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.

 

Pleasantville and Biblical Feminism

Once again, this post is a translation from a chapter in my book Vrouwen, Jezus en rock-‘n-roll – Met René Girard naar een dialoog tussen het christelijk verhaal en de populaire cultuur (Women, Jesus and rock-‘n-roll. Taking René Girard to a dialogue between the Christian story and popular culture).

Pleasantville (Gary Ross, 1998) is a movie about the twins David and Jennifer who miraculously end up in David’s favorite TV-show, Pleasantville, and become Bud and Mary Sue Parker. At first everything is, also literally, very black and white in their new world. Life is very predictable, every citizen has a clearly defined role, even the roads are like the daily routine: they go in a circle. There’s nothing outside the enclosed 1950’s world order of small town Pleasantville.

Pleasantville 17Pleasantville 16

Bit by bit, however, things start to change with the arrival of David/Bud and Jennifer/Mary Sue. Some people divert from their normal activities and turn from black, grey and white into technicolor. Bill Johnson, for instance, Bud’s boss at the soda shop where he is working, discovers his creativity and artistic freedom as a painter. Other citizens become avid readers, studying books and using their minds to gain wisdom and imagine things “outside of Pleasantville”. In the end, the road doesn’t go in a circle anymore but “keeps going”. This means that life is no longer predictable, the future is open-ended, and individuals get more chances, as well as responsibilities, to work out their own project in life. In other words, the people in Pleasantville abandon the cyclical worldview that was aimed at preserving an order installed by “higher powers”. In yet other words, they move from the ancient mythical view of time as circular to a Jewish and Christian “linear” view of time: instead of leading a life according to the so-called scenario of “the powers that be”, people are liberated to write their own history.

Cyclical vs Linear

Thomas Cahill wrote a very interesting book on this shift, The Gifts of the Jews – How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels. From the cover: “The Gifts of the Jews reveals the critical change that made western civilization possible. Within the matrix of ancient religions and philosophies, life was seen as part of an endless cycle of birth and death; time was like a wheel, spinning ceaselessly. Yet somehow, the ancient Jews began to see time differently. For them, time had a beginning and an end; it was a narrative, whose triumphant conclusion would come in the future. From this insight came a new conception of men and women as individuals with unique destinies—a conception that would inform the Declaration of Independence—and our hopeful belief in progress and the sense that tomorrow can be better than today.”

On the other hand, a sense of stability and certainty seems forever lost with the arrival of the linear view of history. No wonder, then, that the anxious community in Pleasantville at first tries to suppress the newly found creativity and individual liberties: books are burned, rock ‘n’ roll music is forbidden, painters are not allowed to use colors besides black, white and grey, “(techni)colored” people are separated from the others and sexuality, in particular female sexuality, is considered inappropriate.

Pleasantville 14

Pleasantville 11

Pleasantville 13

Pleasantville 12

Indeed, the women especially begin to question the status quo of the patriarchal society in Pleasantville. Following the example of Mary Sue (a powerful “mimetic model”), girls invite their boyfriends into the garden of Lover’s Lane to explore their sexuality. Bud also imitates his sister, as he takes Margaret on a date to Lover’s Lane…

Pleasantville 9

There, Bud is offered an apple by his girlfriend. Afterwards he is reproached for eating it by the deus ex machina of the movie, a mysterious TV repairman, who yells at him that he doesn’t deserve “to live in this paradise”. This all too obvious reference to the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden in the book of Genesis raises questions about whether or not Judeo-Christian tradition supports oppressive patriarchal social structures. The story of the Fall from Eden eventually blames the woman, Eve, for being the first to succumb to an inappropriate desire, causing her man Adam to sin and resulting in them both being banned from the Garden. The obvious message of the story concerning women seems clear: like her Greek counterpart Pandora, Eve and her female boldness means trouble (for more on this, click here). So far for the Jewish critique of archetypal mythic structures, so it seems…

Pleasantville 4

Pleasantville 5

René Girard helps us understand why women are depicted as troublemakers and how they, more specifically (sexually) emancipated women, become scapegoats, unjustly held responsible for all kinds of evil in the world. The sexist reasoning often goes something like this. Emancipated women are no longer dependent on their husbands. This means that they can more easily divorce them. Divorces potentially trouble the mind of children and youngsters, who might lose the security of a “home”. Hence juvenile delinquency could increase as young people get together in gangs to create a sense of self-worth and identity. Thus the stability of society as a whole is threatened by women who refuse to remain faithful to the man they’re married off to. Moreover, sexually independent women can stir rivalry and violence between men, which once again destabilizes the internal cohesion of a community. Indeed, sex (eros) might lead to death (thanatos).

To avoid these potential troubles patriarchal societies have the tendency to suppress the freedom of women. This means women have to pay for the potential rivalry between men and the potential lack of responsibility of other members of the society. Instead of taking responsibility for their rivalrous and even violent desires and instead of taking control of them, patriarchal men blame women for their own behavior. And instead of taking more responsibility as a parent, patriarchal men also blame women if their offspring ends up on the wrong track… Peace and order in society, according to the patriarchal system, can only be obtained by keeping women in check. In other words, women and their freedom are violently sacrificed in order to establish “peace and quiet”.

As said, the Genesis story of the Garden and the Fall (the third chapter of the book) seems to support this view and seems to legitimize the sacrificial structure of the patriarchal society. More specifically, the story seems to consider (female) sexuality taboo. Eve invites Adam “to eat from the fruits” of the “Tree of Knowledge” in a “Garden Paradise”. In ancient Middle Eastern Cultures gardens are symbolical of sexuality and female sexuality in particular. The Song of Songs for instance, one of the smallest books of the Bible, gives voice to a young woman in a dialogue with her beloved man. At some point she invites her lover to “come into her garden and taste its choice fruits”. Talk of sending a clear message… Moreover, “knowing” often has a sexual meaning or erotic tone in Hebrew. “To know someone” has to do with “intimate wisdom”, with “gaining insight” by “penetrating into” something. So eating from the “Tree of Knowledge” and discovering, afterwards, that you are “naked” adds to the interpretation of the story as containing a taboo on sexuality and the female lust for “knowledge”. No wonder then, again, that the citizens of Pleasantville fear women who “go to the library”, “think” and take the initiative to go to Lover’s Lane… Women shouldn’t become too smart, as “shrewd” women are hard to control, and the third chapter of Genesis seems yet one other sexist story that gets this message across.

Song of Solomon (Raoul Martinez)

A strange thing happens, however, when Genesis chapter three is compared to the already mentioned Song of Songs. At a certain moment, the young woman of the Song complains about the patriarchal society and its taboos. She went looking for her lover but the “watchmen of the city” violently punished her for having an intimate relationship with a man outside her family or outside the ritualized context of marriage. Thereon she eventually sighs (Song of Songs 8:1): If only you were to me like a brother, who was nursed at my mother’s breasts! Then, if I found you outside, I would kiss you, and no one would despise me.” So the Song of Songs lets the victim of patriarchal violence speak out and act against the regular patriarchal order. A comparison between Eve in Genesis and the young woman in the Song of Songs might shed new light on how to interpret the emancipation of women in the story of Pleasantville from a Biblical point of view. Here it is (CLICK THE PAGES TO ENLARGE OR CLICK HERE FOR PDF):

Pleasantville Garden of Eden and Garden of Female Sexuality

Pleasantville Watchmen

The question from this comparison is whether the God of the Genesis story is on the side of the watchmen who are supporting the patriarchal society and who harass (sexually) emancipated women. At first glance, it seems that this is the case. However, the Song of Songs does allow the victim of patriarchal violence to speak out against this kind of discrimination.

In order to get a fuller understanding of what is actually condemned by the Genesis story, the broader context of the book of Genesis is needed. Read in the broader context of Genesis and the story that immediately follows (Cain and Abel), Eve is not condemned because she is a woman, but because she cannot respect the difference between herself and someone else (“the Lord God”) – just like Cain cannot respect the difference between himself and someone else (“Abel”). Both stories condemn an anxious type of envy and even resentment! In the case of the confrontation between the young woman and her harassers in the Song of Songs, it is clear that the harassers are led by envy, resentment and fear. From the particular Biblical point of view, developed from the broader context in Genesis, they’re the ones whose acts are to be condemned. They fear the emancipation of women because this might mean that women no longer automatically obey the men they’re married off to – which is very frightening for patriarchal men’s status and sense of self-worth. Most probably their wives too resent the emancipated woman, as they secretly envy the life she leads but dare not abandon their own situation for fear of being punished.

The Gospels show how Jesus of Nazareth also takes sides with the woman as a potential victim of patriarchal violence. More specifically in John 8:1-11, when he is confronted with a woman caught in adultery. It might be good to take a fresh look at this well-known text:

Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. But early in the morning he arrived again in the temple area, and all the people started coming to him, and he sat down and taught them. Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle. They said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger. But when they continued asking him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he bent down and wrote on the ground. And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders. So he was left alone with the woman before him. Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”

A Depiction of Jesus and the Woman taken in Adultery (Vasily Polenov)

Jesus prevents the establishment of an order based on sacrifice by making people reflect on their own desires and trespasses, as they might be similar to those of the adulterous woman. Jesus believes God desires “mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13).

It is telling that Jesus approaches the woman, who already committed adultery, mildly while he firmly condemns men who merely think of adultery (Matthew 5:27-30):

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”

It’s his hyperbolic verbal way of compensating for the double standard in patriarchal societies, where adulterous men are often all too easily justified as “victims” of “evil, seductive women” (who are all too easily condemned by the patriarchal system). Apart from this, there are other “feminist” traits in the behavior of Jesus. The situation between Jesus, the crowd and the adulterous woman as it is told in the Gospel of John contains a subtle clue for a subversive, anti-patriarchal reading of the third chapter in Genesis (John 8:3): The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle.” Indeed, the woman is said to stand “in the middle”. Compare this to Genesis 3:3, as Eve responds to the snake: God told us, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden. You must not even touch it, or you will die.‘” In other words, Jesus wants to prevent the crowd from “touching” what “stands in the middle” just like the God figure in the Genesis story wants to prevent Adam and Eve from eating from the tree “in the middle of the garden”. In both situations, the acts of “touching what’s in the middle” imply that people are led by envy, resentment and lust for prestige, that they are unable to respect “the other”, and that they want to erase the differences between themselves and the other (by killing themselves or the other – for more on this: click here).

In consonance with Genesis, Jesus calls out for love of one’s neighbor and a refusal of the sacrifice of the other to establish a “peace”. That’s why he says (Matthew 10:34-36):Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law— a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.” The “sword” Jesus talks about is not the sword of “violence” (indeed, in Matthew 26:52 Jesus, upon being arrested, clearly warns against violence, when he demands one of his companions who tries to defend him: Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.”). It is reminiscent of the sword at the end of the Genesis story about the Fall: The Lord God placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and the flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life. This sword is a symbol of a Love that creates and preserves differences between people – differences of “color” and personality that is, not of “hierarchy”.

not peace but a swordPeace I leave with you

Jesus time and again questions a peace, order and unity based on the expulsion of a common enemy (a “scapegoat”) and on dictatorial, oppressive leadership (often of a “patriarch”). He tells people, “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44), which causes conflicts within the groups people belong to but once again prevents people from establishing a community at the expense of certain “enemy victims”. That’s why he can say that his kingdom – his way of organizing society – is, most of the time, “not of this world” (John 18:36). And that’s why he can also say: Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

In short, Jesus as a Jew, in consonance with the Scriptures of the Jewish people, wants to establish a peace that allows for non-violent conflicts between people (as people dare to show their “true colors” and thus might clash with each other), while he refuses to establish a violent “easy” peace based on sacrifice (the “Pax Romana”).

In Pleasantville, Bud prevents the community of condemning his mother Betty. She committed adultery, leaving her husband George for Bill Johnson, the owner of the soda shop. Bill painted a portrait of a naked Betty on the front window of his shop, after which an agitated and scandalized crowd “stoned” it. Like Jesus confronted with a crowd and a woman caught in adultery, Bud prevents further violence. He enables people to discover that they’re not so different from Betty and other “coloreds” – which, paradoxically, allows them to respect Betty’s and the others’ own “color” and choices in life.

Pleasantville 10

Of course, life doesn’t become much easier if we’re trying to respect one another, protesting against “easy sacrifices” of vulnerable victims. Society does become more complex, the future more open and uncertain, but also more interesting, fertile and creative. It certainly is a challenge to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, to allow for relationships that are based on a Love born from freedom, and not based on a fear for punishment or a desire to be rewarded and compensated. But hey, it’s better to have an emancipated woman love her man than to have a bitter, scared “slave” stick to her husband, isn’t it? In the words of 1 John 4:18:

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

no fear in love

‘Guess we all still have some growing to do, but on a personal note: deep down inside, I do prefer the peace of Christ’s “critical” and flexible Love to the peace of the sacrificial powers in our world. A lot of growing to do, though, but happy to…

To conclude, Bruce Springsteen on the “secret garden she hides…” – CLICK HERE…

More from my book Vrouwen, Jezus en rock-‘n-roll – Met René Girard naar een dialoog tussen het christelijk verhaal en de populaire cultuur (Women, Jesus and rock-‘n-roll. Taking René Girard to a dialogue between the Christian story and popular culture):

  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)

A Woman’s Uncanny Valley

1. MIMETIC THEORY ON “THE UNCANNY VALLEY”

Originally I just wanted to write a post on the uncanny valley, a phenomenon first described by Masahiro Mori (former robotics professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology) in an essay for Japanese magazine Energy (vol. 7, no. 4, pp. 33–35, 1970) – READ THE ARTICLE ON THE UNCANNY VALLEY BY MASAHIRO MORI IN ENGLISH BY CLICKING HERE (OR PDF VERSION HERE). But as you will notice, dear reader, it made me think about some other stuff as well 🙂 …

Mori predicted that we would respond with a heightened sense of affinity to robots that act or look like humans until a certain threshold of similarity is reached. Apparently, when it becomes too difficult to make a direct and clear distinction between humans and robots, humanoid robots become uncanny and we experience an eerie sensation. In the words of Mori, we indeed come to an uncanny valley.

The Uncanny Valley 2

Mori ended his article by raising a few questions: “Why were we equipped with this eerie sensation? Is it essential for human beings? I have not yet considered these questions deeply, but I have no doubt it is an integral part of our instinct for self-preservation.”

The Uncanny Valley 1

Mori also provides a preliminary answer to these questions in a footnote:

“The sense of eeriness is probably a form of instinct that protects us from proximal, rather than distal, sources of danger. Proximal sources of danger are corpses, members of different species, and other entities we can closely approach. Distal sources of danger include windstorms and floods.”

This is all very interesting from the perspective of René Girard’s mimetic theory. It helps in providing an answer to Mori’s questions.

René Girard considers man’s increased mimetic (i.e. imitative) ability as a source of empathy as well as enmity, as a force responsible for order as well as disorder. For instance, children tend to take older people as their example. By imitating elders (and others in general) young people not only learn how to live in a certain culture, but they also learn what to desire. Others also function as models for desires and ambitions.

initiation ritual Xhosa manhood circumcisionOf course, when the gap between an imitator and a model is big enough, there won’t be any problem between them. The relationship between a mentor and a pupil will then be one of admiration from the part of the pupil. However, when an imitator’s skills increase he might become a threat to the position of his model. As he has learned to desire the same objects as his model, his model might become an obstacle to his ambitions. Adolescents indeed often show a tendency to no longer respect a former hierarchy. They tend to become rivals to adults whose authority they no longer automatically accept. They as well as the adults thus experience an identity crisis. In other words, the gap between youngsters and adults threatens to disappear and this potentially destabilizes human communities. Following Mori’s terminology we can call this gap where the distinction between young and old seems to disappear an uncanny valley. Girard observes that, in order to avoid a crisis resulting from this kind of intra-group rivalry, cultures have developed initiation rituals. These rituals often allow for types of violence against “new adults” in a controlled, structured way (for instance in a certain time frame) in order to give them “a proper place” and to avoid destructive rivalries and violence. It is no coincidence that student sororities and fraternities to this day make use of initiation ceremonies. Like many rituals in many cultures they paradoxically create an order by “organized disorder”. Sometimes these rituals are very violent, however, with girls being gang raped – to name but one of the terrors. That’s why some students are committed to end “frat-related violence”.end frat related violence

So to answer Mori’s questions already from the point of view of Girard’s mimetic theory: we have learned, in the course of our evolution as human species, to fear the disappearance of differences because we have learned to associate it with destructive types of rivalry and violence. That’s why, as Mori observes, “corpses, members of different species and other entities we can closely approach” (and identify with) are experienced as “sources of danger”. Youngsters can take the place of adults, robots of humans… and rotting corpses (similar to but not quite the same as living human beings) can generate diseases and death where once there was life. Indeed violence itself is like a disease, contagious.

Apart from the potential rivalry between and among youngsters and adults there’s another type of rivalry that has been experienced as a fundamental threat to the survival and stability of human communities: the rivalry between men to obtain “the best females” of a group. No wonder then that sexuality, and in particular female sexuality, has been perceived as a potential destructive force across different cultures. Because of its association with rivalry and violence, sexuality could easily become a taboo. On the other hand however, sexuality is also needed to guarantee a community’s survival. As is the case with adolescence, sexuality became a ritualized cultural phenomenon in human life (from courtship dances to temple prostitution to marriage). Rituals in general allow for a transgression of that which is taboo in everyday life.

Female Genital MutilationTraditionally, a collection of taboos and rituals in a particular culture is justified by referring to a sacred realm (with supernatural deities, ghosts or magic forces). Mimetic theory explains how violence became associated with “invisible persons” through the scapegoat mechanism (READ MORE ON THE ORIGIN OF RELIGION BY CLICKING HERE). Hence everything that can be associated with violence had the potential to become associated with “invisible persons” or “gods” as well. Sadly the sacralization of sexuality often meant that women became scapegoats, unjustly held responsible for a potential crisis in the life of their respective communities. Women had (or have) to prevent men from desiring them, thereby preventing rivalries between men. In some cultures they had (or have) to wear a veil in public, in others they were (or are) circumcized. The reasons to this day given for female genital mutilation indeed hardly conceal the underlying sexism – taken from the European Campaign to end FGM: “FGM, in particular infibulation, is defended in this context as it is assumed to reduce a woman’s sexual desire and lessen temptations to have extramarital sex thereby preserving a girl’s virginity.” Extramarital sex is considered taboo in this context since it could stir rivalry between men, destabilize family life and hence destabilize community life as a whole. Female sexuality, taboo because it is perceived as a potential violent force, thus is highly ritualized: female circumcision is a form of sacrificial violence to prevent destructive violence (perceived as “the wrath of the gods”) from happening.

stand against FGMIn short, human history shows that women all over the world, in different times and in different cultures, have been perceived as “dangerous life-bringers”. They are feared and adored at the same time (read more on this by clicking here – post on TEMPTRESSES). Important and well-known myths from all over the world have transmitted the perception of women as potential troublemakers. I’d like to dedicate the second part of this post to a presentation of three versions of this perception of women. The message concerning Pandora, Eve and “uncircumcized women” should be clear. These women are considered to bring about “the uncanny valley”, the loss of differences that marks the breakdown of the normal social order. Indeed, chaos and disorder in communities is often perceived as a curse brought about by “bewitched women”. However, if the situation of women is read as a particular form of the scapegoat mechanism, the (whether or not ritualized) violence against women can be considered a curse or a “burden” women have to bear unjustly. Although the Bible is not without sexist tendencies, René Girard and others have argued that Judeo-Christian Scripture eventually reveals the truth of the scapegoating impulse behind our cultural institutions. In other words, according to Girard our ability to consider certain texts and habits as, for instance, “sexist” is a consequence of a knowledge gradually given to us through the biblical writings. But that’s another story… Let’s take a closer look at the women who are blamed for “the evils mankind has to endure…”

2. THE UNCANNY VALLEY – A WOMAN’S CURSE 

Prometheus, Thief of Fire and God Challenger in Greek Mythology

The Myth

Pandora (Jane Ray)After Zeus hid fire from humans, Prometheus stole it from the gods to give it back to mankind. Prometheus did not respect the hierarchical distinction between the human and the divine and was therefore banned to a rock in the Caucasus. Chained, Prometheus was visited daily by an eagle who ate out his liver. It is said that his liver regenerated each night because of his immortality. Prometheus was eventually freed from his eternal punishment by the hero Heracles. At the same time, Zeus had also punished mankind with Pandora, the first woman. She became the wife of Epimetheus who could not resist her, although his brother Prometheus had warned him not to accept her gift. Pandora unleashed all the evils in the world by opening a box that should have remained closed. The Greek epic poet Hesiod (between 750-650 BC) writes of Pandora: “From her is the race of women and female kind, of her is the deadly race and tribe of women who live amongst mortal men to their great trouble, no helpmeets in hateful poverty, but only in wealth.”

Eve, Thief of Forbidden Fruit and God Challenger in Hebrew Mythology

The Myth

The Fall of Man and the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (Michelangelo)After God had forbidden man to eat from the tree of knowledge, the woman who was eventually named Eve nevertheless took some of its fruit and also gave some of it to Adam, the first man. Eve did not respect the hierarchical distinction between the human and the divine and was therefore banished from the Garden of Eden, to earth, together with Adam. Eve is considered to have cursed mankind with death, suffering and all kinds of evils and troubles. Genesis 3:16-19: “The Lord God said to the woman, ‘I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.’ To Adam God said, ‘Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, You must not eat from it, cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.’”

The Thief of Women’s Clitoris and Preserver of Sacred Order in African Ritual

The Myth

Bruce Parry visited the Dassanech tribe in Ethiopia. Women of this tribe are circumcised. One of the women who circumcises the girls told Parry the story that justifies this type of ritualistic violence concerning female sexuality:

“Circumcision is our culture. If we stop our culture, we will all die. If a woman with a clitoris gives birth, she, her child, everyone will die. Her clitoris will come up to her head. It’ll come out of her nose, and back into her head. It’ll kill her, she’ll die. Her father will die, her mother will die. That’s why we cannot stop circumcising girls.”

Bruce Parry:

“I’m told if she doesn’t get circumcised, she won’t get married, and she’ll be cast out from the tribe.”

WATCH THE VIDEO FROM 1:38 HERE:

THE (SEXIST) MESSAGE, TIME AND AGAIN

  • There is a hierarchy in society, establishing order by making clear distinctions.
  • This hierarchy is to be respected; we shouldn’t compare ourselves to higher ups or compete with them. In other words, mimetic rivalry is taboo in everyday life. We should respect distinctions and differences. No hubris!
  • If a person does not respect a society’s prohibitions and customs, he or she is cast out from society as he or she is considered to potentially bring a crisis (or chaos) to life. A new order is established by sacrificing an outcast (found at the margins of society – high or low) ritualistically, again and again in an unescapable cycle of events. More generally speaking, rituals allow for so-called “good” controlled violence in order to avoid “bad” uncontrollable violence from happening.
  • Women are to be suspected as potential troublemakers, maybe even warmongers. The above mentioned stories claim in a sexist way: a crisis is never far away when women are around!
  • Order in society, established by maintaining certain taboos and (sacrificial) rituals, is considered sacred, as a divine commandment.