Letter from the President
Come to the Annual Meeting
International Christian University
I will leave it to the other reports from the Conference to describe and reflect on the rich contents of our most recent gathering. For my part, I wish to take this opportunity to thank all those involved in making meeting so successful. In particular I want to thank Steve McKenna, Martha Reineke, and Fr. Kevin Burke, S.J.
Steve had a vision of a conference being held in the capitol of the United States that would squarely look at the present situation of living in a “post-truth” world. Large parts of that vision were not meant to be. The situation at Steve’s home institution was such that we could not realistically hold our conference there. Planning a conference is difficult in the best of times, but it becomes a bit more of a challenge when one does not know where one will hold it. Still, Steve persevered. He had already put a conceptual framework in place in the “Call for Papers” and his explanation of theme and the Caravaggio painting that he posted on the website. He arranged the plenaries and organized the papers.
But, as Steve will tell you, that is just one part of conference planning. There are a million details that have to be followed up. This is where Martie stepped in and either took care of things herself or helped Steve to remember what still had to be done. Through emails, phone calls, and prayers Martie made sure that everything that needed to be done, got done. We are all in her debt. She once again showed her best qualities in helping Steve with what turned out to be a truly marvelous conference.
All of this would have hung in the air if it had not been for the generous response of Fr. Kevin Burke, S.J., and through him the Regis University community, to our call for help. Again, it is hard enough to schedule and set up a meeting like this when you have the proper lead time, but Regis responded so graciously that it made it possible to have very successful meeting in circumstances that, at first, looked difficult indeed. Those of you who were there know not just of Kevin’s administrative contribution to our conference but also of his outstanding plenary talk on the poet, Denise Levertov. We are grateful for both.
One last bit of business. We have posted our 2018 treasurer’s report to the Member Pages of the website because we were unable to provide hard copies to our members at the Business Meeting. The Board, our Treasurer, Sherwood Belangia, and I want everything to be as transparent as possible and for the information to be as easily available as possible. If anyone has any questions about any of the items discussed at the Business Meeting, please do not hesitate to contact me.
Musings from the Executive Secretary
Further Thoughts on the Raven Lecture
University of Northern Iowa
The recent annual meeting at Regis University was a wonderful occasion for renewing acquaintances and welcoming new members to COV&R. As is the case every year for me, the most valued aspects of the meeting were sessions and conversations with “newbie Girardians”: graduate students, junior scholars and practitioners, and first-time COV&R attendees. All of us benefit from their enthusiasm, interests, and new perspectives.
Moving our conference location to Regis University early in 2018 posed challenges that COV&R had not experienced for a number of years. I’d like to acknowledge a number of persons whose efforts on behalf of the conference made it possible for Regis 2018 to be remembered as an intellectually enriching meeting during which bonds among members of the COV&R family also were strengthened. Pam Swope at PDC, who oversaw our registration services, became much more than a name attached to an email address. Over the months of planning, we came to know her as a caring and conscientious advocate for COV&R. Time and again, she drew on her experience to facilitate the registration process and work one-on-one with our members. Maura Junius also stepped up to make the conference website a reality and to offer advice that regularly helped us improve our conference communications. The event services staff at Regis did a remarkable job also. Their good will, graciousness, and amazing work ethic made it possible for us to have an annual meeting at which we felt at home even though Regis was not actually the home to any COV&R members. Dusting off my conference-planning skills to assist Steve McKenna with some logistics, I found that my efforts were made easy by the folks at Regis. In addition, the office staff at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival and Aspire Tours was amazing. For example, Taylor, our contact with Aspire, made a special trip out to Red Rock Amphitheater, even though he was not scheduled to work that day, to meet Steve and me and make sure the tour was going well. If you are in the Denver area again and are looking for a tour company for yourself, friends, and/or family, please keep Aspire in mind. They are a young company that deserves to grow. A special shout-out to Steve not only for the great work he did with the conference program, in support of which he put together a memorable slate of plenary speakers and parallel sessions, but also for his outstanding on-site coordination of the conference. His astute oversight, eye for detail, and grace under pressure made the conference run smoothly and prevented some glitches not foreseen during the planning process that, but for his timely detection, could have put our budget in the red.
Our partnership with the Raven Foundation resulted in a particularly memorable plenary at the conference, about which I want to reflect a bit more. Laura Kipnis’ Raven Lecture on “The Scapegoat Whisperer” followed on the publication of Kipnis’ Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus. In that book, she reports on the Title IX complaint filed against her when, in 2015, she wrote an opinion piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education. In that article, she challenged the excesses on her own campus of a Title IX complaint by an undergraduate who accused her philosophy professor of “unwelcome and inappropriate sexual advances.” In both the opinion piece and the book that followed, Kipnis sheds critical light on the narrative inevitability of a Title IX investigation in which “students and professors are stock characters in a predetermined story.” Absent all regard for evidence, rational argumentation, and due process, in this story, students are always utterly devoid of personal agency and are wholly subject to manipulation by professors who always exercise limitless power in their pursuit of sex, ranging from groping to assault.
Dumouchel shows how the modern state’s monopoly on violence is founded on the disintegration of the sacred. Thus, rather than “illusory” transcendent justifications, the state claims to be immanently-based. This “immanent” claim hides the transcendent nature of the state and provides the foundation for reason itself. Dumouchel argues that it is not rational actors who form the state, but rather, it is the state—founded on a new form of difference that regulates violence—that defines reason. Reason is “violence’s Other” (p. xvii) that is reliant on the monopolisation and stabilisation of violence. Once this monopoly is lost, so are reason’s claims to control and limit violence. When states disintegrate, ever-greater violence is seen to be more and more reasonable by actors, as the logic of desire and victory predominate.
Dumouchel’s analysis is particularly fascinating when he examines instances of political violence. The examples from Cambodia are particularly interesting (and terrible) as they show how the state turns on its own and eats itself from within when its political violence becomes total. Dumouchel shows how groups vie for political influence in totalitarian regimes where the only value is political power and violence. Rivalry over power means control over the means of violence. He notes two particular forms of violence in these circumstances: the way violence is passed down the social hierarchy as the victimisation of those who are weaker becomes an outlet for the violence of those higher; and the way localised disputes make use of political violence to satisfy mimetic desires, rivalries, and resentments.
Dumouchel also shows how indifference has become a feature of violence in modernity. Because violence has become less effective with the undermining of scapegoating, unanimity is more difficult to achieve. However, the undermining of scapegoating does not necessarily translate into advocacy for the victimised. Instead, indifference can become pervasive in the face of others being victimised, particularly in large systems or groups where anonymity is more common and charity has failed to be fully appropriated by the populace.
Dumouchel further analyses the way human groups have formed solidarity amongst themselves and how these forms of solidarity have been displaced and changed. He fleshes out the mimetic account of solidarity with anthropological and political studies of human groups and through an engaging analysis of modern history, such as the period of European colonisation. He traces how traditional human solidarity was tightly formed over against local enemies, conflict with whom was regulated, and distant enemies, relations with whom were not regulated. Local forms of solidarity were undermined, according to Dumouchel, by the displacement of the violent sacred and the spread of charity. Dumouchel argues that states grew in the place of local solidarity ties, based on a friend-foe distinction. The modern state increasingly promoted forms of social justice and charity amongst citizens, who were treated as “friends,” and protected citizens from being victimised in its territory.
In this sense, states, according to Dumouchel, are actually an effort at renouncing sacrificial violence without fully renouncing violence. While regulating violence against citizens, the state pushed its violence outwards against its enemies/foes, and occasionally internally, against criminals or traitors. Yet, with the moralisation of war, and as the space outside of Europe for warfare against one’s enemies shrunk, warfare as an institution became unstable. In this instability, the state could not rationally regulate violence, but became the vehicle for wars of total victory and extermination against external and internal enemies, culminating in World War II and the Shoah. Complementary to Dumouchel’s analysis (but which he doesn’t mention) is Girard’s own identification of the dangerous growth of internal mediation in modernity, which could not be regulated by the sacred or the state.
One area I have reservations about, though, is Dumouchel’s analysis in Chapter 5, “Indifference and Charity.” Dumouchel argues that the new norms that were introduced with the growth of charity, particularly in European societies, led to the breakdown of ties of traditional solidarity. Much of his analysis is concerned with the efforts to create new forms of social bonds in the wake of these changes. In undertaking this analysis, he argues that the actions of agents, rather than their beliefs, are key for understanding modern social bonds. Dumouchel claims that the practice of charity had a deleterious effect on traditional social ties and transformed them, rather than belief in the innocence of the victim. He argues that charity gave the opportunity to people to ignore traditional social ties that were based on exclusive obligations, violence, and rivalry. While charity could have a positive benefit, Dumouchel claims that it also allowed people to become indifferent to others, and for the state and systems of exchange to replace traditional social bonds.
While I see much of value in Dumouchel’s analysis and I agree that it is important to focus on the actions of agents, I believe there are some gaps in Dumouchel’s discussion of charity and its connection to indifference, belief, and religious and social networks. Firstly, there are different types of indifference that Dumouchel discusses with relation to charity, but which are not clearly distinguished: the indifference to traditional solidarity ties, and the indifference that comes with implicitly rejecting the call of charity. It is important to distinguish these because, while they can be connected, the former can have different causes, such as the increasing ineffectiveness of scapegoating rituals.
Furthermore, it is not clear to me from Dumouchel’s analysis that charity itself is responsible for indifference. While I accept that the choice for charity opens the possibility to an alternative (indifference or rejection), it is the failure of people to act and live charitably, contradicting their own tradition, that is the fundamental problem. For example, in Dumouchel’s analysis of the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), he claims that traditional obligations are ignored by all three passers-by, leading to the indifference of the Levite and priest. Yet, these two are not just indifferent to their fellow Israelite; they fear ritual contamination (of which the false sacred disapproves). They reject the universal implications of their own tradition to care for neighbour in favour of worship. In doing this, they implicitly reject the beliefs that come with “love of neighbour”—such as the nonviolence of God, the dignity of the person, and the protection of victims. Jesus’ parable is pointing to how one understands God and one’s own tradition (the Jewish tradition) and how one lives it out in its best and worst manifestations. In this case, the Samaritan lived out the Jewish tradition better than the “bad Israelites.” For the Levite and priest, the call of tradition and charity were ignored, which is what I think Dumouchel is usually identifying with reference to indifference.
Secondly, Dumouchel treats charity (and forgiveness) as an abstract entity, which allows for a particular type of analysis of how charity effects social ties. Yet, this analysis does not seem to take sufficient account of the way charity is embodied and lived out. Charity is not something that just spreads between humans, but is embodied by people and groups who are often persecuted for it. Charity is not easily accepted as a universal and preferred norm, as the history of Christianity and missionary activity show. Groups often welcome Christ’s teaching or example of charity with violence and disdain. Here is where charity and victimhood go together (for which Dumouchel’s analysis does not account): one must be willing to risk one’s life for charity, and do so with confidence in one’s innocence as a victim. This belief is built on confidence in the innocence of Christ and of his martyrs, who have been innocently killed as they undertake charitable and forgiving acts. While charity doesn’t always require a full consciousness of the innocent victim, it does require a frame of reference that privileges the innocence of the victim as what charity can look like under certain conditions. The martyrs are the exemplars who embody both the innocence and self-giving of the victim. Without this sensibility (or belief), charity is divorced from the reality of social life, which is dominated by violence, distorted desire, and sin (as Girard has extensively shown).
Thirdly, while I agree with Dumouchel that charity is a form of desire that leads to universal care, it is a form of desire that requires social support as well as a decision and a commitment. It is a unique form of desire because, as Dumouchel points out, it involves a free choice. In making this choice, one needs to believe in charity as the preferred way of living and desiring—precisely in its aim to enhance the good of the other. To foster this kind of faith requires a framework—intellectually and socially—that privileges charity and embodies it, particularly in the face of violent opposition.
For the Christianised West (the context that Dumouchel primarily refers to), the embodiment of its tradition of charity was located in a person, Jesus, and the social body that he commissioned, the Church. Though the Church is clearly flawed in its membership, it has embodied, in its saints and Eucharistic theology, the solidarity of charity around Christ as victim. In the ancient world and the Middle Ages, Christian forms of social life thrived—over-laying previous social ties with new and intense local ties of Christian solidarity, resulting in stronger family bonds (and obligations), hospitals, schools, and care for the poor. Christian solidarity ties (built around charitable love) did not completely dissolve solidarity ties (as Dumouchel acknowledges), but actually involved the re-evaluation of rights and duties, with socially-cultivated virtue at their centre. This led to the breakdown of violent solidarity ties and the affirmation of positive social ties, such as between family members whose relationships come to be structured around the right and duties of love, not just fear of punishment or obligation. The shift away from these new social norms occurred when Christian Europe was fractured and undermined by church corruption and schisms. Christian schisms in the 16th century and the growth of the centralised state led to the distortions that Dumouchel has identified with breakdown of solidarity ties.
Notwithstanding my qualifications, this book is one of the best applications of mimetic theory to modern political history and to understanding political violence and the state. More broadly, it is indispensable for those who want an incisive and systematic analysis of modernity.
New Logo, New Publications, New Invitations
Let me add my thanks to Steve McKenna, Martie Reineke, Jay Alberg, Fr. Keven Burke, SJ, and the others who had a hand in organizing our annual meeting in Denver. Thanks also to Paul Lynch and Joel Hodge for their reflections on it in this issue (it was the year for members with four-letter first names ending in L and five-letter last names ending in postalveolar affricates; we’ll see who’s next). The plenaries and panels were excellent, and the conversation (the original meaning of “colloquium”) was even better. We were “after truth,” and truth emerged in our midst. Links to texts of many of the papers delivered at parallel sessions have been added to the abstract page in the member pages section of the COV&R website.
Speaking of conversation, the website Syndicate has published a symposium on Grant Kaplan’s book René Girard, Unlikely Apologist featuring commentaries by Neil Ormerod, S. Mark Heim, Brian Robinette, and Chelsea Jordan King, with replies to each by Kaplan. Ormerod’s contribution, from a perspective shaped by the theologian Bernard Lonergan, touches, though not in these terms, on a question of the primacy of mimesis or metaphysical desire that was a topic of energetic and enjoyable discussion during the conference panel on Paulo Diego Bubbio’s recent book, Intellectual Sacrifice and Other Mimetic Paradoxes.
New logo: No doubt you have already noticed COV&R’s new logo on the masthead of this issue of the Bulletin. Styles change, and we especially need one that works better in difference sizes for digital media. Our new webmaster, Maura Junius, worked with graphic designer Vlad Nedelcu and presented several versions to the board at its July meeting. After we chose an approach, she worked with the designer on refinements, and we voted on the results by email. We plan to make versions of the logo available for use by members on the website. We welcome feedback from members. Thanks to Maura for helping bring COV&R further into the twenty-first century.
Publication News: COV&R members should have received two books from Michigan State University Press’s series Violence, Mimesis, & Culture: Bubbio’s Intellectual Sacrifice and Cynthia Haven’s Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard. If you have not received either one, please contact PDC, our membership services agent. There are no further books scheduled for 2018. Two books are planned for spring 2019: Pablo Bandera’s A Reflection in the Waves: The Mimetic Observer in a Quantum World and João Cezar de Castro Rocha’s Shakespearean Cultures: Latin America and the Challenges of Mimesis in Non-Hegemonic Circumstances. Thanks to Imitatio for funding this benefit.
Volume 2, issue 1 of the Philosophical Journal of Conflict and Violence tackles the theme of sexual and gender-based violence and includes a “A Girardian Reading of Alexis Wright’s Plains of Promise” by Mylène Charon as well as a review of Martha Reineke’s Intimate Domain: Desire, Trauma, and Mimetic Theory by Iulia Grigorie.
Members may be interested in the new book and accompanying website Solus Jesus: A Theology of Resistance by Emily Swan and Ken Wilson, pastors of Blue Ocean Faith in Ann Arbor, MI. Mimetic theory is central to their refocusing of interpretation and authority in Christian communities on the witness of the victimized.
I had the pleasure and privilege of working this summer with a Hope College student, Annika Gidley, on a research project using mimetic theory to think about the Harry Potter books. She has created an outstanding website focused on the significance of Harry’s mother, Lily, which we are hoping might also introduce people to the theory.
Invitations: COV&R would like to make a more consistent practice of recognizing the deaths of members, both at our meetings and in the Bulletin. If you know of current or former members who have died recently, please contact one of the officers. If you would be willing to write a brief tribute (200-500 words), please contact me.
I also want to renew the invitation to write a film review for the Bulletin. A conversation at the conference helped me see that the opportunity is to publish something that might be better called a commentary: an interpretation that doesn’t worry about spoilers (I think a good movie can’t be spoiled) but is shorter and more informal than an academic article, maybe 800-1,000 words. This is a chance to let people know about films that are particularly interesting from the perspective of mimetic theory and that might even be useful in teaching or talking about it. This could also be a good opening for students and others new to the theory. If you are interested, please let me know.
Finally, this invitation from our friends at the Raven Foundation: “The Raven ReView, the online magazine published by the Raven Foundation, hosts a guest author section called Your Voice. This is where we publish articles which apply mimetic theory to current events and hot topics that have people talking. From religion to relationships, politics to pop culture, the applications of mimetic theory are endless. As you well know, the human capacity for imitating and learning behaviors and desires through one another is at the root of the contagion of violence and the cure of empathy. At Raven, we strive to make this simple yet still relatively little-known theory recognized beyond the confines of academia, believing the self-reflection and big-picture worldview mimetic theory provides is an essential component for peacemaking. If you or your students would like to submit articles for publication on the Raven website, please review our submission guidelines, then send us your work. In addition to being published on the site, the article is promoted on social media through Facebook and Twitter and in an e-newsletter sent to our subscribers. Share your understanding of mimetic theory through Your Voice to our loyal subscribers and over 18,000 Facebook Followers. It’s what the world needs now.”
COV&R Sessions at the American Academy of Religion
Denver, November 16–19, 2018
Grant Kaplan, AAR Liaison
COV&R is sponsoring two sessions at the AAR. Apologies in advance to the late risers! Please note that the business meeting will take place in the last fifteen minutes (11:15 – 11:30) of the Sunday session. The point of the business meeting is to plan the sessions for next year’s meeting.
Cynthia Haven’s Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard
Session P17-116, Saturday, 9am-11:30am
Sheraton Downtown-Columbine (I.M. Pei Tower – Terrace Level – 1 level below Lobby)
Presiding: Grant Kaplan (Saint Louis University)
Panelists: Martha Reineke (University of Northern Iowa)
Kevin Hughes (Villanova University)
Trevor Merrill (California Institute of Technology)
Response: Cynthia Haven (Stanford University)
René Girard and Christian Spirituality
Session P18-105, Sunday, 9am-11:30am
Sheraton Downtown-Savoy (I.M. Pei Tower – Majestic Level – 2 levels below Lobby)
Presiding: Chelsea King (University of Notre Dame)
James Alison (Madrid, Spain), “Interdividuals, Individuals and Fragmented Selves: How Can Mimetic Theory Help Us Understand ‘Huiothesia’”
Randy Rosenberg (Saint Louis University), “The Spiritual Texture of Trauma: Mimetic Desire, Psychic Conversion, and the Healing of the Damaged Self”
Brian Robinette (Boston College), “Mimesis, Meditation, and the Art of Creative Renunciation”
Link to listings in online program book.
2019 Annual Meeting
Innsbruck, Austria, July 10-13, 2019
“Imagining the Other:
Theo-political Challenges in an Age of Migration”
We live in an age of migration—often forced—with its special challenges. How we imagine “the other” is a decisive element in the (theo-)politics of exclusion and desire that feed on these challenges. Aware that imagination is a mimetic process, COV&R’s 2019 annual meeting wants to address these challenges by trying to illumine different aspects of this complex entanglement, asking whom or what we mean by “the other”: the stranger and migrant, the brother or sister, nature that envelopes or defies us, the transcendent Other to whom religions refer, the other sex or gender….
Scheduled subsections will include:
- Migration, ecology, and economic justice
- Exclusion and the transcendent Other
- Imagining the other: media coverage of migrants and refugees
- How do Europeans view the “others”?
The theme, “Imagining the Other,” also widens the conference’s range of topics beyond migration to other fields of interest for COV&R members.
COV&R 2019 will coincide with the 350th jubilee of the University of Innsbruck, western Austria’s largest institution of research, with 28,000 students and 4,500 staff. Innsbruck is a city of 132,000 located at an elevation of 574 meters (1,722 feet) in the Inn River valley surrounded by mountains of the Tyrolian Alps extending up to 2,300 meters (7,000 feet) that can be reached by a cable car.
The conference host is the university’s Jesuit-affiliated Faculty of Catholic Theology, which enrolls about 800 students, including about 40 Ph.D. students from around the world. It is famous as the academic home of theologians Josef Jungmann, Hugo and Karl Rahner, and Raymund Schwager. Schwager’s legacy of collaboration with René Girard lives on in an active research program that has included many COV&R members, including conference organizer Nikolaus Wandiger.
The conference’s cultural program on Saturday, July 13, will feature a 45-minute bus ride to the village of Stams, site of a Cistercian Abbey founded in 1273, where the tour will include a special exhibition about Emperor Maximilian I, who tried to negotiate peace with the Turks. The tour will be followed by a concert of the Regensburg Cathedral Choir and dinner in Stams.
Travel and accomodations: The closest international airport is in Munich, a 2-hour train ride away. Innsbruck’s own airport has good connections to international hubs in Frankfurt and Vienna. Attendees will arrange their own accommodations at hotels near the conference site in the city center or at a limited number of rooms in ecclesiastical guest houses. Further information will be posted on the conference web site.
Reflections on COV&R 2018
This year, in place of a single conference report, we asked two members to offer their reflections on the proceedings. Thanks to Joel Hodge and Paul Lynch for providing this binocular perspective.
The 2018 COV&R meeting addressed a difficult, though pertinent, topic: the concept of post-truth. Despite what could have been troubling theme, the conference was served by its high quality, compelling and even moving presentations. These presentations were augmented by the beautiful campus of Regis University, Denver.
The plenary sessions set the tone for the conference both in terms of their academic rigour and ethical implications. Paul Dumouchel started the conference off in an exemplary way in this regard: his analysis of untruth and lying was philosophically sharp and mimetically grounded. His argument that lying emerged from and manifested mimetic rivalry – often in sophisticated ways – was a simple thesis that cut to the heart of the matter. Thus, lying was a strategy or mechanism to cover over the dynamics of rivalry.
Laura Kipnis provided a courageous and chilling account of rivalry, scapegoating, and power in higher education. She recounted her engagement with those affected by the use and misuse of Title IX procedures in which male professors accused of sexual harassment or assault have been pressured, expelled or ostracised based on low thresholds of evidence. While there was no attempt to deny the problems of sexual violence, Kipnis showed how the frenzied drive to battle such violence—coupled with power, rivalry, and sexual politics—was leading to the victimization of men.
Jack Miles’ presentation was an interesting analysis of scriptural anxiety, particularly in the New Testament. He pinpointed this anxiety in a number of texts, utilizing Harold Bloom’s typologies, to show how the Christian Scriptures sought to rival the Jewish Scriptures, and later, with the Koran in reference to the bible. Miles’ work coincides with some biblical scholarship that has pointed to areas of tension, dispute and rivalry within and between Christian and Jewish communities. There is also scholarship on the way different perspectives and disputes emerged in the Jewish and Christian traditions and how these were managed and even encouraged as part of robust traditions of interpretation. The Bible attests to these different interpretations and revisions over time, and it would have been interesting to explore the features of these hermeneutical traditions alongside Miles’ analysis.
There is insufficient space to cover the many excellent presentations in the concurrent sessions. I’d like to highlight two sessions that I attended because of their interesting debates, of which I only provide a brief (and insufficient) sketch. Firstly, the session on Diego Bubbio’s new book, Intellectual Sacrifice and Other Mimetic Paradoxes, posed some important questions about how to understand mimesis and desire, and interpret the development Girard’s ideas. Paul Dumouchel identified the importance of these issues in his review of Bubbio’s book by arguing that mimesis, rather than metaphysical desire, is the primary driver of human development. While it is common to put the emphasis on metaphysical desire, Dumouchel claimed that Girard’s own position changed depending on his interlocutor (e.g., Sartre, Freud, Hegel). Dumouchel argued that mimesis is the primary category for understanding human relationality as it describes the sophisticated way humans are attuned to each other. He further argued that “desire” and “metaphysical desire” emerge out of mimetic interactions, particularly as the subject senses a lack of self-sufficiency in relation to his/her model-rival. There was much debate on this point as it was argued to the contrary that it is the human lack of being that drives the search for being in relation to the other through the process of mimetic desire. On the other hand, Dumouchel argued that the lack of being is only a state felt as a result of the mimetic process (the language for which Girard borrows from Sartre), which also helps to understand the evolutionary process.
The second session that sparked an interesting debate about aspects of mimetic theory was “Mimetic Theory in Dialogue with the Concept of Revelation in Catholic Theology,” which featured papers by Grant Kaplan and Thomas Deutsch. Various aspects of the concept of revelation with respect to Girard’s thought were explored. This discussion was important for understanding the later development of Girard’s work in relation to the transcendent and how the cycle of mimetic violence can be broken. Based on Deutsch’s analysis of Schwager’s work in this area, an interesting discussion ensued about Girard and Schwager’s ideas, particularly in relation to the devil or Satan. While Girard seems to have an impersonal nature of Satan, Ann Astell pointed out that Schwager saw room for a personal notion of the devil. In fact, such a notion can be countenanced to explain the range of spiritual influences and demonic manifestations in human experience, and particularly in relation to the origins of mimetic rivalry and the biblical accounts of such rivalry (e.g., the serpent). This discussion connected with the work of Thomas Ryba, who has been presenting on and around this topic at COV&R conferences. At this meeting, Ryba analysed the way a post-truth culture operates according to distorted categories.
I’ve chosen to highlight these sessions as they demonstrated the “colloquial” aspect of the COV&R meetings. In particular, they presented the potential for important issues in mimetic theory and its discipline areas to be explored in a collegial and rigorous way. The fact that COV&R has a shared language and conceptual framework should encourage such debates and allow for the free exchange of important ideas. I was grateful for these exchanges as I found them stimulating and insightful!
On July 17, just two days after the 2018 COV&R conference came to a close, former US President Barack Obama offered the 16th annual Nelson Mandela lecture in South Africa. Obama took the occasion to remind his audience of Mandela’s example, particularly at a moment democratic ideals seem to be under threat from all sides: from strongmen, from deepening economic divisions, and, perhaps most alarmingly, from a widespread failure to acknowledge the very concept of reality.
Unfortunately, too much of politics today seems to reject the very concept of objective truth. People just make stuff up. They just make stuff up. We see it in state-sponsored propaganda; we see it in Internet-driven fabrications, we see it in the blurring of lines between news and entertainment, we see the utter loss of shame among political leaders where they’re caught in a lie and they just double down and they lie some more.
Obama’s articulation of the problem resonates deeply with the 2018 COV&R conference theme, captured in the phrase “After Truth.” As conference chair and organizer Stephen McKenna suggests, “after truth” indicates both our present crisis and, most importantly, its potential solution:
“After Truth” immediately suggests the supposedly “post-factual” cultural moment, having particular resonance with recent anxieties over “fake news,” “alternative facts,” and other pathologies of the contemporary political sphere. Yet “After Truth” also indicates “the pursuit of truth,” and it prompts us to think about where we are and who(se) we become both when truth is obscured and after it is disclosed.
The project set here—striving for truth when the very concept seems to have lost all meaning—is particularly appropriate for students of René Girard. Against the intellectual currents of his time, Girard insisted that the scholar’s job was to go after truth: to find it and to name it. This assumption presupposed deeper truths: truth is there to be found and named, and the most difficult truth of all is that human society is structured on violence against an innocent victim. This is the kind of truth most of us don’t want to know. As Girard put it in Theatre of Envy, “It is unpleasant to learn that the inner sanctum of human culture is really a putrefied core” (225). At this moment, then, scholars following Girard’s trail face the especially difficult problem of not merely insisting on the very idea of truth, but also a truth that is nearly impossible to face. Little wonder that some might prefer fake news.
These were the problems that occupied the conference, which cohered remarkably, particularly among the plenary speakers. Paul Dumouchel started the discussion by gamely trying to sort out the nuances of lying, both to others and oneself. Dumouchel distinguished between those who lie while knowing the truth and those who lie because they have no regard for the truth. The first kind of liars may be hypocrites, but their hypocrisy is at least the homage that vice pays to virtue. Meanwhile, Laura Kipnis asked whether the new campus sexual politics, particularly as adjudicated by Title IX investigations, actually functions through the scapegoating mechanism. Aside from serious questions about whether Title IX preserves due process, Kipnis also wondered whether these investigations practice a kind of scapegoating by ridding departments of “troublemakers,” who are otherwise innocent. Kipnis’s presentation suggested that the desire for justice in such investigations may sometimes be inversely correlated to the “truth” they produce.
Kevin Burke, S.J., who was instrumental in moving the conference to Regis and thus saving it, offered a moving meditation on the poetry of Denise Levertov. Though often understood simply as Christian poet, Burke made clear that Levertov struggled with her beliefs throughout much of her life. She experienced other kinds of struggle as well: the end of her marriage, along with her demanding antiwar activity in Vietnam. Levertov’s poetry from this period suggested that ours is not the first period of American history to have a tenuous grasp of truth. Finally, Jack Miles discussed the “anxiety of influence” felt by the New Testament authors, who must have struggled with their own mimetic desire as they responded to Torah. Linking Girard and Harold Bloom, Miles discussed the way Christian beliefs both challenged and intensified the Jewish beliefs on which they were modeled. He also articulated the Jewish ethical response to these challenges and suggested ways in which these arguments were repurposed and reshaped in the Koran. Miles suggested the best response to these tensions was “postponement.” Our immediate task is to get to know our neighbors; theological disputation can wait until later.
Throughout these presentations, I was reminded of the Greek idea of agon, a word that means both “struggle” and “discord” along with “gathering” and “assembly.” An agon was a struggle that gathered opponents together. Unlike an athletic contest, where the purpose was to win, an agon’s purpose was the struggle itself. This etymology should remind us that “antagonism” does not actually refer to the intensity of a conflict, but the absence of one. Antagonists are persons with whom there is no basis for productive conflict. The lurking question of these lectures was whether we can struggle together for some common purpose.
One more etymological exploration: the root of “truth” is related to “troth,” as in “betrothed.” In its deepest meaning, truth has less to do with being accurate or correct than it does with steadfast or faithful. Truth is about trust. Listening to plenaries and reflecting on our conference theme—along with the state of our public discourse—I was stuck by the idea that our real problem is not that we don’t have accurate information or common premises. Our real problem is that we don’t trust each other. Our conference theme implies this lack of trust when it “prompts us to think about where we are and who(se) we become both when truth is obscured and after it is disclosed.” To disclose the truth is not just to know something, and not even to become someone, but to become people who belong to each other.
In addition to the plenary speakers, there were many conference highlights. The three Schwager Prize speakers were all excellent, as were the panels and workshops I had the chance to attend. The level of research and engagement I saw suggests that COV&R has a bright future. Impressive, too, was the level of collegiality. The attendees were genuinely interested in each other’s work and genuinely committed to welcoming newcomers to the conversation. And let me add my thanks to Steve McKenna, whose commitment and generosity were a model to us all.
Letter from a Former President
University of Notre Dame
Dear friends in COV&R:
Since I was rather speechless at the closing banquet of the 2018 COV&R conference in Denver, I want to write a “Thank you” letter in response to your amazing generosity that night. As those present know, Jay Alberg spontaneously commissioned Grant Kaplan to “pass the hat” to take up a collection for Hurricane Relief in Rockport, Texas, and in Puerto Rico, where the Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary (my community) experienced great property damage last Fall at our retreat centers. I carried the collection back to our provincial procurator in Wisconsin a few days later, and she counted out a grand total of $750.00 (plus 10 Euros)! The Sisters were very touched by this generous gift. I want to thank you from my heart in the name of the whole community and all those we serve in those hard-hit areas, as well as in Mexico, where our property in Queretaro sustained flooding after the earthquake.
In early August our provincial superior, Sister M. Joanna, wrote: “The reconstruction in Lamar / Rockport continues to be a slow process that is taking a lot of time, effort, and above all, patience. “ According to her report, “Approximately 16,000 homes in the Rockport area were either very damaged or destroyed, and at this point, almost a year after the hurricane, 12,000 of these are still in need of repair; many people are still without adequate housing.”
Your kind and generous offering is much appreciated in the face of this situation. The Lord reward you!
Yours, Ann (Astell)
Theology and Peace 2018
The 2018 Theology and Peace conference, “Accepting the Invitation to the Beloved Community,” took place at American Baptist College in Nashville, TN. ABC has served as the training ground for several prominent leaders from the Civil Rights movement until today. Each aspect of the conference centered on Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of the “beloved community.” Susan Wright, outgoing Theology and Peace president, opened the conference by invoking King’s awareness of the human need for community and engagement with the adversary in order to achieve this goal. Wright referred to René Girard’s concept of the pre-rational tendency to imitate each other’s desires as evidence of this need. That evening’s film, “King in the Wilderness,” brought to attention King’s emphasis on economic justice as the true foundation of building the “beloved community.” The conference was graced throughout by community-building practices such as group singing, led by Patty Prasada-Rao and Elder C.W. Harris, contemplative meditation, and prayers.
The first morning engaged participants with the works of René Girard. James Warren oriented a group of newcomers by laying out the basics of mimetic theory. An advanced group featured Paul Neuchterlein, who reviewed the evolution of Girard’s theories, including the idea that the self-sacrificial victim in the Christian tradition uniquely addresses the basic issue of violence. He brought to attention the racial and gendered foundations of systemic violence through the lens of various academic disciplines and the need for personal self-awareness. ABC faculty Phyllis Hindreth, J.D., and Joseph Tribble, M. Div., responded. Primarily concerned with how mimetic theory intersects with beloved community, Hindreth aimed to contextualize Girard’s theories and the conversations surrounding them. She asked critical questions about who was included in the conversation and who was being centered. In conversations aimed at reconciliation, she cautioned that it is crucial to remember that, depending on one’s position in the power structures that be, not all approach the table in the same way. Tribble questioned Girard’s basic notions about mimetic desire within the framework of cultural, social, and psychological complexity. He cautioned against the tendency to oversimplify “into large categories.” Echoing Hindreth, Tribble argued that true engagement occurs when the dominant group is decentered.
That afternoon, president of ABC, Dr. Forrest E. Harris, delivered a powerful plenary address. He argued that it is exactly American society’s refusal to accept the “beloved community” in the form of economic justice, that “allowed the worst demons of racism to re-enter the house,” and in even more insidious forms than in the 1960s. Harris fervently argued that it is those at the margins of society that hold the key to true liberation for all, as their experiences stand in stark testimony against the “pharaohs of our time.” He used the metaphor of a stitching the garment of “life to love…and love to liberation” as the “singular calling of our collective humanity.”
Rev. Mary McKinney and Rahim Buford followed with responses. Rev. McKinney traced her journey from growing up in a segregated Georgia to choosing a seminary in Chicago that could situate her perspective on race in America. She also discussed her identity as a queer woman, struggling with the conservative teachings of her religious upbringing. Rahim Buford, a student at American Baptist College, was formerly incarcerated for 25 years after being tried and convicted as a juvenile. He shared much about his life story, a testament to a harsh and unjust criminal justice system, especially towards juveniles. After a difficult and long process, he was eventually released. In addition to sharing his story, he advocates on behalf of and mentors those held in a local juvenile detention center.
The plenary speaker that evening, Dr. Thee Smith from Emory University, addressed issues of restorative practices as a response to the human tendency towards “target practice.” He showed how the Christian practice of the Eucharist can address the issue of violence as it can act as a “substitution for the sacrificial victim.” He then pointed to various practices of reconciliation and invited the conference attendees to participate in an exercise “rehearsal for the beloved community.”
Wednesday morning began with a powerful prayer session for the clemency hearing of Cyntoia Brown taking place that morning. Incoming Theology and Peace president Preston Shipp would be speaking in her defense. Rev. Jeannie Alexander then led the bible study focusing on Mark 5:1-20, reading through the interpretive lens of mass incarceration. She vehemently argued that Girard’s notion that modern day religion no longer enacts violent ritualism is plainly false. She offered the testimony of her own experience as a prison chaplain, and the ritualization of state violence in the rehearsal and performance of state executions. She further pointed out that we, as a society, scapegoat criminals, instead of dealing with systemic issues of racism and poverty.
That afternoon conference attendees visited Thistle Farms, founded by Becca Stevens. The business assists women in escaping life on the streets or other dangerous situations and supports them in their “journey to wholeness.” Stevens asserted, however, that wholeness is not enough if poverty remains an issue. Therefore, Thistle Farms also offers employment to these women through its bath and body care company. The business includes global partnerships, sharing its vision of economic justice to women in particularly Rwanda and in a Syrian refugee camp in Greece. That evening, conference participants enjoyed dinner at Thistle Farms as well as a lively musical performance by the local Inversion Vocal Ensemble and folk singer Buddy Greene.
The conference concluded with reflections on Girardian theory in the context of today’s realities. As participants reflected on the “beloved community,” Dr. Thee Smith reminded us that Dr. King was a sacrificial victim of American society, not only in his murder, but in the present day with the domestication of his radical vision.
For inquiries about writing a book review or submitting a book for review,
contact the book review editor, Matthew Packer.
How It All Ends
Review by Matthew Packer, Buena Vista University
and Curtis Gruenler, Hope College
James Alison and Wolfgang Palaver, eds., The Palgrave Handbook of Mimetic Theory and Religion. London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2017. Pages xxvii + 549.
We continue our review begun in issue 55, covering parts I and II, and issue 56, covering parts III and IV. Here Matthew reviews parts V and VII and Curtis reviews part VI, with some final comments from both at the end.
“Apocalypse has a way of focusing the mind,” write section editors Jeremiah Alberg and Wolfgang Palaver in Part V. Similarly, the articles in this section, which also concern postmodernity and “the return of religion,” are likely to fascinate readers. Here the contemporary implications of mimetic theory are examined, and efforts are made “to better understand the world that we now inhabit.” Front and center are urgent questions of the present age, such as what sort of society we can hope for, what modern Christianity should look like, how terrorism and religion are related, and what secularization really entails. In keynoting a range of topics from terror to optimism, the editors remind us, quoting Hölderlin, that “where danger threatens/That which saves from it also grows.”
In the first article, Jeremiah Alberg defines the larger context with a brief historical review of the return of religion. After reminding us of the long-held assumption of Enlightenment thinking, that modernization would mean secularization and the demise of religion, he points to the vast gulf today between those holding such secular beliefs and the resurgence of phenomena “in the name of religion.” Mimetic theory bridges this gap, he continues to explain, noting for example one of Girard’s central insights that the so-called “death of God,” so characteristic of the modern world, is “not the death of religion, but a massive change in its direction.”
Closely related is the important question of the katechon, which has come to mean, writes Michael Kirwan in his careful chapter, “the restraining hand of God before the chaos of the end-time is unleashed.” Kirwan clarifies the term and its provenance (at one point a conflation of two concepts), surveys its various usages, mostly biblical but also secular (prominent in the work of Hobbes and Schmitt), and then gives examples of this phenomenon in history. Like the scapegoat mechanism, the katechon “contains violence,” but unlike the ambiguous value (in mimetic theory) of “apocalypse,” the katechon is negative: “power exercised out of fear of chaos, in fundamental opposition to gospel hope.” Kirwan reminds us, too, that Girard used the term for its diagnostic ability, to explain major events and historical processes which otherwise seemed “bewilderingly ambivalent.”
Another contributor, David Cayley, known to many for his 2001 radio interview with Girard, provides a fascinating piece on the Anti-Christ, which compares this figure in the works of Ivan Illich and Girard. It’s a very helpful introduction to Illich’s work, which emphasizes the New Testament’s keynotes of freedom and volatility. The difference between Christ and Anti-Christ, Cayley claims, is the the presence or absence of freedom. The free creation in the new relationships made possible by the Gospels, he explains, cannot be “made the subject of a rule”—which the church and the modern state afterwards do then try to institutionalize. Girard and Illich, then, share an understanding of the gospel’s role in the historical process of revelation, as well as the temptation of Anti-Christ. Girard again: “we criticize Christianity with Christianity,” without realizing; it’s an “imitation of Christ, which [is] at the same time a total betrayal of Christianity.”
Two of the most impressive articles are Bruce Ward’s and Wilhelm Guggenberger’s. In “Apocalypse: Hope Against All Hope,” Ward tidily summarizes Girard’s interpretation of the apocalypse: the revelation unfolding out of the Gospels along with its ambiguous consequences. And he also offers a powerful meditation on “hope” in regard to the apocalypse, and recalls Girard’s affirmation: “there is nothing nihilistic about the apocalyptic spirit: it can make sense of the trend toward the worst only from within the framework of a very profound hope.” Guggenberger takes a slightly different tack and reviews the approach of “enlightened doomsaying” and the paradox of “preventative” prophecy, recently explored by Jean-Pierre Dupuy. The mimetic approach, Guggenberger illustrates, helps us avoid the idolatry of trusting in nuclear weapons or in the drive to solve everything by technological innovation.
Other articles in Part V focus on more particular questions. Cyril O’Regan looks at the relationship between Girard, Heidegger, and Hölderlin, especially in regard to Christianity and Nietzsche—an article for which some students might need further philosophical context, but it’s a helpful survey nonetheless on a critical philosophical vein running through Girard’s work; Girard’s respect for Heidegger is “enormous…but the judgment resoundingly negative.” Frederick Depoortere helpfully examines the “weak faith” in the philosophy of Gianni Vattimo and Vattimo’s parallels to Girard, concluding that “it’s difficult to consider [Vattimo] a faithful adherent of mimetic theory.” And Elizabetta Brighi suggests some new angles for mimetic interpretations of “Terrorism and Religion,” a topic of course receiving sustained attention these days.
“Alternative Paradigms,” the title of part VI, implies that MT is itself a paradigm. Paul Dumouchel, who introduces this section, has discussed in an interview with the Philosophical Journal of Conflict and Violence what this means: a powerful explanatory framework that orients research and enables further discovery. Many of the chapters throughout the Handbook consider how MT complements or conflicts with other paradigms in religious studies and theology. But MT does not pertain only to religion; or rather, it treats religion as so fundamental to humanity and culture that it also becomes a theory of everything in human affairs.
Calling MT a “theory of everything” can be a criticism but also part of its appeal. Dumouchel’s own chapter in this section explores the crucial, methodological distinction between claiming to explain everything within a domain—which MT does not—and claiming relevance within a very large domain. He makes a helpful comparison to Darwin’s theory of evolution, which does not by itself completely explain anything in biology but pertains to almost everything in biology and much beyond. Only further research can determine the scope of “theories of everything” and how much they can explain within that scope. Likewise, alternative paradigms may have overlapping domains of pertinence and explain different things, or explain the same things in different but complementary ways.
Or not. Grant Kaplan’s chapter on “The New Atheism” associated with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens points out how its commitment to a monolithic, materialist view of causality excludes anything supernatural in a way that MT, though it offers a natural explanation of religion, does not. For the New Atheists, the basic distinction is between religious and anti-religious, which includes science. “For Girard,” however, “the more basic distinction is mythical/anti-mythical.” Both Judeo-Christianity and modern science, along with secularism and atheism, are on the anti-mythical side—at least when they are at their best. This raises again Girard’s claim that science required the exposure of the scapegoat mechanism (Kaplan cites p. 204 of The Scapegoat, as do two of the chapters in part IV). MT’s account of the importance of Judeo-Christian revelation for the rise of science deftly turns the tables on the New Athiests’ (and perhaps others’) scientific accounts of the rise of religion, but surely also exemplifies a domain in which MT, while pertinent, gives a far from complete explanation. What would it take to compare and combine this with other theories of the rise of science? And what might the payoff be, besides out-enlightening the supposed enlighteners?
Psychology and cognitive neuroscience are the focus of chapters by Scott Garrels and Warren S. Brown. Garrels, excerpting from his introduction to the volume Mimesis and Science, surveys recent work in these fields that converges with MT. Brown, on the other hand, distinguishes MT’s interdividual, social approach to the origins of religion from neuroscience’s focus on inner, individual characteristics of religious experience but leaves open the question of how compatible these explanations might be.
Eric Gans similarly leaves open the question of compatibility in his condensed overview of Generative Anthropology (GA), the paradigm he originated, which overlaps with MT in both its domain and its core idea. Gans, a student of Girard, shares his teacher’s understanding of the centrality of mimesis. But in place of the scapegoat mechanism’s function in the origin of culture, he puts “the aborted gesture of appropriation,” which gives rise to language and, hence, religion. What difference does this make? Other than the claim that his theory of language fills a gap left by Girard, Gans does not, here at least, pursue the comparison. Interested readers might consult Pablo Bandera’s “Love vs. Resentment: The Absence of Positive Mimesis in Generative Anthropology” in Contagion 14 (2007) and Richard van Oort’s “Mimetic Theory and Its Rivals: A Reply to Pablo Bandera” in Contagion 17 (2010). What emerges at the end of Gans’s chapter is an implicit contrast in visions of deliverance from violence: GA’s optimism about the experience of art and the function of free markets and democracy in negotiating the consequences of mimetic desire vs. MT’s hope for personal conversion and the imitation of Christ in relationships.
Trevor Cribben Merrill’s “Critiques of Mimetic Theory” is so concise as to defy summary. Simply by his arrangement of the criticisms that Girard’s “double commitment to the social sciences and to Christianity earned him…from all quarters,” however, Merrill implies a sort of balance that testifies in MT’s favor. To the opposing criticisms that it is derivative from or out of step with prevailing theories of culture, Merrill replies with the suggestion that it is instead a synthesis. Other objections appear as partial understandings in opposite directions that almost cancel each other out. And many of them point up the need for dialogue with other paradigms, which, indeed, happens elsewhere in the Handbook.
Can self-criticism be built into a paradigm? Criticism usually comes from a clash of paradigms, but Jean-Marc Boudin’s “Mimetic Theory and Self-criticism,” the fittingly final chapter of part VI, argues that MT contains “the method of its own internal critique.” Bourdin identifies two false kinds of self-criticism, conformity to the modern fashion for self-critique and agreement with the crowd of one’s persecutors, on the way to recognition of one’s own mimeticism and self-deception, which is the pre-condition for true conversion. He finds in the later works of Girard himself a model of such “willingness to recognize one’s own submission to mimetic desire in all circumstances and to be convinced by coherent arguments” (a picture fleshed out by Cynthia Haven’s biography). In this way, MT could be seen as a sort of paradoxical meta-paradigm, one that operates not just by the Kuhnian “normal science” of working within a stable framework but by ongoing self-criticism, conversion, and dialogue with alternatives. It is the paradigm for how to avoid getting entrenched in a paradigm, but also difficult to institutionalize and, if I am being honest as a partisan of MT, live out. This scientific theory of religion and culture turns out also to be a spiritual practice.
Part VII of The Handbook, on “Approaching the Contemporary,” is a partner in ways with Part V, dealing with urgent matters of the present, but whereas V is on theological and philosophical concerns, VII pays greater attention to social issues, political conflicts, media analysis, and pastoral imperatives. Editors Andrew McKenna and Sheila Trefle-Hidden quickly scan the vast network of ways in which mimetic crisis manifests itself in the contemporary world, in global pop culture—considering what to look for, where to see it, and how we can respond hopefully. By itself, their introduction would serve as a useful resource for a class on MT and popular culture.
Alberg again provides a contextual article, this time on scandal, which of course drives so much of our contemporary news “feed,” and shapes so much of popular narrative about the world we live in. Alberg’s article is a great primer on the concept of scandal generally speaking, but it also closely traces the phenomenon of the stumbling block in the Gospels, Shakespeare, and Girard, and can clearly be applied to contemporary (especially U.S.) political scandal.
Two keen essays then examine modern terrorism and religious conflict. Duncan Morrow’s article exposes, in a range of examples, the mirror-like dynamic of escalating conflict, mostly notably in the recent “War on Terror.” Where Girard noted the “reciprocal theologization of war” in the Great Satan versus the Axis of Evil, Morrow similarly notes of recent escalations that “as the reign of suspicion and terror spread, so the rule of law itself increasingly reflected the face of terror.” Another standout is Vern Neufeld Redekop’s essay on the role of religion in some of the world’s most enflamed and atrocious conflicts, including the Rwandan genocide, the civil war in the Balkans, the Cold War, and the Islamic State’s clash with the West. Redekop’s personal testimony makes his article especially powerful.
Another prominent topic in Part VII is the narrative power of film. In his introduction to “Resurgent Religious Themes in Contemporary Cinema,” Chris Fleming cuts straight to Girard’s early suggestion—surprising, perhaps, from a literary scholar—that the novel might be “outmoded”  as the privileged narrative form, and to Girard’s later request that we “think of cinema as extending and surpassing the techniques of great literary and pictorial realism.” Fleming ranges from the Mel Gibson film The Passion of the Christ, through works such Pasolini’s, the Left Behind series, and popular recent films such as Exodus and The Dark Knight. Joel Hodge in his article provides mimetic insights into the evolution of the sacred in contemporary (especially American) film. First he considers the movies delivering “a diet of sacred violence,” then the films that critique or deconstruct the old sacrificial patterns—renewing our appreciation in particular for Luke Skywalker and the Star Wars movies. In this context, readers should also appreciate Daniel Cojacaru and George Dunn’s analyses of Christopher Nolan’s masterpieces.
Outstanding, too, are the pastoral reflections of Adam Ericksen and Kris Rocke. Rocke’s piece on “Modern Confession Movements” and on the “religious side of globalization” is an invaluable review of peacemaking pioneers worldwide, advocates of mimetic theory, street missionaries, and social justice efforts (Leadership Foundations, Center for Action and Contemplation, Center for Progressive Renewal, Tierra Nueva, Common Grace, and Street Psalms)—all framed by a compelling Guatemalan story of love and forgiveness. Closing the handbook is Ericksen’s generous and candid story of a teenage girl in his youth group, a victim of bullying, who transformed the group around her through forgiveness. Along the way, he leavens the story with amusing insights—“pastors are as mimetic as anyone”—and weaves back and forth between our own experiences and the clear examples of the Gospels. It’s an uplifting end to the collection.
In conclusion, the editors and contributors of The Palgrave Handbook have provided a marvelous resource here, clear and concise, and accessible for students in particular. At this time of the retirement and passing of Girard and his first students and collaborators, this volume consolidates for maximum usefulness their work, as well as that of the first generation scholars working under their influence, on every topic related to religion. And since they find religion to be at the origin of everything human, the Handbook’s scope also includes an orientation to mimetic theory’s relevance for every other discipline of the humanities and social sciences. Especially valuable are the ways each of the seven parts, not just Part V, puts mimetic theory in dialogue with other paradigms and intellectual currents. While mimetic theory’s distinctive contributions are on full display, the Handbook is well pitched to advance interest in it beyond those for whom it is a (sometimes preoccupying) focus. This landmark survey of some of the most critical and urgent issues in mimetic theory today should serve as a platform for all sorts of research and educational projects for years to come.
Girard Then and Now
Review by William E. Cain
René Girard, When These Things Begin: Conversations with Michael Treguer, trans. Trevor Cribben Merrill. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2014. Pages xii + 140.
It is good finally to have an English translation of René Girard’s Quand ces choses commenceront…: Entretiens avec Michel Treguer, published in 1994. The title echoes Luke 21:28, where Jesus says: “When these things begin to take place, stand erect, hold your heads high, because your liberation is near at hand.” “These things” are fearful signs in the skies and on the earth, and menace and terror among humankind, which declare the coming, both terrifying and glorious, of the Son of Man. Jesus then tells of the fig tree, and of all trees, that when they bud show us that summer is approaching—just as portents will bear witness that “the kingdom of God is near.” This is a powerful moment in the Gospel text, one that is in accord with ever-intensifying predictions of apocalypse that Girard voiced in the later phase of his career.
The 1994 French text is itself something of a puzzle. Its title implies that it consists of conversations between Girard and Michel Treguer, a French writer, journalist, and TV and radio personality. But the term “conversations” is misleading, for the Introduction tells us that in fact the book consists of “two recorded conversations” (xi) between Girard and Treguer combined with excerpts from unpublished conversations between Girard and someone else, and that it, furthermore, incorporates “texts, rewritten and reformulated, both old and new, in French and English, by René Girard.” From page to page, therefore, it is not exactly clear what we are reading and when it was said or written. Toward the end, Treguer comments: “While going through the transcripts of our many conversations (which have taken place over ten years)….” This intimates that the material assembled here may reach as far back as the mid-1980s.
In some places, the book highlights important events of 1989 and the early 1990s—the destruction of the Berlin Wall, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and the fall of Soviet- controlled regimes behind the so-called Iron Curtain. Treguer refers to “the recent, incredible liberation of the Eastern European countries” (3); Girard contends that “the collapse of Communism” testifies to “the failure of Marxism” (5), and he bestows praise on Mikhail Gorbachev. To some readers, this context from decades past may limit the appeal of When These Things Begin, all the more so since upbeat affirmations made by Treguer in particular are at odds with the world that shockingly changed on September 11, 2001 and the world that we live and work in (and are afflicted by) today.
I do not want to give the impression, however, that Quand ces choses commenceront… /When These Things Begin is unduly optimistic. It is true that we receive flashes of hope from Girard, as when he maintains that through a good form of mimesis we could make and propagate positive choices for the betterment of all—we could eliminate nuclear weapons and “feed all the hungry” (9). Yet he immediately adds, “It’s a lot more likely that mimetic desire will go in the wrong direction. The law that mankind lives by on a daily basis is violence” (9).
This is as disquieting now as it was when Girard made the point some twenty years ago, and it indicates why I found Quand ces choses commenceront…rewarding and provocative in the 1990s and find this English translation equally so. On occasion in his many books and essays, Girard touches on current events—what was happening in the world around him at that time. But to me his writings (and interviews too) are not limited, or defined, by the time and place within which they were produced. I think of Emerson’s emphasis on the “perpetual modernness” of Plato, and Ruskin’s division of books “into two classes, the books of the hour and the books of all time.” When These Things Begin is not dated. It is stimulating from start to finish even when it treats or recapitulates familiar authors, texts, and topics in the Girardian canon—among them, Sophocles, Shakespeare, scapegoat, myth, ritual, Joseph and his brothers, Job, the demons of Gerasa.
Treguer’s questions, e.g., “Why didn’t Christ write?” (114), “Do you ever feel like you’re pushing the limits of the human brain?” (126), are sometimes impulsive and quirky yet they prove helpful in spurring Girard to new formulations and perspectives on his abiding concerns. I have a related response to the translation, which at moments we might be inclined to quibble or quarrel with. The first sentence is: “René Girard is truly an extraordinary character” (ix). I am not certain that this captures the resonance of the French text: “René Girard est assurement un personage hors du commun.” But I like reflecting on the implications of both the French and the English renderings here and elsewhere. Similarly, the translation for “la comprehension évangelique” is “Gospel intelligence” (33). We might dissent, but for me it is illuminating to ponder the “intelligence” that the Gospel text possesses, the awareness of its own operations that it displays and dramatizes—what it understands, how it prompts and quickens the understanding of its readers. In a way, the French and English texts belong together, forming a single book and thereby becoming—in literary theorist I. A. Richard’s phrase—“a machine to think with.”
I would especially recommend When Things Begin to readers of Girard who are interested in the relationship between mimetic contagion and choice, imitative desire and free will. Throughout his career as a critic and scholar of literature, religion, and culture, Girard struggled to clarify and explain his perceptions on this vexed and vexing issue, dealing with our freedom or its absence. Often, Girard emphasizes the inevitable, irresistible nature of imitation: he calls attention to its authority and force, the desire for the other whose desires we adopt and take to heart and whom we seek to imitate, desires to which we (so it seems) must succumb. But, at the same time, Girard tries to make allowances and adjustments for freedom—that is, for our capacity to resist bad mimesis and adhere to the good instead.
While underway on two mimetically-oriented projects of my own, one dealing with the Denial of Saint Peter, and the other with the novels of Edith Wharton, I have encountered this tension repeatedly in Girard’s writings. Is it a contradiction—something that he could not wholly resolve, something that he could not succeed in bringing sharply into view? Or should we say, rather, that it is the core Girardian dialectic, the simultaneous absence and presence of choice? Girard sees and does not see, is both aware and not aware of this stress and strain, push and pull, in his body of work. We cannot help what we do and who we are, he insists. But no, in sharp counterstatement he says that we can, we do. At the beck and call of imitation, we always have been and will be: it controls us. Then again, this is not the case: it does not.
“I’m not saying that there’s no autonomous self [moi autonome],” Girard says to Treguer. “I’m saying that the possibilities of the autonomous self are always hindered by [presque toujours recouvertes] mimetic desire and by a false individualism whose appetite for differences tends to have a leveling effect” (12). “Hindered” is an intriguing word, but it is not really aligned with the sense in the French of covered over. Something covered up as well, something hidden? Do we know, can we ever know, the degree to which imitative desire (not us, but the desire in us) instigates, shapes, and propels behavior?
On the next page, Girard speaks compellingly about a society overtaken by “crisis”:
If mimetic conflicts are contagious, in other words if there are two individuals who desire the same thing, there will soon be a third. Once there are three, four, five, six, the process starts to snowball [le processus fait boule de neige], and everyone desires the same thing. The conflict begins with an object. But it ends up becoming so intense that it leads to the destruction or the forgetting of the object, and is transferred to the level of the antagonists who, in the absence of any real desire [hors de tout désir reel], become obsessed with one another. The contagion of desires (la contamination des désirs] gives way to that of antagonisms. (13)
Contagion/contamination, the unstoppable snowball, the conflict so intense that it has an annihilating effect: the images and forceful claims made in these sentences drive home to the reader the fateful certainty that society will be torn apart by violence. Girard reaffirms this line of argument frequently in When These Things Begin only to retract and qualify it, most firmly toward the end when he says that we should not conclude about mimetic theory “that it denies the existence of individual freedom” (125). Do we agree or not?
It is a challenging experience to read the French or the English version of this book. It is even better, as I have suggested, to read both. Our responses to the questions that this two-in-one text raises remind us how deeply Girard demands that we look both inside and beyond ourselves. He writes with authority and conviction: he boldly states his positions and views; he is decisive, forthright. But Girard’s prose also conveys the impression of ongoing inquiry, of research that remains to be done—and of intellectual commitent and Christian missionary zeal. Girard’s passionate texts are always thinking, informed in their own way with “la comprehension évangelique.”
Turning the Table on a Modern Myth
Review by Michael Kirwan
Loyola Institute, Trinity College, Dublin
Scott Cowdell, Chris Fleming, Joel Hodge and Carly Osborn, eds., Does Religion Cause Violence? Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Violence and Religion in the Modern World. Violence, Desire and the Sacred Series, vol. 7. New York, London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018. Pages xii + 259.
In Tom Stoppard’s play Jumpers, two philosophers discuss the nature of belief. One asserts that it was perfectly understandable for pre-moderns to believe in a geocentric universe, because the sun, after all, does look as if it revolves around the earth. The other replies: “So how would things look if the earth revolved around the sun?” The latest volume in the Bloomsbury series Violence, Desire and the Sacred addresses a “master-question” for the contemporary world in general, and for mimetic theory in particular: the apparent causal relationship between religion and violence. In the spirit of Stoppard’s philosopher, Girardian mimetic theory advances the conviction that there is, indeed, a causal connection, but that it runs in the other direction. Violence is the “cause” of religion; hence the insistence by some Girardian theorists of speaking of “Violence and Religion,” rather than “Religion and Violence.”
This volume is more evidence of the prolific industry of the Australian Girardian scholars who have inspired a series which already includes volumes on mimetic theory “across the disciplines,” “sacrifice in life, love and literature,” “mimesis, movies and media,” “mimesis and atonement,” and so on. The present volume is the outcome of the COV&R conference hosted by the Australian Girardian Seminar in Melbourne in 2016. The conference sought to move beyond the truism of religion-as-a-cause-of-violence and to make explicit the Copernican reshaping of the debate brought about by mimetic theory. In so doing, Girardian theory appears to have found an important ally in William T. Cavanaugh, who has written extensively on the “Myth of Religious Violence.” More precisely, the “Myth” which Cavanaugh has been trying to debunk concerns the claim that there is a transcultural, transhistorical connection between religion and violence. This claim is in no sense neutral or innocent, however, because the suspicion of religion which it inspires allows secularism a “free pass.” Not only does “non-religious” violence remain under-examined; the modern secular state is allowed to congratulate itself both as the binary opposite of religious extremism and (through its emphasis on reason and on keeping the peace) as the “saviour” from conflict. Cavanaugh notes the extent to which proponents of the “Myth” have taken advantage of conceptual unclarity concerning “religion.” A resolution of this confusion requires us to move beyond “substantivist” and “functionalist” accounts, in order to appreciate the “constructivist” view, that the term “religion” operates as a marker within political and cultural dispositions of power—most evidently in colonial discourses about religion
Cavanaugh’s contribution is the opening chapter in this volume. It is evident, here and in the theological response from Petra-Steinmair-Pösel, that Cavanaugh’s project and Girardian mimetic theory can be mutually enriching. Though Girard’s use of the term “religion” would be functionalist rather than constructivist, Cavanaugh acknowledges a fruitful ambiguity in Girard’s work, which allows for at least a compatibility with his own crusade against the “Myth.” In fact the two projects coincide, insofar as Girard describes Christianity as a scapegoat of secular modernity, just as Cavanaugh traces Christianity’s marginalisation by secular “myth-makers.”
Steinmair-Pösel’s response underlines the points of contact between the two approaches, in the process reminding us of the theological-anthropological context. Girard gives us an account of a post-lapsarian world; in this he differs from Thomas Hobbes, and therefore from any hint of a violent protology. Augustine’s “ontology of peace” is the reference point—a further “plus,” given the prominence of Augustine in Cavanaugh’s own writings. More generally, a theological appraisal at this point is appropriate. Cavanaugh’s debunking of the “Myth” is, for strategic reasons, constructed on historical rather than theological arguments, though the latter are never far away. As is clear from the above, I regard the engagement with Cavanaugh, and the drawing out of convergences with mimetic theory, as the most significant aspect of this volume.
There are many riches besides, however; indeed, many of the major thinkers working in mimetic theory are represented here. Part II of the volume, entitled “Violence and Deterrence in the Modern World,” contains chapters from established Girardians Sandor Goodhart and Jean-Pierre Dupuy, while Wolfgang Palaver features a mimetic perspective on religious extremism in Part III: “Islamic Terrorism: a Case Study of Contemporary ‘Religious Violence.’”
This final section contains a dialogue between Asma Afsaruddin and Paul Dumouchel on Islam and violence. The conversation is, in a sense, a localised version of the earlier dialogue between Cavanaugh and Steinmair-Pösel. As with religion in general, so with Islam in particular: there are “myths to be debunked,” regarding Islam’s alleged propensity toward violence. Afsaruddin identifies three commonly held assumptions about jihad which are incessantly voiced by Western commentators (while acknowledging that the erroneous views are reinforced by extremist websites). A proper scholarly investigation of Islamic texts and traditions follows, in which a stress on peacekeeping and restraint of violence comes to the fore. Only with such research (which includes the debate about abrogation of texts) can the religious justifications for violent action in the present be challenged.
With regard to Girard, Afsaruddin echoes Cavanaugh’s concern about Girard’s inadequate engagement with Islam and therefore his troubling characterisation of Islam in Battling to the End in particular. Her second objection, that there is no place for justice in Girard’s scheme, seems to be based on the misapprehension that Girard offers a pacifist position. In the final part of her chapter, she insists that there is no scapegoating in Islam (emphasis in original), and points to the theological anthropological difference from Christianity (e.g. lack of a doctrine of original sin). Afsaruddin holds out hope of a continued conversation between mimetic theory and Islam, if we make allowance for Girard’s limited understanding of Muslim texts and history. Dumouchel responds sympathetically to what he calls her “important ethical and political endeavour,” though he himself makes the political dimension more explicit. Dumouchel applauds her avoidance of simplistic answers to real questions (which would be merely ideological answers, closing down debate and further understanding); he suggests that Afsaruddin shares with Girardian theory a “refusal to be scandalised by the presence of violence in religion.” Given that Dumouchel does not directly respond to her misgivings about Girard’s view of Islam, we may want to infer that Afsaruddin’s critique carries some weight. Nevertheless, as with the Cavanaugh and Steinmair-Pösel exchange, there is a sense of common ground being identified for further collaborative research.
In short, the chapters of this volume justify Jeremiah Alberg’s claim on the back cover, that Girard’s theory is here being “invoked, questioned, criticized, and stretched.” But lest it become the closed language of specialists, the resources provided for those coming to Girardian theory for the first time are invaluable: the editors have provided an appendix, “Rene Girard at a Glance,” and a glossary of key Girardian terms, as well as a very serviceable list of further reading. Final mention therefore should go to the editors, whose individual contributions are scattered through the volume: Joel Hodge (“Why is God Part of Human Violence?”), Chris Fleming (“The End of Politics?”), and Carly Osborn (“Rites of Expulsion: Violence against Heretics in Early Modern Catholic France”), as well as those of several other Australian contributors. I mention these together, because the volume is a fine product of a critical mass of Girardian thinkers currently at work in Australia, whose collective energy and commitment (evident in the Melbourne COV&R/AGS conference of 2016) are so significant for the current well-being of mimetic theory.
Out of the Shadows
Keble College, University of Oxford
Nidesh Lawtoo, Conrad’s Shadow: Catastrophe, Mimesis, Theory. Studies in Violence, Mimesis and Culture. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2016. Pages xlii + 420.
Joseph Conrad’s earliest sense of himself was in terms of a dual or multiple identity. “I am a Pole, a Catholic and a gentleman,” he declared as a six-year-old child in 1863 (cited in J. Baines, Joseph Conrad: A Critical Biography, 1960, 14). This duality or multiplicity was even portended in the name given to him by his father, Konrad: this was after the 1828 narrative verse Konrad Wallenrod by Polish poet and essayist Adam Mickiewicz, with its depiction of layered or competing private and public loyalties, and its dramatization of their inexorable unraveling over time (it was the anglicised version of this middle name that Conrad eventually used as his pen-name). As the years went on, Conrad’s existence as a destabilized and decentred self became even more manifest: he was a subject without a country, a religious sensibility without an organised system of belief, and a master of many languages without having a home in any one of them. His self-identity was always in the process of being formed diachronically and in relation to an external world that was constantly in flux.
In this lengthy and erudite book, Nidesh Lawtoo reads Conrad’s literary work and the history of its reception in light of this biography. His core thesis is that the shadows, doubles, doppelgängers, and psychic identifications that haunt Conrad’s fictions are representations of the protean transformations of the human self in relation to alterity. This is to agree with Virginia Woolf who pointed out that Conrad’s fictional characters are always multiple because “Conrad himself was a compound of two or more men” (cited in A. McNeillie, ed., The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Volume 4: 1925-1928, 1994, 233). It follows for Lawtoo that Conrad’s work suggests a mimetic reading, for it is continually exploring the rational and psychological consequences of being oneself, whilst also being (dis)possessed by an Other. And, whilst acknowledging the relevance of many other conceptualizations of mimesis, especially those of Georges Bataille and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, it is the mimetic theory of René Girard that he deems most apposite as a lens through which to advance this reading. Thus, although Girard did not include Conrad in his literary pantheon per se, extending from Cervantes to Proust, Lawtoo sets out to complete the job and enlist him, for in his view Conrad fulfils Girard’s description of novelistic genius as “that which begins with the collapse of the autonomous self” (DDN, 38).
The book is divided into three parts. In the first part, Lawtoo explores instances of affective or psycho-ethical becoming in Conrad’s fictions. This includes lengthy studies of works such as Typhoon (1902), The Secret Sharer (1912), The Shadow-Line (1917), and some of the shorter tales. Central in this section is the idea that Conrad places his protagonists in an environment where community is both essential and (to use Jean-Luc Nancy’s phrase) “inoperative” (Nancy, The Inoperative Community). For Lawtoo, this reveals the structure of mimetic desire itself, which causes human solidarity to be fragmented into recursive and nihilistic multiplicities.
In the second part, Lawtoo explores the history of reader reception of Conrad’s work, with particular focus on the severe critique of his work that has been developed within postcolonial studies. He argues that debates around Conrad’s representations of racial otherness, particularly in Heart of Darkness (1905), can be reframed. The “image of Africa” that Conrad develops, which Chinua Achebe famously interpreted as being essentially racist (C. Achebe, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” 1977), should be read instead through the prism of mimetic theory: Conrad uses this geographical space as a means of testing processes of mimetic escalation with that which is radically Other. Thus, for Lawtoo, the racial difference that Achebe opines in Conrad’s work actually discloses both a difference and a similitude. At this point, Lawtoo provides a useful direction to Conrad studies, one that might serve to break an impasse that has endured for many decades.
In the third part, Lawtoo elucidates the metaphysical foundations of violence that can be traced in Conrad’s work, with reference to a wide range of texts from his different stages in his career, from Almayer’s Folly (1895), his first novel, to Under Western Eyes (1911). The book ends with a short coda relating these ideas to contemporary insights into the “plasticity” of human social relations which, in turn, is an effect of the “neuroplasticity” of the human brain itself.
Lawtoo’s methodology is subtle. On one hand, he uses Girardian theory as a pre-existing theoretical filter, offering new readings of Conrad’s texts in light of the hermeneutic Girard provides. But on the other hand, he is also prepared to treat Conrad’s writing as a privileged artistic medium that is able to test, explore and inflect Girard’s ideas in turn. This is a useful approach and sets his work apart from deployments of Girardian theory that tend to be uncritical and sometimes even hagiographical towards the methods of the master. A useful example of the benefits of such an approach is found in chapter one, where Lawtoo offers an illuminating study of a little-known and infrequently-read work from the middle part of Conrad’s career entitled The Duel (1908). This short tale deals with a historically documented relation between two officers in the Napoleonic army: these men, D’Hubert and Feraud, fought a series of legendary duels for nearly two decades, their personal rivalry reflecting and in some ways foreshadowing the geopolitical situation in which they were ostensibly engaged as military actors. The reason for their quarrel was of course lost in time (“there was universal curiosity as to the origin of their quarrel”; The Duel, 190), thereby disclosing its mimetic origins (with delicious irony, in the tale’s preface Conrad mentions that “since the pretext [of the historical duel] was never disclosed, I therefore had to invent it”; The Duel, vii). Lawtoo offers a fascinating study of this tale as describing in important ways the logic of escalation of violence that Girard explores in Achever Clausewitz. His analysis is so granular it even deals with elements of the tale’s chiastic linguistic structure. But Lawtoo’s slight distance from the dogmatic strictures of Girardian theory also allows him some freedom to re-interpret the latter in constructive terms. Thus, he notes how Conrad depicts the culmination of the officers’ escalation: their quarrel is finally resolved not by an act of scapegoating, but by a semi-conscious manoeuvre taken by D’Hubert in the midst of a duel in a forest, a manoeuvre that prompted him, having gained the upper hand on his opponent, simply to have mercy on Feraud, thereby ending the feud once and for all. Lawtoo notes that Conrad does not opt for a reassuring return to the logos of enlightened and diplomatic reason as the diagnostic solution to the poison of their mimetic rivalry. Nor does he propose the necessity of a Christian conversion based on imitatio Christi as the ultimate form of salvific revelation. Instead, he seems to posit the solution merely in an act of unconscious and unplanned fortuity, one whose source is found within the mimetic quarrel itself in some way. Lawtoo finds in Conrad, then, resources for an immanent and a-theological resolution to mimetic escalation, and in doing so not only reads Conrad in light of Girard, but also uses Conrad as a means of testing and refining Girard.
Although Lawtoo makes a considerable effort to make this study accessible to the general reader, there is no doubt that he offers an intense exegetical immersion in Conrad’s texts and that it would be hard for anyone who is not already very familiar with them to keep up with the plot information. However, this detailed study will be of interest to many, not least on account of its respectful, and yet innovative, deployment of the resources of Girardian theory.
Uncovering a Labyrinth of Desire
International Christian University, Tokyo
Trevor Cribben Merrill, The Book of Imitation and Desire: Reading Milan Kundera with René Girard. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013. Pages 208.
Merrill accomplishes a lot in this excellent book. First of all, he gives evidence why Kundera should be considered one of the major European authors of the late-twentieth/early-twenty-first century. As he takes us through Kundera’s oeuvre, Merrill weaves a convincing tapestry of Kundera’s mastery of the novelistic form in this post-modern world. Merrill carefully reads Kundera’s texts in chronological order, but he constantly refers back to the works he has analyzed as he moves forward in the later works. Thus, he is constantly revealing deeper levels of the earlier works that emerge more clearly in later works. We are able to look back and see more in the earlier works in light of what comes after them. For Merrill, Kundera’s genius consists in his ability to show the effects of mimetic desire first on the object, then on the desiring person and finally on society.
It would be unfair to think that Merrill simply read Girard and then read Kundera and “dropped the hermeneutical grid” of Girard onto Kundera’s text. Rather, Merrill read Kundera and thanks to Girard was able to notice what other critics had also noticed: that imitation, especially the imitation of desire, plays an important role in the novels of Kundera. Where Merrill differs from these other critics is that they noticed this and promptly dropped it and concentrated on other facets of Kundera’s work. For Merrill this imitative desire becomes the key concept, because it is the key for Kundera himself. As Merrill points out, some critics’ conception of desire is “too beholden to philosophy” (29). They tend to emphasize the subjective aspect, “whereas Kundera accentuates the model” (29). The reason this is so important is that failure to follow Kundera in accentuating the imitative aspect means that “our critical reading will operate at a level of awareness beneath that of the text” (29). Merrill is reaching up to be on the same level as the text.
In nine chapters Merrill traces a path that mirrors the one that Girard himself traced through five novelists in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, starting with simple imitative desire and then showing its progression through rivalry to violence. He explains the technical procedures that Kundera invents to depict the newest forms of alienation. In particular, Merrill draws our attention to “the art of novelistic polyphony, which involves weaving together straightforward narration with playful essayistic passages, autobiography, anecdote, and dream narrative” (64).
This journey through Kundera’s work is a descent into hell. We are taken into the nether regions of jealousy, sex without pleasure, sadomasochism, and the joyless existence of both communist and capitalist societies. The “labyrinth of desire” leads one ever more deeply into the futility of trying to win the “game” of imitative desire.
But it does not end there. The novel is a form of art that forms the artist. As the novelist writes, he learns something about his characters and about himself. Kundera describes it as writing the novel “against myself” (169). The novelist can give up the flattering self-image and the accusation against the other. Instead of this he “can revise the initial romantic perspective and reveal the lie as such, pointing to the model at the source of his desire” (172).
In Deceit, Desire, and the Novel Girard put forth evidence that great novelists are born out of the experience of “conversion,” in which the novelist has experienced in his life what he portrays in the novel: the recognition that he is like those he despises. This conversion is not necessarily religious. Kundera points to his own “anti-lyric conversion.” According to Merrill, “the lyrical illusion may be regarded as Kundera’s version of the Girardian ‘romantic lie’” (158). While the lyrical illusion is contrasted with the “epic consciousness” and is derived from Hegelian philosophy, Merrill is able to tease out, from the novels themselves, the way in which a lyrical consciousness is not just a self-absorbed one but also involved in other-absorbed imitation. For Kundera the “anti-lyric conversion is a fundamental experience in the curriculum vitae of the novelist: separated from himself, he suddenly sees that self from a distance, astonished to find that he is not the person he thought he was” (160). Merrill points out that the novelist is surprised because “he was self-deluded until the moment of his conversion, much like the character in a novel” (160). One realizes that one is not, along with all the others, what one appears to be.
Finally, Merrill’s essay succeeds in doing what every great literary essay should do: it makes the reader want to read and reread the work about which it is written.