“All the World’s a Mimetic Stage…” – Some Revealing Comedy

The following is a collection of (tragic) comical references to some of the cornerstones of René Girard’s mimetic theory, especially its analysis of the reality of mimetic desire and rivalry in human relationships. They appeared on Mimetic Margins throughout the years.

Have fun with the short videoclips from Mr Bean, Chris Rock, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Seinfeld and The Big Bang Theory!

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MIMETIC MR BEAN

It’s all there below, in this classic piece of British humour – some of the basic elements of René Girard’s mimetic theory: mimetic desire, mimetic competition or rivalry and the haunting nightmare of the mimetic double. Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean really is the master of ceremonies here. Indeed, we often take more than we need when there are other people circling around the same buffet.

Moreover, mimetic dynamics generally are at work in the development of our eating habits. It would be very interesting to create an intensified dialogue between Paul Rozin’s research on the acquisition of likes and dislikes of foods and René Girard’s mimetic theory. Although some scholars already made some connections between the two (for instance in Culinary Cultures of Europe: Identity, Diversity and Dialogue, ed. by Darra Goldstein & Kathrin Merkle, Council of Europe Publication, 2005), much promising work remains to be done. Click here for a previous post on the subject, Mimetic Food Habits.

Enjoy this clever excerpt from Mr Bean in Room 426 (first broadcast 17th Feb 1993):

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CHRIS ROCK ROCKS MIMETICALLY

American comedian Chris Rock refers to yet another example of mimetic dynamics (in the TV Special Never Scared, 2004), the potential rivalry between two good friends over the same potential partner:

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WILL SMITH’S FRESH PHILOSOPHY

“I hate all this philosophical mumbo-jumbo! It just doesn’t make any sense!”

I’ve experienced reactions like these from my students quite often while trying to teach them some philosophy. They express the normal frustration people get when they just don’t seem to succeed in mastering the issues they’re facing. To be honest, I more than once imitated their feelings of despair by getting frustrated and impatient myself about their inability to understand what I was trying to say. The story of students blaming teachers for not explaining things well enough, and of teachers responding that their students just don’t try hard enough, is all too familiar. But, at the end of the day, having worked through some negative emotions, I somehow always manage to sit down at my desk and try to improve upon my part of communicating. I can only hope it stays that way.

The writings of Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas are not always easy to understand, let alone agree with. Roger Burggraeve, one of my professors at the University of Leuven, has proven to be an excellent guide to introduce me to the philosophy of Levinas (click here for an excellent summary by Burggraeve). But explanations at an academic level are not always easily transferable to a high school level. Regarding Levinas I’m faced with the challenge to explain something about his thoughts on “the Other” and “the Other’s face”. Although Levinas’ musings often appear to be highly abstract for someone who didn’t receive any proper philosophical training, his thinking springs from very “earthly”, even dark realities and experiences – especially the experience of the Holocaust. Levinas’ response to the threat of totalitarianism is actually very down to earth, but because it wants to be “fundamental”, I can imagine it indeed sometimes comes across as mumbo-jumbo to sixteen year olds.

Luckily enough for me, as a teacher, an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (season 3, episode 12 The Cold War) can help to make clear what “the encounter with the Other” could be like in a particular situation. Moreover, it also serves as a good way to connect René Girard’s mimetic theory with some of Levinas’ main insights. Here’s the story:

Will and his nephew Carlton have a crush on the same girl, Paula. Carlton had been the first to date Paula, but after introducing her to Will, she also becomes Will’s object of interest. Will imitates the desire of Carlton and, upon noticing this, Carlton in turn reinforces his desire for Paula by imitating his new rival Will. This is a prime and archetypal example of what Girard has labeled mimetic (or imitative) desire, which potentially leads to mimetic rivalry. Will and Carlton become each other’s obstacles in the pursuit of an object (in this case a person, Paula) they point to each other as desirable. They become jealous of each other and try to out compete one another. They both fear the other as a threat to their self-esteem and independency. Ironically however, as they try to differ themselves from each other by unwittingly imitating each other’s desire, they resemble each other more and more. In fact, their sense of “being” becomes truly dependent on the other they despise. They end up dueling each other in a pillow fight, trying to settle the score.

At one moment, near the end of Will and Carlton’s fight, something happens which indeed illustrates what Levinas means with “response to the Other’s face” (click here for some excerpts from Levinas’ Ethics as First Philosophy). Will pretends to be severely injured (“My eye!”), whereon Carlton totally withdraws from the fight. Carlton finds himself confronted with Will’s vulnerability, and is genuinely concerned for his nephew’s well-being. The Other he was fighting turns out to be more than his rival, more than the product of his (worst) imaginations. Indeed, before being a rival the Other “is simply there“, not reducible to any of our concerns, desires or anxieties. Carlton is not concerned for his own sake: he doesn’t seem to fear any punishment, nor does he seem to desire any reward while showing his care for Will. He abandons all actions of self-interest “in the wink of an eye”.

This is an ethical moment, as Levinas understands it. It goes beyond utilitarianism which, as it turns out, justifies itself as being “good” by arguing that self-interest (i.e. what proves useful for one’s own well-being) eventually serves the interest (well-being) of others as well. Putting forward the effect on the well-being of others as justification for utilitarianism is telling, and shows that utilitarianism in itself doesn’t seem to be “enough” as a foundation for ethics. Moreover, utilitarianism serves the interests of “the majority”, which threatens to overlook what happens to minorities “other than” that majority. Sometimes sacrificing a minority might seem “logical” from this point of view. By contrast, in what is “the ethical moment” according to Levinas, one fears being a murderer more than one’s own death. In other words, provoked by the Other’s “nakedness” and “vulnerability” (the Other’s face which lies beyond our visible descriptions and labeling of the Other), OUR FEAR OF THE OTHER IS TRANSFORMED IN FEAR FOR THE OTHER. The mimetic rivalry between Will and Carlton is thus interrupted until, of course, Will reveals he was only joking about his injury… and the pillow fight continues.

CLICK TO WATCH:

Eventually, Will and Carlton quit fighting and start confessing their wrongdoings towards one another. They no longer imitate each other’s desire to assert themselves over against one another, but they imitate each other in being vulnerable and forgiving, recognizing “each Other”. They imitate each other’s withdrawal from mimetically converging desire and rivalry. It is by becoming “Other” to one another that they paradoxically gain a new sense of “self”, as an unexpected consequence…

Enjoy that grand twist of humor in Will Smith’s unexpected philosophy class…

CLICK TO WATCH:

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SHAKESPEARE MUSTA LOVED SEINFELD

In the book Evolution and Conversion – Dialogues on the Origins of Culture (Continuum, London, New York, 2007), René Girard talks about popular culture and discusses the power of mass media. His approach is very nuanced, as he distinguishes between positive and negative aspects of these phenomena. He even dares to compare television series Seinfeld to the works of William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Girard develops his thoughts in a conversation with Pierpaolo Antonello and João Cezar de Castro Rocha. The seventh chapter, Modernity, Postmodernity and Beyond, reads the following (pp. 249-250):

Guy Debord wrote that ‘the spectacle is the material reconstruction of the religious illusion’ brought down to earth. Could we consider the expansion of the mass-media system, and the ideological use of it, as a ‘kathechetic’ instrument as well?

Of course, because it is based on a false form of transcendence, and therefore it has a containing power, but it is an unstable one. The conformism and the ethical agnosticism induced by media such as television could also produce forms of mimetic polarization at the mass level, making people more prone to be swayed by mimetic dynamics, inducing the much-feared populism in Western democracies.

Do you agree, however, that movies, TV and advertising draw heavily on mimetic principle, therefore increasing our awareness on this score?

Yes and no, because the majority of Hollywood or TV productions are very much based on the false romantic notion of the autonomy of the individual and the authenticity of his/her own desire. Of course there are exceptions, like the popular sit-com Seinfeld, which uses mimetic mechanisms constantly and depicts its characters as puppets of mimetic desire. I do not like the fact that Seinfeld constantly makes fun of high culture, which is nothing but mimetic snobbery, but it is a very clever and powerful show. It is also the only show which can afford to make fun of political correctness and can talk about important current phenomena such as the anorexia and bulimia epidemic, which clearly have strong mimetic components. From a moral point of view, it is a hellish description of our contemporary world, but at the same time, it shows a tremendous amount of talent and there are powerful insights regarding our mimetic situations.

Seinfeld is a show that gets closer to the mimetic mechanism than most, and indeed is also hugely successful. How do you explain that?

In order to be successful an artist must come as close as he can to some important social truth without inciting painful self-criticism in the spectators. This is what this show did. People do not have to understand fully in order to appreciate. They must not understand. They identify themselves with what these characters do because they do it too. They recognize something that is very common and very true, but they cannot define it. Probably the contemporaries of Shakespeare appreciated his portrayal of human relations in the same way we enjoy Seinfeld, without really understanding his perspicaciousness regarding mimetic interaction. I must say that there is more social reality in Seinfeld than in most academic sociology.”

Maybe a small example can lift a tip of the veil. I chose a short excerpt from Seinfeld’s episode 88 (season 6, episode 2, The Big Salad). Jerry Seinfeld is dating a nice lady. However, when he finds out his annoying neighbor Newman is her former lover, his face darkens… One doesn’t have to watch the whole episode to know what will happen next. Indeed, Jerry eventually breaks up with his date, imitating what Newman did and ‘ending it’. The reason Jerry’s desire for his girlfriend diminishes precisely lies in the often imitative or, as Girard would call it, ‘mimetic’ nature of desire. Jerry just doesn’t desire his date directly all the way, but he is – like all of us – sometimes heavily influenced by certain models who point out what he should or should not desire. In this case, Newman turns out to be a model who negatively influences Jerry’s desire…

This scene is fun, because it’s all too recognizable and it mirrors some aspects of our tragic comic behavior – good, refined humor as it should be!

Click to watch:

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MIMETIC BIG BANG THEORY

Sometimes, just sometimes, quite revealing scientific insights slip into popular culture. I was watching a rerun of an episode of The Big Bang Theory sitcom on Belgian television. More specifically, I found out, I was watching The White Asparagus Triangulation (episode 9, season 2 ).

Mimetic DesireThe title itself can already be connected to a basic concept of René Girard’s mimetic theory, namely mimetic desire. As it turns out, “triangulation” indeed refers to the triangular nature of human desire (beyond instinctive needs) as described by Girard: the desire of a subject towards a certain object is positively or negatively influenced by mediators or models (click here to watch an example of negatively mediated desire from another popular sitcom, Seinfeld). Humans imitate others in orienting their desires – their desire thus is mimetic.

In the case of this episode from The Big Bang Theory: Sheldon tries to positively influence the desire of Leonard’s new girlfriend, Stephanie. After all, she is the first of Leonard’s dates to meet Sheldon’s high intellectual standards, so Sheldon does everything to increase Stephanie’s desire for Leonard. At some point he tries to persuade the girl next door, Penny, to present herself as a rival/model for Stephanie. Here’s the script for this scene.

Scene: Outside Penny’s door.

Sheldon (Knock, knock, knock) : Penny (knock, knock, knock) Penny.

Penny: What?

Sheldon (Knock, knock, knock) : Penny. Zucchini bread.

Penny: Oh, thank you.

Sheldon: May I come in?

Penny: No.

The White Asparagus Triangulation Penny and Sheldon Zucchini

Sheldon: I see. Apparently my earlier inquiry regarding you and Leonard crossed some sort of line. I apologize.

Penny: Well, thank you.

Sheldon: So, have you and I returned to a social equilibrium?

Penny: Yes.

Sheldon: Great. New topic. Where are you in your menstrual cycle?

Penny: What?

Sheldon: I’ve been doing some research online, and apparently female primates, you know, uh, apes, chimpanzees, you, they find their mate more desirable when he’s being courted by another female. Now, this effect is intensified when the rival female is secreting the pheromones associated with ovulation. Which brings me back to my question, where are you in (Penny slams door). Clearly, I’m 14 days too early.

Female Chimpanzee Sexual Swelling KanyawaraSeveral lines of evidence indicate some female competition over mating. First, at Mahale, females sometimes directly interfered in the mating attempts of their rivals by forcing themselves between a copulating pair. In some cases, the aggressive female went on to mate with the male. At Gombe, during a day-long series of attacks by Mitumba females on a fully swollen new immigrant female, the most active attackers were also swollen and their behaviour was interpreted as ‘sexual jealousy’ by the observers. Townsend et al. found that females at Budongo suppressed copulation calls when in the presence of the dominant female, possibly to prevent direct interference in their copulations. Second, females occasionally seem to respond to the sexual swellings of others by swelling themselves. Goodall described an unusual incident in which a dominant, lactating female suddenly appeared with a full swelling a day after a young oestrous female had been followed by many males. Nishida described cases at Mahale in which a female would produce isolated swellings that were not part of her regular cycles when a second oestrous female was present in the group.
The White Asparagus Triangulation eventually gets its title from another scene in the episode. Sheldon tries to establish Leonard as “the alpha male”. Sheldon will pretend that he is unable to open a jar of asparagus. If Leonard then opens the jar he will have won the mimetic competition over the question “who is the strongest?”, resulting in an increase of his sex appeal. Of course, for the sake of comedy, things go terribly wrong :). Here’s the script for this scene.

Scene: The apartment.

Leonard: All I’m saying is if they can cure yellow fever and malaria, why can’t they do something about lactose intolerance?

Steph: Leonard, you’re going to have to let this go. You had a little cheese dip, you farted, I thought it was cute.

Sheldon: Oh, hi Stephanie.

Steph: Hi.

Leonard: Want some more wine?

Steph: Yeah, I assume I’m not driving anywhere tonight. (Sheldon lets out a loud noise).

Leonard: What are you doing?

Sheldon: I have a craving for white asparagus that apparently is destined to go unsatisfied.

Leonard: Excuse me. What the hell is wrong with you?

Sheldon: I’m helping you with Stephanie.

Leonard: By making constipated moose sounds?

The White Asparagus Triangulation Big Bang Theory

Sheldon: When I fail to open this jar and you succeed it will establish you as the alpha male. You see, when a female witnesses an exhibition of physical domination she produces the hormone oxytocin. If the two of you then engage in intercourse this will create the biochemical reaction in the brain which lay people naively interpret as falling in love.

Leonard: Huh? Would it work if I just punched you in the face?

Sheldon: Yes, actually it would, but let’s see how the lid goes. I’m not strong enough, Leonard, you’ll have to do it.

Leonard: Oh, for god’s sakes.

Sheldon: Go ahead, it’s pre-loosened.

Steph: Do you want some help with that?

Leonard: No, no, no, I got it.

Sheldon: No, yeah, yeah, he’s got it, and that’s not surprising. This is something I long ago came to peace with in my role as the beta male. Open it. (Leonard tries again. Then taps jar on counter. Jar breaks.)

Steph: Oh my god, are you okay?

Leonard: No, I’m not. I’m bleeding.

Sheldon: Like a gladiator!

Steph: Oh, honey, you’re going to need stitches.

Leonard: Stitches? With a needle?

Steph: Well, yeah, I mean, just a few.

Leonard: Oh, okay, yeah, hang on a sec. (Throws up in sink)

Sheldon: FYI, I was defrosting a steak in there.

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.