In this issue: Five reviews of recent books; commentaries on two wars, two translations, and a film; and reflections by COV&R’s outgoing president.


Letter from the President: Martha Reineke, My Sojourn with COV&R, 2007-2024

Editor’s Column: Curtis Gruenler, Member Directory Now Available

Forthcoming Events

Theology & Peace Annual Gathering, Chicago, June 10-13, 2024

17th Annual Generative Anthropology Summer Conference, Tokyo, June 13-15, 2024

COV&R Annual Meeting, Mexico City, Mexico, June 26-29, 2024

COV&R at the American Academy of Religion, San Diego, California, November 23-26, 2024


Phillip Bodrock: More on Gaza and Ukraine: Reply to Martha Reineke and Mark Anspach

Anders Olsson, Girard among the Disciplines: Foreword to a Retrospective

John Babak Ebrahimian, Anatomy of a Fall: Undoing the Scapegoat Mechanism

Letter from…the Netherlands

Berry Vorstenbosch and Daan Savert, Translating Homo Mimeticus

Book Reviews

Anthony Bartlett, René Girard: Biographie by Benoît Chantre

Michael Kirwan, SJ, Mimetic Theory and Its Shadow: Girard, Milbank, and Ontological Violence by Scott Cowdell

Scott Cowdell, Cormac McCarthy: An American Apocalypse by Markus Wierschem

Andrew McKenna, The Tree of Good and Evil: Violence by the Law and against the Law by Charles K. Bellinger

Rebecca Adams, Mimetic Theory and Middle-earth: Untangling Desire in Tolkien’s Legendarium by Matthew Distefano

Letter from the President

My Sojourn with COV&R, 2007-2024

Martha Reineke

Martha Reineke

In his forthcoming book, Consolations II, poet David Whyte reflects on meanings he finds in the word “sojourn”: 

SOJOURN: is what we all do, every day of our restless lives: arrive, stay a while and then move on. Sojourn captures that simultaneous sense of recent arrival, intriguing stay, and adventurous departure necessary to the underlying joy and happiness of our human essence…. We are creatures of the sudden hello, the getting to know and the long or the short goodbye, but sojourn is also a word that understands that even in our briefest stays we are changing and being changed by what we stay with. Staying with something is to change and deepen whatever we are staying with; staying itself is a journey that always leads to altering our further departures. 

As my seventeen-year sojourn in leadership roles with COV&R ends, I am mindful that both COV&R and I have changed. COV&R has been a professional anchor in my life since 1993, when Jim Williams welcomed me to the first COV&R event I ever attended. It was a COV&R session at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) in Washington, DC. The warmth with which I was received and the positive regard with which attendees responded to my presentation proved transformative. 

Of course, at the time, I had no inkling that I was embarking on a three-decade sojourn with this remarkable organization that would profoundly influence my scholarship and play a central role in my service to the academy. In 2006, at our annual meeting in Ottawa, I accepted an invitation by the COV&R Board to serve as coordinator of COV&R sessions at annual meetings of the AAR, beginning in 2007. I would go on from that role to serve as COV&R’s executive secretary. I’ve now served two terms as president, partnering in leadership with Executive Secretary Niki Wandinger. Over the years, many of you have become cherished colleagues, sharing with me a deep commitment to COV&R as the major professional organization devoted to developing, critiquing, and applying René Girard’s mimetic theory. As the shape of my own life has been altered by my “staying with” COV&R, so also have COV&R and its members changed.


Reviewing the past seventeen years, I believe that, during our sojourn together, we have sustained and enhanced ways in which COV&R functions as a community of scholars and practitioners (practitioners in the sense of members not primarily employed as academics). 

From its early years as an organization, COV&R has maintained a presence at AAR annual meetings, where COV&R is a Related Scholarly Organization (RSO). Our sessions create a mid-year opportunity to gather for individuals who are members of both organizations. More significant, these sessions create visibility for and interest in mimetic theory among 7,000 AAR attendees, a majority of whom are junior or mid-career scholars. 

When I became the coordinator of COV&R sessions at AAR annual meetings, we had regularized our participation. Unfortunately, within a year, the AAR leadership distanced itself from its RSOs. RSOs were required to offer sessions a day or two before the AAR meeting officially began; session descriptions were pushed to the back of the program book; and RSOs were excluded from the AAR call for papers. After consulting with the AAR leadership, I was able to “grandfather” in some protection for COV&R. When the AAR leadership changed, RSO sessions returned to the main pages of the program book. And, during Grant Kaplan’s term as coordinator, the leadership fully embraced its RSOs. RSO sessions are now included in the annual meeting CFP. All of us can take pride in COV&R’s AAR sessions, which have featured compelling reviews of books and innovative scholarship in mimetic theory. Under Chelsea King’s able leadership, the tradition continues. 

Other community-building experiences during the last seventeen years have featured our partner organizations. Imitatio, with oversight by Trevor Merrill, generously supports the annual meeting, funding the René Girard Lecture and travel grants for graduate students. For many years, Imitatio also supported publications published by Michigan State University Press, under the astute leadership of COV&R Board member, William Johnsen, who serves as editor of the journal Contagion as well as of two book series in mimetic theory. When the book series became a self-supporting venture three years ago, I began facilitating yearly meetings between MSU Press staff and COV&R officers with responsibilities in communication. Our goal is to enhance COV&R’s support for this important outlet for scholarship in mimetic theory. We have secured book discounts for COV&R members on books in the two series in mimetic theory and continue to talk with MSU Press staff about ways to enhance the relationship between the press and COV&R (e.g., digital book reviews, author interviews). 

The Raven Foundation, founded by Suzanne and Keith Ross, made for a particularly “intriguing stay” when they developed a close relationship with COV&R during my years as executive secretary and president. Keith generously donated the services of his office to membership logistics, and Suzanne’s leadership and creativity proved inspiring to innovations in COV&R. She supported outreach toward practitioners of mimetic theory and made innovative suggestions for enhancing hospitality at our annual meetings, making these events more inviting to newcomers as well as longtime members. She drafted our Moderator Guidelines (now an appendix in the Guide for Conference Planners). She also had a particular eye for expanding COV&R’s digital footprint. The Ross’s support was formalized with a Raven Foundation-sponsored lecture and/or reception at our annual meetings. To the great appreciation of our membership, this support has continued with Suzanne’s new venture: the unRival Network. 

Informally, Suzanne was a sounding board through which I became highly attuned to what Whyte describes as “adventurous departures.” Together, we pondered how COV&R could be more nimble in an environment in which digital communication was expanding by leaps and bounds. In our inspiring conversations, I also puzzled out with Suzanne how COV&R could more effectively address dramatic changes occurring in graduate education in the humanities and become more responsive to the growing numbers of members of COV&R who, like Suzanne, are practitioners of mimetic theory. I remain deeply appreciative of Suzanne’s vision and commitment to expanding access to mimetic theory. 

It’s a COV&R tradition to extend warm welcomes to our newest COV&R sojourners—graduate students and practitioners alike. In an academy in which mimetic rivalries regularly place junior scholars under great stress, we have offered and continue to offer support and community. During the time I have served in leadership roles with COV&R, we have set aside time in board meetings and focus groups to listen to our newest members with a goal of being responsive to their needs and concerns. Our latest foray into community-building took place in Paris, when I invited Carly Osborn to host focus groups of graduate students and practitioners. A key outcome of those discussions, facilitated by member Mack Stirling, has been the building of a COV&R Member Directory, which has just been added to our member pages. It is a splendid resource that should enhance our efforts to collaborate with and learn from each other. 

Whyte suggests that a sojourn “deepens whatever we are staying with.” As I reflect on my leadership tenure with COV&R, two instances of such deepening stand out. We moved for the first time beyond North America and Europe for our annual meetings, gathering in Japan (host Jeremiah Alberg), Australia (hosts Joel Hodge and Scott Cowdell), Colombia (host Roberto Solarte), and Mexico City (host Tania Checchi). Although these locations expanded the geographical breadth of mimetic theory, I take the deepening of mimetic theory that occurred at these meetings and in publications that emerged from them to be of greater significance. These new locations have become seedbeds for innovative developments in mimetic theory. 

Conversations held three years ago that resulted in a COV&R statement on diversity also constituted a significant instance of deepening. We met on Zoom in regional clusters to discuss how we could leverage insights gathered from mimetic theory about mechanisms of exclusion, victimization, and scapegoating to enhance our capacity to appreciate members of our colloquium in all our diversity. The result is a document, now on our website, that formally commits to memory two outcomes of these focus group discussions. We affirm that interactions and collaborations among members of our colloquium are strengthened by the diverse skills, knowledge, and distinct perspectives each of us brings to our conversations with each other. And, as we work together to better achieve the colloquium’s aims—developing, critiquing, and applying René Girard’s mimetic theory—we also commit ourselves to embracing inclusiveness more intentionally, especially at our meetings, in order that we more regularly benefit from hearing diverse voices. We hope through these commitments to plumb mimetic theory’s insights about avoiding victimization, such that no one in COV&R feels unwelcome or marginalized. 

Professional organizations and societies are under stress these days. Some small societies, similar to ours, have severely declining numbers. Substantive changes in the academy and in ways that professionals communicate—no longer conversing with each other but engaging each other “remotely” in every sense of the word—suggest to some that “boutique” professional organizations have become obsolete. I am heartened that, as I leave a leadership role in COV&R, vibrancy and innovation continue to characterize our colloquium. 


Among the legacies of my seventeen years of sojourning with COV&R in leadership positions are documents and practices that create organizational stability. 

When I became Executive Secretary, I discovered that the coordinators of our annual meetings had no written guidance. This coincided with my hosting COV&R on my own campus. I ended up sending dozens of emails to Ann Astell, president of COV&R at the time and the only COV&R member to have hosted three annual meetings. Promising her that I would preserve her advice in a guide, I created the first edition of the Guide for Conference Planners, updating it as needed in the years that followed. My goal has been to ease the work of conference planners so that they can plan annual meetings that consistently offer attendees positive experiences supportive of personal and professional growth.

Another legacy of my COV&R leadership is our Board’s affirmative response to my recommendation that we utilize the services of the Philosophy Documentation Center. PDC’s registration software, featuring helpful renewal reminders and the reliable tracking of memberships, has stabilized our finances and enhanced our capacity to communicate with our members. Pam McKay, our liaison at PDC, does a phenomenal job managing our membership services. On occasion, she has also overseen conference registration with equal success and aplomb. Sherwood Belangia, our treasurer, complements PDC’s work with regularized reporting on our non-profit status and expert oversight of our assets and expenses. 

Under my watch, the COV&R Board has also successfully revised the COV&R by-laws (with assistance from Wolfgang Palaver), and, this June, we will update our constitution. Last year, after much research, we obtained D&O (Directors and Officers) insurance, which enhances COV&R’s organizational stability as well. 

Moving Forward

Today, information and ideas not only are shared at an ever faster pace but also are transmitted in ever expanding venues—both print and digital. The future strength of COV&R is tied to our access to information and ideas, capacity to engage both in timely and nuanced ways, and ability to make visible ways in which mimetic theory brings analytic clarity to a broad spectrum of human reality.

As I think about that future, I am mindful of Whyte’s observation that, when we sojourn, our “staying itself is a journey that always leads to altering our further departures.” In recent years, in support of such further departures, I have given special attention to efforts by Curtis Gruenler, editor of the COV&R Bulletin, and Maura Junius, editor of the website and social media, to make our print and digital footprints ever more robust. They are a powerful team whose efforts have positive implications for the future. Curtis is doing a masterful job of keeping his finger on the pulse of mimetic theory across different platforms and venues and reporting back via the Bulletin to our membership. Maura has proactively built our website, YouTube channel, and social media presence to be ever more helpful resources in mimetic theory. As discussed below, COV&R has opportunities to enhance the utility of our digital products for viewers. 

Several years ago, the Board created an Ad Hoc Committee on Social Media to look for ways that we could build on Curtis and Maura’s efforts. That committee has been able to offer several small grants in support of videos that now appear on our YouTube channel. We have organizational funds to do more. This June, the Board will be invited to consider proposals that I have drafted to formalize the creation of a Grants Committee and establish criteria for grant awards. Pending approval of those proposals, I also plan to share with the Board a draft of a Call for Grant Proposals to support hiring someone to enhance a page on the COV&R website. 

Every month, Maura sends me analytics from the COV&R website. She has pointed out that our page “What is Mimetic Theory?” receives significant traffic. Robust interest in this page may be one outcome of publications that have given increased visibility to mimetic theory (e.g., Luke Burgis’s Wanting, Cynthia L. Haven’s Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, and the Penguin Modern Classics volume of Girard, All Desire is a Desire for Being: Essential Writings, edited by Cynthia and due to be released in the U.S. next month). The Call for Grant Proposals I have drafted for the COV&R Board’s consideration in June proposes funding someone with expertise in explaining mimetic theory to nonspecialists via a web-based format to build out COV&R’s “What Is Mimetic Theory?” page. The goal will be to offer text and video that will enhance the experiences of page visitors, thereby promoting greater understanding of mimetic theory and connecting visitors to helpful resources, including those that feature the scholarship and contributions of COV&R members. The Board will have an opportunity at our June meeting to evaluate and respond to these proposals as they choose. 

Tidal Change

As I step down from COV&R leadership, I find myself resonating with Whyte’s concluding reflections on sojourning. He acknowledges “the underlying undertow of existence” which creates “tidal change” that touches our agency and our desires. Sojourning, Whyte tells us, is equal parts living with this “undertow of existence” and traveling “the pilgrim roads of the world” along which we always find ourselves “journeying on into some other, longed for spaciousness.” As I venture in the years ahead along roads not previously traveled, I offer best wishes to each of you on your own journeys. I know that new and returning board members and officers will shape COV&R’s future in wonderful ways not yet imagined, further strengthening the colloquium. 

Editor’s Column

Member Directory Now Available

Curtis Gruenler

Curtis Gruenler

Thanks to the efforts of Mack Stirling, a partial directory of COV&R members is now available on our website. This link will take you to a page where you can enter your member number and then access the page where you can download the directory as either a pdf document or an Excel spreadsheet. This initial version is based on information submitted in response to an email sent to members in February. The same page has a link to where you can submit your information to be included. Members are encouraged to submit their information soon. There will also be an opportunity at next month’s annual meeting. When this first version of the directory is finished after the meeting, it will close until after membership renewals in December. If you have any questions about the directory, you may email Mack. For questions about your membership or access to the member pages on the website—or to join COV&R—see our membership services page.

Looking at the directory gets me excited to see people at next month’s annual meeting in Mexico City. A shared interest in mimetic theory gathers remarkable people who are up to inspiring things. Plus the program and venue look outstanding. There is still time to register. The early-bird deadline is May 23.

Our meeting also brings together members who are involved in many of its partner organizations. The newest one, unRival, is sponsoring an opportunity to gather during the conference:

This year at COV&R, unRival Network is sponsoring an informal time for snacks and conversation. We want to provide an opportunity for conference attendees to visit, laugh, and share in the positive impact that mimetic theory and its insights have had on their lives. As our world seems to split at the seams from mimetic rivalries, it is urgent that we create spaces of belonging to remind ourselves that mimesis is also a force for peace. What better place to remind ourselves of this than at COV&R, where those most shaped by mimetic theory can make space for the unexpected “joy of being wrong” about ourselves and the world? We hope to see you there!

Look for more information about this gathering when the complete conference program is available. If you have any questions, you are welcome to contact unRival’s research director, Lyle Enright.

A 20% discount is available to COV&R members on the nine most recent volumes in Michigan State University Press’s two series, Studies in Violence, Mimesis & Culture and Breakthroughs in Mimetic Theory, up through the two that came out earlier this year, The World of René Girard, interviews conducted by Nadine Dormoy in 1988 and translated from French by William Johnsen, and Cormac McCarthy: An American Apocalypse by Marcus Wierschem (see the review below by Scott Cowdell). This discount is also available for pre-orders of two volumes coming out this summer: René Girard and the Western Philosophical Tradition, Volume 1: Philosophy, Violence, and Mimesis, edited by Andreas Wilmes and George A. Dunn; and Playing Sociology: Theory and Games for Coping with Mimetic Crisis and Social Conflict by Martino Doni and Stefano Tomelleri. In addition, a 30% discount is available on selected titles from the backlist with a purchase of three or more. For more information, please see this page in the members section of the COV&R website. The same page includes a discount code for ordering through Eurospan, which has better shipping rates when ordering from Europe than ordering directly through MSUP.

Julie and Tom Shinnick’s read-aloud-and-discuss Zoom group finished The Scapegoat by René Girard this spring and plans, after a summer break, to start again on August 12 with Tony Bartlett’s Signs of Change: The Bible’s Evolution of Divine Nonviolence (reviewed in Bulletin 72 by Scott Cowdell and by yours truly here). It meets weekly on Monday nights at 6:30-8:00 Central Time. New participants are welcome. As Julie puts it, “The read-aloud format provides an opportunity for rich discussion which members have greatly appreciated.  It also helps readers and listeners slow down from our busy lives for a weekly period of reflection in a small community. We only read 10-20 pages a week, so it is easy to catch up if people have to miss a session or two. We record each session for anyone who misses a meeting and wants a copy. The recordings are private, and only sent to members who request them. About a week before the meeting I’ll send out a link for the zoom.” If you are interested, please email Julie.

Forthcoming Events

Theology & Peace Annual Gathering
Chicago, Illinois
June 10-13, 2024

Plenary speakers will include several familiar to COV&R: James Alison, Adam Ericksen, Julia Robinson Moore, and James Warren. Chaplain Ellen Corcella will also share her explorations of the interconnections between faith, spirit, trauma, and resilience.

The meeting will be held at the Casa Iskali Our Lady of Guadalupe Campus located outside of Chicago. For complete information and registration, see the Theology & Peace website. The deadline for early-bird registration is May 22.

17th Annual Generative Anthropology Summer Conference

Tokyo, June 13-15, 2024

The program for the 2024 GASC Conference is available as are the abstracts of the papers.

Featured Speakers are Eric Gans, Emeritus Distinguished Professor, University of California, Los Angeles; Jeremiah Alberg, Professor by Special Appointment, International Christian University, Tokyo, Japan (and former president of COV&R); and Jan Gerrit Strala, Professor, Kinjo Gakuin University, Nagoya, Japan. By popular demand, the whole conference will also be made available via Zoom to registrants.

Desire among the Ruins:
Mimesis and the Crisis of Representation

COV&R Annual Meeting
Mexico City
June 26-29, 2024

Templo Mayor

Sponsored by Universidad Iberoamericana and hosted at the Colegio de San Ildefonso, COV&R’s annual meeting is being organized by board member Tania Checchi. Complete information, including details about accommodations, registration, travel grants, and plenary speakers, is available on the COV&R website. The deadline for early bird registration is May 23. Participants are encouraged to book accommodations as soon as possible because a Gay Pride festival is expected to bring thousands of visitors to the city at the same time.

Filled with palaces and museums, Baroque churches and Art Deco buildings, Mexico City’s architectural history spans more than half a millennium, and new archeological discoveries are being made almost every year. San Ildefonso is located in the heart of Mexico City, just behind the Cathedral and next to the archeological site of what was the most important Pre-Hispanic religious center, Templo Mayor. Its situation at the crossroads of these two major cultural landmarks makes it the ideal venue for our conference.

The theme, “Desire among the Ruins: Mimesis and the Crisis of Representation,” opens up a dialogical and critical space for discussing what kind of motives, aspirations, and even hopes are inscribed into our need for images, taking into account from a mimetic point of view not only their sacrificial origin and their concomitant problematic status, but also their almost infinite capacity for transformation and renewal. The “ruins” of the title evoke both the actual archeological sites that will surround us during the conference, with their archaic echoes and demands, and the actual “ruin of representation” announced by Levinas à propos the crisis of traditional epistemologies and, most importantly, the crisis of meaning experienced from the 20th century on. Given this situation, we must ask along with René Girard: is desire condemned to walk among the ruins of its mimetic failures or can it open up to the truly desirable, an alterity whose frailty no violence can reduce or silence? And finally, can images be the vehicle of this conversion?

Mexico City offers comfortable accommodations at a wide range of prices. Mexican cuisine was declared a Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010 by UNESCO, and Mexico City’s array of all Mexico’s traditional food, as well as experimental new Mexican cuisine, will make for an unforgettable culinary experience.

COV&R at the American Academy of Religion

San Diego, California
November 23-26, 2024

San Diego

Registration for the AAR is open here, where the program, including COV&R’s sessions, will also be announced soon.


More on Gaza and Ukraine: Reply to Martha Reineke and Mark Anspach

Phillip Bodrock

I am indebted to Martha Reineke for her thoughtful and supportive comments on my commentary, “Hamas, Netanyahu and Putin: Reflections on Mark Anspach’s Letter from the Negev,” which appeared in COV&R Bulletin 79. I have only one point of disagreement with her. In her remarks, Martha asserted that my comment about COV&R’s silence on Putin’s war in Ukraine was an “unfounded contention.” Not so. It was a reasonable inference based on the lack of evidence that COV&R had published anything about that ten-year-old war, especially after Putin’s full-scale in invasion in 2022. (Martha had mentioned that a number of papers delivered at the COV&R annual meeting in Paris in 2023 addressed the war in Ukraine. She graciously provided me with a link to a contact at the University of Innsbruck, who granted me access to 43 papers, two of which looked like possibilities. The first said nothing about the war. I was not able to open the second paper.)

This would not matter, but for the fact that Putin has introduced tactical nuclear weapons into Belarus and has as good as declared that his intentions with regard to Ukraine are genocidal. We also have the evidence of nuclear blackmail at the Zaporizhzhia power plant and a depressingly long list of war crimes committed by the Russian army in Ukraine. A genocidal war, especially one that could easily extend to include the use of nuclear weapons, is an escalation to an extreme. That COV&R members should be unaware of this, or silent in the face of such a possible eventuality, doesn’t compute. This blank spot is too much at variance with a collective intelligence formed and inspired by René Girard’s understanding of history. It is a cause for concern. Again, let me repeat that I value Martha’s remarks, especially her statement that in my reflections she heard a summons to accountability.

In my commentary, I said that I disagreed with Mark Anspach on the question he raised in his Letter from the Negev (and answered in the negative), viz. whether Israel was escalating the war in Gaza to an extreme. I am more convinced now that Benjamin Netanyahu is doing just that. As I write these words in March, the healthcare system in Gaza has been obliterated, famine is more than a mere possibility, and an estimated 30,000 Palestinians or more have lost their lives. One could go on, but this is not an exercise in ticking boxes. In the words of Chris Lockyear, Secretary General of Médecins Sans Frontières, Israel is waging war on the “entire population of the Gaza strip—a war of collective punishment, a war without rules, a war at all costs” (MSF briefing on Gaza to UN Security Council, Feb. 22, 2024).

In his rejoinder to my commentary, Mark has done journeyman work defending what he calls the nature of Israel’s response to Hamas’s 7 October massacres. He says that those who accuse Israel of vindictiveness are themselves vindictive. At the end, he quotes Clausewitz, to the effect that war is a dangerous business (as if we didn’t already know that) and that we should be aware of the mistakes that come from kindness.

Mark’s apologia for Israel’s conduct of the war in Gaza does not constitute a Girardian interpretation or analysis of the current crisis, much less a suggestion for finding a pathway to break free of it. Perhaps that explains why he doesn’t regard that conduct as an escalation to an extreme. He writes that an Israeli victory might lead to a resolution of the crisis. This is not a Girardian insight. As long as Israel and Palestine remain enemy brothers, no such thing as a “victory” is even conceivable. Israel might prevail for a while, but more than a few Palestinians will survive. Some will no doubt be the offspring of the victims of the current war, gifted with a full measure of the frustrated ressentiment that Israel’s reprisal for 7 October, mimetic in the extreme, is tailor-made to deliver—and reinforce. The conflict will only be reborn and continued, not ended. Girard’s theory, and Ukrainian history, couldn’t be clearer or more eloquent on this very point. The Ukrainians, whose national anthem’s first words are “Ukraine is not dead yet” have managed to survive 265 years of servitude and scapegoating in the Russian empire, forcible incorporation into the Soviet Union, the Holodomor, Nazi occupation and the Holocaust, corrupt governments, Putin’s war, and vacillating and unreliable allies, and they’re still bearing witness. So will the Palestinians. The only “victories” are Pyrrhic ones.

Israel’s retaliation was massive and disproportionate. It is a non-sequitur, and a gratuitous one at that, to suggest that those who criticize Israel for being vindictive are themselves using vindictive reasoning against Israel, though I don’t think it would be much of a stretch to document Netanyahu’s spitefulness. It is not a question of vindictiveness as such, but of the underlying logic supporting it, which is reversible. The logic of sacrificial ritual was the motive force, the élan vital, behind the 7 October massacres, which were universally condemned, as it is of Israel’s reciprocating violence, which is also being widely condemned.

Tragically, though the Israeli government would deny it, the country is collaborating with Hamas to breed a new generation of terrorists, with the collateral damage of the loss of its good name, what Tom Friedman calls its “acceptance,” “its standing among friendly nations” (“Israel Is Losing Its Greatest Asset: Acceptance,” New York Times, Feb. 27, 2024). There is an emerging international consensus that Israel has lost control of its own narrative: there is too great a disconnect between its words and deeds. Nothing can justify the shelling of a maternity ward. Civilized nations don’t make whole burnt offerings any longer. Mark correctly reminds us that as Girardians we should be the first to recognize that the near unanimous character of an accusation, in this case directed against Israel, is no guarantee it is true. Yes, agreed, a useful caveat, but the obverse is equally valid: neither is the near unanimous character of an accusation proof that it is false.

Finally, Clausewitz. I would like to think that I am kind, at least in my better moments. I know for certain that René Girard was a kind man. But kindness has precious little to do with explaining, coming to terms with, and defusing crises like those unfolding before us in Ukraine and Gaza. Like Putin’s war in Ukraine, Israel’s war against the Palestinians has the potential to morph into something much more ominous and earth shattering. My disagreement with Mark, and, for that matter, with those COV&R members who did not see the threat posed by Russia’s war in Ukraine, or, if they did see it chose to ignore it, is the same as René Girard’s with Benoît Chantre, when they were working together on Achever Clausewitz. He chided Chantre repeatedly for not being “assez apocalyptique” (Benoît Chantre, René Girard: Biographie, Paris: Grasset, 2023, p. 837). However paradoxical it may appear, Girard chose to regard the apocalypse as a summons to critical thinking and hopefulness, rather than as an announcement of the end of the world. We need to find a more mindful, anti-sacrificial, and useful way of reflecting upon and writing about crises like these. We are not bound to the courses set by Putin, Hamas, or Netanyahu. Attempting to make them history may seem a bridge too far, but our survival depends on it.

Girard among the Disciplines: Foreword to a Retrospective

Anders Olsson

Editor’s note: The following is the foreword to a forthcoming Swedish translation of Violence des dieux, violence de l’homme: René Girard, notre contemporain by Bernard Perret, published in French in April, 2023. Anders Olsson is a member of the Swedish Academy and former president of the Nobel committee for literature (2018-2023). We thank Perret and Olsson for collaborating on this translation into English.

For all those who have had the pleasure of following René Girard’s rather spectacular journey as a thinker in the second half of the twentieth century, his radical reading of the literary tradition has probably been of central importance. It was in his encounter with Marcel Proust, Dostoyevsky, and Shakespeare that his theory of mimetic desire developed and was refined, but this was done on American soil, at a considerable distance from the lively intellectual debate of those years in France. René Girard, when he had barely started his career, chose to leave his country after the war.

Initially a historian, he quickly became a literary scholar who followed his own path. What is striking is that in the 1960s and 1970s he had the courage to question the intellectual trends prevailing in Paris, where structuralism and psychoanalysis were particularly influential. This, in addition to an increasingly explicit religious perspective—already mentioned in his first, classic work, Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque—constituted a serious obstacle to its reception, even in a very secularized Sweden. His thinking could not be integrated into existing models and people generally chose not to read him.

In 2023, we celebrated Girard’s centenary, and to celebrate this event, the French thinker Bernard Perret published his book Violence des dieux, violence de l’homme: René Girard, notre contemporain. This publication comes from a different angle than one might have expected. Perret is an engineer and socio-economist with a broad humanist perspective, and his book is, to my knowledge, the broadest and most pedagogical presentation of Girard’s thought ever written. At the same time, it clarifies its relationship with other theories in anthropology, psychology, and other humanistic disciplines. Calling his essay a “critical synthesis,” his intention is to emphasize the unity and internal logic of Girard’s thought and at the same time to point out the weaknesses and shortcomings of the theory in order to develop it. This is a welcome venture that I think everyone will benefit from.

Perret’s essay does not pay much attention to Girard’s literary criticism, which I personally regret, but that does not detract from the value of his book. And this for a very simple reason. If there is a lesson to be learned from Girard, it is that the human sciences never thrive on excessive specialization and division into distinct disciplines. The great merit of Perret’s essay is to clarify the dialogue between the different areas of knowledge, which together allows Girard’s mimetic theory to appear less dogmatic than it sometimes is.

It is excellent that Perret, before examining certain aspects of Girard’s theory, gives us an overview of its evolution from Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque (1961, translated as Deceit, Desire, and the Novel) to the important 2004 book of dialogue Les origines de la culture (Evolution and Conversion), which resembles in many ways the Socratic, 1978 dialogue Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, the book that made me discover Girard for the first time. It is clear that Perret immediately grasps Girard’s leitmotif, the mimetic behavior of human beings driven by the desire to imitate a model. It is not merely about the classical Platonic view of mimesis as a matter of representation of reality, nor about simple imitation as in the work of the 19th century French sociologist Gabriel Tarde, where it is a question of social adaptative behavior which promotes adaptation and conformity. In contrast to these two types of mimesis, Girard points out that mimesis can always involve rivalry and give rise to violence, since the imitated model is so easily transformed into an obstacle. This violence, as well as the will to escape the spiral of violence, is at the heart of his thinking.

As Perret points out, it is easy to describe the development of Girard’s thought in three stages: from mimetic desire to rivalry, from rivalry to violence, and finally from violence to the sacred and to the Christian unveiling of the cult of sacrifice. A change, which can pose problems of understanding, and which is linked to the anthropological turn of the 1970s in relation to the more specifically literary analysis of the first writings, is that what Girard calls “external mediation” plays an essential role in Mensonge romantique but is almost absent from Things Hidden. It is linked to the change in Girard’s perspective from the 19th century European novel to the functioning of primitive society, which became central for him after Violence and the Sacred (1972). This means that violence, which in many ways becomes more and more hidden in the course of civilization, and in which the pattern of imitation is ousted in the name of an increasingly self-sufficient self, comes to the fore in older forms of society and in ancient tragedy. The interior or “internal” mediator who haunts the modern novelist appears there in all his exterior and naked power. This increased focus on naked violence, as Perret points out, implies a certain narrowing of the concept of mimesis and tends to obliterate non-egalitarian and constructive forms of the desire for imitation.

It is clear that Girard, like Sartre and several other contemporary French intellectuals, drew on Hegel’s view of self-consciousness as shaped by the recognition of the other in the dialectic of master and slave, largely through the conferences of Alexandre Kojève on the Phenomenology of Spirit. Girard treats this mediation between the self and the other as a relationship of desire, where the self does not first desire an object but the desire of the other. However, Girard criticizes Hegel for not paying enough attention to the violence in this relationship, and he sees in mimetic desire a desire for appropriation rather than a desire for recognition. For Perret, this is a failing in Girard, given that for him (Perret) violence is often rooted in a deeply felt lack of recognition rather than in rivalry. Girard tends to underestimate the constructive forms of mimesis, and therefore he has very little to say about the positive aspects of recognition, such as cooperation and advantageous competition. It is precisely these shortcomings that prevented Girard from developing a convincing political philosophy. Along the same lines, it is difficult to ignore the deep pessimism of Girard’s thinking, which easily morphs into apocalyptic scenarios. However, this criticism does not mean that Perret abandons the mimetic foundation of Girard’s theory, only that he emphasizes that mimesis has two sides, one destructive, the other constructive.

In fact, Girard himself admitted several times, in various conversations, the dual nature of mimesis, but he did not make much of it in his theory. Naturally, a socio-economist like Perret recognizes that mimetic desire is an extraordinarily useful concept for explaining market mechanisms and algorithmic models of economics. What is remarkable is the speed and efficiency with which mimetic behaviors are established here and elsewhere unconsciously. For Girard, mimesis is the great unconscious; we generally do not have direct experience of it because mimesis can function “in the absence of any verbal communication and any physical contact.”

In this context, Perret emphasizes that contemporary research on the brain, with the discovery of mirror neurons, supports Girard’s mimetic theory. This research, carried out since the 1990s by Giacomo Rizzolatti and his team in Parma, suggests a mimetic capacity of biological origin which precedes the learning of language. Perret emphasizes that pre-linguistic mimetic behaviors are not as such violent and must be distinguished from rivalrous forms of desire, although both types operate independently of verbal communication, physical contact, or conscious intention. This could deepen the understanding of what Girard considered pre-symbolic ritual behavior.

It is precisely on this point that Girard’s thought, according to Perret, distinguishes itself in a positive way from psychoanalysis. We do not find in Freud or Lacan any idea of pre-linguistic imitation essential to the creation of the ego. However, it is in this psychological context that Perret issues a heavy criticism. In three areas, violence, desire, and sexuality, he demonstrates the inadequacy of Girard’s analysis. Concerning violence, Girard obviously recognizes the mechanism, but the phenomenological analysis of its manifestations is weak. It only marginally recognizes, for example, emotions linked to violence such as fear, anxiety, or stress. Regarding desire, Girard, according to Perret, never perceived the fundamental role of emotional memory in the development of the self. This may seem strange considering Girard’s early and prominent readings of Proust, which were apparently crucial to his whole theory of mimetic desire. Affective memory, which is based on traumatic or other deeply engraved traces in the body, is not only fundamental to Proust and human creativity, but to the existence of the self in general. It also applies to the understanding of a literary genre to which Girard paid very little attention, poetry.

As for the third point, Girard often neglects the importance of the body and sexuality. Perret even writes that “the body is apparently largely absent from Girard’s writings.” Although Freud’s criticism is justified with regard to the conception of desire linked to the object, Girard too quickly abandons the sensual and physical link of the child with his mother. Sexual desire is subordinate to mimetic rivalry, and he tends to separate it from pleasure. In an interesting comparison, Perret points out that Sartre’s description of sexuality and the relationship to the Other in L’Être et le néant (Being and Nothingness) always implies the autonomy and freedom of the Other, which makes the self vulnerable; Girard ignores this. However, Sartre’s desire to master the freedom of the Other gives rise to a contradiction impossible to overcome, which means that his analysis is entirely characterized by conflict. This in turn indicates a weakness in Sartre, since the desire to master the freedom of the Other is precisely a phenomenon that would require mimetic analysis. As Perret points out, it is the absence of mimetic desire that characterizes the analysis of sexuality in L’Être et le néant, even if the example chosen by Sartre for his argument is the narrator’s jealousy in his relationship with Albertine in Proust’s great novel, an experience which could be considered a typical example of what Girard would call “triangular desire” in Mensonge romantique. In Sweden, Carl-Johan Malmberg, in his book Lyckans gåta (2022), showed how infinitely fruitful this idea turns out to be when applied to Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.

There are many other things that give food for thought in Perret’s book, for example when he takes up the objection that some express regarding Girard’s theory that we find impossible to falsify in the sense of Karl Popper. The subsidiary question is the following: how can we avoid this impossibility if we want historical explanations to be part of humanist disciplines? Language and culture cannot explain themselves, and the problem lies in our willingness to accept speculation about the origins of everything. As Perret points out, this dilemma, fatal for many positivists, is also characteristic of a great number of important theorists of the human or social sciences, such as Charles Darwin, Émile Durkheim, James Frazer, Hubert and Mauss, or Freud. Durkheim inferred that the sacred in primitive societies derives from an “impersonal force” understood collectively. Frazer arrived at the origin of religion through the widespread existence of sacrificial rites. Hubert and Mauss saw the link between the institution of sacrifice and the primitive exchange of gifts, always characterized by a form of obligation, destruction, or violence. Freud, finally, in his work Totem and Taboo, drew the idea of a fundamental collective murder from the observation of the highly ambivalent nature of the sacrificial rite, ever so violent and burdened with guilt.

All these attempts to explain the origins of religion, and particularly that of Freud, were crucial to Girard’s theory. Perret shows this, but he does not seek to formulate a conception of knowledge which could replace Popper’s requirement of falsifiability. Later in his book, he emphasizes that Girard is above all a great reader of texts. It is only here, I think, that one can find his singularity, in his readings of canonical Western texts, ranging from the drama of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, the Christian gospels, and the tragedies of Shakespeare, to the great novels of the 19th century. Girard is first and foremost a literary critic, whose readings can never be easily falsified. For him, speculation is a creative element of the reader’s intellectual imagination, recalling Popper’s “bold conjectures,” those audacious hypotheses essential to all scientific work.

What Girard demonstrated is that a purely structural or text-focused approach is not enough to make sense of literature. We also need a genetic perspective and, in this case, the validity or significance of the interpretation relies on some form of realism. In an interview with Rebecca Adams, he puts it this way: “If you do not postulate a real scapegoat, the accused witch, nothing makes sense in the deluded account of a witch hunt. If you do, everything in the text makes sense” (“Violence, Difference, Sacrifice: A Conversation with René Girard,” Religion & Literature, 25.2 (1993), 17; republished in Conversations with René Girard: Prophet of Envy, ed. Cynthia L. Haven (New York: Bloomsbury, 2020), 57). 

Perret evokes the deep gap that separates the structuralism of Claude Lévi-Strauss from the genetic anthropology of Girard, which made a close dialogue between them impossible. He also suggests the reason why Lévi-Strauss was never able to free himself from his very negative view of the sacrificial rite as being only a confused preliminary stage of the well-structured order of the myth. Girard also had a structural view of language, but his original contribution lies in the way he solved the genetic problem: how can order arise from disorder, how can something as extraordinary as religion or culture appear seemingly out of nothing? Even Freud, who had foreseen the collective violence behind the emergence of religion, did not have the notion of mimetic behavior preceding language. So what about Girard’s idea that murder is the act at the foundation of culture? According to Perret, a genetic explanation of the origin of culture cannot rely entirely on ethological data. Symbolic thinking cannot be considered the full development of the cognitive abilities that characterize animals, but must have an explanation that accounts for a crime that goes beyond pure biology. How can we explain the gap between the sign and the object, absent in the first phases of evolution? Girard’s response is as follows, requiring the adoption of a logic of the event: a repetition of violent acts, where the collective identification of a victim gives rise to a mental and symbolic metamorphosis. Given the importance of the victim for the community, thought and first symbolic representation may take place. Although this speculative idea of a founding event contradicts the idea that symbols exist only as part of an order based on differences, Girard argues that a decisive exception took place; it alone can significantly explain the emergence of language. Indeed, language does not explain itself, and, as Perret points out, Girard’s explanation has the advantage of transforming the process of sacrifice into a model capable of organizing experience into a cognitive approach. Moreover, it brings together previously separate phenomena under a single idea, where language, ritual, myth, and religion, as well as other cultural institutions, relate to a single origin.

Girard never stopped questioning the nature of the sacred. But, like Freud, he emphasizes the ambivalence of the sacred, a characteristic he believed to be anchored in the ancient roots of ritual sacrifice. The sacred is both good and bad, an insoluble mixture. Mauss also defended this double structure of mana or other conceptions of the sacred, which establish a new regime of differentiation for the community. The notion of mana cannot be gathered out of something already given. It is a signifier that lacks a signified, in accordance with the way Jacques Derrida uses the concept of “floating sign” when discussing Lévi-Strauss. This sign is devoid of a metaphysical base or center, both in Girard and in Derrida’s deconstruction. Here, language is not a system closed on itself, but in Girard, the sign, like mana, is linked through violence to the sacred and is therefore not completely arbitrary as linguists tend to claim. Through this bonding to the victim, a transcendental order can be established.

A final interesting point concerns the question of chronology, that is to say, the moment when the decisive cultural upheaval occurs. It is within a very short period of time that humanity has historically left its bloody past, characterized by the cult of sacrifice, to enter into a universal thought, based on religion, complex political systems, and rational thought. Basically, it happened between 800 and 200 BC. The German philosopher Karl Jaspers called this period “axial time,” the Achsenzeit, and although Girard does not mention Jaspers’ ideas, his thinking revolves around this period of global transformation and should, according to Perret, be placed in this historical framework. This is the time when universal religions and ethical systems are spreading throughout the world, and Girard himself explained how an autonomous ethical order was established in the West as the belief in the importance of sacrifice and violent ritual was weakening. In certain late writings, Girard will himself show how the victory over the cult of sacrifice in the name of universal values also characterizes Asian religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, by comparing them to the Christian faith. He was not prepared to make this comparison when I met him long ago as my teacher at a summer course in 1979 in Irvine, California. At this time Girard offered an exceptional series of lectures on the origins of theater, centered on Shakespeare, and what was so inspiring was that all listeners were able to see how a powerful and global idea was emerging and being brought to fruition. He stubbornly stuck to his basic idea of mimetic desire, but he was always ready to deepen and develop it. His work was and undoubtedly remains a work in progress, and that is how we should treat it—as Bernard Perret does in his remarkable and clarifying long essay.

Anatomy of a Fall: Undoing the Scapegoat Mechanism

John Babak Ebrahimian

Editor’s note: This commentary gives away the ending of Anatomie d’une chute, winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival and the 2024 Academy Award for best original screenplay for writers Justine Triet and Arthur Harari. The Bulletin welcomes cultural commentary from the perspective of mimetic theory.

Director Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall (France, 2023) illustrates how the scapegoat mechanism works. Rather than starting with mimetic desire between two people, the film starts off by showing the crisis and then shows how mimetic desire is the key to solving it. The crisis that starts the film is the mysterious death of Samuel.

At the start, Sandra, the main protagonist, is giving an interview about her books to a graduate student, Zoe. Her 11-year-old son, Daniel, is washing his dog, Snoop, and her husband, Samuel, is busy insulating the attic while blasting a song in a loop. Sandra apologizes to Zoe for the loud music and reschedules the interview for another time. Zoe leaves, Sandra goes upstairs to her room to work, and Daniel goes out for a walk with Snoop. With the house cleared, a fall occurs from the attic window.

The next scene shows Daniel and Snoop returning from their walk. Suddenly Snoop frees himself the lease and runs ahead. Daniel follows him. We find them next to dead body of Samuel, covered in blood, below the attic window. Daniel cries out to his mother. Sandra runs down and calls for an ambulance:

I don’t know. I didn’t touch him at all. He’s not breathing, that’s why I am calling. No please come. I can’t answer all the questions. No, he’s not moving. Please just come.

Looking at Sandra’s language, we see the start of the scapegoat mechanism: Sandra was the only person present at the time of the death, but she cannot give any evidence about how or when the fall took place. Innocent or guilty, she is the only person who can be held responsible for Samuel’s death. If Sandra murdered Samuel, the court needs to figure it out and confirm it. If it was a suicide, then the court also needs to verify and confirm it. In both cases the court needs to investigate and proclaim the verdict. With the arrival of the ambulance, Sandra is questioned about the fall. While she is being questioned, Triet has the camera fixed on a picture of a Samuel: the visual shows us the victim and the audio gives us the discovery of the body after the fall. After the questioning, the film cuts to the autopsy of Samuel’s body. The autopsy determines that there was “a violent blow to the head from the fall,” but “cannot rule out a third-party involvement.”

The fall could have been an accident, a murder, or a suicide.

While the film systematically maps out the anatomy of a fall, it simultaneously maps out the anatomy of the scapegoat mechanism. For the scapegoat mechanism to take place, the community needs i) a crisis created by two or more people desiring the same object and ii) an arbitrary victim who is unanimously selected and blamed for the crisis. In this case, Samuel’s mysterious death acts as the crisis, and Sandra, being the only person present at the time of Samuel’s fall, becomes the obvious person the prosecutor and his witnesses can blame. While in most scapegoating mechanisms the scapegoat directly arises from the crisis, here in the film, an outside prosecutor initiates and leads the blaming and persecution, such that shortly into his vicious attacks on Sandra, the court audience as well as the film audience believes him and sides with him. Part of the power of Triet’s film is that, along with the persecutor and the contagion he creates, she allows us to join the scapegoat mechanism and cheer with the crowd, which is persecuting and scapegoating Sandra.

Having already been questioned by the police and the investigative judge, Sandra is permitted to have a legal adviser during the hearing. She calls her law professor friend, Vincent, to be her advisor at the trial. Vincent arrives and first asks Sandra to tell him what exactly she told the police. She responds: “I told them what happened from the moment I was with the student until the ambulance got here. I was in the middle of a meeting with this girl and Samuel started blasting a song on repeat to piss me off and make her leave.” To “piss off” Sandra, disrupt the interview and drive Sandra’s guests away… But why would Samuel do that? Mimetic envy, mimetic rivalry, or both?

Vincent now wants to see the window where Samuel fell to take measurements and draw a diagram of the fall. Finishing his diagram, he tells Sandra, “So, as you can see, an accidental fall is gonna be hard to defend given the height of the windowsill. That leaves two options: either he jumped, or he was pushed, possibly after receiving a blow.” Sandra immediately puts a stop to Vincent’s reasoning: “First of all, I didn’t kill him.” With eight words, Sandra rebukes Vincent and proclaims her innocence. She is adamant and does not want to be a scapegoat.

The rest of the film is dedicated to the courtroom, where the prosecutor, convinced that Sandra has murdered Samuel, questions witnesses to prove his point, while Vincent and Sandra try to prove Sandra’s innocence. Before long, it becomes clear that we have two communities: the first being the prosecutor, who is accusing Sandra without evidence along with the news and mass media who are following the trial closely and reporting on it, the second being Sandra and Vincent fighting for her innocence.

Daniel, who is present at the trial every day, is also questioned. Like everybody, he wants to how the fall occurred—how his father died. Did his mother really murder his father or not? Before the court, Sandra is painted as guilty by the prosecutor. Mimetic contagion is ruthless: thanks to media and newspapers, the public knows about the trial and is closely watching it. What remains is the final verdict by the judge.

In an unexpected turn, Triet undoes the scapegoat mechanism by showing how Samuel and Sandra were mimetic rivals, both desiring to become novelists. While Sandra became an accomplished novelist, Samuel struggled to write his first novel. The rivalry became so consuming that Samuel tried to kill himself by overdosing on his medications. Sandra rescued him, but even after the rescue the rivalry continued, leading him to the second and final attempt. At the last minute, Daniel insists to testify again. He points out that his father discussed committing suicide with him. The court adjourns. Upon return, the judge gives her verdict: the fall was not a murder, it was a suicide. The scapegoat mechanism is undone, and the scapegoat is freed.

Anatomy of a Fall maps out how mimetic desire can become an engine of envy and rivalry and lead to death, but it also demonstrates how the scapegoat mechanism is formed when an innocent subject is accused, with one accusation after another adding up to validate the accusation. The audience never knows or suspects if Sandra is innocent until the end, where the mimetic rivalry between her and Samuel is revealed. By placing the crisis at the start of the film and then showing how the mimetic rivalry led to it right before the end, Triet’s film stands out as an original work of genius.


Letter from…the Netherlands

Translating Homo Mimeticus

Berry Vorstenbosch and Daan Savert

At present Holland seems to be blessed with a philosophically informed publisher—Noordboek is the name—which is seriously interested in mimetic theory. A second edition of Hans Weigand’s translation of Girard’s Mensonge with a new preface by Michael Elias was published in 2021, and in the late winter of 2024 my translation of Nidesh Lawtoo’s (New) Fascism found its way to a wider Dutch audience. At the moment, I (Berry Vorstenbosch) am on a translation journey, together with co-Girardian Daan Savert, working on Lawtoo’s Homo Mimeticus. Daan is a theologian who is, among many other things, a regular guest preacher and finds a lot of inspiration in the work of James Alison. My personal background is basically literary theory—a starting point out of which I have ventured into philosophy. Daan and I regularly chat, mail, and have talks about this intricate text we are working on. Here is a brief extract of these exchanges.

Daan Savert (DS): Surely Homo Mimeticus is a complicated text. It is not an easy read, and it is not easy translating it either. Nidesh Lawtoo is trying to position his ideas into a genealogy of thinkers, going all the way back to Plato. Lawtoo is trying to connect new ideas to old ideas, emphasizing that a similar story has been told before. He is bringing thinkers together, seeing them as a big family. Would you agree?

Berry Vorstenbosch (BV): To me Homo Mimeticus is an expansion of what Lawtoo started in The Phantom of the Ego. And then there is this word, “genealogy,” which refers to research for pedigrees—like you said, a family of thinkers indeed.

DS: There are some words which occur quite often in the book, “genealogy” being one of them, but I am also thinking of words like “diagnostic,’ and “timely” and “untimely’.

BV: “Genealogy” and “untimely” are both Nietzschean words. And yes, “diagnostic,” he uses this word very often. As a first association we have to think of a doctor, or a psychiatrist trying to find out what’s wrong with, well, not with a patient, with a certain individual, but… something on a global level maybe? There may be something contagious in our world, or maybe something even downright sick… The word “infection” also occurs quite often. I am thinking of the new media.

DS: Lawtoo pays a lot of attention to these new media. He describes how truth stops being solely dependent on what is happening in reality, as in the passages on Plato’s Myth of the Cave. According to the classical view, the shadows in the cave are just reflections or shadows of what is real, prompting people to look at the real “itself” as much as they can. But then Lawtoo pursues to saying that the shadows have their own effects on the watchers. The spectators start to act on the basis of what they have seen in the shadow world, which also means you cannot get around, or overrule those shadows. One may dismiss them as merely a digital, virtual world, yet sometimes these virtual realities exceed what you can see or experience in reality itself.

BV: You mean that you cannot deny those shadows, because they are actually doing something to you?

DS: Exactly. If I’m interpreting Lawtoo rightly, you may want to focus on the things that are outside the Cave—but it is inside the Cave where things happen, what will eventually affect everyday life.

BV: The Zelig chapter I find very interesting. There, Lawtoo makes a connection between Woody Allen’s “mockumentary” Zelig and the Eichmann case. Both Zelig and Eichmann could be perceived as a “human chameleon.” To make this link makes a lot of sense, if only because Zelig itself ends with scenes in Nazi Germany. If people have no personality of their own, and are mimetically inclined towards others, they could end up in a Nazi crowd but they might as well become a Buddhist monk. Mimetism—this is a recurring point in the book—is beyond good and evil.

DS: When the link to Eichmann is made, Lawtoo is returning to his concerns about (new) fascist leaders in our time. He pays a lot of attention to crowds in general, whereas Girard’s focus is more on the imitation of individuals one admires, the models, resulting in triangular relationships. Lawtoo emphasizes the wish to be immersed in one’s surroundings, which can be a group, but which also can be nature. The desire to be immersed in something bigger then relates to the fear of dispossession, of being nobody or nothing. When I attended a Natalie Merchant concert in a big theater, I went on my own. I enjoyed the aloneness, and yet the eye contact or the small exchanges with people next to me gave the concert a magical touch. Just realizing that you are all enjoying this same experience. This makes me think of what Lawtoo writes about what reading the newspaper meant (before the time of social media). You read it on your own, but at the same time you are aware that a lot of people are doing the same thing at the same moment. That is what makes “the news,” news. The same events may be important tomorrow, but at a later time the joy of sharing will have disappeared, because people are reading another paper.

BV: Let us think some more about how Nidesh Lawtoo differs from René Girard. For Lawtoo, mimesis involves much more than desire.

DS: It’s not just a mental phenomenon. Lawtoo is putting much more emphasis on the physical aspect of mimesis, saying that the physical precedes consciousness of thoughts and feelings. The importance of embodiment seems to be in the air at the moment, as I also notice as a theologian. It also ties into the ecological crisis: not only our fellow human beings are involved, but also the bodies of other living creatures, the earth itself, and even non-living matter. I assume Girard wouldn’t deny all this, but he has his peculiar focus on human interaction, and the rivalry and violence it entails. To me, Lawtoo is creating a width in mimetic theory which I find very interesting.

BV: And what about the scapegoat mechanism, what is left of this?

DS: He mentions the phenomenon of scapegoating every now and then. But he doesn’t follow Girard’s thesis of the scapegoat mechanism as the foundation of culture. I assume he thinks this is going too far.

BV: It seems that for Lawtoo the most important source for his embodied mimesis is Nietzsche. That is quite a jump, from Girard to Nietzsche! We can say that Girard and Nietzsche have a tense relationship at least. What Girard keeps on saying is that Nietzsche is the only one who has noticed the structural difference between Christianity and archaic religion with figures like Dionysos, only he chose the wrong side. This is a battlefield Lawtoo deftly evades.

DS: Can you mention other aspects in which Girard and Lawtoo diverge?

BV: It seems to me Lawtoo is far more a communicative figure in the academic world. Girard, if I may say so, aimed to create his own school. Lawtoo is consciously in search of connections with other thinkers. He repeatedly states that we are furthering our diagnostic “on the shoulders of” other thinkers. He also speaks of “the mimetic turn,” which is a broader movement that he is part of. Surely, Girard contributed in an important way to this turn—he was one of the main voices bringing it under the attention of the academic world in the sixties and seventies—but he does not have a monopoly on it.

DS: What Lawtoo seems to do is show that thinkers who oppose themselves to other thinkers, nevertheless—if you take a closer look—make use of these same thinkers they are opposing.

BV: Yes, that is interesting. And I even think Lawtoo tries to do it better, tries to be more open about similarities with prior thinkers and less combative than his predecessors, as Girard was to Freud for instance.

DS: Well, maybe that’s Lawtoo’s type of rivalry! I am the one who is more open in that respect compared to those earlier thinkers. I am different!

BV: …while the other ones are fighting each other. Lawtoo himself tries to be very frank about his borrowings. This is what I take from Derrida, he says, and this is what I take from Girard. This seems really to be an important attitude in Lawtoo—I  am a writer who is less rivalrous towards my great predecessors…

DS: … than my great predecessors were!

BV: Girard’s emphases on desire, the model/rival, are basically left behind by Lawtoo and replaced with other emphases. For instance, the focus on anti-sexism, anti-racism, is virtually absent in Girard’s own work.

DS: Well, things have changed in that regard in the academic world in the last few decades. Girard keeps revolving about mythology and literature, often steering clear of the political and societal world of his days.

BV: Girard is also saying that in our time people tend to choose the side of the victim, which makes them rivalrous as to who the real victims are. This is sometimes called “victimism.” Girard would probably be critical of things like “pressure groups” and “safe space” etc., whereas Lawtoo is opening all kinds of doors to other emancipatory movements.

DS: This topic is a huge minefield! Some current thinkers and authors dismiss all these movements. I’m thinking of reactionary figures like Jordan Peterson and Michel Houellebecq, who paint with one brush and see them all as manifestations of envy and resentment. I think these reactionary voices could, if they want, find an ally in Girard. Lawtoo does not go this way, and rightly so, I believe. But on the other hand, I think Girard did have a point. There is a good and necessary emancipation going on, but at the same time there is this unhealthy “victimism.” I guess that Lawtoo and Girard differ, when it comes to these emancipatory movements.

BV: If you had to make a business card for Lawtoo, what profession would you put on it? Literary theorist, for instance?

DS: Would you really want to pinpoint that? Like Girard, Lawtoo transcends different academic fields. He is all over the place, in a positive sense.

BV: Then it would become “multidisciplinary thinker”?

DS: I would not call him a literary theorist though. Literary theory is present but does not prevail.

BV: Well, I don’t fully agree. I did the literary course at the university and sometimes I think I can “smell” my fellow literary theorists. What is typical of them, what they really like is: “close reading.” It is something Lawtoo likes, and so do I, and so does Girard. For instance, the way Lawtoo analyzes the Myth of the Cave in Plato’s Republic, picking out these single words, and listening to echoes and matching them to mirrors. At moments like that, I know there is a very devoted, highly talented literary reader at work. This is one of the things I enjoy most about his work.

DS: I agree, Berry. It is a joy indeed!

Book Reviews

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René Girard: Biographie

Anthony Bartlett

René Girard: Biographie by Benoît Chantre
Benoît Chantre
Paris: Grasset, 2023
1152 pages

In December 1977, Yves Berger, chief editor at the Paris publishing house, Grasset, sent a letter to his director and other stakeholders, insisting that a manuscript produced in the form of taped conversations between three persons should appear under one authorial name only, René Girard. The basis of his case was that the project and its manuscript represented something “truly exceptional in the history of contemporary thought,” and that something was unquestionably the intellectual child of Girard (689, my translation, as below.) The book was Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World.

The other two collaborators were Jean-Michel Oughourlian and Guy Lefort, and a dispute about authorship was almost bound to arise among individuals passionate about their ideas, or between at least two of them. It is a credit to the editor, and to Girard—who first tried to negotiate but then stood his ground—that the publication went ahead under the sign of Girard.

The episode is important because it provides a main inflection moment in an intellectual career spanning multiple decades, whose overall story and drama are reported in scintillating detail by Benoît Chantre in his simply titled but monumental René Girard, Biographie. It also nicely illustrates the theme of mimetic desire, Girard’s trademark discovery, where the desirability of an object is modeled by another’s desire (regardless of any question of rights), and where such matters must ideally be decided by “higher authority” before they quickly come to blows. Here, in cameo, both ironic and in real-life critical terms, is demonstrated the core anthropology which Girard never ceased to expound. Mimetic desire, and its structural consequences marked by violence, are the lodestone of Girard’s thought, its human-relational DNA, its Ariadne’s thread that leads him to the core of the human labyrinth where, astonishingly, the thread turns to become the message of the Christian gospel.

The title of Things Hidden is taken from the Gospel of Matthew 13:35. The book came out in France in 1978 and, in an extended section entitled “The Judeo-Christian Scriptures,” Girard argued that among continuous cultural traditions the biblical text uniquely reveals the victim at the origins of human order and society. For a while the name Girard was equally on the tongues of all the smart salons and the Catholic seminars of Paris. But the éclat would fairly soon subside, reduced in equal measure by secular horror at his religious claims and clerical indignation that a layman should presume to teach religious professionals. Chantre’s biography tells the long tale of how Girard arrived at this point, the high, rarefied air of its philosophical and theological stakes, Girard’s extraordinary tenacity to his insight, and its ongoing aftermath, not least in this present book. Ultimately, it becomes clear, the conversation realized here brings us a new starting point, a new generative language of Christian meaning.

Probably the most celebrated biography in the English language is Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Chantre’s book is in French, and its approach is nothing like Boswell’s famously fawning yet self-promoting account of the illustrious man of letters. Chantre’s voice is steady, continuous, rich in reflection, but never seeming to interpose itself between us and its subject. It’s the sound of a great stream in flood carrying past us big ships and lesser craft in fleets, an extraordinary richness of cultural and literary reference, but always in relation to Girard. We forget about the sound and just watch the magnificent procession go by. At the same time, there are notable similarities in the actual subjects of the biographies: both exceptional literary critics, in especial regard to Shakespeare, gifted with powerful recall of texts and authority of style, and both with a strongly moral vision. But, right there, the starkest historical and existential difference intrudes. Johnson represents the brimming confidence of a Tory gentleman poised on the threshold of a coming era of British imperial and colonial power. Girard is a Frenchman, a twenty-something immigrant in the U.S. in 1949, escaping the disaster of the Second World War and everything it meant in France. He comes straight from a haunting national defeat within a paroxysm of violence the like of which the world had never seen. In which case the smug moralism of Boswell’s world morphs, across the span of the modern era, to an apocalyptic (revelatory) perspective and language in Chantre’s. This is biography at the edge of human catastrophe, perhaps the only worthwhile biography that could be written and read today.

Girard’s singular, immense gift is that of a critic interpreting written texts—novels, oracles, prophecies—in such a way that he himself becomes an oracle and a prophet. This characteristic is immediately evident in his first book, completed in French in 1961 while a professor at Johns Hopkins, Baltimore. This was after getting a doctorate at Indiana University and taking up the teaching of literature. Mensonge romantique et verité romanesque (English, Deceit, Desire and the Novel, 1966) describes the work of outstanding writers like Proust, Dostoevsky, and Stendhal, in which they undergo a “novelistic conversion,” meaning that their writing shifts from the frame of supposedly autonomous desire to the understanding of its mediated (and conflictive) character. The language used to describe the conversion or shift is clearly indebted to Christianity (“novelistic grace”), but what happens does not take place in a separate moral or spiritual realm. It belongs at first hand to the literary or creative process itself, one which brings to the surface imitative desire and therewith transformative release from it.

This method, a kind of generative semiology, becomes emphatic in his subsequent work through the sixties, where he turned his attention to the pre-Christian world of Greek tragedy, in particular the Oedipus Rex of Sophocles. Here is the fulcrum point of Girard’s thought, moving from a departmental canon of literature into a much broader framework of myth and anthropology. He comes to understand in Sophocles’ composition a dawning sense of a human function which he calls “the scapegoat.” Under the influence of the German poet and critic, Hölderlin, he identifies the “word of death/murder” in Greek tragedy which creates a scene of madness resolved only by the one driven out. The poet or oracle understands this in an obscure but real way and thus a “word of life” begins to emerge in human culture. The full expression of this alternative word is given by the oracles of the Hebrew prophets, in particular Second Isaiah and, above all, the songs of the Suffering Servant. Chantre calls this analysis “the center of gravity of Réne Girard’s life and oeuvre” (375). It is the understanding of “the logos of life” which brings to light the structural violence in human identity and its overcoming in an entirely new, self-other identity. For Chantre this both literary and revelatory “logos de vie” becomes a constant refrain in the biography, a leitmotif guiding the whole great and linked concerto of Girard’s thought and work.

For none of this is happening in a vacuum. On the one hand Girard himself underwent a personal conversion to Christianity in 1959, something that occurred hand in hand with his emerging interpretation of these oracles, Greek and biblical. Girard came from a dual line of French culture, laique and anti-clerical (his father) and provincial and Catholic (his mother). He had not attended church since childhood, but a personal crisis brought him to faith and return to regular practice in the Catholic church, in which his children were also baptized at that time. But this is not divorced from his own process in regard to understanding of written texts. When he discovers the Bible, he does so in a uniquely dynamic way. “I began to read the Bible in the same way as I read novels. I was already making a kind of Bible out of the novels—the only thing that interested me was to see what it was that transcended problems, conflicts, etc. Then, in the Bible, I had all at once the impression of so much a greater power in the same movement! So much stronger!” (30).  Girard was converted to biblical literature on and in the way of human transformation. His membership in the Catholic church ran on manifestly double tracks, standard liturgical practice and a dramatic biblical hermeneutic.

Then, on the other hand, the intellectual world of the humanities was itself undergoing serious transformation; it was being overtaken by the house-clearing structuralism of Claude Lévi-Strauss. Rather than see human thought in hierarchical and essential terms, Lévi-Strauss drew from his ethnographic and field studies to see “savage thought” and the modern mind as structurally the same in their framing and organization of their worlds. Girard drew significantly from the impact of Lévi-Strauss—his mimetic hypothesis is explicitly a structural theory of human relationships. But then, in 1966, a conference was organized at Johns Hopkins entitled The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man, an occasion which blew wide open all the frameworks and inaugurated the age of “deconstruction.” Girard himself was a leading figure in putting the symposium together and so, later, he could justly claim that he brought la peste to America! But it was never as simple as that. Among a crowd of luminaries including people like Jacques Lacan and Roland Barthes, a relatively unknown Jacques Derrida mounted to the podium and delivered a paper which drew as yet unvoiced but entirely consistent consequences from structuralism. There was no longer a metaphysical center, only the endless play of sign and difference in human language. The roof had fallen in. But contrary to what would be later perceptions, Girard saw Derrida at once as an ally. He sought, in his own words in a letter to Derrida a year later, to “‘annex’ you to my own apocalyptic intuition in a way that would no doubt appear intolerable to you” (993). The tone of academic frankness and freedom demonstrates that in those fresh early years Girard recognized a clear parallel between the loss of metaphysics and his own revelatory journey to the core of human violence. Derrida for his part was equally open—in letters to Girard he speaks of “so many problems in common and shared concerns.” He also told him of his just-finished article on “The Pharmacy of Plato,” “a text which is astonishingly close to your work,” where he shows how Plato makes a pharmakos/scapegoat of Socrates in the course of buttressing his own doctrine (460-61). The intellectual familiarity and friendship (including several occasions of dining together) was sustained for three years and then disappeared.

Basically, it was Derrida who broke up with Girard—he was not going to admit to an actual identifiable origin to human language and thought—but there can’t be a breakup unless there was first a relationship. Girard continued to make the parallel between his own insights and deconstruction. In a 1988 letter to the Jesuit theologian, Raymund Schwager, he said: “The links between what we are doing and the school of deconstruction are closer than I ever thought.” Chantre synthesizes the rest of the letter: “It was a matter of completing deconstruction by underlining, much more still than Jacques Derrida did, the sacrificial unthought of Platonic language” (1003). Deeper even than the question of metaphysics is the question of sacrifice.

The institution of sacrifice is at the center of Girard’s second major book, Violence and the Sacred (1972). Here Girard follows through with his insight of generative anthropology, expanding into the areas of ethnography, myth, and psychology. Sacrifice is the organized repetition of an original crisis of mimesis, of a war “of all against all,” resolved in the collective killing of a single surrogate victim. There takes place in this process a crucial double transference: all evil belongs to the victims, and then, miraculously, all good proceeds from their death, misrecognized as itself a work of “the gods.” Hence the need—and the multiple benefits—to replaying the original action in sacrifice. As Chantre says it, “Man is in this way born from sacrifice. It is sacrifice in its two modes—that of (original) violence and that of the sacred, of spontaneous lynching and its ritual repetition—which has permitted the emergence of humanity” (546).

Girard’s thought is at once a radicalization and simplification, answering numerous anthropological questions, like the relation of ritual and myth, the double character of the sacred, the social function of religion, etc. Inevitably it provoked a whole range of responses, from anthropologists, philosophers, theologians, of which Chantre offers a comprehensive record, giving scrupulously fair attention to each of Girard’s major interlocutors, for or against. By far both the most redoubtable and appreciated is the Swiss theologian, Raymund Schwager, someone Girard trusted deeply, who gave him theological validation, and with whom he sustained a profound conversation for close on thirty years. As hinted above, a key bone of contention between the two was in the matter of sacrifice. Schwager first wrote to Girard four years before the publication of Things Hidden, striking up a friendship on the basis of his enthusiasm for Violence and the Sacred. He eagerly awaited the publication of the following book, and when it happened, a prolonged discussion ensued. This third book in Girard’s theoretical trilogy contains the section on the “Judeo-Christian Scriptures,” and one of the chapters is “A Non-Sacrificial Reading of the Gospel Texts.” The material was already conceived but held back from the volume of Violence and the Sacred because Girard did not want to open a parallel theological debate that would both color and distract from the response to his generative anthropology. Subsequently there would indeed be extensive debate around his ground-shifting Bible hermeneutic, but it was the conversation with Schwager which proved the most substantive and served most expressly to keep Girard in the doctrinal span of the Catholic fold. The Jesuit insisted that Girard’s refusal to use the term “sacrifice” in regard to Christ’s death would militate against him; and he suggested “finally, isn’t it a matter of tactics?” (672). Girard would, in the end, make a tactical concession in the nineties, over ten years later, agreeing to employ the word in the sense of “self-sacrifice,” as opposed to “sacrifice of the other.” But as Chantre summarizes: “the anthropologist and the theologian are in agreement on what is essential, which is the importance of constructing an anti-sacrificial interpretation of the Gospels” (673).

Something else which concerned Schwager was Girard’s relationship to philosophy. “I am more and more experiencing that your position in regard to philosophy provides an obstacle for many theologians to accepting your thought” (675). Here Chantre makes an illuminating parallel to the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas who wished “to state in Greek the great principles which the Greeks ignored” (676). This is what Girard was doing in his own way, and so, ultimately, “Schwager clearly lacks the larger synthesis which Girard proposed to him. The sense he (Schwager) has of his work is partly biased by his strategy, one founded on the necessity of getting (Girard’s) hypothesis heard at the highest official levels of the Church” (676).

Girard has understood another transcendence, one not based in violence, but in the logos of life, arising like leaven in the human dough. The breakthrough of this transcendence is slow, partial, a matter of hints and progressive astonishment. It arises from the depths of the human construct, in words, poems, oracles, and prophecies, distinguishing itself in a long battle of meaning rooted in the darkest subsoil of human emergence. Ultimately, in Christ, it achieves a once and for all manifest, coherent revelation, the “word made flesh.” The classic doctrines of Christianity are not at all denied but suddenly given their authentic, endogenous structure.

The patristic tradition already had a form of interpretation that sensed this pathway and gave it expression, and Chantre does not fail to point it out (730). “Typology” is the understanding of Christ out of Old Testament models, and vice versa, such that Joseph, the son of Jacob, is a signal of the story of Jesus, and the story of Jesus affirms and finalizes the revelatory patterns of Joseph. There is a dynamic chain of significations strung between the garden of Genesis and the Jerusalem of the Book of Revelation. In a delightful vignette at the beginning of his book Chantre describes an ancient abbey church whose patron was one of the popes from Girard’s native city of Avignon, also buried there. La Chaise-Dieu, reconstructed in the fourteenth century on foundations going back to the eleventh, was visited by the Girard family on several occasions. In the choir surrounding the pope’s tomb is a series of fourteen tapestries, a “true Bible of the poor,” which tell the biblical story by presenting diptychs of New Testament scenes flanked by those of the Old. Joseph, Job, and the Judgment of Solomon are all there. As Chantre comments, “Those who know the work of Girard will have recognized episodes particularly commented on by him at the time of Things Hidden . . . in 1978” (29).

Girard stands in a tradition of interpretation of ancient status. What he has identified in fact is a proto-typology at work in the comparative scenes, a proto-typology going back to the roots of our human existence and brought to light by the relentless transformative impetus of the “logos of life.” It is this radical typology that really makes sense of all the connections. Chantre was Girard’s conversation partner in his final book, Battling to the End (2007), a book in which Girard’s own multiple battles to communicate his insight seem to have dented his confidence that its earth-shattering message will be taken up in any significant way. Benoît Chantre represents the work of a loving disciple who did not have to endure perhaps all the harsh experience of the trenches undergone by the master. But, unlike Plato finally offering Socrates up to death, he can only insist on the word of life at the root of it all. He thus brings Girard himself to life, a life beyond the grave in every sense. So, his outstanding biography, which puts him in the first rank of Girardian interpreters, offers hope that this transformative typology can indeed become a new kind of language for our world.

Mimetic Theory and Its Shadow: Girard, Milbank, and Ontological Violence

Michael Kirwan, SJ

Mimetic Theory and Its Shadow: Girard, Milbank, and Ontological Violence

Scott Cowdell
Studies in Violence, Mimesis & Culture
Michigan State University Press, 2023
xiv + 194 pages

“John Milbank trusts the Christian narrative. So does René Girard” (135). Each of these Christian thinkers draws inspiration from Augustine; each “closes the door” on ontological violence. The question arises, then: why did they not get on better? Milbank acknowledges Girard’s importance in his groundbreaking book Theology and Social Theology (1990), but expresses fundamental reservations. These are reprised in “Stories of Sacrifice,” the article which emerged from Milbank’s presentation at the COV&R conference in Wiesbaden in 1994. Milbank was, however, stimulating an interlocutor, essentially closed to what Girard was saying.

The image I have after reading this fine book, is of Scott Cowdell with a pair of jump leads, successfully starting up a car battery. The vehicle in question is the conversation between René Girard and the champion of “Radical Orthodoxy,” the British theologian John Milbank. Cowdell’s desire to reignite the spark between them is of a piece with his laudable irenic habit of constructive engagement with Girard’s theological critics (his mediation between Sarah Coakley and Girard on sacrifice is another example). The dialogue between them takes center stage in the mid-90s; much water has flowed under the bridge since then, and Cowdell’s overview of this decades-old encounter is an immensely valuable contribution to the theological maturation of Girardian theory.

In his introduction, Cowdell acknowledges the current cultural climate of narcissistic nihilism. “Ontological violence” is not a concept confined to learned debate, but a pervasive felt reality with enormous emotional resonance. The Christian metanarrative, seeking to persuade rather than demonstrate its truth, is close to buckling under the enormous pressure of countervailing evidence, that violence is omnipresent and all-prevailing. Thirty years on from the Wiesbaden conference, where the champions of Radical Orthodoxy and mimetic theory came face to face, it is interesting to ask which of these two approaches has weathered better and looks more plausible for us in 2024.

This very helpful comparative study opens out into fundamental questions which had been the concern of theologians and philosophers long before Girard or Milbank came on the scene. More accurately, there is one fundamental question, that of the status of violence: whether it is woven into the fabric of reality (that is, “ontological”), or whether peace is the priority. The overwhelming brute fact of violence in turn points to two options for the theologian, who will either seek to distance God from this reality, thereby absolving him of any involvement, or to try and articulate God’s involvement via the paschal mystery of cross and resurrection, through which violence is overcome. Cowdell calls these the “Alexandrian” and “Antiochene” options respectively, acknowledging an ancient typology of theological reasoning.

Broadly speaking, Milbank takes the first route, Girard the second. Cowdell expresses his preference for the second, while typically seeking to incorporate, rather than dismiss, the alternative.

The opening chapter sketches the debate between them. René Girard formulates a substantive rather than functional view of religion, one which makes room for Christian revelation (the Hebrew scriptures and the gospel), even as it acknowledges the dark side, a “violence which is always waiting at the door.” Girard’s mimetic theory combines Augustine’s vision of divinely-gifted, primordial peace, with the insights of evolutionary theory and secular social science. John Milbank, on the other hand, proposes, in the form of the Radical Orthodoxy project, a “tenacious and provocative theological pressure group,” which is also an “updating” of Augustine (though not cited here, Milbank has described the movement as “postmodern critical Augustinianism”). Milbank traces an “alternative modernity,” in which reason is annexed to persuasion, and in which a recovery of a participatory metaphysics, grounded in the Trinity, will enable us to get back on the rails.

Chapters two and three open onto a wider canvas, on which he paints the Girardian response to ontological violence as a philosophical problem: an overcoming of the dialectic of Kojève/Hegel (with the help of Dostoyevsky), and of the dismal tradition of embedded violence in Plato, Nietzsche, and German Idealism. Here Girard’s affinity with and distinction from Jacques Derrida is explored, drawing on Andrew McKenna’s Violence and Difference, as well as the project of Gianni Vattimo.

What, then, is Milbank’s problem with Girard? Specifically, Girard’s thinking (as understood by Milbank) flatly opposes the central tenets of Radical Orthodoxy, because of its readiness to embrace social scientific method. The “secular” is viewed by Girard as a development of Christianity; for Milbank, it is a betrayal of it. Mimetic theory is inadequate, therefore, because its “positivism” does not address the root (“radical”) of modernity’s crisis. Close readings of Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory, and of subsequent essays in The Word Made Strange, chart what seems to be further divergence, on the theology of gift, for example. Nevertheless, two predominant themes in Milbank become clear: ontological peace, and divine participation. Milbank’s mistrust of Girard is based on his alleged inadequacy with regard to each of these.

In fairness to Milbank, it is possible to see how Girard’s earlier writings could give an impression of erring on the side of positivism, in his insistence that the mimetic insight could be scientifically grounded. There are enough passages in his work to convey a passion for “proof” rather than “persuasion.” Nevertheless, Cowdell considers Milbank’s rejection of Girard’s thought to be based on a (wilful?) misreading. He thus aligns himself with British theologians Fergus Kerr and James Alison, in defending Girard against Milbank’s strictures.
Cowdell’s comment, on one aspect of detail, could stand for the whole: “Here, I fail to see how Milbank would differ from Girard” (18). Here, of course, is a clue which is nigh on irresistible for Girardians: perhaps it is precisely the lack of difference between them which explains their alleged incompatibility? Are Girard and Milbank in fact “mimetic doubles”? Cowdell notes their similarity: each is the founding inspiration behind an invigorating but controversial approach which has never been taken up by the mainstream academy.

This approach, however tempting, is probably best resisted, not least because of the absence of any real reciprocity. Whatever the difficulties of his career, it is odd to regard a thinker who was to become a member of the Académie Française as a marginal figure. While Girard seems to have adjusted his theory as a result of his conversation with Milbank (specifically, by giving more scope in his theory to positive mimesis), there does not seem to be any sustained engagement with Radical Orthodoxy. John Milbank does not loom large in Girard’s thinking, as do Jacques Derrida or Friedrich Nietzsche. One might argue the contrary case, that Milbank was unsettled by Girard’s closeness to his own thinking; Cowdell hints at this, though here, too, the evidence may be sparse.

We are not, after all, comparing like with like. Girard was steadfast in his refusal of the title “theologian.” In marked contrast to his eager readings of scriptural texts, Girard steered clear of theological pronouncements, preferring to leave these to the expert theologians. The lacunae which Milbank and others have noted in Girard’s work, concerning the doctrines of grace, Trinity, church, are the fruits of this disciplinary reserve, rather than negligence.

Should we simply accept that Girard and Milbank passed each other like ships in the night? To return to our earlier image, Cowdell manages to jump-start the conversation by addressing head-on Milbank’s two principal themes—ontological peace and divine participation—and pointing the way to a rapprochement with Girard.

He puts forward two proposals. Firstly, that we reformat the question of ontological peace, not as a premise, but as a conclusion. That is to say, attainment of peace is the outcome of the human struggle with violence through history. In this sense, it is less like a fideist affirmation, and more like the agon of liberation theology. The second proposal is to take seriously theological attempts to reconcile divine participation and the brute fact of evolutionary processes. In each case, the intention is to acknowledge God’s involvement with violent reality, rather than to quarantine God from it. The two proposals—resituating ontological peace as the end rather than the premise; embracing the compatibility of divine participation and evolutionary agonistics—are synthesised as a Christian hermeneutics of reality, which Cowdell elaborates using Anthony Bartlett, C. S. Peirce, and Ben Quash, and illustrates by the verse of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Cowdell defuses the apparent opposition of Milbank and Girard in a way which respects the distinctiveness of their respective projects. This might be further illustrated by a sporting metaphor, which I have used when introducing Milbank and Radical Orthodoxy to students. This is the notion, from English soccer parlance, of a “reducer.” A reducer is the name given to the violent and illegal tackle perpetrated by a defender upon the supremely gifted and dangerous attacker on the opposing team. By means of this intervention, which occurs in the opening minutes of the game, the defender makes his presence felt, and intimidates his opponent from playing well. But the tackle must be carefully calibrated, or the player will be dismissed. The trick is to carry out a “reducer” and still remain on the field of play.

The theological excitement which greeted Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory in 1990 can be compared to the general reception of La violence et le sacré in 1972. However, the lack of a similar response from social scientists and secular political theorists suggests that this style of theological persuasion may have ruled itself out of the game by its overly aggressive approach. A successful “reducer” requires guile as well as brute force.

Cowdell hints at this in his assertion that the challenge of our time, in the face of the sheer weight of evidence in favour of triumphant violence, is to “out-manoeuvre” or “outflank” reality. Here is a pointer to the dynamics of trickery at the heart of mimetic theory: desire is to be “deceived,” as surely as the devil is deceived by Christ, according to the “ransom” theory of atonement. The tropes of literature and drama, of plot reversals, recognition, strategies of indirection, continue to be utilized by theology which seeks to work from within the fray as well as above it. Girard commented ruefully that presenting mimetic theory too directly could be counterproductive, insofar as it produces resistance. Hence, once again, the value of literature as the ally of theological proclamation, and the site where fertile common ground between Girard and Milbank may be found. Scott Cowdell does a fine job of demonstrating the potential for complementarity rather than rivalry.

Cormac McCarthy: An American Apocalypse

Scott Cowdell

Cormac McCarthy: An American Apocalypse

Markus Wierschem
Studies in Violence, Mimesis & Culture
Michigan State University Press, 2024
xxxii + 493 pages

Cormac McCarthy (1933-2023) has become a prominent figure in American letters across the last half century. His novels and screenplays, up to that dystopian masterpiece, The Road, are searchingly addressed by Markus Wierschem, who is also well versed in wider McCarthy studies. I am neither a literature scholar nor a McCarthy expert, although I have read all his novels, seen the film adaptions, and, like Wierschem, I have noted a strong affinity with mimetic theory in McCarthy’s dark oeuvre.

Wierschem has a case to make about McCarthy’s “unified poetic field,” evident in a cosmology structured by elements of myth, violence, and entropy. Not all the novels are thought to make this case as clearly—for instance, the borderland trilogy is largely unexamined (All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain—though the clear reference to apocalypse in the last of these titles is mentioned, along with several other instances throughout).

The early Appalachian novels are given close attention for their range of Girardian themes. Mimeticism and violence are prominent in The Orchard Keeper and The Outer Dark, both with the theme of undifferentiation referenced in their mythical image of flooding. In Child of God, this appears more clearly as social contagion: “Flood, pollution, incest, necrophilia, violence—all alike are of the same disease that infects Sevier County” (166). Interestingly, the loathsome protagonist of the third novel, Lester Ballard, is presented as a child of God, with the implication that his perversions and murderous violence are part of the wider human condition. No insider-preserving othering of the monstrous Ballard is allowed by McCarthy, a move that is redolent of Girard.

A further theme emerges in these earlier novels, apart from the collapse of order into violent undifferentiation: the failure of Christianity and its representatives to make any headway against it. This trope is developed in the next phase of McCarthy’s oeuvre, where he moves to the American Southwest and takes up the deconstruction of Western mythology. His masterwork, Blood Meridian, is peppered with violated churches and slaughtered Christians. It is set in the Texas borderlands and the struggle with Mexicans and marauding Native American tribes carried out by murderous government contractors who are themselves consumed in an orgy of violent undifferentiation, all of which is set against a majestic backdrop of natural, geographic, and stellar vastness. Two near-mythical Satan figures serve McCarthy as agents of this oppressive reality, where the consolidation of peace out of endless sacrificial killing no longer functions: the Mephistophelian figure of Judge Holden in Blood Meridian and the assassin Anton Chigur in No Country for Old Men, both of whom see themselves as masters of the universe.

What is figurative in Blood Meridian becomes explicit in The Road, in which McCarthy leaves the nineteenth century behind for a post-apocalyptic near future. A father and son traverse an unrelievedly gray, burned, and blighted landscape, barely able to find food and avoid becoming food for roving bands of cannibals. This story most clearly illustrates how “McCarthy’s entire work is characterized by a deep awareness of the structures of the escalating violentropy of mimetic desire, its victims and its apocalyptic consequences” (367). The entropy theme is emphasised by Wierschem because McCarthy had a physics degree and sought the company of scientists while residing at the Santa Fe Institute. He points out that entropy—first theorized in the 1850s—provides a secular version of the eventual apocalyptic collapse of all things that was once the sole prerogative of faith-based accounts.

Yet McCarthy, raised Catholic and open to classical mystical writings, had not entirely given up on faith, hope and love. Wierschem rightly emphasises various conversions of perspective that some McCarthy characters undergo (396). But he is especially drawn to the boy as moral exemplar in The Road, who maintained a sense of generosity and decency despite everything. The image of carrying the fire recurs in McCarthy’s game-changing conclusion to The Road, as the boy embarks in new company after the death of his father, having ascertained that his new family understand this image that his father had passed on to him. The same image occurred in Sheriff Bell’s dream at the end of No Country for Old Men, in which his father rides by carrying “fire in a horn,” and is “fixin to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold” (383). Here we see love and a commitment to life emerging as a counterforce to violence in McCarthy—for Wierschem, accordingly, “Following The Road, it is up to us to carry this fire” (402).

I would have liked to see what Wierschem made of McCarthy’s twinned final novels, which came out too late to be treated in his study. Do they represent a new McCarthian stage in light of how The Road concludes—après le deluge, as it were?  In The Passenger (2022) we begin with a passenger missing from a sunken downed aircraft and end with the protagonist—an emotionally damaged salvage diver—at last finding peace and the healing of memory by a foreign sea. It is as if a scapegoat has finally been recovered and redeemed. In Stella Maris (also 2022) this protagonist’s young sister engages in a series of dialogues with her doctor in a Wisconsin psychiatric hospital. Never far away are the familiars of her schizophrenic illness, but also her mathematical genius, endless curiosity, wry humour, and resilient boldness. She is a figure of sanity standing up against madness—a star, as I think the title might be suggesting, who rises above the sea of undifferentiation. Brother and sister in these novels are both deeply conversant with latest physics, too—as McCarthy turns out to be—though here, as elsewhere, the most profound insights are those of hard-won self-awareness.

As with Girard, McCarthy takes a scientific approach, and is clearly in tune with mimetic theory. His work has received some attention in Girardian studies before (e.g., by Gary Ciuba and Benjamin Barber), but nowhere to this extent. Markus Wierschem’s exhaustive treatment leaves no doubt that Cormac McCarthy’s novels belong high in the canon of literary works that reveal mimetic theory.

The Tree of Good and Evil: Violence by the Law and against the Law

Andrew McKenna

The Tree of Good and Evil: Violence by the Law and against the Law

Charles K. Bellinger
Cascade Books, 2023
148 pages

Commenting on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, H. Rap Brown infuriated his fellow citizens when he quipped that “violence is as American as apple pie.” Clearly, he touched a nerve that many would prefer remain dormant. Yet the replacement of baseball as the “American pastime,” considered “a waiting game,“ “a mind game,” with the tactical brutality of football could tell us something about ourselves. We like to think of the US as an exception among the nations, as benign purveyors of democracy because of our constitution, our freedoms, our prosperity. Perhaps so; but in actual fact, we are discernably exceptional for our romance, in the pejorative sense of a purblind infatuation, with violence, as, for example, our gun culture demonstrates, or the gladiatorial thuggery of our film industry.

This is the matter addressed in Charles Bellinger’s study, as viewed through the mimetic lenses afforded by the writings of René Girard. For instance, Bellinger regards our death penalty, unique among Western democracies, as “tailor-made for Girard’s theory of social psychology” (53); he describes it as a scapegoating phenomenon, “a sacred, religious, numinous act” (54), by which our culture seeks to purge the violence from within our midst. This is bad religion, mythical thinking: “Vox populi vox dei” is a phrase often evoked by Girard to point out the sacralizing role of a unified throng in a state’s recourse to legalized murder; for Bellinger our death penalty affords “the release of a pent-up need for catharsis and a reinforcement of the distinction between we the average law-abiding citizens and those evil criminals” (54).

This critique of a starkly “us/them” dualism is a core theme throughout Bellinger’s analyses of mob violence, of lynching, of “unjustified violence by police,” of school and crowd shootings, a horror that we have modeled for killers in other countries. To this last he devotes elaborate, even exorbitant (50 pages), attention, noting that it only reverses the flow of violence from individuals to anonymous victims construed as persecutors (93). In reading these mostly lone shooter case studies, Dostoyevsky’s underground man might come to mind as he protests “I am one, they are all.” The novelist’s major works are a study of violence that have served as a formative influence for Girard, and Bellinger aptly endorses one researcher’s preference for “Greek tragedies and those of Shakespeare” to the “abstractions of the ‘social sciences’” for understanding the narratives of violent felons ( 82).

Bellinger himself does not go to any literary works of our Western canon, heir to the biblical canon of authoritative cultural texts, that are for Girard continuous with biblical revelation. Bellinger’s own social science research is ample and probatory, and doubtless enriches the mimetic theory archive. However, by way of explanation he often relies on what he admits are “Ivory-towerish abstractions” in Kierkegaard’s “polarities: the infinite and the finite, the temporal and the eternal, freedom and necessity” (83): “Pathology enters in when someone seeks to fly into the infinite and escape the finite,” a flight from reality elsewhere described as “a refusal to grow into maturity” (128). “The thesis of this book,” he summarizes, “is that violence arises out of willfully enforced immaturity” (138). This may strike readers as more conscious and deliberate than is the case for our mimetic pathologies. For Girard the will is ill, affected on all sides, personal and collective, by mimetic valences preceding and swirling around it. Bellinger is more on point when he states that “the essential falsity that lies at the heart of the human condition is our hypocrisy. We are all shaped in our thinking and acting by mimetic desire and the minor and major sins to which it leads” (48). His earlier, groundbreaking book, The Genealogy of Violence: Reflections on Creation, Freedom, and Evil (New York: Oxford, UP 2001) is host to a more thorough correlation between Girard and Kierkegaard, for whom “the crowd is untruth,” and whose wily, complex narrative strategies recall those of Cervantes.

Most of us probably do not imagine ourselves in such terms as Kierkegaard’s in our path through life. We mostly just “go along to get along,” which comforts our desire for secure belonging and which at its worst is a noteworthy recipe for the most horrific crimes of history. Bellinger states “we also have a deep need to think well of ourselves” (48). It is worthwhile to recall that Girard is more circumspect in his language, as when in Violence and the Sacred he distinguishes between needs, such as food, shelter, and procreation, which humans share with all animals, and desire, that is unique to our species and whose “taproot,” to use Bellinger’s arboreal metaphor, is thoroughly mimetic. Desire in all its dealings is, accordingly, not deep, but runs along the surface of human interaction, for weal (learning) and woe (envy leading to violence). Bellinger often cites Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics to the effect “that all actions intend a good” (2, 4, 26, 131), to which he aptly counters, “All do what is right in their own eyes, all see evil as external to themselves” (132, his italics). He continues, “People think of themselves as good, law-abiding citizens, when the entire milieu and social structure within which they exist is the fruit of a diseased process—to which we are blind.” Blind how? Girard has argued that with the biblical revelation of the scapegoat mechanism, the veil of our blindness has been torn away. According to Jesus, it is only because we insist that we see that we are blind (Jn 9.21). For blindness read self-deception, what psychologists, after Freud, have labeled “denial” (Verneinung), ironic confirmation, strident or subtle (“You lie!”/”I demur…”) of what we do not desire to know.

Throughout these pages, Bellinger provides a reliable account of mimetic theory, but he thwarts many opportunities for its application to the violence he investigates. He recourses to diagnostic language that short-circuits our intelligence of the outbreaks he catalogues. As if relying on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, now in its fifth edition owing to ongoing refinements, revisions, and recissions, we read of “a category type and subtype” (123), of “psychotic type” (113), of a “personality type” (115), of “ideological types” (116), and still more. These anemic and reductive labels may serve to assuage the conscience of therapists and serve as shortcuts to prescribing psychotropic drugs—or worse, shock treatments. For Cormac McCarthy the DSMMD is a joke book, its serial self-corrections suggesting that its authors do not really know what they are talking about. As to healing, an asylum resident states, “I think what most people think. That it’s caring that heals, not theory” (Stella Maris. New York: Vintage, 2022, p. 52).

Such taxonomies are antipodes from the holistic dynamic of Girard’s thinking. A course correction is available in the writings of Jen-Michel Oughourlian, in The Mimetic Brain and especially in Alterity, where all these disorders are to be understood in a psychological and sociological continuum, or spectrum, that ranges all the way from “normal” insecurities and anxieties, such as jealousy, envy, resentment, through various neuroses (mythomania, hysteria, compulsive behaviors), to psychosis (paranoia, schizophrenia). Oughourlian is, like Girard, a “continuist” in this thinking and counseling, with an ear to the foundational role of others in our lives. The flexibility and mobility of symptoms and syndromes variously manifest pathologies of desire at different degrees of intensity. We are always dealing with structures, with our fraught relations with others, especially when we deny our failed rivalry with them. Oughourlian’s taxonomy is fluid, dynamic, interpersonal (or “interdividual,” as Girard styles us), like our best plays, short stories, and novels, be they, for example, by Shakespeare, Ibsen, or Chekhov, in the former case, or, in the latter case, by Jane Austen, Faulkner–or Dostoyevsky for that matter, who quipped that we place people in madhouses to prove to ourselves that we are sane. ”Are we all crazy?” asks the narrator of Raw Youth.

Chief among the manifold resources of denial is the investment in demonic mythology, the postulation of a Satanic, personal ill will opposing the good will we proclaim as our own. Bellinger’s insistence on our “willful” refusal has something of the Luciferian non serviam about it. He rightly observes that for Girard, “Satan is more an event than a person” (86), but his explanation goes awry when he comments “There is a force, a reality, in the universe that is not of God and is opposed to the goodness and grace of God” (86). He goes so far as to cite the view of David Bentley Hart, who “suggests that there is in the cosmos a demonic presence that is opposed to love, peace, and health” (110). Such a neo-gnostic view lets us off too easily.

Girardian anthropology denies any sort of reality to this “biblical symbolism,” as he calls it. In I See Satan fall like Lightening (James G. Williams, trans., Maryknoll: Orbis, 2001), Satan as event implies a narrative line of human interaction in time and space that we alternatively label as history or fiction—novels, short stories, and plays that, in continuity with biblical revelation, offer our best insights into the meaning of history. The devil’s “false transcendence” (185, 187) is defined as “the violent contagion of a community” (42), the agency of “rivalistic contagion” (43), that “foments and exasperates mimetic rivalries to the point of transforming the community into a furnace of scandals” (34-35). We need to discard this demonic alibi for evil in the world, to give up on the spectacular agency of the Anti-Christ: “To understand this title, we should de-dramatize it, for it expresses something banal and prosaic” (181). This view is more in line with Hannah Arendt’s hotly contested insight into “the banality of evil.” The recent film The Zone of Interest is meant to bring this fact closer to home, portraying the good life complacencies of a death camp commandant’s household, that of Rudolph Höss, which abuts the walls of Auschwitz. Bellinger’s impeachment rings true: “We are all like sponges saturated with death” (132). Baudelaire’s “flowers of evil” can find fertile soil in our own back yard; we are all the poet’s “hypocrite lecteur.”

Mimetic Theory and Middle-earth:
 Untangling Desire in Tolkien’s Legendarium

Rebecca Adams

Mimetic Theory and Middle-earth:
Untangling Desire in Tolkien’s Legendarium

Matthew J. Distefano
Quior, 2024
202 pages

This is an enjoyable and informative book saying some new things. Its breezy, personal, and conversational style disguises the fact that the author draws upon serious scholarly learning. For some, this will be a good, basic introduction to René Girard and his ideas of mimetic desire and scapegoating, using a well-known fictional universe. Distefano knows his Tolkien lore!

For those who already know Girard, this book will be a delight as an extended application, a good resource for sharing and perhaps teaching certain aspects of mimetic theory. Distefano gives convincing examples (and even diagrams) of how mimetic desire—imitation of a model—works with a number of the characters in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and related material. Some of these examples are negative (Saruman imitating Sauron, for instance) leading to rivalry and violence, and some are positive (Frodo imitating Bilbo). The last chapters on the role of friendship as a positive mimetic alternative can serve as a counter to Girardian despair about human violence.

Distefano points out that Tolkien and Girard were both Roman Catholic thinkers, dealing with myth. He points us to Tolkien’s words about myth as a way to focus on what is positive—that even as mythical stories may deceive (according to Girard), they may also point us in the right direction as (in Tolkien’s words) “splintered fragments of the true light.” Besides myth, Distefano also talks about Girard’s two other “pillars of culture,” ritual and prohibition, and how they function in Tolkien’s world.

Distefano has some good insights about the One Ring being both an object and a mediator of desire. Why it cannot be used for good has sometimes stumped readers. Mimetic theory can help, by showing how the Ring was formed directly from Sauron’s subjectivity and will (i.e. his point of view and desire for power over others, a “non-sharing” power). As such, it’s a sort of catalyst for the rivalrous type of mimetic desire, which it enflames. Others then both covet the Ring as an object (imitating Sauron) and take Sauron (through the Ring) as a model, leading to their almost inevitable enslavement.

The author succinctly explains the relationship of mimetic desire to scapegoating, and gives several examples of how various characters or groups serve as scapegoats in the series. In contrast, Distefano then offers the hopeful, constructive example of hobbits in particular as exemplars of friendship and enjoying the ordinary things of life, like food and comradery, which he says serves as the antidote to scapegoating and the rivalrous type of desire that is never satisfied. This continues some of his arguments in his previous book, The Wisdom of Hobbits (2023). Mercy and compassion also emerge as major themes (spoiler alert) about why the quest to destroy the Ring succeeds, something other people have noticed in Tolkien’s Christian-influenced world. Yet this book will remain accessible to a wide range of readers, as the author seeks to do an anthropological reading of Tolkien using Girard’s concepts, especially remaining focused on the nature of mimetic desire, without getting into some of the theological issues raised by Girard’s work.

This book is a fairly fast read but with a lot of meat. Readers will be able to return to it for thought and I can imagine confirmed Tolkien heads discussing it for some time to come.

Bulletin 80 – May 2024