Letter from the President, Martha Reineke
Musings from the Executive Secretary, Niki Wandinger
Editor’s Column, Curtis Gruenler
COV&R Sessions at the American Academy of Religion
News from the Raven Foundation
Marie Delcourt, Oedipus; or, The Legend of a Conqueror, reviewed by Sandor Goodhart
Trevor Cribben Merrill, Minor Indignities, reviewed by Grant Kaplan
Daniel DeForest London,Theodicy and Spirituality in the Fourth Gospel: A Girardian Perspective, reviewed by Andrew Marr
Richard Wrangham, The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution, reviewed by Christopher Haw
Nicholas A. Christakis, Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society, reviewed by Curtis Gruenler
Letter from the President
Minding Our Bullies and Heroes
University of Northern Iowa
During the tumultuous month that has followed the November US election, democracy has been tested in ways not seen here since the Civil War. Yet, as this column went to press, electors were meeting in every state capital, presumably to bring the country closer to actually inaugurating Joe Biden in January in “a peaceful transition of power,” a bromide for over a hundred years prior to the 2020 election. Hoping for that conclusion and with the election still weighing on my mind, I offer the following reflections.
I suggest that when mimetic theorists produce extended analyses of the election they will need to take into account ways candidates Trump and Biden were shaped by their childhoods. Of course, from the perspective of psychoanalysis, all of us owe our adult identities to our childhoods. And psychobiographies of presidents are not new: Lincoln, Jackson, and Nixon are among those who have been profiled. But never has the case for understanding a presidency through attention to a president’s childhood been made more powerfully than in the last year. Both Trump and Biden have had their childhoods presented in popular media and in more nuanced commentary as defining their identities and exercising a powerful influence on their modes of presidential leadership, (almost) past and future.
Trump is presented as a perpetual toddler. Early in his 2016 campaign, before Trump was the Republican candidate, Politico published the first article depicting Trump as a young child: “Donald Trump is a 2-Year-Old.” Over the four years of his presidency, images of a toddler with yellow hair and an orange face, sometimes still in diapers, became pervasive in cartoons, protest signs, and graphics in popular media. In the spring of this year, the University of Chicago Press published a culminating, scholarly treatment, The Toddler in Chief by Daniel Drezner. Focusing on tweets, interviews, and articles by cabinet members, advisors to Trump, and Republican Party officials, Drezner amassed and analyzed over 1000 evidentiary claims made by those who worked for Trump explicitly ascribing to him childlike behavior. Trump has increasingly been understood to suffer from major personality disorders traceable to early childhood. His niece, Mary Trump, drew on family history and her doctorate in psychology-psychoanalysis from the well-regarded Derner Institute at Adelphi University to offer a detailed account: Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, some of which I allude to below (see my YouTube review for a fuller discussion).
Biden, in contrast to Trump, is described as a child who survived bullying to become a bully-proof adult. A January 2019 article by John Hendrickson in The Atlantic brought initial attention to Biden’s stuttering, a neurological disorder. Over the course of the past year, Biden’s struggle to manage stuttering and survive the bullying he endured because of it have moved from invisibility to the center of the Biden biography. Hendrickson encountered a Biden who was reluctant to discuss stuttering, claiming initially that it was a past feature of his childhood. In the months that followed, Biden would acknowledge that he has not overcome his neurological disorder; rather, he has become adept at managing it. By autumn, stuttering and its associated bullying, linked to a narrative of survival and well-tested character, had become a defining motif in Biden profiles (see for example this segment on Biden’s stutter from the PBS documentary “The Choice: 2020: Trump vs. Biden”). In the most recent formulation of the Biden biography, what Biden suffered as a child has made him a survivor, impervious as few others could be to Trump’s bullying, and the perfect and perhaps only candidate who could survive a campaign against Trump.
How might analyses grounded in mimetic theory transform these portraits, painted with such broad brushstrokes, into finely grained accounts elevated above their origins in popular media and myth? Sketching three possibilities for understanding Trump and Biden, I suggest that mimetic theorizing about shame in light of child development theory espoused by relational psychoanalysis be joined with augmented reflections on the dynamics of bullying in the interests of better understanding the role of conflictual mimesis in bullying as well as its possible resolution in positive mimesis.
Relational psychoanalysis offers a theory of “mirroring,” a process in which a parent reflects and gives back to the 18–36 month-old toddler the toddler’s own feelings and nascent sense of “self.” Absent successful mirroring, a child will have an unstable identity, at risk of being absorbed into its parental mirror or of developing a distorted, aggrandized identity (“a big head”).
Failed mirroring leads to shame. Shame is the experience of self-disintegration because the parents’ response to the child leaves the child feeling profoundly fragmented and disconnected. Experiencing dysregulation in the presence of its parent-mirror, the child’s shame is lived in the form of “I am bad because my feelings are bad.” The greater the discrepancy between an ideal-to-be-mirrored and who a child feels itself to be, absent supportive parental mirroring, the greater its shame and fragmentation.
A child whose parents have failed to support their child in developing and regulating its self-image must devote enormous energy to maintaining any sense of self. This energy is typically expressed as hatred. Actually consumed by self-hatred, the child engages in mirror-work that enables it to survive by ejecting loathing from its own being in the form of hating others. Rage is common also because the child’s parents failed to help the child modulate feelings of frustration with its self and others in the course of its development. The child never feels unconditionally loved even when falling short while navigating its world.
The shame of the toddler sets the stage for bullying. Bullying is what older children and adults do when, in the grip of hate and rage, they replicate unresolved identity-development issues of early childhood. Prone to fits of rage, tantrums, and bullying, Trump is a key example of developmental failures I have just described. Developmentally speaking, he is still a toddler of 18–36 months experiencing a profound, dysregulating shame and self-loathing in the face of failed parenting (as described in Mary Trump’s book). What is an inconvenience for those encountering an actual toddler (e.g., a screaming child in the produce aisle at the grocery store) becomes a danger to democracy when exhibited by a president.
Mimetic theory understands the dynamics of human action analogously to relational psychotherapy. Mimeticized interactions in society and mirror-work in the family have similar dynamics (triangulation is shared also by mimetic theory and relational psychoanalysis as described in my YouTube mentioned above). Yet, mimetic theory most often focuses on post-childhood interactions, with little attention to the origins of problematic patterns of mimetic desire in early childhood. Mimetic theory will be strengthened when the structuration of identity around “management” of powerful feelings of shame emerging from toddlerhood can be woven into Girard’s analyses of the dynamics of shame in adult life (masochism) and shame’s mirrored opposite (sadism).
Where psychoanalysis contends that bullying enables adults to rework developmental issues left unresolved from childhood, mimetic theory describes this hounding as scapegoating, especially in respect to “mobbing” when a group collectively turns on a victim. Joe Biden grew up being harassed by individual boys and being taunted by the playground “mob.” The insights of psychoanalysis linked with those of mimetic theory enable us to understand the first presidential debate as a recasting of a playground scene, including the egging on by a bully’s friends that typically precedes his attack. In the lead-up to the first presidential debate, it was widely forecast that Trump, for whom bullying is endemic, would verbally assault Biden. News reports suggest also that there was a plan among Trump’s advisors to replicate Biden’s childhood experience on the debate stage. In practicing for the debate, Trump apparently was counseled to barrage Biden with insults. According to anonymous sources interviewed by the Washington Post, advisors believed that Biden would be so overcome that he would become incapable of coherent speech. Stuttering, he would appear stupid (a typical epithet directed at stutterers), incompetent, and unsuited for high office (debate advisor Chris Christie denies the story; see fact-checking by Snopes on conflicting accounts).
Whether acting solely of his own accord or reinforced by his advisors, Trump did bully Biden at the debate. The Associated Press, regarded as impartial, reported that the debate “deteriorated into bitter taunts…as Trump repeatedly interrupted his opponent with angry—and personal—jabs.” Yet Biden spoke coherently and articulately. Regularly refusing to meet Trump’s gaze, Biden looked at the camera and through it to his audience. Set up to be the scapegoat target of Trump’s hatred and rage (a mirrored projection of Trump’s own self-loathing), he did not become the person Trump offered up in his bully’s mirror.
Biden’s “hero’s trial” was a success. He surmounted his stuttering as well as his past history of being bullied while 73 million viewers watched. In the wake of the debate and in the month since the election Biden’s, personal history has taken on mythic properties. Biden’s neurological disorder is his “superpower.” The story told now is that Biden learned empathy from his experiences as a stutterer. Biden too reports that he developed “an insight I don’t think I ever would have had into other people’s pain.”
Mimesis and Heroes
The temptation of myth is that it invites us to rush from the horrors of acquisitive mimesis into the arms of “positive mimesis.” We are invited to make of Biden a hero who, as a man of faith, has vanquished the demons of rivalry and escaped the reversals of scapegoating. After the past four years, who would not want to find in Biden a hero? We have too few models of positive mimesis these days!
Yet mimetic theory cautions: “Not so fast. Remember Oedipus.” On the one hand, Biden, like Oedipus, would be a new kind of hero. Whereas the Greek hero’s traits typically did not include wisdom and justice but rather raw strength, a forceful personality, and the fearlessness needed to do battle with the gods (Trump?), in Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus possesses a gift of vision: he acts from knowledge, certainty, and justice (Bernard Knox, The Heroic Temper). He becomes a seer and is recognized by Theseus as a prophet. Having saved him by divine intervention, the gods speak to him, welcome him, and grant him divine powers in a “transfiguration of suffering” (Segal, Tragedy and Civilization). Writing of Oedipus in Oedipus at Colonus, Girard contends, to the contrary, that the aging Oedipus experiences no transforming moments. He remains always within an economy of scapegoating. Prime evidence, for Girard, comes in looking at the role played by a blind and limping Oedipus for Thebans and Athenians. Embodying the stereotypes of scapegoating, Oedipus is the polluting monster who must be expunged from the community and the king whose body will save the city.
Before we elevate Biden as hero, Girard’s words should give us pause. Of the metamorphosis of the victim, Girard writes: “He seems to combine in his person the most pernicious and most beneficial aspects of violence. He becomes the incarnation, as it were, of a game men feign to ignore, one whose basic rules are indeed unknown to them: the game of their own violence” (Violence and the Sacred, 85).
Followers of Trump will make Biden the polluting monster from whom their efforts of the past month have tried to save us; those praying for the restoration of the “shining city on the hill” will see in Biden a stuttering savior. A task of mimetic theorists in the months to come will be to stay on alert for the “bad reciprocity” of citizens still caught in the game of their own violence. We, “the people,” not Biden’s failures or successes as a leader, possess the capacity to subject this city and its leader to continued trauma and violence or to mitigate them. Recalling that the shift to the victim in Oedipus at Colonus is, for Girard, “the march beneath the unthinkable” (Oedipus Unbound, 87, quoting Hölderlin), mimetic theorists will need to attend ever more closely to Girard’s claim that the truth of scapegoating emerges only in a space occupied by the victim.
Musings from the Executive Secretary
University of Innsbruck
Recently, when reviewing the doctoral thesis of a student of mine, I stumbled across two quotations of René Girard, which form quite a contrast when placed beside each other. They run as follows:
All of my work has been an effort to show that Christianity is superior and not another mythology…. Violence and scapegoating are always present in the mythological definition of the divine itself.… This revelation of collective violence as a lie is the earmark of Christianity. This is what is unique about Christianity. And this uniqueness is true. (“Ratzinger Is Right. Interview with Nathan Gardels,” New Perspective Quarterly 22/3 (2005): 43-48; 46)
The feeling of superiority…is itself a form of mimetic violence…. To become Christian is, fundamentally, to perceive that it isn’t just others who have scapegoats. And note that the two greatest Christians, the founders of the Church, Peter and Paul, were two converted persecutors. Before their conversion, they, too, thought that they didn’t have any scapegoats. (When These Things Begin. Conversations with Michel Treguer, East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2014; 2)
To be fair, one has to add some of what I omitted from the second quotation: It is the reference to a feeling of superiority “with respect to the past” and not in general that Girard is talking about here. But it made me wonder whether one could or even should generalize that, and what it would mean for the self-understanding of Christianity and of the people working with mimetic theory. I won’t be able to treat this in sufficient depth here but I might be able to offer some musings.
Let me start by highlighting an important difference between the two quotations. The first talks about “Christianity,” the other about becoming or being a Christian. Read that way, it is clear that persons should beware of feelings of superiority. These are a sign that the people who have them are entangled in mimetic violence. But what could be meaningfully meant by “Christianity”? Certainly it is not historical Christianity. Girard is very clear about the problems that “sacrificial” Christianity caused in the world and how it was an accomplice to or even a perpetrator of mimetic violence. But then, what is meant? Girard talks about the “revelation of collective violence as a lie” as the defining mark, and he sees that as uniquely given in “Christianity”. What I find very important here is the word “revelation”; he does not say “knowledge,” he speaks of “revelation.”
Revelation is a process, moreover, a dramatic process with all that entails: “development, conflict, tension, crisis, defeat, and eventual reconciliation” (Raymund Schwager, Das dramatische Kirchenverständnis bei Ignatius von Loyola. Historisch-pastoraltheologische Studie über die Stellung der Kirche in den Exerzitien und im Leben des Ignatius. In: Schwager: Frühe Hauptwerke (Gesammelte Schriften 1), ed. Mathias Moosbrugger. Freiburg i. Br. 2016, 37–256; here 249f., my translation). And, it seems, it is not enough that this process took place within humanity once. As one generation is replaced by another, the result of that process may be put into words and formulae, but they cannot be properly incorporated into the new generation’s lives, unless this generation also experiences this process. It can be called a process of revelation; it can also be described as a process of conversion, for that is what revelation demands of humanity.
And this brings us to Girard’s second quotation. “Christianity” is only as fruitful as there are converted Christians for whom Peter and Paul are good examples exactly because of their former history of denial and persecution. Hopefully they did not come to the conclusion that after their conversion they knew everything that was to be known about scapegoating and that they now were “superior.” Hopefully they knew how tentative and incomplete human conversions are and retained the experience of what they had been and done and how they had changed. Paul’s writings seem to testify to that (cf. especially chapters 7 and 8 in his Letter to the Romans. For Schwager’s interpretation of that see Theologie des Heiligen Geistes. In: Schwager, Beiträge zur Schöpfungslehre, Erbsündenlehre und Pneumatologie (Gesammelte Schriften 7), ed. Nikolaus Wandinger, Freiburg 2018, 96–173; here 124-129, 137-155).
“Christianity” as Girard means it is a community that keeps this active in humanity’s memory or at least activates it again if it has been lost for some time. And if it does so, it does not need to feel “superior.” “Superiority” as a predicate of comparison is clearly mimetically structured; it should get lost through conversion. As for the uniqueness—I will leave this question for people who are better versed in history and religions than I am.
Now, some of you might wonder why I am rambling on about Christianity so much. After all mimetic theory is not welded to it; there are religious people of other faiths and non-religious people who value this theory and work with it. Nevertheless, I would argue: What I said about Christianity and Christians can be applied to mimetic theory and the people working with it. If we go around thinking that we have a superior theory and can teach others from that height, we will exert mimetic violence and engender mimetic rivalry. If we keep in mind the process of conversion, not to Christianity or to any particular religion but to the insight that we have been and will ever again be scapegoaters, we can hope to keep this revelation active in the world. Mimetic theory is only as fruitful as its theorists and practitioners do not think that they have acquired simple knowledge, as long as they know that they are part of an ongoing process.
And this is very necessary as myths have not left us. Nowadays they don’t talk about divinized victims. Nowadays they take the form of conspiracy theories which—as different they might be in detail—have one thing in common: they want to hide victimization processes and their victims; very often they want to delude us by depicting perpetrators as victims and victims as perpetrators. There is no immunity against that and no superiority helps, but empathy for what victimhood entails might be helpful, if we keep our own conversion memory alive.
From a Mimetic Perspective
Congratulations to COV&R board member Marinela Blaj on the defense of her doctoral thesis, “Punic Carthage: Mimetic Conflicts and Scapegoating Mechanisms,” at Alexandru Ioan Cuza University of Iaşi, the oldest higher education institution in Romania. She writes in the English summary available online, “My hypothesis is that the history of Carthage can confirm the evolution of the mimetic mechanisms and of violence management at an imperial scale and over long periods of time.” Because Carthage was so thoroughly destroyed at the end of the Punic wars, sources of its history come from the perspective of its Greek and Roman rivals. Thus her thesis, besides giving the first full account of mimetic theory in Romanian, pioneers a model (with infographics) of applying Girard’s work to historiography. Her work suggests how mimetic theory could reshape the study of history in response to the assertion by Mark Sandle and William Van Arragon, in Re-Forming History, that “the real meaning of history is found with the losers, not the winners” (reviewed here).
Teaching during the coronavirus pandemic has been different in ways both predictable and surprising, as I’m sure other members who teach will agree. Most of my classes met in the classroom, and I did not expect how much of an obstacle masks would be to my own sense of connection with students. While they all said they were more engaged in the classroom than online, I appreciated being able to see their faces when we met by videoconference. Could this have something to do with the mirror neuron system? In the classroom, they see me moving around at the front of the class, but I only see them sitting in chairs. Online, my brain resonates with their expressions—while they of course are easily distracted by each other, not to mention whatever else is going on in their rooms and on their screens.
The pandemic conditions perhaps forced me to work harder to build coherence in my larger courses, rather than letting it emerge from conversation. I’ve taken to introducing mimetic theory at the beginning of most courses through short readings and videos (the introduction from Cynthia Haven’s Evolution of Desire and Girard’s “The Myth of Oedipus, the Truth of Joseph” are my current favorites). This semester, for whatever reason, they took to it better than ever in my interdisciplinary humanities course “From Virgil to Dante” and my survey of British Literature from Beowulf to Equiano. Several students were able to use it to write final essays tying together many texts. Not all of these canonical texts are full of mimetic insights in the way that, say, Chaucer and Shakespeare are. Beowulf is more of a text in travail, as Girard says of parts of the Bible. But mimetic theory also empowers us to read for the relational dynamics in any work, something that seems not to come naturally. Students respond first to character and theme, but, as Aristotle pointed out in his Poetics, plot is the most important element of drama, and I would extend this to all of literature in the sense that plot puts characters and ideas in relationship. And mimetic theory especially highlights victimage, and thus integrates with identity-oriented approaches that students are attuned to, from race and postcolonial studies to feminism and queer theory to disability studies and even ecocriticism.
For Advent I am enjoying a reread of Michel Serres’s Angels: A Modern Myth, which begins with a figure of Gabriel as a dying homeless man, no doubt reflecting what Serres learned from his great friend Girard. I have found this volume the gentlest introduction to the polymathic thought of Serres, whose death on June 1, 2019, we neglected to note here. He is an essential guide to rethinking the theory and practice of the academic disciplines with mimetic theory as central. I am looking forward to reading last spring’s Michel Serres: Figures of Thought by Christopher Watkin, whose website offers a gateway to this challenging thinker.
Cambridge University Press has announced a new book by Wolfgang Palaver, Transforming the Sacred into Saintliness: Reflecting on Violence and Religion with René Girard, due out at the turn of the year in its series Elements in Violence and Religion. Anthony Bartlett’s new Theology Beyond Metaphysics: Transformative Semiotics of René Girard is just out from Cascade Books.
Michigan State University Press has scheduled two titles for the spring in the series Violence, Mimesis & Culture: Desire and Imitation in International Politics by Jodok Troy and Philosophy’s Violent Sacred: Heidegger and Nietzsche through Mimetic Theory by Duane Armitage. Members should also receive the two volumes of Giuseppe Fornari’s Dionysus, Christ, and the Death of God through the generous support of Imitatio for this series.
“Positive Mimesis: Education and Mimetic Theory” will be the focus of a special issue of Xiphias Gladius, the journal of the Spanish mimetic theory group. Here is the call for papers. The deadline for submissions is February 15, 2021.
James Alison’s essay “The Dangerousness of the Good,” on what he calls “the mimetics of shame,” felt urgent in one way when it was published on his website just before the U.S. presidential election, but it seems just as important in understanding our predicament now.
It’s always encouraging to see applications of mimetic theory in the mainstream press, and this astute reflection on social media by Thomas Chatterton Williams even quotes the explanation of scapegoating from the COV&R website.
COV&R ANNUAL MEETING
Update on 2021 COV&R Annual Meeting at Purdue
There will be a COV&R Conference in July hosted by Sandor Goodhart and Thomas Ryba! We are exploring hybrid formats at Purdue and online-only formats. A final decision on whether to go all online for the conference will be made around the beginning of February once further clarity about the US vaccination calendar is offered after January 20 by the Biden administration. With the developing sophistication of online conferencing over the past year, we anticipate opportunities for robust engagement and discussion.
Here are some of the ideas we are exploring. If we go to an all-online conference format, plenaries will be pre-recorded to be watched at times convenient to the participants. Each plenary speaker will also participate in a separate live discussion featuring the speaker, a respondent, and audience discussion. What typically are offered as concurrent sessions will likely be offered as non-current sessions spread over more days in order to maximize attendance and discussion (i.e., Zoom “Hollywood Squares”). Each session will be offered at times inclusive of two of our three time zones (Americas, Europe, Asia/Pacific) with equitable distribution so that participants in each time zone will have a comparable number of opportunities to participate “live” at optimal conference-attending hours. Recordings will enable participants to view sessions they were unable to attend live. Also being explored are creative ideas for engaging each other informally absent in-person social activities.
Sandy or Tom welcome suggestions from you about features of online conferencing they could incorporate into their plans based on your own positive experiences. In short, one way or another, the COV&R 2021 conference will take place amid the pandemic and explore, in context of the announced theme, the questions that continue to be of interest to all of us—perhaps now more than ever.
COV&R Sessions at the American Academy of Religion
St. Louis University
Instead of descending on Boston, the 2020 meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature met virtually this year. For COV&R, this meant that our two co-sponsored sessions, along with our annual business meeting, took place over Zoom. In all, five papers were given; all were well received and surprisingly well attended.
The 2020 panels were organized around two themes: 1) “Beyond Scapegoats: Marginalized Voices in Conversation with René Girard,” and 2) “Mimetic Theory and Christian Spirituality.” Some of the presenters were familiar voices like Martha Reineke, who talked about purity and mimetic theory, and James Alison, who presented the range of Girard’s comments on homosexuality.
Chelsea King (former Schwager Award winner), a freshly-minted Ph.D. in systematic theology, who is now a lecturer in Catholic Studies at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, spoke on mimetic theory and feminism. Julia Robinson Moore, meanwhile, spoke on the historical record of lynching in Little Rock, Arkansas, an important site of America’s struggle to extend rights to African-Americans.
A newcomer to COV&R circles, Aline Lewis, gave a presentation on mimetic themes in the autobiography of Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus.
Attendance at both sessions was strong, given the circumstances, with a peak of 20 attendees for the Wednesday session and 30 for the Thursday session. Grant Kaplan moderated the Thursday panel while Brian Robinette of Boston College moderated the Wednesday panel. Both panels concluded with a robust Q&A, a hallmark of our colloquium. The Thursday session was recorded and COV&R members will be notified when it comes available.
In the business meeting we discussed an open call for papers on themes related to the pandemic, to friendship—especially in light of the most recent papal encyclical that speaks of social friendship—, and to the Eucharist and the theme of contemplation. We also talked about the possibility of having a panel on one of the many books that are in the pipeline in the Studies in Violence, Mimesis, and Culture Series through Michigan State University Press, as well as other recent books on mimetic theory.
The annual meeting of the AAR is normally a time of great joy for me, and this year especially I had been looking forward to returning to my old stomping ground of Boston. At the 2017 meeting in Boston, I fondly recall going to lunch after one of the panels with Andrew and Stephen McKenna, Suzanne and Keith Ross, Randy Rosenberg, and Brian Robinette. We ate and drank and laughed a lot. I hope that I will be able to do the same with as many of you as possible in 2021, perhaps along the River Walk in San Antonio, where next year’s meeting will take place November 20-23. The call for papers will go out most likely at the end of January.
News from the Raven Foundation
Suzanne and Keith Ross
The Mimetic Invitation Videos Launch Party on November 17 brought together 145 people from around the globe. Our goal for the event was to discuss new ways to bring the insights of mimetic theory to a broader audience in fresh, visual ways. If you haven’t yet watched the Mimetic Invitation videos or the recordings of the Launch Party, you can find them on the Raven and COV&R websites along with transcripts of the panelists’ remarks.
The Raven Foundation is a welcoming community for those who struggle with organized religion but haven’t given up on God or a world at peace. We respond to the crisis in American Christianity and reach out to those who are disillusioned with culture wars and violent theologies.
Mimetic theory informs our blogs, videos and podcasts and so our connection to COV&R scholarship is vital to our work. And as a partner organization, we share a focus with COV&R on reaching new audiences for the shift in understanding desire and conflict that mimetic theory makes possible.
COV&R and Raven have our unique missions and our work must continue. But we also have an important story to tell, one that speaks directly to the climate of distrust, partisanship, and scapegoating afflicting our world. This is the story of the impact mimetic theory is having on peacebuilding, conflict resolution, and violence reduction efforts in communities around the globe.
To better tell this story to a broader, global audience, we believe a new entity is needed that can draw on the strengths of organizations like Raven, COV&R, and others, to create a strong platform for communications, fundraising, and training. During the launch party, I introduced unRival: a network for discoveries in nonviolence. unRival remains in its infancy. We are spending time listening to you and others who are applying mimetic insights to help shape our mission and our work. We’ve had dozens of conversations and will be more fully introducing unRival and its work in 2021.
How can you help? First, complete the survey COV&R members should have received by email. Here is a link. This will give us feedback on the launch event in November. At the same time, it provides an opportunity for you to tell us about people and places where mimetic insights are leading to positive change. We need your stories! So even if you did not attend the event, please fill out the survey.
Second, check out the unRival website and like the unRival Facebook page.
Finally, let us know if you are willing to donate your time. Are you a writer with an interest in sharing stories about nonviolence? Are you skilled in social media or marketing? If you’d like to donate time, please let us know.
All of us at Raven wish you and yours a very happy and healthy holiday season. As we look ahead to 2021, we are excited by the work ahead and look forward to strengthening our bonds as we launch unRival together.
For inquiries about writing a book review or submitting a book for review,
contact the book review editor, Matthew Packer.
Oedipus: Legend of a Conqueror
Marie Delcourt, Oedipus; or, The Legend of a Conqueror, translated by Malcolm DeBevoise. Foreword by Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge. Michigan State University Press, 2020. Pages 323 + xiv.
I remember when I attended Michel Foucault’s lectures at the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1972 on Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos that the name of Marie Delcourt came up often as a requisite authority on matters of ancient Greek myth, ritual, and historiography in the French-speaking world. And when, in preparation for writing this review, I read Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge’s moving prefatory tribute to the “altogether extraordinary woman” (viii) who taught for three decades at the University of Liège (and passed away shortly before Pirenne-Delforge arrived there), I understood why. An early victim of poliomyelitis, Delcourt struggled as well with the “obstacles to higher education” (ix) that many young girls faced in Belgium and Europe at large. And when she assumed a position in 1929 as the “first female lecturer” (ix) at the University of Liège, she found herself, according to Pirenne-Delforge, continually battling stodgier senior colleagues in a department of classical philology where she taught the “history of humanism” and “Greek antiquity and literature.” By 1940, she had finally gained a “full professorship,” and Marcel Detienne “fondly” remembers, Pirenne-Delforge says, what “everyone called ‘Marie’s courses.’” She wrote some eighteen scholarly works on biography, translation, the history of humanism, and myth and religious studies of ancient Greece. She had also been, apparently, an Allied partisan during the First World War, and a feminist activist before her time. And she concluded her writing career with a cook book: A Method of Cooking for the Use of Intelligent Persons (1947). “A woman who must look after her children all by herself,” she writes in the introduction, “and see to all the household chores by herself, will not have the time every day of the week to cook elaborate dishes” (x-xi).
Given her interest, in both the scholarly world and the everyday world of “household chores,” in the rituals of sovereignty and power, it is easy to see why Foucault and Detienne liked her. But it is also easy to see why these prefatory biographical details are worth recalling as a way of understanding both the book that follows that account and its importance for a Girardian audience. William Johnsen’s canny decision to include this publication volume in his prestigious Violence, Mimesis, and Culture Series (in Malcolm DeBevoise’s very readable translation which clarifies and updates the 1944 edition that Delcourt was unable to update) contributes bountifully to the interest many of us have tried to develop over the years in the wake of René Girard’s thought surrounding the sacrificial and anti-sacrificial dimensions of Greek tragedy generally and Sophocles’ most famous play in particular. In what follows, I will try to highlight some of what I take to be the contribution Delcourt’s book makes to that ongoing Girardian project.
At the center of Delcourt’s book is her discussion of reciprocal combat and its relation to communal scapegoating. Having written some six scholarly full-length works prior to this one, Delcourt here gathers the circulating accounts for what she identifies as six themes at play in the story of Oedipus that she separates into distinct chapters: the exposure of infants, the murder of the father, victory over the Sphinx, the riddle of the Sphinx, marriage to the princess, and incest with the mother. Although present commonly in individual sequences elsewhere, these themes are assembled in the myth of Oedipus of course serially and so constitute there, she informs us, something of a “biography” (1). But as the extensions of distinct ritual acts (which is how she understands these stories), they are also from her point of view “interchangeable” and despite their diverse origins “transpose to the realm of fable a particularly rich group of rites . . . all bound up with the idea of kingship” (1).
As a study of classical philology as well as myth, ritual, and historical studies in the ancient world, Delcourt’s book is inevitably bound to be in conversation with others in the field. As such, her book engages at various points those of Carl Robert, Hermann Usener, Ludwig Deubner, Ludwig Laistner, Saloman Reinach, Georges Dumézil, Martin Nilsson, Sir James Frazer, Henri Jeanmaire, Arnold van Gennep, Ulrich and Tycho Wilamowitz, and others who work in the ancient Greek, Roman, and Near Eastern universe. And to that extent, its current English language publication offers a gateway to scholarly writing no longer as commonly read in this country.
But it also contains some surprising insights perhaps even less anticipated by its current audience. Following an extended introduction that considers sources or origins that are ritual, historical, or naturalistic, the book is divided into primarily six chapters for the six distinct themes she finds uniquely assembled in Sophocles’ play. Following these seven documents, she conducts a discussion of “endings,” of “myths and memory,” and adds four appendices, some addenda, extended notes and a brief index. This presentation, however is deceptive. The center of gravity is really the second chapter where she engages the murder of the father. Father-son combat is at the center of her concern which is primarily one about kingship and power.
If we think in terms of Sophocles’ play specifically, that centrality renders other aspects more peripheral. Her book addresses the exposure of the child by Laius and/or Jocasta, the confrontation at Phocis, the encounter with (and vanquishing of) the Sphinx, the riddle posed by the plague-bearing enchantress, marriage with the older wife of the deceased monarch, and the discovery of incestuous connections to that woman (who is also his mother) and her deceased spouse. She is less concerned (at least in this volume) with Delphic oracles, or the ongoing life of the city (which is the interest of the Chorus of Elders), with the story of the pitying and rescuing Theban shepherd or the opportunistic Corinthian Herdsman / Messenger (who herd together on Cithaeron), or generally with the ironic circularity of the history Sophocles presents to us, recalling the myth in one circle, and tracing in retrograde fashion (in the progress of the play) that same mythic progress in the other. Let us examine these chapters in more detail.
Introduction to the Sources
Delcourt makes in effect, in her introduction, two points. The first is that legendary accounts are related to specific ritual practices and not, as some scholars maintain, to natural or historical causes, or human versions of minor divinities. The person is the product of the act, she maintains, not the reverse. “Oedipus is neither a historical figure nor an anciently humanized minor god. He is the very type of all heroes of essentially—if not uniquely—ritual origin, whose acts are prior to their person” (8).
Then, having rejected these origins, she turns to “the sources of our knowledge of the Oedipus legend” (8). Apart from brief references in Homer and Hesiod, the most complete sources—the epic cycles of the sixth century—are entirely lost. Apart from Sophocles, two tragic dramatists treat a portion of the myth: Aeschylus in Seven against Thebes, and Euripides in Phoenician Women. Aeschylus’ play, she says, seems to have been the third part of a trilogy preceded by a Laius and an Oedipus (now lost) that seem to have followed the course of an inherited curse developed on the model of the Oresteia rather than the Sophoclean structure of ironic discovery. And Euripides’ play seems also to have been similarly one of three plays in which there was a Laius and a Chrysippus (detailing Laius’ involvement with the young man that occasioned his father Pelops’ curse with which the story of Oedipus begins), but those plays too seem to have been lost except for a few lines. The story available in Aeschylus and Euripides, thus, is not for the most part the portion of the myth that Sophocles treats and may even have derived from sources other than the ones Sophocles used. At one point in the codices of the extant Euripides drama, a scholion gives some thirty lines associated with the name “Pisander,” and this account, though inconsistent at points, has tantalized scholars for years, although, Delcourt concludes, she is “inclined to ascribe an epic origin to the Pisander scholion” (14).
Exposure of the Infant
The first formal chapter of Delcourt’s investigation examines the extent to which the theme of the exposure of infants reflects, in origin, multiple ritual acts. Oedipus is undoubtedly exposed on the mountainside as “one of those malefic newborn children whom ancient communities did away with because their deformity was proof of divine wrath” (17). But it would be a “mistake” in her view to limit that scene to rituals that punished “evil” children in a procedure intended to ward off barrenness. Other similar themes involving the rearing of children on a mountain and the submersion of children within a chest in the water—themes reflecting the initiation of a young man into full adulthood—appear also to have been a model. And much of her long first chapter is spent recounting variants on these themes and this ritual origin. She notes for example, that there is another circulating account of Oedipus in which Oedipus is placed into a chest, cast into the sea, and washes up at Sicyon or Corinth (36).
But then suddenly she draws a parallel to the pharmakos ritual and wonders to what extent that connection is instructive. “Exposed infants made to undergo the trial of the chest and deformed infants who were excommunicated as portents of evil were both treated in a way that in many respects resembles the fate of the adult pharmakoi” (41). The key to their comparison, she says, is that they are both “scapegoats.” “The act by which a pharmakos was solemnly expelled from the community was intended both to increase the fertility of its land and to ward off evil in the person of one who has been made to bear full weight of the community‟s transgression” (41).
She had in fact already introduced the idea earlier when she noted (revising her own previously published account) that “the exposed infants were scapegoats” (17). “Their sacralization,” she now adds, “in the event they were rescued, had the effect of bringing about a reversal of values, so that what had been seen as evil was now considered to be good” (17). And she now notes that in both instances the process is one of “sacrifice.” It governs the removal of newborns and it is associated with the removal of the pharmakos (43), in both cases removals that are seen as beneficial to the community, and when rescued that are considered sacred figures for whom the persecutors are to be blamed.
Murder of the Father
But it is in the second chapter that the heart of her book is exhibited: combat, death of the defeated competitor, the old giving way to the young, the daughter of the old as a reward for victory, the ultimate reward as power. What is at stake, she asks, “with regard to the theme of old and new kings in Greek legend?” First¸“what is at stake in the conflict between generations is always the conquest of power.” Second, she says, the “central episode [of that conflict] is a combat or a race, at the end of which the defeated competitor must die.” Third, “the old man is always vanquished” with few exceptions. Fourth, “the two rivals are sometimes father and son, but more often an old man and a young man who is in love with the old man’s daughter.” Fifth, “the ritual nucleus of the myth entitles the victor to wield power.” “This same rite,” she notes, “was the source of sporting competitions in ancient Greece” (102).
We recognize of course this conflict as a drama commonly identified by more recent commentators at the center of comedic genre (think of Molière) and as often traced by other more anthropologically inclined commentators to rituals echoing seasonal change, rituals not entirely remote from the initiation rituals by which she explains so much else in this book. Interestingly, Delcourt here declines that explanation and identifies “the conflict between Oedipus and Laius” as “a mythic transposition of the rite that Frazer unforgettably described in connection with the priest at Nemi who had to be killed by his successor” (78-79). “Let us call this the struggle between a young king and an old king,” she writes, although at the same time, she notes “the rite of succession by murder appears to have totally disappeared in Greece in historical times” (79).
Victory over the Sphinx
Turning then to the battle with the Sphinx, with regard to the “origin of the legendary themes we have isolated” she says we can identify some “firm conclusions.” The “monstrous adversary, like that of placing a child in a chest, consists of several superimposed layers of meaning.” The Sphinx is in the first place an “incubus.” Moreover, the “demon is at the same time a tormented soul.” And regarding her battle with Oedipus, she writes, “it preserves an ancient memory of trials of initiation, in the first place those rites of passage that every adolescent must undergo; but above all those more terrible ordeals to which future leaders must submit.” “While we know a bit about the first kind, we know almost nothing about the second,” she observes.
And mindful perhaps that such kingship rituals have, as she said earlier, disappeared from Greece, she concludes with the goal which could apply to each of the thematic episodes she discusses in this book. “One would like to be able to write down next to each of them an exhaustive list, the one enumerating the archaic religious practices to which people were long faithful, the other the legends to which these rites were transposed when they began to fade from people’s minds” (133-134).
In turning to the riddle, Delcourt continues the same line of thinking: rites of initiation. “It may be that the riddle myth originated in a belief in oppressive and infernal demons. But it could never have developed into anything more than that if it had not been used as an instrument of propaganda in support of initiations—religious initiations to begin with, social initiations later.” The riddle in her view is a defense of ritual initiations. “[A] vindicatory purpose is obvious. It is detected in many later tales as well…. One relates a story in order to demonstrate something, in order to persuade someone.” And in this case what must be granted is entrance into adulthood, the riddle in her view being a kind of password or a shibboleth. “The theme of the riddle demonstrates that a novice will become rich once the habit of scrupulous obedience enables him to correctly repeat everything his master has taught him” (144).
Marriage to a Princess
Marriage to a princess may be the hardest thematic “sell” about which Delcourt would like to persuade us, at least in context of Sophocles’ play, where Jocasta is an older woman and Oedipus is not Lancelot fighting a fatherly King Arthur for the hand of lovely Guinevere, or, in the Greek context, Jason struggling with the monstrous Medea for the hand of Creon’s daughter Glauce. “Beneath the theme of marriage to a princess,” Delcourt writes, “two known rites may be distinguished: nuptial trials and springtime sacred marriages, and beneath these rites themselves simpler beliefs in the immediate efficacy of the race and circumambulation” (212). But the theme of marriage, she concedes, “seldom appears alone, nearly always being accompanied by the theme of generational conflict” (212). And so this theme, although distinct, may be bound up with both the preceding sequence—depicting combat with a monster—and other battles of which each of these six episodes are transformations.
Incest with the Mother
Despite earlier legends in which the new king continues to rule until his death, that is not the case in which Sophocles’ Oedipus concludes. “Oedipus’s incest,” she writes, “leads back from a clear romantic legend to the shadowy world in which myths are elaborated, the penumbra of immediately efficacious rites” (196). But what rites? What practices? “Sacred marriage with the earth,” she suggests (200). To our own ears, in the age of increased respect for psychoanalytic thinking and structural anthropology—think of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s identification of the incest taboo, for example, at the structural origin of the possibility of distinguishing nature from culture—such a thesis sounds less compelling. And Delcourt readily admits that “the conjectures…sketched in this chapter are…tenuous” (202) although she finds in such discussions ways of accounting for such common motifs in mythopoetic works as kissing the ground or potential origins for other myths—like those of Poseidon and Demeter, for example. “The shipwrecked man kisses the ground when he finally comes ashore,” she writes. “Both Odysseus and Agamemnon kiss the ground on returning to their native lands. I believe that in the beginning this was not merely an expression of affection and gratitude but also of sexual union—which is to say an act of possession” (196). And in this way, she asserts, the relation to the earth is linked to concerns with dominance for the tyrant: to rule the earth by lying prostrate upon it or to be ruled by the earth by lying six feet beneath it.
Endings, Myths, and Memory
The book that Marie Delcourt writes is not philosophic. Nor is it an analysis of Sophocles’ play. It is an assemblage of the wide variety of legends she sees as the product of ritual practices and mythic thinking from which the drama, the epic, and other ancient mythopoetic works were drawn.
And the final two documents before the four appendices, extensive notes, brief addenda, and an index, could well appear like stray commentaries the author might have included in an earlier chapter. “Endings,” for example, which examines changing perspectives of the deaths of Jocasta and Oedipus, fits the bill. But “Myths and Memory” does not and might have served as something like the author’s Conclusion (opposite the Introduction at the other end) had she been availed of the opportunity to work more on the book. It sums up concisely what she has been arguing throughout.
The essay is divided into three parts. The first examines the prehistory of myths and their transformation.
A myth is modified because its original motivation is no longer understood and comes to be replaced by a new one. The myth’s new purpose acts in turn upon the manner of its telling and reshapes it. Thus the Theban legend, hostile to the family in its primitive form, was subsequently reworked to accommodate a familial morality. Aeschylus’ Oedipus ceased to be the conqueror that he was for Homer and Hesiod and was made instead into a criminal; indeed, so acutely is Oedipus aware of his crime in Aeschylus that he punishes himself, which he could do only by stripping himself of the rewards to his conquest. This shift in ethical point of view turns the denouement inside out, so that the story concludes with an abdication—the most typical ending of all the legends of conquerors (213-214).
The second part concerns individual and historical memory. Delcourt contrasts her view with Arnold van Gennep’s that “legends tenaciously preserve the memory of outmoded institutions” (214), asserting that legends to the contrary “constantly modernize themselves by reconciling in one way or another with the state of society at the time of their latest recounting” (215).
The third and final section concerns psychoanalysis which, she says, takes one legend regarding familial rivalry and sexual union and generalizes it. “No one would dream of denying the reality of father-son rivalry,” she concludes. But “it has its source, I believe, much more in a will to power than in sexual desire proper, what Freud calls the libido. It is this will that gives all the legends of conflict between an old king and a young pretender a distinctive mood and atmosphere, no matter how the adventure ends” (219).
Detailing at length as this book does the rites of initiation and battles for succession of kingship at their origins, the legends of conquerors transformed in ancient Greece into familial dramas from epic to tragic mythopoesis, and zeroing in as this book does on the combative and yet sacrificial nature of this material in each installment—its relation at once to scapegoating and exclusionary behavior that can also act as “sacralization”—the potential interest in Delcourt’s book for this audience is hard to gainsay. Following “the war to end all wars,” this Allied partisan and feminist activist surveys some hundreds of classical legends tracing them to several distinct ritual practices in which the sacrificial behaviors at the heart of the myths and the personalities that arose from these behaviors always turned upon one contest in particular: namely, the contest of young and old males for royal succession; the reciprocal combat for kingship, rule, and power in which the defeat of a monster and marriage to a princess was the expected outcome and reward. That the future adventures of the conqueror turned out badly in all instances in the case of Oedipus, that the man he defeated and succeeded turned out to be his father and the woman he wedded and bedded his mother, reflects in her view the transposition of the legends into new circumstances, the changing ways the epic and tragic poets saw their mythopoetic tasks, as the unfortunate future of an Odyssean adventurer in Homer and Hesiod, of an inherited curse in Aeschylus, of a forbidden passion in Euripides, of an ironic lesson in the power of the gods in human affairs in Sophocles—all perspectives, if we are to trust our author, of a burgeoning familial morality that is displacing more archaic social structures in the ancient universe.
Saint Louis University
Trevor Cribben Merrill, Minor Indignities. Wiseblood Books, 2020. Pages 233.
Trevor Cribben Merrill made his entrance into the world of Girard studies with The Book of Imitation and Desire: Reading Milan Kundera with René Girard (Bloomsbury, 2013). This piece of scholarship arose out of his dissertation that he wrote in the French Department at UCLA. Seven years later, the critic and theorist has taken his turn at the genre that Girard himself finds the most revelatory, the novel.
Merrill has provided us with a witty, enjoyable “campus” novel that recounts the exploits of an unlikeable hero, Colin, who navigates his first year at an anonymous Ivy-League school. The scope limits itself to a small group of friends, not unlike Proust’s small dinner-party circuit. This device makes it easier to illuminate the universal themes of desire, imitation, and rivalry. The spiritual and religious themes in the book run like a quiet score in the background of a story about the ups and downs of the first year away from home. Merrill writes the story from the first-person perspective of Colin, whom we meet as he prepares to depart his small-town in Maine, whose smallness is symbolized by the girlfriend he cannot wait to be rid of as he anticipates fashioning a new, more sophisticated self.
Merrill presents an extremely normal Colin: his parents are still married, he has a doting girlfriend, and seems to suffer no immediate existential crisis. He is contrasted by his new roommate, Rex, whose desires Colin will come to imitate. These desires range from the romantic, to the sartorial, and even into the literary realm. When Rex declares, “Proust is for old ladies,” Colin parrots him to rebuff a recommendation that he take up Swann’s Way. Only against this backdrop of Colin’s normalcy does the funhouse that is this anonymous Ivy League school come into view, especially after the reader watches Colin become undone in his attempt to have a casual sexual relationship with the beautiful Margot. This ends in humiliation for Colin, whom Margot maces one night; a few weeks later, Colin finds himself in the Dean’s office, responding to accusations of stalking. The closed Ivy walls prove no match for Colin’s apparent normalcy, as he approximates the campus outcast.
Colin’s pursuit of Margot comes at the expense not only of his devoted high school girlfriend, but also of the most appealing character in the book, Julia. Her unveiled attraction toward Colin naturally dampens her appeal in his eyes, a mistake that becomes apparent only subsequent to his downfall. Julia is the only character with a defined religious affiliation (Catholic), which downgrades her sophistication in Colin’s eyes. She lapses over the course of the year, but not before Colin goes to mass with her. In this scene the prose speeds up a beat, and our hero prays for the first time, “Please God make me like a little child” (76). The prayer—emblematic of Ignatius’s “consolation without cause” described in the Spiritual Exercises—seems contrary to every other desire Colin has about entering what he imagines to be the adult world of casual sex and sophisticated literary analysis. Colin returns to mass a few more times, but this is not a novel about conversion.
The other religious space of the novel is the seminar room. In the spring semester Colin gains admittance into the coveted seminar of Professor McClatchy, the novel’s guru. Rex, the precocious and intellectually advanced one in their circle, suffers the sting of exclusion, and his shadow shrinks. Margot and Julia also gain admittance, and the seminar becomes a magnified hothouse of desire. Colin eventually begins what will prove to be his downfall: a commitment-free sexual relationship with a beautiful woman, Margot. His heart, perhaps made child-like or more human by his prayer, desires a commitment that puts him in a double-bind of his own making. He has a desire that he desires he did not have. This bind launches a pathetic, losing, Seinfeld-like battle to appear the one without desire. He is no match for Margot.
Disciples of Girard are among almost the last group of critics who allow themselves to ask how much of a novel is autobiographical. Eventually Colin’s downfall leads him to seek the advice of Professor McClatchy. The advice given to Colin seems like the most likely autobiographical scene. The professor recommends an ascetic path involving self-denial. This path includes drawing still-life sketches, a practice that “will force you to see what’s really there” (207). Seeing what’s there is hardest when we have no way to hold up a mirror to ourselves. Augustine, the West’s first autobiographer, knew this when he declared, “I am a mystery to myself.”
Colin’s journey toward self-discovery is portended in the book’s opening quotation: “Humiliation is the way to humility.” His attempts at fiction, the professor notes, are marred by “an unmistakable current of self-hatred.” Buoyed by this revelation, the scales fall from Colin’s eyes and he begins to exit the masochistic, obsessive concern about the image he projects, all the way down to the ill-fitting leather jacket that he sheds in the final scenes. He feels the joy of life that recalls his childhood, and in this moment wonders whether his earnest prayer at mass has been answered.
Minor Indignities provides a lot to chew on, in digestible bites. The first-person perspective inhibits the capacity to make the other characters come fully alive, but they are still rendered sympathetically. The novel is fun and realistic, even as it exaggerates the absurdities of college life. The reader roots for the hero, even when she or he cringes at his many missteps. I recommend it highly.
Theodicy and Spirituality in John’s Gospel
St. Gregory’s Monastery
Daniel DeForest London. Theodicy and Spirituality in the Fourth Gospel: A Girardian Perspective. Lexington Books/Fortress Academic. 2020. Pages: 131.
It says much for the richness and ambiguity of John’s Gospel that it seems that the world cannot hold all the books that have been and will be written about it, and these books continue to add to the conversation with much insight. This new book by Daniel DeForest London has much to add to the riches. The main conversation partner with John’s Gospel, René Girard, has inspired many people with his insights into mimetic desire (the human tendency to share desires) and scapegoating violence. Girard’s twin theories have helped us re-evaluate many classics and is particularly valuable in guiding us into a new and deeper understanding of the Bible. London has furthered this project with his application of Girard’s thought to the Fourth Gospel.
St. Julian of Norwich, a mystic who struggled with theodicy (and who is mentioned in this book) saw the whole world in a hazelnut. London brings this broad, cosmic topic down to chapters 9 and 10 in John’s Gospel and narrows his study even further by concentrating on a few key verses with meticulous attention. As a small part of a hologram includes the whole, London shows that a small part of the Fourth Gospel also includes the whole.
Fundamental to London’s methodology is demonstrating the need for the reader to be personally involved with all of the characters in the two chapters of John under examination. Some characters are easier to identify with than others, which is a way of saying that identifying with some characters fosters more self-flattery than others. The man born blind is the most attractive because he comes so far in gaining perspicacity as he arrives at a vital faith in Jesus, and also because of his wit and chutzpah when examined by the Jewish leaders. On the other hand, the disciples, with whom London starts, seem judgmental in asking if it were the man’s own sin or the sins of his parents that caused his blindness. Least attractive to most readers are the Jewish leaders who seem to be the bad guys in their harsh judgmentalism of both the man born blind and Jesus who healed him.
However, London ably shows how John turns the tables on such snap judgments. Seeing ourselves mirrored in the disciples and/or the Jewish leaders, for example, is not flattering, but the truth is that many of us instinctively react to the problem of evil and its chaotic consequences by discerning who is to blame as a means of regaining clarity. Most instinctive is the tendency to blame the victim, which both the disciples and the Jewish leaders do. On the other hand, identifying with the formerly blind man when he “wins” the debate and confounds the supposedly wise Jewish leaders makes us feel good, but London shows a darker side to the formerly blind man’s humor, as John shows it to be seriously hurtful. Here, London points out that the Jewish leaders do not show fierce anger at the formerly blind man until they have been put down so decisively.
Identifying with the characters by picking and choosing pits us against one set of characters or another and so engages us in the conflict within the narrative. Such reading has spread out into lived experience with tragic results over two millennia in the form of persecution of the Jews. We experience, in miniature, the conflictual relationships that lead to scapegoating behavior as outlined by Girard. London, however, shows that identifying with all the characters through the way Jesus treats all of them leads us to a conciliatory place. First, London notes that Jesus exposes the truth of our own blindness, especially the accusatory blindness of blaming the victim. This is true both for the disciples and for the Jewish leaders, which makes it just as true for each of us as well. Jesus is not blaming them, or us; Jesus is showing the truth, which we can accept or deny. Unfortunately, we accept such correction as accusatory when it should be enlightening. Second, Jesus continues the conversation with the Jewish leaders even when they respond with rejection of what Jesus is showing them. Far from being a whole new episode, the next chapter of John is a continuation of the conversation carried on in chapter nine. Jesus is seeking a deeper unity in which the disciples, the man born blind, and the Jewish leaders are all upheld.
The symbols change in chapter 10. We have the good shepherd, the sheep, the thieves and bandits, and the wolves. Identifying with the sheep and hating the evil wolves becomes a new favorite blood sport for the reader. But London shows that John turns the tables in this chapter precisely as he did before. I especially appreciate London’s insight that the wolves, the most violent victimizers in the chapter, are the ones hurting the most; they are actually helpless sheep in wolves’ clothing. This move sets up John’s Christological interpretation of the Good Shepherd. Here, the disciples, the formerly blind man, the Jewish leaders, the sheep, the bandits and the wolves gather together and focus the blame for the world’s evils on the Good Shepherd who absorbs the collective violence in laying down his life for the sheep before taking his life up again in the Resurrection. It might come as a shock that the “good” guys have turned out to be “bad” guys along with the supposedly “real” bad guys, but London has shown us that all of the characters have shown scapegoating characteristics in their mutual accusations. In response, Jesus has chosen to absorb all of the accusations into his person in an embrace of all characters who have all become simultaneously sheep and wolves. Again, his revealing the truth of their scapegoating behavior is not condemnatory but rather a move to deliver them, and us, of our scapegoating tendencies.
We can see then, how these two chapters tell, in miniature and through symbolism, the story of the Gospel as a whole. As I mentioned earlier, there are also individual verses that are carefully analyzed for how they encapsulate the issues in what we could call a miniaturization of the miniature. Jesus’ response to the disciples’ initial question as to who is to blame for the man’s blindness (Jn. 9: 3) is particularly important. Everything hinges on how we interpret and translate the conjunction all. If we connect the conjunction to what precedes it, we get a sense that the man was born blind so that God’s work might be revealed. I admit I have been troubled myself over this notion as it seems to make the man’s blindness a means for some purpose of God. London (and some of the scholars he consults) seem also to be so troubled. London sides with the interpretation that connects the link, via the preposition hina, with what follows rather than what precedes it. This approach places the emphasis on the fact that the man was born blind (without attaching blame anywhere) which creates the need to respond. This interpretation brings us to the mystery of God responding to suffering, not with explanation, but with a dynamic presence and embrace. That is the response London showed us in the insights of St. Augustine, Julian Norwich, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and C. S. Lewis at the beginning of the book.
One does not have to be interested in Girard to benefit from London’s contribution to Johannine studies, although anyone interested in applying Girard to biblical studies will profit from reading this book. Most importantly, pastors and laypersons will also find this book of pastoral value, both for Bible study and for helping fellow Christians deal with questions concerning theodicy. Even the detailed discussions of small points of Greek grammar and syntax are clearly presented so that one does not need to be a scholar to understand and benefit from them. Strongly recommended.
The Goodness Paradox
University of Scranton
Richard Wrangham, The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution. Pantheon, 2019. Pages 400.
Richard Wrangham’s Goodness Paradox is juicy enticement for mimetic theorists interested in the questions of human evolution and violence. It theorizes a framework of how group killing played a selective function in the emergence of our species, but it leaves open plenty of questions and concerns for productive, critical dialogue. Wolfgang Palaver has written a short hat-tip toward the book, and Melvin Konner reviewed it for The Atlantic. But I’d like to offer a medium depth engagement as one who has taken keen interest in the evolutionary and theological dimension of mimetic theory. I’ll begin by extrapolating Wrangham’s argument and then turn to the criticism.
Wrangham’s overall paradox is that humanity emerged through killing our way out of violence. More precisely, proactive coalitionary killing against aggressive, alpha-male individuals selected out—in a genetic pressure over hundreds of thousands of years—the more temperamental threads of Homo, resulting in a species (sapiens) who are relatively more domesticated and docile.
The argument goes like this. First: domestication is a real, genetic thing. Various domesticated species tend to share an odd, seemingly-unrelated set of features called a “domestication syndrome.” This refers to some combination of phenotype changes compared to non-domesticated cousins: reduced skeleton mass, reduced/rounder cranium sizes and reduced jaw lines, floppier ears, white patches of fur, extended juvenility, more frequent fertile periods, males with greater approximation to female characteristics, and so on. Beneath all these is a genetic reduction in “reactive aggression,” the propensity for violence related to irascibility and short-fused explosions.
Two: domestication can happen intentionally or just randomly in nature. Humans have domesticated foxes in quick succession by breeding only ones with reduced reactive aggression, resulting in a domestication syndrome. The same seems to have happened slowly, with increasing intentionality over time, in the domestication of wolves into dogs. (This perhaps first began with the natural selection of wolves who were least aggravated by getting near humans to eat their camp detritus.) But domestication can also happen outside the human sphere, as in bonobos, who are basically a domesticated cousin of chimpanzees—evidenced not only in their reduced aggression but in their own domestication syndrome. This happened, he argues, largely through contingent, niche ecological features related to landscape, food-options, competition, etc.
Three: it has long been asked whether humans are a “domesticated” species or if that is just anthropocentrism. If so, who domesticated us? The old fashioned answer was that God made us—so, that’s that. But asked in the scientific framework? One early anthropologist posed that perhaps some now-extinct super-species domesticated us. Wrangham’s answer is basically that we unintentionally domesticated ourselves by persistently killing off aggressive individuals. This has resulted in Homo sapiens being a domesticated version of Homo neanderthalensis, erectus, etc. Girard’s not unrelated answer is that religion domesticated us. By religion he means an integrated pattern of chaotic/exceptional and ordered/normal behaviors that contain violence, mediated through an increasing mimetic capacity: chaotic mimetic violence restrained and channeled through mimetic ritual, taboo, and myth. This created a feedback loop that exercised and intensified our mimetic capacity while protecting against its dangerous excess. Whatever the case, compared with our (putatively more violent) hominin cousins, the human phenotype shows strong signs of a domestication syndrome: reduced cranium and jaw sizes, smaller skeleton mass, and evidently decreased reactive aggression.
Fourth, and finally: Wrangham argues this domestication is related to a long, pre-human arc of transition, throughout the mid-Pleistocene, from older alpha-dominance patterns to tyrannies of egalitarian patriarchy. Wrangham draws upon hunter-gatherer studies to suggest how this new pattern, characteristic of sapiens’ legacy, is one of group-policing, humbling any who exalt themselves. This includes cases of criticizing and chastising anyone who assertively portends alpha despotism, and not daring to brag about having killed big game, lest one get cast down as a paternal danger. The same goes for insulting and shaming gift-givers, lest they grow haughty. Those who violated these dynamics and disturbed the peace must have been the ones with greater genetic dispositions toward reactive aggression (i.e. bullies, alphas, hot-heads). They would be less likely to propagate their genes due to a selective pressure: “proactive coalitionary killing.” The development of language turbo-charged this habit with the ability to agitate, gossip, and scheme for their removal. The power of this selection process, he asserts, explains the origins of everything from blushing to morality.
Such group killings, in the earliest phases, were likely more directed toward outsiders, but they became increasingly applied toward internal group dynamics. In any case, whether in raids and skirmishes with outsiders, or intragroup executions of antisocial members, they are all characterized by generally being low-risk to the attackers and even enjoying neural pleasure rewards. This selected habit is shared somewhat by our chimp cousins, in their periodic group killings. At the same time, the pattern of group-policing is mirrored in our bonobo cousins, wherein females keep a stringent check on alpha-male-ing.
Lest we think Wrangham a Hobbesian champion of violence, he is diligent to denounce any whiffs of “biological determinism,” as if it legitimizes group violence or capital punishment to observe their adaptive roles. He spends chapters denouncing the facile and politically-misguided anthropological spasms that, in presuming that we must take commands from nature (i.e. conflating “natural” things with “morally good things”), seek to prove that nature is Rousseauian and pacifically cooperative. To the contrary, he touts a conventional, modern, liberal defense of the value of nonviolence, laws, and diplomatic norms, and the backwardness of capital punishment. And he does well to insist that any optimistic talk of cooperation must include the reality of our cooperative violence, keeping a critical eye toward our dark side. The theologically inclined Girardian is likewise prepared to treat the seemingly pessimistic doctrine of original sin as optimistic: the doctrine asserts there is nothing necessarily moral or “natural” about nature and natural selection. The doctrine helps us distinguish how the evil, violence, and lying that seem so habituated in us need not be seen as ordained fate but, instead, a contingent mistake in our evolutionary trajectory. Thus Christianity emphasizes mercy and grace just as it unearths the long, dark roots of human sin. Darker accounts of our hominin ancestors don’t validate the violence, but rather, “wherever sin abounds, let grace increase.”
In my appraisal, as one inclined toward mimetic theory, Wrangham’s account is intriguing, filling in all sorts of conceptual and empirical holes, especially ones left open by Girard about hunter-gatherers. But it also begs for a mimetic supplement. First, Wrangham utters not a word about imitation, and this isn’t just a Girardian complaint. A large, diverse set of anthropologists eight years ago published a set of essays trying to corral an anthropological field consensus about human uniqueness: it more or less centered upon our outstanding joint attention, other-attention, and “concern for the minds of others” (Calcagno and Fuentes, eds., “What Makes Us Human?”).
Lacking that mimetic dynamic, Wrangham’s theory may too rigidly force us to view early human group violence through the limited lens of killing aggressors. But what if archaeology somehow unearthed a much more chaotic and meaningless record of human targets? We need to be able to account for the numerous killings of non-alpha figures in our bloody catalogue. Also, with Wrangham lacking a mimetic dimension, he too strongly emphasizes proactive aggression as a self-explanatory behavior, undertheorizing the inter-group imitative dynamics that undergird such aggression and killings. For example, it has been thickly demonstrated in mimetic studies that the lack of an external scapegoat coincides with increased intra-group violence, just as adequate external targets coincides with increased internal docility. At issue here is not aggression dynamics but imitative dynamics. Put differently, Wrangham states that perhaps our bigger brains facilitated the language and plotting conducive to proactive killings; but mimetic theory tries to answer the prior question: whence the bigger brain?
Mimetic theory and Wrangham seem to partially agree with Nietzsche that the human species “requires” (rather, adaptively benefitted from) “human sacrifice” (a metonymy suitable for proactive coalitionary killing or the scapegoat mechanism). But mimetic theory adds a nuance of siding against Nietzsche, with Christ, by saying that our spurious lynching habit has been arbitrarily targeting all sorts of folks—too big, too small, too pretty, too ugly, just in the wrong place at the wrong time, etc. Early humans weren’t just getting rid of aggressive riff-raff; we were mindlessly converging upon whoever stuck out. And this habit has not merely selected out the relatively more aggressive member-genes; but it has selected for a dangerous mimetic blindness in our violence and mental perception. That is, when Wrangham places his emphasis on the selecting out of reactive aggression, I think he doesn’t sufficiently theorize the selecting for “proactive coalitionary killing,” nor, as an adjacent point, how this practice cannot be considered a reliable detector of aggressors. (One calls to mind the numerous lies surrounding lynchings in the U.S., let alone around the world.) Wrangham lists cases of groups—whether hunter gatherers or settlers—where the target is evidently some irascible individual. And thus the pseudo-rationality of their killing, for Wrangham, is described as an execution, a term almost connoting relative cogency. But, mimetic theory is more inclined to use words like lynching and mob. It emphasizes how misapprehension and delusion were selected insofar as they were adaptive via coalitionary killing. For Girard, the scapegoat mechanism is “a protective misapprehension.” Wrangham, I suppose, begins to approximate this in discussing the “positive illusions” that accompany the group-war spirit, animating it with a winning, adaptive confidence. (The “usefulness” of this coalitionary confidence turns into mass blunder when scaled up from tribes to large-scale wars.)
One might reasonably synthesize the theories and suggest that it was individuals with the greatest levels of reactive aggression who made themselves the easiest targets for lynch mobs. This would add to mimetic theory an insight and distinction about aggression foreign to its lexicon: that the scapegoat mechanism, often mediated via proactive coalitionary aggression, may have spawned an unintended byproduct of genetically selecting out certain sapiens more disposed toward reactive aggression. Meanwhile, Wrangham’s hypothesis could integrate without friction, I think, a psychological dimension of imitation, supplementing his aggression-centrism, and ready his theory to integrate the randomness of lynching phenomena. I have in mind one immense oddity: why did aggressive egalitarians eventually spawn the practice of elevating divine kings? This phenomenon is explainable through the scapegoat mechanism transfiguring human sacrifices into celebrities. And, perhaps Wrangham’s most easily fillable lacuna, he utters not a word about the evidently ubiquitous practice of sacrifice and ritual violence—which I infer is a more ordinary human habit than extraordinary collective killing. Such practices, catalogue-able as imitative variants on proactive coalitionary killings, fits like a hand in glove. Konner, too, suggests that other factors, like females selecting the least aggressive mates, are perfectly reasonable, and perhaps more steady, selective pressures to consider here.
We can conclude with a general distinction between Girard and Wrangham. Wrangham is focused on how sapiens’ relative docility emerged and how its reactive aggression was reduced through groups killing off the outstandingly aggressive. Among his minor flaws is his under-theorizing how this involves selection for proactive coalitionary killing. Girard, by contrast, explicitly said his theory is not about aggression and is focused on the selection of our mimetic capacity channeled through the protective misapprehension of mimetic, sacrificial culture. Granted, intensified mimesis can imply intensified contagious violence; and thus the theorists eventually converge at points. But I think we enjoy a more immense horizon of psychological creativity, nuance, and hope by emphasizing how our charge is not merely to further reduce sapiens’ proactive and reactive aggression, but learning how to imitate well, learning how to reject autonomous notions of the self and peacefully receive our subjectivity from the divine Other who is love. All this is to stray far off the Wrangham radar. But I insist that it is all interconnected.
Mimesis and the Social Suite
Nicholas A. Christakis, Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society. New York: Little, Brown, 2019. Pages 520.
Nicholas Christakis is the Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science at Yale University, with joint appointments in Sociology, Medicine, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Statistics and Data Science, and Biomedical Engineering. He also directs Human Nature Lab within the Yale Institute for Network Science, where he leads a large, interdisciplinary team whose ambitious studies he incorporates among a remarkable array of research here. Before Blueprint, he co-authored Connected, on social networks, and he recently published the well-reviewed Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live, which draws on his expertise in understanding both biological and social contagions. He writes with clarity, narrative flair, and a sense of wonder, which makes it all the easier to cut him some slack for not including mimetic theory in this account of what he calls the human “social suite.” Though there would be some differences to work out, these two approaches to understanding humanity through our relational nature could be powerful allies.
Even if he were familiar with mimetic theory, I suspect Christakis would say it is not directly pertinent to his case, which seeks primarily to establish the universality of the “social suite” empirically rather than give a theoretical or developmental explanation of it. On this fundamental point, however, Blueprint stands with mimetic theory in affirming, against orthodox anthropology, the existence of universal features across human cultures. Christakis cites other recent work in this direction but claims his “list of universals” is “more focused and fundamental” (12).
Yet many if not all of the components that make up the “social suite” find strong resonance in mimetic theory. Here they are:
- The capacity to have and recognize individual identity
- Love for partners and offspring
- Social networks
- Preference for one’s own group (that is, “in-group bias”)
- Mild hierarchy (that is, relative egalitarianism)
- Social learning and teaching (13).
Items 2 through 5 and 8 all have much to do with positive, that is, non-conflictual mimesis, the kind that Andrew Meltzoff and others have shown to be essential for the bonding between parent and child and thus foundational for all other relationships, and that Marcia Pally and others have begun to integrate with research on human development, both ontogenetic and phylogenetic, by Michael Tomasello and others.
Item 6, in-group bias, is how social psychology recognizes at a more constructive, less violent level the same relational dynamic that mimetic theory finds to be not only more violent but more generative as the scapegoat mechanism. Similarly, item 7, not only asserts the value of some amount of hierarchy for providing models to learn from but also could be seen to recognize its importance for inhibiting rivalry, as Girard explains through the distinction between external and internal mediation. In external mediation, when one’s model of desire is hierarchically superior, they can serve as a means of learning with minimal risk of direct competition and thus violence. But what keeps the model close enough without becoming too close? And how does in-group bias maintain community without becoming mob violence or war? What Christakis presents in items 6 and 7 as stable, universal equilibria are seen in mimetic theory more as perilous balances—between total unanimity and violent scapegoating and between complete egalitarianism and severe hierarchy—that are in need of further explanation.
Listing individual identity first implies it to be a foundation for the rest, in keeping with the idea that we each carry the blueprint for a good society in our genes. But the evidence given in the rest of the book seems equally susceptible of the view that individuality emerges from the other items on the list. For mimetic theory, individuality is not just a given, but a remarkable product of normal human development that constantly risks losing itself in less benign aspects of the social suite and, conversely, finds its fulfillment in love that elevates preferential affection to something more inclusive and universal. Thus cooperative individuality is not separate from but entwined with competitive individuality.
An emphasis on the importance of individual identity might also explain why Christakis does not consider the importance of imitation, since individuality and imitation are commonly seen as opposites. But if individuality is an emergent feature of our relational nature, what Girard calls interdividuality, then there is all the more reason to see mimetic capacity as the basis of the social suite, and thus to see Christakis’s approach as deeply compatible with mimetic theory. (See Chris Haw’s similar argument in his review of Wrangham’s The Goodness Paradox in this issue.)
Christakis makes his case by assembling an extraordinary range of evidence: not just sociological studies of diverse cultures, especially some considered outliers to claims of universality; but also “unintentional communities,” such as shipwreck survivors; “intentional communities,” such as utopian communes and researchers isolated over the winter at the south pole; and “artificial communities” set up online, one of his lab’s specialties. Most fascinating to me were the chapters on animal mating and friendship—both human-animal friendship and, especially, friendship among primates, elephants, and cetaceans. The long evolutionary story in view here is how “pair-bonding and joint child-rearing,” seen more widely in mammals, “set the stage for cooperation and friendship with unrelated individuals” and have a genetic basis (198).
All of these communities are notably peaceful, except for some shipwrecked groups that lacked good leadership. Christakis recognizes the problem of human violence, of course, but treats it as separate, “a parallel propensity for animosity and violence” (49). Thus he tends, like most, to locate the cause of violence in difference and the solution in seeing our “common humanity” as powerfully witnessed in the universality of the social suite. Yet the mimetic insight that our “competitive and cooperative impulses” (418) are not separate but have a common source in our capacity for imitation would only add to the practical value of his argument. His work on artificial communities, for instance, leads him to assert the malleability of traits like kindness, but the nature of the experiments allows him to attribute this only to the rules governing the social structure in which people are embedded and tends to assume something like a rational-actor model of human motivation based on reward. Likewise, his discussion elsewhere of social learning and the importance of leadership does not include modelling things like kindness or what to desire.
Christakis speculates that we might be “in the middle of a long-timescale transition to becoming a species that feels attachment to ever larger numbers of people” (134), a wonderfully optimistic thought. Mimetic theory has focused its explanations of the rise of communities organized by something other than ritualized and regulated violence and of ideas like universal human rights on historical factors, especially the advent of the major world religions. Yet one of the frontiers of mimetic theory is linking this historical view with the longer perspective that violence may be as old as Cain but not as old as Adam. Blueprint can help us think about what is as old as Adam, and even older, that remains essential to peaceful communities, such as play. How, for instance, does the orientation toward friendship that we share with elephants and orcas point us toward an ideal of universal love of neighbor and laying down one’s life for one’s friends?