No. 55 February 2018
Letter from the President, Jeremiah Alberg
Musings from the Executive Secretary, Martha Reineke
Editor’s Column, Curtis Gruenler
American Academy of Religion, Grant Kaplan
Symposium on Girard and Psychoanalysis, Scott Garrels, Kathy Frost, and Martha Reinecke
Letter from…Canberra, Scott Cowdell
The Raven Foundation at Ten, Suzanne and Keith Ross
James Alison and Wolfgang Palaver, eds., The Palgrave Handbook of Mimetic Theory and Religion, reviewed by Matthew Packer and Curtis Gruenler
Raymund Schwager, Gesammelte Schriften, Band 1: Frühe Hauptwerke. Ed. Mathias Moosbrugger, reviewed by Jeremiah Alberg
Raymund Schwager, Gesammelte Schriften, Brauchen wir einen Sündenbock? Gewalt und Erlösung in den biblischen Schriften. eds. Mathias Moosbrugger and Karin Peter, reviewed by Grant Kaplan
Pierpaolo Antonello and Heather Webb, eds. Mimesis, Desire, and the Novel: René Girard and Literary Criticism, reviewed by William Cain
Paolo Diego Bubbio, Intellectual Sacrifice and Other Mimetic Paradoxes, reviewed by Curtis Gruenler
Elif Batuman, The Idiot , reviewed by Matthew Packer
Book Note: Mimetic Insights in a Captive’s Story
Letter from the President
Change of Venue for the Annual Meeting
International Christian University
The venue of the 2018 COV&R Conference, “Religion, Politics, and Violence ‘After’ Truth” has been changed to Regis University in Denver, Colorado. The dates of the conference remain unchanged: July 11th– 14th. The conference theme and Call for Papers remain the same. Please see the conference web page for up-to-date information.
Steve McKenna will continue as conference coordinator. He will be assisted on-site by the Office of Event Services at Regis. Our local host at Regis is Rev. Kevin Burke, S.J., Regis’ Vice President, Mission. Kevin is an old and dear friend of mine and, once again, I find myself in his debt.
In recent weeks, we have found ourselves unable to proceed with our initial plan to meet in Washington DC. COV&R has experienced a similar change in plans more than once in our past. We always have managed to adjust and still have very successful conferences, and I have no doubt that it will be true again this year.
Regis University is excited to be hosting us. They have inexpensive on-campus housing in suite and townhouse formats. Regis’ food service is by Bon Appétit, a pioneer in campus dining services. All food is cooked from scratch, using sustainable resources in a “farm to fork” format. More information, including our plenary speaker list and travel information, will be posted on the website shortly.
We hope to have registration available as of April 1st.
The theme of the conference has grown more relevant with each passing week. We look forward to an exciting program and lively exchange.
Musings from the Executive Secretary
Announcing a Directory of Graduate Studies in Mimetic Theory
University of Northern Iowa
Standing out among emails I receive with questions about COV&R are requests from individuals wanting to know of universities at which they can pursue graduate studies in mimetic theory. These individuals have discovered the work of René Girard and are eager to dive deeper and more systematically into mimetic theory. Up to now, my responses tomthese inquiries have not been as comprehensive as I would like. Therefore, at our July 2017 Board meeting in Madrid, I proposed creating a directory of graduate schools and seminaries, highlighting specific programs and faculty, that support advanced studies in mimetic theory. The COV&R Board is enthusiastically committed to this new project, which will eventually result in a guide posted on our website. This project is important for encouraging and supporting the next generation of scholars of mimetic theory. We need your help to make this directory are reality.
If you are part of a graduate program that can be featured in this directory, please create an entry and send it to me. Entries should include the following:
- University and relevant department(s).
- Brief program and degree descriptions. Sample text may already be available on program websites; references to specific opportunities to study mimetic theory are helpful.
- Website address for the program.
- A list of faculty with whom students can study mimetic theory and their areas of specialization.
- A contact person/email address. This person should be aware of the COV&R Directory project and be able to offer detailed advice to inquiring individuals.
Grant Kaplan and Nikolaus Wandinger have developed the entries below that provide a template for others.
UNIVERSITY OF INNSBRUCK
The Faculty of Catholic Theology of the University of Innsbruck offers MA and PhD studies in Catholic Theology and Philosophy. In the Department of Systematic Theology, six faculty members are strongly engaged in mimetic theory and its repercussions for theology; one such person is at the Department of Biblical Studies and Historical Theology. The MA program requires knowledge of the German language; the PhD program can also be completed in English. Our PhD program furthermore would be adaptable to a specialization in matters central to mimetic theory in both theology and philosophy and across disciplines.
Website: https://www.uibk.ac.at/theol/index.html.en, https://www.uibk.ac.at/theol/index.html.de
Faculty who currently teach and oversee mimetic theory are:
- Ao. Univ.-Prof. Dr. Wilhelm Guggenberger (systematic theology, social ethics, political science)
- Univ.-Ass. DDr. Mathias Moosbrugger (history: history of Christianity, regional history; systematic theology: theology of sacrifice, Dramatic Theology of Raymund Schwager)
- Univ.-Prof. Dr. Józef Niewiadomski (systematic theology: Christology, theology of grace, eschatology; Dramatic Theology of Raymund Schwager)
- Univ.-Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Palaver (systematic theology, social ethics, political science, German literature)
- Ass. Prof. Dr. Dietmar Regensburger (systematic theology, political science, theology and film, German literature)
- Ao. Univ.-Prof. Dr. Willibald Sandler (systematic theology: original sin, redemption)
- Assoc. Prof. Dr. Nikolaus Wandinger (systematic theology: original sin, method of Dramatic Theology; Dramatic Theology of Raymund Schwager, theology and popular culture)
COV&R contact: Assoc. Prof. Dr. Nikolaus Wandinger
SAINT LOUIS UNIVERSITY
The Department of Theological Studies offers Master of Theological Studies (MTS) and PhD programs. The MTS is geared toward students who want to pursue focused scholarship, prepare for future doctoral work, or simply exercise their intellectual curiosity. This program offers an ideal first degree in theology, orienting students to the major fields of theological study, including biblical studies, the history of Christianity, theological ethics, and constructive theology.
The PhD program offers two concentrations that reflect areas of research excellence and depth among our faculty: (1) Christianity in Antiquity and (2) Christian Theology. The focal point of the Christianity in Antiquity (CA) concentration is early Christianity, from its origins through the rise of Islam. This concentration deliberately bridges long-standing disciplinary boundaries between New Testament, patristics, and early medieval Christianity, situating Christianity within the Greco-Roman world and the wider religious cultures of the Mediterranean. Students in this area of concentration acquire expertise in Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism, as well as the early Islamic period. Students are expected to take courses from faculty with relevant expertise outside the department and university.
The focal point of the Christian Theology (CT) concentration is Christian theology, broadly conceived. This concentration trains students to become Christian theologians by providing students with a strong background in the history of Christianity as well the various subfields of Christian theology. Students in this area of concentration craft an integrated plan of study in one of several major theological disciplines by means of coursework and individualized exams. Students will have the opportunity to work with faculty in various interrelated disciplinary fields within and outside the department: Biblical studies, the history of Christianity, theological ethics, liturgical studies, and constructive, philosophical, and comparative theology.
Faculty who currently teach and oversee mimetic theory are:
- Randall Rosenberg, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology (constructive theology)
- Grant Kaplan, Associate Professor of Theology (constructive theology)
COV&R contact: Grant Kaplan, Associate Professor of Theology
Friendship and Positive Mimesis
At the end of his address welcoming René Girard into the French Academy, Michel Serres asks the secretary’s permission to depart from the protocols of the setting in order to say his last word. That word is “friend.” Rather than cloak his words in the formalities of an institution that, he had observed, is built, like all institutions, on scapegoating, Serres honors Girard as one from whom he had learned another way of relating. In what is for me the most moving passage of a moving and brilliant speech, Serres testifies that, contrary to what Girard says is universally true, he has never felt envy for his friend, an exception that shows both that Girard is right about the human norm and that he himself is a model of what, by grace, transcends it. Serres seems to suggest that the appropriate term for the alternative to mimetic rivalry is friendship.
It seems to me that friendship is our most familiar, traditional way of talking about relationships formed in non-conflictual mimetic desire. Perhaps this is part of the significance of Jesus saying to his disciples on the night before he died, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father” (John 15:13-15, NRSV).
If friendship was already available as a word for the kind of relationship Jesus was initiating, where did it come from? How did his use change it? How has it come down to us? Where does friendship stand now? I would love to hear your thoughts.
One of the things I appreciate about COV&R is its atmosphere of friendship. There is an intellectual bond in valuing mimetic theory, but it becomes something more like friendship in a shared exploration of big ideas and questions. Even rivalries over interpretation of the theory can, and have, been an engine of friendship. The friendship between Girard and Raymund Schwager set a model for this from the beginning (see the reviews of two new editions of works by Schwager in this issue). Paulo Diego Bubbio’s proposal for a Hermeneutic Mimetic Theory could also be seen as a rationale for intellectual friendship through shared interpretation, despite the scary title of his new book, Intellectual Sacrifice (also reviewed in this issue). And a matrix of such friendship is behind the splendid new Palgrave Handbook of Mimetic Theory and Religion (also reviewed here).
We’d like to keep exploring ways to use this Bulletin and our website to help nurture the relationships that make up COV&R. In the Member Pages section of the website, the Collaboration Opportunities page is meant as a catch-all for invitations to connect. Newly posted is query from Julie Shinnick, former COV&R treasurer for North America, about interest in a book group in the Austin, Texas, area. If you have announcements or ideas for the website, please contact me.
In this issue, we are starting what we hope will become a regular feature: letters from COV&R members on topics of their choice. The idea is to make more room for the international and interdisciplinary breadth of COV&R and the contemporary, global as well as local relevance of mimetic theory. COV&R board member Scott Cowdell gamely agreed to write a “Letter from Canberra” and took the opportunity to think about politics from the Australian capital. Letters from other members are welcome. I especially invite other board members to share their thoughts.
Facebook, notorious diluter of the word “friend,” has become a host for several groups devoted to discussion of mimetic theory: Mimetic Theory, René Girard changed my life, and one in Italian and English, Delle Cose Nascoste (in addition to the Facebook pages of COV&R and partner organizations such the Raven Foundation and Theology & Peace).
The friendships that constitute COV&R come into flower at our annual meeting. See the updated announcement in this issue and stay tuned to our website for the latest information. I look forward to seeing many of you there.
COV&R at the American Academy of Religion
Grant Kaplan, Saint Louis University
COV&R hosted two sessions at the 2017 AAR in Boston. The first panel, on Saturday, November 18, moderated by Brian Robinette from Boston College, featured three papers. The first paper, by Stewart Clem, put Girard and Aquinas in conversation on the topic of sacrifice and argued that both of these figures work from a non-violent grammar of sacrifice. The second, by longtime COV&R member Anthony Bartlett, drew connections between Girard and Heidegger and posited that Girard and Heidegger were much closer than appear, especially in light of Girard’s comments in Things Hidden. Chris Haw, along with Clem a graduate student in theology at Notre Dame, talked about Girard and analogy, bringing him into the orbit of Erich Przywara, a monumental and imposing figure in early 20th-century German theology and mentor to Hans Urs von Balthasar. The papers generated a lively discussion among the roughly 40 attendees. Robinette deftly moderated this portion of the session, which was cut short by the need to conduct the business meeting.
The second session took place the next morning. It consisted in discussion of the book resulting from the 2016 COV&R meeting in Australia, Does Religion Cause Violence, eds. Scott Cowdell and Joel Hodge (Bloomsbury, 2017). Joel Hodge (Australian Catholic University) introduced the volume. Although James Jones was a last-minute cancellation, the panel still consisted of four additional commenters: William Cavanaugh (Depaul University), Wolfgang Palaver (Universität Innsbruck), and Asma Afsaruddin (Indiana University), and Hodge. Cavanaugh connected mimetic theory to his thesis on the “myth” of religious violence. Palaver spoke about Islam and extremism from the perspective of mimetic theory. Afsaruddin discussed some of the controversial suras and hadiths in Islam, which she argued were less violent than assumed by many in the secular West. Hodge talked about the connection between violence and idolatry, understood theologically.
The second session was extremely well-attended, with roughly 80 people packing the room. This goes to show that the session titles do matter. We are in the midst of planning the next sessions, so please get in touch if you have any ideas that you were not able to present at the business meeting.
Symposium on Girard and Psychoanalysis
Scott Garrels, Kathy Frost, and Martha Reineke
Scott Garrels, Kathy Frost, and Martha Reineke participated in a Symposium “From Culture to Couch and Back: René Girard and Psychoanalysis” at the Psychology and the Other Conference in October, 2017, at Leslie University in Cambridge, MA. This biennial conference brings together 600 participants, split equally between practicing psychotherapists and scholars in the humanities (e.g., philosophy, religion, literature) with interests in psychoanalytic theory and its intersections with the humanities.
The impetus for the symposium was a recognition, shared by Garrels, Reineke, and Frost, that Girard’s theory exemplifies some of the most revolutionary and transformative currents in psychoanalysis today. Relational, intersubjective, and complex systems perspectives of the human person, including the recent ethical turn, are each attested to in Girard’s mimetic theory, which offers a model of intersubjectivity based on humans’ pervasive and unconscious tendency to imitate one another, particularly each other’s desires. And yet a view from the literature suggests that mimetic theory and psychoanalysis are fields of inquiry and practice largely isolated from each other. There has been relatively little acknowledgment or substantial inquiries into the many striking parallels between Girard’s mimetic theory and a variety of contemporary perspectives in psychoanalysis. The goal of the symposium was to redress this oversight by interrogating mimetic theory and psychoanalysis in order to investigate these parallels and assess their significance.
In his presentation, Garrels explored why psychoanalysis needs mimetic theory. Garrels argued that Girard’s theory provides unique and timely resources for recent developments in psychoanalytic theory and practice as they seek to a more substantial, productive bridge between the consulting room and culture at large. While mimetic theory and psychoanalysis have developed largely in isolation of one another, they converge on a set of core assumptions, most notably the radical nature of intersubjectivity and its foundational role in the emergence of uniquely diverse forms of human relationality, language, and culture, as well as misrecognition, conflict, and violence. Mimetic theory and psychoanalysis also diverge in their relative focus and application of these insights. Mimetic scholars have focused on implications of these generative mechanisms in human anthropology, culture and religion; psychoanalysts typically have concentrated on human development, dyadic intersubjective systems, and organizing principles of the individual self, including their implications for clinical practice. Garrels argued that mimetic theory and psychoanalysis provide a complementary set of perspectives that, taken together, address more comprehensively the dilemmas inherent in efforts to bring about therapeutic and cultural change.
In demonstrating the significance for psychoanalysis of Girard’s mimetic theory, Garrels suggested that psychoanalysis is moving forward with an increased commitment to contextualizing a wide range of social phenomena by keeping one eye on the couch and the other on culture. Girard is exceedingly relevant to this project because much of his attention is focused on culture, especially on moments of cultural breakdown and reconstitution. He uncovers a mechanism of cultural victimization or scapegoating at moments of crisis that is replicated through patterns of persecution and their supporting cultural narratives. Rituals accompany persecution and transform the victim at the moment of its banishment or death into a salvific entity that restores peace. Just as important, however, are perturbations in the stabilizing effects of these rituals as various communities and traditions begin to have empathy for their collective victims, question normative beliefs and practices centered on sacrificial traditions of scapegoating, and attempt to forge non-sacrificial forms of communal solidarity.
And yet Girard tells us little about the intimate dimensions of life that play a role in our increasingly unstable society. Girard, it may be said, risks being too much “culture” and too little “couch.” Addressing this shortcoming in Girard’s thought, Reineke’s presentation focused on intimate features of human experience that Girard has neglected even as she also kept at the center of her inquiry societal violence and instability that Girard assesses so compellingly. Her primary interlocutor in this effort was Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. In his book Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence (Schocken, 2017), Sacks distills the significance of mimetic theory for analyzing the religious violence that lies at the core of some of our most pressing cultural and political issues. Yet, even as Sacks suggests that “the two people who have had the most profound insight in the 20th century were Sigmund Freud and René Girard” (interview with Lauren Marker), Sacks too neglects Freud’s couch. Sacks’s recommendations for countering religious violence—instructive texts (especially the Hebrew Bible) and inspiring religious leaders—need augmentation.
Sacks states that “it takes ideas to win a peace”; however, humans need to be repositioned to act for peace. So also should models of non-rivalrous interaction engage an embodied dynamic of teshuvah. Attending to affect, especially to the dynamics of shame, humiliation, and disgust that trigger religious violence, Reineke demonstrated in her presentation how psychoanalysis enhances Sacks and Girard’s understanding of religious violence. More than ever, in a world caught in a sacrificial logic that portends extinction—of human life and of earth itself—such augmented resources for analyzing religious violence provided by both mimetic theory and psychoanalysis are needed.
Contributing a synthesizing perspective that forged links among the three presentations, Kathy Frost reflected on both relational psychologies and mimetic theory. She acknowledged that mimetic theory offers a more compelling explication of human entanglements than do relational psychologies by establishing the inextricable interplay between sacrifice and its attendant deep desire for self-other connection. Problems also arise in relational psychologies with the profound emphasis on individual differences (in security) to the exclusion of more universal explanations of human conflict. Missing from mimetic theory, however, is a consideration of the profound impact that the pre-Oedipal stage and family of origin dynamics have on the developing person’s state of mind—all of which are instrumental in lifelong mimetic entanglements. Each of these three theoretical orientations benefits from adjustments by the other.
The symposium offered a welcome opportunity to build bridges between scholars of mimetic theory and those with interests in psychoanalysis and also offered psychoanalysts potentially fruitful insights for clinical practice. The presentations are currently under consideration for publication in a forthcoming book from Routledge, along with other presentations from the conference.
Mimetic Theory, Modernity, and Monarchy: Confessions of a Wavering Australian “Republican”
I’m grateful to Curtis Gruenler for his invitation to write an opinion piece for the Bulletin, because there’s something I want to get off my chest. I used to support the cause of an Australian republic, voting in the (unsuccessful) 1996 Constitutional Referendum to replace our British monarch with an Australian Head of State. But now, after ten years’ close engagement with mimetic theory, I find myself less sure.
The winning argument for me at the time was that Australia would never shed its cultural cringe, and an unimaginative—even sycophantic—attachment to the mother country, until one of us became our own Head of State. In practice, it would most likely involve the role of our Governor General, representing the “Queen of Australia” (who occasionally visits from London), evolving into a minimal type of presidency. There was and is significant concern about adopting a more politicised, American-style presidency. Instead, a widely favoured solution was to preserve the legacy of constitutional monarchy by setting a non-partisan Australian president above the fray of parliamentary politics. But it was not to be.
What went wrong at the 1996 Referendum? A characteristically cautious pragmatism was involved—if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! Most decisively, the ‘Yes’ cause was undermined by a dispute over the preferred version of presidency (i.e. a popularly elected president versus the more nominal alternative of one chosen by a joint sitting of Parliament, as in Northern Ireland). There was also sentimental attachment to the old order from many who feel less at home in our increasingly self-confident, multi-cultural society than in the older, more monochrome Australia defined by its British heritage. And, of course, a sort of romantic affection for the Royal Family abides—indeed, you can even find it in America, with the current cooing over Prince Harry and his American bride-to-be. Even many younger Australians, who overwhelmingly supported our recent national embrace of same sex marriage, have proved less progressive on the monarchy issue, thinking that Princes William and Harry are “cool.” Many in Australia have concluded that the republican cause remains doomed as things stand, though they hope that things might look different once a less popular King Charles III has taken over from the highly-regarded Queen Elizabeth II.
What I used to dislike about monarchism was the notion that some people are greater repositories of being or significance by simple accident of birth. Perhaps my own dubious birth status, given up for adoption, made me rivalrous. And, so, my Girardian antennae went up (once I’d started to grow them!).
I’m not thinking of Girard’s work on sacrificial aspects of African Kingship. Other public figures and celebrities can now fulfil a similar function. Instead, I ponder the revolutionary impulse towards equality that Girard takes up from Tocqueville’s work on the early American republic. Modern democratic equality undid the external mediation of traditional, hierarchical societies, in which Kings more easily avoided rivalry with their inferiors. As Girard points out, all those former courtiers moving from Versailles into the Latin Quarter became rivals, with their newfound equality providing a force multiplier for internal mediation.
It’s hardly sophisticated of me to refer to Michael Moore and his film Bowling for Columbine, but I remember his comparison between the extent of gun violence in the United States compared with (monarchist) Canada. Moore points out that the murder rate in Detroit, Michigan, monumentally outstrips that in Windsor, Ontario, which lies just across the river. He identifies a primal antagonism in American society, which to me suggests a Girardian reading along Tocqueville’s lines. When equality lets us down, anger and rivalry are released, as we are currently witnessing—the American dream dies hard.
John Milbank, who has sparred with Girard over the years, offers a political theology favouring constitutional monarchy. He points to enhanced social cohesion in countries retaining that system, in which equality is less likely to be fetishized and then weaponized as rivalry. He sees constitutional monarchies as less violent, more compassionate and communitarian, and less prone to the sort of institutional cruelties that one might have thought to associate with hierarchical polities. Perhaps a more equal society with a single anointed focus of sovereign transcendence, without the irrelevance of a largely depleted aristocracy—if one is retained at all—represents the sweet spot? To decide, one would need to reflect on the condition of Europe’s great industrial republics of France, Germany, and Italy, by comparison with English, Spanish, Japanese and Scandinavian monarchies. I have not personally undertaken these comparisons, but I can’t help wondering.
So, I’m no longer entirely sure what I think, or how I’ll vote when Australia’s next Referendum on the republic comes around. What do friends in the Girardian community think, especially any others of you who live in constitutional monarchies?
Scott Cowdell is Research Professor in Public and Contextual Theology at Charles Sturt University, Canberra. His new book René Girard and the Nonviolent God will be out with the University of Notre Dame Press later this year.
The Raven Foundation at Ten:
Retrospect and Prospects
Editor’s note: This is adapted from a letter by COV&R board member Suzanne Ross and her husband, Keith, recently retired COV&R treasurer for North America, founders of the Raven Foundation, to their board.
January 2017 marked ten years since the founding of the Raven Foundation. Our mission statement remains as true a guide for us as it has ever been:
We seek to make religion reasonable, violence unthinkable and peace a possibility by translating scholarship on mimetic theory into every day, accessible language. Using the images, idiom, and communication tools of popular culture, we seek to enter into the conversations taking place around war and peace, violence, identity and desire to challenge conventional wisdom and open pathways to authentically peaceful communities.
We marked the milestone in two ways that aligned well with our mission. We began the year by partnering with COV&R to sponsor an arts and entertainment contest for undergraduates modeled on the annual Raven Award. Professors participated by assigning their students to create artistic expressions of mimetic theory as it applies to their field of study. The submissions came from across a variety of disciplines and artistic expressions and the wonderful winning pieces were posted on our site in January. Our hope was that this opportunity for an in-depth engagement with mimetic theory inspired all the entrants to continue working and living with the insights of René Girard.
In 2017, the topic that dominated conversations taking place online and among friends and family was a continuation of the election year focus on truth, lies and politics. We found ourselves in a post-truth era, a concept ripe for mimetic analysis. In October, as part of our anniversary celebration, we hosted an event we called Hard Times for Truth which featured our first Raven Award winner, Heidi Stillman, and our first board member, Andrew McKenna for their analysis of Charles Dickens’ novel, Hard Times. Our guests attended their panel and heard two other presentations on facts, truth, and rivalry by Stephen McKenna and Vanessa Avery. We also attended Heidi’s adaptation for the Lookingglass stage called, Hard Times for These Times, in which she highlighted the search for truth so relevant for our times.
Here are some other highlights of 2017. In addition to blog articles, the Raven ReView features video interviews and live conversations on the RavenCast program hosted by Education Director Adam Ericksen. This year’s guests included Grant Kaplan, Paul Dumouchel, Vanessa Avery, Martha Reineke, Cesareo Bandera, Niki Wadinger and Stephen McKenna. Conversations covered a variety of topics, including book discussions, tyranny and democracy, outrage, nonviolence and theology. The Raven site and our satellite site Teaching Nonviolent Atonement at Patheos.com, which does not contain exactly the same articles, totaled over 150,000 visitors in 2017.
Adam launched a new feature in the fall in which he and Suzanne lead book discussions about René Girard’s own books. We began at the beginning with Deceit, Desire and the Novel and experimented with a different platform. Rather than using video conferencing site called AnyMeeting, we used a new feature on Facebook called Facebook Live. The book discussion and the platform worked very well, and we plan to continue this feature in 2018 with a discussion of Violence and the Sacred.
The 2017 Raven Award was given to Christian Picciolini’s memoir, White American Youth: My Descent into America’s Most Violent Hate Movement—and How I Got Out, chronicling his descent into the skinhead movement, his moment of conversion, and moving away from hate. Adam has written a review of the book and plans an interview.
With a grant from Imitatio, we developed a template for a YouTube series aimed at high school teachers and students with Andrew McKenna called Reimagining Literary Masterpieces. Our idea was to produce high quality videos in which Andrew McKenna presents a mimetic analysis of a selection of classic texts taught in US high schools. We chose Antigone for the first text and are just completing the final editing of a three-part video series with study guide for classroom use.
In addition to working with Andrew on Antigone, Suzanne devoted herself to completing a working draft of her play about the Italian educator, Maria Montessori. The working title is The Miracle of San Lorenzo. It dramatizes the intersection of faith and science in Montessori’s work. The fraught reception Montessori received from the academy is not unlike that accorded to Girard, one of many similarities between the lives of these two geniuses of the twentieth century. In the upcoming year, Suzanne hopes to continue to develop and workshop the script.
The good we accomplished this year was due to the dedication and hard work of our unparalleled staff. Adam and Editor-in-Chief Lindsey Paris-Lopez consistently provide timely commentary that applies the insights of mimetic theory to trending issues, and Marketing Director Maura Junius engages on social media, coordinates events, and handles our website and technical issues with a deft hand. They are the Raven Foundation.
For inquiries about writing a book review or submitting a book for review,
contact the book review editor, Matthew Packer.
A New Place to Begin
Review by Matthew Packer and Curtis Gruenler
James Alison and Wolfgang Palaver, eds., The Palgrave Handbook of Mimetic Theory and Religion, Palgrave Macmillan US, 2017. Pages xxvii + 549.
The arrival of The Palgrave Handbook of Mimetic Theory and Religion, a new landmark anthology from the Girardian research program, is a momentous occasion. The scope of the work, for a start, is enormous, being made up of seventy essays written by nearly as many scholars and experts from around the world, covering many of the sub-topics in the field of “religion” that COV&R members have come to expect. It is also a tribute to the work of Girard himself and a celebration to see so many scholars gathered together exploring mimetic theory. The book is proof that mimetic theory is now established as a far-reaching and radical means for understanding religion, particularly in its recent resurgence.
The Handbook should also serve as a powerful platform for students, especially, and those looking to take MT and its implications in new directions. As editors James Alison and Wolfgang Palaver write, one key goal was to be “helpful for modern students wishing for insights into the reality of the world in which they are learning to become adult protagonists.” In the early twenty-first century with religion, particularly fundamentalism, on the rise, the Enlightenment’s simplistic critique of religion, as being a more or less “unfortunate epiphenomenon to be treated with contempt,” is simply no longer plausible. To that end the editors here have provided, in their introduction, most fittingly, a fresh and engaging account of mimetic theory—maybe the best outline of MT that we’ve read—indicating yet again how insightful and comprehensive mimetic theory can be.
The scope of collaboration involved in the Handbook also makes it an excellent introduction to the major scholars who work on MT and to many of the core members of COV&R, especially its English-speaking segment (plus a strong German-speaking contingent). Indeed, everyone we could think of who would be most qualified to write this review is involved in the project as an author or editor. So we decided to do it ourselves. As literary scholars, perhaps we can also test the Handbook’s value to audiences beyond religious studies and the other disciplines represented.
Given the scale of the book, we have decided to review it in three stages, and Curtis will cover the first two sections in this February edition. For May we plan to review the middle third of the book. In the meantime, we invite you to post comments and feedback. Metrics at the Palgrave website indicate thousands have already downloaded the work (currently sold as an e-book and in hardback).
The Handbook is cunningly organized to use the focus on religion, and MT’s understanding of its centrality in human life, as a way of also treating the theory’s importance for other disciplines. Thus the first part, “Violent Origins,” also deals with anthropology and, to a lesser extent, psychology, while the second, “From Rites to Writing,” continues with anthropology and brings in classical studies and media studies alongside comparative religion and biblical studies.
Each part has a brief introduction that lays out overarching themes, while individual articles relate MT, and usually the work of René Girard himself, to particular areas of thought and to influential thinkers. The authors are to be commended for keeping their contributions—often in areas on which they have written entire books—within a tight span of six to ten pages, including notes and brief bibliographies of the major relevant scholarly works.
One of the great services of the Handbook is to place mimetic theory in relation to other influential approaches to the many topics within its scope. In the first essay of part 1, Paul Dumouchel masterfully summarizes Girard’s account of hominization while comparing it to several other influential approaches. MT is more ambitious, he argues, because it does not focus on a single aspect, such as language, and thus can serve to integrate the others. Pierpaolo Antonello, on MT’s understanding of the importance of ritual for the emergence of consciousness, gives more attention to thinkers working under the influence of Girard. Both Dumouchel and Antonello, like the Handbook as a whole, promote the contributions of MT while suggesting opportunities for dialogue with other schools of thought.
Girard himself was, of course, in dialogue with other thinkers, sometimes explicitly but more often tacitly. Many contributions here help fill in the picture of those conversations. Three essays in part 1 and two in part 2 summarize and extend conversations with individual interlocutors: Kathryn Frost on Freud, Martha Reineke on Julia Kristeva, Wolfgang Palaver on the anthropologist and classicist Walter Burkert, Lucien Scubla on Claude Lévi-Strauss, and James Williams on Nietzsche. Each is helpful in drawing on a wide range of texts, both by Girard and his interlocutors, in order to introduce these authors and their importance for MT, whether as superseded by Girard’s reading of them, as with Lévi-Strauss and Nietzsche, or as continuing partners.
The remarkable range of Girard’s work means that he only touched on some large areas of scholarship, which have of course grown since he wrote. Three major such topics in anthropology conclude part 1. Mark Anspach, in “Vengeance and the Gift,” gives a clear overview of Girard’s understanding of sacrifice, suggests some qualifications that help reconcile it with alternative views, and gives a good introduction to his own important work on the logic of the gift as “negative reciprocity in reverse” (58). Fr. Miguel Rolland, in “Mesoamerican Civilizations and Sacrifice,” surveys how recent work in this field, which has overlooked Girard, nonetheless confirms his use of the story of Teotihuacan myth in The Scapegoat and provides extensive material ripe for further analysis of the relationship between myth and sacrifice. Similarly, Christopher Knüsel and Bonnie Glencross show how well Girard’s analysis of evidence from the study of Neolithic Ҫatalhöyük, in Turkey, fits with current work at that site and in Neolithic studies.
Part 2 puts “Girard’s thesis about how the violent roots of the archaic sacred are exposed by Biblical revelation…into the broader framework of the religious transformation that characterized the axial age” (79). The term “axial age,” coined by the mid-twentieth century German philosopher Karl Jaspers, refers to the innovations of the first millennium BCE that move from primitive myth and ritual toward the major religions, philosophies, and political institutions that still shape the modern world. Stephen Gardner’s dense comparison of Jaspers with two other important thinkers about this period, Robert Bellah and Eric Voegelin, identifies their similarities with Girard’s understanding of this period while arguing that the apocalyptic side of Girard—his diagnosis of the violence in modern civilization—advances the critiques of progress in these axial thinkers.
The biggest story of the axial age is the rise of the major world religions. Palaver’s concise explanation of the scapegoat mechanism and its exposure in the Bible would be an excellent introduction to this central aspect of Girard’s work and also provides an overview of more recent work on how to see Islam as part of this “Abrahamic Revolution” that moves beyond sacred violence. Brian Collins, meanwhile, suggests how mimetic theory might identify a similar “Eastern Revolution” in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, putting Girard’s intuitions along these lines into conversation with current scholarship.
Phil Rose, a scholar of media studies, opens up a promising area of thought beyond Girard’s own work in his brief overview of three major thinkers on the transition from orality to writing: anthropologist Jack Goody, classicist Eric Havelock, and literary and religious thinker Walter Ong, SJ. Such work on how, as Ong puts it, “writing restructures consciousness” stands to enrich the mimetic theory of cultural development through Rose’s suggestion that writing is key to resisting reciprocal violence.
Nidesh Lawtoo, on Greco-Roman culture, does not attempt to summarize generations of scholarship but does a remarkable job of tracing the various threads of Girard’s engagement with it. Whereas Girard’s own style emphasizes his differences from other interpretations, Lawtoo gives equal and suggestive attention to similarities, to the point of arguing for continuity with Plato as well as Aristotle and with the Cambridge ritualists as well as Nietzsche. He also opens dialogue with more recent theorists about sacrifice such as Bataille, Stroumsa, and Agamben. In a much more focused essay, it’s a pleasure to watch Sandor Goodhart recount Girard’s intellectual trajectory through his repeated attention to a single figure from classical culture, Oedipus—including Goodhart’s own work on Sophocles’ play as a Ph.D. student under Girard.
Biblical interpretation also figures into part 2. Robert Daly compares Girard’s use of mimetic anthropology as a “hermeneutic key with which to read the Bible” to the tradition of figural or typological interpretation that goes back to the Alexandrian church father Origen and was relegated to obsolescence by the rise of historical criticism. This is a way of recognizing the weaknesses of Girard’s approach while identifying its enduring value and the need to continue to work out its relationship to wider biblical criticism. Three friends and collaborators of Girard who began this work, Raymund Schwager, Robert Hamerton-Kelly, and James Williams, receive an appropriately appreciative overview from Matthias Moosbrugger, who is particularly helpful in identifying the legacy of each as a rich direction for further development.
We will pick up with part 3 in the next issue.
Schwager before Girard
Review by Jeremiah Alberg
International Christian University
Schwager, Raymund. Gesammelte Schriften, Band 1: Frühe Hauptwerke. Ed. Mathias Moosbrugger. Herder, 2014. Pages 383.
An increasing number of COV&R’s members only know Raymund Schwager through his published works. He was, in fact, our founding president and a guiding force through the Colloquium’s first decade. He died very suddenly in 2004 at age 69 during a medical examination. He left a vibrant legacy at the University of Innsbruck with his one-time students who are now themselves professors who creatively carry on the work that he began.
One of their more impressive accomplishments is the editing and publication of Schwager’s Collected Works. In this review I first want to give an overview of the contents of this particular volume of the Collected Works and then offer some reflections on the more lasting value of the texts.
The Frühre Hauptwerke or the Early Chief Works of Raymund Schwager are his doctoral dissertation, written under the direction of Prof. Alois Müller at the Swiss University of Fribourg, and a second “dissertation” known in the German-speaking world as a “Habilitationsschrift” that qualified him to take up the post of university professor. The title of the former is Das Dramatische Kirchenvertändnis bei Ignatius von Loyola: Historisch-pastoraltheologische Studie über die Stellung der Kirche in den Exerzitien und im Leben des Ignatius [Ignatius of Loyola’s Dramatic Understanding of the Church: A Historical and Pastoral Theological Study of the Position of the Church in the Exercises and the Life of Ignatius]. It was completed in 1969 and published in 1970. The latter was titled Jesus-Nachfolge: Woraus lebt der Glaube [Following Jesus: From What Does Faith Live] and was published in 1973. Just by way of reminder, Schwager would pen his first letter to René Girard in 1974. The volume also includes a thorough introduction by Mathias Moosbrugger as well as the original index to the dissertation and an expanded index to the whole volume. As with the other volumes of Schwager’s oeuvre, the book is a beautiful thing to behold.
The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius stand at the center not only of every Jesuit’s life, but also of all things Ignatian: the parishes, schools, clinics and universities that bear the imprint of Jesuits’ pastoral efforts. The Spiritual Exercises form a vision of reality—of God, of neighbor, of the Church, of political community. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that the genre of “spiritual exercises” is older than Ignatius, that there exist other, at least as worthy, spiritualities and ways of living out the Christian life. As great as the Spiritual Exercises have been and are, they too are a created means and thus must themselves be approached with Ignatian “indifference” or a willingness to let go of them if they no longer produce the sought-after fruit. In his dissertation Schwager approached them with this kind of attitude.
He clarifies the “viewpoint” and the “method” of the Exercises and asks whether this viewpoint and this method still have validity today. He approaches them from the perspective of the Church, the community that the Exercises are meant to serve. The choice of this vantage point was anything but happenstance. The new sense of ecclesiology coming out of the Second Vatican Council (1960-1964) was serving to provoke intense criticism of the Exercises as being too individualistic and too oriented on the hierarchical model of the Church. Schwager was sympathetic to some of these criticisms. In fact, he wrote: “Out of that which we have seen up till now [this is page 175 or page 122 of the original], it is the moment for the original method of the Exercises to go under.” In the next paragraph he clarifies that he does not mean that they should “disappear.” In fact, the ultimate validity of the Exercises will be more visible after the breaking of their outer form. Schwager can still reaffirm that Ignatius’s attempt to bring together truth with religious experiences and from them to forge, in a unified method, the rational, volitional, and affective elements in the service of freedom has not been outdone.
This first major work bears, as noted above, the title St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Dramatic Understanding of the Church. But this was not the title of his dissertation upon which the published book is based. It had the more prosaic title, Ignatius and his Exercises in the Change of the Church. The emendation of the title is not referred to or explained. Further, the concept of the dramatic is not really all that present in the work. It does make an appearance in the last paragraph of the “Introduction,” a paragraph that conceivably could have been added during the process of preparing the dissertation for publication. The next appearance of a cognate of “dramatic” is in a footnote on p. 175 (122 in the original pagination). Schwager is quoting from a book by Roland Barthes in which Barthes credits Ignatius as using forces other than the syllogism or abstraction, thereby establishing his Spiritual Exercises as a model of “dramatized discourse.”
The first time the word occurs in the body of the text is on p. 249 (186 in the original pagination) when Schwager writes that the most fitting word to describe Ignatius’s relation to the Church is “dramatic.” “Dramatic” fittingly expresses that true unity with Church comes into being in the meeting of the human person with the Church, as in a drama.
“Drama” and its cognates are used again, the footnote makes clear, in the spirit of Roland Barthes to express that the language of the Spiritual Exercises integrates in its discourse not merely the rational but also the affective as well as the volitional. What St. Ignatius added to our understanding of belonging to the Church needs to be expressed, can only adequately be expressed, in dramatic language.
This is the seed from which the whole of “Dramatic Theology” will grow. I also think that Schwager tried to write the book in a somewhat dramatic fashion. It contains, as I pointed out above, harsh criticism of St. Ignatius and the Exercises. The reading of Ignatius comes close to what can only be termed tendentious. But it is meant to lead to the moment when Schwager writes: “In this sense all thoughts which were raised in the course of this work against Ignatius, do not lessen anything of his true greatness” (250). The light is to shine more brightly within its own limits.
The second work, Following Jesus, takes as its starting point the multiplicity of religions making ultimate claims. Christian faith can seem to be just one among many and, for a lot of people, being one among many in this particular class is to be “just” another one. Two ultimate claims is already one too many, and since it is precisely these kinds of claims that lead to conflict, isn’t it better to at least withdraw one’s own? Schwager turns away from the justifications of the claim to Jesus’s divine Sonship that were put forward by the First Vatican Council, finding them too “external” to be helpful. According to its decrees, Christian faith is supported not by natural insight but by the authority of the God who reveals. While this may seem to simply assert what it is asked to prove, the Council Fathers took another step in emphasizing the rationality of faith. Even though faith is supported by divine authority and awoken in the individual believer by supernatural power, there are nonetheless arguments that are acceptable to human reason. The belief here is that the surrender of reason to divine authority is rational. The prophecies and miracles of the Scriptures as well as the emergence and growth of the Church are all taken as signs for the credibility of the Christian proclamation.
Schwager notes that the First Vatican Council does not actually develop the arguments that would be acceptable to human reason; it merely asserts that they exist, while pointing, as I mentioned above, to the prophecies as well as the existence and growth of the Church. Schwager shows how problematic these claims are.
He begins to develop a different route to the credibility of the faith by building on the thought of the French theologian Pierre Rousselot (1878-1915). Rousselot developed the idea that faith and reason interpenetrate and that within the unified faith act, faith allows reason to properly grasp the significance of the facts while the understood facts produce a rationality of faith.
While this approach is superior to the Council’s, it does not solve all the problems. In particular one is left puzzled about how to distinguish the true light of faith and reason from a false one. The well-known problem exists and remains: our desires and fears can paint reality a certain color that does not belong to the reality itself. Christian faith, just like Marxist ideology, can so affect the way we view the “facts,” that, in fact, they are no longer facts.
In order to overcome these kinds of objections the revelation itself must show how it differs from supposed revelations in the way it is revealed. This is as important as what is being revealed.
If one accepts this argument, then Schwager’s way of proceeding, his trying to develop the claims about salvation in Jesus based upon what can be gleaned from the so-called historical-Jesus approach, makes a lot of sense. In particular it allows Schwager to emphasize the newness of what Jesus revealed. “Jesus brought about a new beginning” (294). The tradition, the Law, the powerful groups and authorities were all, to some degree or another, against him. What he had was the authority of his Father, and this is shown in the new reality that is his life and in a special way is his death. The Father allowed Jesus to transform the “blind fate of death into an act of offering” (294).
We can glimpse here, already, how central the thought of “offering” [Hingabe] was to Schwager. “Hingabe” means abandon or abandonment, in the sense that “mit Hingabe tanzen” would be translated “to dance with abandon.” Another phrase is “selbstlose Hingabe” which is translated as “selflessness.” Schwager is homing in on Jesus’s self-offering, so I translate “Hingabe” as offering because I think this best brings out its difference from yet relationship with sacrifice. Schwager’s focus was never on the similarity between Jesus’s death and the sacrifices offered in the temple, except insofar as these latter represented the deep desire of a human subject to freely offer his or her being to God—to be taken up by God and used by God so that God’s own will might be accomplished in the world. For Schwager this is the meaning of Jesus’ life and death, and it is the meaning of following him. For all the ways that Schwager’s thinking was enriched by Girard’s, he remained convinced that this idea of Hingabe, self-offering, had to be preserved.
Schwager rightly claims that the Christian message enters in a mediated fashion into humans’ fundamental condition (367). What is missing at this point in Schwager’s own development is a conceptual vocabulary to express that fundamental condition. He speaks of humans knowing their fundamental limitation, but cannot anchor his idea of a self-deception [Selbsttäuschung] (366). He sees that humans can never fully master their life and that they long for recognition and love. He even sees that the problem is related to human desire. For Schwager this is the most fundamental and the most decisive witness for the truth of the Christian message. And yet, to be honest, for me at least, the claim sort of hung in the air. It was not rooted deeply enough anthropologically.
Schwager sees that our preconceptions and preliminary decisions are conditioned by social norms and myths which correspond to our drive for self-preservation and the push for respect and recognition. He also sees that the power and reality of faith have nothing to do with physical or psychic violence, but he does not yet see the connection between these two facts. He does not see the centrality of violence in what happened to Jesus and how that is going to inflect our following him (371). He already understands that there is a radical opposition between the Christian faith and the “collective self-assertion” but has not yet grounded it in his theological anthropology.
The works in this volume continue to have a value in and of themselves, but they also point beyond themselves to the way that Schwager would be changed through his encounter with René Girard.
Review by Grant Kaplan
Saint Louis University
Raymund Schwager, Gesammelte Schriften, Band 2: Brauchen wir einen Sündenbock? Gewalt und Erlösung in den biblischen Schriften, eds. Mathias Moosbrugger and Karin Peter. Herder, 2013. Pages xxxvi + 75.
The second volume of the eight-volume collected works of Raymund Schwager offers us a very helpful introduction to a seminal text for anybody interested in the connection between mimetic theory, theology, and the Bible, a text most of us know as Must There Be Scapegoats? (Crossroad/Herder, 2000). The decision by Herder—one of the most reputable Catholic publishers in the German-speaking world—to publish eight volumes of Schwager gives a clear signal that Schwager is one of the most important, if overlooked, German Catholic theologians in the latter third of the twentieth century. (Other theologians given this status by Herder include Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Walter Kasper.) The publication of these works, made possible not only by the editors of this volume under review, but also by Jozef Niewiadomski and Nikolaus Wandinger, fulfills a hope that Schwager himself harbored for the last four decades of his life—that mimetic theory would come into the mainstream of Christian, especially Catholic, theology.
Schwager read Violence and the Sacred in 1974 and immediately began to foresee how mimetic theory could transform the conversations, disagreements, and stalemates that hovered over post-Vatican II theology. It is worth recalling that Must There Be Scapegoats?—not Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World—was the first attempt to apply Girard’s thought to Christianity. Published a few months before Things Hidden, Schwager’s magnum opus represents his own original attempt to apply mimetic theory specifically to the Bible. Together with Things Hidden, it initiated an exciting challenge, one could even say stumbling block, for Christians attempting to take seriously the problem of violence in the Bible. In addition, these two texts provided a hermeneutical solution to the same problem. In other words, the Bible is a bigger problem than many Christians want to acknowledge, but it also provides a solution to this problem, which many secular intellectuals are loathe to admit.
The new edition provides only a light editorial hand (here it is perhaps a propos to call for a new, annotated edition to Things Hidden), comprising six pages of notes at the end of the text. The edition includes a fine introduction by Moosbrugger and Peter, who show the ongoing relevance of Must There Be Scapegoats? by bringing it into conversation with the controversial claims made by a leading Protestant theologian, Notger Slenczka. A professor of systematic theology in Berlin, Slenczka proposed in a 2013 article that the Old Testament should not have canonical validity for Christians. This claim, associated in modern theology with Adolf von Harnack (1851–1930), and in early Christianity with the second-century theologian and arch-heretic Marcion, initiated an outburst of shock and protest. One can certainly understand the outrage, especially in light of the role that Germany’s theologians played in divorcing Judaism from Christianity in the two previous centuries, and the impact this had during the Third Reich.
Rather than fuel the outrage machine, Moosbrugger and Peter elect to focus on a point that too many of Slenczka’s interlocutors glossed over: the failure of theologians to think critically about the relationship between the two Testaments. This very lacuna occupied much of Schwager’s thought and explained his impetus to write Must There Be Scapegoats? As Schwager read Violence and the Sacred, Girard’s theory provided a foundation for unifying the two Testaments around the question of the relationship between God and violence. Schwager composed Must There Be Scapegoats? as an argument for their synthesis, thus siding for Irenaeus, the great Church Father, and against Marcion.
Practical concerns also animated Schwager. As a priest working in Austria, on the border of the Iron Curtain, Schwager considered the threat of nuclear war a real possibility. His activity in anti-nuclear peace movements began before reading Girard and continued long after. It also included a theological response to the problem of nuclear escalation. The editors also recall the difficult circumstances under which Schwager took his position in Innsbruck. The bishop, Paulus Rusch, rescinded the permission to teach theology from Schwager’s predecessor, Franz Schupp, on the basis of Schupp’s affinity for the critical theory of the Frankfurt School. In Austria, as in Germany, all Catholic theologians serve at the pleasure of the bishops, but interventions are rare (the case of Hans Küng’s removal being the most high profile). By no means fast-tracked for an academic career, Schwager felt pressure to alleviate concerns that he would be the bishop’s lackey, and also to prove that he belonged in his position.
For Schwager, the publication of Must There Be Scapegoats? not only launched his engagement with mimetic theory, which would continue for the next quarter century, but it also validated his status as a theologian. He took particular pride in the review process, vetted by such leading theologians and biblical scholars as Norbert Lohfink, Rudolf Pesch, and Walter Kern. After a series of failures to find a German publisher for a translation of Violence and the Sacred, Schwager experienced a warm response from an acquisitions editor, who believed that his book would have a long-term impact on theology and biblical studies. The book not only went through three editions before the current manifestation, but was also translated into English, French, and Korean. Although Schwager’s attempt to bring Girard’s theory to bear on theology did not always go over smoothly—in particular, Schwager expressed frustration to Girard about some negative reviews and a lukewarm reception at a colloquium in Münster—his gambit, from our vantage point four decades later, was wildly successful and is still bearing fruit.
The research of the Innsbruck theologians to preserve Schwager’s legacy has resulted in a noteworthy byproduct: the need to rethink how to narrate the history of mimetic theory and theology. Schwager was not a disciple of Girard; they were not just friends but peers. Their applications of mimetic theory to the Bible took different, if ultimately reconcilable paths. Moosbrugger and Peter recall some of these tensions, which a close reading of Must There Be Scapegoats? (along with the recently published correspondence) easily confirms. This history should destabilize any attempts to presume that theological conclusions—even Girard’s—are simply baked into the origins of the theory. The greatest ode to Schwager’s efforts would be to continue thinking through the consequences of mimetic theory for all of the human sciences.
Reading Girard Reading
Review by William Cain
Pierpaolo Antonello and Heather Webb, eds. Mimesis, Desire, and the Novel: René Girard and Literary Criticism. Studies in Violence, Mimesis, and Culture Series. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2015. Pages liii + 303.
Those of us in English and in foreign language departments who admire René Girard tend to think of him as a literary critic, one who wrote brilliantly about Dostoyevsky, Cervantes, Proust, Shakespeare, Sophocles, and Euripides, among others, as well as about stories and incidents in the Bible—his full-scale examination of the Book of Job, for example, and his keen commentary on the Denial of Peter are masterpieces of textual explication. But in his wide-ranging body of work, Girard made contributions to a host of disciplines—so much so that there is a risk that his literary criticism may in some quarters be undervalued.
Girard himself is somewhat to blame for this, for there is a certain ambivalence to the accounts he offered of his attitude toward the interpretation of literature. In an interview in 1978, he acknowledged that literature had played a crucial role in the development of mimetic theory, yet he added, “Mine is a very selfish and pragmatic use of literary texts. If they cannot serve me, I leave them alone” (“To Double Business Bound,” 224).
There is some overstatement here, which reflects Girard’s desire not to be confined to any single disciplinary identity. But it dramatizes all the more the relationship of Girard’s theory and practice to literary criticism—its role, its significance, for him. This is the subject that is explored in the book under review, expertly edited and introduced by Pierpaolo Antonello and Heather Webb, and developed and deepened in eighteen essays by accomplished scholars in French, German, Italian, and other fields of literature and language. There are helpful tips for further reading in the footnotes to the essays, and the book concludes with “Literature and Christianity: A Personal View,” a paper by Girard that he first presented at the MLA Convention in 1998.
There is some overstatement here, which reflects Girard’s desire not to be confined to any single disciplinary identity. But it dramatizes all the more the relationship of Girard’s theory and practice to literary criticism—its role, its significance, for him. This is the subject that is explored in the book under review, expertly edited and introduced by Pierpaolo Antonello and Heather Webb, and developed and deepened in eighteen essays by accomplished scholars in French, German, Italian, and other fields of literature and language. There are helpful tips for further reading in the footnotes to the essays, and the book concludes with “Literature and Christianity: A Personal View,” a paper by Girard that he first presented at the MLA Convention in 1998.
It is striking that in this paper, Girard says in counterpoint to his statements elsewhere about the limits of his literary interests, “I started with literature and myth and then moved to the study of the Bible and Christian Scripture. Great literature literally led me to Christianity” (281). Literature, it seems, is the basis and point of departure for the Girardian project of mimetic inquiry. But, he immediately says, “This itinerary is not original. It still happens every day and has been happening since the beginning of Christianity” (281). The place of literature hence is special in Girard’s trajectory, but then again, not so much. What is the connection between the enterprise of literary criticism—the sustained, serious study of literary texts—and the content and shape of Girard’s career, especially his interrogations of sacrifice, ritual, and religious conversion?
In their introduction, Antonello and Webb touch on this question—indeed it is one that they could have engaged more fully. They then preview the contents of the book, noting the key features of the essays and their intersections. There is much solid scholarship and criticism here: readers will benefit from contributors who respond cogently to Girard’s own books; to his relationship (usually by way of contrast) to critics, intellectuals, philosophers, and literary theorists such as Freud, Deleuze, Weil, Barthes, and Auerbach; and to the relevance of mimetic theory for our understanding of authors past and present—including Dickens, Bernanos, and Jonathan Franzen, author of the dazzling novel, published in 2001, The Corrections.
Highlights for me among the essays are Luca Di Blasi’s inquiry into tensions, contradictions, and paradoxes in Girard’s texts; Karen S. Feldman’s probing treatment of realism and scripture in Girard’s Biblical studies; David Quint’s stimulating inquiry into Girardian themes in Dickens’s Little Dorrit; and Yue Zhuo’s incisive survey of Girard’s writings about Dostoyevsky.
The limit to this fine collection is that it says little (see xx-xxi, 28-31) about Girard’s problematic relationship to feminist literary theory and practice, to the discussion of gender roles and sexual identities, and to the consideration of writers and texts that deal with LGBTQ people and communities.
From my reading of this book, two further reflections arise. First, some of the contributors refer to what “the novel” is for Girard or propose that he views “novels” as having this or that revelatory bearing on mimetic theory. But he does not claim that “the novel” or “novels” in general always display to us the operation of his ideas. Some novels do. The vast majority do not. Girard is drawn to novelists who, in his estimation, depict through their characters and stories the dynamic of mimetic desire. Those that do not: from Girard’s perspective, they are (to be blunt) not as insightful as Cervantes, Proust, and the others whom he celebrates, scrutinizes, and keeps returning to.
In our own interpretive work, we might observe the movements of Girard’s theory in novelists and novels he never treated or for that matter may never have read. But this is different from stating or implying that Girard himself believed that his theory is in action in all novels. As he affirms in the essay in this book, he fastens on examples of literary greatness: “Great literature shows the necessary failure of undisciplined desire. The greatest literature shows the impossibility of self-fulfillment through desire” (283). Girard is not interested in being capacious or inclusive in his choices: he focuses on (as he defines them) great and even greater books, and the element of these books that gives them their distinction for him is their presentation of mimetic desire, how it functions and how it could be transcended. The greatest of all, for Girard, is Shakespeare, “an original thinker centuries ahead of his time, more modern than any of our so-called master thinkers” (A Theater of Envy, 6).
Second, there is an inclination among the contributors to stress the negative, destructive, violent implications of Girard’s mimetic theory. On one level, this is inevitable, but we should remember that the point of Girard’s account of bad imitation is for us to embrace the opposite, the right and good one: we make the desire-redefining decision not to bestow our envy on a human rival but to choose to accept Christ, modelling ourselves on Him. Christianity, Girard says, “acknowledges the ultimate goodness of imitation as well as the goodness and reality of the human person. It teaches that instead of surrendering to mimetic desire, by following the newest fashion and worshiping the latest idol, we should imitate only Christ or Christ-like noncompetitive models” (283).
Many value Girard precisely because of the profound implications of his arguments for Christian belief and conduct. But many others who esteem Girard are not Christian or are not Christian in the manner he describes. It is hard, even impossible, for these readers to move from Girard’s diagnosis to the remedy that he urges us (and I think he does urge us) to embrace, becoming, as best we can, rededicated spiritualized souls—by which he means, Christians.
This is the challenge that the reading of Girard poses to us: how far along the path that he points to are we willing to travel? His literary criticism, as much as his labors in other disciplines and fields, has a religious consequence. Girard tells us about the meanings of literary works in order to explain, and reiterate, his own story of conversion, and, furthermore, to beckon to us that we should follow him, imitating him as he has followed Christ.
It is unnerving to realize that the more deeply we read Girard on literature or anything else, he is reading us. Are we Christian or not? Are we Christian but in name only?
Perhaps we are not believers of any kind, but are, simply, literary critics and teachers who enjoy and find profit in the study of literature. For Girard, this is not sufficient, for there are no purely literary questions. Great literature for him is a route toward salvation, and his own provocative work is a continuous argument for soul-searching and, ultimately, for Christianity. In the final sentence of the essay by Girard included in this book, we see this clearly: “The real definition of grace is that Jesus died for us and even though his own people, as a people, did not receive him, he made those who did receive him able to become children of God” (290).
Girard’s work is dangerous to our sense of who we are, perhaps frightening in its implications for our lives if we truly take him seriously. Henry David Thoreau in the mid-nineteenth century more than once wondered: what would be the consequences for his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, if everyone actually sought to live according to the injunctions in the Bible that were proclaimed each Sunday from the pulpit? Many of us report that we find Girard’s arguments in his literary criticism, and in his studies of other subjects, to be convincing, compelling. If so, what follows? Really reading Girard means confronting the question: Are you ready and willing to change your life?
Hermeneutic Mimetic Theory
Review by Curtis Gruenler
Paolo Diego Bubbio, Intellectual Sacrifice and Other Mimetic Paradoxes. Studies in Violence, Mimesis & Culture. Michigan State University Press, 2018. Pages xxii + 221.
Part one of Intellectual Sacrifice, a translation of Il sacrificio intellettuale: René Girard e la filosofia della religione (Turin: Quadrante, 1999), tells the story of the violence of reason in Western discourses of religion and philosophy and asks whether a non-sacrificial philosophy is possible. If reason originates, like the rest of culture, in the scapegoat mechanism and its repetition, then mimetic theory presents the paradox that a means of concealment can be turned to reveal its own violent origins. Part two comprises six, more recent essays—all but the last revised and, in some cases, translated from work published previously—that explore further paradoxes stemming from this fundamental one.
A paradox, for Paolo Diego Bubbio, taking a cue from Kierkegaard, is an apparent impasse that directs thought beyond what it can think. Such paradoxes can lead to transcendence by means of theology, as in some versions of mimetic theory, but Bubbio’s final essay proposes an alliance with a certain style of philosophical hermeneutics. This “hermeneutic mimetic theory” plays on the threshold of reason and revelation in order to discover a non-violent philosophy and to cultivate mimetic theory’s own hermeneutic roots. It is a proposal that deserves attention.
Part one’s story of intellectual sacrifices begins, after an overview of mimetic theory’s account of the origins of sacrificial religion, with the foundation of philosophy in its expulsion of myth, seen less as progress than as a further form of mystification that repeats on the level of thought the sacred violence of the founding murder. Early and medieval Christianity responded, Bubbio suggests, with an expulsion of philosophy, but this oversimplifies the Middle Ages—as pointed out by René Girard himself in a brief letter to the author included after part one.
Bubbio’s major focus in part one, however, is on modern philosophy’s violence toward religion and, even more, on its own, internal conflicts of interpretation. Brief discussions of Descartes, Hegel, and Nietzsche lead to Heidegger’s pivotal exposure, though violent in its own way, of the violence of metaphysics. Yet philosophical violence, conducted in writing—unlike the founding murder—leaves traces that can expose it to view. In sorting the legacy of hermeneutics after Heidegger, Bubbio makes a Girardian distinction between a “profane” (or sacred) hermeneutics and a “religious” (or theological) one. A profane hermeneutics allows infinite interpretations and places them all on the same level, thus allowing those that support persecution to drown out witnesses to violence (as we are all too aware in the era of “fake news”). A religious hermeneutics, on the other hand, “is a search whose objective is to unveil the only valid interpretation, that is, the only one that lays bare the truth of the victim” (52). Jacques Derrida exemplifies postmodern thinkers who manifest the violence in the endless relativism of profane hermeneutics, but without exposing it as a lie. Paul Ricoeur, by contrast, articulates a philosophical hermeneutics that has learned from Judeo-Christian texts to expose the lies of the sacred. Ricoeur points in the direction of a “knowledge in faith” that is interdisciplinary and narrates its own difficulties in searching for truth.
The itinerary of this book performs just such a hermeneutics by showing the stages on the way to Bubbio’s mature articulation of HMT, hermeneutic mimetic theory, in the final essay. Mimetic theory’s hermeneutic roots, and the potential of its partnership with a philosophy like Ricoeur’s, emerge more fully once its fundamental paradox is seen as a version of the hermeneutic circle. If “our entire symbolic and cultural world is generated though mimetic acts” (189), how do we come to see their mimetic nature? And how do we recognize victims if we do not already know what a victim is? The Christian revelation provides, historically, the necessary pre-understanding. But, as Bubbio explains in another essay in part two, mimetic theory shares in a larger, post-Kantian perspectivalism that need not assume Christian truth. He suggests that the “weak thought” of Gianni Vattimo (with whom he studied) could be a resource, like Ricoeur’s work, for seeing not just a simple choice between the versions of mimetic theory, but a productive interplay of self-criticism at the threshold between a theological mimetic theory and a mimetic hermeneutics of the self (sketched also in Bubbio’s chapter of the new Palgrave Handbook of Mimetic Theory and Religion).
In turning to the self, mimetic theory is most productive, Bubbio argues, if it resolves an ambiguity in Girard’s own work: Which comes first, desire for the object or for the being of the mediator? The priority of the latter, what Girard called metaphysical desire, is a more Hegelian than Freudian view that can better guide a positive reconstruction of the self after its fracture and shattering, as dramatized in the TV series Mad Men and Homeland—the topic of the second-to-last essay here. It would be in the spirit of Bubbio’s proposed conversation “at the threshold” to ask how this philosophical version of a mimetic account of the self compares to a theological one, such as Augustine’s heart that is restless for rest in God. Ricoeur’s later works could perhaps be valuable for a mimetic hermeneutics of the self; Bubbio’s welcome references to Ricoeur are limited to his early books The Symbolism of Evil and Freud and Philosophy.
Bubbio gives another angle on HMT through his analysis of Girard’s unacknowledged use of an epistemological version of Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God. Anselm argued that God is something greater than can be thought and thus must exist in reality and not just in the mind; Girard argues that Jesus knows (and the Gospels convey) something greater than can be thought, that is, a God unlimited by the results of mimetic victimage that otherwise imprison all human thinking. This is another way in which mimetic theory answers its own fundamental paradox, open to the same objections (such as Kant’s) and resuscitations (such as Hegel’s) that Anselm’s argument has received. The argument requires the “hermeneutic horizon” of the historical effects of Christianity, but also has, Bubbio suggests, a deep, philosophical significance of recognizing that any philosophical position involves a wager, in Pascal’s sense, that also applies to faith. Here there is perhaps room for dialogue with Raymund Schwager’s use of an Anselmian style of argument in Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, which treats it not as a chain of logical demonstration but rather as a model of hermeneutic process, words and images stretched beyond their human representations in order to think of divine attributes like goodness and justice in such a way that they cannot be thought as greater.
Paolo Diego Bubbio’s story of intellectual violence is also one of providence, particularly in the emergence of philosophical hermeneutics as a complement to mimetic theory. His proposal for HMT opens a space and studies some moves for productive conversation, not only between the theological and philosophical wings of mimetic theory, but potentially between mimetic theory and dominant, competing paradigms across all disciplines of the humanities and social sciences. In literary studies, for instance, this approach would help mimetic theory reenter the conversation among literary theories as a partner in the commitment to further interpretability that is the bread and butter of literary criticism, and that has become oriented to the recognition of victims through approaches such as feminism, post-colonial studies, and queer theory. HMT rescues the office of philosophy as metadiscipline in the modern academy from its usual, combative, sacrificial mode as a standard for rationality and offers instead a summons to mutual, interdisciplinary search for meaning through openness to the other and to ongoing interpretation and conversion.
Review by Matthew Packer
Buena Vista University
Elif Batuman, The Idiot. Penguin, 2017. Pages 424
Anyone ever enchanted or exasperated by first-year university classes will fall in love with Selin Karadağ, the narrator of The Idiot, the debut novel by New Yorker staff writer Elif Batuman, a former Stanford student of René Girard—so innocent, tirelessly funny, and pitch-perfect are her observations upon encountering college life. But following Selin around Harvard, where Batuman first studied, also means enduring with her the angst and exhilaration of her love interest (an older, Hungarian mathematics major called Ivan) as well as the hilarious, European mimetic misadventure that follows, as Selin slowly realizes she is “doomed to become a writer.” It’s a marvellously fresh, coming-of-age test of a book—and highly recommended.
Entering class in 1995, when email is new, Selin takes Russian, linguistics, and a smorgasbord of other pursuits—and, as if by magic, the absurdities of orientation, weird instructors, and difficult roommates all somehow keep the story aloft. It’s a riot. Selin’s best friend, Svetlana, “generated so many opinions. Meanwhile, [Selin] went from class to class, read hundreds, thousands of pages of the distilled ideas of the great thinkers of human history and nothing happened.” Selin took an avant-garde art class but dropped it for Spanish film, where “the adjunct instructor also said stupid things, but they were in Spanish, so you learned more.” Even the awkward relationship with Ivan—conducted via the new medium of email—is comical, but menacing, too: Selin occasionally brushes against the darker aspects of higher learning, wondering, “what if math turned out to explain how everything worked—not just physics but everything.” Wary of Ivan, she speculates, “if you’re the elite who speaks [mathematics]—you can control everything.”
The novel’s tour-de-force comes when Ivan heads home to Budapest for the summer and Selin teaches English in the Hungarian countryside. This time it’s a farce. Selin gets billeted with the oddest hosts for her stay (some Edward Gorey-like characters), and Batuman, closer to her ancestral Turkey now, has a field day writing of the intercultural misunderstandings and ironies of Eastern Europe, making poetry out of the alienating effects of travel. We make it to Istanbul eventually, where the university “atmosphere of late nights and intense relationships, of the oldest books and the newest books” leaves Selin enthused to return to Boston.
Batuman is a brilliant and promising talent, and The Idiot a wonderful portrait of a young writer—as well as the second of Batuman’s books with a Dostoyevskian namesake. Fans of cartoonist Roz Chast—whose wry humor finds an uncanny match in Batuman’s style—especially are bound to enjoy and appreciate Batuman’s work in The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. You can follow her on Twitter @BananaKarenina.
Mimetic Insights in a Captive’s Story
Editor’s note: COV&R member Jean-Louis Alpeyrie’s son Jonathan recently published a book, The Shattered Lens, about being kidnapped while working as a photographer in Syria. We thought members would be interested in his account of the story behind his son’s book.
Jonathan was kidnapped in April 2013 by the very people he was sent to work with. He spent 81 days in captivity in the hands of a ragtag group of rebels fighting against the Assad regime. It was his fourth trip to Syria. He writes in The Shattered Lens that “there is something about the thrill of surviving a brush with death that begs repetition.”
He was chained to a bed, beaten and tortured. And yet he found out that he could find the compassion to deal with his tormenters in such a way as to see them as human beings with whom he could watch Lebanese variety shows, to cook for them, and to talk to them about life in the West.
Rather than assuming the logic of victim and executioner, Jonathan found a way to treat them, and be treated, as human beings—to the point of being curious about the welfare of the very gunmen who terrorized him for three months.
When they asked if he would convert to Islam he said, no, that he was a Christian, but that he would pray with them five times a day. They immediately accepted his answer and never asked him again to become a Muslim.
Jonathan managed to win the esteem of his captors while keeping his self intact. No bad and good men here, just human beings dragged into a horrific conflict but managing to keep enough human decency to see each other as brothers.
Jonathan had met René Girard a few years ago, and I had often discussed with him René’s insights on human evolution, in particular the mimetic and scapegoat mechanism that explains human relationships and institutions.
When taken hostage, he quickly realized that his tormentors were fascinated by America. Sure it was the enemy, corrupt and doomed to be destroyed, but, at the same time, to be admired for its technology, its movies, the music, all the products that made life so comfortable. The women attractive and free. For these young men America was a model, despised and admired at the same time. Jonathan used this, walking carefully the fine line of talking about life in America without omitting what is deeply flawed about it. He was sure that many of them, offered a chance to fly to the U.S. would have seized the opportunity in a nanosecond to see that mix of Babylon and Hollywood. America to be hated and imitated at the same time—not the real one obviously but the one imagined as both the evil to be destroyed and the model to emulate.