Violence and the Sacred

A brief look at Rene Girard -- literary theorist, interdisciplinary thinker, and admirer of the new pope.

July 28, 2005

Passing a Roman Catholic bookshop not long ago, I noticed a window display of books by and about Pope Benedict XVI, including a volume of interviews done back when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The acquisitive urge was short-circuited by the fact that the store was closed. And in any case, I'll probably get an earful about his doctrines and policies soon enough from my mother-in-law. She's a Vatican II-type liberal who writes for a dissident Catholic newspaper,  of the kind likely to be amused by the rumor that the new pontiff's "street name" is Joey Rats.

Eventually,  the right combination of free time and impulse book-buying will make it feasible to catch up with the pope's thinking straight from the source. But for now, it's interesting to see that the summer issue of New Perspectives Quarterly has an interview about Benedict XVI with the literary theorist René Girard, who is now professor emeritus in French at Stanford University.

The introduction to the interview describes him as a professor of anthropology --  a mistake, but an interesting one.
Beginning in the late 1950s, Girard published a series of analyses of Cervantes, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, and Proust (among others) that foregrounded their preoccupation with desire, envy, and imitation. He found that there was a recurrent structure in their work: a scenario of what he called "triangular" or "mimetic" desire. Don Quixote offers a fairly simple example. The would-be knight feels no particular longing for Dulcinea. Rather, he has thrown himself into a passionate imitation of certain models of what a knight must do -- and she's as close to a damsel as circumstances allow.

Girard argued that, at some deep level, all of human desire is like that. We learn by imitation -- and one of the things we learn is what, and how, to desire. (Hence, I didn't so much want that book in the window for its own sake, but as a means to triumph in the struggle for the position my wife calls "Ma's favorite son-in-law.")

For the most part, we are blind to the mediated nature of desire. But the great writers, according to Girard, are more lucid about this. They reveal the inner logic of desire, including its tendency to spread -- and, in spreading, to generate conflict. When several hands reach for the same object, some of them are bound to end up making fists. So begins a cycle of terror and retaliation; for violence, too, is mimetic.

By the 1970s, Girard had turned all of this into a grand theory of human culture. He described a process in which the contagion-like spread of mimetic desire and violence leads to the threat of utter social disintegration. At which point, something important happens: the scapegoat emerges. All of the free-floating violence is discharged in an act of murder against an innocent person or group which is treated (amidst the delirium of impending collapse) as the source of the conflict.

A kind of order takes shape around this moment of sacrificial violence. Myths and rituals are part of the commemoration of the act by which mimetic desire and its terrible consequences were subdued. But they aren't subdued forever. The potential for a return of this contagion is built into the very core of what makes us human.

Girard's thinking has not changed much in the 30 years or so since he published Violence and the Sacred, which appeared in France in 1972 and in an English translation from Johns Hopkins University Press in 1977. He has restated his theory any number of times, drawing in material from the various social sciences as evidence. He has spelled out some of its theological implications -- which, in Girard's own telling anyway, are profoundly Christian. He wasn't a believer when he started thinking about mimetic desire, but became a Catholic somewhere along the way. (Girard's readers have a right to expect a detailed spiritual autobiography, at some point.)

It isn't necessary to share Girard's creed to find his work of interest -- though I must admit to some uncertainty, after all this time, about how to classify his system of thought. You can trace some of his ideas back to Hegel (desire for the desire of the other), or sideways to George Bataille and Kenneth Burke (who both wrote about scapegoating). But there's also something reminiscent of Middlemarch about the whole thing, as if Girard were trying to finish Edward Casaubon's "Key to All Mythologies."

Girard has a small academic following, organized as the Colloquium on Violence and Religion, which produces an interdisciplinary journal called Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture. And there's a useful annotated bibliography of works by and about him available online.

The interview in this summer's issue of New Perspectives Quarterly is interesting, not just for Girard's comments on the new head of his own church, but for his thoughts on the dangers of mimetic desire in a global marketplace. One counterintuitive element of Girard's theory is that scapegoating is not the product of difference. Rather, he holds that mimetic desire and the resulting cycle of conflict tend to reduce people to the same level. (The moment of savage violence against the scapegoat is an effort to create a difference, a structure, an order in the chaos of sameness.) That would be the dark side of Tom Friedman's peppy thesis about how the world is now "flat."

The interview is also striking for Girard's full-throated proclamation that Christianity, alone among religions, can face the truth about mimetic desire. In a smart and welcome move, the editors of the Quarterly have invited the comments of someone from another religious tradition with very definite ideas about the intimate relationship between desire and human misery, Pankaj Mishra, author of An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World, published last year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays.


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