I look at the inscription of this book and read, "To Louis with best wishes, Bob Hamerton-Kelly, COVR 1995 Loyola, Chicago." On July 7, 2013 he was gone. I wonder now why I hadn't read this book sooner, although I'd glanced through it. There are many reasons, no doubt, none of them related to how well written it is, nor to how tenaciously Hamerton-Kelly could pursue an argument. What gives him and other Girardians their credibility also invokes indifference when we are not up to thinking about violence.
These days, anyone with a cursory knowledge of the mimetic hypothesis would not need to read the book to anticipate the drift of the argument, that Jesus came to expose the violence that was veiled by the sacred in Jerusalem and Galilee, and, in exposing it, brought it hard upon himself. The role of the mob indicated just how moveable human desire can be, wanting one moment to displace Jesus and another to respect him. Few go unscathed in the analysis, including the disciples who exhibit the insider's knowledge that nevertheless fails to grasp the main point. Relying on the original ending of the gospel, Hamerton-Kelly gains reinforcements in his claim that what happened, not only in the crucifixion but in the resurrection, was so out of the ordinary, not in a spectacular sense but in an anthropological sense, that it could not be spoken of freely: "They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid" (Mark 16:8).
Many of the expositions of passages in Mark bear out the hermeneutic value of the theory, which was the goal of the book, "a pragmatic justification of the theory, to use it and see how it succeeds or fails in interpreting the text" (131). Some analyses struck me as ingenious, being more true to the thesis and less faithful to the text, but in the main, the role of what Hamerton-Kelly calls the generative mimetic scapegoating mechanism seems undeniable.
One of the most illuminating explications is of the Gadarene demoniac (Mark 5:1-20), who, until Jesus shows up, has been carrying the village's wrath: "He carries his persecutors inside himself in the classic mode of the victim who internalizes his tormentors. . . . The legion of demons is, therefore, the lynch mob" (93). There is a tacit agreement between the demoniac and the villagers; they do not kill him, he does not fail to carry their sins. Proof of this occurs when he is healed: "the populace comes out and begs Jesus to leave. The people do not want their scapegoats returned, and they do not want to see themselves as a swinish mob. They fear the revealer because he threatens the order of Gadarene complacency and deprives them of the comfort of the scapegoat. . . they recognize the threat Jesus poses to the Sacred they inhabit, and they send him away" (93). It is the crowd's vehement reaction to this man's deliverance that betrays his role of carrying their rejection, so that when the demons drive the swine into the sea, "the order of expectation is reversed and instead of the victim going over the cliff the mob goes over!" (93)
Focusing on spatial progressions throughout the book, Hamerton-Kelly develops in the penultimate chapter the hermeneutic theory he has applied to and derived from the gospel of Mark. The chapter, "Time and Space as Categories of Interpretation," is academic insofar as it pits two commentators against each other (Dan Via, with a temporal emphasis, and Elizabeth Malbon with a spatial emphasis). Hamerton-Kelly extracts from them a vertical axis (time) and a horizontal one (space), showing that neither needs to be sacrificed, but that where they meet is the place of the event. The temple is the privileged center, but Jesus, being eccentric, creates a different center, setting a child in the midst of the disciples, teaching that it is not expulsion but inclusion that marks the kingdom of heaven. There's a persistent structuralism in Hamerton-Kelly's analysis, juxtaposing inside with outside, before with later, the sacred with the gospel, the first reading with the sequential—all elements that expose the "poetics of violence" in this gospel.
All of this is of a piece in the book, leading to the final chapter, "The Gospel and the Sacred," where it is admitted:
Sacred violence provides the state with its legitimacy and fules the optimism and idolatry of the patriot. It sanctions the judiciary, justifies class distinctions, bestows prestige on the 'best people,' and dignifies the executioner. Through the instrumentalities of its high offices, it crucifies the Son of God and forces us who are privy to this secret to support his murderers with our taxes and pretend allegiance to their hypocrisies. (126)
And, yet, "The Gospel of Mark is not Marxist, and class is not one of its categories. The primary difference is not between the rich and poor but between the Sacred and the gospel, the circle of violence and the spiral of grace. . . . The proper response . . . is faith," which Hamerton-Kelly defines as pulling oneself away from the crowd, as the woman with the bleeding condition did (Mark 5:21). "It is remarkable that the emphasis is laid on her faith and not on Jesus' power. . . . Stepping out of the crowd is the act of faith; it means leaving the conspiracy of the Sacred, going from the executioners to the victim" (95)—Jesus being the victim toward whom the once-victimized woman moved.
 "The SMSM is generative because it produces the differences that delineate culture; it is mimetic because it is driven by desire, which functions mimetically; it is scapegoating because it prevents the runaway of mimetic rivalry by means of the surrogate victime; and it is a mechanism because it operates mechanically rather than deliberately" (130).
last updated: 2016/03/19
Reading this book reminded me of Neil Young's "Keep me searching for a heart of gold." I have always wanted a book that summarizes mimetic theory in a comprehensive yet uncomplicated way. Reading the Bible with René Girard comes close.
It provides some excellent summaries as well as the remarkable biographical route behind Girard's rise to international renown. Occasionally, the dialogue disheartens me, such as the distinctions made between Catholic and Protestant followers, which diverts attention from the unifying effort of Girard's theories. For my purposes (whatever they are worth), the book may have been better if slightly shorter. Some of my hesitation arises from the emphasis on apocalypse toward the end of the book, and for that I have no defense except to admit that the world seems bad enough sans apocalypse, howsoever logically Girard's thinking (as well as the gospels) leads to that end.
The book begins with a well-deserved and warm dedication to Martha Girard, who was widowed prior to the book's publication. This is particularly fitting since the story of Girard's development involved marrying Martha, one of his students when he came to Indiana to teach. In the editor's Introduction, he writes, "Martha Girard has stood with me all the way through this project, offering ideas and suggestions, always seeking to make sure René's message was truthfully expressed" (Editor's Introduction, Loc 297)
Those familiar with mimetic theory but not Girard's biography may find most extraordinary the twists and turns his life took—
—to name some of the highlights.
In retrospect it seems his variegated professional track mimicked his thinking, or the reverse. Unlike his contemporaries who focused on differences (between novels and religions alike), Girard looked for the similarities.
What he discovered is explained in his words in Chapters 2 ("Sacrifice, Myth and the Gospel") and 3 ("The Scapegoat and Christianity"). The human propensity for imitation, being greater than that of animals, is also what makes humans morally worse than animals. Whereas both types of creature will imitate violence, horn for horn or fist for fist, the animals will defer to the strongest fighter, whereas the human will seek vengeance even if it means his/her own destruction.
The story of how this violence has been channeled in human culture, first through spontaneous selection of a scapegoat and later through ritualized repetition of that event, consumes much of Girard's thinking. One concern is with how this process of catharsis and social differentiation has been obscured and disguised (an extreme example of history being written by the victors).
Only in what Girard calls the First Testament, the Jewish writings, do glimmers of demystification shine through the veneer of social order. Stories such as that of Joseph, a son of Jacob, clearly side with the victim, unlike mythology which both sides against and deifies the victim (Chapter 5). These progressive revelations lead to the foot of the Cross, where the most obviously innocent victim is brutally ganged up on collectively by both Jews and Romans (in other words by nearly everyone present).
The interviews upon which the book is based allow many asides that cut to the chase, so to speak. For example, here Girard reflects on the reception of his theories.
Of course the media always take people who debunk Christianity seriously. They will never take seriously any thesis that does the opposite, one that debunks modernity. They should. But they won't. (Chapter 3, Loc 1039)
Or here, for example, the non-violence of God is applied to various versions of Jesus:
SB: What about the Christians right now who look to Jesus as a wrathful avenger?
RG: Well, they are no better than the people who look to Jesus and say he is a rock-and-roll star. . . . We turn it either into some kind of pop story or into a vengeance story like the other side. (Chapter 3, Loc 1051)
In Chapter 4, the discussion dwells more directly on biblical texts. Having written a book with "Satan" in the title (I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, English translation 2001), Girard makes clear that Satan is a principle, a mechanism, as far as his beliefs go: "There is no article of the creed that says, 'I believe in Satan and so forth.' We say, 'I believe in God.' I do not believe in Satan. So the greatest ruse of Satan is to convince us that he doesn't exist. But the next best ruse is to convince us that he exists" (Loc 1205). The discussions frequently invoke paradoxes such as this: on one hand you cannot read naively, but on the other hand, you better not be too subtle, for either way you may miss the point. Pithily, Girard pits anthropologists against intellectually fearful Christians, concerning the allegation that the gospels are myths: "You have to understand what a scapegoat is to understand the difference. The Christians should have done that years ago, whereas they are scared of anthropologists who don't know what they are doing" (Chapter 4, Loc 1357).
Important to Girard's reading of the Bible is his view of inspiration. Not every word is equally inspired or accurate. Progressively, the Israelites are set free from their sacrificial thinking, one of the early events being the substitution (by God) of a ram for Abraham's son, Isaac. "No, it's not God who changed. It's humanity who has learned about the real God, but they can only learn about the real God if they have previously had sacrifices and false gods" (Chapter 5, Loc 1592). More than in earlier expressions, these interviews of Girard involve the admission that, awful as collective violence is, it was somehow necessary to bring humans to the point of recognizing the horror. It bought humanity time to learn that time should not be bought at the expense of the individual: "We owe our own existence today to the fact that our ancestors practiced sacrifice. Humanity would have destroyed itself without it" (Chapter 5, Loc 1599).
In Chapter 6, Girard admits that his earliest writings on Christianity (Things Hidden . . .) categorically interpreted the word "sacrifice" in the negative, judicial sense of the sacrificial victim. He brings this up in the context of the judgment of Solomon, where, Girard says, one prostitute wanted to sacrifice the baby by taking the sword to it (asking for a victim to resolve the tension) whereas the other prostitute exercised self-sacrifice and asked that the baby live, even if with the other woman. At this point the distinction seems clear: moral self-sacrifice versus immoral and ancient blood-sacrifice.
But then the paragraph takes an unexpected turn: "But we see the whole history of humanity as one where they must learn to repent of their sacrifices; yet at the same time, if they hadn't had these sacrifices, there would have been no humanity, no salvation, no Christ" (Loc 1803).
What troubles me—even on the fourth reading of this passage—is that that in this quotation, each instance of the word "sacrifice" belongs to the darker use of the word which involves the killing of an innocent victim. Instead of continuing the discussion as a linguistic distinction between a benign use of (self) "sacrifice” and the anthropological use of (blood) "sacrifice," the discussion appears to justify the blood sacrifice by arguing from necessity ("if they hadn't had these sacrifices . . . "). It's not that there isn't a kind of necessity at work, considering the mimetic condition of humans. It's that the discussion seemed to have slipped from the judgment of Solomon to a different line of thinking altogether, in the course of a paragraph.
Soon, happily, the discussion returns to the distinction drawn from the judgment of Solomon: "the opposition is between baby food as the world in which sacrifice in the destructive, violent sense is still allowed, and mature food in which you sacrifice yourself in order not to sacrifice your neighbor" (Loc 1809). The discussion, then, hangs together, but as an introduction to mimetic theory, such jogs in the road may be confusing.
Several chapters follow, often with beautiful insights, particularly ones that strike me as Girard at his best: shining the light on mimetic interactions, no matter where they lead. For a concluding example, when considering Peter's denial (of Christ), Girard states it is "absolutely amazing" (Chapter 7, Loc 2215), because it shows "we cannot resist the mimetic contagion" (Loc 2215). It's not out of psychological weakness but an inability to resist the mob that Peter distances himself from Christ (and thus from the center of the mob). This observation is then applied to historical changes in attitudes toward God:
Not so many centuries ago, everybody automatically believed in God. That didn't mean much. Today, when no one automatically believes in God, it's purely a mob phenomenon. It's not because there are powerful scientific arguments. It's Peter's denial, that's all it is. (Loc 2232).
The blade cuts both ways: mass belief and mass disbelief are equal. The true believers, those who are willing to stand alone by imitating Christ instead of the mob, are few and far apart. But the news is good, ultimately. For those who come to their senses, Jesus predicts that when they are truly converted, they will feed his sheep.
 Because the format of my copy is digital, I will cite by Chapter and Kindle "Loc" number.
 Chapter 7 is entitled "Raymund Schwager," who died the previous year (2004) and, early on, published Must There Be Scapegoats? (2000). Although the Chapter moves onto Peter's denial, Girard affirms Schwager for having concluded, apart from Girard's influence, the abilty of the scriptures to expose the scapegoat mechanism in culture. Additionally, Girard notes that there was never a hint of bad mimesis (i.e. rivalry) between himself and Schwager.
last updated: 2017/01/22
Created 2017/01/22, Last updated 2017/01/22©
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