René Girard: The Last Nietzschean

Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: "I seek God! I seek God!"—As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter . . .

. . . The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. "Whither is God?" he cried; "I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions?
—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, §125

René Girard’s first serious attempt to grapple with Nietzsche came in a 1976 essay that cites Nietzsche’s relationship with Wagner as evidence of the force of ressentiment in Nietzsche’s personal relationships. Here Girard avoids Nietzsche’s relationship to Christianity, and thus his earliest attempt does not carry the same force as later writings. Girard insists, as he does later, that Nietzsche’s insanity stemmed not from syphilis or some other physiological origin, but rather from his inability to temper his obsessions. Girard asserts, “The insanity of a Nietzsche and of many others is rooted in an experience with which none of us can be really unfamiliar.” By this Girard meant that the sinful proclivities toward envy, resentment, and mimetic reciprocation, which course through the psychic lives of even holy people, also surface in those who, in our Romantic age, are considered above the fray on the basis of their solitary genius. Nietzsche’s pathologies, thus, represent only exaggerated normal human tendencies.

Nietzsche’s triangular relationship with Richard and Cosima Wagner offers a particularly relevant data point for examining his psychic life and patterns of desire. Girard notes how Nietzsche’s relationship with the great composer was rife with mimetic identification and envy. For Girard, Ecce Homo can be read as Nietzsche’s attempt to transfer to himself the praise that he had lavished on Wagner: “Every time the name of Wagner appears [in Nietzsche’s earlier work] the name of Nietzsche must be substituted.”

Yet Nietzsche’s metaphysical desire to become Richard Wagner failed miserably. Cosima’s first husband, Hans von Bülow, infamously stated, after Cosima left him for Wagner: “For a woman torn between a man and a god, it is excusable to choose the god.” Nietzsche’s metaphysical desire for Wagner was, in a mimetic analysis, a sublimated attempt to become a god. In his late period, Nietzsche oscillated between identifying with Dionysus and with Christ. He signed numerous letters, “The Crucified,” and wrote to Cosima Wagner: “I too have been hanged on the cross.” Additionally, in January 1889, he wrote to Jean Bourdeau, “I am the Christ, Christ in person, Christ crucified.”

Wagner’s prodigious talent ran in concert with his oversized ego. And, in juxtaposition to Nietzsche, Wagner’s contemporaries reckoned him entitled to the eccentricities of genius. Nietzsche, whose genius is now unquestioned, likely accepted the judgments from his contemporaries, many of whom deemed him a failure. In order to expand on Girard’s reading, I now turn my attention to a recent mimetic attempt to understand Nietzsche: Giuseppe Fornari’s A God Torn to Pieces. This work deepens Girard’s understanding of Nietzsche’s relationship to Wagner and of Nietzsche’s madness in general.

Fornari chronicles how Nietzsche’s attempts to become Wagner— both the composition of music and the obsession with Cosima—ended in abject failure. Regarding the former attempt, Fornari recalls a response by von Bülow to Nietzsche’s 1872 effort to compose music. In his original query to von Bülow, Nietzsche had described his piece as horrible. If he had expected from this show of humility a more generous assessment, he did not get it. Von Bülow described Nietzsche’s attempt as “in fact, more horrible than you may credit; that is to say, not ordinarily damaging, but worse: damaging to yourself, who could not have found a worse way of killing even an excess of spare time than to rape Euterpe in this fashion.” This blow stung Nietzsche so profoundly that he cited it sixteen years later in Ecce Homo: “I composed a counter overture for Manfred of which Hans von Bülow said that he had never seen anything like it on paper, and he called it a rape of Euterpe.” Fornari chronicles how deeply Nietzsche wanted to rival Wagner as a creator of art, and how deeply he failed in this imitation.

With the aid of letters and other primary documents to which Girard did not have access, Fornari fortifies Girard’s claims about Nietzsche’s longing for Cosima: “Nietzsche fell in love with Cosima for the same reasons that he wrote his music: to draw close to the idolized and envied model, to dislodge him and take his place.” At this, too, Nietzsche failed spectacularly. Cosima never reciprocated Nietzsche’s interest. Fornari opines, “Never was a lover less likely to succeed.” Cosima’s reaction to Nietzsche’s composition, for instance, provoked a mix of confusion and pity. Her diary recorded: “We are a bit annoyed by our friend’s music-making dalliances.” From a nonmimetic perspective, Nietzsche’s wild oscillation, pro and contra Wagner, must stem from some change of heart or shift in opinion. From a mimetic perspective, the sycophantic praise that Nietzsche heaped on Wagner, and the bitter scorn, reflect the oscillation that normally results from the fraught relation between imitator and model/rival.

In Girard’s 1974 treatment of Nietzsche, this claim was more of a hunch than anything else. After the publication of a more definitive Sämtliche Werke, it became possible for Girard to confirm this hunch. In Girard’s lecture “Nietzsche and Contradiction,” he declared himself “glad to report that I have found the ‘smoking gun.’” Girard refers to fragments written by Nietzsche in 1886–87, where Nietzsche admits his profound admiration for Wagner’s most Christian opera, Parsifal. Every novice reader of Nietzsche knows that Nietzsche’s break with Wagner had to do with his disgust at Wagner’s late preference for a Christian rather than a pagan theme.

Even upon learning of the odd power dynamic in their relationship, devoted Nietzscheans can still hold onto Nietzsche’s principled, pagan stand against Wagner’s art. Yet in this fragment, Nietzsche declares himself “completely transported and moved.” And later, “No artist has ever been able to express as magnificently as Wagner does such a somber and melancholy vision. Not even Dante, not even Leonardo.” By 1888, when Nietzsche wrote The Case of Wagner, he lambasted Wagner’s Christian turn as a negation against life. This fragment confirms for Girard the oscillation, or contradiction, in Nietzsche that he himself tried to suppress. The case of Parsifal brings together Nietzsche’s tortured relationship with both Wagner and Christianity.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Girard engaged Nietzsche’s thought with greater frequency, concentrating more on Nietzsche and Christianity. In addition to the follow-up article on Wagner, Girard published his 1984 article “Dionysus versus the Crucified,” and he also gave a paper centering on Nietzsche’s famous aphorism 125 from The Gay Science, which was included in Violence and Truth. Girard’s subsequent writings, including the last chapter from I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, echo these earlier readings of Nietzsche. Like David Bentley Hart, Girard largely assents to Nietzsche’s interpretation of Christianity.

Both Hart and Girard cite almost the entire final paragraph from aphorism 1052 in The Will to Power, which reads:

Dionysus versus the “Crucified” there you have the antithesis. It is not a difference in regard to their martyrdom—it is a difference in the meaning of it. Life itself, its eternal fruitfulness and recurrence, creates torment, destruction, the will to annihilation. In the other case, suffering—the “Crucified as the innocent one”—counts as an objection to this life, as a formula for its condemnation.—One will see that the problem is that of the meaning of suffering: whether a Christian meaning or a tragic meaning. In the former case, it is supposed to be the path to a holy being; in the latter case, being is counted as holy enough to justify even a monstrous amount of suffering. The tragic man affirms even the harshest suffering . . . Dionysus cut to pieces is a promise of life: it will be eternally reborn and return again from destruction.

The first line of this famous citation also concludes Ecce Homo. Girard notes that, unlike positivists, who looked at the facts and concluded mere continuity between the collective murders of Dionysus torn to pieces by a mob and Jesus nailed to a cross, Nietzsche saw an essential difference. Girard remarks,

Every great book of anthropology of the age tries to demonstrate that Judaism and Christianity are the same as any other religion with a sacrificial origin. Nietzsche alone rejected the conclusion, while accepting the factual insight.

Nietzsche’s specialization in Greek and Roman literature allowed him to distance himself from the positivism of nineteenth-century anthropology. Girard notes, “He knew too much about pagan mythology not to be revolted by the shallow assimilation of the Judeo-Christian with the pagan” traditions. For Nietzsche, the difference lay not in the event, but in its interpretation. The similarity of the Passion narrative with so many mythic tales enables the difference to emerge so starkly: the problem is that of the meaning of suffering; whether a Christian meaning or a tragic meaning. Girard concludes that Nietzsche “knew that the ‘facts’ mean nothing unless and until they are interpreted.” For Girard, Christianity interprets the death of Jesus to mean that the crowd was wrong, the victim was innocent, and God did not demand or require this death.

Other factors help explain why almost nobody had come to this insight before Nietzsche. The nineteenth century, especially Germany, witnessed the rise of a particular form of theological anti-Semitism. With winds of philological speculation and crude phrenology at their backs, theologians and biblical scholars drove a chasm between Judaism and Christianity, insisting that the latter’s relation to the former consisted only in repudiation. Nietzsche, however, rejected any essential severance between Judaism and Christianity: “Christianity can be understood only by referring to the soil out of which it grew—it is not a counter-movement against the Jewish instinct, it is actually its logical consequence.” In place of Judaism, Nietzsche located the true object of Christian scorn: archaic religion. Girard confirms this reading:

The Christian passion is not anti-Jewish, as the vulgar antisemites believe; it is anti-pagan; it reinterprets religious violence in such a negative fashion as to make its perpetrators feel guilty for committing it, even for silently accepting it.

The concern for victims makes biblical religion unique and puts it in contrast with pagan religions that consider the murder of innocents life­giving. When Nietzsche stated his preference for Dionysus over Jesus, he understood the contrast as fundamental. Such an understanding ran against almost every nineteenth-century trend, a point missed entirely by Nietzsche’s most noted twentieth-century interpreters, especially Heidegger.

Although Nietzsche saw the contrast between Christianity and archaic religion more clearly than his contemporaries, and thus brushed against Girard’s insight about what is truly revelatory in the Gospels, Nietzsche sided with Dionysus and called for a return to his cult. Girard judges this decision not only tragic, in the sense that it abetted Nietzsche’s descent into madness, but also mistaken. Regarding the tragic, Girard writes,

In his later years, Nietzsche kept reviving, glorifying, and modernizing more and more sinister aspects of the primitive sacred. I am convinced that this process became more intolerable as it became more radical and led to his final breakdown.

More perspicacious is Girard’s later remark, namely, that Nietzsche fundamentally mistook the slave revolt in Christianity. Nietzsche failed to distinguish between a religion that speaks from the perspective of the victim and a religion that inspires the weak. The crowd, notes Girard, is against Christ in the Passion:

[Nietzsche] thinks he is against the crowd, but he doesn’t realize that the dionysian unanimity is the voice of the crowd . . . What Nietzsche doesn’t see is the mimetic nature of unanimity. He doesn’t seize the meaning of the Christian reflection of the mob phenomenon. He does not see that the dionysiac is the spirit of the crowd, of the mob, and the Christian is the heroic exception.

This comment conforms to David Bentley Hart’s judgment that, despite Nietzsche’s searing insights into Christianity, he oftentimes exhibited a failure in the matters of taste upon which he so prided himself.

With Nietzsche’s interpretation of Christianity in the background, Girard’s read on Nietzsche’s famous aphorism on the death of God comes into sharper focus. Girard notes, somewhat wistfully, that collective murder is the obvious theme of the aphorism declaring the death of God (The Gay Science, §125). This point has been the central focus of Girard’s work on archaic societies. Yet even in a passage that many students of Nietzsche can recite verbatim, Girard contends that they have ignored the most obvious meaning: “Perfectly respectable scholars, men who would not touch my own collective murder with a ten foot pole, quote Nietzsche’s text in preference to any other, but their comments betray no awareness of the murder theme.”

Even Heidegger’s great essay on this aphorism opted to relate this killing to the “suprasensory world” rather than to any real human violence. The God that Nietzsche declares dead did not expire from old age, for Nietzsche’s text itself belies such a conclusion: “[Nietzsche’s aphorism] rejects very pointedly the very notion . . .  of God as something childish and meaningless really that men gradually learned to do without in the modern age.” The cause of God’s death lies elsewhere: “Nietzsche sees the disappearance of God as a horrible murder in which every man is involved: We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers.’”

If every atheism depends for its definition on the theism it opposes, then certainly the manner of God’s death conditions the nature of the atheism in question. Girard contrasts the atheism of the Enlightenment, which understood belief in God as otiose, with the atheism of Nietzsche. In aphorism 125, Nietzsche juxtaposes the crowd’s attitude with that of the madman.

The crowd seems nonplussed by the madman’s pleas: “They too were silent and stared at him in astonishment,” after initially mocking the madman’s search for God. A natural death generates little effect. A collective murder, on the other hand, produces a much larger ripple. Nietzsche seems to recognize this distinction when he relates the madman’s insistence that new rituals will result: “What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent.” This death of God, then, births a new religion. Therefore the kind of death God suffers matters immensely. Post-death-of-God humans can go along merrily living their lives, or they can deal with the blood on their hands. It all depends on the cause of death. Chris Fleming and John O’Carroll’s essay establishes this point:

Whatever else might be said of Girard’s reading, it contains a valuable point regarding not simply the brute fact of atheism, but its manner of existing. For thinkers allied to the “new atheism,” the non-existence of God is simply a proposition which they claim to be correct. For Nietzsche, this is not enough; contrarily, one has to reject God in the right way.

Nietzsche’s madman, according to Girard, embodies a prophetic caution against the kind of “post-Christian” atmosphere that Girard has ridiculed, both in the passages cited above from Battling to the End and in his chapter on Nietzsche in I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. In agreement with Nietzsche, Girard bemoans the current state of affairs:

The majestic inauguration of the “post-Christian era” is a joke. We are living through a caricatural “ultra-Christianity” that tries to escape from the Judeo-Christian orbit by “radicalizing” the concern for victims in an anti-Christian manner.

Nietzsche detested with his entire being the emergence of such trends. A recent movie, Easy A, portrays life in a California high school while retelling Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. In a hypermodern twist, the protagonist, who is innocent, decides to flaunt her bad reputation by stitching a red “A” into her clothes herself. The movie sheds light on the hypocrisy of scapegoating and embodies what Girard would call an “ultra-Christian” standpoint by telling the story, literally, from the perspective of the victim, who narrates the events into a video recorder. Yet when the plot needs a villain, it finds one in the hypocritical Christians totally bereft of charity. This anecdote does not aim to be part of a larger cultural commentary about Christians as the “real victims.” Rather, it is to give an example of what results from the wrong kind of atheism that Girard, through Nietzsche’s insight, laments. Echoing Hart, Girard applauds Nietzsche for having the decency to oppose Christianity for what it is, and not for what it is not.

Girard’s insights into Nietzsche’s reading of Christianity allow for some concluding remarks on mimetic theory’s contribution to a “theology of atheism.” Atheism has never been a term, like geocentric or cell phone, that has a stable meaning. Atheism in the twenty-first-century West means a rejection of the monotheistic God, whose acceptance has marked, with the appropriate qualifications, Christian culture. Yet if Girard has correctly identified the breakthrough of Western monotheism with the ethical stance towards victims, then today’s atheism faces a dilemma: it can dishonestly or naïvely suppose that the rejection of this God has no impact in our stance toward victims, or it can face this truth, as Nietzsche did, and choose Dionysus over the Crucified.

In the penultimate chapter of Atheist Delusions, Hart recalls some of the ethical proposals, including infanticide, euthanasia, experimentation on the mentally handicapped, and first-strike nuclear attacks on unenlightened countries, that have been suggested by the post-Christian intellectual elite. To the extent that these ethical positions seem unpalatable to the majority of citizens, their cultures have been infused with biblical worldviews. Yet Hart also foretells, correctly in my view, that Western moral grammar may not always remain Christian.

Something deeper is at stake, however, in any discussion of the options available for a truly post-Christian society. According to Girard, the experience undergone, through which one comes to understand the victim as innocent, happens through revelation; God gives us this graced knowledge, which not only tells us something about ourselves but also about God. In other words, the truth has theological content. Therefore the only option for an honest atheist, who does not believe in any divinely revealed truth, is the Nietzschean version.

One of Nietzsche’s more provocative aphorisms, from Twilight of the Idols, declares, “I fear we have not freed ourselves from God, because we still believe in grammar.” Here Nietzsche repeats the madman’s concerns about the societal impact of rejecting God. If one substitutes “victims” for “grammar,” then the point comes into even greater focus. One can only reject God if one no longer believes in the innocence of victims, or that their suffering should be curtailed, or that their lives matter. A mimetic theology of atheism demonstrates how this position arises from the unveiling of the true nature of the biblical God, and the radical reorientation that underlies the most basic affirmation of this God.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is an excerpt from René Girard, Unlikely Apologist. It is part of an ongoing collaboration with the University of Notre Dame Press. You can read our excerpts from this collaboration here. All rights reserved.

Featured Image: Taken by Holger.Ellgaard, Nietzsche's Deathmask, on 16 November 2016; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.


Grant Kaplan

Grant Kaplan holds the Steber Chair in the Department of Theological Studies at Saint Louis University. His research focuses on nineteenth-century German Catholic theology, especially the Tübingen theologians Johannes Kuhn and Johann Adam Möhler. Kaplan also pursues questions related to the relationship of René Girard’s mimetic theory to Christian theology. His most recent book is René Girard, Unlikely Apologist (University of Notre Dame Press).

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