The Problem of Violence

Mimetic Theory:
An interview with René Girard (1923-2015)

1. The History of Imitation
2. Mimetic Desire In Literature
3. Mimetic Violence
4. The Scapegoat Mechanism
5. Rituals and Prohibitions
6. Myth
7. The Judeo-Christian Tradition


1. The History of Imitation

Scott Garrels: I want to begin by discussing your Mimetic Theory as a whole before asking you some questions about the recent empirical research. This volume is an attempt to build a bridge between the new sciences of imitation and your work on mimesis and violence, which is more relevant now than ever.

René Girard: If my theory has convinced you of that, then I'll take it as a sign of success, since many people have dismissed the notion of imitation from the very beginning. I remember the reaction to my first book, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel. I was told that I had written a very creative book, but that my use of imitation was like the proverbial hair in the bowl of soup. People asked: "What does it have to do with anything? Imitation is not interesting." I always answered, "I'm sorry, but it's absolutely fundamental to what I am saying."

S.G.: In the 1950s and '60s imitation was not a very popular topic.

R.G.: That's true. Even so, I was surprised that my ideas did not catch on sooner. Perhaps researchers were prevented from going to them because they were too commonsensical. It is clear that all human relations are based on imitation. The worst, like the best of them. If someone does something kind to you, you do the same; you are compelled to do the same. If you don't, something is wrong. Therefore, you imitate them. And if they start being mean to you or turning their back on you, you turn your back too. You manage to make it known to them that you understand how they feel about you and that you feel the same. This often means that you add a tiny bit of disagreeableness to the existing disagreeableness as you see it. However, this little something added is going to look to the other like an enormous provocation, like a declaration of war. From there, your relations are going to go from bad to worse. But whether you exchange compliments, greetings, insinuations, signs of indifference, meanness, bullets, atom bombs . . . it's always imitation.

Imitation is everywhere. It was addressed by the greatest of all philosophers, Plato. Aristotle, too, defined man as the most mimetic of all animals, which is a very profound definition and still of value today. And by the end of the nineteenth century, there was a period where imitation was supposed to explain everything. The nineteenth-century sociologist Gabriel Tarde wrote a book called The Laws of Imitation, which is still revived from time to time. So before our period, imitation was extremely fashionable. At the same time, the theoreticians took all the drama out of imitation. Tarde, for example, didn't see the negative aspects of imitation. He didn't see the rivalry. He didn't see that imitation is the main source of violence in humans.

By the twentieth century, imitation was rejected precisely because it did not incorporate these other aspects. It seemed too facile and could not account for the wide range of phenomena that many were attempting to explain. When you say "imitation," everybody thinks of being sheep-like, gregarious, following people, and so forth. This is true in many instances, but what is also true is that imitation not only affects your gestures, your words, or your ideas; you also imitate desires.

It's surprising in a way that the observation is not more common. We desire something because others find it desirable. So things like friendship or discipleship are highly susceptible to conflict because they are based on openness to the other, to their desires in particular, which then bring people into conflict over something that cannot be shared; this in turn can create competition and all sorts of drama. Usually students are well aware of this. I would say to my students at Stanford: The fact that you are friends gives you plenty of opportunities to be enemies; you are friends because you follow the same path in life, but this means that sooner or later you may compete for the same fellowship or the same job or the same boyfriend or girlfriend. Is your friendship going to hold up? You should be ready for that test. This rivalry is obviously the greatest source of conflict between nations. They are rivals for the land that apparently belongs to them both. Nationalism is about claiming territory that the neighboring country desires. And you will invent that territory, that object of conflict if it doesn't exist already. Just look at France and Germany fighting over Alsace in the nineteenth century. And of course there are many such examples today.

2. Mimetic Desire In Literature

S.G.: You began exploring imitation while teaching and studying literature, where you found its relationship to human conflict represented in works by such authors as Cervantes, Dostoevsky, Proust, and Shakespeare.

R.G.: Yes, the first thing I discovered is that human conflict is complicated because it is linked to imitation, and the only people who really know that are the great writers. Shakespeare talks about nothing else.

Most of the comedies of Shakespeare begin with two young friends, sometimes four, as in A Midsummer Night's Dream. They have been friends since early childhood. They are friends (they say so themselves) because they do and like all the same things. They like the same books, the same wine, and so forth, and then suddenly they fall in love with the same girl. And then all hell breaks loose.

Shakespeare comes back to this theme at the end of his life in the greatest of his plays, The Winter's Tale, which like Othello is a play about jealousy—in this case, the insane jealousy of a man for his best friend. If you love the same thing as your best friend, he becomes your best enemy. The negative and the positive are in strong conjunction. In Shakespeare there are many, many lines which express the mystery of conflation of the greatest affection for your friend and the greatest jealousy for the man who is in love with the same thing. The human sciences should assimilate this insight. They have not.

S.G.: What books initially led you to these discoveries about mimetic desire and conflict?

R.G.: Two books from my childhood, first of all. I talked about one of them, Don Quixote, quite a bit in my first book. The other one is The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. I've never talked about the influence of The Jungle Book until recently. It is an incredible book of animal stories, which are also excellent mimetic stories. My main insight came when I encountered The Jungle Book and Don Quixote along with the writings of Proust.

Proust's Remembrance of Things Past is more revealing of mimetic desire than any other modern book. I'll take just one example. As a child, the main character is very precocious in his love of art, and in particular of theater. At some point, his parents decide to send him to the theater because he wants to see a famous actress, La Berma (who is based on Sarah Bernhardt), playing the lead role in Racine's Phèdre. He fell in love with La Berma mostly through what one could call the mimesis of writing; he saw the advertisements for the theater in the streets of Paris. Reading about La Berma every day when he was going to the Champs-Elysees on his walks awoke in him a passion for La Berma, although he had never seen her. But he had heard people celebrate her. So he goes to the theater and watches La Berma. He's terribly disappointed. It's reality after the dream. He doesn't find anything interesting about her or her performance, and he leaves completely disenchanted.

But the following day, an old diplomat, who is a friend of his father, comes to the house. Norpois is an old fool and a complete nonentity. The young boy is 50 times more intelligent and sensitive about art than he is. The father says, indicating his son: "Yesterday, he went to see La Berma." Norpois speaks a few words of praise for La Berma. It's pure politeness and courtesy and means absolutely nothing. But it is enough. The voice of the old diplomat has so much unspoken authority that it restores the child's belief in La Berma. Retrospectively he starts to enjoy the performance, even though in reality it bored him to death. His faith is restored through purely mimetic means.

The amazing thing is that Proust's writing gives the impression of personal intimacy, of absolute faithfulness to the reality of desire, which the critics describe as such. But they never tell you that the source of it is Norpois, who has nothing to do with the child but is nevertheless impressive to him because he's a famous man. In other words, what is most exterior becomes inner experience. If you read Proust naively, you will talk about inner experience without seeing the imitation at all. Imitation makes no sense in normal psychological terms. But normal psychology is the one Proust describes, not the one we imagine. Imitation is what children do. The spontaneity of imitation is their virtue, and this scene is one of the most exemplary in all of Proust's works.

In order to understand the power of the scene, you must compare it with Proust's first novel. The first volume of Remembrance of Things Past was published just before World War I. But years earlier, Proust had written a book which instead of being in the first person, is in the third person. The hero is Jean Santeuil. He is a pefect young man who believes in all the right things. He's very happy with his friends. He never has the slightest trouble with anything. There is a theater scene in this novel too. The beautiful people are there in the boxes, and the hero is with them. A former king of Portugal even helps to arrange his necktie. The young man has all the success in the world. He never fails. And this first book is no good at all. It's incredibly boring, uninteresting, and insignificant.

In the second book of Remembrance of Things Past, the same scene is reinterpreted. This time the hero is sitting down below in the orchestra seats. And up there in the loge is the Duchesse de Guermantes, this noble lady with whom he's in love from a social viewpoint. What he wants, really, is to be recognized by her. And he's looking at her from down below, in the orchestra seats, and seing her in that loge, which is like some kind of paradise compared to the hell of the pit he's in. The Guermantes pay no attention to him. They don't even see him. The difference is that in this second book he can put himself in a bad position. We are normally so egotistical that we cannot place ourselves in the unenviable position. We have to brag even when we invent fiction. The great novelist is someone who stops doing that. And this fall from grace is usually situated at the end of the book. In Proust, the book is divided into two parts; first, the illusions of the narrator, and then reality. The two are separated by disillusionment. The Spaniards say desengaño.

In Proust, the fall of the narrator is in the last volume of Remembrance of Things Past: Time Recaptured. The last volume is the origin of the novel. It describes the realization that one has forever surrendered to mimetic incitement in one's own life. And the result is the writer's ability to represent that mimetic incitement, to which he always surrenderedto represent it truthfully, something he couldn't do in his first book, which was pure bragging, denial of reality. If you look at Time Recaptured, which is in my view the place where the narrator talks about the genesis of the final novel, he doesn't talk about the first book. Or if he does, it's only to mention that he tried to write and it didn't work. But the final volume is the begnning of the real novel. There's a distinction between Time Lost in Proust, the time re-created in the novel, and Time Recaptured, which enables him to write about it. The experience is present in the novel.

Proust was a very successful snob. He frequented the best circles of Faubourg St.-Germain, the old aristocratic part of Paris. But eventually he became aware that his social climbing was a totally metaphysical thing, because these people had no power. They had a little money left perhaps, but not as much as the industrialists in the early 1900s. Their time was past. By comparison, the snobbery described in the French novel of the nineteenth century is more concrete. In the middle of the century, when the earlier French novelist Balzac was writing, the aristocracy was still rich and powerful enough for social climbing to make sense in a concrete sociological way. When Proust is writing, it doesn't make sense any more. And the genius of Proust is to understand that. The people who reproach Proust for writing about this aristocracy don't understand that thanks to historical circumstances, he wrote a work about the quintessence of snobbery, which has nothing to do with reality and is purely metaphysical, "religious." The nonsense that is the object of desire should not be grounds for accusation. Proust is the one who created that nonsense in order to show it to us. Mediocre writers of the same period talk about snobs as if they still amounted to something. The people who condemn Proust for writing about snobs don't understand his genius. He shows their nonentity in the most concrete fashion. His entire book is devoted to doing that. This is the first book I understood from the mimetic perspective. Comparing it with Don Quixote, I realized Cervantes talks about the old chivalry just as Proust talked about the snobs of the Faubourg St.-Germain in the early twentieth century. When I realized that, I had my first book. It was just a question of showing that there were differences in the centuries, in line with the historical and sociological changes that were happening.

In a way, all novels are about "snobbery," which is just religiousness displaced onto a social object of little significance. But precisely because many readers attach much more significance to this nonsensical object than do the writers, their genius goes unrecognized. It is misunderstood by people who think they are better than the writer because they condemn something that is too insignificant to be worth condemning. To treat this insignificance in atruthful way is an enormous achievement. After all, every one of us has some insignificance with which he is tremendously in love. In the right circumstances, if you can conquer one, you can conquer all other such obsessions.

S.G.: In Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, you speak of the novelist undergoing a "conversion" from blindness to his or her own mimetic snobbery or hypocrisy, to an understanding of the role that imitation plays in his or her life. This conversion is the Proustian experience you have just explained, the one that makes the writer aware enough to be able to write a masterpiece.

R.G.: Yes, in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel I used the word "conversion" as a technical word. It denotes a change of attitude, one that normally doesn't take place because your mind is used to reacting in a certain way. But some experiences may trigger real change. To convert means to turn around and do something differently. No more than that. Something is triggered because a certain change has taken place or was ready to take place in you. Novelists arereally aware of this. They say that the novel is the product of such a change. Proust quotes the conclusion of novels that imply the thing that he states explicitly. For instance he talks about the conclusion of The Red and the Black by Stendahl, in which this change happens in the hero, Julien Sorel. Proust says it's really the novelist who undergoes that change. Proust makes it possible to see the connection between all novelistic conclusions, in which the drama becomes a symbol of the writer's internal change. So I didn't make it up. The idea came from reading these conclusions.

3. Mimetic Violence

S.G.: In the 1960s, after completing your first book on mimetic desire, which also included important elements of mimetic rivalry and conflict, you became interested in questions that took you well beyond literature, into the realm of anthropology and ethology.

R.G.: Yes, I began to wonder what differentiates humans in the animal kingdom. I asked: when does humanity begin? We know that animals already engage in mimetic rivalry. And that mimetic rivalry in animals is the source of what biologists today call their culture. When two animals desire the same female or the same territory, they fight over thembut they do not fight to the finish. They fight moderately, and the weaker animal acknowledges his weakness and the stronger animal spares his life. The stronger becomes the dominant animal and the other one the dominated animal. It ends without death—at least that was the consensus when I was doing my research for Violence and the Sacred. The compromise in animal society was called dominance patterns. Animal culture was based on hierarchies of dominance. There was absolutely no possibility of death, it was thought. There were moments when chimpanzees would have complete chaos in their community, but, according to the research at the time, they didn't kill each other. It was known that chimpanzees killed other monkeys, but not that they also killed their own kind.

S.G.: You are referring to more recent field observations of male chimpanzees forming a pack and going out and killing other isolated chimpanzees.

R.G.: Yes, so perhaps it is now known that chimpanzees do kill each other. But regardless, we know that a human being will fight to the finish, will kill his opponent, his rival. Not only that, human beings will fight beyond the finish. If you fight to the death with someone in an archaic culture, that's not the end of it. The victim's brother will pick up the fight and so forth. But if this happens, of course, there cannot be any dominance factor; there can only be continuous fighting, people being killed. So human beings have vengeance, which is worse than killing.

S.G.: Vengeance is a form of mimetic violence?

R.G.: Vengeance is absolutely mimetic violence. It's doing exactly the same thing to the other that he's done, not to me, but to another person, maybe a family member. Revenge is not a cultural institution. If you start looking at archaic culture you will see that revenge is pretty much universal. It's what we call the "blood fued." And the blood fued is already a religion of violence; it transcends individuals, it transcends time, it may transcend space. If your relatives go on endlessly taking up the fight with the last murderer, society is sure to end right there. The whole community becomes involved, and then it's complete chaos. Everybody is fighting everybody else. So the question I asked is: how can humans form societies, long-term associations, given the existence of that form of rivalry, which is endless and goes on forever?

4. The Scapegoat Mechanism

S.G.: Your answer to that question was the discovery that collective violence deflected against a common victim puts an end to the back and forth of violent reprisals. What is the tipping point in the evolutionary process from nonhuman primates to humans that brings about that transition from vengeance to the scapegoat mechanism your theory describes?

R.G.: The key is that mimesis increased over time in proto-humans. In the course of fighting, what must have happened at the time of hominization, over hundreds of thousands of years maybe, is that mimetic rivalry became so intense that the dominance patterns somehow disappeared. When dominance patterns no longer take hold and you are fighting mimetically for the same object of desire, you cannot be reconciled. Sooner or later the object will be destroyed or forgotten or become less significant in the course of fighting, and only antagonists will be left. At that point, you have a community which is in a very serious crisis and which is mimetically mad. Each member is imitating each other's violence. But the strange thing is, when you only have antagonists left, you can share an antagonist. You can become aligned with another person against a third party. Mimesis, which opposes people when they desire the same object, suddenly joins them together. two antagonists against one will have more mimetic power, and their side is going to attract more and more people. Ultimately there will be a total imbalance. All antagonists will be on one side against a single person. When this happens, if this happens, and even if others are killed in the process, something different emerges in humans when all join collectively against the same antagonist. This antagonist becomes the original scapegoat, the single victim. When that single victim is killed, all the antagonists find themselves without any antagonists; therefore, they are de facto reconciled.

S.G.: Would you say this is a random event?

R.G.: You can never say it is going to happen for sure. It may happen once in every ten times, and nine communities may be destroyed. But the shift from the mimesis of fighting over objects to the mimesis of fighting against someone always becomes cumulative in the same way. The key to the scapegoat is very simple. How could the crisis be reduced to a single victim? Ultimately, with that kind of imitation, the contagion of antagonism, there will be only a few victims left, and then finally one. When that one enemy is killed, there are no enemies left in the community, and peace returns. That is why the victim becomes the god. The victim is regarded not only as very bad, very dangerous, because it made us fight, but also as very good, because it reconciled us. That single victim is the origin of the archaic gods, who are very violent but also very peaceful when they want to be. They are both at the same time.

S.G.: Your theory emphasizes that religion was there at the beginning of humanity. That it was not something that was made up after human culture got off the ground. Religion emerged as an adaptive solution to the very real and unprecedented social problems that were a result of the natural course of evolution in the earliest stages of hominization.

R.G.: When people talk about religion today, or against religion, they tell you that religion is a view of the world. In fact, most scientists are stuck on the idea that religion is an outdated view of the world, a fanciful view of the world that arises because archaic people didn't know how to explain the mysteries of the universe. But archaic societies couldn't care less about the mysteries of the universe. They never talk about them. They don't even suspect there are mysteries of the universe. You have to be incredibly sophisticated to look at the starry night and invent stories. That's the way the nineteenth century saw the beginning of religion: people look at the stars and they invent the gods. Not true at all. They have more serious problems to contend with, which are not only problems with the outside world, the forces of nature, disease and so forth, but violence inside the community. The imitation of violence gets worse and worse as we get closer and closer to humanity. Therefore at the very moment when humanity needs the most protection against its own violence, suddenly there are no dominance patterns to do the job. So what protects us instead? A lynching.

In my view, this is the origin of archaic religion. The scapegoat reconciles the whole community. It's a Darwinian genesis of humanity. The shift from animal to human cannot be explained simply by organic changes. The invention of humanity is the invention of culture, and the invention of culture is also the invention of religion. There is no archaic culture that is not religious. There is no archaic religion that is not the invention of culture. You fnd that sacrifice is at the heart of all archaic communities. It's very weird, I admit, but read the archeological literature. Around 1860 or before, we have anthropologists, most of them English, who recorded religious institutions of archaic religions in a manner that is incomparable. And my theory is a result of the reading of these English anthropologists. I think you can unify the whole thing and find behind it the same phenomenon, which is always interpreted a little bit differently by each community. But it always turns into a religion. The early anthropologists were very close to discovering that. I think they just didn't dare say that violence, conquered by sacrifice, might be the origin of religion and of culture as a whole.

S.G.: What then is sacrifice, ritual sacrifice?

R.G.: If human communities have an experience like the one I just described, at first they are very happy about how they are all reconciled. They all kiss each other, they love each other again and are very grateful, but they are still human, and they will inevitably become rivals again. And when this happens, what will they do? They will remember that in the past there was a single victim that reconciled them. And they will mimetically recreate the resolution with substitute victims, and ritual sacrifice in my view is nothing else.

When the anthropologists of the late nineteenth century would talk to primitive tribes, they all talked about their sacrifices in the same way—a god gave them to us, and this god gave them in order to keep peace among us. Peace and the gods are always mentioned, and I believe it's true. This victim's not really dead, since he saved us. After destroying us halfway, he saved us. He brought us peace. And peace becomes so important in that crisis that you worship whoever brings it to you. The supposedly most violent creature, as it turns out. The proof that they want to repeat this collective lynching, which is really a grand and unprecedented phenomenon, is that they sacrifice someone, and they do so in a way that resembles a sort of mock crisis at the beginning of the ritual

5. Rituals and Prohibitions

S.G.: How do you account for the complexity and diversity of culture and religion as emanating from this same phenomenon, a collective murder?

R.G.: You can see that archaic religions are divided into three parts, which seem contradictory but are nonetheless related to the same phenomenon. The first part is prohibitions: what you shouldn't do, in order to prevent mimetic rivalry and violence. The second part is sacrifice, which is very strange because in some ways sacrifice is the opposite of prohibitions. Prohibitions forbid violence, whereas sacrifice requires of you one violent action, which is the killing of a victim. But you discover that this peace does not last very long, and as a result, sacrifice must be repeated more frequently and predictably. This is ritual, which brings you back to the situation that you had with the initial de facto reconciliation. Prohibition is first: let's not do it. If the prohibition doesn't work, ritual comes into play: let's do it again, but let's decide ahead of time who the victim will be so that we do not fight about it. That's what sacrifice is—to be sure that we all decide on the same victim ahead of time. So you have that mystery of religious sacrifice and prohibitions, which are at the same time against violence.

S.G.: Prohibitions get a bad rap in the contemporary world, particularly in popular culture, and especially when it comes to religion. We view prohibitions as essentially an obstacle to fulfilling our desires, or an abuse of power for social control. But you're saying that religious prohibitions, especially those in archaic cultures that to us might appear rather absurd, had an essentially life-saving function.

R.G.: Prohibition has only one object: the prevention of violence inside the community. Today it's very fashionable to denigrate prohibitions, which are seen as completely irrational. But archaic prohibitions are completely rational. Sometimes, however, archaic people have a conception of violence that is just empirically flawed. They are aware that the more people are alike, the more they fight—and this is why so many archaic cultures are against twins. There are many archaic cultures that understand that twins have nothing to do with violence, and they pay no more attention to twins than we do. But there are others that will not tolerate twins. They feel that if they allow twins to exist, violence will spread like wildfire and destroy the whole community. They don't kill twins out of meanness of spirit. They simply think that the birth of twins has something to do with violence. They often think that the mother has been misbehaving or transgressing prohibitions against violence, and that if you transgress prohibitions against violence you'll have twins. In other words, that you'll produce mimetic rivalry, "monstrous doubles." Many mythical heroes are twins. Why? Because twins fight all the time. Or are supposed to. And they kill each other. Romulus and Remus are twin brothers. Cain and Abel are not far from that. Many communities, I repeat, understand it's not true in the case of biological twins, but many don't. And as a result, sometimes they will get rid of only one twin, which shows that it's the similarity of twins that bothers them.

S.G.: What is the origin of the particular rituals and their diversity that are widespread in all human cultures and apparently even among Neanderthals, like the ritual of burying the dead?

R.G.: In my view, rituals stem from the original scapegoat, which founds the community. There can be countless variations. Sacrifice intervenes on occasions where there is often the possibility of trouble being stirred among members of the community: birth, the death of a relative, and so forth. The rituals exist because the culture tries to purge itself ahead of time of any tension or rivalry. The more sacrificial victims we kill ahead of time, the more we create a bond between us, and the less chance there is that we're going to fight each other.

Another example would be rites of passage for male youth. Rites of passage are virtual sacrifices. They involve an ordeal that reproduces the crisis we have been talking about. Sacrificial rituals are nothing but the most accurate repitition possible of the spontaneous scapegoat phenomenon. They are a precaution against possible trouble, in anticipation of it. The tendency is to multiply rituals ad infinitum in order to make peace, but at some point the more you perform them, the less efficient rituals are.

S.G.: Can you say something about the cathartic aspect of these rituals?

R.G.: Rituals are supposed to repeat the effect of the first murder. We have one description of that effect and it comes from Aristotle in the Poetics. He calls it "catharsis," which means purificationpurification of violence. There are many archaic myths in which two groups are fighting together until they discover that there is a malevolent individual who pretended to belong to one group or who was casting stones at the other group. When they can agree on that one individual, they are saved. And that's what catharsis fundamentally is—purification of human relations.

S.G.: How do you explain the convenience that a guilty victim is always on hand when the community is most in need of one?

R.G.: When we use the word "scapegoat," we think about an entire group united against an innocent victim. But archaic people actually believe that the victim is guilty. They persuade each other of that fact. And there would be no scapegoat phenomenon if there were no conviction of a guilty victim. They will invent that person if he does not exist already. Take the patricide and incest of Oedipus. The most essential thing about the myth is that Oedipus is supposed to be guilty. He himself doesn't know about it, but he's guilty. Freud believed that parricide and incest were unique to the Oedipus myth. He didn't know mythology well enough. He has incredible insights at times, but in this case, he was totally wrong. Parricide and incest are everywhere in mythology. When a crowd gets in seriuos trouble, it always manages to find patricide and incest, or some other taboo that has been broken, and they kill in the name of that taboo. But it's obvious that it's a false reason. It's the type of reason you get when everyone agrees mimetically. Everyone points the finger and shouts, "He did it!" But what did he do that was so wrong? Someone will say parricide, someone else will say incest, and everybody will pick it up and believe it for no reason at all. That's the absolutely random part of the myth that Freud incorrectly saw as absolutely determined by the nature of humanity.

S.G.: We know today that minorities are often most susceptible to scapegoating.

R.G.: This is true, although there were probably no ethnic minorities in most archaic communities, which in the beginning must have been fairly isolated communities—but there may have been in larger societies as a rule. But you find something in myth which is a proof of scapegoating and of what we would consider the minority staus of an individual. We know that mythical heroes, or witches in the Middle Ages, very often have physical defects. And if you look at Greek myth, Oedipus limps. Hephaestus limps too. But some are hunchbacked; some are one-eyed like Odin, the great Germanic god. The number of gods who have physical defects is enormous.

Why is this? Because a crowd will tend to move against victims that are easy to spot, which have some physical defect or something else that makes them noticeable. And probably in terms of evolutionary theory, it links with privation. You end up picking the animal who doesn't run as well as the other, not necessarily because it's slower, but because it stands out. There is often a visible defect: it's smaller than the others, or it limps. And therefore in a mass of zebras you cannot isolate anything, but if someone is different, one zebra, the lion will rush to this one. And nine times out of ten it will be a good choice because there is a physical defect.

And if you look not only at Greek heroes, but also primitive heroes all over the place, the thing that is amazing about myth is that they have features that are universal worldwide. You see the hero that limps all over the world. So we cannot say that it's something ethnic, something cultural and so forth; it's everywhere. And it makes me feel that it's an objective phenomenon. I'm a realist, you know. I think that texts talk about reality, about real events, and if the texts tell you that so many people limped, there must be a reason.

6. Myth

S.G.: You've mentioned mythology several times now, which I understand to be the third part of archaic religion, along with ritual and prohibitions. According to your theory, mythology is a later development than ritual. Ritual is purely mimetic, whereas myth involves a greater level of representational development and ability.

R.G.: At some point in the evolution of cognition and culture, the community needs, and comes up with, an intellectual explanation of what's going on.  Of course they do not perceive their own irrationality any more than they can comprehend the real source of their own collective violence. Myths are such intellectual operations. They can be reemployed when conflicts arise.

The people who say that myth has something to do with mysteries of the universe are thinking of Greek myths, which often come to us through the philosophers and are contaminated with philosophical thinking. Philosophy is fine and very interesting, but in this case it has little to do with archaic religion. Archaic myth does only one thing: it tells you how a religion was born—the whole community goes haywire, people get into a circle of violence, and then suddenly they are reconciled. The sacrificial covenant and prohibitions are born from this crisis and its resolution.

Myths try to disguise communal violence behind natural disasters. One very common theme at the beginning of myth is the plague. Archaic societies don't distinguish the plague as a disease. This distinction happened only in the sixteenth century. The plague is primarily violence—an epidemic of people killing each other. The plague or the flood is sacrifice that has gone wild. There's a monster loose in the community and it wants more and more victims. As it gets more and more victims, sacrifice disappears as a source of peace. It becomes violence itself. It joins up with the violence of the community that it normally counteracts. The result is a crisis that seems impossible to cure. The more you try, the more violence you create. In myth, after this crisis is described, the focus shifts from the community to a single character. This single character is ultimately accused of being responsible for the whole crisis.

The description in Oedipus the King says it all. I always mention Oedipus because it's a great play and therefore the foundational myth people know best. Oedipus was looking for a solution to the plague. The people decide he is the problem and not the solution because he's the king. Today that's why there are so many interpretations of the Oedipus tragedy in political terms. No doubt the people are tired of their king, just as the people in Job's village are tired of Job. But Oedipus rules over an archaic community, and this community finds a reason for its discontent. The mob he rules over is mad at him and has decidedhe is responsible for the plague epidemic: he has brought the violence to the community and must be killed or cast out. Oedipus obligingly blinds himself by gouging out his own eyes and is then expelled from the community. In the Oedipus myth there is a kind of trial. This is highly civilized by comparison to archaic myth, in which the crisis at the beginning ends up with an actual lynching.

In Australian myth, for instance, it's a whole community that rushes against the culprit and kills him. There are references to animals capable of charging collectively. The Blackfoot Indians have a lynching myth in which buffalos lynch either a man or another buffalo. But in Australia, which couldn't be influenced by the Blackfoot Indians, it's the kangaroo that kills another kangaroo, which becomes the kangaroo god. And all over Africa, too, you have lynching myths.

But scholars don't want to talk about these lynching myths or to wonder why there are so many. We even find lynching myths in ancient Greece. The most famous mythological cycle, Dionysus, recounts many episodes, and they all end with a lynching. The word "mania" comes from the Greeks and the Dionysus cult—it means homicidal mania. It refers to the climactic moment in the myth, the moment of sacrifice. A small animal is chosen so that the faithful will be able to tear it apart and eat it alive. Have you seen a classical scholar wonder why it's always a lynching? That would be a decent question, but one is not supposed to ask questions about violence. It is pushed under the rug.

S.G.: And yet we don't have myths exactly like these anymore.

R.G.: Today, we would still have myth if we were not the society we are. The Middle Ages still had half-formed myths surrounding what we call the "witch hunt." What is a witch hunt? The community is in crisis, or anticipates one, and begins to look for a culprit. And you usually find a lonely widow, or an isolated person, and you accuse them of all sorts of crimes. It's a scapegoat phenomenon. The Oedipus myth is nothing else. if we started to compare witch hunts in countries where they remain common with mythology, we would see that it's exactly the same thing, except that in mythology the event crystallizes into a coherent sacrificial cult.

S.G.: Why has the witch hunt as such disappeared in the West?

R.G.: The amazing thing about the witch-hunt epidemics of the Middle Ages is not that they happened, but that they were the last ones. We are the only society in the world that has done away completely with that sort of thing. That's why it has become unthinkable to us. But the Middle Ages are very important for this, not because they are bad, not because Christianity is bad, but because it was a period where the influence of the Bible was becoming so important that this sort of thing was becoming more and more impossible. You're going to tell me that it still happens. It's true. But we understand it. We say that it's scapegoating. We never believe it's the epiphany of a god.

7. The Judeo-Christian Tradition

S.G.: The last major development of your Mimetic Theory is your discovery that the Bible treats these phenomenon differently than myth, and that the influence of the Bible, in fact, is the primary source of our modern awareness of scapegoating.

R.G.: Yes. In the Gospels and in the Bible you have the same events as in mythology, but they are seen from the point of view of the victim, or the people who join with the victim. I will give you a few examples. Joseph is not a king like Oedipus, he's a brother. But unfortunately for him he has eleven brothers. And they are all jealous of him. At first they wanted to kill him. They didn't. Instead they dip his coat into blood to show the father a wild animal has devoured him and then they sell him into slavery. They scapegoat poor Joseph. And this is so true that Joseph comes close to enacting revenge, and he ultimately puts them through a scapegoat trial before finally forgiving them all.

Now look at the Psalms. Some people tell you the Psalms are vile and you have a victim that curses his fellow citizens. But what is the situation? In probably half of the Psalms the narrator is surrounded by a crowd. The crowd is moving in to close the circle, becoming more and more a threat to him. The crowd is compared to bulls, to dogs, or to other lynching animals. The narrator is the mythical hero on the point of being lynched, complaining about the lynching which is going to take place, and calling on God to stop it.

Or take Job. Job presents himself in the dialogues as the darling of his community. He was in charge, completely. He was a kind of dictator. And suddenly the entire community turned against him. Now they hate him and find him guilty of all sorts of things. And they delegate the three friends, who are not friends at all, in order to force him to confess as if he were a Soviet leader in the 1930s. That's the difference between Job and Oedipus: Job protests until the end.

The prophets are another example. They tell the people that if they continue in their ways, they're going to disappear. They are very unpopular, and they are terribly mistreated. The most autobiographical of the prophets is Jeremiah, who shows himself as a "scapegoat" for his community. Finally, there are the two incredible chapters of Second Isaiah (52, 53), which describe the lynching of the suffering servant. The texts tell us that the suffering servant is the sort of man that the people don't like, that crowds don't like, that people want to destroy.

The Gospels are also centered on this type of phenomenon. The Lamb of God is a much nicer expression for the scapegoat. The Lamb is a sacrificial victim. Jesus is killed for reasons that have nothing to do with him. He says, "They hated me without a cause," meaning he was an innocent victim, a kind of scapegoat.

The anthropologists at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century saw this similarity between the Bible and myth to some extent. They felt that Darwin was marvelous and that his theory dealt a great blow against religion. So they set out to explain the origin of religion by showing that it was only a bunch of myths, that the Bible was only a bunch of myths. They were all racing to write the final theory of religion, to give religion the final blow after Darwin. I think they came very close to the truth. They were right in the sense that they saw the structural similarity between the Bible and myth, the presence of a big crisis moving towards a single victim, who is seen as responsible for the whole thing, and who becomes the savior of the community. But the difference is so plain, so evident, that they looked right past it. Religious people are as guilty as the scientists in this respect. The scientists are naive in thinking they are going to reduce the Bible to a bunch of myths, and the Christians are foolish not to trust the Bible enough, not to be scientific themselves, and say: Let's push the comparison as far as we can and see what there is behind it. If you do that, you discover the truth that all mythical heroes are believed to be guilty from the point of view of the event, as described by the mob—that is to say, from the point of view of the resolution, the return to peace.

But the Bible tells us that these same victims are innocent, beginning with the first murder. Cain and Abel are not the same as Romulus and Remus. The Bible is for the victim right away and tells you the murder is wrong. "What did you do with your brother?" No myth will ever tell you that. It's absoultely essential. It makes all the difference in the world. All our civil rights come from this.

Joseph is shown to be innocent. The Bible tells you that his brothers are jealous. Job was innocent. The suffering servant in Isaiah is innocent. Jesus is innocent. In fact, the Gospels themselves show you how scapegoating works more completely than any other text. The marvelous thing about them is that they show you the creation of mythology, and the fact that the death of Jesus is a crowd phenomenon.

S.G.: Can you give an example of this?

R.G.: The most important theoretical text in my view is Peter's denial. The psychological interpretation of Peter is unfortunate: they say Peter is a weak individual. No. He's the most typical man there. When you get into a crowd that is entirely mobilized against an individual, you join that crowd. Very few people can withstand it. Peter's denial shows you that this is the principal of unity against Jesus. It means nothing individually about Peter. It's foolish to say: If I had been in Peter's place, I would have resisted better. No. Peter was the best of the disciples, and as soon as he gets into a crowd that believes Jesus is guilty, for a few seconds, he joins the crowd. We are crowd joiners because we are terribly mimetic. It is much easier to join the crowd than risk being killed ourselves. That's why human culture begins in scapegoating, and why we had sacrificial religions. But the Gospels show you Peter in order to teach you differently. The error of the Christian Church is to worship the cross, which is, in a way, idolatry. What must be worshipped is the awareness of what Jesus is doing.

So the Gospels are built exactly like a myth, with one exception. There are a few people who eventually secede from the crowd to say, "It's not true. Stop everything. The victim is innocent." This never happens in a myth. There are a few sentences in Oedipus the King that show you that Sophocles had doubts about his own myth; but if he had changed the myth, the crowd would have lynched him right there at the theater in front of the whole population. The theater fulfilled a religious function, and so Oedipus remains guilty for the crimes attributed to him by his community. Not so for Jesus. The Gospels in the Bible are totally different.

The Christian religion is a constant struggle against scapegoating, but Christians never talk about the incredible structural closeness between myth and the Christian story. Both myth and the Gospels are fundamentally scapegoat stories. The difference is that in myth you are always on the side of the mob without knowing it, and in the Gospels you are for the innocent victim. Many realize this concretely by not being on the side of the mob, but to formulate the difference conceptually is another matter. All anti-Christian arguments, supposedly "scientific" arguments, show you that the Gospels have the same structure and content as mythology and therefore proclaim that Christianity is yet another myth. But there is one difference, which is all the difference in the world; in the Gospels you are not against Christ or for the persecutors, as you would be in a myth.

S.G.: The crucifixion of Jesus, and the Bible in general are usually criticized for being too violent, and you're saying, in a way, that the depiction of violence in the Bible is its strength, because it tells the truth of the predicament of human nature more accurately.

R.G.: I remember a French writer from the '30s saying something to the effect that "In the Bible there is that foul smell of scapegoating, which is not there in mythology." It is thought that the Bible is full of scapegoating and violence while mythology is clean, full of nice Greek columns, and so forth, but the opposite is true. To have a scapegoat is to not know that you have one. You wash your hands clean of the violence and write a very nice story. However, as soon as you realize you are scapegoating, it doesn't work, and you repent of what really took place. The scholars today tell you that the Gospels are a bunch of crooked texts that try to hide what really happened. But if they were a bunch of crooked texts, the first thing they would have done away with is Peter's denial, since Peter was the head of the Church. They didn't. Peter's denial tells you the essential thing about humanity. Most of the time people fight each other, but when a problem arises they will all join the crowd against a third party, and that is how we have managed to be a society. But the Gospels and the Bible tell us that the time has now come to do things differently.



From Mimesis and Science, edited by Scott R. Garrels, 2011


Also see:

The Unlikely Christianity of René Girard, by  Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

Rene Girard, born on Christmas Day, 1923, by Cynthia Haven


"There is nothing nihilistic about the apocalyptic spirit:
it can make sense of the trend toward the worst
only from within the framework of very profound hope."

Rene Girard, Battling to the End

Peter D. Goodgame

January 1, 2016



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