Margaret Atwood meets René Girard in “The Handmaid’s Tale”

Rebecca Mead wrote an article for The New Yorker (April 17, 2017) on one of today’s most famous writers, Margaret Atwood, the Prophet of Dystopia. The article particularly focuses on Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale:The Handmaid's Tale (Cover)

In writing “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Atwood was scrupulous about including nothing that did not have a historical antecedent or a modern point of comparison. (She prefers that her future-fantasy books be labelled “speculative fiction” rather than “science fiction.” “Not because I don’t like Martians . . . they just don’t fall within my skill set,” she wrote in the introduction to “In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination,” an essay collection that she published in 2011.) […]

With the novel, she intended not just to pose the essential question of dystopian fiction—”Could it happen here?”—but also to suggest ways that it had already happened, here or elsewhere.

As Mead’s article shows, the timeliness of The Handmaid’s Tale could very well rely on the novel’s depiction of women as typical scapegoats:

The U.S. in 2017 does not show immediate signs of becoming Gilead, Atwood’s imagined theocratic American republic. President Trump is not an adherent of traditional family values; he is a serial divorcer. He is not known to be a man of religious faith; his Sundays are spent on the golf course.

What does feel familiar in “The Handmaid’s Tale” is the blunt misogyny of the society that Atwood portrays, and which Trump’s vocal repudiation of “political correctness” has loosed into common parlance today. Trump’s vilification of Hillary Clinton, Atwood believes, is more explicable when seen through the lens of the Puritan witch-hunts. “You can find Web sites that say Hillary was actually a Satanist with demonic powers,” she said. “It is so seventeenth-century that you can hardly believe it. It’s right out of the subconscious—just lying there, waiting to be applied to people.” The legacy of witch-hunting, and the sense of shame that it engendered, Atwood suggests, is an enduring American blight. “Only one of the judges ever apologized for the witch trials, and only one of the accusers ever apologized,” she said. Whenever tyranny is exercised, Atwood warns, it is wise to ask, “Cui bono?” Who profits by it? Even when those who survived the accusations levelled against them were later exonerated, only meagre reparations were made. “One of the keys to America is that your neighbor may be a Communist, a serial killer, or in league with satanic forces,” Atwood said. “You really don’t trust your fellow-citizens very much.”

 

In 2006 Margaret Atwood was interviewed by Bill Moyers for his Faith & Reason series. Talking about her novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood already expressed the idea contained in the above mentioned interview, an idea that could have come straight from the work of René Girard. Here are some transcribed quotes from Margaret Atwood during her interview with Bill Moyers:

Quote 1:

“[The Handmaid’s Tale] is a blueprint of the kind of thing that human beings do when they’re put under a certain sort of pressure. And I made it a rule for the writing of this book that I would not put anything into it that human societies have not already done.”

Quote 2:

Salem Witch Trial Bridget Bishop HangedThe Salem witchcraft trial is in my opinion one of the foundation events of American history. And it was an event where you can call it a clash between mythology and politics if you like. Because it depended very much on a belief in the invisible world. Cotton Mather, who was a very prominent divine at the time, wrote a book called The Wonders of the Invisible World, which was all about the behavior of witches.

Bridget Bishop TombstoneAnd the devil. And this is what people believed. They weren’t being hypocrites when they did these things. They were actually scared of witchcraft and the devil. And they believed that the devil could work his way into their community through witches, so it was serious business. But it was also a hysteria. The surprise to me has been all of the stuff I learned long ago. I thought, ‘Nobody’s going to be interested in this again. You know what good is knowing 17th-century theology ever going to be to me? Or anybody else. Surely nobody’s interested.’ And now suddenly it’s all come back. Because things do go around in cycles.”

Quote 3:

“I think the Salem witchcraft trial is the kind of event that replays itself throughout history when cultures come under stress. When societies come under stress these kinds of things happen. People start looking around for essentially human sacrifices. They start looking around for somebody they can blame. And they feel if only they can demolish that person, then everything’s going to be okay. And it’s of course never true, but there are these periods in history. If things aren’t going well, it must be the Communists. Let’s have Joe McCarthy. You know things aren’t going well. It must be them liberals. Whoever it may be.”

In the words of René Girard (from The Scapegoat – thanks to Brandon J. Brown for providing the quote): “Ultimately, the persecutors always convince themselves that a small number of people, or even a single individual, despite his relative weakness, is extremely harmful to the whole of society. The stereotypical accusation justifies and facilitates this belief by ostensibly acting the role of mediator.”

And here’s one last quote from Margaret Atwood on mimetic rivalry:

“What has amazed me is the theocracy that I’ve put in Handmaid’s Tale never calls itself Christian. And in fact it never says anything about Christianity whatsoever. Its slogans, etc., etc., are all from the Old Testament. So what has amazed me was the rapidity with which a number of Christians put up their hands and said, “This is an insult to us.” What did it mean? It meant they hadn’t read the book. You know they hadn’t read the book.

Because in the book the regime does what all such [totalitarian] regimes immediately do. It eliminates the opposition. The Bolsheviks got rid of their nearest ideological neighbors, the Mensheviks, as soon as they had the power. They killed the lot. You know? Too close to them. They got rid of any other socialists. They wanted to be the only true church brand of socialists. So any theocracy in this country would immediately eliminate all other competing religions if they could. So the Quakers in my book have gone underground.”

For more on women as scapegoats, the gradual Biblical revelation of the scapegoat mechanism and the so-called mimetic theory of René Girard, suggested reading includes:

“The Devils Are Come Down Upon Us”: Myth, History and the Witch as Scapegoat (by Martha J. Reineke)

Pleasantville and Biblical Feminism

A Woman’s Uncanny Valley

Temptresses

The Handmaid's Tale Art Installation (Paula Scher and Abbott Miller)

Here are some highlights from Martha Reineke’s above mentioned brilliant article “The Devils Are Come Down Upon Us: Myth, History and the Witch as Scapegoat:

When we ask of a woman accused of witchcraft, “Was she who her accuser said she was?” and, by appeal to analyses such as those reviewed in this essay, gather evidence, put her on trial again, and pronounce her innocent, we play a strange game with truth. We say that the accuser, speaking as he did about demons, diabolic contagion, and the witch’s pact, was unaware of what he was doing: he was frustrated by changing marriage patterns, confused by economic instability, angered by plague and famine, and embattled over claims to political turf. Angered, frustrated, confused, and embattled, he picked out an innocent woman and killed her. What we do not say in all of this language is that this man was a persecutor. The reason we do not say this is that the language of witch persecution had only one home: sacred myth. If we alter the language of witch persecution, severing it from its roots in myth in order to render its meaning in other terms, we will never unpack the meaning of the word “scapegoat.”

[…]

Two stories highlight René Girard’s analysis of the stereotypes of persecution. In one story a Jewish woman is depicted contemplating two pigs to whom she has just given birth. In another story, a woman has intercourse with a dog and gives birth to six puppies. Her tribe banishes her and she is forced to hunt for her own food. The first story is from a 1575 German text describing the Jewish proclivity for witchcraft. The second is from a myth of the Dogrib people. Each story bears the marks of the stereotypes of persecution. The background for each, explicit in the former and implicit in the latter, is crisis. The women flaunt cultural distinctions, engaging in bestiality. Because they are women, they bear essential victim marks. Moreover, they fail to differ as they should from others, inviting the scapegoat mechanism. That lack of difference is implicit in the former story of the Jewish woman and explicit in the Dogrib myth, which tells us that the puppy children are really human, having the ability to remove their fur coats at will and reenter the world of human society.

With these examples, we begin to see that lines separating history and myth are arbitrary in stories of persecution. The structure of persecution is indifferent to such categorical distinctions, for the Dogrib and the author of the 1575 German text are telling the same story. Yet we want to read them differently. We want to deny the mythic meaning of the story from Germany and translate its meaning, following rules of witchcraft interpretation represented by scholars such as Midelfort, Klaits, and Larner.

[…]

The key dynamic of the witches’ ordeal is not “brainwashing,” but “ritual.” And the end to be achieved is not psychological catharsis or successful thought reform, but the expiation of sin and the restoration of cosmic order.

This mythic model accounts best for an accuser’s confidence in the truthfulness of his victim’s confession. How could he believe that the witch had real power, that all initiative came from her, that she alone was responsible for the cure as she was for the sickness in the society? Proper neither to political ideology nor to psychological thought control, the logic of his discourse expressed the sacred and appealed to a pattern of causality proper to it: expiatory powers had to cross the threshold of death, and only that which was transcendent and supernatural could cross that line. The witch had to be made to appeal to powers beyond herself if, at her death, those powers were to live on after her. The woman accused of witchcraft had to be tortured and killed because only those actions followed the trail of death and summoned the transcendent powers of good to do battle with the powers of evil, so that sin could be vanquished and godly order reign again.

[…]

If we resist the mythic reading of the witch craze, the persecutors cease to be persecutors. If the persecutors were not persecutors, then the women whose innocence we wish to proclaim were not victims. We must read the tales of persecution through the eyes of the persecutors because in their eyes alone lies the full structure of persecution undisguised.

We will not save the victims of the witch craze by snatching them from the grip of history to put them on trial again and to declare them the innocent victims of economic unrest, political change, or psychological manipulation. Rather we will save them by putting their persecutors on trial. Such a trial will be as much or more the task of the theologian as of the historian or sociologist, for the primary texts of human sacrifice are religious texts whose myths plumb the human spirit at its innermost depths. To truly challenge the persecutors we must challenge them there, on their own turf. Only then will we be able to name the myth that has fueled their violence and to free the victims from the place of their incarceration. Only then will we know enough about the persecutor — his motives and his weapons — to condemn him. We must turn to myth if we are to grasp the persecutory structure at its roots and break its power.

If we are to protect victims of scapegoating we must examine why the religions of the West and, in particular, Christianity, have been religions of sacrifice. We must find out why humans live by myths of persecution, and we must seek alternate myths to live by that can account for crisis, anomie, and angst in human life without need for the expiatory sacrifice. Vigilance is required to protect victims: past and potential. But we practice vigilance on behalf of victims only by turning toward the persecutors and the myths by which they live, seeking them out wherever they may be. Ironically, faithfulness to history is possible only if we embrace myth.

[…]

In a movement directly opposed to that taken by the physicians who viewed the new theory of the plague as part of a persecutory myth, and sought real causes elsewhere, we deny to the witch craze its mythic elements, confident in the truths offered by the social sciences. Both we and the medieval physicians have denied myth in order to make room for truth. The medieval physicians got it backwards. Have we?

My confidence in the adequacy of the discourse of the social sciences to the phenomenon of witch hunting has been profoundly challenged by Girard, who writes that, “if our ancestors had thought in the same mode as do today’s masters, they would never have put an end to the witch trials.”  Challenged by his vision, I believe increasingly that, only if feminist scholars look at the mythic investment humans have in the scapegoat, will we be able to come to terms with the terrors of persecution and recount our foresisters’ stories in memoriam.

Even so, when we work to redeem the past on behalf of a future freed from terror, we must wonder whether, in our own time, if humans have not lost the capacity to create scapegoats, we may have lost the capacity to recognize that a scapegoat who has no expiatory powers is no scapegoat. Unless we can confront that problem directly, and take its lessons to heart, the risk of new witch hunts remains high, for we continue to live in a society that searches for scapegoats and lives by the scapegoat myth, even as its capacity to recognize myth fades from memory. The tragedy of this cultural amnesia may be not only that our society can recognize everyone’s scapegoats but its own. The tragedy may be also that, no longer at home in a mythic universe, yet still in need of scapegoats, those who live in the modern age, more than those of the past, may seek them in evermore virulent ways.

 

Man MAKING UP and MADE UP BY Mimetic Stories

Some stories are more true than others. This statement runs the risk of being loaded so much with criticisms by postmodern epistemologies that it might ultimately be abandoned, destined to become a lone voice crying in the wilderness of supposedly interchangeable cultural narratives. And yet the idea that there are different degrees of truth in storytelling is one of the major claims made by René Girard’s so-called mimetic theory. His work basically explores two sides of the storytelling process regarding the origin and maintenance of culture.

First, human beings make up stories for a number of reasons. On a formal level, however, this make-up seems to maintain some general characteristics, regardless of the specific contexts in which it appears. As a mimesis of reality storytelling always relates to actual events with different degrees of interconnectedness. Stories can represent actual events, can represent a fictional situation that shows what potentially happens in the actual world, or can represent a fictional situation whose fictitious character is realized precisely because it exceeds the limits of what could happen in the actual world. Each representation reveals its own character in a comparison with the actual world. From this comparison we may conclude in what sense a certain representation is true. In any case, every narrative representation always also includes, as a mimesis of reality, a distance from reality. No story is reality itself (outside the story). One of the questions that could be addressed is how and to what extent this distance can be considered positive or negative.

C.S. Lewis on Myth

It should be stressed that the acute awareness of a distance, or even a divide, between different representations of reality and reality itself is not as old as humanity itself. It probably coincides with the birth of Western philosophy in ancient Greece. From that time onwards, the cultural experience of reality becomes an issue. Whereas in archaic cultures man seems to mainly consider himself as a receiver or transmitter of truthful stories forged by sacred powers (great ancestors, spirits or gods), in Western culture man begins to discover himself as the author of stories (and gradually as a historical being). This also means that he becomes more aware of his potential to deceive others. Hence traditional stories, as they are told by man, should not necessarily be considered true anymore. Those stories become unreliable myths, while the search for truth becomes the quest for a language that uncovers reality from behind particular cultural deceptions.

The shift from a mythological to a philosophical worldview thus is twofold:

  • In mythological cultures stories represent the subject of meaningful speech, while man is the object that is spoken to. In other words, man is shaped by the stories of his culture. In post-mythological cultures man gradually becomes the subject of meaning, while stories become objects of inquiry. In other words, man shapes the stories of his culture.
  • In mythological cultures truth is only accessible to man insofar as sacred powers don’t trick him and grant him knowledge and truth. In post-mythological cultures man himself becomes capable of and responsible for gaining knowledge and truth.

The pinnacle of the belief that there is a culturally independent, universal language for accessing an objective truth is reached in the Age of Enlightenment. Of course, as is known, that universal language is provided by a so-called transcendent reason and the modern scientific method. Today, however, there is a well-established tradition in the humanities where the enlightened reason is believed to have overstepped itself. Enlightened reason not only claimed objectivity regarding the explanation of the natural world, but also regarding the justification and evaluation of cultural values, which became highly problematic on the political level. For indeed, by reducing reality to a so-called objective and inevitable truth, modern political ideologies like fascism and communism became violent totalitarianisms. One could say that, in these contexts, reason became violently unreasonable in ‘forgetting’ that it doesn’t escape being embedded in a cultural narrative as well (a ‘made up’ story).

The unprecedented scale of the violence of modern political ideologies in a paradoxical way reveals the second side of the storytelling process regarding the origin and maintenance of culture. Cultural narratives serve as an attempt to escape social disintegration by distinguishing so-called justified sacrificial violence from so-called unjustified escalating violence. This is essentially René Girard’s definition of myth.

René Girard on Myth

In other words, cultural narratives contain violence. They keep violence in check… by violent means. From the perspective of Girard’s mimetic theory, modern totalitarianisms therefore can be interpreted as failed myths. They were stories that could not ‘make up’ human beings, meaning that they produced more violence than that they provided human beings with protections against violence. Exactly why this kind of mythmaking increasingly fails in the course of history is yet another issue that could be explored.

In short, man and his culture are not only the cause of potential mimetic representations of reality, they are also the result of mimetic dynamics represented in mythic storytelling. As René Girard shows, mythic representations exteriorize the potentially violent nature of those mimetic dynamics (violence in this context is understood as a possible outcome of mimetic desire). This exteriorization at the same time is a kind of exorcism of uncontrollable violence. Through myths man claims to ‘know’ which habits, desires and creatures are taboo or should be ritually sacrificed in order to prevent (social) chaos. The cultural order thus not only produces sacrificial violence, it is itself also the product of such violence; it is the result of violence ‘kept in check’.

René Girard on Tomb as First Cultural Symbol

Today, however, we find ourselves confronted with the opportunity to be highly suspicious of whatever cultural justification (i.e. myth) for taboos or sacrifices. According to René Girard, Judeo-Christian tradition especially revealed archaic cultural justifications as part of a scapegoat mechanism. Cultural justifications, in other words, were discovered as at least partly blaming the wrong phenomena for certain events. In this sense, Judeo-Christian tradition hurts the ‘ego’ or narcissistic identity of any cultural order, insofar as this order is maintained through scapegoat mechanisms. It is perhaps possible to understand and examine the heritage of Judeo-Christian spirituality, and other spiritual traditions, as a criticism of individual and collective narcissism (as this narcissism is shaped by particular cultures and preserved by their narratives). I would like to show that a spiritual realm of forgiveness allows for individual self-honesty as an epistemic device for truth, as it also allows for freedom and responsibility beyond guilt. If man acknowledges his initial vulnerability and powerlessness in the face of what happens beyond his control, he might neither punish himself nor others to regain power over a certain situation. Instead, he might start looking for the real causes of what happened and no longer exteriorize his fears and frustrations as entities apart from him.

Finally, in this regard it could be investigated how stories can function as ‘safeguards of transcendence’. This could be a major concern. In other words, the question could be how stories do not get locked up in themselves as a kind of tautological reduction of reality (a deviated transcendence). The history of science-fiction stories, and especially the influence of the graphic novel Watchmen as a ‘meta-story’, might be a good way to address this issue. More specifically those stories, under certain circumstances, might help to transform (physically or mentally) violent sacrifice into non-violent sacrifice (a concept that could be developed).

As for now, it seems there are two major pitfalls in storytelling. On the one hand, there is the temptation of using modern technical reason and the scientific method to establish a totalitarian story of universalism wherein individuality is defined within limits relevant to a system of ‘technical management’ (politically speaking this is the temptation of a communist or neo-liberal globalism). On the other hand, there is the temptation of making truth wholly relative of individual particularities and thus establish a totalitarian story of particularism (politically speaking this is the temptation of nationalism). This totalitarian particularism refuses to acknowledge the sameness with others and therefore, paradoxically, excludes otherness. In this context, it would be interesting to bring scientific insights into mimetic processes to the table and also explore what happens when these processes are denied.

 

 

 

Ode To My Bullies

Ode To My Bullies

 

Barbie Saying GoodbyeAt first you called me gay behind my back

As if I would be troubled ’bout such fame.

I kissed a man before your eyes – you came –,

Fulfilled desire that grows from greater lack.

 

Obsessed with sex you seem to be to shame.

You play with people like words and do attack,

Launched “Barbie-fucker” to drive me in my shack.

It drove me nuts to paths of psycho’s frame.

 

Yet in the end forgiveness is my plea:

oh beg for your approval I won’t do

– the narcissist too small he lives in me.

 

This sonnet is my only ode to you

in hopes that you from now live happily

for I forever wave a toodeloo.

Barbie Waving Goodbye

In a previous post I considered “The Jesus Treatment of Bullying”. I guess this is my attempt to illustrate what an imitation of that example could look like.

Dossier: Pesten – Vlaanderen.be (pdf)

The_gossips_large

Hugo Claus, W.F. Hermans, Charles Ducal, Tommy Wieringa en… René Girard

Bij veel fervente lezers is René Girard en zijn gedachtegoed al eens langs geweest zonder dat ze ooit van hem hebben gehoord. De geest van Girard waart niet alleen rond in het werk van grote filosofen. Ook grote romanschrijvers laven zich regelmatig aan zijn inspirerende ideeën. De Tsjechisch-Franse auteur Milan Kundera beweert niet toevallig over Girards eerste grote werk – in Verraden Testamenten, Baarn, Ambo, 1994, p. 160: Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque is het beste dat ik ooit over de romankunst heb gelezen.” Daarnaast is ook iemand als J.M. Coetzee, de Zuid-Afrikaanse Nobelprijswinnaar voor Literatuur, een auteur die uitdrukkelijk met René Girard aan de slag is gegaan.

In het Nederlandse taalgebied heeft academisch onderzoek van de afgelopen decennia meer en meer literaire analyses ontplooid vanuit Girardiaans perspectief. Tegelijk wordt duidelijker gewezen op de expliciete invloed van René Girard op verscheidene literaire meesterwerken, bijvoorbeeld op Het verdriet van België.

Het is alweer tien jaar geleden dat uitgeverij De Bezige Bij het zilveren jubileum vierde van Het verdriet van België, een hoogtepunt uit het oeuvre van Hugo Claus. Naar aanleiding van die verjaardag verscheen volgende samenvatting op de website van de uitgeverij:

‘Het moet een boek worden over het leven in Vlaanderen zoals ik dat gekend heb, maar zoals het nu niet meer bestaat.’ Dat zei Hugo Claus een kleine tien jaar voordat hij Het verdriet van België voltooide: gedeeltelijk een bildungsroman gebaseerd op zijn eigen jeugd, gedeeltelijk ook een boek dat een beeld geeft van de politieke verhoudingen in België tijdens de Tweede Wereldoorlog. Maar bovenal een boek over de groezeligheid van de waarneming, de onbetrouwbaarheid, de twijfel en het verraad.

De hoofdpersoon van het verhaal, Louis Seynaeve, is elf jaar en leerling op een nonneninternaat. Verwarring, hunkering en bedrog vormen zijn jongensjaren en alleen door te fantaseren, de werkelijkheid geweld aan te doen kan hij overleven. Het leven in de Tweede Wereldoorlog wordt door Claus opgeroepen in een even complexe als meeslepende roman, die met recht het hoofdwerk uit zijn oeuvre mag worden genoemd.

De publicatie in maart 1983 zorgde in de pers voor een nooit eerder geziene hype. Het boek werd onmiddellijk een grote bestseller en heeft in de voorbije decennia ook in het buitenland veel succes geoogst. Het verdriet van België kan met recht tot een van de klassiekers uit de moderne internationale literatuur worden gerekend.

Op dinsdag 19 september 2006 verdedigde Gwennie Debergh aan de Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) haar proefschrift over het verband tussen René Girard en Hugo Claus. Haar doctoraat kreeg volgende titel (klik hier voor een overzicht van haar hand – pdf): “Zie ik nu dubbel, of word ik zot?” Statische en dynamische mimesis in Het verdriet van België (Hugo Claus).

Hierna volgen twee fragmenten uit Het verdriet van België (Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij – achtentwintigste druk, april 2008) die telkens expliciet een belangrijke pijler vermelden uit het gedachtegoed van René Girard. In het eerste fragment valt de term mimetische begeerte, en in het tweede wordt gewezen op de blijkbaar steeds terugkerende rol van zondebokken bij het creëren van maatschappelijke orde. Betekenisvol in het licht van Girards “mimetische theorie” is ook de manier waarop het joods-christelijke denken over God ter sprake wordt gebracht.

Het hoofdpersonage Louis Seynaeve is in gesprek met zijn mentor op het college, een jezuïet bijgenaamd “De Kei”. De Kei vraagt Louis naar zijn ervaringen in Duitsland, waar Louis een tijdje verbleef – pp. 458-459:

De Kei vroeg: ‘Hoe was het daar?’ en bedoelde: daar in het land van de vijand. Hij zag er steeds minder als een leraar uit, in zijn vlottende toog uitgemergeld als Pater de Foucauld, verteerd in een woestijn, en ontroostbaar.

‘Hebben zij het moeilijk, de gewone mensen? Waar logeerden de Vlaamse jongens? Ik dacht dat ze in kampen zaten, dat alleen de kleintjes tot tien jaar bij pleegouders terechtkwamen? Hoe waren de mensen daar in dat dorp?’

                ‘Zoals bij ons,’ zei Louis.

                ‘Dat kunt ge niet nader bepalen?’

                ‘Neen.’

                ‘Zijn zij bijvoorbeeld onderworpen? Meer dan de Belgen. Ja? Goed. Zijn ze irrationeler, onverdraagzamer, megalomaner? Ja? Goed. De boer waar ge bij hebt gewoond, bewonderde hij Hitler?’

                ‘Hij aanbad hem.’

                ‘Precies.’

                ‘Er zullen altijd leiders zijn, Eerwaarde.’

                ‘Ja. Altijd die mimetische begeerte. De liefdesomhelzing van leiders. Men wil bewonderen, opgezweept worden door sprookjes, door die ene zaligmakende mythe. Ja? Omdat in die hypnose de werkelijkheid wegslipt, de angst verdooft. Ja. Ga nu maar.’

Het verdriet van BelgiëIn een chronologisch later fragment beklaagt Louis Seynaeve zich over het lot van de joden, voor wie hij gaandeweg meer sympathie krijgt. Louis is in gesprek met zijn Papa, die daarentegen sympathiseert met de Duitse vijand – pp. 516-517:

             ‘De joden die overal in de weg zitten, die overal weggejaagd worden, het is onrechtvaardig.’

                ‘Staat dat in dat boek?’

                ‘Nee. Maar ge voelt het.’

                ‘Joden kunnen het goed zeggen.’

                ‘Maar wat ze zeggen is waar.’

                ‘Ge moet de waarheid van een jood altijd met een korreltje zout nemen.’

                ‘En die van u niet zeker!’

                ‘Ge moet daarom niet schreien.’

                Louis wist zeker dat dit zijn vader niet was. Ik ben ook het kind van Mama niet. Zij weten het zelf niet dat ik, toen ik in windsels lag in ‘t moederhuis, verwisseld ben met een ander kind. Alleen Peter weet het en die houdt zijn mond hierover, of heeft het alleen aan zijn lieveling, Tante Mona, verklapt, zij doet altijd zo raar tegen mij.

                ‘En de Boeren in Zuid-Afrika die door de Engelsen in concentratiekampen uitgehongerd en gemarteld zijn? De Ieren, de Indiërs door de Engelsman uitgemoord. En onze jongens in de loopgraven van Veertien-Achttien? Daar spreekt ge niet over. Daar hebt ge geen traantje voor over. Er moeten altijd zondebokken zijn, en nu zijn dat de joden.’

                ‘Altijd, Papa?’

             ‘Omdat er altijd zondebokken moeten zijn, hoort ge niet goed? Dat is het leven. ‘t Is hard als ge ‘t zelf moet zijn, maar er is iets als geluk en geen geluk in ‘t leven.’

              ‘De meeste wetten zijn op geluk gebaseerd, heel de orde van de Staat,’ zei Peter.

                ‘En de zondebok was een Lam,’ zei de Kei.

                ‘Nee! Nee!’ riep Louis koppig.

De Kei sprak trager dan ooit, die dag. ‘Hoe onrechtvaardig onze gemeenschap kan zijn, kijk rondom u, toch is zij onze mogelijke redding. Ik zal het niet meer meemaken, maar zij kan gered worden. Gelijkheid en rechtvaardigheid, die begrippen die zo kunstig worden rondgestrooid door precies diegenen die ze elke dag vertrappen, kunnen alleen door de gemeenschap komen, door de staat, maar welke staat? Die van God? Welke God? Hij die het gezicht heeft van de ander. Welke revelatie hebben wij te verwachten voor wij erkennen dat er in de werken van de mensen iets goddelijks is? Géén revelatie? Neen? Toch? Nee. Het beestachtige dat ons overvalt, jongens, de gruwelen zonder weerga waarvan men geen weet wil hebben, ik geef toe, daar valt geen sprankeltje in waar te nemen van het licht dat ik God noem, en dat ik dacht in elke mens te zien gloeien. En toch die God die, zoals Paulus zegt, onbekend zal blijven, waar kan hij zijn als wij willen dat hij er ooit is? In de vernederdsten onder ons.’

Voor meer over de verbanden tussen Hugo Claus en René Girard, zie ook:

Een andere literaire grootheid uit het Nederlandse taalgebied, Willem Frederik Hermans, behandelde dan weer die aspecten van de werkelijkheid die in het werk van René Girard centraal staan, maar dan zonder het werk van Girard zelf te kennen. Daarin kwam verandering toen de halfjoodse Amsterdamse schrijfster Sonja Pos analyses van het werk van Hermans begon te maken vanuit Girardiaanse invalshoek. Uiteindelijk publiceerde ze daarover een proefschrift. Willem Frederik Hermans schreef over haar werk onder andere het volgende aan een vriend, meer in het bijzonder over haar analyse van zijn roman De donkere kamer van Damokles:

Sommige beschouwingen over mijn werk kan ik niet lezen zonder angstgevoelens. Ken jij: Mimese en geweld, beschouwingen over het werk van René Girard, Kampen 1988? Hierin staat een opstel van Sonja Pos over De donkere kamer van Damokles, dat me bang van mijzelf liet worden toen ik het las. Nou ja, ik overdrijf een beetje. Het is een van de beste beschouwingen die er ooit over dat veelbesproken verhaal zijn verschenen.

Tommy Wieringa, een recentere coryfee aan het firmament van grote Nederlandstalige romanschrijvers, heeft dan weer zijn kennis van het werk van René Girard verwerkt in zijn roman Dit zijn de namen (klik hier voor meer en klik hier voor een recensie van Gwennie Debergh). Hij heeft daar in verscheidene interviews op gewezen, onder andere in het onderstaande, waarin hij verwijst naar “het werk van René Girard” (vanaf 25:30):

Op de vraag waar hij zichzelf situeert op het vlak van geloof antwoordt Tommy Wieringa in een interview het volgende:

Charles Ducal, een van de beste hedendaagse dichters in het Nederlandse taalgebied, doet sterk vermoeden dat ook hij bekend is met het werk van René Girard, en dan vooral in het gedicht Mimesis (Alsof ik er haast ben – verzamelde gedichten 1987-2012, atlas contact: Amsterdam/Antwerpen 2012 – derde druk april 2014; p. 249). Hij krijgt het voorlopig laatste woord in deze korte verkenning van Girards invloed op de Nederlandse letteren (wordt ongetwijfeld vervolgd):

 

Mimesis

 

Ergens in een ander huis zit iemand

net als ik, schrijvend tegen mij,

zoals ik schrijf aan zijn gedicht.

Ik ken hem niet, alleen de razernij

 

die ons gelijkmaakt, ik of hij,

alleen de dwang, de afgunst en de schrik

de regel te verraden die hem schikt.

Er kan maar één de sterkste zijn.

 

Altijd en overal hijgt de score,

in elke krant, elke zaal, elke blik:

God stukgevallen in duizend goden,

en allen zo machtig als ik.

 

 

 

Science or the Resurrection to Beauty

  • THE SPIRITUALITY OF A SCIENTIFIC ATTITUDE

Spirituality or a spiritual attitude basically consists of an interest in reality because of reality itself. It means that you do not reduce reality to a particular need or something that is useful (and, of course, what human beings need is not only defined by nature; we also mimetically learned to desire things beyond merely biological needs – nurture has its way as well in human life). It also means that the question of something’s or someone’s worth is not dependent on the question of usefulness. For instance, in a spiritual sense it makes no sense to ask about a newborn baby what he or she can be used for.

Nowadays we often seem brainwashed to approach reality from a utilitarian or even purely economic point of view. But this means that other aspects of reality and a more complete understanding of it remain in the dark. Therefore, St. John of the Cross writes:

St John of the Cross quote on spiritual understandingIf you purify your soul of attachment to and desire for things, you will understand them spiritually. If you deny your appetite for them, you will enjoy their truth, understanding what is certain in them.

Indeed, if a student no longer approaches a poem merely because of a possible test about it and because of a desire to get good grades, the student can become interested in the poem because of the poem itself – and enjoy its beauty. Indeed, if a physicist does not approach nature from the question how it can be made of use for the survival of the human species (what physicists rarely do, anyway), the physicist may approach the truth of nature more fully – and enjoy its poetry.

carrot and stick methodTruth, in whatever sense, does not primarily have to be useful. Truth has to be true. Nowadays, all too often in science too, research is legitimized by utilitarian concerns. But this is not what drives scientists who are involved in a quest for truth. The following clip may illustrate this. It is about assistant Professor Chao-Lin Kuo who surprises Professor Andrei Linde with evidence that supports cosmic inflation theory. The discovery, made by Kuo and his colleagues at the BICEP2 experiment, represents the first images of gravitational waves, or ripples in space-time. These waves have been described as the “first tremors of the Big Bang.” Note that possible recognition by organizations like the Nobel Prize Committee is a consequence of what these scientists do, it is not a goal that serves as the source of their passion and vocation as “truth seekers” (they are not enslaved donkeys who need that kind of carrot to move). Click to watch:

 

  • SPIRITUALITY IN AMERICAN BEAUTY (SAM MENDES, 1999)

The core of the spiritual attitude is portrayed magnificently in American Beauty (the 1999 Sam Mendes picture that would eventually win 5 Academy Awards out of 8 nominations). Lester Burnham, the main character (played by Academy Award winning actor Kevin Spacey), “passes from death to life” as he awakens to a fuller awareness of reality. In the beginning of the film Lester is entangled in the preoccupations of a society that focuses on appearances. Clearly he has gradually learned to approach other people and things from the question whether or not they are useful in his pursuit of happiness. Instead of giving him a fulfilled life, this utilitarian approach has left him empty and alienated from himself and others. “In a way, I am dead already,” he says.

Playboy Bunny Carrot CartoonThroughout the film, Lester becomes obsessed with the young “American Beauty” Angela, a friend of his daughter Jane. He mainly fantasizes about her as the ultimate fulfillment of his sexual desires. Angela knows about this male gaze all too well, and she presents herself accordingly in order to gain some sort of (questionable) recognition. Maybe she could have become a playboy bunny in the mansion of the late Hugh Hefner (1926-2017), who knows?

Angela appears to be a sexually very experienced girl. The reality, however, is that she is still a virgin. Lester awakens to this reality when he is on the verge of having sex with her. “This is my first time,” she tells him. This statement literally brings Lester to his senses. After that, he no longer approaches Angela from his particular needs, but he opens up to the more complete reality of the vulnerable angel that she is. In short, Lester becomes interested in Angela because of Angela herself, and not because of the satisfaction of his desires. For the first time he really looks at her more closely. He learns to love the truth and beauty of who she is, and is no longer blinded by who she appears to be. He converts to Love.

Lester has rediscovered a truly spiritual perspective on life, a perspective that is exemplified throughout the film by the character of Ricky, the son of the family next door. Ricky is able to contemplate reality because of reality itself and discovers beauty in all things. He is even moved by a bag, dancing in the wind. As he watches the film he made of it together with Jane, he says:

Do you want to see the most beautiful thing I’ve ever filmed? It was one of those days when it’s a minute away from snowing. And there’s this electricity in the air. You can almost hear it, right? And this bag was just… dancing with me… like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. That’s the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know that there was no reason to be afraid… ever. Video is a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember… I need to remember… Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.

Click to watch this scene:

These words of Ricky are repeated at the end of the film by Lester, whose voice over is actually the voice over of a dead man, a murdered man. By quoting the words of Ricky, Lester shows that he has truly become alive to reality as a whole. The paradox, of course, is that in the beginning of the film Lester is physically alive but dead spiritually (remember him saying, “In a way, I am dead already.”). At the end of the film he is dead physically but resurrected to a spiritually fulfilled life.

Biblically speaking, Lester went from being like Cain to being like Abel (see Genesis 4). Apparently, Cain’s goal in life is the recognition of others. He desires the affirmation of a certain idea of himself, and thus does not love himself nor others (he is not interested in others because of themselves, but because of his desire for recognition). Abel, on the other hand, approaches others because of a love for those others themselves. He presents a gift to make someone happy, not to gain some sort of status or prestige. Of course, the possible consequence of love is recognition. Cain, in contrast, presents a gift to get attention. That’s why he becomes jealous of his brother Abel when he sees that Abel’s gift is noticed and his is not. If Cain’s goal would have been to love the other, he would have been happy to see the other happy, even if it wasn’t with his gift. Cain’s deeds, however, clearly are not inspired by love. That’s why he becomes mad and that’s why he is unable to feel gratitude for the attention he does receive when the other he presented his gift to asks him, “Why are you so mad?” Dead to himself, Cain is dead to others as well. Eventually, Abel is also physically murdered by him. Indeed, if you’re associated with others who become obstacles to a desirable social image, you run the risk of being banned, eliminated or killed. Concerned with socially acceptable images, people tend to be in a constant state of transiency (“eternal life does not reside” in their identity, as they constantly have to change it to what’s popular), which, like Cain, leads them to hate themselves and others. In the New Testament, the first letter of John summarizes all of these insights (1 John 3: 11-15):

This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous. Do not be surprised, my brothers and sisters, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.

In American Beauty, Lester becomes one of those victims of people who want to protect their self-image. However, instead of mimetically responding to the lack of love and the evil that he had to endure by seeking revenge, he focuses on the love he did receive. That’s why he does not stay mad. That’s why he is eventually fulfilled with gratitude. Filled with grace, he becomes merciful – a forgiving victim (see James Alison’s theology). These are his final words:

I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me… but it’s hard to stay mad, when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst… And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life… You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry… You will someday.

Click to watch more scenes and their analysis:

 

CLICK HERE TO SEE SCAPEGOATING IN AMERICAN BEAUTY