Friday, January 26, 2007

Let This Mind Be in You - Tape 5

Where are you in this 1324 fresco by Bernardo Daddi called The Martyrdom of St Stephen?

Though continually being dismantled by the Christian revelation, the cultural and psychological mechanism of scapegoating is still in place as it tempts us with various pseudo conversions. This mechanism is the mimetic dynamic and Rene Girard has provided us the interpretative tools to make the Gospels even more relevant today in the modern world.

In tape 5 on this series on conversion, Gil Bailie talks about the influence of a model on us and how this fact is central to the social and psychological economy of Christian conversion. There is always a model.

Over the years mimetic processes have been mistaken for sexual or socio-economic ones, and so without the insights into the mimetic dynamic there is a tendency to see secondary problems as primary. That is to say, there is a tendency to see in sexuality itself, or in money or wealth itself, or in power itself, the source of all evil. Girard's insight helps us to see the mimetic dynamic at play in our fall (our sinfulness) as well as seeing the same mimetic dynamic leading us to our redemption. With this insight enabling us to get beyond the secondary problems we can begin to address our struggles at a more hopeful place.

The major themes that Gil has been using in this series on conversion are:
1) the theme of ‘gravity and grace’ provided by Simone Weil - gravity being that pull towards confusion and sinfulness leading us toward violence - and grace being the alternative to it;
2) Nietzsche's idea that the modern world has to choose between Dionysus and Christ;
3) Don't Get Sucked In - the summation of the Western Tradition;
4) Realizing that self-possession is not a viable alternative to getting sucked in, it is simply the preliminary to getting sucked in;
5) the Cross is a source of another kind of gravitational field which is the only alternative to the gravitational field that holds us in the grip of some kind of primitive sacred system and;
6) Mimesis leads us into the hellish place and it is what leads us out.

Nietzsche says that at the heart and soul of the Dionysian motif is the confusion of the transitory state or what Girard calls the crisis of distinction where all the social and psychological confusion reaches a climax resulting in destruction. One could say that St. Paul experienced his conversion while looking on the act of destruction (the scapegoating act) itself when he saw Stephen stoned. Most of us do not see these acts first hand – we see it on TV, but generally these acts seem disconnected to our world. There is a gap between those scapegoating acts of destruction and the transitory state from which we find ourselves in. Girard has helped to close the gap by showing us how this transitory state of confusion and delusion leads to that violence – it is by mimetic desire. Gil points out that if we are able to keep from slipping into the last stage of destruction it is because we are blessed with certain social and psychological structures that help that to be the case. Our experience is probably not from the pit of hell looking at the destruction of the Dionysian dynamic, but rather it is the stage of social confusion that the transitory state represents and that often leads to the destruction.

So from within this transitory state, one can observe how the mimetic process works in our relationships with models and friends. Friendship can lead one out of the mess of social and psychological disorder, as well as it can lead one into it. So friendship (a model) is another word for mimetic affects. The power of an example of a crowd can lead one into the gravitational field of the Dionysian craziness and the power of example of a model which stands outside of that can lead one out. In both cases, it is mimesis at work because it is the DNA of human social and spiritual life.

The challenge for us is to notice when this process takes a sinister turn, as you can bet that it will, at a point that is nearly always veiled to our eyes – a game, a jest, a laugh, a playfulness – by way of mimetic contagion a desire to do injury will come, moving toward its sacrificial or Dionysian end. This dynamic is what generates all conventional social solidarity.

The Feast of Stephen
Anthony Hecht


The coltish horseplay of the locker room,
Moist with the steam of the tiled shower stalls,
With shameless blends of civet, musk and sweat,
Loud with the cap-gun snapping of wet towels
Under the steel-ribbed cages of bare bulbs,
In some such setting of thick basement pipes
And janitorial realities
Boys for the first time frankly eye each other,
Inspect each others' bodies at close range,
And what they see is not so much another
As a strange, possible version of themselves,
From the vast echo-chamber of the gym,
Among the scumbled shouts and shrill of whistles,
The bounced basketball sound of a leather whip.


Think of those barren places where men gather
To act in the terrible name of rectitude,
Of acned shame, punk's pride, muscle or turf,
The bully's thin superiority.
Think of the Sturm-Abteilungs Kommandant*
Who loves Beethoven and collects Degas,
Or the blond boys in jeans whose narrowed eyes
Are focused by some hard and smothered lust,
Who lounge in a studied mimicry of ease,
Flick their live butts into the standing weeds,
And comb their hair in the mirror of cracked windows
Of an abandoned warehouse where they keep
In darkened readiness for their occasion
The rope, the chains, handcuffs and gasoline.


Out in the rippled heat of a neighbor's field,
In the kilowatts of noon, they've got one cornered.
The bugs are jumping, and the burly youths
Strip to the waist for the hot work ahead.
They go to arm themselves at the dry-stone wall,
Having flung down their wet and salty garments
At the feet of a young man whose name is Saul.

* commander of the German Storm Troopers

The feast of Stephen…it is still happening today. We see versions of it happening and we don’t make the connections. We almost cherish the gap as we go blind with apathy and claims of innocence. It is not a case of moralizing but rather unveiling a structure of enslavement to the human mimetic dynamic that we are all a part of just like Saul at the stoning of Stephen from which his conversion liberated him. Paul comes to see, through his conversion experience that the same human mimetic dynamic is the structure that will lead the way to freedom and out of the violence, as Christ led him to the disciples and the building up of the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ.

For other posts on Gil Bailie's tape series, Let This Mind be in You:
Athos notes here
Athos notes on tape 9B link here
Aramis notes on tape 5 here
Aramis notes on tape 4 here
Aramis notes on tape 3 here
Aramis notes on tape 2 here
and you can see our first post regarding this tape series by clicking here

1 comment:

Athos said...

A very nice compendium, Aramis. Bravo!

What not many have put together in terms of connections with Girard's mimetic theory is how boldly and baldly C. S. Lewis limned the power of the sacred to suck persons into inauthentic conversions in his spectacular fable, That Hideous Strength. I'm not certain Bailie has either mentioned it (or the rest of Lewis's Space Trilogy) or even read it.

I can only say that for me, THS captures the fears, anxieties, pettiness and false ontology that leads SO many to settle for "what works" rather than what is True.

The leap of faith into the arms of the God who did NOT create a "trapdoor universe" seems so often like poppycock compared to the sure dollar, safe path, fiscal sensibility for the future.

Truly a great fictional depiction of all that Girard -- and by extension, Bailie -- says about sliding into a poor parody of true conversion.