Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Age on René Girard

From a few years ago, Philip Hunt's excellent essay on Girard appeared in The Age. I was reminded of it as I read from The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien. Hunt writes:
Girard's work shows that all human societies have mythologies. The most common is variously described as the victimage mechanism or scapegoating. Societies based on this mythology form when someone is accused as a scapegoat for the conflict that exists in society. Guilt is incidental.

Girard suggests that modern societies, too, are based on mythologies. The many symbols of nationalism - cheering the president, singing the anthem, waving the flag, and taboos and penalties against those who don't cheer, sing or wave loudly enough - all these are typical of mythologies in other societies.

The problem we have is that we do not think so.

When some wild Arab spokesman describes America as the "Great Satan" we know immediately that he is appealing to a myth. But when President Bush puts Iraq and North Korea on the "axis of evil" we react as if he is stating a fact. Are we incapable of seeing in ourselves that which we see in others?
Ouch. Tolkien also knew that if one uses the weapons of Mordor, one cannot expect to have a very "happy" ending.


Porthos said...

The link for Hunt is down, Ath.

I see a lot of mistaken premises in that last paragraph of his. Actually, I don't find Hunt to be particulatly elucidating, as his statements here seem to me to be a garden variety exposition of postmodern relativism--unfortunately a fairly steady temptation for the Girardian project itself. (This is also a bit of a rehash of the old objections to Reagan's "evil empire"--aka "Darth Vader"--speech, back in the days of the . . . er . . . evil empire.) Of course, if patriotism is the same as nationalism, and if North Korea is the same as South Korea (however much satellite shots of the Korean penninsula on a clear night might suggest otherwise!) then Hunt is right and I am wrong.

Things like this are part of what keep me from wholesale commitment to Mimetic Theory. First, you don't need to be into Mimetic Theory to arrive at this kind of conclusion (all of us sophisticated Western moderns have to some extent mastered the art of rolling ourselves into a ball of moral paralysis because we can't call anything evil.) Second, it's (in my view) false. Saddam's regime really was and Kim Il's regime really is evil. I don't have to be perfectly free of evil to recognize that. Am I like Saddam and Kim? Yes, I am! (Look! I can perform that epistemological operation pretty easily and still call the regimes evil!) Fortunately, no-one has made me absolute dictator of anything so I have the luxury of confronting my evil on a more mundane, gruelling, day to day level.

Athos said...

Try it now, Porthos, and the link works. The URL address I put it previously was missing its "hatche".

Where I disagree with you re: your assessment of patriotism, nationalism, "evil-empirism", and the like is in the understanding of the universal fallenness of human beings.
If you take a look at Hunt's entire essay (I hope it's accessible!), I don't think you will find the usual screed by a secular relativist, but a kind of "Oh God, now I see how I've fallen into a pit of my own making" understanding so lacking in nearly every politician in office who must maintain the course in ideological pride.

Is patrolling the streets around the Green Zone with Marines while civilian casualties mount really going to keep the demographics from collapsing old Europe?

Regarding MT, IMHO, if one sticks vvery close to the founder of mimetic theory, as he tries to stay vvery close to the Founder of -- well -- everything, I think MT is a valuable tool for the Magisterium of the Church. Those who hotwire MT and take it for a joyride: a plague upon them! (In all Christian love, of course.)

Porthos said...

OK, I can't comment more till I read the original. Thanks for relinking!