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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Quote 1:

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

Quote 2:

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

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

Quote 3:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pleasantville and Biblical Feminism

A Woman’s Uncanny Valley

Temptresses

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

[…]

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

 

The Power of Myth (Joseph Campbell vs René Girard)

 

Joseph Campbell, a well-known scholar in the field of comparative mythology, became quite famous when his works inspired film director George Lucas to create the Star Wars saga (click here for more on this). Shortly before his death in 1987, Campbell was interviewed by Bill Moyers at Skywalker Ranch (home of Lucas, indeed). These conversations served as the basis for a six part PBS documentary series, Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth. The series was originally broadcast on television in 1988. It remains one of the most popular documentary series in the history of American public television.

This article will summarize Campbell’s main ideas by taking a closer look at Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth. Each episode is made available below, with Dutch subtitles (thanks to an anonymous translator). At the same time this article will highlight the main parallells next to some striking differences between Joseph Campbell’s analysis of myth and the analysis of René Girard.

Episode 1: The Hero’s Adventure (first broadcast June 21, 1988 on PBS)

Joseph Campbell mainly considers myths as “metaphors for the experience of life”.  Myths symbolically describe fundamental experiences everyone has to deal with, especially the so-called “hero myths”. They recount “the hero’s journey”, which is a universal pattern visible in a myriad of situations.

Hero myths are expressions of external (physical) and/or internal (psychological) struggles. They represent a transition in one’s identity. Faced with new challenges, the hero leaves home to undergo a series of ordeals, in the process sacrificing his old identity. As the hero learns some lessons from the ordeals, he gradually adopts a new identity until he finally returns home with his treasure (of new experiences) and the ability to renew his world order. Thus hero myths can also be considered as “death and resurrection” stories. In these myths self-sacrifice is a morally justified necessity to achieve a new, more fulfilling life.

One example of a hero’s journey in life is being a student. Students are exempt from regular society life. They are granted time and space to undergo a series of tests while entering their respective fields of inquiry (unknown worlds to them, at first). As they go along, students achieve certain skills and knowledge until they finally adopt a new, more mature identity. This allows them to take up some kind of responsibility in their society. In other words, the student dies to his adolescent self and, returning to society, resurrects as a more fully equipped adult.

All of the above in the words of the man himself:

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: There is a certain typical hero sequence of actions, which can be detected in stories from all over the world, and from many, many periods of history. And I think it’s essentially, you might say, the one deed done by many, many different people.

There are two types of deed. One is the physical deed; the hero who has performed a war act or a physical act of heroism. Saving a life, that’s a hero act. Giving himself, sacrificing himself to another. And the other kind is the spiritual hero, who has learned or found a mode of experiencing the supernormal range of human spiritual life, and has then come back and communicated it. It’s a cycle. It’s a going and a return that the hero cycle represents.

This can be seen also in the simple initiation ritual, where a child has to give up his childhood and become an adult, has to die, you might say, to his infantile personality and psyche and come back as a self-responsible adult. It’s a fundamental experience that everyone has to undergo. We’re in our childhood for at least 14 years, and to get out of that posture of dependency, psychological dependency, into one of psychological self-responsibility, requires a death and resurrection. And that is the basic motif of the hero journey, leaving one condition, finding the source of life to bring you forth in a richer or more mature or other condition.

Otto Rank, in his wonderful, very short book called The Myth of the Birth of the Hero, says that everyone is a hero in his birth. He has undergone a tremendous transformation from a little, you might say, water creature. Living in a realm of the amniotic fluid and so forth, then coming out, becoming an air-breathing mammal that ultimately will be self-standing and so forth, is an enormous transformation and it is a heroic act. And it’s a heroic act on the mother’s part to bring it about. It’s the primary hero form, you might say.

Heroes and their myths function as models for our own way of life. They inspire us to imitate their behavior and deeds. Joseph Campbell, when asked about the potential of movies to provide new hero myths, opens up about some of his own role models:

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: I had a hero figure who meant something to me, and he served as a kind of model for myself in my physical character, and that was Douglas Fairbanks. I wanted to be a synthesis of Douglas Fairbanks and Leonardo da Vinci, that was my idea. But those were models, were roles, that came to me.

Campbell seems to acknowledge the importance of role models and mimesis, but he also insists on the hero being a true outsider, a maverick, someone who goes against the grain (important observations, especially relevant to René Girard’s mimetic theory – see below). Not surprisingly, Campbell considers the hero myth mainly to be a metaphor for an inner, psychological struggle that liberates us from a life in service of an often alienating social system. A contradiction seems to arise when he also considers initiation rituals as typical examples of the hero’s journey (see above). Indeed, through initiation rituals adolescents learn to acquire an identity that will sustain the social order of their community, sacrificing whatever inner or outer obstacle in the process.

At some point in the conversation with Bill Moyers, Campbell compares the hero Siegfried (a figure from Norse and German mythology) to the villain Darth Vader (a figure from the Star Wars mythology). What Campbell apparently fails to notice, is the unchanged sacrificial nature of both stories. Although Siegfried is used, in contrast to Darth Vader, as an example of someone who refuses to submit himself to a human world in the service of a technocratic system, he does submit himself to the powers of nature (the natural system or order).

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: The first stage in the hero adventure, when he starts off on the adventure, is leaving the realm of light, which he controls and knows about, and moving toward the threshold. And it’s at the threshold that the monster of the abyss comes to meet him. And then there are two or three results: one, the hero is cut to pieces and descends into the abyss in fragments, to be resurrected; or he may kill the dragon power, as Siegfried does when he kills the dragon. But then he tastes the dragon blood, that is to say, he has to assimilate that power. And when Siegfried has killed the dragon and tasted the blood, he hears the song of nature; he has transcended his humanity, you know, and reassociated himself with the powers of nature, which are the powers of our life, from which our mind removes us.

You see, this thing up here, this consciousness, thinks it’s running the shop. It’s a secondary organ; it’s a secondary organ of a total human being, and it must not put itself in control. It must submit and serve the humanity of the body.

When it does put itself in control, you get this [Darth] Vader, the man who’s gone over to the intellectual side.

[Darth Vader] isn’t thinking or living in terms of humanity, he’s living in terms of a system. And this is the threat to our lives; we all face it, we all operate in our society in relation to a system. Now, is the system going to eat you up and relieve you of your humanity, or are you going to be able to use the system to human purposes?

Siegfried sacrifices whatever gets in the way of acquiring a new, higher identity in correspondence with the forces of nature, while Darth Vader sacrifices whatever gets in the way of acquiring a new, higher identity in correspondence with the forces of technology. Campbell prefers one order or system over the other. From René Girard’s viewpoint, however, both systems (and the heroes who sustain them) are essentially the same. They imitate each other’s behavior and thereby resemble each other more and more. Both Siegfried’s and Darth Vader’s identity exist at the expense of sacrifice. Siegfried is the representative of a cultural identity that places technology in the service of nature, whereas Darth Vader is the representative of a cultural identity that places nature in the service of technology. In the real world, the advocates of those cultural identities rival each other, imitating each other’s sacrificial behavior: they become mimetic doubles.

Moreover, both Siegfried and Darth Vader are loners or “chosen ones” who are willing to perform sacrifices or sacrifice themselves to establish a certain order. As such, they paradoxically become cultural role models whose acts of (self-)sacrifice will be imitated and repeated in order to preserve, renew or save the social order that lives by their respective stories. In the words of the conversation between Moyers and Campbell:

BILL MOYERS: Unlike the classical heroes, we’re not going on our journey to save the world, but to save ourselves.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: And in doing that, you save the world. I mean, you do. The influence of a vital person vitalizes, there’s no doubt about it. The world is a wasteland. People have the notion of saving the world by shifting it around and changing the rules and so forth. No, any world is a living world if it’s alive, and the thing is to bring it to life. And the way to bring it to life is to find in your own case where your life is, and be alive yourself, it seems to me.

According to Joseph Campbell, if you save yourself you save the world. In other words, we are part of a bigger whole and we should acknowledge and accept that. Moreover, eventually it’s the whole that counts. Campbell is very holistic and nature-oriented in his thoughts, even to the point where nature becomes something sacred, permeated by a larger consciousness. Again, from the conversation between Moyers and Campbell:

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Jean and I are living in Hawaii, and we’re living right by the ocean. And we have a little lanai, a little porch, and there’s a coconut tree that grows up through the porch and it goes on up. And there’s a kind of vine, plant, big powerful thing with leaves like this, that has grown up the coconut tree. Now, that plant sends forth little feelers to go out and clutch the plant, and it knows where the plant is and what to do– where the tree is, and it grows up like this, and it opens a leaf, and that leaf immediately turns to where the sun is. Now, you can’t tell me that leaf doesn’t know where the sun is going to be. All of the leaves go just like that, what’s called heliotropism, turning toward where the sun is. That’s a form of consciousness. There is a plant consciousness, there is an animal consciousness. We share all of these things. You eat certain foods, and the bile knows whether there’s something there for it to go to work on. I mean, the whole thing is consciousness. I begin to feel more and more that the whole world is conscious; certainly the vegetable world is conscious, and when you live in the woods, as I did as a kid, you can see all these different consciousnesses relating to themselves.

BILL MOYERS: Scientists are beginning to talk quite openly about the Gaia principle.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: There you are, the whole planet as an organism.

BILL MOYERS: Mother Earth.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: And you see, if you will think of ourselves as coming out of the earth, rather than as being thrown in here from somewhere else, you know, thrown out of the earth, we are the earth, we are the consciousness of the earth. These are the eyes of the earth, and this is the voice of the earth. What else?

 

Episode 2: The Message of the Myth (first broadcast June 22, 1988 on PBS)

[TO BE CONTINUED]

Episode 3: The First Storytellers (first broadcast June 23, 1988 on PBS)

[TO BE CONTINUED]

Episode 4: Sacrifice and Bliss (first broadcast June 24, 1988 on PBS)

[TO BE CONTINUED]

Episode 5: Love and the Goddess (first broadcast June 25, 1988 on PBS)

[TO BE CONTINUED]

Episode 6: Masks of Eternity (first broadcast June 26, 1988 on PBS)

[TO BE CONTINUED]