and believes that he simply protects his right to privacy. “I don’t consider myself a public person,” he said.


Guinea, in West Africa, is one of the world’s poorest countries. But the iron ore buried inside its Simandou range may be worth a hundred and forty billion dollars. How an Israeli billionaire wrested control of one of Africa’s biggest prizes is the topic of these three posts but even more, how capitalism and Christianity are to coexist in the world. There is no answer in the posts but the question is posed by the sheer blatancy of the story. This is reblogged from the New Yorker website where I read it first. It is a fascinating read. The last of three posts.


In September, 2011, Condé invited Steinmetz to Conakry, to clear the air. Steinmetz arrived at the palace, and they sat in Condé’s office, speaking in French. (Steinmetz is fluent.) “Why are you against us?” Steinmetz asked. “What have we done wrong?”

“I have no personal problem with you,” Condé replied. “But I have to defend the interests of Guinea.”

Steinmetz was not placated. Cramer told me that the company had to counter the allegations as forcefully as possible, because, for Steinmetz, “the perception of him being an honest person” was crucial. “In the diamond business, a handshake is more important than a contract,” Cramer explained.

B.S.G.R. expanded its campaign against Condé, and turned to a company called F.T.I., which is based in Palm Beach but has operations throughout the world. F.T.I. practices an aggressive form of public relations, seeking not only to suppress negative media coverage about a client but also to plant unfavorable stories about the client’s adversaries.

An F.T.I. spokesman blasted the Guinean government’s review process, calling it a “crude smear campaign.” The firm encouraged journalists to run negative stories about Condé; the President soon began to receive bad press about the delay in setting parliamentary elections and about several ostensibly dubious transactions made by people close to him, including his son, Alpha Mohamed Condé.

It is not hard to imagine that at least some of Condé’s associates have made side deals. “I practice the watch theory of politics,” a Western diplomat in Conakry told me. “When a minister is wearing a watch that costs more than my car, I start to worry.” During my interviews with officials in Conakry, I spotted more than one conspicuously expensive watch; in the Guinean fashion, the watches hung loose on the wrist, like bracelets.

Inside F.T.I., the decision to work on behalf of Steinmetz caused discord. In 2012, the company hired a new executive to oversee some of its accounts in Africa, and when he discovered that the firm represented Steinmetz and Dan Gertler — another Israeli diamond mogul, who has been involved in controversial deals in the Democratic Republic of Congo — the executive protested, then resigned. Mark Malloch-Brown, the former Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, is now F.T.I.’s chairman for the Middle East and Europe. He grew concerned that the company’s reputation might be damaged by its association with Steinmetz, and earlier this year he terminated the relationship. The leadership at B.S.G.R. was incensed.

As the company’s troubles accumulated, Steinmetz and his colleagues began to direct their feelings of grievance at George Soros, who had financed Condé’s initial investigation and provided seed money to D.L.A. Piper. Soros also bankrolled Revenue Watch, the organization that had been assisting Nava Touré in revising Guinea’s mining code, and supported Global Witness, an anti-corruption watchdog group that had been looking into Steinmetz’s activities in Guinea.

B.S.G.R. executives became convinced that Malloch-Brown had terminated the F.T.I. contract at the behest of an old friend of his: Soros. Cramer showed me an internal document, titled “The Spider,” which depicted Soros and Condé at the center of a web of influence, and which identified Soros as “a hater of Israel.” The firm sent Soros an angry letter, saying, “We can no longer remain silent letting you ceaselessly maul our company and maliciously attempt wrecking the investment.”

Earlier this year, lawyers for Steinmetz sent a letter to Malloch-Brown, demanding that he acknowledge his “personal vendetta” against Steinmetz, sign a formal apology that they had scripted, and “clear” B.S.G.R. of any wrongdoing in Africa. When Malloch-Brown refused, B.S.G.R. sued him, along with F.T.I. The lawsuit claimed that Soros nurtured a “personal obsession” with Steinmetz; it also alleged that Soros had perpetuated a shocking rumor — that Steinmetz tried to have President Condé killed, by backing the mortar attack on his residence in 2011. (B.S.G.R. maintains that this rumor is entirely unfounded; the lawsuit was recently settled out of court, with no admission of wrongdoing by Malloch-Brown or F.T.I.)

When I asked Soros about Steinmetz, he insisted that he holds no grudge against him. A major philanthropist, Soros has long been committed to promoting transparency and curtailing corruption, and he funds numerous organizations in these fields. It is true that some of these groups have converged, lately, on the activities of Steinmetz. This may mean that Soros is obsessed with Steinmetz; or it may mean that Steinmetz is corrupt.

Soros told me that he had never met Steinmetz. When I asked Cramer about this, he said, “That’s a lie.” In 2005, the two men had attended a dinner at Davos, and spoke to each other. Presented with this account, Soros said that he has gone to many dinners at Davos over the years. If he did meet Steinmetz, he had no memory of it.

One day in April, Frédéric Cilins — the Frenchman who allegedly orchestrated the bribes in Guinea — flew to Jacksonville for an urgent rendezvous. Mamadie Touré met him at the airport. They sat in a bar-and-grill in the departures area, and she ordered a chicken-salad sandwich. Cilins was not as composed as he usually is; he suffers from high blood pressure, and as they spoke, in hushed tones, he was extremely anxious. He had come to Florida on a mission. He told Mamadie Touré that she must destroy the documents — and that he was willing to pay her to do it.

She informed him that it might already be too late: she had recently been approached by the F.B.I. “They’re going to give me a subpoena,” she said. A grand jury had been convened, and the authorities would expect her to testify and turn over “all the documents.”

“Everything must be destroyed!” Cilins said. It was “very, very urgent.”

Cilins did not realize that he had fallen into a trap. Touré was wearing a wire. She had indeed been approached by the authorities and, aware of her own legal predicament, had agreed to cooperate with the F.B.I. As she subsequently explained in an interview with Guinean authorities, Cilins and his colleagues had “one single concern,” which was “to get these documents back at any price.”

As federal agents observed from around the restaurant and the wire recorded every word, she asked Cilins what she should do if she was summoned before the grand jury. “Of course, you have to lie!” he said, according to a court filing that quotes the exchange. Cilins then suggested that she should deny that she had ever been married to General Conté.

Touré and Cilins had spoken on the phone before meeting in Jacksonville, and at one point she had asked him if the plan to buy her silence had been authorized by an individual who is identified in court documents only as “CC-1,” for “co-conspirator.” Two sources close to the investigation told me that CC-1 is Beny Steinmetz.

“Of course,” Cilins had replied. That call, too, was recorded by the F.B.I.

At the airport, Cilins said that he had seen CC-1 — Steinmetz — the previous week. “I went specially to see him,” he explained. He lowered his voice to a whisper and said he had assured Steinmetz that Touré would “never betray” him, and would “never give away any documents whatsoever.”

Steinmetz’s response, according to Cilins, was “That’s good. . . . But I want you to destroy these documents.”

Touré told Cilins that the documents were in a vault, and assured him that she would destroy them. But he wasn’t satisfied, explaining that he had been instructed to watch the papers burn.

If she agreed to this plan, Cilins told her, she would be paid a million dollars. He had brought along an attestation — a legal document, in French — for her to sign. (Cilins’s comfort with formal legal agreements appears to have extended even into the realm of the coverup.) “I have never signed a single contract with B.S.G.R.,” the attestation read. “I have never received any money from B.S.G.R.” The arrangement included a possible bonus, Cilins said. If she signed the attestation, destroyed the documents, and lied to the grand jury, and if B.S.G.R. succeeded in holding on to its asset at Simandou — “if they’re still part of the project” — she would receive five million dollars.

Before Cilins could leave Jacksonville, he was arrested. This put B.S.G.R. in an awkward position. The transcript of the airport conversation looked very much like confirmation of bribery. Mamadie Touré’s documents were now in the possession of the Department of Justice. The government of Guinea had also obtained a videotape, shot during the opening of B.S.G.R.’s office in Conakry, in 2006, that seemed to further illustrate Touré’s close relationship with the company. It shows Cilins sitting next to Asher Avidan, who is addressing a crowd of Guineans. Touré then makes an entrance, resplendent in a white headdress and flowing robes, and flanked by members of the Presidential guard — implicitly conferring, by virtue of her presence, the approval of her dying husband.

When news of the arrest in Jacksonville broke, Vale released a statement saying that it was “deeply concerned about these allegations,” and committed to working with the relevant authorities. By this time, it seems safe to assume, the Brazilian company may have developed some buyer’s remorse over its iron-ore project in Guinea. When I visited the Conakry office of V.B.G. — the joint venture of Vale and the Beny Steinmetz Group — it was operating with a skeleton staff, and the project was clearly on hold, though the executives there would say nothing for the record.

“The question for Vale is: What were you thinking?” a diplomat in Conakry told me. “Did you really think you would be able to start a fifty-year project exporting iron ore in the remotest part of Guinea on the basis of a clearly dubious deal?” Having paid only half a billion dollars to B.S.G.R. so far, Vale has refused, for the moment, to make any further payments on the two billion dollars it still owes.

In mid-June, I flew to Nice, on the French Riviera, and proceeded in a taxi to Cap d’Antibes, a resort town favored by billionaires. I had spent several months trying to meet with Steinmetz, without success. I had visited the B.S.G.R. offices in London, and been told when I arrived that Steinmetz would meet me in Paris. By the time I reached Paris, he had left on his private plane for Israel. I volunteered to fly to Israel, but was told that he wouldn’t necessarily meet with me when I got there. After weeks of negotiation, I finally managed to speak to him by telephone, and after a brief conversation — in which he announced, flatly, “I don’t give interviews” — he agreed to see me.

We met at a hotel that was perched above the Mediterranean. Steinmetz was staying on one of his yachts — an Italian model. A sleek white multistory vessel, it floated regally in the distance. As I entered the lobby, I brushed past a slim, deeply tanned man wearing a blue linen shirt that was unbuttoned halfway to his navel. It was Steinmetz.

“Thank you for making the trip,” he said when I introduced myself. He seized my hand with the formidable grip of someone who puts a lot of stock in a handshake. We left the hotel and made our way up a steep hill, toward a suite of offices. Steinmetz moved almost at a trot; I had to scramble to keep up.

“I’m totally open — totally transparent,” Steinmetz told me when we sat down. “I never lie, as a principle.” He resents the idea that he is secretive, and believes that he simply protects his right to privacy. “I don’t consider myself a public person,” he said.

We talked for nearly three hours, until Steinmetz grew hoarse. He said that he felt blindsided by the controversy over Simandou. People who think that it is inherently outlandish to make billions of dollars on an investment of a hundred and sixty million simply don’t understand that the natural-resources business is a game of chance. “It’s roulette,” Steinmetz said; if you work hard, and take risks, you sometimes “get lucky.” As a small company that was comfortable with risk, B.S.G.R. made investments that the major mining companies wouldn’t. His company lost money in Tanzania. It lost money in Zambia. But in Guinea it won.

Steinmetz argued that the deal with Vale was not an effort by B.S.G.R. to sell off its asset but, rather, a partnership of the sort that is often necessary with ambitious, resource-intensive mining projects. “How did we flip?” he asked. “Why is bringing a partner in a flip?”

In our telephone call, Steinmetz had described the saga of Simandou as “a very African story,” and when we met I asked him how his company has dealt with the pervasiveness of corruption in Africa. “Very strict instructions and guidelines to people on the ground,” he said, insisting that, even in jurisdictions that are notorious for graft, the company does not pay bribes. “We manage our business like the most transparent public company,” he said.

To hear Steinmetz tell it, the former leaders of Guinea were undeserving of the widespread censure they had received. General Conté was “more honest” than President Condé. Captain Dadis, the junta leader who presided over the stadium massacre, was “an honest guy” who simply “wanted the best for his country.”

President Condé was the real villain in this story, Steinmetz said. His loathing for Condé was so palpable that, whenever he mentioned him, the tendons in his neck stood out.

Steinmetz claimed that the accusations against him were the product of a concerted smear campaign, initiated by Condé and financed by George Soros. “According to the Jewish religion, if you say somebody is guilty of something without proof, this is a very bad thing to do,” Steinmetz said. And the documents that were discussed in Jacksonville did not prove anything, he said — they were forgeries.

After failing to meet Steinmetz in Paris, I had met Asher Avidan, the head of B.S.G.R.’s Guinea operations, for a drink. When I presented him with a photograph of a signature that appeared on one of the contracts, he had acknowledged that it was identical to his own but dismissed it as “a simple Photoshop.” In Cap d’Antibes, Steinmetz elaborated on this theme, claiming that Mamadie Touré’s documents were fake, and that long before the F.B.I. investigation began she had tried to blackmail B.S.G.R., using the fraudulent contracts as leverage. “We never paid her,” Steinmetz insisted. “We never promised her anything.”

He pulled out color photocopies of the documents, and pointed at sequential notations that had supposedly been made on each contract by the notary public in Conakry. These notations, he said, ran in descending rather than ascending order — proof that they were inauthentic. I told him that I could imagine a scenario in which the documents were forgeries, and conceded that Touré was not exactly an unimpeachable witness.

But the transcript of the Jacksonville conservation did not look good for Steinmetz, and I told him that there was another factor that inclined me to consider the documents real: if they were fake, why would Frédéric Cilins fly across the Atlantic and offer Touré five million dollars to destroy them? I posed the question to Steinmetz multiple times, in multiple ways, but he replied only that he would not “speculate” about Cilins while his case was before the courts.

I pressed the matter. “Cilins told Mamadie Touré, ‘I’ve spoken to Beny. He told me to do this.’ Did you?”

“I didn’t ask him to destroy these fake documents or any other documents,” Steinmetz said.

Was Cilins lying about Steinmetz’s directive, then? Or was he somehow mistaken?

Steinmetz, growing impatient, reiterated that he did not want to speculate about Cilins. He did want to talk, however, about Condé’s responsibility for the deaths of protesters in Guinea. “The guy has blood on his hands,” Steinmetz said.

“Captain Dadis had blood on his hands, too,” I observed. “And you invited him to your daughter’s wedding.”

Steinmetz stared at me for a second, then said, “I’m not going to argue or go into depth about the politics of Guinea.”

Even as we were meeting in France, the leaders of the Group of Eight had assembled in Northern Ireland. A major goal was to assess the rules governing how executives from wealthy nations conduct themselves when they venture into the developing world. Before the summit, Prime Minister David Cameron, of the U.K., published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal: “We must lift the veil of secrecy that too often lets corrupt corporations and officials in some countries run rings around the law. The G-8 must move toward a global common standard for resource-extracting companies to report all payments to governments, and in turn for governments to report those revenues.”

In developing this ambitious agenda, Cameron had been closely advised by Paul Collier. “This is Africa’s big opportunity,” Collier told me. “But it’s a nonrenewable opportunity.” If companies are allowed to acquire natural resources without full transparency, the result will be plunder — or, as Collier puts it, “a tragedy of awesome proportions.” At Cameron’s invitation, President Condé travelled to London before the meeting. “If we are to fight against exploitation and bring about transparency, we are going to need the help of the G-8,” Condé said, in a speech at Chatham House, the foreign-policy think tank. “Mining companies are mostly in the West.”

Steinmetz was appalled by the lionization of Guinea’s leader. The current government, he said, is a “sophisticated” version of a corrupt regime, because “they are pretending to be honest.” He repeated a claim that some of his colleagues had made — that Condé had stolen the 2010 election by promising to strip B.S.G.R. of its Simandou license and transfer the rights to his backers.

“He sold our assets to South African interests who provided him with financial support to manipulate the election,” he said. Even before Condé entered office, he had decided “that he was going to take Simandou from us.” In Steinmetz’s telling, Condé is like the title character in “Nostromo” — the “perfectly incorruptible” man who, through his own vanity and the spell of the mine, finally succumbs to corruption.

“We are the victims,” Steinmetz said. “We have done only good things for Guinea, and what we’re getting is spit in the face.” With that, he wished me well. Dusk was falling, and I descended the hill while Steinmetz headed back to his yacht for dinner.

Shortly after Frédéric Cilins was arrested in Florida, I went to Conakry and visited President Condé at the Dim Sum Palace. He wore a white suit with short sleeves — a common style in Guinea — and looked tired. The violent opposition rallies showed no sign of stopping, and it was not entirely clear that Condé would hold on to power long enough to fulfill his reform agenda. Having failed to hold parliamentary elections, he was also at risk of losing his credibility as a genuinely democratic leader.

Alexis Arieff, a Guinea expert at the Congressional Research Service, told me, “He came in with a real sense of having fought for the Presidency, and deserving a free hand in how he runs the country — ‘This is mine, I went to prison for this, I suffered for this.’ ” A European Union report recently blamed “Condé’s governing style” for the escalating tension in the country. Condé, for his part, felt that Steinmetz had played a role in the unrest; at Chatham House, he intimated that B.S.G.R. is funding the opposition movement. (Steinmetz told me that this was false.)

When I asked Condé if he felt vindicated when the U.S. Justice Department began investigating the Simandou deal, he refused to take the bait. It is ultimately up to him to decide — on the basis of counsel from the mining ministry — whether or not to strip B.S.G.R. and Vale of the Simandou license, and he did not want to say anything that might prejudice this process. Instead, he smiled and said, “The actions of the United States can help me advance in the struggle against corruption in Guinea.”

Cilins’s bail was set at fifteen million dollars, because of the danger that he might flee the U.S. In May, he pleaded not guilty to obstruction-of-justice charges, and it’s possible that he will decide to coöperate with authorities; in his court filings, he has not denied offering Mamadie Touré money to destroy the documents, or doing so at the behest of Steinmetz. B.S.G.R. continues to maintain that it never paid any money to Touré or signed any contracts with her. But Asher Avidan said something interesting in our conversation at the Paris bar. He repeated B.S.G.R.’s claim that Touré had not been married to General Conté when he signed over the rights to Simandou. “She was not his wife,” Avidan said. “Not even sleeping with him.” Then he added, “She is a lobbyist. Like a thousand others.”

It suddenly occurred to me why B.S.G.R. officials might be so committed to the notion that Touré had not been married to the old General. If she was not related to him, then she was merely another local influence peddler — a lobbyist. And it might be argued that, as a legal matter, paying a lobbyist is different from paying a bribe. If B.S.G.R. was ever forced to admit that it had paid Mamadie Touré, here, in embryo, was a defense.

Although the U.S. Justice Department will not comment on the case, Cilins is likely not the ultimate target of its investigation. When the grand jury in Manhattan began issuing subpoenas, earlier this year, it requested information not just on “the Simandou concession” but on Steinmetz himself. The F.B.I. recently dispatched two teams of investigators to Conakry.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the Serious Fraud Office, in London, has also opened an investigation into B.S.G.R.’s activities. Because both Israel and France have been reluctant to extradite their citizens in the past, Steinmetz might never see trial in the U.S., even in the event that he was indicted. Still, Scott Horton told me, “Steinmetz’s future travel options may be limited.”

When we spoke in Cap d’Antibes, Steinmetz did not seem worried. “We have zero to hide,” he said.

Steven Fox, the investigator, told me that Steinmetz and his colleagues were “very improvisational,” adding, “They can think creatively and move fast in an uncertain situation. That’s what accounted for their success, in a lot of ways. But it will probably also account for their downfall.”

For the moment, the iron ore remains locked inside the Simandou Mountains, and the site is still cut off from the rest of Guinea. “Everyone wants Simandou,” Condé told me as we sat in the palace. “It became the obsession, literally, of everybody.”

He continued to talk, in his professorial way, but a note of bewilderment crept into his voice. “Looking at the iron ore, the grade is world-class. The quality is world-class. Yet, in so many years, we haven’t been able to benefit from any of these tremendous resources.” President Condé paused. Then he murmured something, almost to himself: “How can we be so rich and yet so poor?”


Buried Secrets 2 — Patrick Radden Keefe

July 24, 2013

By its nature, corruption is covert; payoffs are designed to be difficult to detect. The international financial system has evolved to accommodate a wide array of illicit activities, and shell companies and banking havens make it easy to camouflage transfers, payment orders, and copies of checks. Paul Collier argues that there are often three parties to a corrupt deal: the briber, the bribed, and the lawyers and financial facilitators who enable the secret transaction. The result, he says, is “a web of corporate opacity” that is spun largely by wealthy professionals in financial capitals like London and New York. A recent study found that the easiest country in which to establish an untraceable shell company is not a tropical banking haven but the United States.

By its nature, corruption is covert; payoffs are designed to be difficult to detect. The international financial system has evolved to accommodate a wide array of illicit activities, and shell companies and banking havens make it easy to camouflage transfers, payment orders, and copies of checks. Paul Collier argues that there are often three parties to a corrupt deal: the briber, the bribed, and the lawyers and financial facilitators who enable the secret transaction. The result, he says, is “a web of corporate opacity” that is spun largely by wealthy professionals in financial capitals like London and New York. A recent study found that the easiest country in which to establish an untraceable shell company is not a tropical banking haven but the United States.


Guinea, in West Africa, is one of the world’s poorest countries. But the iron ore buried inside its Simandou range may be worth a hundred and forty billion dollars. How an Israeli billionaire wrested control of one of Africa’s biggest prizes is the topic of these next three posts but even more, how capitalism and Christianity are to coexist in the world. There is no answer in the posts but the question is posed by the blatancy of the story. This is reblogged from the New Yorker website where I read it first. It is a fascinating read. The second of three posts.


George Soros suggested to the President of Guinea that he hire Scott Horton, an attorney at the U.S. law firm D.L.A. Piper; Horton has conducted dozens of corruption investigations around the world….

In the spring of 2011, Horton began to investigate the Simandou deal. For assistance, he turned to a man named Steven Fox, who runs a risk-assessment company, in New York, called Veracity Worldwide. When corporations want to do business in countries that suffer from political instability and corruption, Veracity can help them assess if such an investment would be prudent — and viable without breaking the law.

Fox is in his forties, with the bearing of a man who feels most comfortable in a suit. He speaks softly, enunciating each syllable. At a recent meeting at his office, in midtown Manhattan, he told me that until 2005 he had worked for the State Department, and had spent time as a foreign-service officer in Africa. According to Eamon Javers’s “Broker, Trader, Lawyer, Spy,” a 2011 book about the private-intelligence industry, Fox actually worked for the C.I.A. As we sat down to talk, I noted a bookshelf that was heavy on Le Carré and Furst.

When Guinean government officials began looking into the Simandou contract, Fox told me, they had no evidence of malfeasance. “They only heard the rumors on the street,” he said. Fox had met Steinmetz once, in London, and had found him quiet and unassuming, but his understanding was that Steinmetz enlisted employees to pave the way for him — “pointy-end-of-the-spear forward-reconnaissance people.” Fox decided that his first essential task was to identify Steinmetz’s man in Guinea.

He soon pinpointed a candidate: Frédéric Cilins, a tanned, gregarious Frenchman, with thinning hair, who lived on the Riviera, near Cannes, but spent a lot of time in Africa. He had served as a scout for B.S.G.R. in Guinea. When I asked Fox how he had learned of Cilins, his response was enigmatic: “We knew a circle of people who knew a circle of people.”

Fox said of Cilins, “He’s an operator — that’s the best way to describe him.” His role at B.S.G.R. was to accumulate relationships and identify relevant power structures. In that respect, Fox realized, Cilins was not so different from him: they both excelled at parachuting into foreign countries and figuring out what “makes them tick.” (Cilins declined to comment for this article.)

One day in the fall of 2011, Fox flew to Paris and met with Cilins. They had been introduced by a mutual acquaintance; as Cilins understood it, Fox was working on behalf of a client who wanted to know how B.S.G.R. had secured the Simandou deal. Fox told me that, unlike some corporate-espionage outfits (and spies), Veracity does not “pretext” — employ ruses to approach a potential source. Even so, he did not acknowledge that his client was the new government of Guinea.

Fox and Cilins met in a conference room, then went to a restaurant for lunch. Cilins was affable and surprisingly candid. While Fox took notes, Cilins explained that he first visited Guinea in 2005, after a B.S.G.R. executive in Johannesburg had informed him that the company wanted to “shoot for the moon” — a phrase that Cilins took to indicate Simandou. Cilins told Fox that he spent the next six months in Conakry, staying at the Novotel, a seaside property that is popular with mining executives. He became friendly with the staff in the business center, and persuaded them to hand him copies of all incoming and outgoing faxes. In this manner, he learned details about the Conté regime’s frustration with Rio Tinto.

Each time that Cilins flew from France to Guinea, he brought gifts — MP3 players, cell phones, perfumes — which he disbursed among his contacts. They came to think of him as “Father Christmas,” he told Fox. One minister informed him that the only person who mattered in the country was General Conté — and that the way to Conté was through his four wives. (Plural marriage is tolerated in Guinea, a predominantly Muslim country.)

After further inquiries, Cilins focused on the fourth and youngest wife, Mamadie Touré — a stout, almond-eyed woman who was still in her twenties. “She was young, and she was considered very beautiful,” Fox told me. “She’s not a rocket scientist, but she had a certain dynamism. Most important, she had the ear of the President.”

Cilins hired Touré’s brother to help promote the company’s interests in Guinea, then secured an introduction to her. Not long afterward, Cilins and several associates from the company obtained an audience with the President. At this meeting, Cilins told Fox, they gave General Conté a watch that was inlaid with Steinmetz diamonds. At another meeting, they presented the Minister of Mines with a model of a Formula 1 race car that was similarly encrusted with Steinmetz bling. Soon afterward, Touré’s brother was named the head of public relations for B.S.G.R.-Guinea.

Fox shrugged when asked why Cilins had confided in him. “There’s an element of arrogance,” he said. “Or of complete naïveté, of believing they did what they did and there was no big deal.” Cilins seemed proud of his work in Conakry. He told Fox that, in his view, the history of Guinea would henceforth be thought of as dividing into two periods — “before and after B.S.G.R.”

To Cilins, giving gifts may have seemed simply like the cost of doing business in places like Guinea. Many countries aggressively prosecute domestic corruption but are much more permissive when it comes to bribes paid abroad. Until fairly recently, French firms that gave bribes in order to secure business in foreign countries could declare them as deductible business expenses.

In recent years, however, international norms have begun changing. The U.S. Justice Department has dramatically increased its enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act; the U.K. has passed its own stringent Bribery Act; and the Organization for Economic Coöperation and Development has instituted a convention against bribery, and several dozen countries — including Israel — have signed it.

Major companies, like Siemens and K.B.R., have settled corruption investigations by paying hundreds of millions of dollars in fines. (Rio Tinto, too, has contended with corruption; in 2010, four representatives of the company were convicted of accepting bribes in China.) Many multinational corporations have responded to the increased vigilance about graft by establishing robust internal-compliance departments that monitor employee behavior. B.S.G.R. says that it conducts itself ethically wherever it operates, and a company representative pointed out to me that neither Steinmetz nor his organization has ever been implicated in bribery.

But B.S.G.R. does not have a compliance department, and it does not have a single employee whose chief responsibility is to monitor company behavior abroad.

Shortly after General Conté died, Mamadie Touré fled Guinea. Fox and his colleagues discovered that she was living in Jacksonville, Florida. The World Bank estimates that forty per cent of the private wealth in Africa is held outside the continent. In a recent civil-forfeiture proceeding against the son of the dictator of Equatorial Guinea, the Justice Department documented some of his possessions: a twelve-acre estate in Malibu, a Gulfstream jet, seven Rolls-Royces, eight Ferraris, and a white glove once worn by Michael Jackson. Jacksonville isn’t Malibu. But, when Fox and his team investigated, they discovered that Touré had purchased a McMansion on a canal there, along with a series of smaller properties in the vicinity.

When you disembark from a plane in Conakry, the corruption hits you almost as quickly as the heat. At the airport, a uniformed officer will stop you, raising no specific objections but making it clear, with his body, that your exit from the situation will be transactional. Out on the rubble-strewn streets, which are perfumed by the garbage that clogs the city’s open sewers, the military presence is less conspicuous than in the past — security-sector reform has been a priority for Condé — but at night insouciant young soldiers position themselves at intersections, holding submachine guns; they lean into passing cars and come away with cash.

In 1961, Frantz Fanon wrote of post-colonial West Africa, “Concessions are snatched up by foreigners; scandals are numerous, ministers grow rich, their wives doll themselves up, the members of parliament feather their nests and there is not a soul down to the simple policeman or the customs officer who does not join in the great procession of corruption.” This description no longer applies to the region as a whole — Ghana, for example, is a prospering democracy — but in Guinea little has changed.

One afternoon, I went to a whitewashed building in Conakry’s administrative quarter to meet Nava Touré, a former professor of engineering whom Condé had entrusted with running the technical committee on mines. Touré (no relation to Mamadie Touré, the General’s fourth wife) has a round face, a melodious voice, and a decorous, almost ethereal, manner. During the months that I spent reporting this story, Nava Touré was one of the few officials in the government about whom I never heard even a rumor of corruption. He had been charged with establishing a new mining code that would create a more equitable balance between the interests of the mining companies and the people of Guinea. In addition, he had been asked to review all existing mining contracts and recommend whether any of them should be renegotiated or rescinded. But when he turned his focus on Simandou he had no staff of trained inspectors, so he relied on D.L.A. Piper, the law firm, and Steven Fox, the investigator. “It was outsourced,” Touré told me.

Last October, he sent an incendiary letter to representatives of the joint venture between Vale and B.S.G.R., identifying “possible irregularities” in the Simandou concession. It called Frédéric Cilins “a secret proxy” for Steinmetz, raised suspicions about Cilins’s alliance with Mamadie Touré, and itemized gifts such as the diamond watch and the bejewelled model race car. The letter accused B.S.G.R. of planning all along to flip the rights to Simandou, in order “to extract immediate and substantial profits.”

Nava Touré’s accusations also implicated a man he knew: Mahmoud Thiam, who had served as the Minister of Mines under the junta that ruled Guinea after General Conté’s death. Touré had been one of Thiam’s advisers at the time. Thiam came to the job, in early 2009, with stellar credentials. After obtaining an economics degree from Cornell, he had worked as a banker at Merrill Lynch and U.B.S.

Thiam was handsome, very polished, and a champion of Beny Steinmetz. In 2010, in an interview on “Closing Bell with Maria Bartiromo,” on CNBC, Thiam praised the “very aggressive junior company, B.S.G.R., that came and developed that permit to the point where it made it attractive to a big player like Vale.” Simandou, Thiam said, would “catapult the country into the No. 3 iron-ore exporter in the world.” He had attended the lavish wedding of Steinmetz’s daughter in Israel, as a representative of the junta.

According to Nava Touré’s letter, Thiam not only took payoffs from B.S.G.R.; he effectively worked as the company’s paymaster, meeting a corporate jet at Conakry airport, unloading suitcases full of cash, and then distributing bribes to the junta’s leaders. Steven Fox, the American investigator, had discovered that while Thiam was minister he took to driving around Conakry in a Lamborghini. Before he left office, in 2011, he bought an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, for $1.5 million, and an estate in Dutchess County, for $3.75 million. He paid for both properties with cash.

Thiam currently lives in the U.S., running an investment-advisory firm. This spring, I visited him at his elegant office, on Madison Avenue. He denied any wrongdoing. The Manhattan apartment, he explained, was paid for with money that he had made in banking. And he had bought the country estate on behalf of a Mozambican friend who was looking to invest in the U.S. (Thiam refused to name the friend.) The Lamborghini was not a sports car but a four-wheel-drive vehicle. “You can’t serve as mining minister without being accused of corruption,” he told me. He regards the review of the B.S.G.R. contract as little more than a witch hunt, but added that he still maintains the highest respect for Nava Touré.

During our meeting in the whitewashed building, I asked Touré how it made him feel to learn of such allegations about former colleagues. He paused. “The feeling of shame,” he said at last. “Because, finally, what they have got personally — let’s say ten million U.S. dollars, twelve million U.S. dollars — what does that amount to? Compared with the lives of the whole country?” The lights in the room suddenly shut off, and the air-conditioner powered down. He didn’t seem to notice. “I don’t think that it is tolerable or acceptable from the investors,” he continued. “But I’m more shocked by the attitude and the behavior of the national decision-makers.”

When B.S.G.R. received Touré’s letter, it responded aggressively, dismissing the investigation as an effort by President Condé to expropriate its asset. The company insisted that it had never given a watch to General Conté; though the story about the miniature Formula 1 car was true, the model had a value of only a thousand dollars, and B.S.G.R. routinely gave such “gifts to companies around the world.” Frédéric Cilins had worked for the company, but “B.S.G.R. never told Mr. Cilins that it ‘asked for the moon.’ ” Cilins may have distributed gifts among his contacts in Conakry, but the company denied any knowledge of them. Oddly, B.S.G.R.’s written response insisted, more than once, that Mamadie Touré had not actually been the wife of General Conté.

B.S.G.R. faulted the Condé administration for failing to name the sources of the allegations, and noted that any payments made to public officials “would be easily identified by bank transfers, payment orders, copies of checks, etc.” Again and again, B.S.G.R. returned to “the absence of the smallest amount of supporting proof.”

But how do you prove corruption? By its nature, corruption is covert; payoffs are designed to be difficult to detect. The international financial system has evolved to accommodate a wide array of illicit activities, and shell companies and banking havens make it easy to camouflage transfers, payment orders, and copies of checks. Paul Collier argues that there are often three parties to a corrupt deal: the briber, the bribed, and the lawyers and financial facilitators who enable the secret transaction. The result, he says, is “a web of corporate opacity” that is spun largely by wealthy professionals in financial capitals like London and New York. A recent study found that the easiest country in which to establish an untraceable shell company is not a tropical banking haven but the United States.

In the spring of 2012, one of President Condé’s ministers took a trip to Paris. At the Hilton Arc de Triomphe, he was approached by a Gabonese businessman. According to an affidavit by the minister, the Gabonese man said that he had been in contact with Mamadie Touré, and that she had provided him with documents that would be interesting to President Condé. “Madame Touré was angry with Mr. Beny Steinmetz,” the Gabonese man said. She believed that “she had been taken advantage of.”

The minister was astonished by the documents. They appeared to be a series of legal contracts, complete with signatures and official seals, between officers of B.S.G.R. and Mamadie Touré. The documents contained the signature of Asher Avidan, the head of the company’s Guinea operations. Avidan was a former member of Israel’s internal security service, Shin Bet.

The contracts had been signed in Conakry in February, 2008 — five months before General Conté took the Simandou concession away from Rio Tinto, and ten months before the northern half of that concession was given to Beny Steinmetz. The agreements stipulated that Touré would be granted a five-per-cent stake in the northern “blocks” of Simandou, in addition to “two (2) million” dollars, which would be paid through a shell company. In exchange, she committed “to do all that is necessary” to help B.S.G.R. “obtain from the authorities the signature for the obtaining of said blocks.”

An American lawyer involved in the case told me, “I’ve been involved in corporate corruption work for thirty years, and I’ve never seen anything like this. A contract for bribery that’s actually signed by a senior executive? Corporate seals?” The Gabonese man intimated that the documents were potentially worth millions of dollars. He was not going to part with such a valuable commodity for free. He was associated with an investment company, Palladino, which had loaned the Condé government twenty-five million dollars to set up a mining project. Now, in return for the documents, the Gabonese man wanted his own stake in Simandou. (Palladino acknowledges that the Paris meeting took place, but denies that the Gabonese businessman made any such demands.)

President Condé refused to make a quid-pro-quo deal for the documents, but at least the Guinean government knew of their existence. If they were genuine, they could be that rare thing: proof of corruption.

When I asked Steven Fox, the investigator, why any company would sign such a contract, he suggested that Touré may have insisted upon it. “There’s a whole Francophone-African culture of these very legalistic documents that formalize certain arrangements,” he explained. And Touré would have been concerned about securing her position.

“Her sole value was that she was the wife of the President,” he said. When the contract was signed, the General’s health was in rapid decline, and “she knew that the minute he closed his eyes she would have absolutely nothing.” At first glance, it seemed odd that she had entrusted copies of the documents to the Gabonese man. But several people who have spoken to Touré suggested to me that she had grown to fear Steinmetz. The contracts — which, if exposed, could potentially imperil his position in Guinea — amounted to a form of insurance policy.

By this time, President Condé had come to fear for his safety as well. In 2011, he had narrowly survived an assassination attempt, in which soldiers bombarded his residence in Conakry with machine-gun fire and rockets. He pressed on with his efforts to reform Guinea, but his situation grew more precarious. His Treasury chief, whom Condé had charged with investigating embezzlement by government officials, was driving home from work one night when her car was cut off by another vehicle; she was shot and killed.

Bernard Kouchner said of Condé, “He is really isolated.” After the attack on his residence, Condé moved into the Presidential palace, a cavernous fortress, constructed by Chinese contractors, which one diplomat referred to as “the Dim Sum Palace.” Condé is married, but at night he often ate alone, occasionally watching a soccer game to distract him from his worries. He did not discuss the matter with me, but several people who have spoken with Condé about it told me that he believes that Steinmetz is eavesdropping on his communications. (B.S.G.R. denies this.)

Condé was also contending with an unstable capital. The violence that erupted after he delayed parliamentary elections did not abate. Rival factions fought one another in the street, and protesters threw rocks at police. In several instances, Condé’s security forces fired on protesters. More than two dozen people died. To some, it looked as if Condé might replicate the sad pattern of many post-colonial African leaders who have started as reformers and then drifted into tyranny. In September, 2011, Amnesty International declared that “President Alpha Condé is resorting to exactly the same brutal methods as his predecessors.”

Ehud Olmert told me that Steinmetz “is the last guy you want as an enemy.” B.S.G.R. — sensing, perhaps, that Condé was politically vulnerable — went on the attack, labeling his government a “discredited regime” that was trying to “illegally seize” the Simandou deposit. The company also pointed out that Rio Tinto had reacquired the rights to the southern half of Simandou, eventually paying the Condé government seven hundred million dollars to secure the deal.

But was this corruption at work? Rio Tinto’s payment was, in part, a reflection of a new mining code, which levied higher taxes on international companies exporting Guinean resources. The company also granted the government up to a thirty-five-per-cent stake in the mine. In this respect, the Condé administration was trying to bring mining into line with the more equitable deals made by the oil-and-gas industry. (Dag Cramer, the executive who oversees Steinmetz’s business interests, told me, “There’s a reason Arab families own half of London today. The bulk of the profits from oil are being extracted by the host countries. This hasn’t happened yet in mining.”)

The Rio Tinto deal was also transparent: the contract was published, in its entirety, on the Internet. “This is something that no other Guinean government would have done, at any point in the country’s history,” Patrick Heller, who works at Revenue Watch, told me. “It’s a huge sign of progress.” Moreover, the funds went not into numbered bank accounts but directly into the Guinean treasury.

Nevertheless, several B.S.G.R. employees suggested to me that the seven hundred million dollars amounted to a colossal bribe. They further speculated that Condé had “stolen” the election in 2010, by collaborating with wealthy South African backers to rig the results. In conversations with me, friends of Steinmetz’s likened Condé to Robert Mugabe and to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. (Both the Carter Center and the European Union, which monitored the election, found that, despite some procedural irregularities, Condé’s victory was “credible” and “fair.”)


Buried Secrets 1 — Patrick Radden Keefe

July 23, 2013
Simandou lies four hundred miles from the coast, in jungle so impassable that the first drill rigs had to be transported to the mountaintops with helicopters. The site has barely been developed -- no ore has been excavated. Shipping it to China and other markets will require not only the construction of a mine but the building of a railroad line sturdy enough to support freight cars laden with ore. It will also be necessary to have access to a deepwater port, which Guinea lacks.

Simandou lies four hundred miles from the coast, in jungle so impassable that the first drill rigs had to be transported to the mountaintops with helicopters. The site has barely been developed — no ore has been excavated. Shipping it to China and other markets will require not only the construction of a mine but the building of a railroad line sturdy enough to support freight cars laden with ore. It will also be necessary to have access to a deepwater port, which Guinea lacks.


Guinea, in West Africa, is one of the world’s poorest countries. But the iron ore buried inside its Simandou range may be worth a hundred and forty billion dollars. How an Israeli billionaire wrested control of one of Africa’s biggest prizes is the topic of these next three posts but even more, how capitalism and Christianity are to coexist in the world. There is no answer in the posts but the question is posed by the blatancy of the story. This is reblogged from the New Yorker website where I read it first. It is a fascinating read.


One of the world’s largest known deposits of untapped iron ore is buried inside a great, forested mountain range in the tiny West African republic of Guinea. In the country’s southeast highlands, far from any city or major roads, the Simandou Mountains stretch for seventy miles, looming over the jungle floor like a giant dinosaur spine. Some of the peaks have nicknames that were bestowed by geologists and miners who have worked in the area; one is Iron Maiden, another Metallica.

Iron ore is the raw material that, once smelted, becomes steel, and the ore at Simandou is unusually rich, meaning that it can be fed into blast furnaces with minimal processing. During the past decade, as glittering mega-cities rose across China, the global price of iron soared, and investors began seeking new sources of ore. The red earth that dusts the lush vegetation around Simandou and marbles the mountain rock is worth a fortune.

Mining iron ore is complicated and requires a huge amount of capital. Simandou lies four hundred miles from the coast, in jungle so impassable that the first drill rigs had to be transported to the mountaintops with helicopters. The site has barely been developed — no ore has been excavated. Shipping it to China and other markets will require not only the construction of a mine but the building of a railroad line sturdy enough to support freight cars laden with ore. It will also be necessary to have access to a deepwater port, which Guinea lacks.

Guinea is one of the poorest countries on the planet. There is little industry and scarce electricity, and there are few navigable roads. Public institutions hardly function. More than half the population can’t read. “The level of development is equivalent to Liberia or Sierra Leone,” a government adviser in Conakry, Guinea’s ramshackle seaside capital, told me recently. “But in Guinea we haven’t had a civil war.”

This dire state of affairs was not inevitable, for the country has a bounty of natural resources. In addition to the iron ore in the Simandou range, Guinea has one of the world’s largest reserves of bauxite — the ore that, twice refined, makes aluminum — and significant quantities of diamonds, gold, uranium, and, off the coast, oil.

As wealthy countries confront the prospect of rapidly depleting natural resources, they are turning, increasingly, to Africa, where oil and minerals worth trillions of dollars remain trapped in the ground. By one estimate, the continent holds thirty per cent of the world’s mineral reserves. Paul Collier, who runs the Center for the Study of African Economies, at Oxford, has suggested that “a new scramble for Africa” is under way. Bilateral trade between China and Africa, which in 2000 stood at ten billion dollars, is projected to top two hundred billion dollars this year. The U.S. now imports more oil from Africa than from the Persian Gulf.

The Western world has always thought of Africa as a continent to take things from, whether it was diamonds, rubber, or slaves. This outlook was inscribed into the very names of Guinea’s neighbor Côte d’Ivoire and of Ghana, which was known to its British masters as the Gold Coast. During the Victorian period, the exploitation of resources was especially brutal; King Leopold II, of Belgium, was so rapacious in his pursuit of rubber that ten million people in the Congo Free State died as a result.

The new international stampede for African resources could become another grim story, or it could present an unprecedented opportunity for economic development. Collier, who several years ago wrote a best-seller about global poverty, “The Bottom Billion,” believes that, for countries like Guinea, the extraction of natural resources, rather than foreign aid, offers the greatest chance of economic progress.

Simandou alone could potentially generate a hundred and forty billion dollars in revenue over the next quarter century, more than doubling Guinea’s gross domestic product. “The money involved will dwarf everything else,” Collier told me. Like the silver mine in Joseph Conrad’s novel “Nostromo,” the Simandou deposit holds the promise of supplying what Guinea needs most: “law, good faith, order, security.”

As with deepwater oil drilling or with missions to the moon, the export of iron ore requires so much investment and expertise that the business is limited to a few major players. In 1997, the exclusive rights to explore and develop Simandou were given to the Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto, which is one of the world’s biggest iron-ore producers. In early 2008, Tom Albanese, the company’s chief executive, boasted to shareholders that Simandou was, “without doubt, the top undeveloped tier-one iron-ore asset in the world.” But shortly afterward the government of Guinea declared that Rio Tinto was developing the mine too slowly, citing progress benchmarks that had been missed, and implying that the company was simply hoarding the Simandou deposit — keeping it from competitors while focusing on mines elsewhere.

In July, 2008, Rio Tinto was stripped of its license. Guinean officials then granted exploration permits for half of the deposit to a much smaller company: Beny Steinmetz Group Resources, or B.S.G.R. Beny Steinmetz is, by some estimates, the richest man in Israel; according to Bloomberg, his personal fortune amounts to some nine billion dollars.

Steinmetz, who made his name in the diamond trade, hardly ever speaks to the press, and the corporate structures of his various enterprises are so convoluted that it is difficult to assess the extent of his holdings. The Simandou contract was a surprising addition to Steinmetz’s portfolio, because B.S.G.R. had no experience exporting iron ore. A mining executive in Guinea told me, “Diamonds you can carry away from the mine in your pocket. With iron ore, you need infrastructure that can last decades.”

Rio Tinto angrily protested the decision. “We are surprised that a company that has never built an iron-ore-mining operation would have been awarded an area of our concession,” a spokesman said at the time. Company officials complained to the U.S. Embassy in Conakry; one of them suggested that Steinmetz had no intention of developing the mine himself, and planned instead to flip it — “to obtain the concession and then sell it for a big profit.”

Rio Tinto viewed Steinmetz, who was rumored to have extensive contacts in Israeli intelligence, as a suspicious interloper. According to a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, the general manager of Rio Tinto told the U.S. Embassy that he did not feel comfortable discussing the Simandou matter on an “unsecured” cell phone. Alan Davies, a senior executive at Rio Tinto, told me that the company had invested hundreds of millions of dollars at the site, and had been moving as expeditiously as possible on a project that would have required decades to complete. “This was quite a shocking event for the company,” he said.

In April, 2009, the Ministry of Mines in Conakry ratified the agreement with Steinmetz. A year later, he made a deal with the Brazilian mining company Vale — one of Rio Tinto’s chief competitors. Vale agreed to pay two and a half billion dollars in exchange for a fifty-one-per-cent stake in B.S.G.R.’s Simandou operations. This was an extraordinary windfall: B.S.G.R. had paid nothing up front, as is customary with exploration licenses, and at that point had invested only a hundred and sixty million dollars.

In less than five years, B.S.G.R.’s investment in Simandou had become a five-billion-dollar asset. At that time, the annual budget of the government of Guinea amounted to just $1.2 billion. Mo Ibrahim, the Sudanese telecom billionaire, captured the reaction of many observers when he asked, at a forum in Dakar, “Are the Guineans who did that deal idiots, or criminals, or both?”

Steinmetz was proud of the transaction. “People don’t like success,” he told the Financial Times, in a rare interview, in 2012. “It’s disturbing to people that the small David can disturb the big Goliath.” He said that it was B.S.G.R.’s strategy to pursue “opportunities in an aggressive way,” adding, “You have to get your hands dirty.”

In Conakry, there were rumors that Steinmetz had acquired the concession through bribes. According to Transparency International, Guinea is one of the most corrupt countries on earth. A Human Rights Watch report suggested that, when Steinmetz acquired his parcel of Simandou, Guinea was effectively a kleptocracy, with its leaders presiding over “an increasing criminalization of the state.”

A recent report by the Africa Progress Panel, which is chaired by Kofi Annan, suggests that well-connected foreigners often purchase lucrative assets in Africa at prices far below market value, by offering inducements to predatory local élites. “Africa’s resource wealth has bypassed the vast majority of African people and built vast fortunes for a privileged few,” it says. The report highlights the billions of dollars that Vale agreed to pay Steinmetz for Simandou, noting that “the people of Guinea, who appear to have lost out as a result of the undervaluation of the concession, will not share in that gain.”

In 2010, several months after the Vale deal was announced, Guinea held its first fully democratic elections since independence, ending half a century of authoritarian rule. The new President, Alpha Condé, had run on a platform of good governance and greater transparency in the mining sector. But as he took office he faced the possibility that Guinea’s most prized mineral asset may have been traded out from under the country.

He could not simply void the contract. “There is continuity of the state,” he told me recently. “I couldn’t put things back where they had been — unless I had right on my side.” B.S.G.R. denied any wrongdoing: “These allegations are false, and are a smear campaign against B.S.G.R.,” a company spokesman told me. If the Simandou license had been secured through bribery, then the deal could potentially be undone. But Condé and his advisers would have to prove it.

“I inherited a country but not a state,” Condé told me when I first met him, in January. He had come to the Swiss Alps to attend the World Economic Forum, in Davos, and we met in a hotel suite that was bathed in sunlight reflecting off the snowbanks outside. Condé is a tall man with a high forehead, and he has small eyes that light up with wry amusement when he listens. He wore a brown suit and a red tie. Lowering himself into a wingback chair, he listed slightly to the right while we talked, in a posture of heavy-lies-the-crown fatigue. At times, his elbow appeared to be propping up his whole body, like a tent pole.

When he was elected President, Condé was seventy-two years old, and he had spent much of his life in exile. He left Guinea as a boy, when it was still ruled by France, and eventually settled in Paris, where he became a leader of the pan-African student movements of the nineteen-sixties. He studied law, lectured at the University of Paris, and emerged as perhaps the most famous member of the Guinean opposition.

For this distinction, he was sentenced to death, in absentia, by the first despot to rule an independent Guinea, and jailed for more than two years by the second, after he returned, in 1991, to run, unsuccessfully, for President. The 2010 election was bitter — his challenger, Cellou Dalein Diallo, had been a government minister when Condé was thrown in jail. After Condé was finally inaugurated as President, he pledged to be the Nelson Mandela of Guinea.

First, he told me, he had to confront the legacy of a decades-long “state of anarchy.” The government in Conakry had a Potemkin quality: a profusion of bureaucrats showed up for work at crumbling administrative buildings, but there was little genuine institutional capacity. “The central bank, they were printing counterfeit money,” Condé said. Yet he couldn’t fire every official; he’d have to make do with a civil service that had never known anything but graft. “Almost everybody who had any expertise was compromised,” one person who has advised Condé told me. “So he had to balance between people who were competent but compromised and people who were upstanding but inexperienced.”

Condé was defensive about the fact that he had spent so much of his life abroad; when I raised the subject, he snapped, “I know Guinea better than those who have never left.” But his outsider status meant that he was not implicated in the scandals of past administrations. And, having spent much of his life in France, he was strikingly at ease in places like Davos. The U.S. Ambassador in Conakry, Alex Laskaris, told me, “Condé has a much broader circle of contacts and advisers globally than any other African head of state I’ve dealt with.”

Bernard Kouchner, the former foreign minister of France, went to high school with Condé, and is a good friend. Kouchner introduced him to George Soros, the billionaire financier, who became an informal adviser, and connected him with Paul Collier, the Oxford economist. Collier, in turn, introduced Condé to Tony Blair, who offered him assistance through an organization that he runs, the Africa Governance Initiative.

These Westerners saw in Condé an opportunity to save Guinea. Collier told me that what the country needed above all was “integrity at the top.” Condé could be ornery; he had a tendency to lecture his interlocutors as though they were students. And, after a life spent in perpetual opposition, it was not clear how well he would govern.

From the start, he had difficulties. He came into office with a commitment to complete Guinea’s democratic transition by holding parliamentary elections, but he delayed them, ostensibly on procedural grounds, then delayed them again. Opposition riots broke out in Conakry, leading to a series of violent confrontations between demonstrators and government security forces.

For all the tumult, Condé’s foreign friends and advisers maintain faith in his ethics. “He is absolutely incorruptible,” Kouchner told me. “He’s not luxurious. He’s not traveling. He is having a cold potato at night!” Corinne Dufka, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, has not lost hope that Condé can succeed as a reformer. “There’s a lot of work to be done for Guinea to overcome its legacy of abusive rule,” she said. “Power remains too heavily concentrated in the executive, and, without a robust judiciary or a democratically elected parliament, there is next to no oversight, which they desperately need. But Condé has made real progress in confronting the disastrous governance and rights problems he inherited.”

It is no easy task to transform a country that is corrupt from top to bottom. During Condé’s first months in office, he performed a kind of triage. With the assistance of Revenue Watch — an organization, backed by Soros, that encourages transparency in extractive industries — Condé established a committee to inspect existing mining contracts and determine if any of them were problematic. He didn’t know Steinmetz — “I didn’t know any miners,” he said, with pride — but there were elements of the Simandou deal that appeared to warrant an investigation. “I found it a bit strange that they had invested a hundred and sixty million dollars and were going to earn billions,” Condé said. “It’s a little . . .” He smiled and gave a Gallic shrug.

Beny Steinmetz, who is fifty-seven, does not seem to live anywhere in particular. He shuttles, on his private jet, between Tel Aviv (where his family lives, in one of the most expensive houses in Israel), Geneva (where he technically resides, for tax purposes), London (where the main management office of B.S.G.R. is situated), and far-flung locations connected to his diamond and mineral interests, from Macedonia to Sierra Leone. He is technically not an executive of the conglomerate that bears his name, but merely the chief beneficiary of a foundation into which the profits flow.

This is a legal fig leaf. Ehud Olmert, the former Prime Minister of Israel and a friend of his, described Steinmetz as “a one-man show.” Olmert continued, “I don’t quite understand the legal aspects — just know that he can work ceaselessly and will move from one side of the globe to the other if he identifies a promising deal.” Steinmetz is very fit and exercises every day, no matter where he is. With blue eyes, tousled sandy hair, a preference for casual dress, and a deep tan, he looks more like a movie agent than like a magnate.

“I grew up in a home where diamonds were the subject,” Steinmetz has said. His father, Rubin, was a Polish diamond cutter who learned the business in Antwerp before settling in Palestine, in 1936. A family photograph from 1977 captures Beny as a young man, sitting at a cluttered table with his two older brothers and his father, who looks sternly at the camera while Beny inspects a precious stone. That year, Beny finished his military service and struck out for Antwerp, with instructions to expand the company’s international business in polished stones. According to a privately published history of the family business, “The Steinmetz Diamond Story,” Beny branched into Africa, in search of new sources of rough stones. The plan wasn’t to establish mines but, rather, to make deals with the people doing the digging.

Approximately half the diamonds in the world originate in sub-Saharan Africa, and many ambitious Westerners have followed the lead of Cecil Rhodes — the founder of De Beers — and sought fortunes on the continent. “Unfortunately, there aren’t any diamond mines in Piccadilly,” Dag Cramer, who oversees Steinmetz’s business interests, told me. “That’s not where God put the assets.”

Instead, diamonds tend to be found in countries that are plagued by underdevelopment and corruption and, often, by war. This is enough to scare off many investors, but not all; some entrepreneurs are drawn to the heady combination of political uncertainty, physical danger, and potentially astronomical rewards. Ambassador Laskaris, who has done tours in Liberia and Angola, likened the diamond trade in much of Africa to the seedy cantina in “Star Wars.” “It attracts all the rejects of the galaxy,” he said. “Low barriers to entry. It rewards corruption. It also rewards a little bit of brutality.”

Steinmetz plunged into Africa’s treacherous political waters. In the nineteen-nineties, he was the largest purchaser of diamonds from Angola; later, he became the biggest private investor in Sierra Leone. Today, Steinmetz is the largest buyer of rough diamonds from De Beers, and one of the major suppliers of Tiffany & Company. And he has diversified his holdings into real estate, minerals, oil and gas, and other fields, with interests in more than twenty countries. A Web site that Steinmetz recently set up describes him as a “visionary” who used a “network of contacts on the African continent” to build “a multi-faced empire.”

Paul Collier, however, takes a dim view of businessmen like Steinmetz, who have secured the rights to natural resources that they may not actually have the expertise to develop. “Their technical competence is a social-network map,” Collier said. “ ‘Who has the power to make the decision? Who can I reach?’ They know how to get a contract — that is their skill.” (Cramer rejected this characterization, insisting that Steinmetz makes sustainable investments wherever he operates. “B.S.G.R. is not a company that has ever been in the business of obtaining rights and flipping them,” he told me.)

Despite his great wealth, Steinmetz has maintained an exceptionally low profile. Last year, after “Hamakor,” a news program on Israeli television, devoted an episode to a battle that he was having with tax authorities in Tel Aviv, he threatened legal action and succeeded in blocking the program from being posted on the Internet. “He’s a very private guy,” Alon Pinkas, a friend of Steinmetz’s who once served as Israel’s consul-general in New York, told me. “His family is all he cares about — and his business.”

Steinmetz’s diamond business, however, has occasionally engaged in some creative publicity. The company sponsors Formula 1 events, sometimes furnishing drivers with diamond-encrusted helmets and steering wheels. At a 2004 race in Monaco, a large Steinmetz diamond was affixed to the nose of a Jaguar race car. As the vehicle tore around a hairpin curve, the driver lost control and the Jaguar slammed into a guardrail. The diamond, which was reportedly a hundred and eight carats and worth two hundred thousand dollars, was never recovered.

General Lansana Conté, the dictator who ruled Guinea before Alpha Condé became President, was famously corrupt: he referred to his ministers, not without affection, as “thieves,” and once remarked, “If we had to shoot every Guinean who had stolen from Guinea there would be no one left to kill.” By 2008, after more than two decades in power, he had become ill, and had largely stopped appearing in public; when he did, he was propped up by bodyguards and orbited by adjutants who often made a show of stooping to whisper in his ear, even when it was obvious, to a close observer, that he was asleep.

During this period, Steinmetz flew to Conakry and met with Conté. At the General’s compound, they sat and talked beneath a mango tree. Conté was aware of B.S.G.R. because it had acquired the rights to explore two small parcels of land abutting the Simandou range — places where others in the mining industry had not thought to look. In 2006, one of Steinmetz’s employees called him from the top of a mountain, using a satellite phone, and said, “Beny, you cannot believe. I’m standing on so much iron here, you have no idea.” After this success, General Conté began to entertain the idea of reapportioning the Simandou deposit. It was not long after he met Steinmetz that he stripped Rio Tinto of its claim and gave B.S.G.R. a license to explore half the Simandou range. Two weeks after General Conté signed the deal, he died.

Hours later, a military coup installed an erratic young Army captain, Moussa Dadis Camara. The junta was a nightmarish period for Guinea. In September, 2009, during an opposition rally at a stadium in Conakry, government soldiers massacred more than a hundred and fifty demonstrators. The U.S. evacuated most of its staff from the Embassy, and the International Criminal Court described the violence as a crime against humanity. But B.S.G.R. stayed put. On one occasion, Steinmetz flew in with two of his sons to meet Captain Dadis. They invited him to Israel to attend the wedding of Steinmetz’s daughter — a celebration with more than a thousand guests. (Dadis sent his regrets.)

To Steinmetz, this cultivation of the junta only proved his company’s unshakable commitment to Guinea. “We put money in the ground at a time when people thought we were crazy,” he told the Financial Times. B.S.G.R. and the junta eventually came to terms over how the company would export iron ore. It did not have to build a deepwater port or a railroad capable of carrying iron ore to Guinea’s coast. Instead, B.S.G.R. could pursue a cheaper option: exporting the ore through Liberia, which already had the necessary infrastructure. For years, the government of Guinea had resisted such a scenario when Rio Tinto had proposed it. As a concession, B.S.G.R. agreed to spend a billion dollars developing a passenger railway for Guinea.

In December, 2009, an aide shot Captain Dadis in the head. He survived, and fled the country; another interim government took over. Once again, Steinmetz weathered the chaos, and in April, 2010, he flew to Rio de Janeiro to finalize the two-and-a-half-billion-dollar deal with Vale. Afterward, he stopped at a shipyard in Chile, to check on the progress of a mega-yacht that he had commissioned to be built there.

When President Condé set out to clean up Guinea’s mining industry, he discovered a generous ally in George Soros. “I was aware of the magnitude of the problem in Guinea,” Soros told me. “I was eager to help.” He enlisted Revenue Watch to provide technical support in revising the mining code. He also suggested that Guinea hire Scott Horton, an attorney at the U.S. law firm D.L.A. Piper; Horton has conducted dozens of corruption investigations around the world.

“There was no way, going up against a guy like Steinmetz, that the Condé government could compete effectively without outside help,” Horton told me. Another difficulty was that so many government officials had held prominent roles in prior regimes. “I can’t task my gendarmerie to do the investigation,” Condé observed to his advisers. “They’ll come up with members of their own families.”


Love and Lust – anon

July 5, 2013


I came across this quite some time ago and quote it from time to time. Then I lost it, couldn’t find it anywhere. And, then, magically, it drifted across my disorganized mess of stuff. Here it is, finally captured, never to be lost again. I love it for its simplicity.

Love is whisper, Lust is a roar,
Love is content, Lust wants more,
Love is offered, Lust just takes,
Love mends the hearts that Lust breaks


Reflections on Girard: When Desire Turns Ugly — Fr. Michael Kirwan

July 5, 2012

Antonio Salieri from Amadeus

In a further part of these posts on Girard, we will expand and deepen our understanding of Girard’s discovery of mimetic desire, most especially concerning its darker or conflictual aspects. As well as the novelists whom Girard has been considering, such as Cervantes and Dostoevsky, another important literary source needs to be introduced. Not for the last time in this book, I will refer to Girard’s use of Shakespeare in order to illustrate his theory, in particular his collection of essays entitled A Theatre of Envy: William Shakespeare (1991). Girard himself stresses the significance of the dramatist for his entire project, when he writes in the Introduction to that book: `My work on Shakespeare is inextricably linked to everything I ever wrote, beginning with an essay on five European novelists: This is , quite a large claim, so we must see what it entails.

The argument of A Theatre of Envy is that Shakespeare, early in his career, made precisely the same discovery as Girard — that desire is mimetically configured, though Shakespeare uses his own terminology: `suggested desire’, ‘jealous desire’, `emulation’, and above all, ‘envy’. As his dramatic career progresses, Shakespeare not only learns to present more and more complex versions of this phenomenon, he does so in such a way that they can stand alongside the more standard `non-mimetic’, that is, more popular, interpretations of the plays.

The challenge Shakespeare sets himself, according to Girard, is to write about emulation and so forth, but in an indirect or hidden fashion, so as to appeal to different levels of sophistication in his audience. Girard notes, wryly: `As for Shakespeare, he quickly realized that to wave mimetic desire like a red flag in front of the public is not the sure road to success (as I myself have never managed to learn, I suppose)’ (1991, p. 4).

The plays which most attract Girard’s attention are A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Troilus and Cressida. Before this, the basic mimetic pattern is set out in Two Gentlemen of Verona, in which two very close friends become rivals, because they have aroused in each other a passion for the same girl. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the treatment of this same theme is more sophisticated and effective.

Of the 38 chapters in A Theatre of Envy, six deal with scenes from this play alone: Girard rates it so highly as an exposition of mimetic desire that he declares it should be `compulsory reading for anthropologists’. According to Girard’s mimetic reading of the Dream, the classic notion of stable and autonomous love — what we have been calling `the Romantic Lie’ — is ruthlessly and persistently held up to ridicule. The plot centers on two pairs of lovers whose relationships become entangled, so that the young men fall hopelessly in love with each of the girls in turn, at the same time.

Why does this happen, and why should erotic wires get crossed in this way? One of the lovers, Lysander, does famously declare that `for aught that ever I could read/ Could ever hear by tale or history/ The course of true love never did run smooth’. (Yet again, we have someone bowing to the authority of fictional literary examples, in order to declaim what `true love’ is like!) Lysander is saying that the barriers traditionally placed in the way of true lovers have always been imposed from outside: either parental opposition (as it appears so threateningly at the beginning of the play), or disparity of age or social status, or simply fate (if we think of the `star-crossed lovers’ in Romeo and Juliet). Beneath this luxuriant verbiage lies the shaky syllogism which Shakespeare is keen to question: `these fictional true lovers all endured hardships; we too are having to endure hardships; therefore we must be true lovers’.

As it happens, the plans of the lovers in the Dream are sent awry, not by any of these imposing obstacles, but by a bunch of incompetent and mischievous fairies who are a little too clumsy with their love potion. The play can be enjoyed on this child-like level, but if we read the play as grown-ups, says Girard, Shakespeare is really presenting before our eyes the volatility of mimetic desire. (When Puck declares at the end of the play: `And Jack shall have Jill’, he is being particularly sardonic.) We must not take these tripping fairies too seriously: this is an adult play, the roots and causes of the lovers’ discords are to be found within and among themselves, and nowhere else.

To return, however, to the analysis as it unfolds in Deceit, Desire and the Novel. So far we have looked in general at the mechanics of mimetic desire, which are to be found as a common feature in the writers Girard has selected. The true significance of this discovery can only be appreciated, however, when we look at the differences between the authors as well as their similarities.

The five writers are not quite placed in chronological order, according to which Proust should come after Dostoevsky but we have a general survey of the novel, spanning the modern period from the early seventeenth to the twentieth centuries. Each writer configures the theme of mimetic desire differently, Girard maintains, because extreme mimetic pressures and influences make themselves increasingly felt during the modern period, pressures which are manifest in the social interactions recorded in his chosen novels.

Rather than look successively at Cervantes, Flaubert, Stendhal, Proust and Dostoevsky, let us examine the argument by comparing the first and last of these. On the face of it, Cervantes’ character Don Quixote and the tormented heroes and anti-heroes of Dostoevsky’s novels seem to occupy different planets. Don Quixote, we have always thought, is a comic tale of a misguided buffoon, who embarks on ludicrous adventures, but thankfully comes to no harm.

The reason is the hierarchical relationship between the model and the imitator. Because the model is a fictional character, there can never be a rivalrous conflict between Don Quixote and Amadis; the gap between them cannot be transgressed. In the same way, the social distance between Don Quixote and his acknowledged pupil and servant, Sancho Panza, prevents any conflict between them. The novel ends without violence.

This `safe’ form of mimesis is called `external mediation’ or ‘external mimesis’. As long as social differences or other distinctions are able to channel mimetic desire, the conflictual potential of mimetic desire is never actualized. This can be expressed once again by means of the triangle which is the principal geometric figure of mimetic desire: if we think of an isosceles triangle, with the model or mediator at its apex, then degrees of mediation can be expressed in terms of the distance between the apex and the base. In `safe’, external mediation, we have a tall triangle, with a clear distance between mediator and subject. If the triangle is made more squat, then we have the more perilous situation of `internal mediation’, where the subject and model are, literally, too close for comfort.

In Dostoevsky, we have just such a triangular pattern. The characters move on the same social level, and we are confronted with a much more frenzied world of destructive mimetic interaction — culminating in the alleged father-murder in The Brothers Karamazov. Here we find a rivalistic desire between individuals, frenziedly struggling for the same social space. Meet `Underground Man’:

`I am a sick man … I am an angry man. I am an unattractive man. I think there is something wrong with my liver . .

The speaker is the unnamed, splenetic anti-hero of Notes from Underground, whom Dostoevsky describes as `this real man of the Russian majority’. He is a petty bureaucrat, a man consumed by a ferocious obsession with other people’s opinion of him, who finds himself nauseated by the company of his peers at the same time as he is hopelessly fascinated and attracted by them. He spends months considering how to get revenge on an army officer who has publicly humiliated him.

Later, in a richly comic scene, the Underground Man drunkenly gate-crashes a banquet of former school companions, now army officers and civil servants like himself, whom he loathes and despises, yet whose company he cannot bear to be without. He exasperates and offends by his presence, like a moth crashing continuously into a lamp:

Smiling scornfully, I paced backwards and forwards on the side of the room opposite the sofa, along the wall from the table to the stove and back. 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 the heels. But it was all in vain; they didn’t even notice. I had the patience to walk about straight in front of them in this fashion from eight o’clock till eleven, always in the same track, from the table to the stove and from the stove back again to the table: `I am walking to please myself and nobody can stop me.’ . . .

To humiliate oneself more shamelessly and willfully was impossible, and this I fully, all too fully understood, yet all the same I continued to pace from the table to the stove and back. `Oh, if only you know what thoughts and emotions I am capable of, and how enlightened I am!’ I thought sometimes, turning in imagination to the sofa where my enemies sat. But my enemies acted as though I wasn’t even in the room. Once, and only once, they turned towards me, and that was when Zverkov began to talk about Shakespeare and I let out a sudden contemptuous laugh.

It was such a vilely artificial snort that they all ceased talking at once and silently watched me for about two minutes, attentively and seriously, as I walked along the wall from the table to the stove, without paying them the slightest attention. But nothing happened; they did not speak to me and after two minutes they ignored me again.

Compare this passage with Proust’s description (from Within a Budding Grove, quoted in Things Hidden, p. 301) of holiday-makers, strolling by the sea at Balbec:

All these people … pretending not to see, so as to let it be thought that they were not interested in them, but covertly eyeing, for fear of running into them, the people who were walking beside or coming towards them, did in fact bump into them, became entangled with them, because each was mutually the object of the same secret attention veiled beneath the same apparent disdain.

Girard draws on another story by Dostoevsky, The Eternal Husband. The `eternal husband’ of the title is Trousotsky, whose wife has just died. She had had two lovers, one of whom also dies: Trousotsky attends his funeral procession, where he displays quite extravagant grief. The widower then attaches himself in the most bizarre fashion to the other lover, Veltschaninoff, with whom he is clearly fascinated. He visits him uninvited in the middle of the night, drinks his health, kisses him on the lips … in short, his wife’s lover has become his model, mediator and obstacle. Trousotsky moves round him like a planet circling the sun.

The plot becomes even more bizarre when Trousotsky falls in love again, and declares that he wishes to remarry. He asks Veltschaninoff to help him choose a present for his beloved, and even to accompany him on a visit to her. The predictable happens: Veltschaninoff easily charms his way into the affections of the fiancée and her family, so that Trousotsky himself is now totally disregarded.

This looks like the most masochistic kind of behavior; in fact, the Eternal Husband is incapable of loving someone unless his choice has been ratified and approved by his model-rival. Veltschaninoff is an accomplished `Don Juan’, and without his seal of approval, the girl will appear to be worthless to Trousotsky. He yearns to be like, or even to surpass, his rival, to have his success with women, but because he only encounters failure he can never escape from Veltschaninoff’s influence.

The triangularity of the Eternal Husband’s desire is reaffirmed at the end of the novel, when the narrator (who is Veltschaninoff himself) meets Trousotsky, years later, together with his charming new wife … in the company of a dashing young officer. As Girard observes in his later book on Dostoevsky: `Masochists are always fascinated artisans of their own unhappiness’:

Why does [Trousotsky] rush into his own humiliation? Because he is immensely vain and proud. This response is paradoxical only in appearance. When Trousotsky discovers that his wife prefers another man to him, the shock he experiences is dreadful because he makes it a duty to be the center and navel of the universe. The man is a former serf owner; he is rich. He lives in a world of masters and slaves and is incapable of envisaging a middle term between these two extremes; the least failure condemns him to servitude. A deceived husband, he pledges himself to being a sexual zero. After having thought of himself as someone from whom power and success naturally radiated, he now sees himself as human waste from whom impotence and ridicule inevitably ooze.
(Girard, 1997, p. 49)

It should be clear from these two stories alone that the Russian novelist offers very striking expositions of the most extreme kind of mimetic interaction, which justifies Girard putting Dostoevsky at the climax of Deceit, Desire and the Novel. Because the distance between hero and model has been shortened, the potential for both morbid fascination, and for rivalry and violence, is intensified.

The contrast between mimetic interaction in Cervantes and Dostoevsky is like day and night. And yet both writers, according to Girard, are seeking to illustrate the same psychological mechanism: mimetic desire. Why, then, is there such a shocking difference between them?

One answer is to look at the social and cultural differences which set the seventeenth-century writer apart from the nineteenth-century one. This period sees the erosion of precisely those hierarchical boundaries which prevented Quixote and Sancho Panza from coming into conflict. We alluded to this in Girard’s distinction between `external’ and `internal’ mediation. In this increased potentiality of mimetic desire from Cervantes to Dostoevsky is mirrored the development of our modern world, a world in which long-established differentiation is eroded in the face of equality and democracy. Mimesis therefore encounters fewer and fewer barriers; in place of external mediation we have more and more internal. This world is characterized by intense competition, rivalry, envy and jealousy.

Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan puts forward a diagnosis of this condition. The problem begins, for Hobbes, with the competitive nature of the modern world, and its unavoidable logic of acquisitive mimesis. In Chapter 13 of Leviathan, `Of the Naturall Condition of Mankind, as concerning their Felicity, and Misery’, he wrote:

From this equality of ability, ariseth equality of hope in the attaining of our Ends. And therefore if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and in the way to their End, (which is principally their owne conservation, and sometimes their delectation only,) endeavor to destroy, or subdue one another …Againe, men have no pleasure, (but on the contrary a great deale of griefe) in keeping company, where there is no power able to over-awe them all. For every man looketh that his companion should value him, at the same rate he sets upon himselfe … so that in the nature of man, we find three principall causes of quarrell. First, Competition; Secondly, Diffidence; Thirdly, Glory.

(But on the contrary a great deale of griefe) in keeping company, where there is no power able to over-awe them all. For every man looketh that his companion should value him, at the same rate he sets upon himselfe … so that in the nature of man, we find three principall causes of quarrell. First, Competition; Secondly, Diffidence; Thirdly, Glory.

By `diffidence’, Hobbes means the wariness which people show towards each other, precisely because they are of equal ability, with no one noticeably stronger than the others. This diffidence is at the same time a source of self-assertion, since each desires the esteem or `recognition’ of the others. As Hobbes memorably describes just after this passage, this means that the `natural’ state of humanity is one of all-pervasive warfare.

According to Girard, these mimetic pressures build up intolerably, so that by the nineteenth century the disease has its own name: the Underground Man and Trousotsky, along with numerous other Dostoevskian heroes, are suffering from ressentiment. The French word is preferable to the English `resentment’, because it conveys better this sense of emotional ricochet, where the affective life of the hero is borrowed from or dictated by someone else — with turbulent consequences.

Perhaps a more familiar example here would be the character of Antonio Salieri in Peter Schaffer’s play and film, Amadeus. The play is about the life of Mozart as told from the perspective of Salieri, the imperial court composer. He has dedicated his life and music to God, only to find himself confronted in rivalry by a dissolute yet brilliant genius. The comparison is a disastrous one: Salieri, now convinced that God is mocking him, renounces his piety and determines to frustrate God’s purposes by destroying his `creature’. At the close of the drama, Salieri (incarcerated in an asylum because of his jealous obsession) declaims himself to be the `patron saint of mediocrity’. More accurately, he ranks alongside the Eternal Husband and the Underground Man as one of the patron saints of ressentiment.


Fr. Robert Barron, one of our faves here at PayingAttentionToTheSky, takes up the summer mega hit, The Hunger Games (a retelling of the mythological story of Theseus and the Minotaur), and Girardian Theory in an article in the National Review.


René Girard’s “Mimetic Desire” — Fr. Michael Kirwan

July 4, 2012

Don Quixote is a 1955 sketch by Pablo Picasso of the Spanish literary hero and his sidekick, Sancho Panza. It was featured on the August 18-24 issue of the French weekly journal Les Lettres Françaises’s in celebration of the 350th anniversary of the first part of Cervantes’s Don Quixote. Made on August 10, 1955, the drawing Don Quixote was in a very different style than Picasso’s earlier Blue, Rose, and Cubist periods.

A couple of years ago I had my first encounter with René Girard when I was dealing with theories of violence and particularly Christ’s passion. As someone who has observed violence so often I found myself befuddled at times as to the why, particularly as it impacted myself and the rages I was victim to. While I am undergoing treatment for PTSD at the VA for my Vietnam experiences, I still seek answers both in a personal and also cultural way. Fr. Kirwan’s book Discovering Girard  is one of the best I’ve read and has a broader sweep than just Girard because he contrasts some of the latter’s theories with recent work in the field.


Girard’s theory begins with a realization of the importance of mimesis in human desire, a conviction that he arrived at while working on his first book, Deceit, Desire and the Novel in 1959. So we need to start with an explanation of what he understands by `mimesis’.

The five novelists whom Girard considers in this book deal with nothing less than `the collapse of the autonomous self’. The first and perhaps clearest example of what this means is Don Quixote, whom we will turn to shortly. As mentioned in the Introduction, however, this literary study was accompanied by a `collapse’ of an immediate kind for Girard himself, or at least a profound shake-up of his beliefs and values. In an interview he tells how he approached this study `in the pure demystification mode: cynical, destructive, very much in the spirit of the atheist intellectuals of the time’.

Such an attitude of `debunking’, however, can eventually turn back on itself. If all one finds in other people is inauthenticity and bad faith, something very like the religious concept of original sin will emerge into view: `An experience of demystification, if radical enough, is very close to an experience of conversion.’ Girard saw that the lives of a number of great writers manifest precisely this pattern, and by the time he came to write the last chapter of the book, he realized that he was undergoing his own version of the experience he was describing. This caused him to return to reading the gospels, and to acknowledge that he had now become a Christian.

Girard stresses that this was as yet only an intellectual-literary conversion, and a fairly comfortable one. When he had a health scare in early 1959, namely the discovery of a cancerous spot on his forehead, the issue became much more existential. His conversion was now a genuinely religious one, and he returned to the Catholic Church during Lent of that year, in time for a `real Easter experience, a death and resurrection experience’. He describes himself now as `an ordinary Christian’.

Here, then, is the key to understanding the writers under consideration in Deceit, Desire and the Novel. In spite of their diverse backgrounds and religious affiliations, they have in common an experience of conversion, which is also to be thought of as a `death and resurrection experience’. For the authors themselves, this experience of collapse and recovery may be implicitly or explicitly religious. For Girard, the kind of event that he is describing (whether it is understood religiously or not) is so pivotal to their works, that he takes it to be constitutive of the genre we call the `novel’. He therefore sets up a contrast between `novel’ and `romance’; the novel tells us the truth about human desire, whereas romantic literature perpetuates only untruth about the autonomy and stability of human desire.

The first author considered in Deceit, Desire and the Novel is Miguel Cervantes, the creator of Don Quixote. Quixote has decided that he wishes to be a knight errant. He has decided upon this as a result of reading courtly literature, and he explains to his servant, Sancho Panza, why he has chosen to take as his model Amadis de Gaul, the most prominent of the literary heroes he has been reading about:

I want you to know, Sancho, that the famous Amadis of Gaul was one of the most perfect knight errants. But what am I saying, one of the most perfect? I should say the only, the first, the unique, the master and lord of all those who existed in the world … when a painter wants to become famous for his art he tries to imitate the originals of the best masters he knows … In the same way Amadis was the pole, the star, the sun, for brave and amorous knights, and we others who fight under the banner of love and chivalry should imitate him. Thus, my friend Sancho, I reckon that whoever imitates him best will come closest to perfect chivalry.
(Don Quixote, cited in Girard, 1965, p. 1)

By allowing this fictional character to choose for him all the things he should desire, Don Quixote effectively abandons any independent judgment of his own. He has no independent `self’. Girard illustrates this state of affairs geometrically, by declaring that desire has a triangular structure. Instead of desire being a single linear relation (subject A desires object B — `Quixote desires to be a perfect knight’), we have three elements: A only desires B because C (in this case, Amadis de Gaul) has directed his attention towards it. Since Quixote’s desires are channeled or mediated by Amadis, point C of the triangle is called the `mediator’ or `model’.

Cervantes is not the first writer to consider the theme of mimesis, of course. A long Western philosophical tradition has followed Aristotle in the Poetics — `man is distinguished from other life-forms by his capacity for imitation’. All human learning, and especially the acquisition of language, takes place through imitation. What Girard insists has been neglected is an understanding of imitation which is expansive enough to include desire.

Not just language and external gestures, but desire is also conditioned by our imitative human nature. Girard notes that some writers are inexplicably ambiguous or hostile towards mimesis; for example, no satisfactory explanation has been offered as to why Plato (Republic, Book 10) considers mimesis to be dangerous or problematic, and it is precisely this mystery which Girard thinks he has solved. Before seeing why this might be so, we may first consider another description of mimesis, offered by J. M. Oughourlian, a psychiatrist and collaborator with Girard:

Just as in the cosmos, the planets, stars, and galaxies are simultaneously held together and kept apart by gravity, so also mimesis keeps human beings together and apart, assuring at one and the same time the cohesion of the social fabric and the relative autonomy of the members that make it up. In physics, it is the force of attraction, gravity, that holds bodies together in space. They would be pitilessly hurled against each other into a final fusion if gravity did not also preserve their autonomy, and hence their existence, through motion. In psychology, the movement of mimesis that renders one autonomous and relatively individual is called ‘desire’. . .

I have always thought that what one customarily calls the `I’ or `self’ in psychology is an unstable, constantly changing, evanescent structure. I think, to evoke the intuitions of Hegel on this point that only desire brings this self into existence. Because desire is the only psychological motion, it alone, it seems to me, is capable of producing the self and breathing life into it. The first hypothesis that I would like to formulate in this regard is this: desire gives rise to the self and, by its movement, animates it. The second hypothesis, which I have adopted unreservedly since I first became aware of it, is that desire is mimetic.
U. M. Oughourlian, 1991, pp. 11-12)

This model of universal gravitation is memorable and easily understood, and neatly refers us back to Quixote’s description of Amadis as `the pole, the star, the sun’, for anyone who wishes to be a perfect knight. It even hints at the way we speak about modern celebrity culture — the `stars’ and ‘megastars’ who populate the world of entertainment, media and sport are the focus of seemingly infinite fascination for mere ordinary human beings, so that we speak of their `pulling power’ at the box office, their rising and falling, and so on.

Also, the planetary model sums up well the spirit of Girard’s whole enterprise. Girard insists that with the idea of mimesis he has hit upon a simple but key organizing idea, one which will transform our way of thinking about the human sciences, just as the theories of gravity and evolution have drastically altered our understanding of physics and biology.

Lastly, this model alerts us to the darker side of desire. `Mimesis keeps human beings together and apart.’ As well as attraction, there is repulsion. Girard’s investigation of desire relates to a wider question: why, of all life-forms in creation, are humans apparently the most violent and prone to conflict? Girard wishes to distance himself, on the one hand, from theorists who posit an aggressive drive or instinct as the source of human conflicts. One reason for his disagreement is that Girard is working with a distinction between needs or appetites, which are ‘natural’, on the one hand, and desire, which is much more conditioned by culture and social interaction, on the other.

A second type of theory against which Girard is reacting is the romantic or liberal celebration of desire per se, according to which all human distress and negativity is an effect of the distortion of natural desire by external forces. The cause of conflict and aggression is located outside of the self, either in alienating social conditions, or in a repressive father-figure, and so on.

If the external factor is removed, the self is `liberated’ to express its desires unhindered. As the description offered by Oughourlian implies, this conception of the self as an autonomous unit is now being widely questioned by philosophers. Girard and others refer polemically to it as `the Romantic Lie’. The self is, rather, `an unstable, constantly changing, evanescent structure’, brought into existence by desire.

St Augustine expresses this theologically: `Lord, our hearts are restless, till they rest in Thee!’ The fact is, people do not know what they want — therefore they imitate the desire of others. We need only reflect upon the vast expenditure and creativity which goes into advertising — a medium, incidentally, which is becoming ever more forthright about its own mimetic strategies. Recent examples include the slogan in a major English department store, which declared unashamedly: `You want it — you buy it — you forget it!’, while my own favorite is a poster selling jeans, in which a scantily clad model scowls defiantly over the slogan: No one tells me what to wear!’

In fact, any kind of market is nothing other than a mechanism for the harmonious mediation of desires. If we think of a currency market where everyone wants to buy euros, my `desire’ will be to buy euros also. As soon as the market switches to dollars, my own preference will `mysteriously’ change accordingly. A number of economic theorists have in fact attempted to utilize mimetic theory in their analyses of market behavior.

From an evolutionary perspective, the mimetic adoption of another’s desire has replaced instinctual behavior as the prime determinant of human action. This is part of Girard’s explanation of why humans seem to be much more prone to deadly conflict than other life-forms. The instinctual `braking’ mechanisms which will normally prevent an escalation of conflict among animals, for example, are not present for humans. As if this were not worrying enough, the convergence of two or more desires upon the same object has, inevitably, a potential for conflict. Girard summarizes as follows:

We find ourselves reverting to an ancient notion — mimesis — one whose conflictual implications have always been misunderstood. We must understand that desire itself is essentially mimetic, directed toward an object desired by the model.

The mimetic quality of childhood desire is universally recognized. Adult desire is virtually identical, except that (most strikingly in our own culture) the adult is generally ashamed to imitate others for fear of revealing his lack of being. The adult likes to assert his independence and to offer himself as a model to others; he invariably falls back on the formula `Imitate me!’ in order to conceal his own lack of originality.

Two desires converging on the same object are bound to clash. Thus, mimesis coupled with desire leads automatically to conflict. However, humans always seem half blind to this conjunction, unable to perceive it as a cause of rivalry. In human relationships words like `sameness’ and `similarity’ evoke an image of harmony. If we have the same tastes and like the same things, surely we are bound to get along. But what will happen when we share the same desires? Only the major dramatists and novelists have partly understood and explored this form of rivalry.
(Girard, 1977, p. 146)

As long as the object of yearning is not closed off to general use – for example, if my friend and I want to learn the same language, or read the same book, or listen to the same piece of music — then conflict need not arise. But as soon as the object is cordoned off from this possibility of shared enjoyment, as is the case with sexual relationships, or jockeying for social prestige, mimesis will lead to competition. Once the desiring subject wants to possess the object for him or herself, the person who first brought the desired object to recognition becomes a rival and an obstacle. One word which Girard uses to describe the model who has become a rival is the biblical Greek word skandalon, scandal, or `stumbling block’.

Two hands reach, not quite simultaneously, for the same object. The outcome is bitter rivalry, even outright conflict.

It is striking how often this simple formula or image is used by Girard, especially with reference to children. He often cites the example of children playing in a roomful of toys, when an argument breaks out because two or more infants want to play with the same toy, even though there are plenty to go round. To repeat, desire possesses a triangular structure. Along the base of the triangle we find the desiring subject (who is also the imitator), and the desired object. At the apex of the triangle we have the model, the one who has indicated in the first place that the object is desirable.

It is also worth noting that the model/obstacle/rival need not in fact be an actual person. In fact, in three of the novelists considered by Girard, mimetic passions are aroused by the subject’s reading of fictional literature. Don Quixote imitates a fictional hero, Amadis de Gaul, as we have seen. Similarly in Flaubert: when Madame Bovary embarks on the first of her adulterous affairs, she recalls ecstatically the romantic literature which had nourished her desires up to that point:

Then she caught sight of herself in the mirror, and was amazed by the way she looked. Never had her eyes been so enormous, so dark, so deep: her whole being was transfigured by some subtle emanation.

`I have a lover! I have a lover!’ she kept repeating to herself, reveling in the thought as though she were beginning is a second puberty. At last she was going to know the joys of love, the fever of the happiness she had despaired of. She was entering a marvelous realm where all would be passion, ecstasy, rapture: she was in the midst of an endless blue expanse, scaling the glittering heights of passion; everyday life had receded, and lay far below, in the shadows between those peaks. She remembered the heroines of novels she had read, and the lyrical legion of those adulterous women began to sing in her memory with sisterly voices that enchanted her.

Now she saw herself as one of those amoureuses whom she had so envied: she was becoming, in reality, one of that gallery of fictional figures; the long dream of her youth was coming true. She was full of a delicious sense of vengeance. How she had suffered! But now her hour of triumph had come; and love, so long repressed, was gushing forth in joyful effervescence. She savored it without remorse, without anxiety, without distress.
(Flaubert, Madame Bovary, p. 153)

This link between reading and desire is also made explicit by the narrator in Marcel Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu: `But I was incapable of seeing a thing unless a desire to do so had been aroused in me by reading … I knew how often I had been unable to give my attention to things or to people, whom afterwards, once their image had been presented to me in solitude by an artist, I would have gone leagues and risked death to rediscover.’ As Girard points out, the printed word has a magical power of suggestion for the young Marcel, evident in his adulation of the writer Bergotte, and extending even to the theatrical posters he reads on the Champs Elysées.

To complete this initial survey of mimetic desire, we should add two further considerations. We have seen that Girard posits a triangular structure for desire: the subject’s desire for an object is mediated by that of the model, so that A desires B because C desires it. However, it is not strictly true that the subject always desires an `object’ at all. What really drives the individual may be something much more elusive and imprecise: the search for a quasi-transcendent state of well-being, of fulfillment, of self-actualization, which goes beyond simple possession of any object or set of objects.

Girard notes this distinction by referring to two kinds or degrees of mimetic desire: one is `acquisitive’ mimesis, where the desire is centered on a specific object (the child’s toy, for example), and the second is `metaphysical desire’, where no specific object is aimed at, but rather an indeterminate but insistent yearning for the fullness of `being’.

Secondly, we have seen that Girard talks about a `conversion’ experience which his chosen novelists experience (even though this does not necessarily involve an explicit religious adherence on the part of the author concerned). Girard considers this experience to be crucial to the effectiveness of the novel genre. He contrasts `novel’ and `romance’ as types of literature which, respectively, reveal the truth about (mimetic) desire, and perpetuate the `Romantic Lie’ about desire’s autonomy.

The Czech writer Milan Kundera, in his Theory of the Novel, has written appreciatively of Girard’s treatment of mimetic desire. Girard quotes Kundera as saying that mimetic desire is the distillation of `a particular kind of wisdom’, which contemporary culture and instrumental reason has difficulty in recognizing (Assmann, 1996, p. 289). Kundera’s most important novel, The Joke, in fact lends itself very well to a Girardian analysis, since the plot centers on the humiliating public ‘scapegoating’ of the protagonist by a zealous Communist tribunal.


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?


Reconciling Science and Religion by Britton Johnston

April 6, 2011

William Blake, The Body of Abel Found by Adam and Eve


Another reading selection from the article titled “How Girard’s Mimetic Theory Can Help Us Understand the Relationship Between Science and Religion” by Britton Johnston, a Presbyterian minister who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The complete article is at Metanexus: The Online Forum on Religion and Science.

It might be helpful here to give an example or two of how mimetic theory can reconcile the claims of science and religion. Let’s explore the issue of creation, and the question of the existence of spiritual beings.

The question of Creation is fundamentally a question of the distinction between culture and cosmos. Archaic cultures, being unable to distinguish the two, use material realities to express cultural ones. The creation story in the first chapter of Genesis, is not a text about physics or biology, but about cultural origins — one that stands in contrast to pagan creation myths.

For example, in the ancient Babylonian creation myth known as the Enuma Elish, the warrior God Marduk forms the world from the dead body of his mother Tiamat after he has slain her. He hews her body into two pieces, and with the upper half of her body he forms the heavens, and with the lower half he forms the earth. For the ancient Babylonians, this is the story of the foundation of the world.

From the point of view of Girard’s mimetic theory, this myth is a disguised account of an actual murder (or, more precisely, of a series of ritual murders). The murder would have taken place as Babylonian culture was forming for the first time. There was a mimetic crisis, which was resolved only when one or more people were killed by the mob, bringing order out of the social madness.

This originary murder rescued these Proto Babylonians from a state of acute mass psychosis. As they emerged from the psychosis, it appeared to them as though the cosmos itself had been re-created. They described the event as best they could, given that they were emerging from a condition of total delusion; so what amounted in actuality to a lynching, came to be described as a divine event, a divine drama playing itself out in the heavens. Historically, there were probably more than one of these collective murders. This lynching was reproduced in sacrificial rituals. These ritual sacrifices came to be understood as re-enactments of the original divine event, enriching and refining the narrative into a creation myth.

All creation myths seem on the surface to be about the creation of the material world; but they are really about the origin of human culture. It would be natural to ask at this point, why cultures don’t just describe their origin literally and factually? Why don’t the Babylonians simply say, “we were in a crisis and we saved ourselves by lynching a member of our community.” Why the elaborate narrative? Why the obfuscation?

There are two reasons for this: first of all, as I indicated above, these events are generated on the boundary between psychotic delusion and sane reality; therefore, myths have a dreamlike, semi-delusional quality. Secondly, the culture has a stake in disguising the original murder. Every culture knows that murder must not be spoken of approvingly, because murder invites revenge and revenge escalates, plunging the whole society into bloody madness. Therefore the society must pretend that it is innocent of murder. Yet still the original murder must be remembered, because it brought the benefits of social order. Myths have this dreamlike quality because they are the result of a double-bind: they must simultaneously recall and hide the crime they trace.

The creation story in the first chapter of Genesis is not a literal description of the origin of species or of the origin of the planets; rather, this is a story which uses the concept of species and the image of the planets as symbols to describe something which was much more pressing to the ancient Israelites than the matter of scientific explanations. This is a story of the origins of human culture and consciousness. In this way it is not unlike the creation myth of the Babylonians. Yet it also differs sharply from the Babylonian story (and virtually every other creation story from ancient culture): it contains no sign of a murder!

In fact, scholarship has revealed that the first chapter of Genesis was composed while the people of Judea were in exile in Babylon. The first chapter of Genesis was the Jews’ response to what their captors insisted was the origin of the world. In their refusal to go along with the idea of a founding murder, the Jews became the first culture in the history of the world to claim that violence is not essential to the cosmic order.

There is no murder in the first chapter of Genesis. There is only a powerful God working hard to establish a place for everything and to put everything in its place. The language of creation in the first chapter of Genesis is the language of establishing boundaries. There’s a boundary between the light and the dark. There is a boundary between the dry land and the sea, there is a boundary between the different kinds of plants and animals. The story has the quality of the storekeeper taking care of his inventory, or of a housekeeper picking up clutter. Instead of a warrior God carrying out the sacred execution, the Jews revealed to history a worker God who establishes order not by killing somebody, but by cleaning house.

The principle of creation in the beginning of the Bible is the principle of difference. In the first chapter of Genesis, we do not have a description of a creatio ex nihilo, but an account of the imposition of difference on the primordial waters of chaos. The day is separated from the night; boundaries are set between the sea and dry land; the plants and animals are separated out, “each according to its kind.” The original creation was the ordering of chaos through the establishment of differences.

Why is this important? According to Girard’s mimetic theory, the primordial waters are an archetypical image representing the pre-cultural mimetic sacrificial crisis. The (pre)human community is in a state of crisis brought about by the imitation of everyone by everyone. This has produced a confusing maelstrom of desire, rivalry, hostility and violence within which life is impossible. Like a swimmer tossed in the chaos of a riptide, everyone finds it impossible to distinguish up from down, left from right, light from dark.

According to Girard, the first strategy to resolve this crisis is human sacrifice. But in the Hebrew scriptures, humanity begins to move away from human sacrifice. In order to defer the sacrificial crisis, the Hebrew strategy is to put in place a strong system of sacred difference.

Difference defers or delays the sacrifice by blocking the development of mimetic rivalry. It works because when boundaries are drawn between people, they tend to imitate each other less strongly. We are most strongly mimetic toward those whom we perceive to be like us. If we see the other as different, we are less likely to want what they want, return their insults, and so forth. Thus we are less likely to come into mimetic rivalry with people who are different (violence against those who are of a different ethnicity or who are differently abled is not technically mimetic rivalry; it is a kind of scapegoating that discharges mimetic rivalry and unifies the community).

Consider an ice cube tray, the kind that has the removable dividers. If you fill it with water without the dividers and try to carry it across the kitchen, chances are that the water will spill. But if you insert the dividers into the water before carrying it, you find it is much easier to carry it without spilling. Differences in culture are analogous to this. They prevent the free flow of mimetic rivalry from building up to a chaotic loss of control.

The first chapter of Genesis is a projection onto nature of precisely this concern for difference. As a subtle anti-Babylonian polemic, Genesis 1 substitutes a structure of differences for the violent structures built on human sacrifice. This is an enormous advance in human consciousness. The fact that it retains the archaic confusion between culture and cosmos should not be grounds to dismiss it. After all, we owe our very awareness of that difference to documents such as this.

Science still has some things to learn from Genesis 1. The theory of natural selection itself depends on the notion of the selfish competition for survival as essentially a “creative principle of the cosmos.” Numerous critics have pointed out that this idea is far too much like the Malthusianism and “social Darwinism” (which is misnamed – Darwin borrowed it from Malthus and Spencer and applied it to biology) to be entirely independent of cultural bias. Even in our scientific endeavors, we may be too susceptible to the tendency to project our culture onto nature. Perhaps science should stay a little closer to the insights of the Bible after all.

A Theory of Spirits
Mimetic theory opens up a new category for describing reality that hasn’t been available until now: “mimetic forces.” Such forces are recognized by every culture, but they are not described, merely named – spirits, angels, ghosts, demons, etc. These are forces with real power but that are unseen and hard to measure. Mimetic theory gives us the means to actually describe them.

A “mimetic force” exists in the relationships between people. A simple desire is a mimetic force. According to Girard, if one person makes an acquisitive gesture toward an object, another person nearby will tend to focus on the same object, with an impulse to make a similar acquisitive gesture. The original gesture, by stimulating a mimetic response in the neighbor, could be said to be a kind of “force.” The force draws people under its influence. They in turn add their own energy to the mimetic force, causing it to strengthen. One person wants the object, generating a weak mimetic force in the next person, who likewise comes to desire the object; now the mimetic force is twice as strong, so that a third person will desire the object even more readily than the first two people. The force propagates through the population, gaining power to affect individuals as each additional individual is affected.

If the desire so propagated is a desire for the well-being of others, it could be called an “angel”; on the other hand, if the mimetic force is a spirit of resentment, it will be called a “demon” – that is, after its violent denoument is done.

The definition of demons, spirits and angels as mimetic forces accounts for all the characteristics attributed to them. They are invisible, more “felt” than seen. They are personal, yet not contained within a body; they affect people to the point of taking over the human will; and they can be invoked or exorcised by ritual and prayer.

Such mimetic forces doubtless play a huge role in illness and disease. They can affect the functioning of the body and mind in profound ways. The “science” of managing such forces exists almost exclusively within religious traditions. It could be an extremely important advance in medical technology if we were to begin to explore the means by which such forces can be managed. If scientists are to learn how to do this, however, they will have to become students of religion.

Mimetic theory, if it is correct, offers a fresh and clear path for us to understand how science and religion are radically interdependent. I hope that those who read this article will be motivated to explore this new and potentially fruitful avenue of inquiry into the relationship between the two.


Reading Selections From Girard’s Mimetic Theory And The Relationship Between Science And Religion by Britton W. Johnston

April 1, 2011

René Girard

This is from an article titled “How Girard’s Mimetic Theory Can Help Us Understand the Relationship Between Science and Religion” by Britton Johnston, a Presbyterian minister who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Rev. Johnson earned his Masters of Divinity at the McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, class of 1990 and organized the annual meeting of the Girardian Colloquium on Violence and Religion in June, 2004. The complete article is at Metanexus: The Online Forum on Religion and Science. I add this to my little collection of Girardian articles and summaries.

Culture And Truth
The question of the relationship between science and religion, like many other leading concerns of theologians today, has to do with the relationship between culture and truth.
It therefore seems appropriate to approach these theological issues anthropologically. Unfortunately, the field of Anthropology tends to be dominated by a “politically correct” suspicion of religion in general, and of theology in particular.

Fortunately, there is a new anthropological theory emerging. This new theory is congenial to theology, promising to give us powerful new concepts and tools to finally resolve these vexing theological questions. This theory is the “mimetic theory” of René Girard. It has been around for about 30 years, though it has made little progress among theologians and anthropologists until recently. What I would like to do with this essay is to introduce the basics of Girard’s theory, and to suggest how this theory might supply us with a fruitful new approach for reconciling science and religion.

Who Is René Girard
René Girard is what you might call a “literary” anthropologist — this despite the fact that his formal education was in neither literature nor anthropology. His Ph.D. is in history. His doctoral dissertation was on the subject of Franco-American relations after World War II. Although his “outsider” status might lead us to question the validity of his theories, in fact a lack of official credentials is common among those who bring revolutionary new ideas to a field of study.

Girard was born in France in 1923. He came to the United States in 1947, working on his doctoral dissertation at Indiana University. They put him to work teaching French literature, something for which he had little training beyond the fact that he was a Frenchman. In fact, he was often just barely ahead of his students, reading some of the novels for the first time, two chapters ahead of the class assignments. In the process of teaching literature, he began to notice certain patterns in the great novels, in their treatment of human desire

Deceit, Desire, and the Novel
His first book, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, was published in French (with the title Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque) in 1961, after he had become a professor at Johns Hopkins University. In that book he argues that great literature reflects awareness that human beings get their desires from one another. We are “mimetic” creatures, meaning that we internalize one another through imitation. A crucial aspect of the mimetic process is that it is the means by which we acquire our desires. Human desire therefore is not innate; rather, we “borrow” our desires from those we imitate. This brings us into conflict with those others. The person who is our model also becomes for us the greatest obstacle to getting what we want. Great literature, Girard argued, depicts its protagonists’ entanglement in these mimetic webs of desire and rivalry — but often with liberation at the moment of the hero’s death or expulsion.

Patterns Of Expulsion
Girard continued to examine the theme of expulsion, in ancient literature and primal myths. He found that every ancient myth contained traces of a pattern of expulsion. Every ancient myth, that is, except for the Bible. In 1972, he published La Violence et le Sacré, in which he argued that all religious myths are disguised accounts of actual historical events, specifically expulsions, the sacrifice of scapegoats.Even the Bible follows this same pattern, but with one important difference: the Bible is the first narrative to present the expulsion from the point of view of the scapegoat.

Girard went on to develop his mimetic theory in subsequent books, such as Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (English edition, 1987), The Scapegoat (1986), To Double Business Bound (1978), and I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (English edition 2001). In these books and others, Girard and his followers have demonstrated that his theory has amazing power to clarify issues in anthropology, theology, biblical interpretation, psychology, political science, economics, linguistics, and on and on. It is truly a “grand theory,” simple yet powerful. Such theories are not in fashion in these postmodern and multicultural times; they are in fact regarded with suspicion. So far, there have been no grand theories that have worked. So far.

A Sketch Of Mimetic Theory
The preeminent characteristic of human beings is that we imitate each other (thus the term “Mimetic Theory”). This mimesis is not mere mimicry, but an instinctive and preconscious impulse. Even our desires–especially our desires–come from the imitation of others. Because we want the same things that others want, we come into conflict over who will possess the desired object. This rivalry is in turn imitated so that it escalates into violence. The rivalry does not remain limited to the first individuals involved, but others imitate it until it spreads to the entire community, generating a mimetic crisis. Violence threatens to destroy everyone involved, unless a solution is found.

The solution that our species stumbled upon was the mechanism of sacrifice. One individual is singled out by the community as the scapegoat whose death absorbs the violence in the community, delivering the community from this threat. The community mistakenly believes that the scapegoat was at once the cause as well as the all-powerful cure for the chaos of the mimetic crisis. The pagan concept of the gods emerges from this misrecognition. The deliverance brought about by sacrificial violence is the basis for the primitive sacred. It is also the basis of archaic religion and the foundation of human culture.

Human culture extends the power of sacrifice by creating myths and idols, which remind the people of the sacred event of the sacrifice, damping down the fires of the mimetic crisis. The function of a myth is to preserve and obscure the historical event of the sacrifice. By preserving the experience of the sacrifice, a myth reduces the need for frequent repetitions of it. But it is also important that myths obscure the murderous reality of the sacrifice, because to speak openly of murder is to risk triggering a new mimetic crisis.

Human culture inhibits the development of the mimetic crisis by also putting in place taboos, laws, and other forms of sacred differentiation so that the effects of mimesis are reduced, thus slowing the development of mimetic crises.

The biblical revelation (in both the Old and the New Testaments) breaks the power of this sacred violence by revealing it for what it is, the collective murder of an innocent victim. The voices of the prophets, and especially the revelation of Christ on the cross, demythologize human culture by forcing us to acknowledge our sacred sin. Because the sacred depends upon denial, the biblical revelation renders sacred murder unworkable. The Bible brings the workings of the sacred to an end. This is why Jesus is described in the Gospel of John as “the lamb of God who takes away the sin [singular] of the world.” (John 1:29)

The loss of the sacrificial mechanism would result in our self-destruction, if some alternate form of functioning were not provided. Fortunately, the Gospel also gives us new means to avoid mimetic rivalry, supplanting the old taboo systems, by calling us to imitate Christ. When we imitate Christ (“Set your minds on things that are above” Col 3:2), we are possessed by a desire for the well-being of our neighbors, in place of the old desire to have what the neighbor wants. This process of acquiring new desires transforms humanity and leads to a new and better non-sacrificial culture.

The Difficulty of the Sacred
One of the things that are hard to get used to with this theory is the idea that the “sacred” is a bad thing. It’s not as bad as the mimetic crisis, but it is nevertheless fundamentally bloody and violent. Violence seems to inhere in the sacred object like an electrical charge. Whoever draws too near runs the risk of inciting the crowd to attack.

Girard argues that without religion human beings could not exist. The greatest threat to our existence has never been starvation or predation, but our own violence. The origin and purpose of religion is to save us from this threat.

A Clear And Simple Scientific Hypothesis For The Origin Of Culture And Religion
The advantage of Girard’s theory is that it gives us a clear and simple scientific hypothesis for the origin of culture and religion. With this as an analytical tool, we can unpack theological problems in fresh ways, when they have to do with culture and violence. Most of the really difficult theological problems can now be taken apart in a few quick steps, like an encoded message that becomes easily readable once the key for the code is discovered.

Science and Religion
According to René Girard, the sacred is inseparable from the practice of sacrifice. In fact, the word “sacrifice” literally means to “make sacred.” This is “sacrifice” in the ancient sense, meaning taking someone (a person or an animal) and ritually killing them. The sacred comes into being with the spilling of reconciling blood.

For example, belief in witches is typical of the workings of the sacred in society. In virtually every primitive culture in the world, there is a belief in witches. Whenever things seem to be going wrong, when resentments build between people, and sickness seems to be everywhere, the primitive culture will posit that a witch is at work causing problems. The community sets to work identifying the witch. When they identify someone (usually whoever has the fewest friends in the community) in such a way that everyone believes the accusation, they put the witch to death. Upon the killing of the witch, the buildup of hostility in the community is discharged, and things seem to return to normal. It seems obvious that therefore the witch indeed was the cause of the problem. This in turn reinforces the belief in witches. This scenario could never function without a fundamental misrecognition of the situation. The “plague” that the witch supposedly caused was really a mimetic crisis. The witch was only a scapegoat, blamed and punished to help the community regain its harmony.

This cycle of crisis, execution, and renewal tends to reinforce the superstitious belief in witches, because experience seems to show that it works. People feel “deep down” that it is obviously true; that the world is filled with magical powers and that witches are a grave danger to society.

Jesus as Witch
The biblical narrative deconstructs these superstitions by presenting the familiar story of the witch from the point of view of the “witch.” Jesus occupies the same cultural location as the witch; but the narrative reveals that it is the crowd that is guilty, rather than the innocent – (and forgiving!) victim. As a result of this revelation, humanity begins (dimly at first) to realize that the founding “Truth” of culture is in fact a lie.

The historical and cultural project known as modernity, building on the influence of the gospel, is designed to demolish superstitious worldviews. Modernity begins with the assumption that what is purely cultural or purely a matter of what people feel “deep down” is not sufficiently trustworthy. Modernity applies principles of truth that it considers beyond culture, i.e., what one can observe in nature or what is consistent with the principles of logical reasoning.

Modern science is the result of the discovery that there is a difference between “culture” and “cosmos.” All archaic or “primal” cultures assume that the natural world is an extension or expression of their culture. They make no distinction between “culture” and “nature.” Animistic religions believe that every rock, tree and stream has its own “spirit” with its own will and power, and that this spirit must be treated with respect, even awe. The belief in spirits comes from cultural and religious experiences. These concepts are projected onto the natural world, so that the primal culture considers them intrinsic to nature. This is a confusion between culture and nature.

The reason that primal cultures have this confusion relates to what might be termed the “mythological imperative”: the sacrifice of the victim must be remembered (for its reconciling benefits), but it must also be forgotten (so that speaking directly of collective murder doesn’t generate violence). The description of the victim’s death is forgotten, but the spiritual power of the sacrifice is remembered, because the victim is said still to be present in the rocks, trees, or streams.

Or the stars. Many cultures, especially agrarian ones, put a lot of effort into the contemplation of the stars. This is useful because observation of the movements of celestial bodies is the best means of timing the changing of the seasons. The timing of the seasons is important especially in agricultural societies as the means of assuring a good harvest; an early thaw is less likely to tempt you to plant too early, if you know how to watch for the spring equinox.

It seemed as though the stars controlled the seasons. Did they control other things as well? The product of the sacrificial altar came to be projected onto the stars. The planets and constellations were said to contain the spirits of sacred beings — gods, monsters, and the hero-priests who killed them. These figures in the sky came to be seen as guiding life in society. The culture was written in the sky by people who believed that somehow the sky was writing itself into their culture. Thus did astrology — that entertaining but pathetic superstition — come into being. This confusion of culture with cosmos is common to all archaic cultures (and to a large extent it is found in Western modernity, even Western science, as well).

The biblical revelation is the force in human history that has made humanity aware that there is a difference between cosmos and culture. It has brought about this change by revealing that the sacrificial victim is not the cause of the society’s problems. Jesus, the crucified victim of the crowd, is revealed to be innocent. It is the crowd that is guilty. As the sacrificial myth is thereby demolished, the other myths and superstitions of the culture begin to follow one by one. We realize that we can’t trust ourselves to be right about what causes the rain to fall or how the stars influence our lives. So we begin to explore ways to know things apart from the influence of culture. Science, the effort to insulate our inquiry from cultural influence, is born. The rest of modernity emerges at the same time. Modernity challenges and tests our cultural assumptions about our world. Culture is regarded with a considerable amount of suspicion. Culture and cosmos begin to separate in our thinking. As René Girard has said, “We didn’t stop burning witches because we invented science; we invented science because we stopped burning witches.”

Biblical Revelation as the Source of Science
The apparent conflict between science and faith is the result of our discovery that culture and nature are not necessarily the same. Such an endeavor as modern science would be unthinkable without the insight that our culture may be a source of falsehood. This is precisely the insight that the biblical revelation brought into the world. Without the Bible, Western science would never have been possible.

Although science is the product of biblical faith, science in turn contributes to biblical faith, by accelerating the process of demythologization. Science acts as a powerful solvent to wash away the sacred superstitions that still cling to biblical religion. Science has put an end to our belief in the power of witches’ magic, for example. This is a good thing, because it removes one of the falsehoods that distract us from the message of mercy in the Bible.

Science has confirmed the biblical insight that illness is not necessarily a punishment from God, but a condition that has nothing to do with our moral standing. By helping to lift the moral stigma of disease, science has helped us to be more faithful to the revelation of Christ who calls us to be merciful toward those who are sick.

The scientific worldview made possible the “historical-critical” reading of the Bible, which in turn has liberated our reading of scripture from all sorts of violent superstition.

But science must be careful not to be arrogant in this. The insight that culture can be wrong is a tremendous advance. It has led us to find ways to explore the truth in things that are not influenced by cultural biases and superstitions. We know that an experiment well-constructed can lead us to solid insight. But we must be careful not to conclude therefore that religion is never to be trusted. The rituals, moral standards and narratives of religion contain real wisdom that has controlled human violence for millennia.

God As A Mimetic Force
Scientists should not assume that because the term “god” cannot be separated from its cultural fabric, then the notion of a god is purely false
. Mimetic theory suggests that indeed gods are very real, along with demons, spirits, and souls. But mimetic theory would describe them as mimetic forces, rather than metaphysical or supernatural beings. Science should be working on ways to describe gods scientifically, rather than dismissing the notion of a god as superstitious.


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