We Do Not Come in Peace

It has been said that the universe is made up not of atoms, but of stories. Whether at a podium or over coffee with a friend, in the privacy of our thoughts or at an international summit, we tell stories pretty much all the time. We create ourselves out of the tales we tell—both individually and as a community, in our myths and in our histories. But who crafts the narrative, and with what motives and vested interests?

We deal in fictions. And yet we never stop asking what really happened.

The Avignon-born French theorist René Girard (1923–2015) had a keen ear for stories, and a remarkable way of coaxing the truth from them, the life out of the lies. He saw that conflict is a constant hum beneath human activity, an inevitable consequence of competing desires. When conflict causes crisis, a pattern of self-justification and cover-up follows. The long history of blame began the moment Adam bit the apple.

In this powder keg, Girard discerned patterns of social contagion, mob violence, and scapegoating. It begins with envy: “All desire is a desire for being,” Girard wrote. So we look with covetous eyes at someone we fantasize has it all, who represents our derivative aspirations. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it tends to irritate the original. This metaphysical hunger attracts the resistance of the envied other and provokes heated competition. The enmity itself is the contagion, spreading until the whole community is in a mimetic meltdown. In an ugly attempt to end the escalating tit-for-tat reprisals as tensions rise, someone or some group is singled out as the cause of the mayhem. Although the target is innocent of the blame heaped on him, or her, or them—or at least no more blameworthy than anyone else in the community—people believe a problem has been solved by the elimination of the “guilty.” As the community converges on the culprit, a new unity emerges. Condemnation is unanimous, or nearly so. No one is guilty because everyone is: “It was a monster with one red eye, / A crowd that saw him die, not I” (Auden). In some societies, the condemned faces lynching, exile, imprisonment (a modern version might be “cancelling” the accused). It buys peace and reconciliation . . . for a while.

The scapegoat is not entirely random. Yet the process is unwitting—mobs do not knowingly pick a scapegoat. They believe in the culpability of the victim. Typically, the mob seeks someone who holds a more marginal place within the community, a person without allies, someone who cannot or will not retaliate. He, she, or they may be a foreigner, an ethnic minority, or someone so rich or renowned as to seem unreachable and alone—a president or pope, for example. Long before Oedipus headed for Colonus, the pattern was established: last year’s hero becomes this year’s sacrifice, first celebrated then defamed, revered then ridiculed. And we regularly—and unconsciously—seek new victims to focus our confusion, our envy, our anger, our blame.

Mob action is the origin of ritual and myth. In the archaic world, when society again faces an internal crisis, the scapegoating process is reenacted to evoke the dynamics that ended the fighting before. In a logic-defying turn, the eliminated victims are honored, sanctified, memorialized, even deified—they had brought peace and social cohesion, after all, which would seem to be a god-like power. How does one purify collective memory in this wilderness of lies?

Do these words sound atavistic in our up-to-date world—a throwback to the Aztec rites, in which hundreds were slain to appease the sun/war god Huitzilopochtli? Think again. An eminent music scholar recently wrote about the links between rock music, violence, and sacrifice. Ted Gioia pointed out that modern rock makes use of these age-old practices, and that “drums are linked to sacrificial ritual in every region of the world.” Today’s twenty-first-century inhabitants are not exempt from these timeless rituals; he suggests that some powerful modern equivalents continue to this day—for example, in the annual “Burning Man” festival that attracts tens of thousands.

No one took these lessons more to heart than René Girard himself. On occasion he showed it. Years ago at a Stanford conference, Girard faced a tough question about his unconventional methods. His research had involved a close reading of archaic texts—which is to say, stories. In them, he discerned hidden patterns of rivalry and the sacralization of violence to end strife, an unending sequence throughout the long night of humanity. His writing was seasoned with characteristic humor and insight—he had learned something about himself along his journey, and so did not offer himself as a hero or an answer.

After the talk, one man asked a provocative question: “Given that we can’t entirely trust the veracity of ancient writings, how would you measure the success of your theory?”

Girard’s answer was a thunderbolt in its directness and simplicity: “You will see the success of my theories when you recognize yourself as a persecutor.”

That is not where most people begin. Yet there is nowhere else to begin.

The man dubbed “the new Darwin of the human sciences” started his academic career in literature, not sociology, religions, or anthropology. Though his dissertation at Paris’ École des Chartes focused on Avignon’s medieval history, he changed course in America, intellectually as well as geographically. Postwar GIs were flooding US campuses, and Girard was one of the many foreign teachers brought to fill the need. In 1947 he was appointed to teach French language and literature at Indiana University, tasked with teaching books he had yet to read himself. He gave himself a crash course, reading voraciously to stay one step ahead of his own class syllabus. And the more he read, the more he was spellbound by the interesting patterns that called out to him. As the lines of enquiry converged, the more he was driven by the need to comprehend the meaning of what he saw. He discovered that novels of the past were an important key, revealing the truth of human life that the “official” records conceal—unintentionally, and sometimes intentionally, too. As Girard put it, “The novel is the truth, and the rest is lies.” His close reading showed that what we call “fiction” preserves the social and psychological configurations of a time and place, the contexts that decode the human puzzle. The art of the novel is anthropology, he discovered. And elsewhere, “My point of departure and my entire analysis are purely textual.” He learned how to make the dead talk.

His first book, written at Johns Hopkins University, was 1961’s Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque (published in English as Deceit, Desire and the Novel in 1965), a study of the books and authors that fascinated him—Cervantes, Proust, Dostoevsky, Stendhal, and Flaubert. Girard challenged the “Romantic lie”—that is, the myth of personal autonomy, the “authentic self” enshrined from Rousseau onward. The hero wants something, and it is really “he” who wants it—unaffected by his friends, his family, or public opinion. These works offered Girard a new concept of human wanting: our desires are not authentic and our own, he wrote. Instead, they are borrowed, “mimetic.” Mimesis is the basic tool of human development: it is how we learn to eat and talk, the root of our ambitions, the fuel for our unquenchable longings and tormented romantic triangles. We learn what to want from each other, and our desires spread contagiously because we copy each other, hoping the people we admire hold the magic key to success and happiness. The more we imitate each other, the more we become the same—and it is our sameness, not our differences, that makes us fight.

The thesis that was swirling in his head was born this way:

In autumn 1958, I was working on my book about the novel, on the twelfth and last chapter that’s entitled “Conclusion.” I was thinking about the analogies between religious experience and the experience of a novelist who discovers that he’s been consistently lying, lying for the benefit of his Ego, which in fact is made up of nothing but a thousand lies that have accumulated over a long period, sometimes built up over an entire lifetime.

His revelation was a revolution of the self—religious and literary and anthropological and deeply personal, and this conversion experience would be the basis of his thinking and writing. “Everything came to me at once,” he explained. He spent the rest of his life teasing out the substance and applications of that one compact vision, theoretically, exegetically, academically, and personally.

Meanwhile, Girard continued to make the dead talk. He read the texts of ancient civilizations and considered the work of nineteenth-century anthropologists, who were working to build a new field of study, interviewing the last survivors of remote tribes that have long since vanished. Those accounts became the basis of his influential 1972 La violence et le sacré (published in English as Violence and the Sacred in 1977), exploring the role of ritual sacrifice in archaic societies. He maintained these early rites were a way to control violence within a society by channeling it.

His 1978 Des choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde, published in English as Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World in 1987, expressed more fully his deepening interest in biblical texts.

Girard contended that the scapegoat mechanism had been weakened and challenged in the Judaic tradition, with the gradual revelation of the scapegoat’s innocence. It was broken at last by the Crucifixion, the cynical and opportunistic torture, beyond recognition, of an innocent man before a howling mob. We are living in the long aftermath: we still kill, but our hands are no longer clean, and we have little faith in our innocence.

More and more proof is emerging to support his wide-ranging hypotheses—even in the hard sciences, with the discovery of “mirror neurons.” He anticipated that it would be so. However, the answers he found were not merely artifacts of the past; they have vital meaning in the present. His thoughts continue to live powerfully, helping us to recover the words we have allowed to die and be forgotten within ourselves (“Thou shalt not covet” among them). His voice calls us to remember, so that, recovering and rediscovering them, we make the dead speak, too, with Girard’s guidance.

The anthology, All Desire Is a Desire for Being, shows the evolution of his thinking, bringing his work to bear on sources ranging from Sophocles to Shakespeare, Clausewitz to Camus, Nietzsche to Proust. His work encompasses mankind’s violent history from early tribal warfare to modern terrorism and nuclear weapons. It shows how Job’s “comforters” prefigured the totalitarian trials of the twentieth century. It reveals why Salome’s dance was not a sexual event, but a mimetic one—a crowd phenomenon, as was St. Peter’s betrayal in the courtyard. It includes Girard’s surprising response to Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ. We have also included the first English translation of Girard’s sublime Académie Française address in English, on the occasion of his 2005 election to that august body, describing the nature of spiritual revelation in the life of Girard’s predecessor for Seat #37 at the Académie, Père Ambrose-Marie Carré.

Girard’s work took him into mankind’s remotest past, examining the earliest human sacrifices to reconcile villages torn by internal strife. But in a sense, he probed our future, too, sometimes through the prophetic notes he heard in the writers he studied. Reading Crime and Punishment, he observed:

Raskolnikov has a dream during a grave illness that occurs just before his final change of heart, at the end of the novel. He dreams of a worldwide plague that affects people’s relationship with each other. No specifically medical symptoms are mentioned. It is human interaction that breaks down, and the entire society gradually collapses.

Plagues had been a regular feature in mankind’s history, and always threatened to return—though we had hoped modern medicine might banish them forever. Five years after Girard’s death, we witnessed first-hand the effects of a pandemic, and the erosion of social order in its wake. We are mimetic creatures, after all, intimately tied with the past and future of each and every one of us.

We are all persecutors. That is one unpleasant, but practical and productive, takeaway from Girard’s “theory.” We are persecutors who see ourselves as victims. Our competitive and covetous quest for job perks, political clout, sexy bedfellows, or an entrée into an élite clique spreads contagiously through a society and leads us to conflict and ultimately escalation—snubs, sackings, social ostracization, and violence. That imbroglio is still resolved, as it has been since time immemorial, by a scapegoating event that finds a target in someone who cannot or will not retaliate, someone who can plausibly be blamed for the troubles. Girard claims that this scapegoating process is the birth pangs of human culture, and also a page from the diary of our everyday lives.

The horror of this scapegoating, and our participation in it, is often overlooked when a study of his work becomes more and more theoretical, more and more abstruse. To comprehend it does not require workshops, support groups, spreadsheets, or teams of experts—those approaches are subject to the very mimetic pitfalls Girard describes. It begins instead in the loneliness of the human heart. You learn most about his ideas by observing them in your own choices and behaviors, and changing course—otherwise they pass unnoticed through your mind and days. Action works as a fixative to our understanding.

His concepts must be understood from the inside—so that they become second nature, felt, a part of one’s psychological makeup. Otherwise, you fall into the mimetic trap. To bypass this humbling step is to reenter the battle with the “other,” the one who keeps us from consuming all we want (and we can want a lot). Clever ideas disconnected from action reap the questionable reward of self-satisfaction.

Girard’s corpus is not just an erudite self-help manual, however; his intellectual landscape is not intended to be therapeutic, and yet it is. What he came to see was not a comfort, however, but something fierce and intractable. What he learned about the individual also limns the destiny of our species. Our impossible plight: the mechanism of scapegoat violence—whether on the level of the individual, or society, or epoch—is rooted in the very imitation that teaches us to love and learn, in fact, the very tissue that connects us with the rest of humanity.

His realm extends far beyond the personal, the “me”: his theories also anatomize political campaigns, world banking, international statecraft, and nuclear escalation; they illuminate our history from the beginning of time. The mystery of imitation is what threatens our survival and enables it, and for that reason alone it merits more careful study.

As we teeter on an existential brink, Girard invites us to be “conscientious objectors” to the murderous sequence of mimetic events. This effort calls for more than reflection and study; it has seismic implications. It sounds a note that extends backward and forward through time, revolutionizing our past and determining our future. (The note was first struck at the killing of Abel, whose name means “breath.” It has reverberated ever since.)

Girard’s response at the Stanford conference—“You will see the success of my theories when you recognize yourself as a persecutor”—was not just a clever way to turn a question on its head, though he often had that effect. Instead, his intuition was the first word of a personal mea culpa, the beginning of a vigilant internal pilgrimage that lasts a lifetime.

But it begins with the very necessary downfall of the self, the very comeuppance that marked Girard’s own spiritual beginnings. The point is to see yourself as a questionable character. To look at yourself askance. In short, I am not a Savonarola, but a penitent who has blindly wished coals upon my enemies’ heads. I carry my own personal stock of villains and whipping boys with me wherever I go.

The inevitable question follows: “Is there a positive mimesis, a good mimesis?” Of course, anyone who has fallen in love—where kiss ignites kiss, lovers trade promises, and each tries to outdo the other in lavish adulation—knows the truth. But “falling” is the operative word. It is something that happens to us, not something that is the effect of our will, and something that too easily flips into its mimetic opposite—such reversals are the stock-in-trade of melodrama and television sitcoms. How do we choose to accept the blame or insult that is heaped on us in such circumstances? How do we use our will to love the unlovable “other”? Can we will the good of the other, even against our will? Or even against the will of the other? What would happen if we truly believed “each of us is guilty before all for everyone and everything.” Those were the thoughts of Father Zosima, a Dostoevsky figure beloved of both Girard and the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, for whom these words were akin to a mantra or talismanic formula. Could it break the cycle? Would it provide, perhaps, an even more durable “high” than mind-bending designer drugs—or the next commercial rocket to the exosphere, the very rim of outer space?

René Girard was more to me than an object of study. He had been a personal friend even before Battling to the End, his final book, which I read in galleys before it was published. We can experience him today through what he wrote, but the firsthand effect of the living, breathing man—his deep courtesy, his affability, his gentle humor and hard-won restraint—is gone forever. I hope the section of “maxims” I have included captures the spirit of his off-hand aperçus and transformative insights. However, I would trade them all to enter the Girards’ living room on Frenchman’s Road, on the Stanford campus—with its old rose-colored armchair from Avignon, its bookcases with clay ushabti from Egypt lined up on the shelves—and to have René again invite me to sit down beside him on the white couch, and then ask me once more, “What shall we talk about today?”

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is adapted from Cynthia L. Haven’s introduction to All Desire is a Desire for Being, a selection of Girard's writings, thanks to the generous permission granted by Penguin Random House.

Featured Image: Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-70. 


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.  

Read more by Cynthia L. Haven