Alain de Botton Goes René Girard

One of today’s more popular philosophers, Alain de Botton, could easily have dubbed his TED-talk “A short history of  human self-understanding in the West according to René Girard”, but settled for “A kinder, gentler philosophy of success” instead.

alain-de-botton-on-rene-girardI accidently saw this talk on Belgian television (Canvas) and immediately suspected Girard’s influence. As it turns out, Alain de Botton rates Girard’s Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure five stars out of five on goodreads. No coincidence there…

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Of course, both de Botton and Girard are intellectual omnivores, drawing from similar sources (for instance, de Botton mentions Émile Durkheim in his talk; according to Eric Gans, “In particular, Durkheim should be considered the principal theoretical ancestor of René Girard’s notion of the sacred”). Nevertheless, it’s easy to pinpoint the many parts in de Botton’s talk that correspond with Girard’s preoccupations, even on a structural level. Here’s a comparison…

1. GLOBAL SNOBBERY

blog snobberyOne of René Girard’s main concepts is mimetic desire, i.e. desire based on the imitation (or mimesis) of the desire of others. Beyond instinctive needs and appetites, human desire is highly structured by mimetic interactions. We desire and attach importance to certain aspects of our environment because those others whom we experience as meaningful to our lives attach importance to these aspects, and we tend to imitate them. We gain a sense of identity as subjects by comparing ourselves to others who function as models (or mediators) for our desires and ambitions. So, from this angle, objects (or objectives) of desire are not intrinsically important. They gain value because of certain mediators they’re associated with, and because of the sense of being this association promises.

social-media-snobbery-venn-diagramDue to our mimetic tendencies we are able to imagine others’ viewpoints, to mimic others and to pretend we are like them. It also enables us to discover what those others focus on and what they seem to consider important. Imitating and obtaining what others consider important gives us social recognition, which in turn indeed gives us a sense of identity. We often don’t want material goods per se, we only want them insofar as they evoke social recognition – in the shape of admiration or envy by others. Snobbery grows out of the triangular structure of desire (i.e. the mimetic interplay between subject, model and object). Consumed by envious vanity himself, the snob is someone who desires others to admire or envy (even hate) him. He is an imitator who secretly wants to present himself as a model. The snob is someone who desperately seeks social respectability, in whatever context (be it a sports club, a school, a law firm, a factory, a family, an opera house, a newspaper etc.). In a way, we’re all snobs. We do care about what ‘meaningful others’ think of us! René Girard puts it this way (Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure – Translated by Yvonne Freccero, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1966; 24):

“The triangular structure is no less obvious in social snobbism than it is in love-jealousy. The snob is also an imitator. He slavishly copies the person whose birth, fortune, or stylishness he envies. … The snob does not dare trust his own judgment, he desires only objects desired by others. That is why he is the slave of the fashionable. For the first time, moreover, we come across a term in current usage, ‘snobbism,’ which does not conceal the truth of triangular desire. Just to call a desire snobbish is enough to underscore its imitative character. The mediator is no longer hidden; the object is relegated to the background for the very reason that snobbism is not limited to a particular category of desires. One can be a snob in aesthetic pleasure, in intellectual life, in clothes, food etc.”

COMPARE ALL THIS WITH Alain de Botton’s description of job snobbery and the main reason why we want certain material goods (indeed because we think they’ll reward us with social respectability):

beer snob“Snobbery is a global phenomenon. … What is a snob? A snob is anybody who takes a small part of you and uses that to come to a complete vision of who you are. That is snobbery. The dominant kind of snobbery that exists nowadays is job snobbery. You encounter it within minutes at a party, when you get asked that famous iconic question of the early 21st century, ‘What do you do?’ And according to how you answer that question, people are either incredibly delighted to see you, or look at their watch and make their excuses. … Most people make a strict correlation between how much time, and if you like, love – not romantic love, though that may be something – but love in general, respect, they are willing to accord us, that will be strictly defined by our position in the social hierarchy.

And that’s a lot of the reason why we care so much about our careers and indeed start caring so much about material goods. You know, we’re often told that we live in very materialistic times, that we’re all greedy people. I don’t think we are particularly materialistic. I think we live in a society which has simply pegged certain emotional rewards to the acquisition of material goods. It’s not the material goods we want. It’s the rewards we want. And that’s a new way of looking at luxury goods. The next time you see somebody driving a Ferrari don’t think, ‘This is somebody who is greedy.’ Think, ‘This is somebody who is incredibly vulnerable and in need of love.’ Feel sympathy, rather than contempt.”

Alain de Botton also refers to mimetic mechanisms and mimetic desire:

“The thing about a succesful life is, a lot of the time, our ideas of what it would mean to live successfully are not our own. They are sucked in from other people…

And we also suck in messages from everything from the television, to advertising, to marketing, etc. These are hugely powerful forces that define what we want and how we view ourselves. When we’re told that banking is a very respectable profession a lot of us want to go into banking. When banking is no longer so respectable, we lose interest in banking. We are highly open to suggestion.”

2. MODERN EGALITARIANISM AND THE SPIRIT OF ENVY

Envy between the DeadOne of the main problems in the course of human history has been the potential destructive outcome of mimetic desire. If a mediator is at a great distance, the risks of (violent) rivalry between subject and model are not that big. There will often be a sense of admiration (idolatry) from the part of the subject towards its model. René Girard calls this kind of mimetic interplay external mediation. However, if the mediator is a close neighbor, relative or friend, risks of conflict grow increasingly. This so-called internal mediation makes the model of desire also an obstacle. When two (or more) people mutually enforce each other’s desire for certain objects (by way of imitation the model also becomes the imitator of his imitator, his double), envious rivalry emerges.

Premodern societies developed systems of taboos and (sacrificial) rituals to guide mimetic interactions and to prevent mimetic rivalry (and everything it’s associated with) from destabilizing communities. Moreover, there was a hierarchy in society as a matter of principle. One could not just aspire to the positon of a king when one was not of noble birth. This type of hierarchy was eventually justified by reference to ‘higher powers’ – fate, fortune, the gods… Myths were basically tales that defended the way societies structured themselves. People were ultimately not responsible for ‘the way of the world’ and for their own and others’ lives. God (or Fate) was to be thanked or to be blamed for whatever happened. God was the convenient scapegoat. People could not imitate the position of their king because God wouldn’t allow it. Respecting the social hierarchy (enforced by divine, ‘natural’ law) was a way to prevent mimetic rivalry and violent conflict. The French and other revolutions basically destroyed premodern hierarchical principles and their justifications in the western world, making way for modern democracy.

Wolfgang Palaver points to the potential dangers of modern equality in his book on René Girard’s mimetic theory (René Girard’s Mimetic Theory – Translated by Gabriel Borrud, Michigan State University Press, 2013; 61-62):

“Girard’s insight into the potential for conflict that accompanies internal mediation can help us better understand our modern, increasingly egalitarian world. As the metaphysical distance between desiring subject and model diminishes – the key component of internal mediation – the potential for rivalry and violence increases. The more negligible this distance becomes, the more probable it is that mimesis will end in rivalry and violence. The ancient proverbial truth found in mythical texts, primitive practices, and even the Bible, that brothers or sisters are much more prone to rivalry and conflict than others, can be easily understood with the help of Girard’s insight.

The development of mimetic desire from Cervantes to Dostoyevsky reflects the emergence of the modern world, one in which the spread of democracy and equality have meant the vanishing of rigid hierarchical differences. The limits on mimesis have essentially disappeared, as internal mediation increasingly takes the place of external mediation. The modern world has in turn seen a surge in competition, envy, and rivalry. In Girard’s eyes, this development is described most precisely by the French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville in his work Democracy in America:

‘When all the privileges of birth and fortune are abolished, when all professions are accessible to all, and a man’s own energies may place him at the top of any of them, an easy and unbounded career seems open to his ambition and he will readily persuade himself that he is born to no common destinies. But this is an erroneous notion, which is corrected by daily experience. The same equality that allows every citizen to conceive these lofty hopes, renders all the citizens less able to realize them; it circumscribes their powers on every side, which it gives freer scope to their desires. … They have swept away the privilege of some of their fellow-creatures which stood in their way, but they have opened the door to universal competition.’

James on EnvyTocqueville is cognizant of the dangers posed by the modern phenomenon of equality. The strength of his analysis lies merely at the political level, however, in that he avoids pursuing the deeper anthropological roots of modern egalitarianism and the dangers it poses to society. Girard’s insight into the effects of mimetic desire allows one to understand why the phenomenon of equality – or the disappearance of social differences – poses these dangers. Reactionary or anti-egalitarian movements, in their attempt to maintain social differences, are aware of the conflictual potential of equality. 

One gains a sense of this from the contemporary struggle between the sexes, and the phenomenon of democracy. On the one hand, the equality of the sexes and political equality enhance moral quality in human relations, but, on the other hand, they also increase the possibility of rivalry, competition, and violence. Antje Vollmer, for one, points out in her book Heisser Frieden [Hot Peace] that modern equality is one of the major factors responsible for this increase in social violence.

The workings of mimetic desire, meanwhile, explain the problematic consequences of equality. We will see in the following sections that Girard’s theory of mimetic desire only offers an initial and preliminary answer to modern social dynamics. In his eyes, social differences are not God-given or a product of nature – as Aristotle and his conservative followers contend – but rather a product of mimesis. Just as Heraclitus saw social differences as a product of war – ‘the father and king of all, … some it makes gods, others men; some slaves, and others free’ – Girard also maintains that these distinctions result from the violence of mimetic rivalry.”

Envy the Sin No One ConfessesGirard also refers to Max Scheler in describing the dominant feelings that arise from the idea that anyone can achieve as much as everybody else, and the confrontation with the reality that this is practically impossible: ressentiment and envy. René Girard in his own words (A Theater of Envy: William Shakespeare, New York: Oxford UP, 1991; 4):

“We often brag that no word can scandalize us anymore, but what about ‘envy’? Our supposedly insatiable appetite for the forbidden stops short of envy. Primitive cultures fear and repress envy so much that they have no word for it; we hardly use the one we have, and this fact must be significant. We no longer prohibit many actions that generate envy, but silently ostracize whatever can remind us of its presence in our midst. Psychic phenomena, we are told, are important in proportion to the resistance they generate toward revelation. If we apply this yardstick to envy as well as to what psychoanalysis designates as repressed, which of the two will make the more plausible candidate for the role of best-defended secret?”

Envy indeed often is a big taboo, and Girard also further explains why we might be ashamed to admit that we are jealous:

“Envy subordinates a desired something to the someone who enjoys a privileged relationship with it. Envy covets the superior being that neither the someone nor the something alone, but the conjunction of the two, seems to possess. Envy involuntarily testifies to a lack of being that puts the envious to shame… That is why envy is the hardest sin to acknowledge.”

COMPARE ALL THIS WITH the way Alain de Botton tackles these issues:

“There are other reasons why it’s perhaps harder now to feel calm than ever before. One of these, and it’s paradoxical because it’s linked to something that’s rather nice, is the hope we all have for our careers. Never before have expectations been so high about what human beings can achieve with their lifespan. We’re told, from many sources, that anyone can achieve anything. We’ve done away with the caste system. We are now in a system where anyone can rise to any position they please. And it’s a beautiful idea. Along with that is a kind of spirit of equality. We’re all basically equal. There are no strictly defined kind of hierarchies.

Invidia (Envy) by Hieronymus BoschThere is one really big problem with this, and that problem is envy. Envy, it’s a real taboo to mention envy, but if there is one dominant emotion in modern society, that is envy. And it’s linked to the spirit of equality. Let me explain. I think it would be very unusual for anyone here, or anyone watching, to be envious of the Queen of England. Even though she is much richer than any of you are. And she’s got a very large house. The reason why we don’t envy her is because she’s too weird. She’s simply too strange. We can’t relate to her. She speaks in a funny way. She comes from an odd place. So we can’t relate to her. And when you can’t relate to somebody, you don’t envy them.

The closer two people are, in age, in background, in the process of identification, the more there is a danger of envy – which is incidentally why none of you should ever go to a school reunion – because there is no stronger reference point than people one was at school with. But the problem, generally, of modern society, is that it turns the whole world into a school. Everybody is wearing jeans, everybody is the same. And yet, they’re not. So there is a spirit of equality, combined with deep inequalities. Which makes for a very – can make for a very stressful situation.

It’s probably as unlikely that you would nowadays become as rich and famous as Bill Gates, as it was unlikely in the 17th century that you would accede to the ranks of the French aristocracy. But the point is, it doesn’t feel that way. It’s made to feel, by magazines and other media outlets, that if you’ve got energy, a few bright ideas about technology, a garage, you too could start a major thing.”

3. WHO’S TO BLAME?

FROM BAD FORTUNE TO FAILURE: THE SCAPEGOAT MECHANISM’S NEW CLOTHES

According to René Girard, but also atheists like French historian Marcel Gauchet, the Judeo-Christian traditions are highly responsible for the process of secularization in the West. Girard claims that the biblical writings gradually reveal the scapegoat mechanism as the cornerstone of archaic religion and culture, thereby potentially destroying faith in the gods who are considered responsible for the way the human world ‘works’ – with its different systems of taboos and rituals, and its periodic justification of certain sacrifices and victimary mechanisms. I’ll repeat what I’ve stated before:

Premodern societies developed systems of taboos and (sacrificial) rituals to guide mimetic interactions and to prevent mimetic rivalry (and everything it’s associated with) from destabilizing communities. Moreover, there was a hierarchy in society as a matter of principle. One could not just aspire to the positon of a king when one was not of noble birth. This type of hierarchy was eventually justified by reference to ‘higher powers’ – fate, fortune, the gods… Myths were basically tales that defended the way societies structured themselves. People were ultimately not responsible for ‘the way of the world’ and for their own and others’ lives. God (or Fate) was to be thanked or to be blamed for whatever happened. God was the convenient scapegoat. People could not imitate the position of their king because God wouldn’t allow it. Respecting the social hierarchy (enforced by divine, ‘natural’ law) was a way to prevent mimetic rivalry and violent conflict.

Due to the Judeo-Christian influence secularized societies no longer have an automatic access to the god(s) of archaic religion. Historically, sometimes this god was identified as the Christian God, although theologically one could argue – together with Girard and others – that Christ’s God fundamentally criticizes the mechanisms which produce the archaic sacred. Although the realm of the traditional sacred seems to have vanished in secularized societies, the mimetic and sacrificial mechanisms that lie behind it are still at work – alive as ever in human life. We simply bow to other idols. Often that’ll be the image that we have learned to desire for ourselves, the image which seems to give us social recognition…

One of the main sources of psychological problems nowadays is the idea that we are masters of our own lives, that we are fully responsible for our lives. So, secularized human beings no longer blame the gods for the bad things they encounter, they tend to blame themselves. They become their own scapegoat, their own sacrifice. People in secularized societies more and more sacrifice themselves (in all sorts of auto-aggressive behavior, from automutilation to suicide) if they’re not able to attain the image of ‘winner’ they secretly desire for themselves.

COMPARE ALL THIS WITH the following part of Alain de Botton’s talk:

“There is another reason why we might be feeling more anxious, about our careers, about our status in the world today, than ever before. And it is, again, linked to something nice, and that nice thing is called meritocracy.

meritocracyEverybody, all politicians on Left and Right, agree that meritocracy is a great thing, and we should all be trying to make our societies really, really meritocratic. In other words, what is a meritocratic society? A meritocratic society is one in which if you’ve got talent and energy and skill, you will get to the top. Nothing should hold you back. It’s a beautiful idea. The problem is if you really believe in a society where those who merit to get to the top, get to the top, you’ll also, by implication, and in a far more nasty way, believe in a society where those who deserve to get to the bottom also get to the bottom and stay there. In other words, your position in life comes to seem not accidental, but merited and deserved. And that makes failure seem much more crushing.

You know, in the Middle Ages, in England, when you met a very poor person, that person would be described as an ‘unfortunate’ – literally, somebody who had not been blessed by fortune, an unfortunate. Nowadays, particularly in the United States, if you meet someone at the bottom of society, they may unkindly be described as a ‘loser.’ There is a real difference between an unfortunate and a loser, and that shows 400 years of evolution in society and our belief in who is responsible for our lives. It’s no longer the gods, it’s us. We’re in the driving seat.

That’s exhilarating if you’re doing well, and very crushing if you’re not. It leads, in the worst cases, in the analysis of a sociologist like Émile Durkheim, it leads to increased rates of suicide. There are more suicides in developed individualistic countries than in any other part of the world. And some of the reason for that is that people take what happens to them extremely personally. They own their success. But they also own their failure.”

4. THE COMFORT OF TRAGEDY (AND COMEDY)

hero or villainOur heroes, our idols, our ‘gods’ – the ones we have a love-hate relationship with -, function, in the words of René Girard, as model/obstacle. On the one hand, we tend to imitate them and to model our desires and ambitions on their desires and ambitions. However, when we can’t seem to achieve what we’ve learned to hope for our own lives, the comparison with the ‘winners’ in society – the rich, the bright, the famous etc. – might turn ugly. Admiration can be the forerunner of envy, whereby we experience our models simultaneously as obstacles to our own success. You know, “Why should they have all the glory?” That’s why we like to read, hear and see stories of ‘fallen heroes’ from time to time. The little and big scandals that surround the ‘happy few’ comfort the great lot of us with the thought that “they’re not that fabulous after all.”

stand up comedian jesterIf we see that they’re human beings just like ourselves, they might evoke pity, and empathizing with their fate might help us to cope with the trials and tribulations in our own lives. If we perceive them as villains or even ‘monsters’, following the downfall of a former ‘winner’ might be a form of retribution or even ‘revenge’ for the fact that most of us don’t belong to that special caste of ‘high society’. Indeed, we’re part of the masses instead. In short, tragic stories of fallen heroes often comfort us with the idea that we are spared the fate of having to submit to the judgment of ‘public opinion’. Stand-up comedians are the jesters of the day, ventilating this opinion. Their presence is all the more important in a society like ours, in the West, where we need to ridicule all those seemingly important famous people we secretly envy… The more hidden and suppressed envy, the more need for today’s jesters, laughing at our contemporary ‘kings’ and ‘queens’. The comic is but the other side of the coin of comfort to which also the tragic belongs.

So, basically, there are two types of tragic stories: the scandalous or ‘mythical’ one that tends to present former heroes as ‘monsters’ (or vice versa!), and the actual tragedy which aims more at telling the story of the fallen hero in such a way that it enables the compassion of an audience.

Anyway, the periodic sacrifice of our (monstrous) idols, told and retold in our myths and tragedies, saves and restores our sense of identity and self-worth. It’s no surprise then that former villains can become heroes again after they’ve died, as they are experienced as saviours. They often generate a cult following, which reminds us of the cleansing and structuring effect mythologized heroes/villains like Billy the Kid bestow on ever new generations.

Tragedy and Comedy MasksRobert Hamerton-Kelly very succinctly points to the origin of Greek tragedy in a presentation of René Girard’s mimetic theory. It explains how tragic stories function and help take away conflictual tensions and frustrations in our human society, to this day:

“Greek tragedy originated as a religious ritual that facilitated self-cleansing and emotional renewal…”

COMPARE ALL THIS WITH Alain de Botton’s words on tragedy:

“There is another source of solace and comfort for all this. When we think about failing in life, when we think about failure, one of the reasons why we fear failing is not just a loss of income, a loss of status. What we fear is the judgment and ridicule of others. And it exists.

tabloid heroYou know, the number one organ of ridicule nowadays, is the newspaper. And if you open the newspaper any day of the week, it’s full of people who’ve messed up their lives. They’ve slept with the wrong person. They’ve taken the wrong substance. They’ve passed the wrong piece of legislation. Whatever it is. And then are fit for ridicule. In other words, they have failed. And they are described as ‘losers.’ Now is there any alternative to this? I think the Western tradition shows us one glorious alternative, and that is tragedy.

Tragic art, as it developed in the theaters of ancient Greece, in the fifth century B.C., was essentially an art form devoted to tracing how people fail, and also according them a level of sympathy, which ordinary life would not necessarily accord them. I remember a few years ago, I was thinking about all this, and I went to see ‘The Sunday Sport’, a tabloid newspaper that I don’t recommend you to start reading if you’re not familiar with it already. I went to talk to them about certain of the great tragedies of Western art. I wanted to see how they would seize the bare bones of certain stories if they came in as a news item at the news desk on a Saturday afternoon.

So I told them about Othello. They had not heard of it but were fascinated by it. And I asked them to write the headline for the story of Othello. They came up with ‘Love-Crazed Immigrant Kills Senator’s Daughter’ splashed across the headline. I gave them the plotline of Madame Bovary. Again, a book they were enchanted to discover. And they wrote ‘Shopaholic Adulteress Swallows Arsenic After Credit Fraud.’ And then my favorite. They really do have a kind of genius all of their own, these guys. My favorite is Sophocles’ Oedipus the King: ‘Sex With Mum Was Blinding.’

In a way, if you like, at one end of the spectrum of sympathy, you’ve got the tabloid newspaper. At the other end of the spectrum you’ve got tragedy and tragic art, and I suppose I’m arguing that we should learn a little bit about what’s happening in tragic art. It would be insane to call Hamlet a loser. He is not a loser, though he has lost. And I think that is the message of tragedy to us, and why it’s so very, very important, I think.”

5. A GLIMPSE OF JUDEO-CHRISTIAN REVELATION

The Envious (quote by Baltasar Gracian SJ)I’d like to end this post with a final quote from Alain de Botton, when he refers to Saint Augustine. It comes from the core of Judeo-Christian revelation, and it’s no coincidence – and this becomes even clearer if you’re familiar with René Girard’s rephrasing of the Christian tradition:

“I’m drawn to a lovely quote by St. Augustine in ‘The City of God,’ where he says, ‘It’s a sin to judge any man by his post.’ In modern English that would mean it’s a sin to come to any view of who you should talk to dependent on their business card. It’s not the post that should count. According to St. Augustine, it’s only God who can really put everybody in their place. … In other words, hold your horses when you’re coming to judge people. You don’t necessarily know what someone’s true value is. That is an unknown part of them. And we shouldn’t behave as though it is known.”

In still other words: it’s a sin to waste your life merely as a snob…

Theologically speaking, we’re not just children or ‘products’ of our social surroundings. We’re also ‘children of God’…

There is no saint without a past (Augustine of Hippo)

Will Smith’s Fresh Philosophy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Maria at WYD 2011

In 2005 I had the chance to visit World Youth Day (WYD) in Cologne, Germany, as a participant and mentor of the Jesuit Magis program. It was an enriching experience, to say the least. I met some good souls there…

Today, August 15th 2011, the youth from all over the world is once again invited to celebrate LIFE in a gathering that will last for a couple of days, this time in Madrid, Spain. “Planted and built up in Jesus Christ, firm in the faith…” (cf. Col.2:7) has become the theme phrase of this event.

It’s always been a challenge to have faith. Youngsters are called to keep hope alive for a globalized world which faces many problems (ranging from the issue of increased violence against our natural resources to violence amongst ourselves as human beings). WYD symbolically takes the shape of a little pilgrimage, as it is especially designed for adolescents on the brink of making some fundamental choices in life. Will they be able to make authentic choices for themselves, keeping faith in their own unique gifts, walk the path ahead of them? Or will they base their choices on fear and insecurity, imitating others in a rivaling quest for status, power and wealth – wasting their god-given talents and losing themselves in the process? With these youngsters, we are challenged to listen to others that ‘show us the way’ to freedom and love. One of those others is Jesus of Nazareth, who is called ‘the Christ’ because of his liberating preoccupation and association with victims: “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it. For what is a man advantaged, if he gain the whole world, and lose himself, or be cast away?” (Luke 9:24-25).

West Side Story (the well known American musical on a script by Arthur Laurents, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and music by Leonard Bernstein) surely portrays some of the dangers our youth is confronted with today: the temptation to seek recognition from peers in a violent way on the streets (because security appears to be insufficient in traditional surroundings like family), the pressure to stop dreaming of a better future in an increasingly cynical world, and the increasing opposition between representatives of ‘the law’ and ever more frustrated youngsters (just think of the recent upheaval in London).

West Side Story in fact is a modern-day adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, set in the upper west side of New York City. The rivaling families of Shakespeare’s tragedy, the house of Montague and the house of Capulet, are replaced in the musical by two competing teenage street gangs, the Puerto Rican Sharks and the white working-class Jets. Sharks and Jets are tied to each other by what René Girard calls ‘mimetic rivalry’: the violence they inflict on each other is always an imitation (mimesis) of the violence by ‘the other party’. In other words, the two groups are guided by revengefulness. As in the story of Romeo and Juliet, the feud (and the play) eventually ends at the expense of victims (and this rings a bell for ‘Girardians’, of course…). The house of Montague and the house of Capulet make peace when they find their children, the lovers Romeo and Juliet, dead in each other’s arms. In West Side Story the Sharks and the Jets quit fighting when Tony, belonging to the Jets, is killed. His body is held by Maria, his lover who belongs to the Sharks and who calls for an end to the violence… In this sense, she lives up to the life-bearing properties ascribed to a biblical counterpart of hers with the same name, Mary, the mother of Jesus.

In a love song for Maria, early on in the play, the character of Tony makes reference to ‘the Holy Mother’, whom Christians traditionally pray to a lot, by uttering the following words:

“Maria! Say it loud and there’s music playing. Say it soft and it’s almost like praying.”

For your listening pleasure I’ve added the song in a special performance by Les Contre-Ténors (The Countertenors), Andreas Scholl, Dominique Visse and Pascal Bertin. These three men are among the top male altos in the world. Listen by clicking here (you won’t be disappointed)

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In a world consumed by rivalry and violence, the character of Maria represents today’s youth who faces the challenge of finding new ways to mould the future. Perhaps not coincidentally she carries the name of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Mary is the biblical figure who gives birth to a ‘Child’ incarnating the hope for a future where people can be vulnerable as children towards each other. Would that be possible, a world where we are no longer guided by the temptation to assert ourselves in exploiting the other’s so-called weaknesses?

Today, the Catholic Church celebrates the Assumption of Mary, the traditional story of the bodily taking up of the Virgin Mary into Heaven at the end of her life. According to this story, the apostle Thomas was the only witness of the assumption of Mary. During the event Thomas is said to have received Mary’s girdle. In this way, Mary helps him to convince the other apostles, who were skeptical at first, that his account of Mary’s assumption is indeed truthful. So, in the Assumption story Mary becomes a cornerstone of faith, transforming the once doubtful apostle Thomas who couldn’t believe in Christ’s resurrection (see John 20) in a person who enables others to ‘have faith’.

By imitating biblical and other stories of faith in the Christian tradition, WYD 2011 aims to support and inspire youngsters in their quest for a peaceful future that’s not built by sacrificing other human beings. The story of Christ indeed ultimately is the story of a Victim who ‘returns’ to ‘turn the other cheek’, so the age-old mechanism of ‘an eye for an eye’ violence might end before it only provisionally comes to a halt at the expense of more victims.

To end this post, I’d like to dedicate a prayer to the young Maria’s of West Side and other dangerous places, to these ‘mothers of tomorrow’ who carry life and hope within them. They will have to guide us with their girdles, like some Ariadne, out of the labyrinths of our trials and tribulations. I chose a prayer from the famous Llibre Vermell de Montserrat, a 14th century collection of songs and prayers, kept in the Benedictine abbey Santa Maria of Montserrat (near Barcelona in Catalonia, Spain). The songs are especially fit for pilgrims, even the contemporary ones at WYD. This becomes clear by what the anonymous compiler himself writes on why he made the manuscript:

Quia interdum peregrini quando vigilant in ecclesia Beate Marie de Monte Serrato volunt cantare et trepudiare, et etiam in platea de die, et ibi non debeant nisi honestas ac devotas cantilenas cantare, idcirco superius et inferius alique sunt scripte. Et de hoc uti debent honeste et parce, ne perturbent perseverantes in orationibus et devotis contemplationibus.

Translation:

“Because the pilgrims wish to sing and dance while they keep their watch at night in the church of the Blessed Mary of Montserrat, and also in the light of day; and in the church no songs should be sung unless they are chaste and pious, for that reason these songs that appear here have been written. And these should be used modestly, and take care that no one who keeps watch in prayer and contemplation is disturbed.”

Maybe the prayer Mariam Matrem Virginem can bring pilgrims together, even closing the gap between those belonging to ‘the house of Barcelona’ and the traditional rivals of ‘the house of Madrid’. It definitely wants to convey the spirit behind the ‘Black Madonna’, a beautiful statue of the Virgin Mary (probably from the late 12th century). In 1522, Ignatius of Loyola laid down his arms for her and began a new life, turning away from his ‘violent ways’. As is known, he eventually became the founder of the Jesuit order… So, for those of you in search of magis (‘more’), a new life of faith, hope and life giving grace, I added the Mariam Matrem Virginem. To see the score, click here (pdf). To read the lyrics with translation, click here (pdf). To listen to the song in a performance by Hespèrion XXI under the direction of Jordi Savall, click the following

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Monkey Business

Just recently I stumbled upon quite a fun BBC documentary about monkeys. Fragments can be watched below.

Of particular interest to anyone who’s concerned with mimetic theory are the following observations, eminently shown in the documentary:

Besides getting smarter, monkeys living in larger groups also become more competitive, even aggressive and violent. From the point of view of mimetic theory this comes as no surprise, since an increased learning capacity is based on the same principle as an increased tendency for a certain type of rivalry: imitation or ‘mimesis’. Monkeys learn through imitation, but they can also become rivals through imitation. The latter happens when they imitate each other’s desire for a certain object – be it a female, a piece of food or some favorable territory. It is from this mimetic interplay that a craving for ‘status’ and ‘power’ emerges, as well as a certain ‘greed’.

Individual rivaling monkeys tend to gather allies to compete with each other. Again, the engine behind these forms of empathetic bonding seems to be mimesis by which monkeys are able to ‘project’ themselves in other members of the group. They might even ‘imagine’ what others are up to and make plans for themselves. The so-called mirror neurons in the brain play a tremendous role in this regard.

Normally, rivaling groups balance each other and keep their violent tendencies in check. However, sometimes an individual monkey becomes the victim of a whole group. The documentary shows what happens when this victim dies. His former attackers – actually the ones who murdered him! – gather around the dead body, unusually calm. [WATCH THE DOCUMENTARY FROM 4:23!]

René Girard considers this type of event foundational to the way human culture eventually originated and to the way it developed sacrificial rites. Already the BBC documentary states that more monkeys are victim to other monkeys than to predators. Girard claims that the intra-violence of mob lynching must have occurred even more in primitive ape-man societies, since rivalries must have been more intense there due to an ever stronger mimetic ability. Gradually, our primitive ancestors might have made associations during their experience of killing a common ‘enemy’ that account for the emergence of sacrifice. Aggression, rivalry and turmoil within the group seem to persist for as long as the common enemy lives. From the moment he is dead, contention ceases. ‘Chaos’ no longer reigns. ‘Order’ is restored.

The sacrificial rites of our ancestors suggest that they indeed gave meaning to victims of ‘mob lynching’. According to René Girard, the significance these victims and the mob lynching eventually received, creates the dividing line between animals and humans, and has two aspects:

1. Chaotic situations or crises within a community can be controlled by killing someone – hence the rise of what is eventually called ‘sacrifice’.

2. Chaotic situations are associated with the resurgence of a victim that is held responsible for previous chaotic situations. Indeed chaos reigned for as long as some victim was alive. That victim, therefore, is perceived as ‘being’ chaos – what seems to be beyond the control of the community, as a ‘transcendent’ or ‘sacred’ force. This violent force – i.e. the now divinized and ‘invisible’ victim – can be stopped, as experience seems to show our ancestors, by killing a new victim. So together with sacrifice the potentially violent gods originate who demand that sacrifice.

Very important to understand Girard’s mimetic theory is the observation that the victims of this type of collective violence are scapegoats, meaning: held responsible for something they’re not really responsible for (even when they are, in fact, considered ‘bad’ individuals). The real source for certain types of rivalry, tensions, conflicts and chaotic situations within communities are all sorts of ‘mimetic’ interactions. This is something the first human communities don’t realize, and that’s why, according to Girard, religion and human culture as a whole developed in all kinds of directions from sacrificial origins. Some of these origins can still be observed in groups of our actual ‘family members’, the monkeys and the apes, who, more than ever, seem to mirror fundamental aspects of ourselves.

‘Know thyself’ the Temple of Apollo at Delphi read. Start this quest by watching the fragments from the documentary Clever Monkeys

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