Mimetic theory as it was first developed by René Girard explains how the universal mythological structure that is described by Joseph Campbell (among others) is based on a mistake or even lie regarding victims of group violence in early human communities.
MIMETIC THEORY (RENÉ GIRARD) – FIVE-PART VIDEO SERIES
The following five-part video series provides a preliminary understanding of human culture from the perspective of mimetic theory, which was first developed by René Girard (1923-2015).
I made the first parts to give an overview of some basic cultural facts. The later parts of the video series deal with mimetic theory’s explanation of those facts, ending with the role of the Judeo-Christian heritage in making that type of explanation possible. The last part of the series (PART V) clarifies how the Judeo-Christian traditions result in either a radical atheism or a radically new understanding of “God”.
An older, three-part video series on mimetic theory is also available below.
PART I – THE SPELL OF THE SACRED
PART II – THE DANCE OF THE SACRED (3 VIDEOS)
PART III – THE MYTHICAL REFLECTION OF THE AMBIGUOUS SACRED (3 VIDEOS)
PART IV – THE ORIGIN AND EVOLUTION OF CULTURAL FACTS EXPLAINED (2 VIDEOS)
PART V – THE GOSPEL REVELATION OF THE MYTHICAL LIE (2 VIDEOS)
The Power of Myth (and its blindspots)
Joseph Campbell, a well-known scholar in the field of comparative mythology, became quite famous when his works inspired film director George Lucas to create the Star Wars saga (click here for more on this). Shortly before his death in 1987, Campbell was interviewed by Bill Moyers at Skywalker Ranch (home of Lucas, indeed). These conversations served as the basis for a six part PBS documentary series, Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth. The series was originally broadcast on television in 1988. It remains one of the most popular documentary series in the history of American public television.
This article will summarize Campbell’s main ideas by taking a closer look at Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth. Each episode is made available below, with Dutch subtitles (thanks to an anonymous translator). At the same time this article will highlight the main parallells next to some striking differences between Joseph Campbell’s analysis of myth and the analysis of René Girard.
Episode 1: The Hero’s Adventure (first broadcast June 21, 1988 on PBS)
Joseph Campbell mainly considers myths as “metaphors for the experience of life”. Myths symbolically describe fundamental experiences everyone has to deal with, especially the so-called “hero myths”. They recount “the hero’s journey”, which is a universal pattern visible in a myriad of situations.
Hero myths are expressions of external (physical) and/or internal (psychological) struggles. They represent a transition in one’s identity. Faced with new challenges, the hero leaves home to undergo a series of ordeals, in the process sacrificing his old identity. As the hero learns some lessons from the ordeals, he gradually adopts a new identity until he finally returns home with his treasure (of new experiences) and the ability to renew his world order. Thus hero myths can also be considered as “death and resurrection” stories. In these myths self-sacrifice is a morally justified necessity to achieve a new, more fulfilling life.
One example of a hero’s journey in life is being a student. Students are exempt from regular society life. They are granted time and space to undergo a series of tests while entering their respective fields of inquiry (unknown worlds to them, at first). As they go along, students achieve certain skills and knowledge until they finally adopt a new, more mature identity. This allows them to take up some kind of responsibility in their society. In other words, the student dies to his adolescent self and, returning to society, resurrects as a more fully equipped adult.
All of the above in the words of the man himself:
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: There is a certain typical hero sequence of actions, which can be detected in stories from all over the world, and from many, many periods of history. And I think it’s essentially, you might say, the one deed done by many, many different people.
There are two types of deed. One is the physical deed; the hero who has performed a war act or a physical act of heroism. Saving a life, that’s a hero act. Giving himself, sacrificing himself to another. And the other kind is the spiritual hero, who has learned or found a mode of experiencing the supernormal range of human spiritual life, and has then come back and communicated it. It’s a cycle. It’s a going and a return that the hero cycle represents.
This can be seen also in the simple initiation ritual, where a child has to give up his childhood and become an adult, has to die, you might say, to his infantile personality and psyche and come back as a self-responsible adult. It’s a fundamental experience that everyone has to undergo. We’re in our childhood for at least 14 years, and to get out of that posture of dependency, psychological dependency, into one of psychological self-responsibility, requires a death and resurrection. And that is the basic motif of the hero journey, leaving one condition, finding the source of life to bring you forth in a richer or more mature or other condition.
Otto Rank, in his wonderful, very short book called The Myth of the Birth of the Hero, says that everyone is a hero in his birth. He has undergone a tremendous transformation from a little, you might say, water creature. Living in a realm of the amniotic fluid and so forth, then coming out, becoming an air-breathing mammal that ultimately will be self-standing and so forth, is an enormous transformation and it is a heroic act. And it’s a heroic act on the mother’s part to bring it about. It’s the primary hero form, you might say.
Heroes and their myths function as models for our own way of life. They inspire us to imitate their behavior and deeds. Joseph Campbell, when asked about the potential of movies to provide new hero myths, opens up about some of his own role models:
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: I had a hero figure who meant something to me, and he served as a kind of model for myself in my physical character, and that was Douglas Fairbanks. I wanted to be a synthesis of Douglas Fairbanks and Leonardo da Vinci, that was my idea. But those were models, were roles, that came to me.
Campbell seems to acknowledge the importance of role models and mimesis, but he also insists on the hero being a true outsider, a maverick, someone who goes against the grain (important observations, especially relevant to René Girard’s mimetic theory – see below). Not surprisingly, Campbell considers the hero myth mainly to be a metaphor for an inner, psychological struggle that liberates us from a life in service of an often alienating social system. A contradiction seems to arise when he also considers initiation rituals as typical examples of the hero’s journey (see above). Indeed, through initiation rituals adolescents learn to acquire an identity that will sustain the social order of their community, sacrificing whatever inner or outer obstacle in the process.
At some point in the conversation with Bill Moyers, Campbell compares the hero Siegfried (a figure from Norse and German mythology) to the villain Darth Vader (a figure from the Star Wars mythology). What Campbell apparently fails to notice, is the unchanged sacrificial nature of both stories. Although Siegfried is used, in contrast to Darth Vader, as an example of someone who refuses to submit himself to a human world in the service of a technocratic system, he does submit himself to the powers of nature (the natural system or order).
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: The first stage in the hero adventure, when he starts off on the adventure, is leaving the realm of light, which he controls and knows about, and moving toward the threshold. And it’s at the threshold that the monster of the abyss comes to meet him. And then there are two or three results: one, the hero is cut to pieces and descends into the abyss in fragments, to be resurrected; or he may kill the dragon power, as Siegfried does when he kills the dragon. But then he tastes the dragon blood, that is to say, he has to assimilate that power. And when Siegfried has killed the dragon and tasted the blood, he hears the song of nature; he has transcended his humanity, you know, and reassociated himself with the powers of nature, which are the powers of our life, from which our mind removes us.
You see, this thing up here, this consciousness, thinks it’s running the shop. It’s a secondary organ; it’s a secondary organ of a total human being, and it must not put itself in control. It must submit and serve the humanity of the body.
When it does put itself in control, you get this [Darth] Vader, the man who’s gone over to the intellectual side.
[Darth Vader] isn’t thinking or living in terms of humanity, he’s living in terms of a system. And this is the threat to our lives; we all face it, we all operate in our society in relation to a system. Now, is the system going to eat you up and relieve you of your humanity, or are you going to be able to use the system to human purposes?
Siegfried sacrifices whatever gets in the way of acquiring a new, higher identity in correspondence with the forces of nature, while Darth Vader sacrifices whatever gets in the way of acquiring a new, higher identity in correspondence with the forces of technology. Campbell prefers one order or system over the other. From René Girard’s viewpoint, however, both systems (and the heroes who sustain them) are essentially the same. They imitate each other’s behavior and thereby resemble each other more and more. Both Siegfried’s and Darth Vader’s identity exist at the expense of sacrifice. Siegfried is the representative of a cultural identity that places technology in the service of nature, whereas Darth Vader is the representative of a cultural identity that places nature in the service of technology. In the real world, the advocates of those cultural identities rival each other, imitating each other’s sacrificial behavior: they become mimetic doubles.
Moreover, both Siegfried and Darth Vader are loners or “chosen ones” who are willing to perform sacrifices or sacrifice themselves to establish a certain order. As such, they paradoxically become cultural role models whose acts of (self-)sacrifice will be imitated and repeated in order to preserve, renew or save the social order that lives by their respective stories. In the words of the conversation between Moyers and Campbell:
BILL MOYERS: Unlike the classical heroes, we’re not going on our journey to save the world, but to save ourselves.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: And in doing that, you save the world. I mean, you do. The influence of a vital person vitalizes, there’s no doubt about it. The world is a wasteland. People have the notion of saving the world by shifting it around and changing the rules and so forth. No, any world is a living world if it’s alive, and the thing is to bring it to life. And the way to bring it to life is to find in your own case where your life is, and be alive yourself, it seems to me.
According to Joseph Campbell, if you save yourself you save the world. In other words, we are part of a bigger whole and we should acknowledge and accept that. Moreover, eventually it’s the whole that counts. Campbell is very holistic and nature-oriented in his thoughts, even to the point where nature becomes something sacred, permeated by a larger consciousness. Again, from the conversation between Moyers and Campbell:
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Jean and I are living in Hawaii, and we’re living right by the ocean. And we have a little lanai, a little porch, and there’s a coconut tree that grows up through the porch and it goes on up. And there’s a kind of vine, plant, big powerful thing with leaves like this, that has grown up the coconut tree. Now, that plant sends forth little feelers to go out and clutch the plant, and it knows where the plant is and what to do– where the tree is, and it grows up like this, and it opens a leaf, and that leaf immediately turns to where the sun is. Now, you can’t tell me that leaf doesn’t know where the sun is going to be. All of the leaves go just like that, what’s called heliotropism, turning toward where the sun is. That’s a form of consciousness. There is a plant consciousness, there is an animal consciousness. We share all of these things. You eat certain foods, and the bile knows whether there’s something there for it to go to work on. I mean, the whole thing is consciousness. I begin to feel more and more that the whole world is conscious; certainly the vegetable world is conscious, and when you live in the woods, as I did as a kid, you can see all these different consciousnesses relating to themselves.
BILL MOYERS: Scientists are beginning to talk quite openly about the Gaia principle.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: There you are, the whole planet as an organism.
BILL MOYERS: Mother Earth.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: And you see, if you will think of ourselves as coming out of the earth, rather than as being thrown in here from somewhere else, you know, thrown out of the earth, we are the earth, we are the consciousness of the earth. These are the eyes of the earth, and this is the voice of the earth. What else?
Episode 2: The Message of the Myth (first broadcast June 22, 1988 on PBS)
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Episode 3: The First Storytellers (first broadcast June 23, 1988 on PBS)
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Episode 4: Sacrifice and Bliss (first broadcast June 24, 1988 on PBS)
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Episode 5: Love and the Goddess (first broadcast June 25, 1988 on PBS)
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Episode 6: Masks of Eternity (first broadcast June 26, 1988 on PBS)
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