Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life Oct 2001
A Review of I See Satan Fall like Lightning by René Girard (Orbis Books, New York, 2001)
Neo-paganism more than anything else is the target of this book, but its greatest value is as a succinct introduction to the various other profound works of the author, René Girard. It is also, in the end, a highly optimistic summary of the lasting effects of the Gospel, and a redoubtable assault upon the cosy post-modernist consensus that God is dead (the only significant thing agreed upon). Not so, says Girard – the fact that victims everywhere have become the focus of compassion and policy, and their salvation and protection an essential test of political virtue, is the de facto victory of the cross, and thus of God also – but not the God of power that Nietzsche might have respected.
Girard is a vastly erudite literary academic and cultural anthropologist, rather than a theologian or philosopher, but both theology and philosophy have much to learn from him. As have those biblical scholars whose a priori deconstructions (actually destruction) of the texts they study is another of Girard’s targets. For him the Bible is the book of all books, because, without an elaborate exegesis, it allows us to discover the organising principle behind all ancient culture, without exception.
That principle is scapegoating violence – the murder or expulsion of a usually marginalized victim, selected by a process of mimetic accusation which holds the victim accountable for the ‘plague’ afflicting a given society, e.g. ancient Thebes in the time of Oedipus. The accuser is Satan, the one also bent upon concealing the injustice of this original crime from the clear gaze of its perpetrators. ‘Plague’ is a metaphor for any crisis threatening the survival of a society, especially internal conflict brought about by mimetic desire. The single victim mechanism unites all in the expulsion of this evil, releasing the tension which might otherwise have destroyed all.
Mimetic desire is a key Girardian concept. It registers the key fact that Madison Avenue confirms daily – that our desires are mostly imitative, an unconscious absorption of the desires of others, interpreted through whatever they already possess. ‘Covetousness’ is the biblical term, a key word in the Mosaic commandments that the ineffable Bishop Spong routinely rubbishes as a party piece. Desiring what others possess – especially if it is, like supreme power, or ‘glory’, unique – is the essential source of internal (as well as external) conflict, and this is precisely why in the Jewish and Christian traditions, desire needs to be understood and controlled.
For those who read both Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ and the New Testament first at school, it is fascinating to see both texts fall together under Girard’s lens. Caesar is a military conqueror whose ‘glory’ excites the envy (blocked desire – disguised as patriotism) – of those who murder him. Yet in the avenging of his death he is divinised, creating the title by which holders of imperial power would thenceforth be known, and the principle by which the empire is unified. It was in the reign of the first of these Caesars that Jesus entered the world, the one who renounced worldly power, both secular and religious – conquering mimetic desire – and then clearly revealed the process of mimetic violence in the Passion, recorded in the Gospel narratives. The fact that these narratives were recorded at all was the result of something itself unique in such events – the detachment from the scapegoating crowd of those convinced of the resurrection, and of the innocence of the accused.
Thus for Girard what distinguishes the Biblical texts from all similar founding texts is their revelation of, and intolerance for, the scapegoating process. He insists that all other founding myths, treated so often merely as quaint fictions by modernist conflaters, conceal real foundation murders. The Enlightenment’s tendency to find e.g. ancient Greek civilisation entirely healthy by comparison with Judaism is fundamentally naïve – as evidenced by the known practice on certain festivals of ritually assassinating the pharmakoi – marginalized victims pre-selected for this purpose. Myths for Girard, although correctly decipherable, are essentially lies in the sense that they seek to justify the unjustifiable – but only our possession of the biblical texts allows this decoding.
The most striking defence of this conviction comes in his comparative analysis of the stories of Oedipus and the biblical Joseph. Both are subject to mimetic accusation – Joseph twice, by his brothers and by the Egyptians – but in the Greek legend the guilt of Oedipus is alleged to have been proven, whereas the biblical account insists on Joseph’s innocence on both occasions. His test of his brothers’ willingness to repeat their betrayal of himself in the handing over of Benjamin results in one moving exception, a foreshadowing of Jesus’ substitution of himself for all victims.
Girard’s assault on Nietzsche – for explicitly justifying sacrificial murder – is drastic. He argues that the archetypal modern scapegoating murder, the Holocaust, was essentially a pursuit of this programme, and that had Hitler won the war the Nietzschean programme of undoing the compassion for victims established by the gospels would have been attempted on a vast scale. The genocide of Europe’s Jews would have been not only acknowledged but boasted about – just as such events were justified by spurious accusation in the ancient and medieval world.
That the global historical record might thus have become so easily permanently tainted suggests that Girardian analysis has much to reveal about historiography generally. Northern Ireland is replete with scapegoating violence on both sides of the equation – and it is interesting that the original villain of Irish nationalist historiography, Dermot MacMurrough, was also the victim of an expulsion. Now he is banished historiographically (a kind of perennial classroom ritual) as archetypal traitor – the promised fate of all who collaborate with the enemies of those who claim the sole right to define the nation. MacMurrough’s essential problem was that he lost out in a fratricidal (i.e. mimetic) conflict among Ireland’s own ruling elite – although to listen to the anti-revisionists one would often suppose that never a blow was struck on this island before the Anglo-Normans came. (Lundy, of course, fills the same role on the loyalist side providing the name by which all Unionist compromisers will be known.)
And in the reciprocal accusation that is the daily, dolorous stock-in-trade of Northern Ireland’s extremes one finds Girard’s ‘doubles’ – the rivals for vindication and power that are identical in essentials and in viciousness, but totally fixated on the trivial differences of flags and emblems. Mimetic desire for sole possession of a territory that all could freely share is an exact description of the causes of this conflict, as it is of the Palestinian tragedy. Each extreme attempts to build a worldview, and a historiography, around the right to accuse, and then expel, the other. That they cannot recognise in this Cain against Cain is Ireland’s, and Christianity’s, (and, in the case of Palestine, Islam’s and Judaism’s) greatest tragedy.
Satan as orchestrator of the scapegoating process is first, seducer – the one who tempts all to the fulfilment of all desire. Then he is accuser, the one who points to a (usually lowly) scapegoat who must bear the blame for the social conflict that must follow blocked desire. The advantage of choosing a stranger, (or other marginalized person) is that the accusation can more easily become unanimous. Unanimity over the fallen victim equals a new social cohesiveness – and even eventually in some cases a cult of the victim, who has been paradoxically the restorer of unity and peace. This process, is, for Girard, the invariable origin of pagan cults and Gods. Pagan sacrifice, originally human sacrifice, was the ritualised remembrance of the founding murder, a gradually deteriorating means of maintaining unity.
That neo-paganism should scorn the existence of Satan (i.e. a principle of evil separate from ourselves) is thus a predictable recovery of the blindness that we need in order to resume the heedless fulfilment of desire (facilitated now to some degree by mass production) – and also to resume the hunt for scapegoats. If there is no Satan, then someone else must be to blame for everything. The remnants of the Marxist left will again find their scapegoat in capitalism and its devotees. The right will thus be provided with its scapegoat in the ideological left. The mimetic desire of both for power and control will be invisible to both – and we will soon, it seems, watch the next round of this irrational and bloody two-step in Colombia – (now with Irish participation of some kind!). Girard reminds us that ideologies too became the objects of cults in the aftermath of the enlightenment, and that both must also have their sacrificial victims (e.g. the Soviet show trials). We can easily add the McCarthyite witch hunts in the US, and the Cultural Revolution in China.
That Jesus never accused a human individual, and in the end forgave all, for all time, is in itself the means by which Satan is revealed. He offers us a global unanimity without another victim, and is thus the author of the only kind of globalisation that is tolerable. That he offers us also self-esteem without the amassing of possessions is also the best hope we have of avoiding environmental catastrophe.
This perception of redemption – as the means by which we as a species become aware of the origins of our own violence in mimetic desire, and can thus repent – supersedes the temporary expedients of the middle ages – which explained the crucifixion in terms of the appeasement of God’s anger, or the satisfaction of his honour or justice. These expedients were necessary because medieval order was also founded on scapegoating – of, for example, criminals, heretics, witches, Jews and Islam. Now that the state is revealed as the ultimate ‘legitimate’ user of violence (i.e. victimiser), church/state pacts must always be held at arms length by churchmen. That the Enlightenment itself, in the form of secularism, is forcing this conclusion willy nilly upon even the most reluctant ecclesiastics must be regarded as another proof of the divine constancy.
And the current rows over Catholic anti-semitism and Pius XII can also benefit from a reading of this book. It clearly shows that the reading of John’s Gospel as an accusation against Judaism per se is totally misconceived. The scapegoating mechanism revealed there is identical with processes which are the prevailing theme of the Old Testament also – so Judaism – the transcendant victim culture of the ancient, medieval and modern world – is in fact the cultural vehicle of all divine revelation, and must therefore be eternally revered. And our church’s complicity with anti-semitism is not a specifically Catholic or Christian sin – merely evidence of our own susceptibility to a general human catastrophe – the betrayal of our brothers out of fear. The recent Rwandan horror sucked in many Catholics also – all the more reason for becoming aware of the power of high-level scapegoating accusation to deceive us all – but not a reason for condemning Catholicism per se. Accusation itself is the problem. When we indulge in it – for example in pillorying Pius XII – we participate in the process that eternally seeks to destroy our peace.
There is not a single major problem or controversy of the present or foreseeable future that Girardian analysis does not illuminate, in theistic Christian terms, which makes this extraordinary and virtually unknown academic probably the greatest Catholic mind of our time. Faced now with horrors such as the actuality of racial and ethnic scapegoating in Ireland itself, we need this book on our shelves, and its fundamental insights rapidly incorporated into Catholic education. It is wise, erudite, optimistic and accessible, giving us the means of meeting neo-paganism and relativism head on, but without the awkward divisiveness and self-exaltation of Dominus Iesus. It meets secularism on its own ground, clear-eyed and compassionate – banishing forever the fear that Christianity is historically defunct, or that adherence to Christ is a threat to anyone. It threatens only evil itself, giving it a name we also need not now fear or deny. Girard’s meticulous account of how that evil operates, throughout history, and in the world’s literature, allows us too to see Satan fall like lightning from heaven.