Published on November 24, 2015.
The killing spree in Paris the other week has concentrated our attention, yet again, on the fragility of the human condition. Death, we remember of a sudden, comes like a terrorist in the night.
The murders in the fabled city made a heavy and terrible impression on many people around the world—not because the citizens of Paris are better than those of Beirut or more deserving of our sympathy than the residents of Baghdad, but simply because more people are familiar with the City of Light. France has been the most visited country for years, and Paris—the center of the European world for a good part of three centuries, and an enduring global icon of culture and civilization—remains among the most visited cities in the world.
In “War and Peace,” Tolstoy captures the Russian aristocracy’s obsession with the French, and Paris, even as his sprawling country is sucked into the Napoleonic wars. In the letters Rizal wrote his family during his first European sojourn, his fascination with the world capital was obvious, like a schoolboy crush. In his second European period, he conducted himself like a seasoned lover, his affection for the great city sure and familiar and practical.
In literature as in life, Paris is a symbol—and when the news spread of the attacks the other week, many of us saw that image, personal to many, bathed in unexpected blood.
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The unsurprising disclosure that adherents of the so-called Islamic State (one of at least three names by which the group is known) were responsible for the shooting and the suicide bombing and the hostage-taking that ended with 130 dead and over 300 wounded in Paris has once again trained the spotlight on Islam, and whether the religion of peace is in fact a cruel and violent faith.
I happen to think that IS has a deliberately perverted view of the Islamic faith, but I also realize that others may think that, despite the perversions committed in the name of Islam, IS may be motivated in part by a genuinely religious impulse.
What is the role of the terrorists’ religion, then, in the violence they visited on Paris?
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Perhaps the literary critic and social theorist René Girard offers the most penetrating insight into the role of violence in human culture—and in religion. He is best known for his radical theory of mimetic desire, which he first discerned when he was closely reading the classics of literature. To borrow the happy analogy of his fellow Stanford University professor Robert Pogue Harrison, Girard discovered the true workings of the world through a profound study of the use of words:
“I’ve said this for years: The best analogy for what René represents in anthropology and sociology is Heinrich Schliemann, who took Homer under his arm and discovered Troy. René had the same blind faith that the literary text held the literal truth.”
What did Girard find? In his “postface” to “Resurrection from the Underground,” he
offers what I think may be the most direct definition. “To say that our desires are imitative or mimetic is to root them neither in their objects nor in ourselves but in a third party, the model or mediator, whose desire we imitate in the hope of resembling him or her, in the hope that our two beings will be ‘fused,’ as some Dostoevskyan characters love to say.”
Desire leads to rivalry, and rivalry to conflict. “As I borrow the desire of a model from whom nothing separates me, neither time and space, nor prestige and social hierarchy, we both inevitably desire the same object and, unless this object can be shared and we are willing to share it, we will compete for it. Instead of uniting us, our shared desire will turn us into rival and potential enemies.”
This part of Girard’s discovery is full of depth and explanatory power, and is not too controversial. The controversy over Girard’s work comes from his later work, especially “Violence and the Sacred” and “Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World,” where he traced the logic of his original insight to its inescapable conclusions.
First, “violence is the heart and secret soul of the sacred”—by which I think he meant that the violence at the base of human society could only be managed and exorcised by finding a scapegoat—the marginalized figure who is sacrificed in religious ritual to appease a community or allow it to survive. And second, Christianity turned this fact of human existence on its head, by identifying not with the community but with the scapegoat.
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Girard died in Stanford, at the age of 91, earlier this month. When I heard the news, I remembered his kindness to me; he had agreed to meet me, a journalist in search of a theme, in his home in 2002.
I wanted to know whether he thought his theory could explain the People Power phenomenon; he was generous enough to suggest that perhaps the lack of scapegoating could explain the largely peaceful nature of the revolution, but said he needed to study the matter in greater depth.
As I was leaving his house on Frenchman’s Way (I am certain I was not the first nor the last visitor to suggest, teasingly, that the street where he lived was named after him), he led me past his desk, on which book proofs were laid. Writing a book again? I asked. He replied: “I am always writing.”
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I will be covering the climate change talks in Paris from this weekend. Anthropogenic sources of global warming as a form of human violence: Perhaps Girard would have something to say about that, too.