At the core of Girard’s theory is the concept of mimetic, or imitative, desire. Human beings, like animals, are essentially mimetic; that is they learn primarily through imitation. An individual understands what is valuable by imitating another person, who then becomes a model. Initially, the rivalry between the model and the imitator has an object. However, the value of this object is not intrinsic; its sole worth lies in the fact that it is desired by the other. The two figures, struggling to obtain the same object and insisting that the other imitate him in order to validate his own worth, become almost interchangeable.This contradictory imperative, simultaneously being told to imitate and not imitate the rival, is termed the double bind.The two figures are so similar that they don’t realize that they are rivals. Each time the imitator/disciple comes close to the desired object, he comes into conflict with his rival/model and thus he associates violence with desire.The experience of this contradictory imperative sometimes transforms the rival into what Girard calls “the monstrous double.”The image of the rival is distorted, hallucinations occur, and these hallucinations are represented by the various monsters that exist in myths.
Mimetic desire is, according to Girard, the primary impulse of living creatures.Accordingly, the violence that such desire inevitably engenders is an almost inescapable facet of human society. Left unchecked, the mimetic impulse leads to violence and murder. Murder ultimately leads to another murder and thus to the beginning of an unstoppable chain of reciprocal violence and vengeance which threatens to destroy the entire community.This period of chaotic violence is termed the sacrificial crisis.
When society is on the verge of collapse due to ongoing reciprocal violence it channels all of its violence onto a scapegoat and the scapegoat mechanism fosters social cohesion and creates a new society from the ruins of the old. The entire community participates in the murder which serves the dual function of creating social cohesion among all the participants and channelling all the violence onto one person. This is termed by Girard as being “generative” or “unanimous” violence. Because the purpose of the original sacrifice is to maintain the social fabric, the scapegoat cannot be from the heart of the community but is usually an “exterior or marginal individual” who is not fully integrated into society.Myths arise concealing the actual nature of the violence and sacrificial rites are initiated in which a surrogate victim is used in place of the original victim. Because he has managed to still the violence that threatened to consume the community, the scapegoat eventually evolves from being a reviled figure to being a revered as divine.
The rites of sacrifice are performed as a “preventative measure” attempting to contain the community’s latent violence and evoking the almost forgotten memory of the original sacrifice. The obscured function of the sacrifice is essential in order for the process to be effective: “the celebrants do not and must not comprehend the true role of the sacrificial act.”However, when the memory of the original sacrifice becomes too distant, the rites begin to lose their efficacy and it is possible that another sacrificial crisis can arise and the whole process may begin again. Society begins to collapse, but the mechanism of the scapegoat allows the society to regenerate and the cycle begins again.
Girard outlines his theory in the first chapter of the book and fleshes out the details in the subsequent chapters. He suggests that tragedy, by virtue of the fact that it differs in details from other forms of the myth, is particularly importance in giving us glimpses into the actual nature of the sacrificial crisis. Further, the dialogue in tragedy is such that the characters seem to be interchangeable and this reveals the nature of mimetic rivalry. Though he makes brief references to several tragedies, the bulk of his discussion is focussed on The Bacchae and Oedipus the King, which leads the reader to suspect that the two plays are the only ones which fit easily into the Girardian paradigm.
Girard also suggests that all rites dare linked to the sacrifice; exorcism is mock sacrifice, with the evil spirit acting as a sacrificial victim; rites of passage attempt to recreate the desperation of the sacrificial crisis for young members of the community who lack all memory of it. This seems to be a difficult claim to substantiate as there are many rituals, the marriage ceremony for instance, which are important in many cultural systems but which seem to have no links to violence or sacrifice.
Chapters seven and eight are taken up with a discussion of Freud, who as one critic suggests, seems to be Girard’s own model.Girard first takes apart the Oedipus complex. Whereas in Freudian thought desire for the object (the mother) leads to rivalry, in Girard’s conception desire is the product of the rivalry. Girard is particularly interested in a one Freudian work, Totem and Taboo, which has been dismissed by most Freudians. The work hints at a theory of collective murder but, because Freud was so intellectually attached to his notion of the Oedipus complex, “the mechanism of the surrogate victim eluded him.”
Because he insists that his theory is all-encompassing, Girard uses a comparative approach that examines everything from anthropological studies of primitive cultures to Shakespeare to Greek tragedy. His methodology is composite, having been described by one commentator as a “mixture of anthropology, literary theory, and cultural philosophy.”Girard’s ability to examine a broad variety of sources in admirable, yet one wonders if the specialists in the various areas he plucks from would not find his work lacking in nuances. Nonetheless, the sheer ingenuity of Girard’s thought and his ability to bring together such different source materials cannot be denied.
The main criticism that can be levied against Girard is the same one that every mono-theorist is accused of, namely that he is unabashedly reductionist: “There can be nothing in the whole range of human culture that is not rooted in violent unanimity- nothing that does not find its source in the surrogate victim.”Girard is seems insistent on the notion that one theory can reveal all the nuances of human culture and rejects the notion that such reductionism is invalid. The failure of such theorists as Freud, James Frazer and W. Robertson Smith does not mean that attempting to “get... to the bottom of things” is a fruitless enterprise.There is a certain amount of arrogance to Girard’s belief that he will boldly achieve what no previous mythographer has achieved before and to his insistence that he has uncovered the unity underlying “the whole of human culture.”
Ultimately, this is where Girard fails. The criticism that Girard levies against Freudian thought, “psychoanalysis is a closed system that can never be refuted,” can be applied to Girard himself. He notes that traces of the surrogate victim and generative violence can be so transformed within a myth as to become “unrecognizable.” Thus any holes found in his theory can be dismissed; if a particular myth does not conform to the Girardian designated patterns, then it simply has been transformed beyond all recognition in an attempt to cover up the generative violence. Thus Girard has removed himself from all criticism.
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