Monday, April 27, 2009

René Girard: Violence and the Sacred

I never got around to completing my review of:

Girard, René. Violence and the Sacred, translated by Patrick Gregory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.

Note also that there is a newer book continuing these thematics with contemporary political references:

Jeurgensmeyer, Mark, ed. Violence and the Sacred in the Modern World. London; Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 1992. Publisher's description:
This book explores the relationship between symbolic violence and real acts of religious violence with reference to some of the most volatile religious and political conflicts in today's world. These involve the Hizbollah movement in Lebanon, the Sikhs in India, militant Jewish groups in Israel and Muslim movements from the Middle East to Indonesia. The contributors also respond to theoretical issues articulated by René Girard in his well-known book, Violence and the Sacred.
Here are some notes I wrote on Girard's book over the past few years.

* * * * *

Written 14 Jan 2006:

The article on Kant, Bataille, and Sacrifice [by David York] is just idiotic. This shows where francophilia will get you. BTW, Bataille was a member of the College of Sociology in the 1930s; there's an anthology of their writings translated into English. This group had a preoccupation with occult phenomena, ritual, the sacred, etc. Really creepy and in my opinion smacks of crypto-fascism.

If we're going to read French blowhards, I would prefer to engage René Girard's Violence and the Sacred. I've been intrigued by the title for years but have still not read it. There's an interview with Girard you can find online:

In our time, the ideology of sacrifice is the ideology of fascism and reached its apogee with Hitler.

If we are going to apprise irrationalist philosophy in relation to sacrifice and the violence and ignorance that underlies its ideology, we could also examine the major irrationalist philosophers of the modern age, e.g. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. Kierkegaard wrote a notorious analysis of
Abraham's near-sacrifice of his son Isaac, justifying this horrible barbarism. Note also Girard's treatment of Nietzsche.

Written 2 Nov 2007:

I've been keeping up with the new atheist books published this year, but the books that have most penetrated my thinking this year are not new.

The Mind of the Bible-Believer (Edmund G. Cohen)

Primitive Man as Philosopher (Paul Radin)

Violence and the Sacred (René Girard)

[. . . .] I first read Radin over 30 years ago and over the summer I felt the need to re-read it. Radin's goal 80 years ago was to dispel popular and anthropological biases about the cognitive abilities and orientation of "primitive man" to to prove the obvious: the capacity for individual thought, reflection, and criticism. Re-reading it though forced me into an anthropological mode I got out of decades ago. I have not yet finished Girard, having bogged down in his detailed analysis of the Greek classics which I really don't need.

. . . . .

You can't get a complete picture of where Girard is coming from from Violence and the Sacred alone. His colors are fully revealed in his other books. This book is about sacrifice as the origin and motive force of all religion, and sacrifice as a socially controlled deflection from the constant threat of an uncontrolled and uncontrollable escalating cycle of violence feared by humanity from its primitive ancestors onward. He begins with the belief systems and practices of "primitive" cultures and ancient civilizations. He spends several chapters on the ancient Greeks, convinced that critics have entirely misinterpreted the classics.

From all this you would not guess his views on Judaism and Christianity, or the fact that he is a Catholic and that he believes Christianity to be fundamentally different from all other religions, because it introduces a fundamental change into the nature of sacrifice.

You will get a fair summary of Girard's views and criticisms of them in Wikipedia:

Here you will already get an indication of how despicable Girard is, though there is much to be learned from this one book, and for all I know, from his others.

There are many links from this article alone, but somehow I got hooked up with this interview with René Girard by Markus Müller (Anthropoetics II, no. 1, June 1996):

There is an undertone of vileness in this piece as elsewhere that needs to be elucidated. Some bullet points:

(1) An anti-secular, anti-modern sensibility is at work;

(2) There is a reveling in the debased, violent, essence of man posited here--just the sort of mentality Catholicism thrives upon;

(3) There is no need to conceal the dirty secrets of human motivation; they merely confirm Girard's anti-humanist world-view;

(4) The reading of history is entirely metaphysical and psychological, even biomorphic--there is no real history here, only a mythic history;

(5) and it is combined with typical French intellectual conceits--Nietzcheanism, representation, mimesis--in the most obnoxious manner;

(6) concluding by reasoning about myth alone, that Christianity is fundamentally a mutation of the primordial mythical sacrificial logic rather than its (hypocritical) continuation.

This having been said, there is much to be gained from reading Violence and the Sacred. As a Catholic necrophile, Girard feels no need to conceal the debased violent nature of humanity; he claims that in religion there is no concealment of this at all--it's all right there in the open. There is a dampening of consciousness as to the real nature of sacrifice; indeed, reason is sacrificed in the act of sacrifice. But what seems rationally absurd makes perfect anthropological sense.

From these basic ideas Girard proceeds in endless detail, devoting a huge slice of the book to an analysis of Greek tragedy as an illustration of his ideas and a correction in his eyes of the fundamentally mistaken presuppositions of literary critics and classicists as to the nature of what it's all about.

For my interests, it's way too much detail, and my eyes tend to glaze over, but it is instructive in those moments in which I maintain focus. My interest is in the generalizations Girard articulates from time to time. These are the passages I have noted, and at some point I will type up short quotes which distill all this material into the general principles to be gleaned from it.

* * * * *

This year I've begun a survey of Marxist literature on religion. The Marxist understanding of ideology (esp. as a modern phenomenon) improves upon mainstream atheism, which, except for the appropriation of Darwinism (which excised teleology and natural theology from serious consideration), doesn't seem to have advanced beyond the 18th century. Yet I have my suspicion that the Marxist tradition (I'm excepting anthropology here) is not entirely satisfactory in its treatment of religion. In these excerpts I express my doubts:

Written 7 March 2008:

Last year I read two older books that had an impact on me, The Mind of the Bible-Believer by Edmund G. Cohen and Violence and the Sacred by René Girard. Even religious people today, ignorant and superstitious though they be, still live in a modern world predicated on assumptions quite different from the superstition-saturated environment that forms almost the entire history of the human race, and I think that this goes much deeper than the mechanisms referenced by Feuerbach and Marx, who were after all products of a liberal religious intellectual environment.

Written 13 June 2008:

I think, though, that this Marxian take, which probably follows in the footsteps of Feuerbach and atheized Christianity, erroneously persists in viewing popular religion solely as consolation, and not for what much of it is, a reproduction and intensification of the violence of nature and society which not just the ruling classes but the masses inflict on one another. As disgusting as René Girard's Catholicism is, he has emphasized the intrinsic link between violence and the sacred.

Written 13 July 2008:

I recently got a copy of a Alexander Saxton's Religion and the Human Prospect [. . .] Saxton suggests that Marxists missed the boat on religion for failure to differentiate it from modern ideologies. This is an interesting line I will pursue. After reading Edmund Cohen's The Mind of the Bible-Believer (Prometheus) and René Girard's Violence and the Sacred last year, I concluded that there's a depth of savagery that we moderns tend to forget because we are so acclimated to a technological society in which the world around us is automatically interpreted naturalistically, however bad our religious superstitions are.

Written 30 Dec 2008:

Furthermore, an exclusive class-against-class perspective ignores the multitude of functions and values that religion serves, including interpersonal control within classes, and the continuity of religion which predates not only the current but all manifestations of class society, and is ultimately rooted in primitive magical thinking. The notion of religion as merely the sigh of the oppressed creature and the heart of a heartless world is a limited notion rooted in the trajectory of liberalizing Protestantism. Religion is also rooted in magical thinking intertwined with fear, manipulation, cruelty, and viciousness. The picture of religion one gets from, say, Edmund G. Cohen's The Mind of the Bible-Believer or Rene Girard's Violence and the Sacred is quite less benign than the Feuerbachian picture.

Written 29 March 2009:

Instead, I offer up Edmund G. Cohen's The Mind of the Bible-Believer as an entry point into the demented Christian mentality. And more generally, I suggest René Girard's Violence and the Sacred as an an additional antidote to the whitewashing of religious superstition by religious liberals (among whom I would count religious radicals, who are duplicitous in exactly the same fashion and from the same class standpoint).


marilyn said...

hello, i need a more detailed view on what u thing of Violence and the Sacred by(René Girard. im wrting a paper on this book and need as much info as i could get. i have limited time to write my review and i need all the help i can get.thank you.

Ralph Dumain said...

I'm guessing that anything substantive I have in writing is contained in this blog post, though my memory is far from infallible, and I'm no expert. Girard has been influential, so presumably you will be able to find more information online or in a good research library.