In Memoriam Michaël Ghijs

gabriel-garridoSaturday, February 23, 2008. Gabriel Garrido, a renowned conductor of Latin American baroque music, is about to begin an evening concert at Cité de la Musique, Paris. His equally famous Ensemble Elyma is ready, together with eleven members of the Belgian boy and men choir Schola Cantorum Cantate Domino. All of a sudden, maestro Garrido turns around and addresses the audience:

“We are saddened to inform you that two days ago, on Thursday, Reverend Michaël Ghijs, the widely acclaimed conductor of the Schola Cantorum Cantate Domino from Aalst, Belgium, passed away. We would like to dedicate this concert to his memory.”

Then he turns again and looks us straight in the eyes. We, the members of the Cantate Domino choir, all have a lump in the throat. We all try to hold back our tears. Finally, maestro Garrido raises his hands and off we go to sing Cantate Domino’s first concert after the death of its founder. We all know things will never be the same again (footage from the concert):

Only 5 months before, on October 8, 2007, on his 74th birthday, Reverend Michaël Ghijs got diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I still remember it vividly, because we used to celebrate our birthdays together (mine is on October 6).

Michaël Ghijs conducts his choir one last time during Mass on Sunday, February 3, 2008, in the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula in Brussels. He is literally deathly sick at the time, no longer able to accompany his boys during the entrance procession, but still he manages to direct them for the remainder of the Mass. It is but one example of his tremendous willpower and passion. Of course, these personality traits make him stubborn at times. For instance, during a concert tour in Asia he asks me wether or not to include Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy for an afternoon programme. My answer is not to include it, because I have the impression that the young trebles don’t seem sure about themselves. From his reaction I immediately know I shouldn’t have said that. He starts rehearsal with the Choral Fantasy, saying that the sopranos will show everyone who doubts them what they are capable of. Eventually, he shows me wrong. He is, as always, proud of the achievements of his singers. It is no coincidence that many former members of Cantate Domino have a career in music.

philippe-herrewegheMichaël Ghijs is proud of and grateful for the hard work and successes of the people he works with, yet he is not driven by pride. Although he can be stubborn, he can also say that he is sorry and admit to making mistakes. It is characteristic of the way he leads the choir. Conflicts are possible, meaning that Michaël Ghijs is not just a commander-in-chief who expects blind obedience. On the other hand, great discipline is needed and established because he wants to perform the often difficult music the best he can. Not because he wants to make a career or because he chases some kind of success, but simply because he loves the (mostly religious) music and the message it contains. His love of music itself and his artistic motivations became clear, for instance, when he compared different recordings of the same work. I remember very vividly, during my first year in the choir, that he really disliked a recording of Mendelssohn’s St. Paul oratorio by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos. It’s the recording some of my friends and I had bought. He thought the overall interpretation didn’t serve the music nor the message. Also, after concerts, he could be very dissatisfied with our performance even when the crowd had given us a standing ovation.

I guess this is difficult to understand for people who are primarily driven by a desire to make a career and/or to become rich. True, eventually the Schola Cantorum Cantate Domino works with famous conductors like Colin Davis, Laszlo Heltay, Ronald Zollman, Philippe Herreweghe, Michael Tilson Thomas, Pierre Cao, Claudio Abbado, Alexander Rahbari, Johan Duijck, Rudolf Werthen and Dirk Brossé; with musicians like Vladimir Ashkenazy, José van Dam and even Toots Thielemans; with ensembles like Capilla Flamenca and the above mentioned Ensemble Elyma – listen to an excerpt from the collaboration on the CD Corpus Christi à Cusco (K617, 2006):

The choir even participates in the movies Daens and In BrugesNothing of the choir’s impressive resume, however, has ever been a goal. It’s just been a consequence of passion and hard work (the trebles alone practice up to 15 hours a week!). Moreover, Cantate Domino has never been a merely artistic project.

jose-van-damtoots-thielemans

in-bruges

Michaël Ghijs has a hard time refusing boys who can’t really sing. Those who persevere find a way of making themselves helpful in the practical organisation of the choir. They are welcome to join the choir on its concert tours. Regarding these tours, Michaël Ghijs also has a hard time refusing members who don’t really deserve to come along because of longer periods of absence. Sometimes the yearly concert tours are undertaken by a group of around eighty individuals, making them a financially challenging operation. Yet Reverend Ghijs often pays the entire trip out of his own pocket for members whose financial situation doesn’t otherwise allow them to travel. The choir indeed is open to people of all sorts of cultural and social backgrounds. Reverend Ghijs also makes it a point to look after members and former members when they experience difficulties in their lives. For instance, he provides shelter for a young man who came out of the closet as a homosexual and whose parents threw him out because of that. Or he gives daily calls to a former member of the choir who is in the hospital for a treatment of meningitis. There are so many situations to mention… Perhaps it is in these social aspects that the priestly vocation of Ghijs is most apparent. The choir never is a money making machine. Singing at funerals and marriages, or performing in care homes, prisons, whatever: the choir often just receives enough to pay the bill of the bus (sometimes to the chagrin of the older members who are in charge of the finances).

diapason-cover-june-2005In any case, what Michaël Ghijs achieves with his choir, with boys who often don’t have any proper education in music, is nothing short of a miracle. One of his best qualities is his firm belief in the abilities of young people before they even believe in themselves. When some of us think we will never be able to properly perform Amen by Henryk Mikolaj Górecki, Michaël Ghijs pulls us through. He even wants us to sing it at the Belgian provincial choir tournaments, next to, among other music, Bach’s motet Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied. In the end he is right. Our perfomance places us, once again, in the highest division. In the same period an album is recorded by Capilla Flamenca together with some trebles of Schola Cantorum Cantate Domino. Ten years later, this CD is listed among “the 25 most beautiful recordings of boy choirs” by renowned French magazine Diapason (June, 2005):

diapason-review-of-cantate-domino-aalst

Listen to an excerpt from the CD Missa Alleluia (Eufoda, 1996):

If anything, these things prove that Michaël Ghijs above all educated young people to enable them to shine and to share their talents with the world. Of course, there will always be cynical minds who regard the work of a priest with young boys and men with suspicion. I know Reverend Ghijs got called names sometimes by so-called rebellious teenagers when he crossed the street with his boy sopranos. The words are not worth repeating. Reverend Ghijs, unlike me, ignored them and always continued his work with the same energy, passion, eagerness to learn and genuine concern for what happened in the lives of his singers.

I’ve had the privilege to have known this man, a true friend and mentor, for almost twenty years. Like everyone else, he was a complex human being with flaws and weaknesses, with doubts and frustrations. He dared to be vulnerable. He kept reading and studying, knowing that he never knew enough. He questioned the personal assumptions of his Christian faith and developed his theology in a different direction over the years (in no small part because he discovered the work of James Alison). He loved the good life and could enjoy delicious food and drinks in good company.

Michaël Ghijs is missed by friends all over the world, from the Americas over Spain, Italy, Bulgaria and a range of other European countries to South Africa, Israel, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and many other places. In the course of his lifetime, Reverend Michaël Ghijs discovered his own limits and cultural boundaries, not as ends in themselves to separate himself from others, but, on the contrary, as means to encounter others. His legacy is a spirituality to be imitated and a work to be continued, in whatever context, in true friendship and in gratitude.

May God bless him.

My trip down memory lane, compiled from different tv performances, pictures and records – life in Schola Cantorum Cantate Domino:

The Gospel in Star Wars

1. The Myth of the Hero’s Journey in Star Wars

Much has been written about the mythological nature of the Star Wars movie saga. Indeed its creator, George Lucas, is heavily influenced by the writings of mythologist Joseph Campbell. Campbell even became a mentor to Lucas, helping him to create this new mythology for the blockbuster and pop culture audience. Bill Moyers interviewed Lucas about the mythology of Star Wars:

Joseph Campbell became famous for his concept of “the hero’s journey”, one of the main patterns inJoseph Campbell George Lucas Meme mythology, observable in stories throughout the world and recaptured by George Lucas. An exhibition on Star Wars at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney focused on this theme. Here is some explanation from the teachers notes to this exhibition (click here – pdf):

Joseph Campbell, one of the world’s foremost students and scholars of mythology, studied thousands of myths from around the world and discovered that the majority of them shared many common characteristics. In fact, he saw all the stories as variations of one overall tale, which he named the ‘monomyth’. The subject of the hero is no exception. While the heroes of various cultures may be defined as heroic for different reasons, nearly each one fits the stages of the hero journey as developed by Campbell.

According to Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949:245–246) we can summarize the hero’s journey into three main stages.

Departure

‘The mythological hero, setting forth from his common day hut or castle, is lured, carried away, or else voluntarily proceeds, to the threshold of adventure. There he encounters a shadow presence that guards the passage. The hero may defeat or conciliate this power and go alive into the kingdom of the dark (brother-battle, dragon-battle; offering, charm), or be slain by the opponent and descend in death (dismemberment, crucifixion).’

The Hero's Journey 1Initiation

‘Beyond the threshold, then, the hero journeys through a world of unfamiliar yet strangely intimate forces, some of which severely threaten him (tests), some of which give magical aid (helpers). When he arrives at the nadir of the mythological round, he undergoes a supreme ordeal and gains his reward. The triumph may be represented as the hero’s sexual union with the goddess-mother of the world (sacred marriage), his recognition by the father-creator (father atonement), his own divinization (apotheosis), or again — if the powers have remained unfriendly to him — his theft of the boon he came to gain (bride-theft, fire-theft); intrinsically it is an expansion of consciousness and therewith of being (illumination, transfiguration, freedom).’

The Hero's Journey 3Return

‘The final work is that of the return. If the powers have blessed the hero, he now sets forth under their protection (emissary); if not, he flees and is pursued (transformation flight, obstacle flight). At the return threshold the transcendental powers must remain behind; the hero re-emerges from the kingdom of dread (return, resurrection). The boon that he brings restores the world (elixir).’

The Hero's Journey 5Other researchers and scholars have made similar observations regarding this universal mythological and archaic cultural pattern. The pinnacle of the initiation stage is always the “death and rebirth” or, in other words, the “sacrifice and resurrection” of the hero (or heroine). According to Campbell and others, the hero “has to die to his old self” through a supreme (series of) ordeal(s) and return as someone who has the skills to renew life, prosperity, order and peace for his community. It is no coincidence that initiation rituals take the same pattern. In short, archaic cultures defend the idea that a sacrifice (of a hero or his enemy, of a beast or a monster) is necessary to save communities from potentially or ongoing destructive crises. Already James Frazer in his classic study The Golden Bough (click here – pdf) described the necessity of periodic sacrifices as an essential belief underlying myths and rituals throughout the world. The creatures that are sacrificed or sacrifice themselves turn out to be somewhat ambiguous: sometimes they are presented as “bad” as they are considered responsible for all kinds of evil; sometimes they are presented as “good” as their death will save the community; often they are presented as both bad (“monsters” while alive) and good (“saviors” when dead or cast out).

Together with scholars like Frazer, René Girard observes that the above mentioned mythological pattern shows up in the Hebrew Bible and in the Gospels as well, especially in the story of Jesus Christ’s Passion. However, unlike Frazer, Campbell and the like, Girard does not believe that the story of Christ’s Passion is “just one more myth”. The structural pattern might be the same, but the content of this story’s message is very different. The Gospels do not justify the sacrifice of Jesus of Nazareth. They show how this victim is innocent of the charges put against it. They reveal Jesus as a scapegoat in the way this word is understood nowadays: as someone who is accused of things he is not responsible for. Eventually, the Gospels thus fundamentally question the necessity of violence to build peace and order. From the perspective of the Gospels, there is no “good” vs. “bad” violence, nor “justified” vs. “unjustified” sacrifices. Violence in itself is considered “evil”, even “satanic”.

In light of these considerations, it is interesting to once again take a look at Star Wars and ask the question whether this saga is purely mythical or if it also contains some of the criticisms on myth by the Gospels. As it turns out, Star Wars Episode III, Revenge of the Sith, seems the key to answer this question.

2. The Tragedy of a Violent Cycle in Star Wars & The Gospel’s Alternative

The Hebrew Bible and the New Testament reveal a cycle of events that shows up again and again in the history of mankind. In a first stage, on a psychological level, humans always reinforce each other’s anxious desire and greed for things like prestige, riches, honor and power. From this comes competition, rivalry and violence, resulting in a second stage: a social crisis. The third stage, the political solution to this crisis, is usually found in the expulsion or destruction of a common enemy or victim – an individual or a group –, which restores order, peace and unity within a human community. The leaders of the newly found order justify that sacrifice as well as their own leadership by presenting the sacrificed victims as creatures who had to die in order to prevent further disorder. The recollection of this sacrifice results in a fourth, cultural stage: (sacrificial) rituals and mythological stories gratefully reenact or retell the events that kept (and still keep) the community together, while all sorts of taboos remind the community of the dangers of certain objects and actions associated with crisis situations. Of course this whole cycle of events starts again when a mutually reinforced desire for things like power resurfaces: as those in power increasingly fear they might lose their status, they more anxiously will hold on to it, thus making their status more desirable for others and thus (tragically and ironically) reinforcing the rivalry they wanted to prevent…

The principle of disorder coming from a rivalry based on mutually reinforced desires for things like power, as well as the principle of order coming from the elimination of those who are presented as mainly responsible for that disorder, is personified as “Satan” in the Gospels. Satan is the “prince of this world”, the personification of the murders and the lies people in power use to solidify and justify their position. “The kings of this world” indeed often refer to all kinds of possible threats in order to present themselves as “saviors” of their community, providing safety and security. The tragic and ironic truth, of course, is that they can only secure their own position for as long as their citizens don’t feel safe but fear those possible threats.

Palpatine and Julius CaesarThe Star Wars saga reveals the satanic cycle in its own way. Senator Palpatine is the politician who takes advantage of political and social turmoil in the Galactic Republic to eventually gain absolute power. He first becomes Chancellor and then, finally, Emperor of the newly found Galactic Empire. In this respect Star Wars is reminiscent of what happened to the Roman Empire with the arrival of Julius Caesar. Both Senator Palpatine and Julius Caesar were given extended rule and power for the sake of the safety of their respective Republic, in the midst of civil wars. However, they both stayed in their position much longer than they were supposed to be, their dictatorship eventually destroying the democracy they were supposed to protect. Moreover, they both were involved in the wars that threatened the stability of their Republic. Senator Palpatine even secretly organized the political turmoil and he provoked the wars in the Galactic Republic. That way he could present himself as the “savior” who was desperately needed. This trick was also used by Syrian dictator Assad (and other dictators in the Middle East, for that matter) when he released Islamist extremists from prison so they could join the rebels who fought against his rule – watch the following clip from 00:50-01:04:

“Extremists from Syria and around the region start traveling to join the rebels. Assad actually encourages this by releasing Jihadist extremists to tinge the rebellion with extremism, make it harder for foreigners to back them.”

Palpatine is able to sell the illusion that he is the one who can bring peace to the Galaxy. Of course he will, ironically, violently suppress every possible “enemy” or threat, thereby feeding the rebellion he is trying to prevent. Once hailed as a savior Palpatine becomes the evil Emperor who needs to be sacrificed himself.

In short, in Star Wars the first stage of the satanic cycle is represented in Palpatine’s reinforced desire for power. This eventually results in the social crisis of the second stage. Then comes the third stage of provisional peace, based on the sacrifice of Palpatine’s and his Empire’s so-called enemies. The cultural order of the fourth stage is only briefly kept. Palpatine’s position almost immediately becomes the object of the ambitions and desires of others.

Palpatine turns out to be Darth Sidious, a Sith Lord. The so-called “evil” order of the Sith is the age-old enemy of the so-called “good” order of the Jedi-knights. However, as Episode III of the Star Wars saga makes clear, the line between good and evil cannot be so easily drawn.

Anakin Skywalker is a young Jedi apprentice who gradually becomes a puppet of the seemingly inevitable “satanic” cycle of events. In a first psychological stage Anakin becomes the victim of fear (of rejection), jealousy, pride, anger, hate and greed. In other words, he suffers from those characteristics which the Christian tradition has identified as “cardinal sins”. Master Yoda, head of the Jedi Council, warns Anakin against the dark forces of fear (from script number 77):

YODA: Careful you must be when sensing the future, Anakin. The fear of loss is a path to the dark side.

ANAKIN: I won’t let these visions come true, Master Yoda.

YODA: Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them, do not. Miss them, do not. Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed, that is.

ANAKIN: What must I do, Master Yoda?

YODA: Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.

Of course this is rather a Buddhist way of handling things (as, in Buddhism, attachment is seen as the source of suffering and “nirvana” is the state of bliss where one is free of suffering and therefore of attachments). But Yoda’s warning against jealousy also refers to the story of Cain and Abel, where Cain gets an advice from “the Lord” when Cain becomes jealous of his brother Abel (Genesis 4:6-7):

The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”

Cain, feeling rejected, nevertheless ends up killing his brother. The warnings of Yoda too go in vain. Anakin rather takes advice of Chancellor Palpatine, “Darth Sidious”, who – like the (“hidious, hissing”) snake in the Genesis story of the Fall – feeds Anakin’s feelings of jealousy, greed and resentment (from script number 88 & 118):

ANAKIN: You wanted to see me, Chancellor.

PALPATINE: Yes, Anakin! Come closer. I have good news. Our Clone Intelligence Units have discovered the location of General Grievous. He is hiding in the Utapau system.

ANAKIN: At last, we’ll be able to capture that monster and end this war.

PALPATINE: I would worry about the collective wisdom of the Council if they didn’t select you for this assignment. You are the best choice by far… but, they can’t always be trusted to do the right thing.

* * *

ANAKIN: Chancellor, we have just received a report from Master Kenobi. He has engaged General Grievous.

PALPATINE: We can only hope that Master Kenobi is up to the challenge.

ANAKIN: I should be there with him.

PALPATINE: It is upsetting to me to see that the Council doesn’t seem to fully appreciate your talents. Don’t you wonder why they won’t make you a Jedi Master?

ANAKIN: I wish I knew. More and more I get the feeling that I am being excluded from the Council. I know there are things about the Force that they are not telling me.

PALPATINE: They don’t trust you, Anakin. They see your future. They know your power will be too strong to control. Anakin, you must break through the fog of lies the Jedi have created around you. Let me help you to know the subtleties of the Force.

Cain and AbelIn the end, Anakin, like Cain, also wants to kill his “brother”, his mentor Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi (from script number 214):

ANAKIN: This is the end for you, My Master. I wish it were otherwise.

ANAKIN jumps and flips onto OBI-WAN’s platform. The fighting continues again until OBI-WAN jumps toward the safety of the black sandy edge of the lava river. He yells at Anakin.

OBI-WAN: It’s over, Anakin. I have the high ground.

ANAKIN: You underestimate my power!

OBI-WAN: Don’t try it.

ANAKIN follows, and OBI-WAN cuts his young apprentice at the knees, then cuts off his left arm in the blink of an eye. ANAKIN tumbles down the embankment and rolls to a stop near the edge of the lava.

ANAKIN struggles to pull himself up the embankment with his mechanical hand. His thin leather glove has been burned off. He keeps sliding down in the black sand.
OBI-WAN: (continuing)… You were the Chosen One! It was said that you would, destroy the Sith, not join them. It was you who would bring balance to the Force, not leave it in Darkness.

OBI-WAN picks up Anakin’s light saber and begins to walk away. He stops and looks back.

ANAKIN: I hate you!

OBI-WAN: You were my brother, Anakin. I loved you.

At this point in the story, Anakin is already involved in the second and third stage of the satanic cycle. He is convinced that the crisis in the Galactic Republic can only be stopped by sacrificing the Jedi and by establishing the rule of the Sith. Moreover, he believes that the power of the Sith will save the life of his wife Padme (but he will tragically accomplish the opposite).

In any case, Anakin is willing to believe Palpatine, who portrays the Jedi as a threat to the survival of the Republic. After being named “Darth Vader” while receiving his new identity as Sith Lord, Anakin is prepared to sacrifice the Jedi in order to prevent further “civil war” and establish “peace” (from script number 88 & 130):

PALPATINE: You must sense what I have come to suspect … the Jedi Council want control of the Republic… they’re planning to betray me.

ANAKIN: I don’t think…

PALPATINE: Anakin, search your feelings. You know, don’t you?

ANAKIN: I know they don’t trust you…

PALPATINE: Or the Senate… or the Republic… or democracy for that matter.

ANAKIN: I have to admit my trust in them has been shaken.

PALPATINE: Why? They asked you to do something that made you feel dishonest, didn’t they?

ANAKIN doesn’t say anything. He simply looks down.

PALPATINE: (continuing) They asked you to spy on me, didn’t they?

ANAKIN: I don’t know… I don’t know what to say.

PALPATINE: Remember back to your early teachings. Anakin. “All those who gain power are afraid to lose it.” Even the Jedi.

* * *

PALPATINE: Every single Jedi, including your friend Obi-Wan Kenobi, is now an enemy of the Republic. You understand that, don’t you?

ANAKIN: I understand, Master.

PALPATINE: We must move quickly. The Jedi are relentless; if they are not all destroyed, it will be civil war without end. First, I want you to go to the Jedi Temple. We will catch them off balance. Do what must be done, Lord Vader. Do not hesitate. Show no mercy. Only then will you be strong enough with the dark side to save Padme.

ANAKIN: What about the other Jedi spread across the galaxy?

PALPATINE: Their betrayal will be dealt with. After you have killed all the Jedi in the Temple, go to the Mustafar system. Wipe out Viceroy Gunray and the other Separatist leaders. Once more, the Sith will rule the galaxy, and we shall have peace.

The reasons given by Darth Sidious (Palpatine) and Darth Vader (Anakin) to justify the murder of the Jedi are the exact same reasons given by the chief priests and the Pharisees in the Gospels to justify the murder of Jesus.

Jesus accuses the Jewish leaders of obeying “the devil”. In the Gospel of John, the devil clearly is a personification of the scapegoat mechanism. Jesus knows that the leaders of the Jewish people, the Pharisees and the chief priests, want him dead and that they try to justify his death with certain lies. They obey “the devil” – indeed the mechanism that justifies the elimination of people based on lies. [Note that Jesus does not believe that God wants him dead. If Jesus paradoxically sacrifices himself eventually, it is a consequence of his obedience to a Love that “desires mercy, not sacrifice”. He does not want to live at the expense of others, not even his “enemies”…]

John 8: 39-44

“If you, Pharisees, were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do what Abraham did. As it is, you are looking for a way to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. You are doing the works of your own father.”

“We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God himself.”

Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”

The Pharisees and chief priests are afraid that the growing popularity of Jesus might become a threat to their power. That’s why they try to present him as a rebel leader who could lead an uprising against the Roman occupier of Judea. A war with the Romans would mean the end of the Jewish nation and culture. Therefore the Jewish leaders see no other solution than to get rid of Jesus. It’s their way of justifying his elimination.

John 11: 45-50

Many of the Jews who had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.

“What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”

Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”

In the case of Jesus, the Gospel of John leaves no doubt that these allegations are false. The Evangelist lets Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect, unwittingly declare “the truth” about the arrested Jesus, namely that Jesus is innocent. Jesus does not wish to establish a “kingdom” or “peace” in competition with “the kings of this world” (whose kingdoms are based on sacrifices and the expulsion of certain people – like the “Pax Romana”). In other words, the Gospel of John reveals the plot against Jesus by the Pharisees and the chief priests as a scapegoat mechanism: Jesus is wrongfully accused. He refuses to start a civil war that would mean the end of the Jewish nation and culture.

John 18: 33-38

Pilate summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?” “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

Ecce Homo by Antonio Ciseri c. 1880“You are a king, then!” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

“What is truth?” retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him.”

Although both the killing of Jesus and the Jedi is justified by the potential danger they supposedly carry with them, there is a crucial difference between the attitude of Jesus and the attitude of the Jedi regarding the charges put against them. Jesus indeed is not drawn into a rivalry with “the kings of this world”, while the Jedi see no other option but to fight “the kings of their world”, the Sith.

In the competition to become rulers of the Galaxy, the Sith and the Jedi imitate each other more and more. As they try to distinguish themselves from each other, they tragically establish the opposite: they become, in the words of René Girard, “mimetic doubles” in a crisis of undifferentiation. At the height of the crisis, the Jedi are convinced that they should temporarily abandon normal democratic rules and replace so-called “corrupted” Senators in order to achieve peace. That’s exactly what Palpatine did earlier when he became a Chancellor with extended power! Moreover, the Jedi justify their politics of excluding “the betrayers” by referring to a potential plot against their order – once again, this is exactly the same as when Palpatine referred to a potential plot against the Senate to justify the eradication of the Jedi. Yoda senses the danger of this situation, as if he realizes that eventually there is no difference between so-called “good” and “bad” violence (from script number 117):

MACE WINDU: I sense a plot to destroy the Jedi. The dark side of the Force surrounds the Chancellor.

Kl-ADI-MUNDI: If he does not give up his emergency powers after the destruction of Grievous, then he should be removed from office.

MACE WINDU: That could be a dangerous move… the Jedi Council would have to take control of the Senate in order to secure a peaceful transition…

Kl-ADI-MUNDI: … and replace the Congress with Senators who are not filled with greed and corruption.

YODA: To a dark place this line of thought will carry us. Hmm… great care we must take.

From this perspective, maybe the greatest wisdom in Episode III comes from Palpatine, Darth Sidious (from script number 88):

PALPATINE: Remember back to your early teachings. Anakin. “All those who gain power are afraid to lose it.” Even the Jedi.

ANAKIN: The Jedi use their power for good.

PALPATINE: Good is a point of view, Anakin. And the Jedi point of view is not the only valid one. The Dark Lords of the Sith believe in security and justice also, yet they are considered by the Jedi to be…

ANAKIN: … evil.

PALPATINE: … from a Jedi’s point of view. The Sith and the Jedi are similar in almost every way, including their quest for greater power. The difference between the two is the Sith are not afraid of the dark side of the Force. That is why they are more powerful.

ANAKIN: The Sith rely on their passion for their strength. They think inward, only about themselves.

PALPATINE: And the Jedi don’t?

ANAKIN: The Jedi are selfless … they only care about others.

PALPATINE smiles.

PALPATINE: Or so you’ve been trained to believe. Why is it, then, that they have asked you to do something you feel is wrong?

ANAKIN: I’m not sure it’s wrong.

PALPATINE: Have they asked you to betray the Jedi code? The Constitution? A friendship? Your own values? Think. Consider their motives. Keep your mind clear of assumptions. The fear of losing power is a weakness of both the Jedi and the Sith.

It is no surprise then that both sides use violence: Jedi Masters Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi are killing clones while Anakin – now Darth Vader – is killing the separatists.

In the final battle of Episode III between Anakin and his former mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin once again reveals the insight into the state of undifferentiation between mimetic doubles like the Sith and the Jedi. Both Obi-Wan and Anakin feel the other “is lost” and has to die (from script number 214):

OBI-WAN: I have failed you, Anakin. I was never able to teach you to think.

ANAKIN and OBI-WAN confront each other on the lava river.

ANAKIN: I should have known the Jedi were plotting to take over…

OBI-WAN: From the Sith! Anakin, Chancellor Palpatine is evil.

ANAKIN: From the Jedi point of view! From my point of view, the Jedi are evil.

OBI-WAN: Well, then you are lost!

ANAKIN: This is the end for you, my Master. I wish it were otherwise.

If these words of Anakin were applied to the Star Wars saga as a whole, with the Sith portrayed as “the good guys”, the Episodes would have had some mirroring titles, namely (by the way, the working title of The Return of the Jedi for a long time was The Revenge of the Jedi, indeed):

Episode I: A New Hope (as opposed to The Phantom Menace)
Episode II: Attack of the Clones
Episode III: The Return of the Sith (as opposed to The Revenge of the Sith)
Episode IV: The Phantom Menace (as opposed to A New Hope)
Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
Episode VI: The Revenge of the Jedi (as opposed to The Return of the Jedi)

Star Wars Prequel Trilogy PosterStar Wars Original Trilogy Poster

Perhaps the ultimate difference between the message of Star Wars and the message of the Gospels becomes clear by considering a story told by Palpatine (from script number 88):

PALPATINE: (continuing) Did you ever hear the tragedy of Darth Plagueis “the wise”?

ANAKIN: No.

PALPATINE: I thought not. It’s not a story the Jedi would tell you. It’s a Sith legend. Darth Plagueis was a Dark Lord of the Sith, so powerful and so wise he could use the Force to influence the midi-chlorians to create life… He had such a knowledge of the dark side that he could even keep the ones he cared about from dying.

ANAKIN: He could actually save people from death?

PALPATINE: The dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural.

ANAKIN: What happened to him?

PALPATINE: He became so powerful… the only thing he was afraid of was losing his power, which eventually, of course, he did. Unfortunately, he taught his apprentice everything he knew, then his apprentice killed him in his sleep. (smiles) Plagueis never saw it coming. It’s ironic he could save others from death, but not himself.

The last sentence of Palpatine’s story also refers to a passage in the Gospels, when Jesus is dangling on the cross and is sneered at by the rulers, for instance in Mark 15:31:

The chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked Jesus among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself!”

sacrificial peaceBoth the Sith and the Jedi “save others” by “killing enemies” and “teaching others to become like them”, i.e. killers. Hence the Sith and the Jedi become rivals to both their enemies and their apprentices. This rivalry can only end in the death of one party, until the inevitable cycle of rivalry starts again. This is the meaning of Palpatine’s story. In the Star Wars Universe there has to be sacrifice, one way or the other, to create an ever provisional “peace”. In Episode VI, for instance, in the end either Luke Skywalker or Emperor Palpatine is killed. Darth Vader – Anakin Skywalker – eventually kills the Emperor to save his son. This means that Anakin Skywalker is “the One who brings balance to the Force” after all. He fulfilled his destiny. Moreover, by dying himself Darth-Vader-Anakin-Skywalker, the “evil one” while alive, becomes the “savior” of the Galaxy in the blink of an eye.

It seems that, by telling the story of Darth Plagueis, Palpatine prophesied his own tragic fate. Once again, in this way, the story of Palpatine refers to the history of Caesar, who was killed also by Brutus, his “son”. In the words of Jesus (Matthew 26:52): “Those who use the sword will die by the sword.”

Darth Vader vs. The EmperorAssassination of Julius Caesar by BrutusThe Gospels hold that there is another way. Throughout the Gospels it becomes clear that Jesus criticizes the universal tendency of human communities to structure themselves according to the identification of a common enemy or a common victim (be it an individual or a group). So on the one hand, concerning the group people are part of and that often manifests itself at the expense of a common enemy (for instance an adulteress who is about to be stoned – see John 8:1-11), it is no surprise that Jesus sows discord. It is no coincidence that he claims (Matthew 10:34-36):

I did not come to bring peace“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.”

This intention of Jesus, to create conflict where there is a certain order, is actually and paradoxically a plea against violence. Family members who slavishly obey a pater familias, tribe members who harmoniously feel superior to other groups, criminal gangs who blindly pledge allegiance to the mob boss, cult members and fundamentalist believers who are prepared to fight for their leader and their God till death, anxious employees who sell their soul to keep their job in a sick working environment, (youthful) cliques who strengthen their internal cohesion by bullying someone, whole nations who bow to the demands of a populist dictator and execute so-called “traitors” – Jesus doesn’t like it one bit.

Opposed to the small and big forms of “peace” based on oppression and violence, of which the Pax Romana in the time of Jesus is an obvious case of course, Jesus challenges people to build peace differently. Family members who belong to a “home” where they can have debates with each other, members of enemy tribes who end age old feuds by questioning their own perception of “the other tribe”, former criminals who start to behave like “moles” to clear their violent Mafia gang, fundamentalists who – realizing what they do to those who supposedly don’t belong to “the chosen ones” – liberate themselves from religious indoctrination, employees who address a reign of terror at their workplace, individuals who criticize the bullying of their own clique, pacifists who dare to dissent with the violent rule of a dictatorship and unveil its enemy images as grotesque caricatures – Jesus likes it. “Love your enemies”, Jesus says. Everyone who no longer condemns the external enemy of his own particular group because of a stirred up feeling of superiority, generates internal discord: “A person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” It’s only logical.

In short, Jesus argues in favor of non-violent conflict in order to end violent peace. That’s why he can say on the other hand, eventually (John 14:27):

Peace I leave with you“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you.”

Indeed Jesus saves others by calling their sacrifice or expulsion from the community into question. When he takes sides with a woman accused of adultery, who is about to be stoned, he does not want to get stoned himself, but he hopes that the community will show “mercy” and will not “sacrifice” (see Matthew 9:13).

Truman Atomic Bombing HiroshimaHowever, in consistently refusing to take part in a social system that constructs itself by means of sacrifices, Jesus is eventually sacrificed himself. Indeed, Jesus saved others, but he cannot save himself: if you stand up for the bullied, you run the risk of being bullied yourself, and you can only hope that others will show mercy as you yourself refuse to take part in sacrifice. When Jesus is arrested to be crucified, he refuses to start a civil war. He refuses to become the imitator of his persecutors, a “prince of this world”, a “Muammar Gaddafi” or even a “Harry Truman” (who considered the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki justified). By withdrawing from vengeance (i.e. the imitation of his persecutors and the ones who betrayed him – his disciples), Jesus creates the possibility of a truly new world. Imitating the One who “offers the other cheek”, the One who forgives and approaches his persecutors and betrayers with compassion, indeed allows each and every one of us to accept and deal with our own and each other’s weaknesses and iniquities, without us being victimized or “crucified” for jumping to this occasion…

To conclude, both the Star Wars saga and the Gospels eventually reveal violence for what it is, with all its tendencies towards undifferentiation, but the Star Wars saga seems to consider this violence to be an inevitable, tragic part of the social make-up. In the end, according to the Star Wars saga, the world always needs some sort of “sacrifice” that allows for a new “order”, i.e. for new “differences” between a group and its common enemy, between “good” and “bad” violence. The Gospels, on the other hand, consider another possibility – the imitation of Christ. In the words of René Girard (from an interview on Dutch television in 1985 – click here):

René Girard portraitYou see, what the Bible tells you and no other religion tells you, is that sacrifice is so inborn in human beings, so important in human society, that you can refuse sacrifice only if you accept to die. Because the moment will come where rivalry, mimetic rivalry between your brother and you, will put you in a situation where either he kills you or you kill him. And I think Greek tragedy stops right there – it says: “Well, I have the right of self-defense. It is mine.” What I think the Bible does, is saying: “You have to go beyond that.”

Star Wars

De Hoer in Dimitri Verhulst?

‘Bent u zover, heer?’ fluisterde ze hem toe, volhardend in haar rol. Hij ging over haar heen liggen, kwam in haar, en begon kort en ritmisch te stoten, steeds vuriger en feller. En toen ze met evenveel hartstocht reageerde, zakte haar sluier af en werd haar gezicht volledig zichtbaar. Zal hij me nu herkennen? vroeg Tamar zich af. Zal hij zich terugtrekken of – zoals Tamar het zich voorstelde in een vermetel soort dagdroom – zal hij doorgaan, zelfs al had hij haar herkend? Ja, zou hij misschien met nog grotere hartstocht doorgaan, juist omdát hij haar had herkend? (Kirsch, p. 151).

The Harlot by the Side of the Road (Jonathan Kirsch) coverJaren geleden kocht ik het boek De Ongehoorde Bijbel (Servire, Utrecht, 1997) van Jonathan Kirsch. De titel in het Engels luidt The Harlot by the Side of the Road – Forbidden Tales of the Bible (Ballantine Books, New York, 1997) en verwijst naar het verhaal over Tamar en Juda (Genesis 38). Het bovenstaande tekstfragment komt uit een hervertelling van dit verhaal door Kirsch. Het is maar een van de eigenaardige, weinig gekende en eerder schokkende verhalen uit het Oude Testament die de auteur voor het voetlicht brengt. Interessant is dat de hervertelde verhalen niet alleen telkens naast de vertaalde Bijbeltekst worden geplaatst, maar ook worden gevolgd door historische en culturele achtergrondinformatie.

De incest van Lot en zijn dochters, de verkrachting van Dina, de seksuele gemeenschap tussen Tamar en haar schoonvader Juda, Jefta die zijn dochter offert aan God voor een militaire overwinning van Israël op de Ammonieten, en allerlei andere Bijbelverhalen over geweld, volkerenmoorden en seksuele uitspattingen – het passeert allemaal de revue in het boek van Kirsch. De commentaren die deze verhalen telkens in een historische context plaatsen, maken de verhalen vaak nog vreemder dan ze al zijn, maar openen tegelijk verrassende perspectieven. Het is alsof je als buitenlander uitleg krijgt bij de toespelingen van een stand-up comedian op de politieke situatie van zijn land, zodat je kan meelachen met zijn publiek. Of dat je, meer in het algemeen, vertrouwd geraakt met een cultureel en taal-specifiek idioom, zodat je naast vreugde om wat je leest ook verwondering, verbijstering, woede of verdriet kan voelen.

Kirsch verwijst meermaals naar de manier waarop de joden sinds het prille ontstaan van de Hebreeuwse Bijbel (het Oude Testament) met deze teksten zijn omgesprongen, en dat maakt van die Bijbel een boeiende literaire inspiratiebron. De joodse wijzen – de rabbi’s – uit de Oudheid zijn de eerste beoefenaars van de zogenaamde midrasj: “een meditatie over of beschouwing van de Schrift waarin de boodschap wordt aangepast aan de hedendaagse behoeften” (Geza Vermes). Daarbij putten zij rijkelijk uit de Haggadah (joodse sagen en legenden) en presenteren zij hun uitleg of exegese als een hervertelling die tal van nieuwe betekenissen en associaties oproept. Verzamelingen van zulke exegeses zijn bekend geworden als de Talmoed en de Midrasj.

Het joodse gebruik om verhalen uit te leggen door ze opnieuw te vertellen is natuurlijk ook aanwezig bij andere volkeren. Mensen houden nu eenmaal van verhalen. Het is eveneens aanwezig bij de jood Jezus van Nazaret – niet toevallig soms “rabbi” genoemd – en de schrijvers van het Nieuwe Testament. Jezus’ parabels en uitspraken, alsook de verhalen over hem, staan dan ook bol van vaak nadrukkelijke, soms ook subtiele verwijzingen naar verhalen en teksten uit de Hebreeuwse Bijbel. Deze traditie van intertekstuele verwijzingen heeft zich ook doorgezet in de literaire en bredere artistieke geschiedenis, van de Oudheid, over de middeleeuwen tot nu. Eigenlijk wordt het Nieuwe Testament pas begrijpelijk vanuit de intertekstualiteit: als een interpretatie van de Hebreeuwse Bijbel vanuit bepaalde ervaringen met Jezus van Nazaret.

Het verhaal over Tamar en Juda, uit de titel van Kirsch’ boek, kan als voorbeeld dienen om een en ander te verduidelijken.

Op weg met hoeren en broers

Tamar is de weduwe van Er, de oudste zoon van Juda. Na de dood van haar man wordt zij, volgens het toenmalige gebruik, aan haar schoonbroer Onan toevertrouwd. Als ook hij haar niet zwanger maakt en sterft, wacht haar een twijfelachtig lot. Juda beschouwt Tamar als een onheilsbrenger en doet er alles aan om zijn derde zoon Sela van haar weg te houden. Daardoor dreigt Tamar een kinderloze weduwe te blijven en in een levensgevaarlijke marginaliteit terecht te komen. Jonathan Kirsch verduidelijkt (p. 176-177):

Volgens de Bijbelse wetten, ging het bezit van een man rechtstreeks over op zijn kinderen (Deut 21, 16-17) of zijn andere bloedverwanten (Num 27, 8-11). Een kinderloze weduwe als Tamar had dus geen acceptabele, vaste plaats in de gemeenschap waarin ze leefde; ze kon zich niet zonder grote risico’s wagen aan seksuele gemeenschap, kinderen krijgen of grootbrengen of zelf de kost verdienen; ze was aan handen en voeten gebonden.

Als een vrouw als Tamar het waagde toch met iemand gemeenschap te hebben, werd ze gezien als zo’n groot gevaar voor de maatschappelijke en zedelijke orde van de samenleving uit die tijd dat ze letterlijk moest worden ‘uitgewist’. Een ongetrouwde vrouw die met een man naar bed ging, moest volgens de strenge Bijbelse wetten ter dood worden gebracht (Deut 22, 21), net als de echtgenote die het waagde om vreemd te gaan (Lev 20, 10). Het is veelbetekenend dat de steniging van een ongehuwde vrouw die zich schuldig had gemaakt aan verboden seks, geacht werd te worden uitgevoerd ‘bij het huis van haar vader’; alsof dit bedoeld was om te onderstrepen dat een vrouw zonder acceptabele mannelijke beschermer – haar vader, echtgenoot of volwassen zoon – eenvoudigweg veel te gevaarlijk was om in leven te laten.

Bovendien is Tamar een Kanaänitische vrouw, alleen door haar vroegere huwelijk met Er verbonden aan het volk van Israël. Vreemdelinge, weduwe en kinderloze vrouw: de uitzichtloze, “vervloekte” situatie van Tamar schijnt compleet. Op basis van deze kenmerken alleen al wordt ze door het patriarchale Israël van haar tijd feitelijk verstoten en is ze ten dode opgeschreven. Israël is niet anders dan andere menselijke gemeenschappen die de neiging hebben om hun voortbestaan te verzekeren ten koste van slachtoffers. Tot Tamar een list verzint. Ze vermomt zich als een hoer en slaagt erin om op die manier haar schoonvader Juda te verleiden tot seksuele gemeenschap met haar. De zwangerschap die daarop volgt zal twee zonen voortbrengen: de tweeling Peres en Zerach. Juda kan uiteindelijk niets anders doen dan deze kinderen te erkennen als zijn nageslacht.

Het klinkt misschien eigenaardig, maar door zich als een hoer te vermommen en haar schoonvader te verleiden tot seksuele gemeenschap, zet Tamar de mannenwereld waarin ze vertoeft een hak. Jonathan Kirsch besluit (p. 177-178):

Tamars seksuele hinderlaag voor Juda op de weg naar Timna was de daad van een dappere, vindingrijke vrouw, die weigerde zich neer te leggen bij het lot dat het patriarchaat van het Bijbelse Israël een kinderloze weduwe voorschreef. Ze was niet zomaar een verleidster die door de hoer te spelen haar schoonvader listig ertoe bracht kinderen bij haar te verwekken. Ze was veeleer een vrouw die voor haar rechten opkwam, op de enige manier die voor een vrouw in haar tijdsgewricht en samenleving open stond.

Het verhaal van Tamar is één voorbeeld van “de eigenzinnige vrouw”. In de Hebreeuwse Bijbel is dit een nadrukkelijk aanwezig thema. Het Nieuwe Testament zal er uitgebreid op terugkomen en het ook in verband brengen met een ander thema uit de Hebreeuwse Bijbel, namelijk de rivaliteit tussen broers (al dan niet om het eerstgeboorterecht). Er zij hierbij gedacht aan Kaïn en Abel, Ismaël en Isaak, Esau en Jakob en Jozef en zijn broers. In het verhaal over Tamar is dit thema ook aanwezig. Bij de geboorte van haar zonen is het Zerach die Peres, die net iets eerder geboren zal worden, te slim af is (Gen 38, 28-30):

Perez and ZerahTijdens het baren stak een van de beide kinderen een handje naar buiten; de vroedvrouw greep dit, bond er een rode draad omheen en zei: ‘Deze is het eerst gekomen.’ Maar het kind trok zijn hand terug, en toen kwam zijn broer tevoorschijn. Toen sprak zij: ‘Jij hebt voor een flinke bres gezorgd.’ Daarom noemde men hem Peres. Daarna kwam zijn broer met de scharlaken draad om zijn hand. Hem noemde men Zerach.

De rabbijnse tradities met hun hervertellende uitleg brengen Tamar en haar zonen in verband met een andere, opmerkelijke Kanaänitische: de hoer Rachab. In het Bijbelse boek Jozua speelt deze vrouw een sleutelrol bij de verovering van de stad Jericho en het land Kanaän door de Israëlieten. Zij verbergt immers twee Israëlitische verkenners voor een patrouille die door de koning van Jericho was uitgestuurd. Uit dankbaarheid beloven de verkenners Rachab dat ze haar leven en dat van haar familie zullen sparen. Het enige wat ze daarvoor moet doen is het rode koord, waarmee ze de verkenners van de stadsmuren liet zakken, aan haar raam hangen. Op die manier zullen de Israëlieten haar huis herkennen en weten dat daar een van hun bondgenoten woont. De rabbijnse geleerden beschouwen de niet nader genoemde verkenners vaak als Peres en Zerach. En van het rode koord weten ze te vertellen dat het de rode draad is die om de pols van Zerach was gebonden bij zijn geboorte!

In het Nieuwe Testament, meer bepaald in het evangelie volgens Matteüs, komen Tamar en Rachab samen met twee andere vrouwen – Ruth en Batseba – terecht in de stamboomlijst van Jezus. Het zijn de enige vier vrouwen die in deze lijst vermeld worden en dat is opmerkelijk. Ze hebben met elkaar hun vaak sterke karakters en niet onbesproken seksuele levenswandel gemeen. Hen als de verre moeders van de zogenaamde Christus portretteren is op zijn minst gewaagd. Helemaal provocerend wordt Matteüs als hij Jezus het volgende laat zeggen tegen de hogepriesters en de oudsten van het Joodse volk, nadat hij – en dat is ook niet onbelangrijk in het licht van het voorgaande – een parabel over twee broers heeft verteld (Mt 21, 31):

‘Ik verzeker u, tollenaars en hoeren gaan u voor naar het koninkrijk van God.’

De stamboomlijst met “hoeren” is dus met andere woorden geen toeval. De evangelist Matteüs wil zijn lezers blijkbaar al bij de aanvang van zijn werk duidelijk maken dat de God waarin hij gelooft – die zich te kennen zou geven in Jezus van Nazaret – iets te maken heeft met het perspectief van mensen die doorgaans “in de marge” van de samenleving vertoeven. De stamboomlijst van Jezus is dan ook als het ware een “code”, een “interpretatiesleutel” die de lezer meekrijgt om zowel het evangelie zelf als de Hebreeuwse Bijbel met een bepaalde bril te lezen. Gooi je de stamboomlijst overboord, dan gooi je essentiële informatie overboord om tot een goed begrip van het Matteüsevangelie en de Bijbel in zijn geheel te komen.

Er zijn natuurlijk nog andere interpretatiesleutels aanwezig in zowel de Hebreeuwse Bijbel als het Nieuwe Testament, maar alle wijzen ze in een gelijkaardige richting. In het evangelie volgens Lucas staat bijvoorbeeld het welbekende verhaal over “de Emmaüsgangers”: leerlingen van Jezus die, teleurgesteld en gedesoriënteerd door de kruisiging en dood van hun geliefde meester, wegtrekken van Jeruzalem naar het dorp Emmaüs. Onderweg komen ze een vreemdeling tegen. Deze man is eigenlijk Jezus – die Lucas voorstelt als verrezen –, maar ze herkennen hem niet. Ze geraken aan de praat en eten met hem. Uiteindelijk herkennen ze hem, nadat hij hun de Hebreeuwse Bijbel vanuit een bepaald perspectief heeft uitgelegd, namelijk (Luc 24, 27):

Jezus legde hun uit wat in heel de Schrift op Hemzelf betrekking had, te beginnen bij Mozes en alle Profeten.

Als je de Hebreeuwse Bijbel uitlegt vanuit het perspectief van iemand die verstoten en gekruisigd is, én vanuit de overtuiging dat God zich in deze gekruisigde openbaart, levert je lectuur opmerkelijke resultaten op. Neem bijvoorbeeld het wreedaardige relaas in het zevende hoofdstuk van het al eerder vermelde boek Jozua. Daarin draagt “de Heer” Jozua op om een zekere Achan en al zijn bezittingen te vernietigen nadat Israël een militaire nederlaag heeft geleden. Achan zou goederen in zijn bezit hebben die hem niet toebehoren, en dat zou onheil brengen. Dit is het einde van het verhaal (Jozua 7, 25-26):

Jozua sprak: ‘Omdat je ons in het ongeluk hebt gestort, stort de heer jou vandaag in het ongeluk!’ En heel Israël stenigde hen; zij verbrandden hen en wierpen stenen naar hen. Daarna richtten zij boven hen een grote steenhoop op, die er vandaag nog ligt. Toen bedaarde de hevige toorn van de heer. Daarom heet die plaats nu nog het Achordal.

Joshua 7 25 Brick BibleJoshua 7 25b Brick BibleJoshua 7 25c Brick Bible

Als je dit verhaal leest vanuit het perspectief van wat op “een verstotene” of “een gekruisigde” (Jezus) betrekking heeft van wie je gelooft dat God aan zijn zijde staat, dan moet je wel tot het besluit komen dat Achan, de gestenigde en verbrande, in dit verhaal de persoon is met wie Jezus kan worden geïdentificeerd. En dan kom je ook tot het besluit dat die God allesbehalve de steniging van Achan goedkeurt. Vandaar dat Jezus ook zal zeggen dat hij, in de lijn van bepaalde profeten en psalmen uit de Hebreeuwse Bijbel, gelooft in een God die “barmhartigheid wil, en geen offer” (Mt 9, 13). Vandaar ook dat Jezus als interpretatiesleutel en zelfs leefsleutel meegeeft:

‘U zult de Heer uw God liefhebben met heel uw hart en met heel uw ziel en met heel uw verstand. Dat is het grootste en eerste gebod. Het tweede is daaraan gelijk: U zult uw naaste liefhebben als uzelf. Aan deze twee geboden hangen heel de Wet en de Profeten.’

John Steinbeck And now that you don't have to be perfect you can be goodDeze naastenliefde is misschien wel ethisch, maar allesbehalve moralistisch. Het zijn immers de moraalridders die, vaak met de beste bedoelingen, doorheen de geschiedenis van de mensheid uiteindelijk de grootste wreedheden begaan. Zowel de Hebreeuwse Bijbel als het Nieuwe Testament vormen een kritiek op al te utopische en al te romantische denkbeelden. Wanneer Petrus zijn vriend Jezus verzekert dat hij hem nooit in de steek zal laten, zet Jezus hem met zijn voetjes op de grond – geparafraseerd: “Als puntje bij paaltje komt, als ik gevangen ben en ter dood veroordeeld zal worden, ga je mij in de steek laten; je bent niet de held die je denkt te zijn.” Zulke boodschappen zijn niet altijd aangenaam om te horen. De waarheid kwetst. Petrus is geen superman. En ook de zogenaamd grote figuren uit de Hebreeuwse Bijbel zijn allesbehalve onberispelijk.

De teksten in de Bijbel bevatten in de eerste plaats dan ook een antropologie: ze tonen de mens zoals hij is. In het verlengde daarvan tonen ze vaak ook een God die niet meer blijkt dan een bekrachtiging van kleinmenselijke verzuchtingen. Maar het is precies door dit soort context zonder voorbehoud te schetsen dat ook de kritiek erop zich kan manifesteren of openbaren. In die grote bibliotheek die de Bijbel is, met allerlei verschillende soorten boeken en teksten (die elk een eigen aanpak vergen), breekt gaandeweg een fundamentele kritiek door op de al te grote vooruitgangsdromen en morele superioriteitsgevoelens die mensen kunnen hebben. En dit vanuit het perspectief van de slachtoffers daarvan.

Wat overblijft is een Bijbelse spiritualiteit: je kan regels manipuleren om anderen te onderdrukken, of je kan regels manipuleren om op te komen voor je eigen waardigheid als mogelijkheidsvoorwaarde om op te komen voor de waardigheid van anderen (zie Jezus’ uitspraken: “De sabbat is er voor de mens en niet de mens voor de sabbat” en “Bemin je naaste als jezelf”). Zowel Juda als Tamar zijn corrupte en sluwe kinderen van hun tijd en cultuur, maar het is precies in die corruptie en historische beperktheid dat zich, in het geval van Tamar, iets van een emancipatorische humaniteit manifesteert.

Op weg met Verhulst en Steinbeck, literaire broers

Bloedboek Dimitri Verhulst CoverZoals zijn verhalen en personages is de Bijbel in zijn geheel te rijk, te genuanceerd en te paradoxaal om “helemaal slecht” of “helemaal goed” te zijn. Ik ben dan ook razend benieuwd hoe Dimitri Verhulst, wiens werk ik telkens met graagte lees, de eerste vijf boeken van de Bijbel heeft herverteld in zijn nieuwe roman Bloedboek. Jammer wel dat hij blijkbaar niets doet met de stamboomlijsten in de Pentateuch. Die zouden immers boeiende interpretatieve impulsen kunnen geven, zoals Matteüs dat doet met de stamboomlijst van Jezus in zijn evangelie (zie hoger).

Verhulst bevindt zich met dit project alvast in een kransje van grote literatoren die iets gelijkaardigs hebben gedaan. De lijvigste roman van de Amerikaanse Nobelprijswinnaar John Steinbeck, East of Eden, is bijvoorbeeld een hervertelling van het verhaal over Kaïn en Abel (Gen 4, 1-16). Geen vijf boeken dus, maar één verhaal dat vanuit een inherente rijkdom aan allerlei mogelijke motieven en consequenties wordt “herdacht” voor de periode tussen de Amerikaanse Burgeroorlog en de Eerste Wereldoorlog. Eén van de personages uit de roman (een Chinese butler genaamd “Lee”) vat het universele thema van het Bijbelverhaal en de roman zelf samen, in een antwoord op de vraag op welke manier het verhaal van Kaïn en Abel over ieder mens gaat (John Steinbeck, East of Eden, Penguin Books, p. 271):

East of Eden John Steinbeck Cover“I think this is the best-known story in the world because it is everybody’s story. I think it is the symbol story of the human soul. I’m feeling my way now – don’t jump on me if I’m not clear. The greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the hell he fears. I think everyone in the world to a large or small extent has felt rejection. And with rejection comes anger, and with anger some kind of crime in revenge for the rejection, and with the crime guilt – and there is the story of mankind. I think that if rejection could be amputated, the human would not be what he is. Maybe there would be fewer crazy people. I am sure in myself there would not be many jails. It is all there – the start, the beginning. One child, refused the love he craves, kicks the cat and hides the secret guilt; and another steals so that money will make him loved; and a third conquers the world – and always the guilt and revenge and more guilt. The human is the only guilty animal. Now wait! Therefore I think this old and terrible story is important because it is a chart of the soul – the secret, rejected, guilty soul.”

Dimitri VerhulstMeer dan ooit heeft onze wereld nood aan zulke erudiete, literaire benaderingen van Bijbelteksten om aan de valkuilen van fundamentalisme en levensbeschouwelijk extremisme (van zowel gelovige als atheïstische zijde) te kunnen ontsnappen. De Angelsaksische wereld kent liedschrijvers als Bruce Springsteen (met een katholieke achtergrond) en Leonard Cohen (met joodse wortels), om er maar twee te noemen. En wij hebben iemand als Dimitri Verhulst. Ik kan haast niet wachten om te lezen wat hij heeft gedaan met deze universele verhalen over broedermoorden, corrumperende machtsspelletjes, bloedige oorlogen en… moedige vrouwen uit wie een nieuw soort leven aanbreekt. Misschien heeft hij wel de hoer ontdekt die ons “voorgaat naar het koninkrijk van God.” Niet over haar schrijven zou alleszins zonde zijn.

Erik Buys

P.S.: OPEN BRIEF AAN PATRICK LOOBUYCK EN DE PLEITBEZORGERS VAN LEF (PDF; klik hier)

Meer hierover op de Thomas-site (KU Leuven); klik hier.

A Midsummer Night’s Mimetic Desire

René Girard devotes six chapters to A Midsummer Night’s Dream in A Theater of Envy, his book on William Shakespeare (for references I use the edition of St. Augustine’s Press, South Bend, Indiana, 2004 – originally this title was edited by Oxford University Press, 1991). I’ve tried to rework some of Girard’s insights by using the diagrams I’ve developed (for more information, click here for “Types of the Scapegoat Mechanism”). But first things first: a plot summary.

1. PLOT OF A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM

A Midsummer Night's Dream by MukilteoCasualtie

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies, portrays some strange events surrounding the wedding of Theseus, Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons. The play consists of three plots, interconnected by the noble marriage.

First there is the story of four young Athenian lovers who are invited to the celebration. Fair Hermia is in love with Lysander and refuses to submit to her father Egeus’ demand that she wed Demetrius. Meanwhile, her childhood friend Helena desperately falls for Demetrius. Hermia and Lysander escape to an enchanted forest outside Athens. Informed by the still desperate Helena, Demetrius follows them in hopes of killing Lysander. Helena chases Demetrius, promising to love him more than Hermia, but he rejects her offer with cruel insults.

Oberon, king of the fairies and at that time in an envious quarrel over a changeling with his wife and queen Titania, observes the cruelty of Demetrius. This second plot about the fairies intervenes with the first one when Oberon asks his servant, Robin “Puck” Goodfellow, to apply a magical juice to the eyelids of the sleeping Demetrius. The juice is derived from a flower called “love-in-idleness” and causes awakening persons to fall in love with the first creature they see. Oberon hopes to let Demetrius fall in love with Helena. However, Puck mistakes Lysander for Demetrius and Lysander falls in love with Helena. Oberon is able to correct Puck’s mistake and uses the magic to let Demetrius fall in love with Helena as well. Rivaling Lysander and Demetrius then end up seeking a place to duel each other, leaving Hermia enraged and desperate as she accuses Helena of stealing Lysander away from her. Puck, following Oberon’s orders, prevents the duel from happening and removes the charm from Lysander. Lysander returns to loving Hermia, while Demetrius now loves Helena.

The four young lovers return to Athens to witness the celebration of Theseus’ wedding. A group of six amateur actors performs “Pyramus and Thisbe”. These six craftsmen (among them a guy named Bottom who is eager to play nearly every role) prepared themselves in the enchanted forest and went through some upheaval as well. Like the tale of the four lovers, this third plot again is connected to the world of the fairies by Puck’s magical love potion. Oberon lets his wife fall in love with Bottom so he can blackmail her and claim her changeling. He succeeds and after removing the spell from his wife he goes to Athens with her to bless the house of Theseus. All’s well that ends well, so it seems…

2. MIMETIC INTERPLAYS IN THE TALE OF THE FOUR LOVERS

O hell to choose love by another's eyes (Shakespeare quote A Midsummer Night's Dream)I will focus on the subplot of the four young Athenian lovers. René Girard, in the aforementioned book A Theater of Envy, interprets the love shenanigans during the fairy night as consequences of the mimetic nature of the young lovers’ desires. Surprise, surprise. Each individual competes with another one for the recognition or love of a third party. Girard argues that this kind of competition is eventually based on mimetic (i.e. imitative) interplays, and he demonstrates how Shakespeare, throughout his works, developed fundamental insights in this essential human interaction. The lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream don’t compete with each other because they accidentally desire the same person, but they desire the same person because they imitate one another. They are led by mimetic desire. Ever more rapidly during the play they all take another person as model or mediator for their desire. This results in self-loathing (a form of auto-aggression) and divinization of their model on the one hand, or in self-aggrandizement and loathing (a form of hetero-aggression) of their model on the other. In the words of Hermia, which summarize the guiding mimetic principles of the play (in Act I, Scene 1):

O hell! to choose love by another’s eyes.

Of course, no one is eager to admit that his or her desire is not his or her own. Although the play at first glance lends itself to a romantic interpretation of the ties between the four lovers, Shakespeare comically undermines the belief in “true love” and “true love’s desire” (understood as “unmediated desire”). In the words of René Girard (A Theater of Envy, p.34-35 & p.36-37):

The history of the night continues its prehistory with different characters in the various mimetic roles. Before the midsummer night began, in other words, it had already begun. First Demetrius was unfaithful to Helena, then Hermia was unfaithful to Demetrius, then Lysander to Hermia, and finally Demetrius to Hermia. The four infidelities are arranged in such a way that the minimum number of incidents illustrates the maximum amount of mimetic theory.

It is important to observe that the love juice cannot be invoked as an excuse for the infidelities that occur before the midsummer night. Everything can and must be explained mimetically, that is, rationally. If we had only the infidelities that occur before our eyes, the examples would be too few to lead us unquestionably to the mimetic law, but the addition of the prehistory and the history is sufficient to the purpose. So instead of a single triangular conflict that remains unchanged until the conclusion, A Midsummer Night’s Dream suggests a kaleidoscope, a number of combinations that generate one another at an accelerating pace. Shakespeare gives several objects in succession to the same mimetic rivals for a comic demonstration of the mediator’s predominance in the triangle of mimetic desire.

[…]

A Theater of Envy (1991)Shakespeare satirizes a society of would-be individualists completely enslaved to one another. He is mocking a desire that always seeks to differentiate and distinguish itself through the imitation of someone else but always achieves the opposite result: A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an early triumph of unisex and uni-everything else. It involves a process of increasing symmetry among all characters, yet not so obviously perfect a one that the demonstration becomes heavy-handed.

Unlike the skeptical Puck, who mocks the lovers because he understands everything, Oberon is full of reverence for “true love,” but his language plays occasional tricks upon him and suggests the very reverse of what he intends to say. After Puck has picked the wrong man for his dispensations of love juice, Oberon sounds indignant, as if the difference between “true” and “false” love were so huge that Puck’s mistaking the two were unforgivable. His actual words suggest the very reverse [from Act III, Scene 2]:

What hast thou done? thou hast mistaken quite
And laid the love-juice on some true-love’s sight:
Of thy misprision must perforce ensue
Some true love turn’d and not a false turn’d true.

Who will tell the difference between some “true love turned” and “a false turned true”? It all sounds the same, and the distinction upon which the pious Oberon insists is humorously undermined. The supposed discrepancy between “true love” and its mimetic counterfeit echoes the inferiority of the copy versus the original in traditional aesthetics. The problem is that no original is available: everything is imitation.

The cacophonic circularity of “true love turned” and “false turned true” ironically suggests the paradoxical contribution of differential and individualistic ideologies to the growing mimetic uniformity; differentialism is the ideology of the mimetic urge at its most comically self-defeating. All this amazingly resembles our own contemporary world.

THE AUTO-AGGRESSION OF HELENA

The first mimetic triangle we encounter in the play structures itself from Helena’s perspective. Helena compares herself to Hermia and this reinforces her desire to obtain (the recognition of) Demetrius – the object of her desire [the left side of the diagram]. All this eventually results in Helena’s self-loathing (a form of auto-aggression) and the divinization of her “model”, Hermia – Helena wants to erase (the confrontation with) the difference between herself and Hermia, she wants to be Hermia [the right side of the diagram]. The desire for Hermia’s being – the mediator – turns out to be more important than the desire for Demetrius.

 

MND Autoaggression of Helena

Again, in the words of Girard himself (ibid., p.43-44):

Being is what mimetic desire is really after, and Helena says so explicitly.

Helena wants to be “translated” to Hermia.

[…]

Helena is desperately in love with Demetrius, but he is hardly mentioned; gigantic in the absence of Hermia, his stature shrinks to almost nothing in her presence. Thus the real priorities of mimetic desire are revealed: however desirable the object may be, it pales in comparison with the model who gives it its value.

Hermia and Helena (Washington Allston 1818)A remarkable aspect of our text is its sensuousness. Helena wants to catch Hermia’s “favour” as she would a disease, contagiously, through physical contact. She wants every part of her body to match Hermia’s corresponding part. She wants the whole body of Hermia. The homosexual connotations of this text are not “unconscious” but deliberate, and it is difficult to see what kind of help psychoanalysis could provide. Shakespeare portrays the tendency of unsuccessful desire to focus more and more on the cause of its failure and to turn the mediator into a second erotic object – necessarily homosexual, if the original desire is heterosexual; the erotic rival is an individual of the same sex as the subject. The homosexual connotations are inseparable from the growing emphasis on the mediator.

Helena will show a little later that she has not forgotten Demetrius; her behavior with him is more “masochistically” erotic during the night than that of any other character.

[…]

What Helena is going through is part of her “midsummer night.” Many adolescents experience an intense fascination for successful school friends, and it may or it may not affect them permanently.

Girard explores the love/hate – dynamics generated by the mimetic interactions between the four lovers more extensively further on (ibid., p.50-51):

We must examine a striking feature in the amorous language of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: the proliferation of animal images. In order to express her self-abasement, Helena compares herself to various beasts. In opposition to these metaphors of lowliness, images of sublimity and divinity express the transcendence of the inaccessible object, Demetrius, and of the triumphant mediator, Hermia.

[…]

In all intensely mimetic relations, the subject tries to combat the self-contempt that necessarily accompanies the overvaluation of the mediator. Helena reveres her mediator but also hates her as a rival, and vainly tries to regain the upper hand in a relationship that has become completely unbalanced. The more divine Hermia and Demetrius seem to Helena, the more beastly she herself feels. The animal images are a privileged means of expressing the self-abasement that mimetic desire generates. Instead of rising to the near-divinity that they perceive in their models, the subjects of desire sink to the level of animality.

It’s time to put Girard’s analysis to the test and to take a look at how The Bard himself portrays Helena’s self-loathing in relation to Hermia and Demetrius.

From Act I, Scene I

HERMIA
God speed fair Helena! whither away?

HELENA
Call you me fair? that fair again unsay.
Demetrius loves your fair: O happy fair!
Your eyes are lode-stars; and your tongue’s sweet air
More tuneable than lark to shepherd’s ear,
When wheat is green, when hawthorn buds appear.
Sickness is catching: O, were favour so,
Yours would I catch, fair Hermia, ere I go;
My ear should catch your voice, my eye your eye,
My tongue should catch your tongue’s sweet melody.
Were the world mine, Demetrius being bated,
The rest I’d give to be to you translated.
O, teach me how you look, and with what art
You sway the motion of Demetrius’ heart.

HERMIA
I frown upon him, yet he loves me still.

HELENA
O that your frowns would teach my smiles such skill!

HERMIA
I give him curses, yet he gives me love.

HELENA
O that my prayers could such affection move!

HERMIA
The more I hate, the more he follows me.

HELENA
The more I love, the more he hateth me.

HERMIA
His folly, Helena, is no fault of mine.

HELENA
None, but your beauty: would that fault were mine!

Hermia and Lysander (John Simmons 1870)HERMIA
Take comfort: he no more shall see my face;
Lysander and myself will fly this place.
Before the time I did Lysander see,
Seem’d Athens as a paradise to me:
O, then, what graces in my love do dwell,
That he hath turn’d a heaven unto a hell!

From Act II, Scene I

DEMETRIUS
I love thee not, therefore pursue me not.
Where is Lysander and fair Hermia?
The one I’ll slay, the other slayeth me.
Thou told’st me they were stolen unto this wood;
And here am I, and wode within this wood,
Because I cannot meet my Hermia.
Hence, get thee gone, and follow me no more.

HELENA
You draw me, you hard-hearted adamant;
But yet you draw not iron, for my heart
Is true as steel: leave you your power to draw,
And I shall have no power to follow you.

DEMETRIUS
Do I entice you? do I speak you fair?
Or, rather, do I not in plainest truth
Tell you, I do not, nor I cannot love you?

HELENA
And even for that do I love you the more.
I am your spaniel; and, Demetrius,
The more you beat me, I will fawn on you:
Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me,
Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave,
Unworthy as I am, to follow you.
What worser place can I beg in your love,–
And yet a place of high respect with me,–
Than to be used as you use your dog?

One of the strongest arguments for the kind of interpretation of the play we’ve been exploring, i.e. in terms of mimetic interactions, is Girard’s reference to what happened before the play begins. The prehistory of the midsummer night is summarized in the very first scene of the play. Girard (ibid., p.33-34):

In the beginning Helena was in love with Demetrius and Demetrius with her. This happy state of affairs did not last. The gentle Helena explains in a soliloquy that her love affair was destroyed by Hermia:

For ere Demetrius look’d on Hermia’s eyne,
He hail’d down oaths that he was only mine;
And when this hail some heat from Hermia felt,
So he dissolved, and showers of oaths did melt.

Why should Hermia attempt to seduce Demetrius away from her best friend? Since Hermia now wants to marry the other boy, Lysander, she could not be motivated by genuine “true love.” What else could it be? Do we have to ask? The mimetic nature of the enterprise is suggested by the close similarity […] with The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Hermia and Helena are the same type of friends as Valentine and Proteus: they have lived together since infancy; they have been educated together; they always act, think, feel, and desire alike.

In our prehistory we have a first mimetic triangle. […]

Demetrius is still very much in love with Hermia because she is the one who jilted him, just as Demetrius himself had jilted Helena a little before. The enterprising Hermia first stole the lover of her best friend and then lost interest in him, thus making two people hysterically unhappy instead of one. If Hermia lived in our time, she would probably claim that a bright, modern, independent young woman like herself needs “more challenging friends” than Demetrius and Helena. Demetrius and Helena seem insufficiently challenging to Hermia because she found it too easy to dominate them. First, she roundly defeated Helena in the battle for Demetrius, which destroyed the prestige of this friend as a mediator. Being no longer transfigured by the power of mimetic rivalry, Demetrius too lost his prestige and did not seem desirable any longer. Whenever an imitator successfully appropriates the object designated by his or her model, the transfiguration machine ceases to function. With no threatening rival in sight, Hermia found Demetrius uninspiring and turned to the more exotic Lysander.

This explanation is also valid for Demetrius, our first example of infidelity. He yielded to Hermia’s blandishments because Helena was too gentle and loving; she did not make things difficult enough for her lover. When mimetic desire is thwarted, it intensifies and, when it succeeds, it withers away. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the play in which these two aspects are discreetly but systematically exploited. The two together make up the dynamics of the midsummer night.

THE HETERO- (AND AUTO-) AGGRESSION OF HERMIA

Indeed, from the observations about the prehistory of the midsummer night it is plausible to consider the alternative love triangle at the climax of the midsummer night as a consequence of (Shakespeare’s insight into) mimetic logic. Puck’s love potion hardly conceals Shakespeare’s deconstruction of the “true love” illusion. The reality of mimetic desire brings any stable “forever and ever” romanticism to an end. Once again, René Girard (ibid., p.51):

god dogAs the end approaches, the metaphysical absolute shifts from character to character and the mimetic relation loses all stability. When the two boys abandon Hermia and turn to Helena, the entire configuration is reorganized on the basis of the same polarities but with a new distribution of roles. A formerly despised member of the group has become its idol, and a former idol has lost all prestige; in the language of our metaphoric polarity, it really means that a beast has turned into a god and, reciprocally, a god has turned into a beast. Up is down and down is up. When Lysander and Demetrius fall in love with Helena, it is Hermia’s turn to feel like a dog.

The diagram from the perspective of Hermia thus looks like this:

 

MND Heteroaggression of Hermia

Helena cannot believe that the two boys now rival each other to obtain her (all the while, of course, mimetically reinforcing each other’s desire). Of course Hermia is not happy with this turn of events. At the same time as she “masochistically” loathes her own “dwarfish stature”, she loathes Helena. Hermia, comparing herself with Helena, is even prepared to fight her friend. The Bard:

From Act III, Scene II

HELENA
O spite! O hell! I see you all are bent
To set against me for your merriment:
If you were civil and knew courtesy,
You would not do me thus much injury.
Can you not hate me, as I know you do,
But you must join in souls to mock me too?
If you were men, as men you are in show,
You would not use a gentle lady so;
To vow, and swear, and superpraise my parts,
When I am sure you hate me with your hearts.
You both are rivals, and love Hermia;
And now both rivals, to mock Helena:
A trim exploit, a manly enterprise,
To conjure tears up in a poor maid’s eyes
With your derision! none of noble sort
Would so offend a virgin, and extort
A poor soul’s patience, all to make you sport.

[…]

HERMIA
What, can you do me greater harm than hate?
Hate me! wherefore? O me! what news, my love!
Am not I Hermia? are not you Lysander?
I am as fair now as I was erewhile.
Since night you loved me; yet since night you left me:
Why, then you left me–O, the gods forbid!–
In earnest, shall I say?

LYSANDER
Ay, by my life;
And never did desire to see thee more.
Therefore be out of hope, of question, of doubt;
Be certain, nothing truer; ’tis no jest
That I do hate thee and love Helena.

HERMIA
O me! you juggler! you canker-blossom!
You thief of love! what, have you come by night
And stolen my love’s heart from him?

HELENA
Fine, i’faith!
Have you no modesty, no maiden shame,
No touch of bashfulness? What, will you tear
Impatient answers from my gentle tongue?
Fie, fie! you counterfeit, you puppet, you!

HERMIA
Puppet? why so? ay, that way goes the game.
Now I perceive that she hath made compare
Between our statures; she hath urged her height;
And with her personage, her tall personage,
Her height, forsooth, she hath prevail’d with him.
And are you grown so high in his esteem;
Because I am so dwarfish and so low?
How low am I, thou painted maypole? speak;
How low am I? I am not yet so low
But that my nails can reach unto thine eyes.

THE HETERO-AGGRESSION OF DEMETRIUS

Finally, the mimetic logic is also at work in the behavior of the two boys. René Girard (ibid., p.32-33):

The first thing to observe is that, even though the two boys are never in love with any girl for very long, both of them at any given time are always in love with the same girl. We can also observe great similarities in their two discourses, which remain unchanged when both of them shift from one girl to the other, except, of course, for the minor adjustments required by the fact that Helena is a tall blonde, whereas Hermia is short and dark-haired.

[…]

[Demetrius] imitates Lysander because Lysander took Hermia away from him, and like all defeated rivals, he is horribly mediated by his victorious opponent. His desire for Hermia remains intense as long as Lysander provides it with a model; as soon as Lysander shifts to Helena, Demetrius also shifts. This perfect parrot is a more comic version of Proteus [from The Two Gentlemen of Verona]. Imitation is so compulsive with him that, were there a third girl in the group, he would certainly fall in love with her, but not before Lysander did.

In short, Demetrius compares himself to Lysander, and this reinforces his desire for Hermia [the left side of the diagram]. All this results in Demetrius’ desire to erase (the confrontation with the difference between him and) Lysander [the right side of the diagram]. Hence the full diagram:

MND Heteroaggression of Demetrius

In the words of The Bard:

From Act II, Scene I

DEMETRIUS
I love thee not, therefore pursue me not.
Where is Lysander and fair Hermia?
The one I’ll slay, the other slayeth me.
Thou told’st me they were stolen unto this wood;
And here am I, and wode within this wood,
Because I cannot meet my Hermia.
Hence, get thee gone, and follow me no more.

HELENA
You draw me, you hard-hearted adamant;
But yet you draw not iron, for my heart
Is true as steel: leave you your power to draw,
And I shall have no power to follow you.

THE HETERO-AGGRESSION OF LYSANDER

Lysander at first seems more independent than Demetrius, but we should not be fooled. René Girard (ibid., p.33-34):

What about Lysander himself? When he shifts to Helena, he has no possible model, since no one is in love with the poor girl. Does that mean that his desire is truly spontaneous?

[…]

the chase is better than the catchIn The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Shakespeare emphasized the strength and stability of unfulfilled desire. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream this emphasis remains, but it is supplemented by an equal emphasis on the instability of fulfilled desire. We can now understand why Lysander abandons Hermia, for all desertions are rooted in the disenchantment of peaceful possession. Lysander has triumphed over his mimetic rival Demetrius. Hermia truly belongs to him, so he lacks the indispensable stimulus of mimetic rivalry. Helena must seem attractive at this point because she has given no indication of being interested in Lysander; besides, there is no one else to turn to.

In other words, Lysander compares himself to Demetrius and reinforces his desire for (the recognition of) Helena, to the point where he wants to get rid of Demetrius. Hence the diagram:

MND Heteroaggression of Lysander

From Act II, Scene II

HELENA
O, I am out of breath in this fond chase!
The more my prayer, the lesser is my grace.
Happy is Hermia, wheresoe’er she lies;
For she hath blessed and attractive eyes.
How came her eyes so bright? Not with salt tears:
If so, my eyes are oftener wash’d than hers.
No, no, I am as ugly as a bear;
For beasts that meet me run away for fear:
Therefore no marvel though Demetrius
Do, as a monster fly my presence thus.
What wicked and dissembling glass of mine
Made me compare with Hermia’s sphery eyne?
But who is here? Lysander! on the ground!
Dead? or asleep? I see no blood, no wound.
Lysander if you live, good sir, awake.

LYSANDER
[Awaking] And run through fire I will for thy sweet sake.
Transparent Helena! Nature shows art,
That through thy bosom makes me see thy heart.
Where is Demetrius? O, how fit a word
Is that vile name to perish on my sword!

HELENA
Do not say so, Lysander; say not so
What though he love your Hermia? Lord, what though?
Yet Hermia still loves you: then be content.

LYSANDER
Content with Hermia! No; I do repent
The tedious minutes I with her have spent.
Not Hermia but Helena I love:
Who will not change a raven for a dove?
The will of man is by his reason sway’d;
And reason says you are the worthier maid.
Things growing are not ripe until their season
So I, being young, till now ripe not to reason;
And touching now the point of human skill,
Reason becomes the marshal to my will
And leads me to your eyes, where I o’erlook
Love’s stories written in love’s richest book.

3. MIMESIS AND EROS

Without further ado, René Girard’s main conclusion on A Midsummer Night’s Dream (ibid., p.64):

The symmetry of the two human subplots suggests that aesthetic imitation and the mimetic Eros are two modalities of the same principle. Bottom’s desire for mimesis spreads as contagiously among the craftsmen as erotic desire among the lovers and has the same disruptive effects upon the two groups; it produces the same mythology [the midsummer night’s dream].

In his theatrical subplot, Shakespeare reinjects the ingredient that the aestheticians always leave out – competitive desire. In the lovers’ subplot he reinjects the ingredient that the students of desire never take into account – imitation. This double restitution turns the two subplots into faithful mirrors of each other, the two complementary halves of a single challenge against the Western philosophical and anthropological tradition.

[…]

The enormous force of Shakespeare comes from his ability to rid himself of two bad abstractions simultaneously: solipsistic desire and the bland, disembodied imitation of the aestheticians. The love of mimesis that sustains the aesthetic enterprise is one and the same with mimetic desire. This is the real message of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The Western philosophical and scientific tradition is based on the opposite principle. Mimesis and Eros are seen as separate. The myth of their mutual independence goes back to Plato, who never associates the two concepts, even though his frantic fear of mimetic contagion and his distrust of art, more particularly of the theater, points to the unity that his formal system repudiates.

[…]

Shakespeare’s spectacular marriage of mimesis and desire is the unity of the three subplots and the unity of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

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Lord What Fools these Mortals be

The play ends with Puck addressing the audience. It seems he tries to reassure us that “true love” can only be disturbed by a magical dream. As if a certain configuration of relationships is true and “real” and an alternative one can only be false and “dreamlike appearance”. We don’t like to admit that our desires are subject to mimetic antics. We would like to escape the realization that our desires are guided by emotions like envy and jealousy, or pride. And yet, Puck ironically reveals that there indeed is a “serpent’s tongue” (i.e. the principle of mimetic comparing, as the serpent refers to the creature that seduces Adam and Eve to compare themselves to God in the Genesis story of the Garden of Eden). Thus Puck is the liar (“merely a character in a play”) who tells the truth. And so he gets the last laugh…

From Act V, Scene I

PuckPUCK
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

CLICK HERE FOR A PDF-FILE OF THE DIAGRAMS

Here are some previous posts concerning the same issues:

  1. Mimetic Theory in High School (click to read)
  2. Types of the Scapegoat Mechanism (click to read)
  3. Scapegoating in American Beauty (click to read)
  4. Philosophy in American Beauty (click to read)
  5. Real Life Cases of Ressentiment (click to read)
  6. Eminem Reads the Bible (click to read)
  7. The Grace of Prostitutes (click to read)

See also: Achever… the Social Sciences (click to read)

The Two Cocks (J. de La Fontaine)

Benoît Chantre, co-author of René Girard’s Achever Clausewitz (Battling to the End), made a reference to the fable of Les Deux Coqs (The Two Cocks) by Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695) at a conference in Paris. René Girard gave a lecture at the Centre Pompidou (March 30, 2005) a good week after he became one of the “immortals” of the Académie française (March 17, 2005). Benoît Chantre humorously and aptly ended the gathering by quoting some lines of the famous French poet, one of Girard’s predecessors in the Academy.

The fable is about mimetic rivalry between two men (“cocks”) over a woman (a “hen”) – indeed a rivalry that sparked more than one (“Trojan”) war in human history. Note that, at the end, La Fontaine suggests a new potential cycle of mimetic rivalry, this time of women over a man…

Deux Coqs vivaient en paix: une Poule survint,
Et voilà la guerre allumée.
Amour, tu perdis Troie; et c’est de toi que vint
Cette querelle envenimée,
Où du sang des Dieux même on vit le Xanthe teint.
Longtemps entre nos Coqs le combat se maintint:
Le bruit s’en répandit par tout le voisinage.
La gent qui porte crête au spectacle accourut.
Plus d’une Hélène au beau plumage
Fut le prix du vainqueur ; le vaincu disparut.
Il alla se cacher au fond de sa retraite,
Pleura sa gloire et ses amours,
Ses amours qu’un rival tout fier de sa défaite
Possédait à ses yeux. Il voyait tous les jours
Cet objet rallumer sa haine et son courage.
Il aiguisait son bec, battait l’air et ses flancs,
Et s’exerçant contre les vents
S’armait d’une jalouse rage.
Il n’en eut pas besoin. Son vainqueur sur les toits
S’alla percher, et chanter sa victoire.
Un Vautour entendit sa voix:
Adieu les amours et la gloire.
Tout cet orgueil périt sous l’ongle du Vautour.
Enfin par un fatal retour
Son rival autour de la Poule
S’en revint faire le coquet:
Je laisse à penser quel caquet,
Car il eut des femmes en foule.
La Fortune se plaît à faire de ces coups;
Tout vainqueur insolent à sa perte travaille.
Défions-nous du sort, et prenons garde à nous
Après le gain d’une bataille.

English translation:

Two cocks had lived in peace, till from afar
A hen came in, and kindled up a war.
          0 love! thou wert the curse of Troy;
By thee were troubled the abodes of joy,
Where strife arose, and god opposed to god,
Till Xanthus flowed with their celestial blood.
          Long time the cocks maintained the fight,
Les Deux Coqs (Gustave Doré)The noise of which spread everywhere around;
The crested tribes came flocking to the sight.
Many a Helen plumed the victor crowned;
          The vanquished hero blushing fled
          To his retreat to hide his head—
There wept his honour and his mistress lost;
          Hearing his happy rival boast
His mistress lost and in his rival’s power,
Which he must see and suffer every hour!
The sight his courage kindled into rage;
His beak and claws he whetted to engage,
          And flapped his sides, and fought the air,
          In his excess of wild despair,
          Burning with jealous wrath to bleed,
          For which at last there was no need.
          The victor cock sat perched on high,
          Proudly chanting victory.
          A vulture heard him as he crew—
          To all his gallantry adieu.
His pride was crushed beneath the vulture’s claws,
And thus by fortune’s unexpected laws,
          Behold, the rival cock again
          Come back to gallant with the hen.
          I leave to guess what tattling lives;
          For there he found a mob of wives.
          Thus Fortune lays the fatal snare:
          The haughty victor seeks to be undone.
Then Fate distrust—be humble, and take care
          After the victory is won.

Nederlandse vertaling:

Twee hanen leefden kalm; een hoentje kwam erbij
En plots was d’oorlog uitgebroken.
Gij, Liefde, hebt den fakkel ook ontstoken
Voor Troje’s brand; van u kwam deze razernij,
Die zelfs met godenbloed den Xanthus kleurde.
Lang duurde der twee hanen felle strijd.
Door gansch de buurt werd het rumoer verspreid,
En al wat kammen droeg, kwam kijken hoe ‘t gebeurde.
Ook menig Helena met fraai gevedert
Werd ‘s overwinnaars loon; de andre haan verdween,Les Deux Coqs (Jean-Jacques Grandville)
Hij hield zich schuil, verslagen en vernederd,
Treurde om zijn glorie en zijn lief, met droef geween,
‘t Lief, dat de medeminnaar voor zijn oogen
Trotsch op zijn overwinning, nu bezat.
Het daaglijksch schouwspel kwam zijn haat en kracht
Die hij voorheen te weinig had. [verhoogen,
Hij scherpte nu zijn bek, sloeg met de vleuglen,
Zich oefnend tegen ‘t windgeblaas,
In woede en jaloezie, niet te beteuglen.
Het was niet noodig. D’andre vechtersbaas
Vloog op het dak en kraaide er zijn victorie.
Een gier, die loerde, hoorde ‘t nauw,
Of uit was ‘t met zijn liefde en zijn glorie,

‘t Bleef alles in de scherpe gierenklauw.
Toen kwam, natuurlijk wisselspel,
Weer d’ander om het hoentje draaien;
Men kan begrijpen wat een kakelen en kraaien,
Want nu beviel hij haar en d’andre wijfjes wel.
Vaak heeft Fortuin dus wraak genomen,
Elk onbeschaamd verwinnaar komt ten val;
Voorzichtig dus; want na gewonnen spel vooral,
Is ‘t zaak, de fierheid in te toomen.

Klik hier voor pdf fabels van La Fontaine

Watch the fable, remade for children, here: