Mythical Thinking after 9/11

René Girard is among those scholars who like to point to the similarities between myths from around the globe. In this regard his work follows in the footsteps of people like James Frazer, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and Mircea Eliade. Girard’s explanation of the source of mythological structures and motives, however, is quite different from the approaches of his colleagues. Girard maintains that the archetypal mythological pattern is eventually rooted in a so-called scapegoat mechanism, following a typical ritualistic pattern that is rooted in the same mechanism (for more on this, click here).

Aztec human sacrificeMyths can be considered as tales which contain the worldview of a culture, transmitting from generation to generation the belief that certain phenomena (from certain things to certain persons and acts) are sacred or belong to the gods. Traditionally, the realm of the gods or the sacred is also the realm of violence. If the sacred order of things is not respected or approached in a proper (i.e. ritualistic) way it brings about violent chaos, diseases, death and destruction in the (human) world. Next to connecting chaotic situations to the realm of the sacred (portraying chaos as “the wrath of god(s)” or “bad karma”), myths also contain messages on how to transform sacred disorder into sacred order. Following René Girard, myths can thus be understood, more specifically, as justifications of certain taboos and of certain types of sacrifice which should help to conserve or renew order in the world.

In short, according to René Girard, mythical thinking consists in connecting violent mayhem, natural disasters and contagious diseases to “god(s)” or “a sacred realm”. As such, violent mayhem etc. are explained as necessary moments of disorder from which a new order is generated. This never ending mythical cycle of “disorder – order – disorder – order – …” at the same time often functions as justification of the sacrifice of certain people whose death should bring about order.

A comparison between some ancient myths and contemporary interpretations of today’s international terrorism makes clear that mythical thinking as Girard understands it is on the rise again, especially in an eschatological sense and also in secular circles that hold on to a naïve version of the myth of human progress. Just take a look at the schematic presentation below presenting the mythical structure, time and again… (for more on the sexist implications of many myths, click here).

A) The Greek myth of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods

Prometheus Gustave Moreau1) A WORLD ORDER
(“ORDO” or “COSMOS”)
with a clear distinction between different realms
=> Fire belongs to the gods and is considered TABOO

2) (TRANSGRESSION OF TABOOS brings about) A MOMENT OF DISORDER
(“MANQUE” or “CHAOS”/“CRISIS”)
with a challenge (the “call”) to restore the balance in the world
=> Prometheus steals the fire from the gods

3) Some kind of SACRIFICE (as the pinnacle of a “HERO’S JOURNEY” or “QUEST”)
with a transformation of the identity of the hero figure(s) – into “monster(s)” or “savior(s)”
=> Prometheus is banned to the Caucasus mountains, where he is chained and tortured

4) GOAL = A (RE)NEW(ED) WORLD ORDER
(“ORDO”)
again with clear distinctions between different realms

B) The Hebrew myth of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden

• A WORLD ORDER
(“ORDO” or “COSMOS”)
with a clear distinction between different realmsAdam and Eve driven out of Eden by Gustave Dore (1866)
=> Fruits of the Tree of Knowledge belong to God and are considered TABOO

• (TRANSGRESSION OF TABOOS brings about) A MOMENT OF DISORDER
(“MANQUE” or “CHAOS”/“CRISIS”)
with a challenge (the “call”) to restore the balance in the world
=> Adam and Eve “eat from the forbidden fruit”
[from a comparison with the Song of Songs: this is a transgression of the taboo on sex]

• Some kind of SACRIFICE (as the pinnacle of a “HERO’S JOURNEY” or “QUEST”)
with a transformation of the identity of the hero figure(s) – into “monster(s)” or “savior(s)”
=> Adam and Eve are banned from Eden and have to accept a life with suffering and death

• GOAL = A (RE)NEW(ED) WORLD ORDER
(“ORDO”)
again with clear distinctions between different realms

C) The Greek myth of Oedipus

• A WORLD ORDER
(“ORDO” or “COSMOS”)
with a clear distinction between different realms
=> Killing the “father-king” and taking the “mother-queen” is considered TABOO
[Note: “thanatos” and “eros” motif]

• (TRANSGRESSION OF TABOOS brings about) A MOMENT OF DISORDER
(“MANQUE” or “CHAOS”/“CRISIS”)
with a challenge (the “call”) to restore the balance in the world
=> Oedipus kills his father, the king, and marries his mother, the queen and allegedly causes a plague in the city of Thebes

Oedipus stabs out his eyes• Some kind of SACRIFICE (as the pinnacle of a “HERO’S JOURNEY” or “QUEST”)
with a transformation of the identity of the hero figure(s) – into “monster(s)” or “savior(s)”
=> Oedipus stabs out his eyes and goes into exile

• GOAL = A (RE)NEW(ED) WORLD ORDER
(“ORDO”)
again with clear distinctions between different realms

D) A religious fundamentalist mythical interpretation of 9/11 (“end times”)

(Jerry Falwell & Pat Robertson)

• A WORLD ORDER
(“ORDO” or “COSMOS”)
with a clear distinction between different realms
=> Types of relationships which differ from the “traditional”, patriarchal family are TABOO

• (TRANSGRESSION OF TABOOS brings about) A MOMENT OF DISORDER
(“MANQUE” or “CHAOS”/“CRISIS”)
with a challenge (the “call”) to restore the balance in the world
=> Feminists, gays, lesbians and other “liberals” challenge the patriarchal family structure

• Some kind of SACRIFICE (as the pinnacle of a “HERO’S JOURNEY” or “QUEST”)
with a transformation of the identity of the hero figure(s) – into “monster(s)” or “savior(s)”
=> Two days after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, two evangelicals, shared their “theological” views on the terrorist violence (transcript from the 700 club, a well-known evangelical television program in the States – September 13, 2001). Especially these comments are telling (for more, watch the video below the transcripts):
survivors of 9-11 attacksJERRY FALWELL: The ACLU’s got to take a lot of blame for this.
PAT ROBERTSON: Well yes.
JERRY FALWELL: And, I know that I’ll hear from them for this. But, throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court system, throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools. The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way – all of them who have tried to secularize America – I point the finger in their face and say “you helped this happen.”
PAT ROBERTSON: Well, I totally concur…

In other words, 9/11 is interpreted as an unavoidable SACRIFICE, sanctioned by God; it is “the wrath of God” caused by people who keep on transgressing “sacred” laws and taboos. This sacrifice manifests itself in a twofold manner: the autoaggression of the terrorists’ suicide implies the heteroaggression against the victims in the planes and the twin towers.

Conclusion: “Secularists” or “the secularist lifestyle” (as Falwell and Robertson understand this – which corresponds to the Islamic fundamentalists’ notion of “the satanic West”) should be abandoned or banned.

• GOAL = A (RE)NEW(ED) WORLD ORDER
(“ORDO”)
again with clear distinctions between different realms

To conclude this post, I’d like to mention an article by John Gray on the book The Pursuit of the Millenium by Norman Cohn. Gray points to the eschatological myths of religious and secular political ideologies, from Christian Millenarianism (especially in today’s context we might think of Islamic Millenarianism as well) to Nazism and Communism. All these ideologies have justified sacrifices and massacres to bring about a new world order, a “paradise” – hence every utopia turns into dystopia… At the end of his article, Gray also warns for new versions of the eschatological myth in “liberal humanism”:

There is a line of reasoning which accepts that totalitarian ideologies were shaped by apocalyptic and utopian thinking, while insisting that liberal humanism is entirely different. They – the Nazis and communists – may have been deluded and irrational; we – enlightened meliorists – have purged our minds of myth. In fact, the belief in progress in ethics and politics, which animates liberal rationalism, is itself a myth: a view of history as a process of redemption without the Christian belief in a single transforming event, but nonetheless a faith-based narrative of human salvation. It is obvious that human life can sometimes be improved. Equally, however, such gains are normally lost in the course of time. The idea that history is a process of amelioration is an article of faith, not the result of observation or reasoning.

Reading Cohn will not lead secular thinkers to relinquish their cherished myths. The need to believe in them is far more powerful than intellectual curiosity. But, for those who want to understand the origins of the conflicts of the past century and the present time, The Pursuit of the Millennium may be, as it was for me, a life-changing book.

Considering all this, we might want to rethink the concept of “eschatological battle” as a struggle we have to face within ourselves, in the depths of our soul… The true fight is a spiritual one, as we are converted from our human violence (and all our man-made gods, idols and ideologies justifying that violence) to the absolute non-violence of the God of Love, The Merciful One… 

The challenge is to build an order and a “peace” that is not built on the violence of sacrifices, but to build a peace that allows for “non-violent conflicts…” (a “non-totalitarian peace”).

4 comments

  1. antikleia · January 21, 2015

    Thank you for the inspiring insights. This has made me think of mechanisms in all aspects of life and how to recognize them.

    Like

    • erik buys · January 21, 2015

      You’re welcome! I’m glad Girard’s thought is inspiring to you as well!

      Like

  2. Pingback: Women & the Spiritual Clash with Terror | mimetic margins
  3. Pingback: Gay & Muslim, Twice the Scapegoat | Mimetic Margins

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s