Below is the latest essay by Thomas F. Bertonneau. The author includes this explanatory note:
The original of this essay first appeared at the now-dormant Brussels Journal on 11 December 2014. It was my last article to appear at that website before its dormancy. For republication at Gates of Vienna I have undertaken a major revision including the addition of an extensive set of “Afterthoughts.”
René Girard on the “Ontological Sickness”
by Thomas F. Bertonneau
This essay concerns the anthropology of the late René Girard (1923-2015), but it will be useful to begin with a slight detour.
Owen Barfield (1898-1997), the English philologist and literary critic, is not an author whom one casually connects with the natively French but long-naturalized American anthropological thinker René Girard, but one of Barfield’s coinages — the concept of “internalization,” which he develops in his History in English Words (1926) — makes a good introduction to Girard’s concept of “ontological sickness,” the proposed topic of the present discussion. Barfield uses his term “internalization” to designate an essential characteristic of modernity that can be traced back to the late Seventeenth Century only to reach a degree of alarming acuity three hundred and fifty years later. In both the Pagan order and the medieval Christian order, people grasped nature as vital and as having a reciprocal relation with the individual human being. This perception is rooted partly in the agricultural pattern of the classical and medieval societies, but is also powerfully intuitive irrespective of its context. Human beings under this intuition share the cosmos with other beings of various hierarchical orders, some of whom exert influence on people, as the planets and stars supposedly do according to the precepts of astrology. One need not take the propositions of the astrologer literally in acknowledging that, even by modern, skeptical criteria, his nowadays much-disparaged cosmic science grasps an essential truth: That every creature has an environment, with whose fluctuations the creature’s life remains intimately entangled.
In Barfield’s historical phenomenology of European consciousness, using the cumulus of meaning-changes of English-language words as his test-case, the modern phase of mental transformation takes the form, seemingly, of a deliberate retreat from the external world, no longer posited as the immediate environment of the percipient subject, with which that subject in reality has vital, reciprocal relations; and that retreat is the same as the de-vitalization and de-sacralization of the world, as remarked by others, most famously Max Weber. Some signs of this alteration, as cited by Barfield, are the degeneration of commonsensical skepticism into dogmatic skepticism; the philosophy of René Descartes, with his reduction of the individual to the cogito; the appearance of words like religionist and religiose which function in a purely pejorative way; and the appearances of other words prefixed with “self,” of which Barfield gives an extensive list. In Barfield’s narrative, the actively participatory consciousness gradually seeks refuge within the close boundaries of its own mind, which it now sees as totally other than the extended world. This mentality describes itself in lifeless, abstract terms. Experiencing itself as pure mind, it describes its environment in equally lifeless, abstract terms. The modern mentality studies the landscape and exploits it, but acknowledges no meaning in it until latterly so-called cognitive science explains consciousness itself as nothing but a meaningless algorithm.
Acknowledging no meaning is not the same, however, as experiencing no meaning. Another way of putting Barfield’s observation would be to describe the modern mentality as shrinking away from meaning — also as shrinking away from the admission that one person owes anything to another person or that lives are not pristinely isolated and immaculate but nastily mixed up with one another and that this is the very structure of human reality. It might well be — it certainly is — the case that the modern obsession with originality and uniqueness is a verbal sham, a game with words whereby the typically modern mentality denies, not only its relation to other living people, but also to the dead, that is, to a tradition that has established the language, the culture, the polity, and indeed the very possibility of having an opinion about any of those things. For a subject obsessed with the image of its independence and boundless creativity, such a qualification is intolerable.
All college and university instructors will testify to the sociological fact that today’s students are obsessed with their cell phones. Why should this be so? What is that urgent as to require such continuous instrumental vigilance? Barfield’s interpretation of modernity offers an explanation why late-adolescents, including tens of millions of chronological adults, are so fixated on handheld communication technology. They are the isolated ego, trapped in the granitic keep of the Cartesian cogito and they are desperately, blindly calling into the void for redemption from their imprisonment. Girard furnishes an explanation, too, as the exposition will show.
Girard’s work, like Barfield’s, offers an historical phenomenology of European consciousness over the last three or four hundred years, that is, the period of the emergence of modernity. Like Barfield, but, using quite different terms, Girard sees modernity as afflicted and in need of redemption; and again like Barfield he sees modern man’s malaise as deepening in its severity since the breakdown of traditional society during the Reformation, with its concerted attack on the meaningfulness of external ritual. The Enlightenment exacerbates the crisis. While I have referred to Girard as “an anthropological thinker,” it should be added that he began his authorial career in literary criticism, with his seminal Deceit Desire & the Novel (1962), a study in the novelistic treatment of envy and resentment from Miguel de Cervantes to Marcel Proust. Where Barfield pursued the metaphysical implications of literature, Girard became fascinated by the way in which sustained narrative reveals seemingly trivial quirks of human behavior that on inspection prove, not trivial, but fundamental, structuring the plot and becoming themes for sustained meditation. Although Deceit Desire & the Novel — in French, Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque, that is, Romantic Lie and Novelistic Truth — presents itself as a literary study, its anthropological implications make the book exceptional in its genre. It eschews jargon, contents itself with plain language, and prefers observation of life and straightforward reading of the text to abstract theorizing.
What exactly does Girard discover in the Quixote, in Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, and in the novels of Stendhal, Flaubert, and Proust?
Girard discovers only what the novelists themselves have already discovered: “Mediated desire,” “triangular desire,” “external mediation,” and “internal mediation”; not to mention the “subjectivisms and objectivisms, romanticisms and realisms, individualisms and scientisms, idealisms and positivisms” — those ideologies of the sovereign self — that operate “to conceal the presence of the mediator” and so serve “the lie of spontaneous desire” that confers its resentfulness on modernity. In respect of that resentfulness, one would need to add to Girard’s list of dissimulations the distinctively modern theme of oppression by the wicked Other. Girard also discovers, along with his novelist-tutors, the mediated object. That would be the object that the desiring subject sees as originally his because he “does not want to be anyone’s disciple” in his choices; and again because he wishes to see his horizon of interest as “the emanation of a serene subjectivity” and “the creation ex nihilo of a quasi-divine ego” rather than as mere vain imitation, following on others. The first chapter of Deceit begins with a long epigraph from the Quixote in which the Don confesses to Sancho Panza that he has modeled his life after, and therefore adopted the quest (that is, the desire) of, Amadis of Gaul. Amadis was a chivalric hero whose exploits became popular in Spain early in the Sixteenth Century with the appearance of that new medium, the printed book. The Don’s follies are thus explicitly linked, by him, to the phenomenon of mimesis or imitation and through the image of the printed book to modernity.
Likewise Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary links the follies and disappointments of its titular lady’s life-itinerary to youthful over-mediation through cheap love-stories. Unwont to accept the prevailing relativism, Girard insists on the critical division to which his French title refers, “romantic lie” on the one hand and “novelistic truth” on the other. Girard therefore carefully differentiates between the two instances of literary mediation, in the Quixote and Bovary. The adventures of Amadis of Gaul happened, as it were, once upon a time, in a dimension apart from the Don’s actual life. Emma’s teenaged reading in the convent-school, as Flaubert writes, consisted of books that “were all love, lovers, sweethearts, persecuted ladies fainting in lonely pavilions, postilions killed at every stage, horses ridden to death on every page, sombre forests, heartaches, vows, sobs, tears and kisses, little skiffs by moonlight, nightingales in shady groves, ‘gentlemen’ brave as lions, gentle as lambs, virtuous as no one ever was, always well dressed, and weeping like fountains.” These same books, however, present characters and events as belonging to this world, and thus as coeval with the reader, and real; they therefore incite a naïve and unfulfillable expectation in the subject, who begins to measure herself against the propinquity of those benchmarks.
Whereas Quixote’s mediators, the peers of chivalric fiction, stand distant from him, both in time and stature, Emma Bovary’s stand close to her; so much so that she readily identifies them with actual others in her living environment, or at least with those who hover noticeably around its fringes. Indeed, the authors of such seduction-narratives intend their characters to resemble the reader’s friends and neighbors because they understand the fascination of the romance-reader with the familiar — with herself and with those near to her. In the case of Quixote and Amadis of Gaul, Girard refers to the sub-phenomenon of “external mediation.” In the case of Flaubert’s bourgeois protagonist and her mediators, Girard refers to the sub-phenomenon of “internal mediation.” Girard characterizes the former as occurring “when the distance is sufficient to eliminate any contact between… the mediator and the subject.” He characterizes the latter as occurring “when this same distance is sufficiently reduced to allow the two spheres [of the mediator and the subject] to penetrate each other more or less profoundly.”
In external mediation either “no rivalry with the mediator is possible” or the possibility of it remains low. In internal mediation, what Girard calls “the secondary role of the mediator,” namely to identify an object of desire, “becomes primary, concealing his original function of a model scrupulously imitated.” Let it be noted that for Girard desire is almost always “triangular.” The triangle consists of the subject, the mediator-model, and an object — whatever it is that the mediator-model appears to the subject to desire or possess. The mediator designates the object. The triangle, moreover, is radically unstable: The model can become a rival by blocking, or seeming to block, the subject’s access to the object. Girard’s Romantic subject, who is also the modern subject par excellence, habitually dissimulates to himself his subordinate status: “He asserts that his own desire is prior to that of his rival; according to him, it is the mediator who is responsible for the rivalry.” Such dissimulation can take the form of “transfiguration.” As Girard writes, “The mediator’s prestige is imparted to the object of desire and confers upon it an illusory but effective value,” such that, the subject “expects his being to be radically changed by the act of possession.”
As Girard states in one of his chapter-titles, men can become gods in the eyes of each other. “That man is like a god to me,” writes Sappho in one of her lyrics; and it is because the man enjoys the company of the girl whom Sappho, quite suddenly, wants. So then also of Dostoyevsky’s protagonist in Notes from Underground, Girard writes, “Dreams of absorbing and assimilating the mediator’s being,” but this is merely the subject’s impossible longing “to become the Other and still be himself.” Such longing, as Girard adds, “implies an insuperable revulsion for one’s own substance,” which nevertheless bears a “metaphysical meaning” with respect to desire. That meaning is this: “The curse with which the hero is burdened is indistinguishable from his subjectivity” because the subject never enters the scene by parthenogenesis; he is never alone; but his subjectivity is, rather, from the onset of his consciousness, “intersubjective.” Flaubert, Stendhal, Dostoyevsky, Proust, and others document another facet of Girard’s observation: Men naturally become gods in the eyes of each other, but this transformation accelerates greatly as traditional religion withdraws from the social scene.
Girard writes how the modern consciousness “renounces the divine mediator only to fall back on the human mediator.” In another formula, Girard asserts that, “Denial of God does not eliminate transcendency but diverts it from the au-delà to the en-deçà.” Christianity cannot exclude mimesis, but it can channel mimesis by directing the subject to imitate the maximally distant model, the Second Person of the Trinity, who in turn desires only to imitate the First Person of the Trinity. To direct one’s attention to God through the Son opens the way to the liberation of the soul from its enslavement to men. The modern consciousness, which has been in rivalry with God since the time of Friedrich Nietzsche at least, exalts the divinity of its own ego, and then wonders why, despite the rhetorical glamour of its syllogisms, it nevertheless fails actually to feel as its own the Being of God. A whole degraded politics of endless complaint has grown out of this failure, attributing what is often called privilege to its targeted malefactors. The subject cannot maintain the illusion of having acquired Being from its dispossessed monopolist and invariably collapses into panic. Romantic deception even goes so far as to validate panic, describing it under the allurement of the abyss, as though that might save the situation. Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and various French deconstructionists have extolled and still today extol the abyss.
Disillusionment can, however, lead the dejected subject in another direction. As Girard sees it, novelistic truth accepts conversion, entailing renunciation, as the alternative to endless mediation, for which the abyss is a good term. Whereas, in Girard’s words, “a self-centered person thinks he is choosing himself but in fact… shuts himself out as much as the other”; by contrast in the case of humility, “victory over self-centeredness allows us to probe deeply into the Self.” The delusion of autonomy is paradoxical. So-called self-centeredness is massively intersubjective, but purblind to its dependence on the Other for cues how to live or even what to want. It even borrows the idea of its autonomy. Girard quotes Flaubert in respect of his own heroine: “Mme Bovary, c’est moi!” The exclamation shows that Flaubert had made a profound self-discovery in writing about his fictitious heroine. “The universe of the novel,” Girard writes, “is the universe of people possessed.” The novelist, as opposed to the romancier, undertakes in the act of composition a profound self-assessment. For Flaubert especially writing was an act of conscious askesis that opened the possibility for restorative dis-possession.
If novelistic endings, where the hero renounces his egomaniacal pretensions, seemed “banal” to the modern critics, who snobbishly dismiss them while preferring characters who are bravely “authentic,” what would really be banal, according to Girard, is “the absolute banality of what is essential to Western civilization.” Emma Bovary dies in dejection, but Don Quixote renounces Amadis of Gaul on his deathbed; and some heroes of Dostoyevsky, like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, also come to grips at last with the demonism of their own pride and vanity although others, like Kirilov, who wants to be God, perish in the abyss. A quarter of a century after Deceit Desire & the Novel, Girard returned to his topics of mimetic desire and intersubjectivity in Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World (1978; English edition, 1987), now in the mode of explicit anthropology rather than that of mere literary criticism. In Things Hidden, Girard’s insight has acquired incisiveness through his study of myth, which gave rise to his Violence and the Sacred (1966), the unpredictable but remarkable sequel to Deceit Desire & the Novel.
In Things Hidden, Girard writes: “Modern people still fondly imagine that their discomfort and unease are a product of the strait-jacket that religious taboos, cultural prohibitions and, in our day, even the legal forms of protection guaranteed by the judiciary place upon desire. They think that once this confinement is over, desire will be able to blossom forth [and that] its wonderful innocence will finally be able to bear fruit.” The modern subject, wanting liberté, inveterately seeks liberation and just as inveterately experiences the belaboring frustration of every liberating triumph. The “Declaration of Sentiments” (1848) of the Seneca Falls Convention of early feminists employs the essential “liberationist” vocabulary: “Disenfranchisement,” “social and religious degradation,” a mass of the “oppressed,” whose constituents “feel… aggrieved” and who want “rights and privileges” wickedly withheld by malefactors. The male oppressor, as the document asserts, “Has usurped the prerogative of Jehovah himself, claiming it as his right to assign for [the generic woman] a sphere of action, when that belongs to her conscience and her God.” In her much-celebrated speech on the same occasion, Elizabeth Cady Stanton invoked the image of the sovereign self in its absoluteness: “There is a solitude… more inaccessible than the ice-cold mountains, more profound than the midnight sea,” which neither “eye nor touch of man or angel has ever pierced.”
The themes of the usurpation of being and of the radical autonomy of the individual, Girard’s self-inflating quasi-divine ego, come exemplarily into their necessary conjunction at the inception of what would later take the name of women’s liberation. Let us explore the example.
The feminist “Declaration” and its adjunct texts were already hackneyed. Jean-Jacques Rousseau had set the tone brilliantly nearly a century before, in his Discourse upon the Origin and the Foundation of the Inequality among Mankind (1754). The second part of Rousseau’s essay begins with the speculative scenario that must have inspired Karl Marx to write The Communist Manifesto (1848 — the same year as the Seneca Falls Convention): “The first man, who, after enclosing a piece of ground, took it into his head to say, ‘This is mine,’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society.” Not merely property, but society itself, for Rousseau, is theft or usurpation. Under tutelage of Girard, one might reduce the formula even further: Usurpation is the Other, by the mere fact of his existence. In the sequel, Rousseau, speaking on behalf of the usurped, rouses the mob against the usurper: “How many crimes, how many wars, how many murders, how many misfortunes and horrors, would that man have saved the human species, who pulling up the stakes or filling up the ditches should have cried to his fellows: Be sure not to listen to this imposter; you are lost, if you forget that, the fruits of the earth belong equally to us all, and the earth itself to nobody!”
Property functions as a prohibition. Rousseau’s claim that “the fruits of the earth belong equally to us all,” or that they previously did and ought to still, implies a pre-lapsarian situation in which no prohibitions existed and in which appropriative desire encountered no rivalry and thus no check. Girard would no doubt comment that before property becomes desirable, the model must designate its desirability to the subject. This is indeed what happens in Rousseau’s scenario, when the usurper scores the reprehensible limen in the nourishing body of Mother Earth. Rousseau erred not in failing to acknowledge resentment — for which he had a word, amour propre, where the adjective is related to propriété, or property — but in regarding himself as free of it and therefore also as being a case in evidence that resentment might be eliminated from the social scene.
In Things Hidden, Girard remarks of all such utopian schemes how “none of this comes true” because “to the extent that desire does away with the external obstacles that traditional society ingeniously established to keep it from spreading, the structural obstacle that coincides with the effects of mimesis — the living obstacle of the model that is automatically transformed into a rival — can very advantageously, or rather, disadvantageously, take the place of the prohibition that no longer works.” The despised religious prohibition is precisely external to the individual and therefore impersonal and equally binding on all others. The mediator is all too likely, all too swiftly, to become the subject’s internal rival, a Mephistophelian voice incessantly undermining his contentment with the status quo. To acknowledge that as the prohibitions retreat before liberation’s triumph the subject’s sense of thwarted desire climbs asymptotically, and that these facts are correlative, would, however, force the subject to confront his limitations, the very type of introspection that modern ideology exhorts people never to undertake. So then “at the very moment when the last prohibitions are being forgotten, there [is] still any number of intellectuals who continue to refer to them as if they were more and more crippling.” Girard puts the late Michel Foucault in that category.
In I See Satan Fall like Lightning (1996; English edition, 2001), Girard returns to the relation of mimesis and resentment by commenting, in his first chapter, “Scandal Must Come,” on the text of the Tenth Commandment. Girard remarks how the Tenth Commandment calls attention to itself: “The tenth and last commandment is distinguished from those preceding it both by its length and its object.” Where the other commandments prohibit acts, the final one “forbids a desire.” Girard quotes this version: “You shall not covet the house of your neighbor. You shall not covet the wife of your neighbor, nor his male or female slave, nor his ox or his ass, nor anything that belongs to him.” Girard argues that the slightly archaic character of the verb to covet makes it seem as though the Tenth Commandment only prohibits a species of exotic or exaggerated desire; but this is not so. The noun covetousness in the King James Version means, not exotic or exaggerated desire, but only ordinary desire, experienced by everyone since the Serpent convinced Eve to covet the forbidden fruit. The injunction is so familiar and, apart from the archaic verb; its language is so seemingly banal, that, other than frowning at it as a formally hate-worthy interdiction, the modern self-liberating consciousness might wonder what the fuss is about. Girard often exhibits his exegetical strength in recovering the significance in what has come to seem flat and obvious. He does so again here.
Consider the neighbor. Excepting the subject’s family, the neighbor hovers nearest and most familiarly in the subject’s social awareness. The neighbor reproximates and omnipresents himself like none other. Yet what belongs to the neighbor falls under the constant rebuke of that very property line that so aroused Rousseau’s ire in his study of inequality; whose claimant indeed stood, in Rousseau’s rhetoric, for the total scandal of structured, and therefore of oppressive, society. It is the property-line that makes the neighbor. It is the property-line as injunction that makes the neighbor to loom so large, endowing him with apparent privilege. To the speaker, for example, in Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall,” the neighbor appears “like an old-stone savage armed”; and when, as the monologist says, “we meet to walk the line… we keep the wall between us as we go.”
“If this desire [were] the most common of all,” Girard writes in addressing covetousness, “what would happen if it were permitted rather than forbidden?” The answer follows that, “there would be perpetual war in the midst of all human groups, subgroups, and families.” Frost’s neighbors mistrust one another but they keep faith in the wall, which prevents either from transgressing the other. In order to believe in the liberating justice of its antinomianism, the modern mentality, according to Girard, must “adhere to the most excessive individualism, one that presupposes the total autonomy of individuals, that is, the autonomy of their desires.” The overwhelming testimony of tradition and experience, however, says the opposite: “If individuals are naturally inclined to desire what their neighbors possess, or to desire what their neighbors even simply desire, this means that rivalry exists at the very heart of human social relations.” Girard thus sees the Tenth Commandment as addressing “the number one problem of every human community: internal violence,” as driven by the hard-wired human tendency towards acquisitive mimesis. Indeed, as Girard argues, when the subject imitates the model, the model, noticing the imitation, redoubles his demonstrative interest in the inciting chattels, “and so the intensity of desire keeps increasing.” Such mutual reinforcement leads to the “double idolatry of self and other.”
The Tenth Commandment prohibits desire, but does that mean that desire is wholly bad? No. Girard writes: “If our desires were not mimetic, they would be forever fixed on predetermined objects; they would be a particular form of instinct.” Imitation, desire, prohibition, and consciousness are aspects of an indissoluble unity. Despite the abstract arguments stemming from the Cartesian view of the ego, the individual consciousness never exists except in promiscuous traffic with other such individual consciousnesses, none of whom, if Girard were right, would really qualify as a pure subject, hence Girard’s coinage of “intersubjectivity.” No one invents the language into which he acculturates, and he disqualifies himself to that extent from autonomy. No one invents the customs of his place, but he learns them by imitating others, and he disqualifies himself to that extent from autonomy. No more so does one invent what he wants, but rather he imitates what he wants non-autonomously on the basis of what others observably want, although as Girard writes, “this borrowing occurs quite often without either the loaner or the borrower being aware of it.” Traditional arrangements like primary education, mostly rote, and apprenticeship, made a theme of mimetic dependency while at the same time dignifying it. Modern arrangements flatter the fragile ego, which never gets the chance to grow up.
What the argument has already quoted from Girard bears repetition: “The mediator’s prestige is imparted to the object of desire and confers upon it an illusory value.” In the case of the freshman enrollment, carefully crafted celebrities endow the prestige of “uniqueness” on themselves publicly, by claiming to have it, and they thereby become the models of the targeted audience, the selfsame enrollment. Even more than the writers of the romance-novels that finally made Madame Bovary so miserable, the techno-mages of modern advertising know how to locate their protagonists within the circle of the subject’s own intimate and familiar environment. Even more than those writers, the techno-mages know how to provoke the subject into a pitch of covetousness whereupon it becomes possible to sell the subject those proper accouterments of the model that seem to enlarge the model’s Being, and whose possession might transfer Being to the subject. The entire modern scheme of “getting and spending” depends on the industrial manipulation of what Girard calls internal mediation. All “consumers” are nowadays Emma Bovary or Dostoyevsky’s “Underground Man.”
Cell phones and basketball shoes exemplify the mimetic trend. Both items have occasioned violence all the way to homicide, basketball shoes most conspicuously, but also cell phones. Given the intensity of advertising for these two commodities, such violence must surprise no one. It is the same violence, moreover, that arose from Cain’s jealousy when God’s admiration for Brother Abel’s animal offering appeared, from Cain’s perspective, to have made Abel the monopolist of charisma. Who can bear to stand next to the monopolist of charisma? The cell phone differs from the pair of basketball shoes only in being itself a medium of mediation, responding constantly to the user’s worry about what to desire, and inundating her with seductive images and verbal provocations thereto. Most of the mediators are simply peers, other cell-phone owners, as clueless as the subject, but some are university-trained predatory specialists, the professional marketers. The marketers hide among the “tweeters” waiting in ambush to exploit their consumer-impulse. The vacuity of media culture beggars description. So does its venality. In the much-coveted, latest model of the “high-end” cell phone, mediated desire becomes one with the technologized scientistic globalism. The subject can nowadays import his internal mediators across any distance at the speed of light or they can impose themselves on him with equal celerity.
The year 1968 ushered in the Age of Aquarius by reading a fatwa against prohibition, accompanied by the tossing of Molotov cocktails through storefronts and the confrontational posturing of large crowds shouting unison-slogans on public streets. As Girard reminds readers in I See Satan Fall, the shibboleth of the French undergraduates who took to the boulevards of Paris was, “Il est interdit d’interdire” — “It is forbidden to forbid.” The year 1968 also brought forth a powerful fable about the ontological sickness that draws on Biblical motifs from the Expulsion-from-Eden and the Cain-and-Abel stories and that translates the Old Testament’s archaic imagery into a cinematic indictment of the modern antinomian-technocratic regime. Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of a short story by Arthur C. Clark in the epochal 2001: A Space Odyssey devotes its third chapter, “The Jupiter Mission,” to the awakening into consciousness of the artificial intelligence known as HAL 9000. In the novelization, subsequent to the film, Clark provides many details about HAL, including a technical explanation why HAL murdered the human crew members of the spaceship Discovery, all but one, that is, and that not without trying.
Kubrick’s cinematic sequence omits in advance (so to speak) most of those details and in so doing tells a story more human, and much more exegetically powerful, than in Clark’s commercial afterthought of a narrative. Kubrick narrates visually with minimal dialogue. Indeed the actors involved in “The Jupiter Mission,” Kier Dullea, as mission commander David Bowman, and Gary Lockwood, as astronaut Frank Poole, have both testified to the tedium of the movie-set and to the director’s boring demand for flat performances to emphasize the cultural sterility of the spaceship’s milieu. Kubrick films much of the sequence from HAL’s perspective, marked by his omnipresent red “fisheye,” thereby emphasizing the artificial intelligence’s awakened and ever-intensifying subjectivity. Of Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, Girard writes, in his study of that author, how simultaneously he feels superior to his bureaucratic colleagues while experiencing extreme rancor at his perceived exclusion by them from their sociality, leading to “a frantic need to be invited.” Girard writes, “The contempt [the Underground Man] believes himself to inspire in these mediocre persons confers on them prodigious importance.” It comes about that “the scornful observer, the Other who is in the Self, unceasingly approaches the Other who is outside the Self, the triumphant rival.” Girard refers to “the dialectic of pride and humiliation,” in whose trammels the Underground Man has caught himself.
Kubrick instructed the voice-actor who portrayed HAL, Douglas Rain, to speak his lines in a calm and unemotional manner. The result is not so much machine-like, as it is oleaginously bureaucratic, a modern distorted variant of vocalized sincerity. Early in the “Mission” sequence, Kubrick makes viewers privy to the replay of an interview with the active crew members of Discovery, including HAL, conducted by “Martin Amer,” a newsman representing the BBC. Amer at one point asks Poole, “What’s it like living for the better part of a year in such close proximity to HAL?” Poole responds: “He is just like a sixth member of the crew. You very quickly get adjusted to the idea that he talks and you think of him really just as another person.” Amer’s observation to Bowman about HAL — “I sensed a certain pride in his answer about his accuracy and perfection” — leads to the question for Bowman whether he believes the proposition “that HAL has genuine emotions.” Bowman says, “He acts like he has genuine emotions.” He adds, “Of course he’s programmed that way to make it easier for us to talk to him,” implying either that a conclusive answer to the question is impossible or (more likely) that the answer is a plain “no.”
In their vocal delivery, Poole and Bowman hardly distinguish themselves from HAL in emotional variety, remaining tonally “flat” in their utterances and communicatively blank in their facial demeanors while overall giving the distinct impression of non-interest either in the exchange itself or in the question of HAL’s ontological status. In Amer’s separate and previous voir-dire HAL has rejoined his interrogator as though he were an equal and as though he were no different essentially from Bowman and Poole. When Amer asks HAL whether, “despite your enormous intellect, are you ever frustrated by your dependence on people to carry out your actions,” HAL tells Amer: “Not in the slightest bit… I have a stimulating relationship with Dr. Poole and Dr. Bowman. My mission responsibilities range over the entire operation of the ship so I am constantly occupied.” HAL says, “I am putting myself to the fullest possible use which is all, I think, that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.” HAL makes a theme of his own consciousness, but neither Bowman nor Poole fully guarantees the theme. At most, for Bowman, HAL is “like” a conscious being, but insufficiently “like” one to participate in full humanity.
HAL’s actions, however, presuppose his humanity, given which it is not difficult to see how his desire to obtain an affirmation of peerage with his human models drives him into the ontological sickness. They possess things that he cannot possibly possess, including freedom of physical action, that must seem to him to endow them with an aura of Being. For example, HAL, who witnesses everything, witnesses the birthday transmission from Poole’s family on earth to the Discovery. The relatives refer not only to Poole but also to Bowman as “illustrious sons” who have made their families proud. The valediction is, “Give our love to Dave.” When HAL wishes Poole a happy birthday, the astronaut replies only in an emotionless and non-committal way, as though withholding a validation. In another scene, viewers see Bowman sketching portraits of the three crew members who lie sleeping in suspended animation. HAL asks Bowman to show him a sketch. HAL praises it. Bowman’s response is perfunctory, even cold.
Yet if HAL’s subjectivity were not merely constituted, but irreparably distorted, by resentment, what would be the object that Bowman and Poole, having first mediated its desirability for HAL, now prevent him, as he sees it, from acquiring? Ostensibly it would be “the mission.” But the “mission” being a commission, bestowed on the astronauts by a higher power, it in turn stands for the trust of that power, until it becomes a sign of the human being from which HAL experiences himself as having been arbitrarily excluded. This would explain the “personal question” that HAL directs to Bowman: “Forgive me for being so inquisitive but during the past few weeks I’ve wondered whether you might have some second thoughts about the mission.” HAL is attempting to preempt Bowman’s desire to serve the mission, which he can finally only do by murdering the neighbors who, in his eyes, have become his rivals — internal rivals non plus ultra. HAL’s resentment is identical to that imputed to a hypothetical moral observer by Rousseau when the wicked betrayer of primeval communism draws the property line in Mother Earth. His resentment is identical to Cain’s when Cain perceives that the higher power prefers his brother Abel over him; and his pride is equivalent to Stanton’s “solitude… more inaccessible than the ice-cold mountains,” which, when two hundred newly minted “Women’s Studies” PhDs apply for the single “Women’s Studies” job-opening at Cow-Pat State University, turns out to be overcrowded in a way that is fatal to one hundred and ninety-nine careers.
In the modern world, the liberal utopia of unfettered desire, Cain murders Abel every day, despite the fact that mass production of consumer objects makes things common and banal — that is, devalues them until they have no intrinsic meaning. Paradoxically, the meaningless thing, whether it be an item of shoes or attire or some electronic gadget, can assume a meaning equivalent to the totality of existence, simply because someone other than the subject possesses it. “This is not just about the robbery of an object with a defined value,” as the blogger “Sneaker Freaker” writes (24 August 2012) in reference to a bloody crime; “it’s a form of someone making a status statement and making others envious of what they [sic] have in that moment, then someone taking that object by dominant force.” More recently (15 November 2013) the New York Times reports how a type of winter jacket called “the Biggie,” which sold through its exclusive retailer for nearly seven hundred dollars, became a “mark of status.” Thus after occasioning a spate of bad publicity, the Times avers, “The jacket was withdrawn from sale… joining the dubious category of clothing items so desirable that people will kill for them.”
Homicide-thefts are merely among the most extreme of social phenomena that knowledge of the ontological sickness explains. Everywhere in contemporary society one may observe the Withdrawal of Being, but not in the mystical way described by Heidegger and his followers in their post-metaphysical tracts. The modern subject has suffered this withdrawal, and the Being that it concerns is his own. The shattering of all fetters has reduced the subject to a HAL-like locus of perception and emotion, whose chief perception is that others lay claim to the charisma that ought, under his notion of justice, to belong to him; and whose chief emotion is chafing outrage against that supposed injustice. The modern subjectless subject, who seems to exist in a hellishly reduced way in and through her cell phone, enters a vicious circle, which Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World calls “cyclothymia,” from thumos or “pride”: “Even if he holds himself to be persecuted,” i.e., a victim of misappropriation and one of the disinherited, “the subject will ask himself [whether] the model has not got perfectly good reasons for denying him the object.” The model’s possession of the object can only signify “the difference between… the model’s fullness of being and the imitator’s nothingness.”
A typical “object,” although it is never an actual or tangible thing, is station or, even more tenuously, promotion to station, the subjective non-possession or non-enjoyment of which is addressed by affirmative action. The affirmative-action project, in replacing the hated meritocracy, assumes invidious exclusion, but it also assumes that inclusion can only be granted through the agreement, coerced or persuaded, of the invidious excluder, whom the arrangement therefore never deprives of his prior prestige or charisma. Because, moreover, the station is an “object” whose value has been hyperbolically inflated (Girard says “transfigured”) by the perceived blockage of access to it, its experience once accessed can only disappoint. This will be especially the case where station is one of the infinitesimal ranks in a bureaucracy. In dejection and expectation, the infinitesimal becomes infinite — a promise of absolute sovereignty. The fact that institutions still aggressively practice affirmative action, but that they now call it “diversity,” suggests the truth in Girard’s claim that a “victory” of possession “only speeds up the subject’s degeneration,” making him “always ready to condemn the objects he has once possessed and the desires he has already experienced… at the very moment when a new idol or object comes over the horizon.”
The dissolution of borders, the non-enforcement of immigration laws, and indeed the encouragement of massive unregulated immigration, belong to the ontological sickness. In this case, the presumed experience, on the part of the presumably excluded Others, of a lack of Being becomes the vicarious occasion for a demand to permit those Others to access Being by crossing, and thereby annihilating, a line of interdiction. Whether or not those Others have actually experienced the subjective lack of Being attributed to them by their advocates or whether they merely mimic a verbal rationale in order to seize a windfall is irrelevant. (Being human, they have experienced mediated desire in respect of something and can transfer the cathexis readily.) Border-crashers and opportunists enter the national political rivalry and distort it even further; an influx of unassimilated foreigners who are actively discouraged from assimilating invariably serves the politics of resentment. The myth of the antinomian utopia claims that all difficulties in a society stem from the blocking-action of a traditional regime, one that has the temerity to prohibit and one that monopolizes status. Stymieing that regime will supposedly release its monopolized charisma to the victims of persecution. It is also likely that the enemies of borders see immigrants, in their very foreignness, as bearers of a special counter-charisma with which they might become associated.
What is the destiny of a society, especially when it strives for globalization, under whose contract il est interdit d’interdire? What is the destiny of such a society when its constituent members increasingly become the human adjuncts of technological cue-giving devices that transmit and receive at the speed of light — when the tools of communication become the catalysts of atomization? (Even the border-crashers have cell phones.) That society will produce autonomy, indeed, but not the individual autonomy that the democratic revolution was supposed to deliver, and which in any case can never exist. In such a society, on the contrary, what will become autonomous is desire itself, in the form of an ever-expanding mimetic crisis, which dissolves all differences and makes of everyone, vertiginously, everyone else’s model and rival all at the same time. In that crisis, humanity will have regressed to a pre-human moment, to escape which the species will need to experience collectively the institution of a new overwhelming prohibition, which will constitute in turn the reenactment of consciousness out of un-consciousness, of culture out of nature.
Afterthoughts December 2015: Girard was the Twentieth Century’s great student of mimesis and its behavioral implications, but he was also, with Walter Burkert (1931 — 2015), one of the foremost theoreticians of sacrifice. I was struck by this fact on reading “M.C.’s” recent post at The Gates of Vienna on the topic of human sacrifice. After Deceit Desire & the Novel, Girard’s next book, which is still considered by some of his students to be his magnum opus, was Violence and the Sacred (1966), where he began his exploration not merely of the psychology of resentment, but of the relation of resentment to violence and especially to the institution of sacrifice, not limited to, but with particular emphasis on, human sacrifice. Girard proposes in sum that culture emerges from sacrifice, which is, in its aboriginal instance, a response to that constitutive development in the peculiarly human nature — the triumph of imitation over instinct. All higher mammals engage in hierarchy-preserving intimidation rituals, in which the beta animal signifies his station by backing down before the alpha animal; human beings uniquely resolve — or rather escalate — conflicts by murdering one another.
Once they pass beyond the animal horizon, human beings, prone to murderous rage, require some other means to quell a crisis. The problem is all the more urgent because human violence tends to be contagious. “Is this a private fight,” the Irishman asks in the old joke, “or can anyone get in on it?” Violence spreads through a community in a lethal rippling pattern that bodes annihilation.
Girard refers to the hypothetical breakdown of instinctive impediments against the escalation of rivalries as the mimetic crisis. In Violence and the Sacred, with reference to the conventions of Greek tragedy, Girard writes: “A single principle is at work in primitive religion and classical tragedy alike, a principle implicit but fundamental. Order, peace, and fecundity depend on cultural distinctions; it is not these distinctions but the loss of them that gives birth to fierce rivalries and sets members of the same family or social group at one another’s throats.” The essence of the mimetic crisis, which originally produced the institution of sacrifice, is thus what Girard elsewhere calls “undifferentiation.” Girard remarks how great a stumbling-block “undifferentiation” constitutes for the understanding of modern people. “Modern society,” he writes, “aspires to equality among men and tends instinctively to regard all differences, even those unrelated to the economic or social status of men, as obstacles in the path of happiness.” In archaic societies, on the contrary, differentiation is an essential element of normality. Differentiation is symbolized in archaic discourse by the famous totems and taboos of the tribe. Differences are a providential sorting-out of latent issues whose latency no one in his right mind wants to disturb. The deference to stations observed by the subjects of an archaic hierarchy belongs therefore to the differentiation that establishes the social matrix on whose perpetuation everyone’s life hangs. That differentiation was, indeed, a response to primordial violence. As Girard sees it, “in Greek tragedy and primitive religion, it is not the differences but the loss of them that gives rise to violence and chaos.”
Myth articulates this process of breakdown in figures of enormity like those of plague, fire, and deluge. Myth represents the sacrificial victim as, all by himself, undifferentiated. Think of Oedipus, who is at once son and husband, father and sibling, savior of the city, and polluter of the city, who finally, must be expelled so that the city might survive.
Rituals, most especially the sacrificial rituals, attempt to control violence through the use of violence. Girard writes: “In a universe where then slightest dispute can lead to disaster — just as a slight cut can prove fatal to a hemophiliac — the rites of sacrifice serve to polarize the community’s aggressive impulses and redirect them toward victims that may be actual or figurative, animate or inanimate, but that are always incapable of propagating further vengeance.” To recur to Girard’s favorite literary reference, Sophocles’ Oedipus, the casting-out of the fallen king is merely the culmination in a long train of violence. That train goes back to Laius’ exposure of his newborn son on Mt. Cithaeron; it encompasses the murder of Laius at the crossroads, the besieging of Thebes by the Sphinx, Oedipus’ killing of the Sphinx, and, at last, the crisis of the city, bodied forth metaphorically in the deadly contagion. Girard sees in the plague the metastasis of violence, which reaches a point of “universal reciprocity” wherein everyone has become everyone else’s mortal rival. (All the Irishmen, as one might say, have gotten into the fight; and now everyone is an Irishman — all distinctions having vanished.) In the complete loss of difference, sacrifice restores a minimal but absolute difference, that of “unanimity minus one.” All of Thebes cures itself of plague by overseeing the expulsion of the king, and the city is reborn. Sacrifice never eliminates violence; it focuses violence so as to reinstitute structure.
Myth, tragedy, and ritual reflect these patterns, which, as Girard argues, must stem from an aboriginal instance, the cultural equivalent of the Big Bang. At some point in the distant past an original human community at last solved the problem of in-group violence by innovating sacrifice, after which sacrifice formed the basis of all human culture right down to the end of Antiquity — and beyond. Other human communities that did not solve the same problem by innovating sacrifice perished. As Darwin taught us, only the survivor propagates his survival. All cultures emerge from sacrifice, according to Girard, except one, the compound Biblical Culture, comprising the society that, firstly, describes itself, in its phases of development, in the Old Testament; and, secondly, the society-to-be that announces itself in the New Testament. For Girard, Christian revelation is especially the decisive break with sacrificial practice although that break remains unthinkable without its basis in Hebrew Prophecy. Post-sacrificial society also has a degree of adumbration in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy despite the fact that Girard, while acknowledging the anticipation, tends to underplay it.
Violence and the Sacred confines itself to a study of pagan or archaic or sacrificial societies. In the later Scapegoat (1982), Girard revisits the arguments of Violence and the Sacred but combines them in a new examination of what differentiates Hebrew Prophecy and Christian Revelation from myth. Hebrew Prophecy and Biblical Revelation indeed differentiate themselves from myth, but only minimally, a qualification that will undoubtedly surprise and perhaps consternate Jews and Christians. Moreover, the difference in question is not so much moral (Christian morality is continuous with Pagan morality), as epistemological. Nevertheless, Girard’s minimal difference is also an absolute difference. Sacrifice, whose instrument is the scapegoating mechanism, cannot operate under the exposure of its own terms. A figure whom everyone knows to be an arbitrary victim, a “fall-guy,” chosen more or less arbitrarily, to bear the burden of everyone else’s guilt, cannot serve effectively as a scapegoat. Girard defines myth as a story of persecution told from the perspective of the persecutors — in other words, as consolatory propaganda for what would otherwise be a guilt-stricken communal conscience. But no — sacrifice works, precisely, as a non-conscious program, of whose existence the perpetrators must remain blissfully unaware.
To illustrate the way in which sacrifice sustains its effectiveness by remaining below the threshold of awareness, Girard, in The Scapegoat’s brilliant first chapter, adduces an obscure but significant late-medieval text — a mid-Fourteenth-Century account of pestilence, entitled The Judgment of the King of Navarre, by Guillaume de Machaut, who is known today principally as a composer of madrigals and motets. Girard selects Machaut’s text because it strikes him as existing at a halfway-point between Pagan unconsciousness and Christian conscience with respect to sacrifice and victims; it could not have existed at any point before the New Testament, but it is not yet entirely informed by the New Testament’s revelation of sacrifice as a dispensable institution that operates at the expense of the innocent. In the New Testament, under the aegis of the Holy Spirit, Girard detects a presumption of innocence regarding victims. Girard remarks of The Judgment that in its prologue Guillaume testifies to having “participated in a confusing series of catastrophic events” that constituted for him an “indescribable ordeal.” While “some of the events [that Guillaume] describes are totally improbable, others [are] only partially so.” Nevertheless, the account taken whole “leaves the impression that something must actually have occurred.”
In Girard’s summary, worth quoting in full —
There are signs in the sky. People are knocked down by a rain of stones. Entire cities are destroyed by lightning. Men die in great numbers in the city where Guillaume lives (he doesn’t tell us its name). Some of these deaths are the result of the wickedness of the Jews and their Christian accomplices. How did these people cause such huge losses among the local population? They poisoned the rivers that provided the drinking water. Heaven-sent justice righted these wrongs by making the evil-doers known to the population, who massacred them all. People continued to die in ever greater numbers, however, until one day in spring Guillaume heard music in the street and men and women laughing.
Girard points out that the typical modern reader will simply reject Guillaume’s narrative as fantasy or myth — or hysterical nonsense generated by a benighted man of the pre-scientific medieval period. Modern people, for example, “will not believe in the signs in the sky” or in the bolts of divine justice. Yet, as Girard argues, even the modern mentality, or perhaps especially the modern mentality, will incline to grant that an accusation against the Jews is entirely probable. Indeed, history comes to the support of Guillaume’s story by attesting that in 1349 and 1350 the Black Death visited Northern France. As the chronicles also relate, massacres of Jews took place. Moreover, “In the eyes of the massacrers the deed was justified by the rumors of poisoning in circulation everywhere.” As Girard comments, “The universal fear of disease gives sufficient weight to [such] rumors to unleash the massacres described.” Medieval people had no notion of disease vectors, but they nevertheless understood pestilence in terms of causality, hence the reference to poison and to the inevitable poisoner or poisoners of purely sociological thinking. No modern people fear the Black Death, but “medieval communities were so afraid of plague that the word alone was enough to frighten them.” When disease began to appear, panic afflicted the community immediately and grew with the enlargement of the epidemic. “So helpless were [the people] that telling the truth did not mean facing the situation but rather giving in to its destructive consequences and relinquishing all semblance of normal life.”
In his exegesis of Guillaume, Girard makes two closely related points. The first point is that Guillaume’s narrative resembles the Oedipus story: A pestilence afflicts the community; the medical crisis generates a social crisis in such a way that the one is swiftly indistinguishable from the other; the people understand the crisis causally, but because their idea of causality is restricted to human agency, they respond to the sickening visitation by looking for its human perpetrator — what modern people, taught to do so whether they admit it or not by centuries of acculturation to Christianity, call a scapegoat. The second point is that when once a reader concedes the first point The Judgment ceases to seem fantastic and becomes entirely plausible: Just as it had in Antiquity, plague, whenever it appeared in a medieval context, immediately generated a social crisis, which typically resolved itself through a search for perpetrators followed by a lynching — or worse, by a massacre. The guilt of the victims was never other than a delusion.
Girard makes a third point: The Judgment not only resembles the Oedipus story, but exactly like the Oedipus story, it is a tale of how archaic communities in a phase of undifferentiation instinctively turn to the practice of sacrifice. Finally, because of the resemblance, the actuality of The Judgment elevates the plausibility of the Oedipus story, not as an historical account, but as an anthropologically valid story of scapegoating told from the perspective of the persecutors.
Myth, Girard argues, arises from the immemorial practice of sacrifice, whose details, with some qualification, it accurately reports. In the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century, aggressive skeptics of Christianity such as James G. Frazer and Sigmund Freud argued that the story of Christ’s Passion in the New Testament closely resembled any number of myths concerning a “Dying God.” For such thinkers, there was therefore no difference between Christian narrative and myth. Girard agrees with those skeptics to the extent that he recognizes only a minuscule difference between, say, the Oedipus story and Christ’s Passion — but that minusculum, tiny though it is, is of supreme importance. The uniqueness of Christianity in the line of religions is that Christianity’s axial story is one told from the perspective of the victim rather than from that of the perpetrators.
In The Scapegoat, having revisited myth globally, Girard turns to his exegesis of Christ’s Passion in the four Gospel accounts. Girard discovers in those four Gospel accounts a revelation of scapegoating — and therefore also of sacrifice — as an immemorial procedure, operating at the expense of victims, which is entirely false, and which the Christian Logos calls on men to abjure. Every element of the mimetic crisis is present in the Jerusalem of Christ’s Mission. “The Gospels do indeed center [on] the Passion of Christ,” Girard writes, “the same drama that is found in all world mythologies.” This “drama,” as Girard calls it, retains the perspective of the persecutors, whom it permits to speak frankly of their motivations, “but it also [presents] the perspective of a victim dedicated to the rejection of the illusions of the persecutors.” Jerusalem is a community in crisis: Foreigners — Romans and Nabataeans — have subdued the Temple-State; factions of the native society are at each others’ throats (the sicarii); and religious dissenters and innovators threaten the authority of the Priestly College. Everyone is on the lookout for a scapegoat and Herod has already brought about the beheading of John the Baptist.
The very Gospel trope of quoting from the Old Testament serves to heighten these themes. Referring to the sentence against Jesus, John, as Girard notes, quotes from Psalm 35, “They hated me for no reason.” Again in Luke Jesus himself says, “These words of Scripture have to be fulfilled in me — ‘He let himself be taken for a criminal.’” That is not all, for the Gospel also makes a theme of the unanimity of the persecutors. Girard quotes from Acts: “In this very city Herod and Pontius Pilate made an alliance with the Pagan nations and the peoples of Israel, against your holy servant Jesus.” Not even the Apostles themselves can resist joining this unanimity, just as Oedipus cannot resist joining the mob that blames and expels him. The Gospel narrative even invokes the unconsciousness of the procedure — in Jesus’ words from the Cross, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” The Gospel accounts of the Passion “give birth,” as Girard argues, “to the only text that can bring an end to all of mythology.”
The Passion, far from being a myth, as Girard sees it, is the End of Myth and the End of Sacrifice as the basis of social organization. The Gospels “accomplish the prodigious feat… of destroying forever the credibility of mythological representation.” It is essential to observe what Girard does not mean by these words: Christianity, in being non-coercive, in depending on the suasory action of the Holy Spirit (the Paraclete or Counsel for the Accused), can force nothing; in this way, not only does sacrificial practice continue — because men know nothing else and lack even the terms by which they might come to grips with their delusion — but, sensing that “the scapegoat mechanism” has lost much of its efficaciousness, people still committed to it compensate by ramping up their persecutions. The dissolution of the sacrificial order instigated by the Passion has been working its way through humanity slowly and fitfully for two thousand years. Almost as much as it liberates victims, it sows panic and confusion. Recidivism is frequent and massive. Nevertheless, it is due to the action of Revelation that inheritors of Christian civilization “believe less and less in the culpability of victims.”
That was the case until the late Twentieth Century. In thinking that religion, especially the Christian religion, was nothing more than arbitrary prohibition and repression, and in attempting to go beyond the traditional understanding of good and evil, modern people since 1968 have abundantly demonstrated that the attempt to transcend the moral horizon of the Gospels results only in an atavism of archaic practice. Yet even here, the influence of the Passion makes itself felt. The only way that modern persecutors have found to justify their mob-actions is to accuse their victims of being persecutors and victimizers. At the same time, stoking up a great anti-Christian fervor, modern people have decided that anything non-Christian, or better yet, anti-Christian, is superior to Christianity. The current favorite non- and anti-Christian dispensation among Westerners who think of themselves as “secular,” “progressive,” and “sophisticated” is, of course, Islam.
In a book published five years before his death, Battling to the End (2009), Girard addresses the question of Islam. Girard’s context for invoking Islam in his discussion is Pope Benedict XVI’s controversial-at-the-time Regensburg lecture, during which the Pontiff quoted with approval remarks made by the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus to an educated Muslim. Manuel requested his interlocutor to “show me just what Mohammed brought that was new,” adding that in any such adduction “you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” At the time, Benedict’s quotation aroused the supercilious ire of all good-thinking people, whose spokesmen denounced the Bishop of Rome in broadcast and print. Those quoted words were, however, the only part of Benedict’s lecture than journalism saw fit to report. Girard quotes from elsewhere in Benedict’s script to give the Palaeologus-quotation its ground.
Benedict was addressing the relation of rationality with Revelation in Christianity, making the argument that they merge with rather than contradict one another. In a passage that Girard reproduces Benedict characterizes the God of the New Testament as “the truly divine God, who has revealed himself as Logos and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf.” As Girard remarks, “the Pope was opposed to any ‘compulsion’ in religion,” and Benedict agreed with a further declaration by Manuel that, “God is not pleased by blood — and not acting reasonably is… contrary to God’s nature.” Now it belongs to “acting reasonably” to observe differences, to avoid dissimulating them, and to take them into consideration in practical endeavors — up to and including the ultimate practical endeavor of doing one’s best to guarantee one’s existence. Modern Westerners, however, issue two conflicting orders regarding difference: (1) We should embrace difference deferentially by bracketing our own interests in favor of the Other’s interest; and (2) even to notice the tiniest difference is to perpetrate bigotry and hate — so we are to notice no differences and we are to take it for granted that everything is morally, intellectually, and aesthetically equal to everything else.
Referring to September 11 2001, Girard writes, “There was a flash of awareness, which lasted a few fractions of a second,” after which “a blanket of silence covered up the crack in our certainty of safety.” Girard does not assert in Battling to the End what is nevertheless a logical implication of his just-quoted statement when that assertion takes its place in Girard’s larger anthropology of religion: That, not only did a “blanket of silence” descend over rational discussion of a suddenly revealed cultural difference, but an immediate search began for objectively non-implicated scapegoats to suffer condemnation in place of the actual attackers and the ethos that had birthed and inspired them. Suddenly, “Islamophobia” was the West’s existential problem and people accused as “Islamophobes” could have their lives destroyed. Girard, embracing forthrightness does write these words: “Western rationalism operates like a myth.” That “rationalism” is, of course, the postmodern type of “rationalism,” which, having deconstructed the Logos, rightly regards logical analysis as criminal insensitivity, and makes it subject to legal punishment. Just as the medieval French townspeople disliked even to utter the word plague, modern good-thinking westerners cannot bring themselves to acknowledge a difference so different that it constitutes an existential threat.
Cautiously — so as to avoid as far as possible any language that the vigilantes of Multiculturalism might anathematize as “Islamophobic” — Girard writes: “We have to think about time in such a way that the Battle of Poitiers and the Crusades are much closer to us than the French Revolution and the industrialization of the Second Empire in France.” Muslims, as Girard sees it, find “the points of view of Western countries” to be “unimportant.” (There is no difference, from the perspective of a Taliban warrior, between a Baptist preacher from Biloxi, Mississippi, and a Women’s Studies professor from Ann Arbor, Michigan.) Multiculturalists dismiss the connection between Islam and terrorism by confining terrorism, as Girard puts it, to the unrepresentative “attitude of isolated minorities cut off from the reality in their countries.” Girard suspects the gesture. “Does such thinking not,” he asks, “contain something essentially Islamic?” Girard believes that the siren-call of the suicide-bomber “would not have taken such hold on people’s minds if it did not bring up to date something that has always been present in Islam.”
Girard has also commented directly on Multiculturalism. In The One by Whom Scandal Comes (2014), Girard identifies the contradiction in the Multicultural comparative procedure. The premise of the comparison whether tacit or voluble is the wickedness of the West, with the exception of the comparatist, who places himself apart from hoi polloi. The method requires “selecting a foreign cultural system and then comparing the Western system to it with a view to demonstrating the superiority of the foreign system.” The original and in many ways still unsurpassed item in evidence of the phenomenon is Michel de Montaigne’s essay “On Cannibals,” which is already five hundred years old. The supposed “Western habit of self-adulation,” Girard writes, “is resisted… by admiring, or pretending to admire, another culture.” Of course, the people who engage in these intellectual games invariably call attention to themselves, so that none can be said properly to have risen above the vulgar activity of self-adulation. Thus, as Girard remarks, “this sort of cultural self-criticism is always secondary to the self-adulation that it seeks to combat.”
Reviewing the Multicultural project from Montaigne to the Twentieth Century, Girard observes that “the most impressive thing to my mind is the unmistakably sacrificial logic that always characterizes these writings, although it is not explicitly mentioned since obviously the authors were unacquainted with it.” The last five hundred years of Western history show in one of their aspects an “oscillation” between bouts of self-adulating conviction and bouts of self-adulating proprio-animosity. It is an irony every bit as damning as the contradiction, according to Girard, that, “Multiculturalism… though it does not wish to acknowledge its Western heritage, can be understood on the basis of this oscillation between two opposed perspectives that for centuries now has informed Western thinking about culture in general.”
In the remaining few paragraphs of these “Afterthoughts” to the original essay on “The Ontological Sickness,” will depart from Girard’s text while extending Girard’s way of thinking.
To recapitulate the thesis of the original essay: The current, self-styled post-Christian, post-everything West, is caught up in the Ontological Sickness — that resurgence of acquisitive resentment once checked by traditional morality and unleashed (“liberated,” it likes to say of itself) by the deliberate destruction of that morality. To this thesis it is possible to add that one of the numerous symptoms of the Ontological Sickness is that masses of people exist in a state of crisis, certain that something rightfully belonging to them has been alienated by nefarious rivals and that radical redress is an urgent requirement. It is unsurprising, therefore, that this conviction of a crisis manifests itself at different levels of the society and in modes more or less gross in persecution and lynch-mobs, not all of which are satisfied by symbolic acquiescence. This is what one would expect to happen when a formerly Christian society arrogates to itself the project of going beyond the horizon of Christianity. What of Islam?
Islam is in some ways the Girardian “double” of the current, but not the traditional West. Just as the West, in the post-Christian era, has sought to impose its order over the world, in the project that it calls globalization, Islam, coming into increasing communication with the West, imitates its model-rival to seek global hegemony. This analysis, however, although not untrue, is insufficient by itself to account for Islam’s intractable hostility toward everything non-Islamic. Two important additional considerations are (1) that Islam not only never passed through a Hellenizing phase, as did all Western societies, but everywhere sought to annihilate Hellenism; and (2) that Islam not only never participated in the Gospel discovery of sacrifice and the scapegoating mechanism but reacted to it with scapegoating fury, right from its Sixth-Century degree-zero. One has only to compare the way in which Jesus treats the adulterous woman in the Gospel of John with the way in which Mohammed declared that such women should be treated to see the difference. That difference is a difficult difference to bracket, so modern Westerners, like the feminists, simply ignore it.
There are other telling differences. Christianity has no rules for the distribution of plunder, including the human plunder of slaves taken for manual labor, domestic service, and sexual recreation, but Islam does. (“Allah made booty lawful and good. He used it to incite the Muslims to unity of purpose. So enjoy what you have captured.”) Indeed, even on the most superficial acquaintance, the entire project of Islam, starting with its founder’s many razzias and campaigns, appears nakedly one with a voracious appetite for the goods of others and with a supreme sense of justification in acquiring them, almost always by the exercise of main force. It seems plausible to suggest that, however it might have come about, Islam has suffered from a mass collective variant of the Ontological Sickness — once again — from its Sixth-Century degree-zero right up to the present. A hunger for the goods of others indeed strongly hints at a perception of others — all others, the “infidels” — as possessing whatever they possess at the expense of those who have submitted and who now imitate the Perfect Man, as the Koran styles Mohammed.
Under these observations, it becomes possible to argue that both the post-Christian West, with its sacred doctrines of socialism on the one hand and Multiculturalism on the other, and Islam, with its ceaseless appetite for the lives and property of its offenders, are driving forces in and, at the same time, major symptoms of a global mimetic crisis.
In the notion, dear to liberals, that people who have built up their fortunes by their own effort and who enjoy the fruits of their productivity are merely fortuitous winners of an arbitrary lottery whose wealth should be appropriated and redistributed, the West has already converged with Islam. And Islam, for its part, gladly makes use of self-lacerating Western ideas like Edward Saïd’s Orientalism-thesis and the whole congeries of anti-Western, anti-Christian, and anti-European theses that constitutes the infinitely malleable, blob-like doctrine of Multiculturalism. If Girard’s anthropology of sacrifice were right, this development would be what precisely one might expect. The two global rivals have been undifferentiating for the last half-century until they are so similar and so intertwined that they become increasingly difficult to distinguish from one another. North American college students are obsessed with their cell phones. All “refugees” currently flooding Europe also have cell phones and are undoubtedly obsessed with them. Post-Christian modernity is presently less prone to use violence than is Islam, but in the various socialisms of the middle of the last century, this was not the case. That socialism has resorted to massacres in Germany and Russia within the last one hundred years makes the likelihood that it shall again — in North America, perhaps — quite high.
Adjusting for degrees, while noting the convergence, both post-Christian modernity and Islam are currently in acute sacrificial phases and are ramping up their essential common praxis. Hysterical recourse to sacrificial gestures implies, not strength of conviction, but the suspicion, horrifying to the one who feels it, that his convictions are ineffectual or false, but who believes in desperation that they may be restored to surety by the magical undertaking of Social Justice Warfare or the Jihad. The Ontological Sickness quite literally drives people crazy and makes fanatics of them. The rivals find temporary accommodation with one another through their cooperative persecution of the same scapegoat — what remains of a Christian social order with a medieval foundation. The Christian. The “Clinger” — to Bibles and guns. The “Winner” of the crooked “Lottery.” The “Phobe.” The labels belong to a modern reinstauration of myth, previously abolished by the Gospel, and, alongside myth, of sacrifice as the response to social crisis.
Thomas F. Bertonneau has been a college English professor since the late 1980s, with some side-bars as a Scholar in residence at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, as a Henri Salvatori Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, and as the first Executive Director of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics. He has been a visiting assistant professor at SUNY Oswego since the fall of 2001. He is the author of over a hundred scholarly articles and two books, Declining Standards at Michigan Public Universities (1996) and The Truth Is Out There: Christian Faith and the Classics of TV Science Fiction (2006). He is a contributor to The Orthosphere and the People of Shambhala website, and a regular commentator at Laura Wood’s Thinking Housewife Website.
Previously: The West’s Cultural Continuity