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Four Short Poems Loosely Related to Ideas Developed by René Girard

Discipline and Begging for Attention
Needing others to need him, the dandy
feigns indifference, his modus operandi.

Beauty Will Indict the World
There is a great and terrible beauty
preserved from the antebellum
South, in records kept for business
so elegantly written on vellum.

Jealousy and the Politics of Dancing
How much he envied her well shod skill
at les chassés et croisés of the quadrille!

Perfect Match for Not-So-Perfect Catch
The kind of girl I like is the epitome
of the kind of girl who’d be rid of me.

More Evidence that René Girard Really is On to Something …

… is that he’s verified, not by polls offering a consensus or double blind experiments, but by the likes of Billy Joe Shaver. As the original outlaw says in the introduction here, He’s the one who made us all #2 … that’s true! Then you don’t have to compete, you see …

The Jobe-Percy-Girard Triangle

Girard on Seinfeld

I’m now reading Evolution and Conversion: Dialogues on the Origins of Culture, another “conversation” book with Girard, very much intended as a sequel to Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. It is a remarkable book, in some ways a complete overhaul of the earlier dialogues – even if the major vectors of his mimetic and scapegoat theories are much the same. Girard has become much more precise in both his criticism and his acknowledgement of the debt to Freud, Levi-Strauss, et al., and the breadth of his knowledge is nothing short of astonishing. On top of that, he ‘s a fan of Seinfeld:

… the majority of Hollywood or TV productions are very much based on the false romantic notion of the autonomy of the individual and the authenticity of his/her own desire. Of course there are exceptions, like the popular sit-com Seinfeld, which uses mimetic mechanisms constantly and depicts its characters as puppets of mimetic desire. I do not like the fact that Seinfeld makes fun of high culture, which is nothing but mimetic snobbery, but it is a very clever and powerful show. It is also the only show which can afford to make fun of political correctness and can talk about imprtant current phenomena such as the anorexia and bulimia epidemic, which clearly have strong mimetic components. From a moral point of view, it is a hellish description of our contemporary world, but at the same time, it shows a tremendous amount of talent and there are powerful insights regarding our mimetic situation.

Probably the contemporaries of Shakespeare appreciated his portrayal of human relations in the same way we enjoy Seinfeld, without really understanding his perspicaciousness regarding mimetic interaction. I must say that there is more social reality in Seinfeld than in most academic sociology.

Being the author of a great book on Shakepeare, Theater of Envy, and something of an academic sociologist himself, this is high praise indeed.

Girard Watch

A couple of recent items popped up in a recent Google search for Girard. Stanford’s provocative immortel begins with this great anecdote:

In 2004, Jean-Pierre Dupuy, a professor of French at Stanford, is attending a conference in Berlin when he is confronted by a man in a café who asks, “Why did you become a Girardian?” Dupuy replies in a beat: “Because it’s cheaper than psychoanalysis.”

And Bad Catholics at a time near the end of the world might also be interested in learning that Girard has a new book coming out:

Girard’s Achever Clausewitz, published last year in France by Editions Carnets Nord, will be published in English by Michigan State University Press this winter. The book, which takes as its point of departure the Prussian military historian and theorist Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831), is considered by many to be groundbreaking. Its implications place Girard, known mostly for his studies of literature and archaic cultures, squarely in the 21st century.

“It doesn’t take much insight to realize that wars have been getting worse every time—worse from the point of view of the civilian, more and more destructive, more and more total. Well, Clausewitz is about that,” Girard explained. “Therefore my book is a very end-of-the-world sort of thing.”

A review of Achever Clausewitz may be found here. Here are a few words to brighten your day:

If much of Girard’s oeuvre addresses the alpha point of human origins, the present book considers the frightening possibility that humanity may be evolving toward an omega point. Having entered a post-Cold War era of terrorism, genocide, and climate change, our species now finds itself confronted with potential self-annihilation. The best summary of the book probably comes in the first lines of Girard’s introduction:

Le livre que voici est un livre bizarre. Il se présente comme une excursion du côté de l’Allemagne et des rapports franco-allemands depuis les deux derniers siècles. Il avance en même temps des choses jamais dites avec la violence et la clarté qu’elles exigent. La possibilité d’une fin de l’Europe, du monde occidental et du monde dans son ensemble. Ce possible est aujourd’hui devenu réel. C’est dire s’il s’agit d’un livre apocalyptique (p. 9).

It is the heavy weight of this possible end that Girard wants his readers to feel hanging over Europe and indeed the entire world. His book seeks to make this weight tangible by plunging into the heart of European romanticism—a movement that his past books have tended to hold at arm’s length (cf. the “romantic lie”). Achever Clausewitz thus reveals another side of René Girard—the chartiste and the historian, and even the repressed romantic (“J’entre dans Clausewitz par Chopin,” he writes on page 193). Having once looked upon Christianity as a panoramic vantage point from which to survey the errors of both archaic religion and modern rationalist utopian projects, Girard has revised his point of view. He no longer seeks to establish a conceptual distinction between “non-violent” Biblical texts and violent “historical” Christianity. He now appears to see the errors of historical Christianity, from the Crusades to the papacy’s sins of omission during World War II, as forming an indissoluble part of Christianity as a whole, impossible to elide by means of a theoretical “third way”. He had already begun this self-revision in an essay on mimetic theory and theology published in Celui par qui le scandale arrive. But in this book he voices his conviction with renewed force, presenting us with a humanity trapped in history, faced with the difficult choice between violence and renunciation:

J’ai longtemps essayé de penser le christianisme comme une position de surplomb, et j’ai dû y renoncer. J’ai maintenant la conviction que c’est de l’intérieur même du mimétisme qu’il faut penser. (p. 153)

I, for one, can’t wait.

For the book, I mean.

Girard on Dostoyevsky’s Vision in The Possessed

“In his later years Dostoyevsky’s vision reveals even more clearly the profound significance of novelistic works. It provides a coherent interpretation of the very strict analogies and of the radical difference between Christianity and imitative desire. To express this supreme truth which is illustrated implicity or explicitly by all novelistic works of genius, we will borrow an abstract formula from Louis Ferrero’s Désespoirs: “Passion is the change of address of a force awakened by Christianity and oriented toward God.”

Denial of God does not eliminate transcendency but diverts it from the au-delà to the en deça [nb: A translation of these terms is “beyond” and “this side of”, indicating a spiritual dichotomy derived from one’s orientation towards belief in God. As I understand it.] The imitation of Christ becomes the imitation of one’s neighbor. The surge of pride breaks against the humanity of the mediator, and the result of this conflict is hatred. Max Scheler did not understand the imitative nature of desire and for this reason never succeeded in distinguishing ressentiment from Christian religious feeling. He did not dare to put the two phenomena side by side in order to distinguish them more clearly and thus remained within the Nietzschean confusion which he was trying to dispel.

The Dostoyevskian insight into internal mediation is best seen in the crucial character of Stavrogin, who is the mediator of all the characters in The Possessed. We should not hesitate to recognize in him an image of Antichrist.

To understand Stavrogin we must look on him as a model and consider his relations with his “disciples.” If we are to grasp his importance we must not isolate him from his fictional context, and above all we must not allow ourselves, like the possessed, to become fascinated with is “satanic grandeur”.

The possessed get their ideas and desires from Stavrogin; he becomes, as it were, their idol. Each feels for him the mixture of reverence and hatred which characterizes internal mediatioin. Each is shattered against the icy wall of his indifference. The unfortunate Gaganov fights a duel with Stavrogin; neither insults nor bullets can touch the demigod. The universe of the possessed is the reverse image of the Christian universe. The positive mediation of the saint is replaced by the negative mediation of the anguish and hate. Shatov reminds Stavrogin that “there was a master who announced great things and a disciple who was raised from the dead.” Kirillov, Shatov, Lebiadkine, and all the women in The Possessed succumb to Stavrogin’s strange power and reveal to him in almost identical terms the part he plays in their existence. Stavrogin is their “light,” they wait for him as for the “sun”; before him they feel they are “before the Almighty”; they speak to him as “to God himself”; Shatov says to him, “You know I shall kiss your foot-prints when you leave. I cannot tear you from my heart, Nicolai Stavrogin.”

Stavrogin is atonished that Shatov looks on him as “a kind of star” beside which he himself would be “only an insect.” Everyone wants to place a banner in the hands of Stavrogin. Finally Verhovenski himself, the coldest character of The Possessed, the most secretive, and, one would think, the most “automonous,” throws himself at the feet of his idol, kisses his hand, babbles deliriously, and finally suggests he is “the Tsarevitch Ivan,” the savior of revolutionary Russia, who will rise from the chaos and as an all-powerful dictator will re-establish order.

Stavrogin, you are beautiful! exclaims Piotr Stepanovitch as if in ecstasy. . . . You are my idol! You offend no one yet everyone hates you; you treat people as though they were your equals, but they are nevertheless afraid of you. . . . You are the leader, you are the sun, and I am only a worm.

The lame Maria Timofeievna feels frenzied fear and rapture in Stavrogin’s presence: “May I kneel before you?” she humbly asks him. But the spell is soon broken; only Maria is able to unmask the impostor, for she alone is free from pride. Stavrogin provides a veritable allegory of internal mediation.

Hate is the reverse image of divine love. We have already seen the eternal husband and the curious impertinent offer the beloved as a sacrifice to the monstrous divinity. The characters in The Possessed offer themselves as sacrifice and offer to Stavrogin everything that is most precious to them. Deviated transcendency is a caricature of vertical transcendency. There is not one element of this distorted mysticism which does not have its luminous counterpart in Christian truth.

The false prophets proclaim that in tomorrow’s world men will be gods for each other. This ambiguous message is always carried by the most blind of Dostoyevsky’s characters. The wretched creatures rejoice in the thought of a great fraternity. They do not perceive the irony of their own formula; they think they are heralding paradise but they are talking about hell, a hell into which they themselves are already sinking.

To praise or to deplore the progress of “materialism” is equally foreign to Dostoyevskian thought. There is nothing less “materialistic” than triangular desire. The passion that drives men to seize or gain more possessions is not materialistic; it is the triumph of the mediator, the god with the human face. In this world of demoniacal spirituality only a Myshkin has the right to call himself a “materialist.” Men boast of having discarded their old superstitions but they are gradually sinking into an underworld ruled by illusions which become increasingly obvious. But as the gods are pulled down from heaven the sacred flows over the earth; it separates the individual from all earhtly goods; it creates a gulf between him and the world of ici-bas far grater than that which used to separate him from the au-delà. The earth’s surface where Others live becomes an inaccessible paradise.

The problem of divinity no longer occurs at this low level. The need for transcendency is “satisfied” by mediation. Religious debates remain academic, especially perhaps when they separate the debaters into two rival camps, each of which passionately defends its position and condemns the other. It matters little whether the underground man believes in or denies the existence of God; however violently he argues for or against God, it is only his lips which speak. For the sacred to have concrete significance, the underground man must first return to the earth’s surface. Thus, in Dostoyevsky, the return to mother earth is the first and necessary stage on the road to salvation. When the hero emerges victorious from the underground he embraces the earth from which he sprang. ~ Deceit, Desire and the Novel, pp 59 – 61

Girard on "external mediation" and "internal mediation"

“In the novels of Cervantes and Flaubert, the mediator remained beyond the universe of the hero; he is now within the same universe. [NB: “now” refers to Stendahl’s Red and the Black specifically, but also Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and Dostoevsky’s Possessed.]

We shall speak of external mediation when the distance is sufficient to eliminate any contact between the two spheres of possibilities of which the mediator and the subject occupy the respective centers. We shall speak of internal mediation when this same distance is sufficiently reduced to allow these two spheres to penetrate each other more or less profoundly.” ~ Deceit, Desire and the Novel, p 9

René Girard on "Triangular" Desire

From Deceit, Desire and the Novel:

“… 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

Don Quixote has surrendered to Amadis the individual’s fundamental prerogative: he no longer choosess teh objects of his own desire – Amadis must choose for him.

The disciple pursues objects which are determined for him, or at least seem to be determined for him, by the model of all chivalry. We shall call this model the mediator of desire. Chivalric existence is the imitation of Amadis in the same sense that the Christian’s existence is the imitation of Christ.

In most works of fiction, the characters have desires which are simpler than Don Quixote’s. There is no mediator, there is only the subject and the object. When the “nature” of the object inspiring the passion is not sufficient to account for the desire, one must turn to the impassioned subject. Either his “psychology” is examined or his “liberty” invoked. But desire is always spontaneous. It can always be portrayed by a simple straight line which joins subject and object.

The straight line is present in the desire of Don Quixote, but it is not essential. The mediator is there, above that line, radiating toward both the subject and the object. The spatial metaphor which expresses this triple relationship is obviously the tirangle. The object changes with each adventure but the triangle remains. The barber’s basin or Master Peter’s puppets replace the windmills; but Amadis is always present.

The triangle is no Gestalt. The real structures are intersubjective. They cannot be localized anywhere; the triangle has no reality whatever; it is a systematic metaphor, systematically pursued.

Don Quixote, in Cervantes’ novel, is a typical example of the victim of triangular desire, but he is far from being the only one. Next to him the most affected is his squire, Sancho Panza. Some of Sancho’s desires are not imitated, for example, thosse aroused by the sight of a piece of cheese or a goatskin of wine. But Sancho has other ambitions besides filling his stomach. Ever since he has been with Don Quixote he has been dreaming of an “island” of which he would be governor, and he wants teh title of duchess for his daughter. These desires do not come spontaeously to a simple man like Sancho. It is Don Quixote who has put them into his head.

This time the suggestion is not literary, but oral. But the difference has little importance. These new desires form a new triangle of which the imaginary island, Don Quixote, and Sancho occupy the angles. Don Quixote is Sancho’s mediator. The effects of triangular desire are the same in the two characters. From the moment the mediator’s influence is felt, the sense of reality is lost and judgment paralyzed.” ~ Deceit, Desire and the Novel, Pp 1 – 4

René Girard e Gianni Vattimo

Yes, this is how I spent my Saturday night: watching an exchange between Girard and the Italian Christian nihilist Gianni Vattimo (who once famously said “I believe I believe”, which doesn’t actually sound particularly nihilistic, although it does seem to exemplify the philosophy he terms ‘weak thought’ and ‘weak ontology’). I enjoyed this as much as I did, not so much because he spars with Vattimo, but because it reveals how he actually corrects the view of “sacrifice” that he put forward in Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. I’ve always had a difficult time accepting this aspect of his intepretation of scripture (while being wildly enthusiastic about most everything else he conjectures), so it’s more than a little reassuring to hear him clarify and actually correct himself on such a crucial aspect of his theory. I think it’s also something that probably strikes most Christians as a pretty ordinary interpretation, or understanding, of the word ‘sacrifice’. Simply put, it’s good to sacrifice, in a self-giving sense, and it’s bad to sacrifice others. Is it good to depend on the sacrifice of another? When that other is God, is it possible to do otherwise?

This is how it comes up in his discussion of the Judgement of Solomon:

“And I said at first in Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World … ‘the first woman accepts the sacrifice, the second woman refuses it’ – but it’s not true! The second accepts another form of sacrifice – which corrects the first – which is her own, and there is no non-sacrificial space in which you could stand back in a scientific way and look at both solutions and judge them. You’re either in the first sacrifice, or in the second. But the mysterious use of the word sacrifice is fundamental, and is a less domineering position to analyze. In other words, the only way you can acknowledge the role of Christ completely is to accept the word sacrifice for him, but understanding that he has a radically different meaning. Mankind shifts from the first kind of sacrifice, which God accepts, because it is the only way to reach the second.” (~89:00)

I guess most of this seems pretty obvious. I suppose one could also see Christ in Solomon, eternally present as judge in order to urge us to abandon our self-interest, but I’ve always thought of the story in the terms Girard presents here. I suppose it is because he has so long pondered big and influential thinkers like Nietszche and Freud, as well as problematic texts (all those obscure myths in Violence and the Sacred), but coming to this interpretation really does seem the long way around. Perhaps Girard is at his best when he’s straightening out a Lévi-Strauss or a Vattimo, but it’s still a treat to see him grappling with scripture, as we all must.

"The Crowd is Untruth: A Comparison of Kierkegaard and Girard"

Since Quin (our resident scholar and scapegoat) has been dipping into Rene Girard, I thought this essay by Charles K. Bellinger might be worth taking a look at.

An excerpt:

To sum up, the key point at which Kierkegaard’s thought advances Girard’s is to be found in his description of the relationship between the individual and God the Creator, when the individual is attempting to avoid the process of spiritual growth. This is the central theme of The Concept of Anxiety, Purity of Heart, the essay on “The Crowd is Untruth,” The Sickness Unto Death, and Practice in Christianity.[15] In these works, Kierkegaard lays the foundation for an understanding of the psychology of violence that is subtle and theologically profound. The key point at which Girard’s thought improves upon Kierkegaard’s is found in Girard’s theoretical refinement of the understanding of the crowd. The idea that “the crowd is untruth” was an insight that Kierkegaard pointed to at various times in his authorship. But in Girard, this idea is developed into a comprehensive social theory which is articulated in conversation with current philosophical anthropology, taking into consideration a broad swath of social scientific data from the ancient Aztecs up to the present day. When Girard’s thought is coordinated with Kierkegaard’s, the result is a very strong testimony to the power of the Christian intellectual tradition as a resource for understanding the psychology of violence.

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