René Girard and the Present Moment

Professor René Girard died in November 2015. You may have read my Stanford obituary, which was picked up all over the world. The President of France, François Hollande, said in a statement: “He was a compelling and passionate intellectual, a scholar of unbounded curiosity, a brilliant theorist and foundational spirit, a teacher and researcher with an uncommon love for going against the tide. René Girard was a free man and a humanist whose work has made its mark on the history of ideas.”

I hope you do not expect from me a complicated dissertation full of abstractions and abstruse theories. There are libraries full of those already. But Girard's work, first and foremost, has practical implications for you—and from that vantage point you can extrapolate to the world at large. Otherwise, it too quickly gets flipped into an attack upon the “other,” the imagined enemy. And that is exactly what he warned about when he spoke of how we have been consistently lying for the benefit of our egos, “which in fact [are] made up of nothing but a thousand lies that have accumulated over a long period, sometimes built up over an entire lifetime.”

That brings me to a story I told in Evolution of Desire. Girard was meeting with theologians in Sonoma, sometime in the mid to late 1980’s. He had just outlined the implication of our cultural and historical predicament—how our mimetic crisis has led to escalating violence and conflict, with neither scapegoats or peace efforts able to resolve it. “What is to be done?” someone asked. Girard’s response was all the more shocking for needing to be said at all in a roomful of theologians: “We might begin with personal sanctity.”

When it comes to his theories, that is often at the bottom of the to-do list. But it is a question I ask in Evolution of Desire: What is a philosophy worth if it does not change a man? It is a question that René asked, and there is no question that the theories he developed changed René.

I intend to discuss “Girard and the Present Moment.” But the present moment is not climate change, international terrorism, the upcoming elections, the racists, the Democrats or Republicans—it is right here, right now, where you are sitting. 

The Power for Peace or War

Girard wrote that human behavior is driven by imitation. We are, after all, social creatures. We want what others want. Desire therefore is not individual but social. Others have colonized our desire long before we know we have it. “All desire is a desire for being,” René said, and it is one of my favorite statements from him. We long for what we lack, and what we lack we imagine in others. The pursuit of the desired object is thus a metaphysical quest to fill a hole within ourselves, because we glorify and idealize the “other.” So we attempt to imitate them. We want what they want because we hope to acquire their being—believing that if we get the same lover or spouse, the same job, drive the same car or read the same novel, we will somehow acquire their admired essence. It is the relationship of a relic to a saint, as Girard wrote. Yet the phantom being that you covet recedes as you pursue it, and the chase becomes frustrating and futile.

Girard read ancient and modern texts, and pored over 19th century anthropology, but in the end, the most overlooked takeaway is this: it is not only that mankind is mimetic—it is that you are. It is that we are the persecutors, while imagining ourselves to be victims. Every single day. The place to verify his theories is in not in Mesopotamia or ancient Greece, but in your own heart and conscience.

I would like to review his major concepts, which will be familiar to some but by no means all of you. Girard overturned three widespread assumptions about the nature of desire and violence: first, that our desire is authentic and our own; second, that we fight from our differences, rather than our sameness; and third, that religion is the cause of violence, rather than an archaic solution for controlling violence within a society, as he would insist.

The idea of mimesis is hardly foreign to the social sciences today, but no one had made it a linchpin in a theory of human competition and violence, as Girard did, beginning in the 1950’s. Freud and Marx were in error. One supposed sex to be the building block of human behavior; the other saw economics as fundamental.

But the true key is “mimetic desire,” which precedes and drives both. Imitation steers our sexual longings and economic trends. It fuels our drive to get our child into a fancy school, our imagined need for the newest iPhone or iPad, or our wish to be five pounds slimmer. When Apple invents a new gimcrack, you must get it to be chic and up to date like the other trendsetters—no problem. They manufacture them by the zillions. Problems arise when desire is thwarted—for example, when scarcity imposes limits, or when we eye something that cannot be shared, or that the possessor has no wish to share—an inheritance, a spouse, a presidency.

Hence, Girard claimed that mimetic desire is not only the way we love; it is the reason we fight. Two hands that reach toward the same object will ultimately clench into fists. Whatever two or three people want, soon everyone will want. Mimetic desire spreads contagiously, as people converge on the same person, position, or possession as the answer to a prayer or the solution to a problem. Dante's Florence, or Black Friday in any major U.S. city—it is the same story.

Imitation puts us in direct competition with the person we adore, the rival we ultimately come to hate and worship, who responds by defending his or her turf. As competition intensifies, the rivals copy each other more and more, even if they are only copying the reflected image of themselves they see in the other. The foes become more and more alike as they use the same tactics, exchange the same insults, vie for the same status symbols, or curry favor from those they see as above themselves. Over time, the object becomes secondary or irrelevant. The rivals are obsessed with each other and their fight becomes an end in itself. Bystanders are drawn into “taking sides,” in mimetic conformity with admired friends, neighbors, and colleagues. Thus the conflict can envelop a whole society, with cycles of retaliatory (and therefore imitative) violence and one-upsmanship. Look at our political campaigns for proof.

Eventually, one individual or group is seen as responsible for the social contagion—generally, someone who is an outsider, or a marginalized group of people who cannot or will not retaliate. An outsider will not inspire revenge or retaliation, or enact it, and so is positioned to end the escalating cycles of reprisals. The scapegoat is killed, exiled, or otherwise eliminated. The act has enormous power, in its performance and in its consequences. It unites the warring factions and releases enormous social tension, restoring harmony among individuals and within the community.

The power to bring either peace and harmony, or war and violence, to a society was once seen as supernatural, and it still has an archaic allure even today. Hence, we worship and deify our assassinated presidents, prime ministers, and monarchs – even if we despised them while they lived. Girard argues that archaic religious sacrifice was no more than this: the ritual reenactment of the scapegoat’s killing, bringing unity in the act of murder, and invoking the mysterious powers that pre-empted a societal catastrophe previously. Think of Shirley Jackson's short story, “The Lottery.”

Girard's next step was to prove the most provocative of all. He describes how biblical texts are unique in revealing the innocence of the scapegoat, thus destabilizing the mechanism that allowed the victim to be both criminal and redeemer, the violent solution to social violence. However, once we know the mechanism, the game is over. It has been a slow and uneven process, over millennia. With this revelation, however, we no longer have clean consciences as we murder. In archaic societies, victims were not pitied, let alone envied; they were considered the unlucky children of fate or circumstance. No poems commemorated the thousands that the Aztecs slaughtered annually for human sacrifice. No plays were written about them nor Amnesty International petitions circulated for their relief. Today, instead, victimhood is enshrined and privileged. Individuals and groups even compete for the cachet of being a victim, negotiating areas and degree of intersectionality or persecution, and the power-holders now play a defensive game. Wars continue, but we have lost a sense of their efficacy, and they often end with no clear resolutions. International rivalries still escalate toward uncertain ends.

“It’s always imitative behavior,” Girard told me. “It’s the formation of a crowd. Every time you add one, the move towards the unity of the mob becomes faster, it has more power and attraction.” In a proper lynching, no one takes responsibility for murder, because they all do. No one wants to throw the first stone. It is a mob affair. You can see it on Twitter, or in comboxes everyday. Perhaps it's never been easier to be a hero of conscience. Say something that's true that no one else will say. Defend a scapegoat, even one you dislike or disagree with. But be prepared: the mob will turn on you. Fortunately, it will not be a real murder, but a cyber-killing. Defamation and doxxing at most. The martyrs suffer far worse.

Girard often pointed out that the word “sacrifice” changed with the Christian era: in the past, it always signified the killing of others, for propitiation. In the last two millennia, it has come to mean a sacrifice of oneself. While Abel's blood cried out from the earth for vengeance on his murderer, Jesus's blood cries out to God for mercy on us all. That is a major paradigm shift, and one each of us must reckon with.

We Can No Longer Claim Innocence

Last summer, America watched in horror as 22 people were killed in a Texas shooting spree. Latinos had been targeted. More horror followed only a few hours later: another shooter, this time in Dayton, killed nine before he was caught. Pundits and others were quick to assume that a racist, anti-immigrant animus fueled both events, but the second killer turned out instead to be a “pro-Satan” left-winger, an anti-Trump supporter of Sen. Elizabeth Warren for president. Easy narratives were upended, and the Ohio police admitted they were stumped about motive.

But there was indeed a pattern, and it was this one: imitation. The Dayton shooter had been following El Paso events, “liking” several comments about the carnage on Twitter. He had been fascinated with shooting sprees for some time. That storyline was less alluring, however, and indicted no political faction. Rather, it pointed to a welter of social and cultural factors, inflamed by the media, which, in the era of Facebook and Twitter, is all of us.

Our urges today are usually still “sacrificial,” in the archaic sense. We long to rid our society of the right-wingers or the left-wingers, the immigrants or the nativists, the Palestinians, the Brexiteers, or the ADF. But in the high-tech information age, we can no longer claim innocence. After a century of genocides and ethnic cleansing, we cannot pretend we do not know what may happen when we demonize individuals and groups, and long to rid ourselves of the “other.”

Girard emphasized forgiveness and reconciliation – and in light of that, we must consider how we create ourselves in the public sphere, in an environment where rivers of hatred pour into our lives every day without a drop of remorse in the water. People “bond” through gratuitous (and often defamatory) insult. And as Girard predicted, we resemble our enemies more and more, all the while protesting our absolute difference. Do people care about what this is turning them into? People often cite Girard's words to reinforce their political commitments, without seeing his work as a critique of those commitments.

The problem is, moral indignation so often leads us to echo and amplify the very behavior that triggered the indignation. The greater the expression of outrage, the less likely it will lead to any real change, and the more likely it will lead violence. It gives the offended a green light to commit or condone acts that are just like the ones that caused the indignation in the first place. But forgiveness is the opposite of vengeance. It puts an end to the consequences of a chain of events, freeing everyone from the process.

Christ exhorted us to forgive our enemies, even love them, and it either means everyone or it means nothing. In Charlottesville, Virginia, two years ago, hundreds of young men held Tiki torches and raised their arms in a Nazi salute, apparently celebrating a system of ideas that has been thoroughly discredited. A young woman was killed when an enraged man drove into the crowd of counter-protesters. What are the odds that these fellows have been closet white supremacists along, all waiting for their moment in the sun, waiting for a lapse in political correctness to throw off their anonymity?

Let me offer a more likely scenario: in regions of the country where jobs are menial and few, and unions no longer guarantee a living wage—those who are despised and living precariously have wanted social recognition for years. They have now found a way to get our attention, since they could not get our respect. As mimetic creatures, we seek the eyes of the others for their validation. If we cannot get their approval, we will revel in their fear, which is simply a different kind of validation. A validation of power and efficacy.

We have not lost our tendency to scapegoat, and it still can unify us: the term “white nationalist” has been bandied about so profligately that it has become meaningless, except to stigmatize and create a stampede of persecution. We are sucked into the gyre of a panicky witch-hunt for the targeted offenders.

But surely we should think a little more about how our guns carry a long history and singular mystique—which is itself a mimetic phenomenon. Look at our movies, where heroes have packed heat since the days of John Wayne. We still trust our weaponry to resolve conflict, even the conflict within. And every few weeks, some adolescent acts out that message in our streets, in our supermarkets, in our schools.

The Fastest Forms of Vengeance

Roughly 200 billion tweets appear every year. And 100 million hours of videos are watched on Facebook daily, and more than 250 billion photos have been uploaded to Facebook. Reaction time gets faster and faster, and we are free to vent our worst side, our unconsidered selves, on more and more platforms. We excuse our daily defamation as harmless, but it is not. It changes us.

In this environment, how difficult to hold to Girard's injunction of total non-retaliation! Revenge takes so many subtle forms. Try not responding to insult, trying to resist the snappy retort. If you're feeling ambitious, try not gossiping, the passive way we try to get our own back. I am writing this because it commits me to my own words as well. Or rather, it recommits me—and recommitting is the effort we must make, again and again.

We have some good precedents: Girard often described the story of the Old Testament Joseph, son of Jacob, bound and sold into slavery by his mob of ten envious and resentful half-brothers. He called it a counter-mythical story, because in myth, the lynchers are always satisfied with their lynching. But here, the story takes a different twist. Initially, the brothers plan to kill Joseph, but one of them, Judah, has the idea to sell him into slavery instead. However, Joseph reestablishes himself as one of the leaders of Egypt and then tearfully forgives his brothers in a dramatic reconciliation. Its full description of forgiveness is, Girard claimed, the first in all of history, in its sophistication and nuance. I haven't been able to disprove him yet.

I recommend Robert Alter's magnificent retelling, with annotation, of the story in his Genesis. The read is absolutely gripping, a page-turner, with very careful breakdown of the dialogue. Before his self-revelation, Joseph tries his half-brothers with several ordeals, and demands that they bring him their youngest brother, Benjamin. He is cautiously testing his half-brothers with Benjamin, the only other child of Jacob's beloved Rachel, born of the rivalry that poisoned the family. After all, he does not know whether they have killed Benjamin, too. Why would they not?

But the figure who is at least as riveting, to me, is Judah—the very brother who had the idea to monetize the elimination of his brother. During the dialogue, he is transformed. He says his father's heart would break with the loss of Benjamin—he who had maliciously, recklessly shredded his father's heart before, accepts the bitter pill of his father's outrageous favoritism, and begs to offer himself as a slave instead.

The wailing of Joseph in the recognition scene is so loud and unrestrained that, as it is written, “the Egyptians heard and the house of Pharaoh heard.” We all admire Joseph, we imagine we would like to be like him—but who wants to be Judah in his culpability, in his callousness, in his repentance, and his anguish? Yet the Jewish people are named for him.

Our Dual Passport

On Ash Wednesday some years ago, a colleague at Stanford was wearing ashes on her forehead. At the Stanford Memorial Church ecumenical service, people had ritually burned bits of paper recalling the insult and injury they had suffered the previous year, to “let it go,” as contemporary thinking has it. This puzzled me. It was an inversion of the very idea of the day. Ash Wednesday is not the day you recognize and honor your victimhood—it is the day you recognize you are a perp.

We all embrace the idea of forgiving. It makes us feel grand and noble. But forgiveness is more than self-help—it comes from another plane altogether. It has two halves. The other half of forgiving is being forgiven, which requires a realization of our own wrongdoing. Victim and perp is the dual passport we carry through life. When we understand that we enact a thousand nastinesses everyday, we begin to recognize that most of the injuries we need to forgive are an escalation of a chain of events that usually implicates us.

To put one's shoulder to the task is no small thing. As Girard wrote,

But we must see that there is no possible compromise between killing and being killed . . . For all violence to be destroyed, it would be sufficient for all mankind to decide to abide by this rule. If all mankind offered the other cheek, no cheek would be struck . . . If all men loved their enemies, there would be no more enemies. But if they drop away at the decisive moment, what is going to happen to the one person who does not drop away? For him the word of life will be changed into the word of death.

It is absolute fidelity to the principle defined in his own preaching that condemns Jesus. There is no other cause for his death than the love of one's neighbor lived to the very end, with an infinitely intelligent grasp of the constraints it imposes.[1]

The last sentence is almost incomprehensible in its implications. Yet around the world, many Christians are facing what he is talking about, every single day.

Girard called for a complete renunciation of violence and forgiveness. In his words, “We must face our neighbors and declare unconditional peace. Even if we are provoked, challenged, we must give up violence once and for all.” He was unrelenting in his insistence on this, and said the only way out of the dilemma is Imitatio Christi, using Jesus as our mimetic model, since Jesus is the only one who points directly to the Father.

“We Must Forgive!”

In Evolution of Desire, I describe the particular case of a nonviolent movement that turned into the very thing it was opposing. The scapegoating mechanisms began to work within the organization reducing it to accusations, factions, and expulsions. But there have been grace notes in human history as well. Solidarity is one of them. It began as the Eastern bloc’s first trade union that was independent and self-governing, and not controlled by the Communist government. Within a year, over a quarter of Poland’s population, about ten million, had joined Solidarity. It had become a nonviolent social movement that used civil resistance to promote workers’ rights and social change. One leader recalled that there was “tremendous hope and a kind of electricity between people . . . suddenly, millions of people felt that they wanted the same thing”—and it was a thing that could be shared, not competed for, not a zero-sum game, or necessarily “against” anyone. Solidarity was more than the absence of a negative: it signaled a new openness of expression and feeling, a euphoric new sense of brotherhood as people gathered in homes and church basements, united by the injunction from a Polish pope, “Be not afraid.”

Polish friends tell me that Girard was part of it, a mythical figure in Poland. His books and articles were circulated underground, in samizdat editions. The Scapegoat and Violence and the Sacred offered an entirely different take power and violence in the framework of totalitarianism.

Perhaps it provides a model for “good mimesis,” a possibility that hovers over much of René's work. “Whether you exchange compliments, niceties, greetings, or insinuations, indifference, meanness, bullets, atom bombs, it’s always an exchange,” he said. “You always give to the other guy what he’s giving to you, or you try to do so.” 

Girard was once asked whether his theory could account for for nonviolent, saintly desire, a desire on behalf of the other—as an excess of desire rather than a renunciation of desire. He responded, “Wherever you have that desire, I would say, that really active, positive desire for the other, there is some kind of divine grace present.”

This is a Christian love, he said, and it exists in our world. “Without this love, the world would have exploded long ago . . . It is more than ever up to each one of us to hold back the worst; this is what being in eschatological time means. Our world is both the worst it has ever been, and the best. It is said that more victims are killed, but we also have to admit that more are saved than ever before. Everything is increasing.”[2] His words serve as a reminder that mimesis is not only a locked room, it also offers us a key, and a way out. It even hints that such “good mimesis” might have collective obligations, as well as private ones.

On October 19, 1984, Father Jerzy Popiełuszko, a gentle charismatic Solidarity leader from Warsaw who had been subjected to threats and defamation, attended a prayer meeting for the workers in the town of Bydgoszcz. He ended with these words: “Let’s pray God to set us free from fear and terror, but, first and foremost, from the desire for violence and vengeance.”[3] They were his last public words.

When the punctual priest did not return to Warsaw the next morning, the sense of alarm was immediate. Hysteria mounted and violence was in the air, ready to spill over into the already volatile people. Masses were celebrated round-the-clock with crowds looking for solidarity and solace—and for news, which consisted of bulletins pinned to wooden doors and wrought iron fences. Priests urged the Poles to abstain from violent thoughts, to keep vigil and to pray instead. On Tuesday, October 30, about 2,000 people had gathered for mass at Warsaw’s St. Stanisław Kostka church, where Popiełuszko had served as priest. Mass was already underway when a note was slipped to the presiding priest, telling him that that the body had been found. The televised news was spreading quickly: people were pouring into the back of the already crowded church.

His battered and tortured body had been pulled from the Wisła, a sack of broken bones with his mouth shattered and his skull crushed—Imitatio Christi to the end. But what was born that day was a little different than what the Communist officials had in mind. It did not stop the movement for freedom, or curb the desire to achieve it in a non-violent way. It was a new and noteworthy inversion of the cycles of vengeance that have characterized human history.

“Brothers and sisters,” the priest began. “Today in the Włocławek reservoir, the body of Father Jerzy . . . ” At that point, a collective wail rose from the crowd, subsiding into a kind of keening. Tears ran down the priest’s cheeks, and he continued with difficulty, unwilling to break the chain of masses that had been sustained for years by Popiełuszko. So he began the familiar ritual and balm of the Lord’s Prayer, and paused after the words, “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive . . . ” Did he stop for emphasis—or was it the shock of recognition?—and then he repeated three times, “as we forgive . . . as we forgive . . . ” He finished the prayer, and added the words, again for emphasis: “We must forgive.”

Girard's book, The Scapegoat, closes on much the same note, with the same urgency: “The time has come for us to forgive one another. If we wait any longer there will not be time enough.” But there is no time. We know that. The only time is now.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay was delivered as inaugural Church Life Journal lecture by Cynthia L. Haven at the University of Notre Dame on September 23, 2019. It includes some reworked passages from Evolution of Desire, courtesy of Michigan State University Press. 

[1] Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1978), 211.

[2] Battling to the End (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2010), p. 131.

[3] The citation, and much of the account that follows, is drawn from John Moody and Roger Boyes, The Priest and the Policeman (New York: Summit Books, 1987), pp. 208-09.

Featured Image: Zurbaran, Agnus Dei, 1635; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Cynthia L. Haven

Cynthia L. Haven writes regularly for The Times Literary Supplement and has also contributed to The Nation, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and many other publications. She has published several books, including volumes on Nobel poets Czesław Miłosz, Joseph Brodsky, and, most recently, René Girard.  

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