René Girard (1923—2015) was a French-American thinker and an immortel of l’Académie française. He honed a remarkable account of human culture and religion over fifty years of research across the humanities and social sciences. He began with modern realist fiction in the 1950s to uncover a novel account of human DESIRE as mimetic (see MIMETIC DESIRE); he went on to engage with foundational texts in anthropology, sociology, and ethnography in the 1960s, venturing a new approach to culture and religion that recalls the socio-psychological phenomenon of l’esprit de corps, in terms of an ersatz peace that SCAPEGOATING a victim introduces to human communities; then he set out an alternative account of religion, seen to emerge in the Judeo-Christian scriptures.
Human desire, for Girard, is desire “according to” the desire of another. Our desires, in other words, are borrowed from and stimulated by the desires of others. What Girard terms “mimetic desire” (or “triangular desire”) means that the subject of desire imitates the desire of the model of their desire for an object of desire (see also MEDIATION). From Shakespeare and Cervantes to the great nineteenth-century novelists (Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust, Dostoyevsky), a psychology is revealed in which the mimetic influence of others proves to be the true unconscious. Girard offers his own parsimonious account of Freud’s major conclusions to demonstrate the power of his approach, while, following Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche, he explores various pathologies of the modern self.
These pathologies center on the distortion of desire into envy and rivalry, in which the subject seeks to acquire the object of desire from the model/rival. The subject risks being scandalized by the rival whenever their desire becomes a stumbling block to the fulfillment of the subject’s desire (see DOUBLING). In such rivalry, the dependence of the subject/self on the other’s desire is heightened yet repressed in increasingly unhealthy and obsessive ways, to the point that the object’s value decreases as the subject advances in obsessive competition with the model/rival, resulting in the madness described by Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche. This pathological stage of MIMESIS is a manifestation of what Girard calls METAPHYSICAL DESIRE, in which the desire for being that underlies mimesis becomes clear. In this stage, the object eventually drops from view altogether and obsession with the model/rival becomes all-consuming. The subject in effect seeks the being of the model/rival. Explicating this state of thralldom allows Girard to theorize what he calls PSEUDO-MASOCHISM and PSEUDO-SADISM, along with self-destructive addictive behaviors, as mimetic phenomena.
Meanwhile, in the social context, the accumulation of mimetic rivalries risks wider mimetic contagion and disorder, threatening social breakdown. Girard argues that the mimetic escalation toward catastrophic violence in the proto-human group is contained by scapegoating, which founds and then maintains human culture. The contagion of mimetic violence comes to be focused on an individual or group arbitrarily chosen by the social whole, becoming a scapegoat upon which social chaos is focused and hence discharged. According to Girard, archaic cultures that manage by these means to survive their own violence show a common pattern in their myths, in which a violent crisis suddenly and miraculously gives way to peace and order. This change occurs as the hostile desires of “all against all” suddenly become the murderous desires of “all against one.” Through this victimization, the community returns to peace and to differentiation around the slain victim. This victim is made SACRED and divinized by the mob, which transfers responsibility for the crisis and its resolution onto the victim—the two sides of the sacred (the destructive and the saving) that constitute Girard’s original account of Rudolf Otto’s mysterium tremendum et fascinosum.Religion is the part of culture that emerges from this single-victim mechanism to encode its beneficial effects in PROHIBITION, MYTH, and RITUAL.
Girard sees archaic religion emerging naturally in the evolutionary process as a necessary evil, containing rivalry’s potentially catastrophic escalation by the memory of primal cathartic violence that scapegoating represents. Rooted in the management of our unfocused and unstable desiring, religion’s targeted, culture-founding violence is both recapitulated and revivified through ritual (especially by sacrificial rituals), justified in myth, and safeguarded by prohibition and taboo—these latter elements regulate relationships and establish boundaries to avoid further mimetic rivalry and violence.
Yet, in the Judeo-Christian vision that comes to its climax in Jesus, Girard argues that religion overcomes its origins: the innocence of the victim is revealed, the scapegoat mechanism is exposed, and human desire is shown to be distorted and diverted from its true source in God the Father’s gratuitous and self-giving love. Through analysis of many biblical texts, and especially the Gospels, Girard argues that the biblical revelation can be figured precisely thus: as a revelation from outside conventional human religion and culture that lifts the veil on human violence and distorted desire.
He does this through a distinctive hermeneutical approach that first identifies the common structural characteristics of mythical and biblical stories: (1) the presence of crisis, (2) the identification of a victim, (3) vulnerable characteristics associated with the victim (e.g. disfigurement or disability), (4) the climactic and unanimous violence of SURROGATE VICTIMAGE, and, (5) the restoration of order and peace that follows this scapegoating violence. Then, on the basis of these structural commonalities, Girard identifies significant differences in the content and trajectory of mythical versus biblical accounts, showing that while archaic myths endorse the violent mob, the biblical narrative reveals and champions the victim’s innocence.
In this way, according to Girard, the victim-making engine of all religions and cultures is sabotaged by the Bible, setting history on a secularizing path toward modernity. For Girard, this is Nietzsche’s death of God properly understood: the collapse of religion’s social function and the release of a dangerous instability evident in today’s most pressing global challenges.
With courtesy of the Australian Girard Seminar
© Scott Cowdell, Chris Fleming and Joel Hodge (editors) Mimesis, Movies, and Media: Violence, Desire and the Sacred Vol 3 (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), and reproduced with kind permission of the publisher.