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November 2023 Issue [Reviews]

Overwhelming and Collective Murder

The grand, gruesome theories of René Girard
A depiction of Aztec human sacrifice from the sixteenth-century Tovar Codex, by Juan de Tovar © John Carter Brown Library, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island

A depiction of Aztec human sacrifice from the sixteenth-century Tovar Codex, by Juan de Tovar © John Carter Brown Library, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island

Discussed in this essay:

All Desire Is a Desire for Being, by René Girard. Edited with an introduction by Cynthia L. Haven. Penguin Classics. 317 pages. £12.99.

On November 8, 1519, the first Europeans to walk into the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán saw something none of them had seen before. “All these buildings,” the conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo later recalled, resembled “fairy castles . . . so high, majestic, and splendid.” The city was a garden filled with flowers. In the evenings, the air smelled of perfumed resin. The squares were “kept so very clean that there was not the smallest particle of dust or straw to be seen anywhere.” And then Díaz del Castillo climbed the one hundred and fourteen steps of the great temple and saw the “altar encrusted with blood grown black,” and the bowls in which human flesh was cooked, and the endless piles of skulls.

Missionaries later came to find strange resonances between the cult of Huitzilopochtli, with their apparent elements of human sacrifice, and the cult of Jesus Christ. Maybe, they speculated, one of the early apostles had made his way across the ocean to preach the gospel, but in the intervening years something had gone monstrously wrong: the message of redemption had degenerated into one of mass human slaughter. Or maybe the devil, perverting and distorting the work of God, had hidden himself away in the Americas to forge a deranged parody of the Christian faith.

Jesus is, after all, a human sacrifice: our salvation depends on one man being publicly tortured and killed. Jesus is also a god—but so were the victims on the pyramids. The Nahuatl word is ixiptla, or image: the sacrifice becomes a representation of the deity. Sometimes victims would be worshipped as gods before having their hearts torn out; sometimes Aztecs engaged in ritual cannibalism, eating human flesh to commune with the gods. Just as every Sunday Christians consume the body and blood of Christ. The Aztec’s communion was a stew of human flesh and squash blossoms.

Five hundred years later, we’re not much closer to working out what’s going on. Why sacrifice? Why does almost every religious tradition seem to involve ritualized killing? In the Bible, the first sons of Adam and Eve start making sacrifices as soon as they appear. There’s no obvious reason. Cain offers vegetables, and his gift is refused; God seems to prefer Abel’s slaughtered lambs. Oracle bone inscriptions, the earliest known Chinese texts, refer to human sacrifice. “Should the woman Tsai be burned at the stakes? Will this bring rain?” Hesiod’s Theogony describes a dispute over which portions of the sacrificial animal should go to men and which to the gods. It doesn’t explain why Zeus, who lacks nothing, would be interested in receiving bits of a dead ox in the first place. It’s hard not to conclude that there’s something our ancestors aren’t telling us.

But it’s no longer particularly fashionable to ask these kinds of questions. For the past half-century or so, the human sciences have moved away from their search for grand unifying theories. Instead they’re much more likely to take the opposite tack, nibbling away at the imperial universality of big concepts, trying to see them in less grandiose terms. Rather than wonder why Aztec and Christian cosmologies had so much in common, you might ask how particular sacrificial rites were affected by fluctuations in local corn markets.

René Girard, however, was not one for nibbling. According to Girard, who died in 2015, understanding the secret of sacrifice allows one insight into the ways in which vast swathes of culture have developed the way they have.

A detail from the Ghent Altarpiece, 1432, by Hubert and Jan van Eyck © Art in Flanders/Purchased with the Director’s Discretionary Fund, 1970/Bridgeman Images

A detail from the Ghent Altarpiece, 1432, by Hubert and Jan van Eyck © Art in Flanders/Purchased with the Director’s Discretionary Fund, 1970/Bridgeman Images

Girard’s ideas are strange, but their afterlife is stranger still. For most of his career, he worked as a professor of French and comparative literature. Among his students at Stanford was Peter Thiel. The billionaire venture capitalist is now a relentless evangelist for his old teacher’s ideas: he funds a project called Imitatio to support further research into mimetic theory, and his much-lauded business book Zero to One taps into a deep vein of Girard’s thoughts. Girard was frequently written up in publications with names like strategy+business, so that the deeply idiosyncratic theorist suffered a transformation into a kind of business philosopher: full of smart, actionable insights to boost your start-up career. Which might not be a bad thing. If budding capitalists are busy grappling with long analyses of Sophocles and Shakespeare, at the very least it might slow them down.

More recently, though, he’s been taken up by a certain sector of the online right. Girard’s name is dropped on podcasts and shoved into reading lists. Girardianism has become a secret doctrine of a strange new frontier in reactionary thought, one that’s begun to question not just the utility but the existence of democracy and social progress. For his new followers, Girard’s theory illustrates the central thesis of reactionary politics: whatever we claim to believe, and whatever fictions we build, human nature is always the same. Like the conquistadors in Tenochtitlán, they can’t help but see the parallels between modern liberal society and the bloodiest nightmares of the past. In the twenty-first century, sacrifice is no longer an academic curiosity; once again, it has become an intimate feature of everyday life.

René Girard was born one hundred years ago, but it’s still not clear what we should make of the man or his legacy. There’s currently what looks like an organized effort to reclaim him for the academic mainstream: a steady buildup of biographies, interviews, and appreciations, a major conference, and now a dignified selection of his writings out from Penguin Classics. This book might have been produced with the support of Thiel’s Imitatio, but it does not promise to help you get rich quick, or to unmask liberal degeneracy. It mostly focuses on Girard’s interpretations of literature and the Bible, and seems to present him simply as a thinker whose work should be preserved and treasured for posterity. Have they, at last, gotten Girard right? Has anyone? Is it even worth trying?

There are some thinkers whose ideas emerge slowly, wriggle around, take turns. You can talk about a young Marx and a mature Marx; there’s a significant break between the Freud you get before and after he discovered the death drive. Girard was not one of those. He was a fairly ordinary student in Nazi-occupied France, then a fairly ordinary academic shuttling between various American universities. His dissertation was on American attitudes toward France, mostly thrown together from newspaper clippings provided by the French embassy. He might have continued down that road all his life. But then, by his own account, the philosophy that would make him famous came to him while he was working on his first book, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel. That first work, as Cynthia Haven writes in her introduction to the new Penguin collection, All Desire Is a Desire for Being, was “a study of the books and authors that fascinated him—Cervantes, Proust, Dostoevsky, Stendhal and Flaubert”—and led him to question what he called the “Romantic lie”: “the myth of personal autonomy, the ‘authentic self’ enshrined from Rousseau onward.” It was in this text that he first set forth the secrets of mimetic theory—an intellectual breakthrough that, Haven suggests, was entangled with his religious conversion to Catholicism. “His revelation,” she writes, “was a revolution of the self—religious and literary and anthropological and deeply personal, and this conversion experience would be the basis of his thinking and writing.” He would spend the rest of his career trying to find new ways to explain this insight.

According to Girard, “we literally do not know what to desire.” When all our bodily needs are met—food, warmth, shelter—we’re left with a chasm: we want more, but we don’t know what. So we learn from other people. We take another individual as a model, notice the things they desire, and copy them. What we really want isn’t the object at all; it’s to be the model. As Girard puts it, “all desire is the desire for being.” And since desire is mimetic, it’s also contagious. “If there are two individuals who desire the same thing, there will soon be a third,” he said. “Once there are three, four, five, six, the process starts to snowball, and everyone desires the same thing.” But when everyone is after the same thing, the idealized model quickly becomes a rival. And once a mimetic rivalry gets going, it turns into a deadly, contagious violence: soon, absolutely everyone is on the verge of murdering everyone else.

Girard locates this kind of violence deep in our prehistory. Our solution was the scapegoat. Even in an atmosphere of intense enmity, people still copy one another—“the rivals become more and more undifferentiated, identical: doubles”—which means that they will also mimic hatreds. Eventually, everyone’s fury is unanimously directed against a single innocent—an individual or a group—who is blamed for the crisis and murdered in a frenzy of cathartic violence.

And then the fit passes. The people who were previously at each other’s throats can live together again; the first genuine human communities are formed. The scapegoat, meanwhile, takes on new dimensions. On the one hand, he’s to blame for the mimetic crisis—but at the same time, through his death, he has put an end to it; he starts to become something like a god. And when the mimetic cycle starts up again, there’s a ready-made solution at hand: Another substitute victim can be chosen and murdered by the mob. Often this is a foreigner, or a person with some impairment, or an animal. Thus have we learned to make sacrifice in order to control our “remarkable capacity for conflict.”

For Girard, this story is not just one part of human history; it’s the entire thing. The same thing happens wherever people grapple with the emptiness of desire, which is why Jews and Greeks and Chinese and Aztecs all made regular offerings to keep the forces of uncontrolled violence at bay. Many myths retain this cruel secret at their heart. In the story of Oedipus, there is a plague. The king, a limping foreigner, is identified as the cause, accused of monstrous crimes, and exiled from the city.

Girard doesn’t think that he is the first to notice this pattern. In Shakespeare he sees an attempt to describe mimetic desire and the scapegoat mechanism. So A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an object lesson in how people learn what to want from their neighbors, while “Julius Caesar is centered on neither Caesar nor his murderers; it is not even about Roman history but about collective violence itself.”

Girard reads the Bible in much the same way. His view on the Gospels is strange. Though he was a committed Catholic, his Bible is as much a work of anthropological interest as it is a divine revelation, a kind of extended description of mimetic theory. (In Girard’s reading, Job is a victim of ordinary scapegoating, not divine caprice.) The Passion narrative repeats every element of the usual sacrificial myths, with one major difference—this time, it insists that the sacrificial victim is blameless while the mob is guilty. He is the one who takes on the sins of others; he dies at their hands so that they might be redeemed. In revealing what’s been going on all along, Christianity insists on not just Jesus’ innocence, but the innocence of all the other scapegoats slaughtered in our deep, dark, forgotten history.

And now that the Gospels have revealed how the scapegoating mechanism works, it will eventually stop working. Slowly, over the course of the Christian era (and allowing for a few crusades, witch-burnings, inquisitions, and pogroms), we stopped thinking from the perspective of the mob and started thinking from the perspective of the victim. Today, “concern for victims . . . dominates the total planetary culture in which we live.” We as a society have taken steps to prevent sacrificial violence, and in a sense, this is a great achievement.

Our world has abolished serfdom and slavery. Our penal legislation has become more humane, the status of women has been raised, and we protect children and the aged. . . . However feeble these mitigations of violence may seem compared with our aspirations, they are without precedent in all of human history.

But in mitigating the violence of sacrifice, we’re at risk of unleashing the far larger mimetic violence that it kept under control. Today we are capable of the kind of apocalyptic violence that for our ancestors was only metaphorical. If the mimetic demon gets loose, it could destroy the world.

I first read René Girard in the summer of 2020. And I don’t think I’m alone: that was around the time members of the online right began to take increasing interest in Girard’s work.

It was a strange time. I’d spent most of December 2019 tramping around the fringes of London, knocking on strangers’ doors and begging them to vote for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. For a moment, I really believed that they might win. Across the Atlantic, it seemed reasonable to imagine Bernie Sanders as the next president of the United States. Twelve months later, that entire style of politics—millennial socialism, or whatever you want to call it—was over. We’d thought we were going to change the world; instead we got a plague. And everyone went mad, sacrificing one another in quick succession.

Girardianism felt like a useful theory. It seemed to cut through a lot of the deranged discourse: the racial justice reckoning wasn’t really a reckoning, and it didn’t have much to do with justice, or even race. It was, in fact, a deeply conservative phenomenon. Ditto the excesses of #MeToo. People were reacting to their lives having been dramatically disrupted. Their political communities were falling apart; the virus was picking off their families and isolating them from their friends; the state was incompetent and murderous. There was something ugly in the air. So we fell back on the scapegoat mechanism: a faltering social order’s last line of defense.

Some time that year, I was invited to contribute to a new left-wing magazine. What I wrote was—very appropriately—a short piece about sacrifice. Shortly afterward, there was some kind of editorial kerfuffle and the magazine started describing itself as “post-left.” I didn’t really know what that meant; it made me think, vaguely, of Tony Blair. The post-left was more of an online clique than an actual political movement, and it didn’t last long, but its brief existence paved the way for what came next.

The post-leftists started out as a disappointed remnant of the Corbyn–Sanders moment, trying to work out what had gone wrong. They argued that instead of delivering egalitarian reforms, the millennial left seemed to spend most of its time fighting the culture wars—in other words, constituting itself as a vengeful sacrificial mob. And strangely, it seemed to be working in tandem with all the institutions of cultural and economic power in the West. So maybe it would be a better idea to abandon the left entirely, and forge an alliance with conservatives instead.

What resulted wasn’t exactly an alliance. The post-left dissolved and helped to form something new: a hazy political current that doesn’t have an agreed-upon name—suggestions have included the New Right, the Extremely Online Weird Right, the Deep Right, and the Dissident Right. It’s a slightly uneasy confederation of former Bernie Bros and Broads, bodybuilding Nietzscheans, horny Straussians, shitposters, wannabe poets, edgy artists, politicians, pagan occultists, and outright neo-Nazis. A few people probably manage to be all these things at once. They include Curtis Yarvin, a Jacobite computer programmer who proposes expanding Bitcoin into a utopian state called Bitzion; Adrian Vermeule, a Harvard Law scholar who once trollishly suggested opening the southern border to help bring about “the Empire of our Lady of Guadalupe”; Costin Alamariu, better known as Bronze Age Pervert, a podcaster with a Yale PhD who role-plays as a sexually voracious fascist online; and J.D. Vance, the author of the bestselling memoir Hillbilly Elegy, and currently a senator for Ohio.

What brings this group together is, firstly, a backlash against the mass sacrifices of 2020, and secondly, a frustration with the traditional setup of American conservatism—the Reagan-era “fusionism” that united neoliberal economics with dowdy Moral Majority culture panic. In its place, many of them claim to want a kind of conservative social democracy. They make gestures toward traditionally leftist concerns: support for labor unions, suspicion of big business, opposition to American imperialism, a hippieish preference for unprocessed food. And while other right-wing ideologues still rage against the menace of critical theory or postmodern neo-Marxism, the New Right’s more intellectual strata will happily borrow concepts from the sort of thinkers who were once squarely in the domain of the left—Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Giorgio Agamben, and even, on occasion, Marx himself.

The other thing they have in common—not all of them, but enough—is, of course, proximity to René Girard. This may have something to do with Peter Thiel. Girard’s disciple is widely held to be bankrolling large parts of this pocket ecosystem—although most of its major figures like to maintain a strategic ambiguity about whether they’ve personally received any “Thielbucks,” and if so, how many. But Thiel is a good fit with the more heterodox elements of the New Right. One of the ideas he seems to have extrapolated from Girard is a rejection of the principle that capitalism produces universal benefits through economic competition. “Actually,” he writes in Zero to One, “capitalism and competition are opposites. Capitalism is premised on the accumulation of capital, but under perfect competition all profits get competed away.” He likes monopolies: big, stable, all-embracing institutions unperturbed by rivalry and its accordant dangers.

His actual behavior as an investor tells a different story. The business decision that most clearly bears Girard’s fingerprints is the $500,000 punt that turned Facebook into a behemoth. (Girard has been described as the “godfather of the Like button.”) What Thiel saw was Facebook’s potential as a vast petri dish for new strains of mimetic desire—and this is exactly what social media has given us. We buy the clothes that influencers wear on Instagram. We adopt the opinions that lunatics spout on Twitter. In a million rooms across the world right now, a million teenagers are silently dancing, alone, to the same choreography they’ve learned from TikTok.

Thiel’s investment made him very rich. But it’s still an unusual thing for a Girardian to do. Girard spent his entire life preaching the deadly dangers of mimetic desire, this Satanic force that must be contained at all costs. His most prominent student seems to have come away with the impression that this mimetic desire is some pretty powerful stuff—and that you can make a lot of money by letting it rip. Thiel took a warning sign and turned it into a manual. His investment in the New Right seems to be along the same lines.

What, exactly, is this loose group of ideologues looking for when they read Girard? There’s one obvious answer. The New Right coalesced as part of a backlash against the woke excesses of the recent past—but railing against wokeness is always faintly embarrassing. Aren’t there bigger problems out there than some corporation’s rainbow logo, or a few workplace sensitivity trainings? Not for Girardians. To them, these cultural questions are encoded into every syllable of our history.

More importantly, Girard provides a structure in which conservatives—not a group usually known for their sympathy for the oppressed—can construe themselves as victims. They see themselves as having been victimized by progressive pieties, canceled by digital cults, battered by rising crime, exiled from the community. To present this complaint in ordinary moral terms might sound too much like whingeing, but to draw on Girard gives it an authoritative gloss: he turns the subjective feeling of victimization into an objective process operating in the world.

This is a dangerous way to think—as Girard himself came to realize. In his later works, he pointed out that the old structure of collective violence was perfectly capable of operating through the new doctrine of concern for victims. “The aggressor has always already been attacked”; the crime our scapegoats are now often charged with is that of scapegoating. In one of his interviews, he outlines an apocalypse. “You can foresee the shape of what the Anti-Christ is going to be in the future: a super-victimary machine that will keep on sacrificing in the name of the victim.”

One of Girard’s sharpest insights is that people do not hate each other because of our differences—we hate each other because we are all exactly the same. Adorno and Horkheimer noticed the same thing back in 1947: anti-Semites, they wrote,

detest the Jews and imitate them constantly. There is no anti-Semite who does not feel an instinctive urge to ape what he takes to be Jewishness. The same mimetic codes are constantly used: the argumentative jerking of the hands, the singing tone of voice . . . and the nose.

We imitate our rivals and make rivals of those we imitate. When you notice that all your political enemies keep acting like rank hypocrites, this is what’s really going on.

So it makes sense that this new form of right-wing politics, which borrows so liberally from the leftist tradition, is also so negatively fixated on the left itself. Leftism, according to much of the New Right, is a purely Satanic doctrine, based on nothing but groupthink and greed and a hatred for life itself. (Of course, it works both ways: leftists will meet ordinary fusionist conservatism with mild derision, but when the right adopts the language of class they start having conniptions.)

But this is also the New Right’s great weakness: it only exists as a mirror. Millennial socialism, for all its faults, still notionally held that online quarrels were much, much less important than labor struggles—but the New Right is unashamedly obsessed with meme wars. Theirs is not really a movement but a discursive stance with almost no relation to the actual contours of politics. It’s stuck in a life-or-death struggle against a mainstream sacrificial fervor that no longer really exists. That Girardian moment has passed. The intense hatreds of that age have started to feel silly; attempts to produce new scapegoats tend to be met with an exhausted indifference. Those Republicans still campaigning on a platform of total cultural warfare are having a noticeably difficult time in the polls.

In other words, Girard’s entry into the canon comes just as he’s stopped being so relevant. But Girard is always an awkward fit, whether one tries to read him as a business guru, a culture warrior, or a respectable philosopher. Perhaps to make him fit more easily, Haven’s new selection presents Girard as an approachable thinker. In her introduction she frames the volume with the somewhat trite idea that mimetic rivalry means we are all persecutors. She ends with a long list of “Maxims of René Girard.” “History is a test. Mankind is failing it.” “No one ever sees himself as casting the first stone.” That sort of thing. Many of these are, plausibly, true. Few are all that interesting.

The truth is that Girard has always operated in a strange middle space, halfway between an academic and the kind of person who used to send long typewritten screeds to his local paper about the true age of the pyramids. Yet Girard is worth taking seriously: not in his more modest moments, but precisely at his most crankish. Converting him into a mainstream thinker would end up tearing out much of what made him worthwhile. All of his most startling insights are also slightly mad: that politics is human sacrifice by other means. That art and culture were born from torture. That the cruellest episodes in history occurred because your innermost desires are not really so internal, and everything about you is taken from someone else. And until we recognize this deadly drive, those episodes are always capable of repeating themselves.

Consider Girard’s account of the origins of political power. If so much of history is the history of the mob, where did kings come from? Girard concludes that they must have once been designated sacrifices. Leaders have a numinous aura; they are separated from the rest of society; they resolve conflict. Eventually we stopped sacrificing our kings—but if you sometimes feel like you want to tear politicians to shreds with your bare hands, it’s because that was their original purpose.

A century ago, intellectual life was dominated by brilliant, charismatic, but slightly daft theorists, people with intense tunnel vision, such as J. G. Frazer and Rudolf Steiner and Sigmund Freud. Today there are almost none of these thinkers, and the world feels poorer for it. Wouldn’t it be more interesting if we had hundreds of René Girards, each working away on their own vast theory of everything, interpreting all of history through one idiosyncratic insight? Wouldn’t it be enriching to experience dozens of slightly skewed ways of understanding reality? And isn’t there a chance that this could, occasionally, produce fragments of truth?

Freud portrayed a world where everything is driven by libido; Frazer gave us a world in which everything hinges on fertility. Maybe it took a monomaniac to see these things clearly. Girard’s world is riven by the frenzy and hatred of hollow men. I don’t think that’s the world we live in, at least not all the time. But it is sometimes. As we have learned, the world is not always required to be sensible; it can assume a Girardian shape. The processes that led to piles of skulls in Tenochtitlán are still with us. Underneath it all, the mimetic mechanism is whirring, biding its time between crises. The next great ideological conflict, when it comes, will be a battle between echoes.

 lives in the United Kingdom.

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