· Two occasions to re-read René Girard ·
At the considerable age of eighty-eight, the literary critic and anthropologist of religions, René Girard continues to be a presence on the scene of studies consecrated to his specialty. Two of his titles have been published this year: the first translated into Italian, Violenza e religione. Causa o effetto? ( Violence and Religion. Cause or Effect ?, Milano, Raffaello Cortina, 2011, pp 85, 11 euro) and the second in French, Géométries du desir ( Geometries of Desire , Paris, L’Herne, 2011, pp. 218, 9.50 euro). Both are collections of articles, conversations or academic conferences; texts to which the average reader would not normally have access. The publication of the books offers a precious occasion for examining the topicality and solidity of Girard’s amazing mimetic theory applied to archaic religions, to myth, as well as to the Christian religion. An occasion offered not only to those who are already familiar with his foundational works such as Violence and the Sacred , 1977 and Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World , 1987, but also for those who have encountered his works more recently and want to deepen their knowledge of its content.
The general outlines of Girard’s thought can already be seen in his early works: beginning with the theory of interpersonal relations dominated by desires borrowed from others, “acquisitive mimesis” – a theory that was elaborated by re-reading classic European novels and texts of the Old and New Testament.
He then highlights effect of this “acquisitive mimesis” on the community, in which the crowd, transfers blame onto one member, a scapegoat, presumed responsible for the contagion which would destroy the group. It is the moment of the victim mechanism and the divinization of the presumed guilty one, a moment and mechanisms which, rewarded by the miraculous return of order and peace, require that they be repeated and thus give way to myth and sacrificial rites.
The violence which is spoken of is not savage or rivalry but that which is able to stop the cycle, and is called “containment” or foundational or ritual or even better, sacred. Yet it is still violence, even if regulated by rules and respected by institutions. Archaic religions are formed from it; and biblical texts and the Gospels distinguish themselves insofar as they are objects of the slow and progressive emergence of the innocence of the victim through to his complete revelation, absent in paganism.
The conversation which sees Girard simultaneously and unusually both literary critic and anthropologist is important because it places side by side myth and prophetic texts on the one hand with the Gospel and Islam on the other, both from the perspective of reader and spectator. In this light, it can be explained why, conditioned by classicist aesthetics, contemporary taste prefers Oedipus Rex to the pages of Biblical prophecy. The story of the King of Thebes gains more sympathy because the protagonist who is punished satisfies the need for catharsis.
The same does not happen with the Psalms, in which the reader who is confronted by, “the blood of the victim,” turns away. The same can be said for the Gospels and the Koran. The difference between Christianity, God who accepts death for salvation, and Islam which, “excludes that God could accept his own suffering,” is evident. The centrality of the theme of violence continually occupies many pages which Girard traces to foundational violence.
The reference is to that which surreptitiously hides in institutions – of the military, police, jails, legal systems – casting a disturbing shadow on the authority to act on behalf of a superior power; an authority and legitimacy whose knots defenders of legality and non-violent proponents attempt to disentangle. However much the juridical structure founded on the presumed guilt of the victim has been dismantled by Christian revelation, it continues to make itself felt. It is for this reason that, frightened by the power of the Crucified One on Dionysius, Nietzsche wielded presumed Christian resentment to invoke the restoration of pagan purification.
And on the basis of this interpretation of the permanence of sacred forms, Girard was able to see the dangers posed by abuses which go under the name of demagogic defense of the victim, forms of hoarding of piety, of obligatory compassion practiced by professionals of indignation, the art of creating new victims while pretending to go to their aid.
Given this, the danger which contemporary man is in seems to be the following: deprived of a sacrificial network of rites and prohibitions imposed by archaic religions and hesitant to embrace the totality of the message contained in the revelation of Christ, which clearly explains how to place blame on an un-saved neighbor, he risks forgetting that there is no other way than that of brotherly love.
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