Before I continue posting material and suggestions for a high school curriculum on mimetic theory, I just have to report something way cool that happened at school today. Jozefien Meersschaut, one of my students who is new to our school this year, came up to me before class and simply said, “You know, sir, my aunt worked with professor René Girard at Stanford University for a PhD; he was her mentor.” I was like, “You must be kidding me…” She continued, “Well, her name is easy to remember, it’s Josephine like my name, Josephine Gross.” She also told me that her aunt’s brother, her uncle, knew the work of Girard quite well.
Well, I’ll be damned! Indeed, it’s a small world after all.
Of course you come across Girard while reading novelists and essayists like J.M. Coetzee and Milan Kundera. Kundera even claimed in his Testaments Betrayed that Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque, Girard’s first major work, was the best book he ever read on the novel. He is but one of many in praise of this book. Well-known atheist philosopher Alain de Botton rates it five stars out of five on goodreads (click here to read more on Alain de Botton and Girard).
Further on in the intellectual world, other contemporary well-known philosophers, atheists like Gianni Vattimo or Slavoj Zizek, a socially oriented philosopher like Hans Achterhuis or the “Christian thinker of Modernity” Charles Taylor… were all heavily inspired by Girard. Vattimo wrote a book together with Girard. Hans Achterhuis constantly refers to Girard in most of his major works. Charles Taylor attended an important conference on Girard’s work at the University of Antwerp in 2001… Slavoj Zizek, as an atheist, agrees with Girard’s basic assessment on the nature of Christianity’s historical impact. Zizek writes (in a collection of essays, namely God in Pain: Inversions of Apocalypse):
“[Quoting Jean-Pierre Dupuy] ‘Concerning Christianity, it is not a morality but an epistemology: it says the truth about the sacred, and thereby deprives it of its creative power, for better or for worse.’ [Zizek himself] Therein resides the world-historical rupture introduced by Christianity: now we know, and can no longer pretend that we don’t. And, as we have already seen, the impact of this knowledge is not only liberating, but deeply ambiguous: it also deprives society of the stabilizing role of scapegoating and thus opens up the space for violence not contained by any mythic limit.” (Quote from Zizek in Slavoj Zizek & Boris Gunjevic, God in Pain: Inversions of Apocalypse – [Essay] Christianity Against the Sacred, Seven Stories Press, New York, 2012, p. 64).
And then we have not yet talked about renowned psychologists like Andrew Meltzoff or Vittorio Gallese, who set up a dialogue between their own work and René Girard’s mimetic theory. I could go on for hours I guess, talking about how Girard keeps on popping up in the humanities, even in the world of economy and finance (see for instance Peter Thiel, an entrepreneur who cofounded PayPal and set up Imitatio to promote Girard’s work; he’s also one of Girard’s former students). I could talk about Girard’s influence in many other fields and contexts, for instance about De Geruchten, a novel by Hugo Claus written with Girard’s work in mind…
Ah, well, none of that is as cool as Jozefien coming up to me saying, “My aunt worked on a PhD with professor René Girard…,” now is it?
I guess mimetic theory is right by claiming that our approach to reality is highly mediated by our social environment. That is true for our assessment of philosophical and scientific theories as well, hence also for mimetic theory. So I secretely hope that Jozefien likes her aunt and uncle. It will make access to what’s actually being said a lot easier :).
Perhaps we are often too much interested in an author’s identity to appreciate what is actually being written. To some people it is enough to know that René Girard is a Christian to dismiss his work (although they will often encounter similar content, albeit in different terms, in other contexts and appreciate it!). A shame, really, but all too human.
Think, for instance, about the book J.K. Rowling wrote under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Before the general public knew that the crime novel The Cuckoo’s Calling was actually written by Rowling, who became famous for her Harry Potter books, the book only caught the favorable eyes of some critics. Just moments after the news of the author’s true identity broke, Harry Potter fan site The Leaky Cauldron reported that the book had only sold 1,500 copies up to that point, and that a second Galbraith book was to be published a year later. A few hours later, New Statesman reported that the book’s Amazon sales had gone up more than 150,000 %. Of course no one doubts Rowling’s talent for writing, but this story shows that not all gifted authors sell as much as their equally gifted colleagues. Still, “Robert Galbraith” wrote the exact same book as “J.K. Rowling”. People’s desire to buy The Cuckoo’s Calling was (mimetically) awakened by the name of Rowling, not just by the content itself or by the critics – who proved to be weak models for mediating the desire of potential readers…
On the other hand, not everything that is hyped is worth the hype. It is not because a majority of people claim that “the emperor’s new clothes are beautiful” that there is actually anything to see at all. Our tendency to judge reality by looking at others (because of our mimetic tendencies) sometimes fools us. It may blind us for what’s truly worthwhile and beautiful. And so we’re back at one of the major themes of American Beauty, the film I wrote about in some previous posts :). Thinking of the roses in that movie, I’m reminded of that famous line in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet…”
In short, it’s been a really cool and inspiring day in this “small world” ;).
Thanks for your post and the great Zizek quote! It really is ironic that Christianity is still being seen – by Christians and Non-Christians alike – as just another myth when in fact it puts an end to all myth. Following your argument, one can hope that popular figures like Zizek will help mimetic theory gain more credibility.
By the way, there was an interesting discussion on Zizek and Theology in the blog of progressive Christian Tony Jones:
The thing is, our day-to-day framework is more Judeo-Christian than we usually acknowledge or realize. True, often in a perverted way. The idea that “victims” have the right to speak, the idea that “victims” shouldn’t just accept what’s happening to them, etc. – everything that is radicalized in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount – is so counterintuitive to the ancient mind. I guess Nietzsche really lived the dilemma, and Girard’s reading of Nietzsche is really helpful to understand this: the choice is between “Dionysus” and the “Crucified”. The problem is indeed – and this is Nietzsche’s critique on a distorted version of Christianity -, that we have learned to present ourselves as “victims” in order to satisfy an attitude of ressentiment. In addition to Zizek: there’s a competition of “victimhood” going on in order to have the right to speak and to justify new violence. This, of course, is the corruption of Christianity – which Nietzsche, according to Scheler and Girard, didn’t see.
Can we respect each other if there are no (“sacred”) rules any more to punish us if we don’t? Can we respect each other if there are no rewards any more if we do? If the (sacred) rules fall apart, there are two possibilities: we can either truly respect each other (without being forced to do so – which is actually no respect at all, because it is forced), or we can become totally violent towards one another. To make an analogy: a teacher who lets go of the rules will either experience respect from one man to the other – which will generate a new “order” -, or he will experience total mayhem. If the aura of the sacred breaks down, it’s either the “Kingdom of God” or the “Apocalypse”. Apocalyptic violence might cause the resurgence of “Dionysus” once more, like a wounded reflex of what’s left of paganism, before total annihilation. Or we might learn to accept our own and each other’s vulnerability as the locus where love truly begins its flexible and “faithful” journey – for we are all “broken”, and it’s from this brokenness that we allow the renewed presence and apparition of the “Body of Christ”, the “Crucified”.
Thanks for the link on Zizek!
Very well said. “To live the dilemma” is probably not just what Nietzsche went through but the burden we all carry. I wonder if the choice you talk about in the second paragraph really is a choice in the strict sense. This is a question Girard in my understanding intentionally leaves unanswered. Can we really choose between “Dionysus” and the “Crucified”? And why do people – including myself – make the wrong choice over and over again, even if we know better. The idea of a “Kingdom of God” on earth reminds me of communism’s failed ideal of a brotherhood of all men. Therefore, maybe the strength of Christianity is less to provide a recipe for the betterment of humanity than to cast a doubt on all pagan optimism and to comfort us in our all too human imperfection.
You’re right, it’s not a choice in the strict sense; it’s living with our own brokenness (as vulnerable openness) towards a “perfection” or “fulfilment” that’s not in our hands – a perfection which paradoxically preserves our brokenness! A transformation of our world instead of a destruction to create a so-called new world (which is always the continuation of the old sacrificial order). It is allowing “God to be God” in order to become and to be “fully human” and live with our imperfections…
Thanks, Erik. Looking forward to more 🙂