June 19, 2012

The Apocalypse of Modernity


René Girard
History – and increasingly the mere daily record of events – are together apocalyptic, laying bare human nature for what it is primordially before the agonizing laboratory of the millennia creates the Christian society that its beneficiaries, swiftly taking it for granted, petulantly reject that they might go “forward” into a liberated horizon beyond the one defined by the Gospel. “Progress” names that particular folly. A blood-drenched folly it is, beginning with the religious wars of the Seventeenth Century and reaching fullness with the mobilization of the whole society fomented by the Jacobins and institutionalized by their superman-successor, Napoleon Bonaparte. From the guillotine henceforth, modernity blurts itself sanguinely in the Commune, Leninism, Stalinism, Hitlerism, and resurgent Islam (Jihad), which continues belatedly thesparagmatic trend of the late and unlamented Twentieth Century. Yet despite the academy’s authoritative three-decades-long declaration of Dionysiac “postmodernism,” despite the polysyllables of doctrine-inebriated intellectuals, modernity in its lynch-mob vehemence has not succeeded in realizing its rainbow utopia. No fulfillment of the destructive quest heaves in prospect. Modernity spirals dizzyingly to its destined abyss, dragging with it those who know full well its madness but who find themselves sucked with the lunatics into the maelstrom.

The contemporary West resembles nothing so much as an archaic society in the full panic of social breakdown, searching desperately for the scapegoats whose immolation will induce the gods to intervene. Whether it is the black-clad “Antifas” in Northern Europe who violently stifle free speech or the “hoody”-wearing vigilantes who have consigned a hapless Florida man to the hell of liberal non-process – the defining agents of the age resemble the implacable crowds of archaic narrative.

No one can fully understand the contemporary situation without first understanding archaic religiosity, and archaic religiosity only reveals its meaning in contrast with the higher, scriptural religiosity, which at one time informed the civilized condition.  In the same degree as the contemporary West spurns the spiritual maturity of Judaism and Christianity, its situation reverts to archaic patterns.  Thus, in the sacrosanct name of “progress” –wretched regress.  And in tandem with that regress travels the obliteration both of consciousness and conscience, as the individuated man dissolves back into the moral crudity of the Caliban-collective.  No one has understood archaic religiosity – no one understands the modern as a case of accelerating sacrificial panic – with greater clarity and penetration than René Girard (born 1923), who, now in his late eighties, remains intellectually active. Two recent books by Girard, Evolution and Conversion (2008) and Battling to the End(2010), crave attention by those who sense that the liberal-secular order ever more excruciatingly confronts and denies the revelation of its own nullity and the that judgment glowers over it.

I. A Stanford emeritus since 1995, Girard trained in France as an expert in medieval manuscripts. After the war, in America, Girard tried to be a professor of French literature at a state university but failed to gain tenure. He then remade himself – as a scholar of Cervantes, Stendhal, Dostoyevsky, and Proust – and on his discovery of “novelistic truth,” about which he wrote in Deceit Desire and the Novel (1962), metamorphosed one more time into a philosophical anthropologist, an exegete of myth and ritual, and an explicator of Scripture, as the revelation to human beings of their own fallen character. Having pricked the balloon of European humanism, having shown up its fundamental tenet, the glorious autonomy of the supposedly free and original individual, for a destructive delusion of the self-inflated elites, and one of the many idols in the temple of secularity: Having done this, Girard blithely pricked the balloon of post-humanism as well. As iconoclast, Girard indeed follows in the footsteps of that earlier and much misunderstood image-breaker, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900), the value and limitations of whose text the French successor has helpfully and perspicaciously revealed. InEvolution and Conversion, Girard addresses the often quoted, but little-understood, “God is Dead” episode from The Gay Science (1882). “Everybody distorts this text,” Girard writes. Whereas everybody turns his gaze to the aphorism’s assertion concerning the deity’s demise, the aphorism itself emphasizes the collective character of the crime: “We have killed him – you and I”; and again, We are all his murderers.” According to Girard, “Nietzsche is really telling us about the religious re-foundation of society” because all archaic deities “begin first of all by dying.” Girard assesses Nietzsche’s aphorism qualifiedly as “a great text about the eternal return of sacrificial religion, a text about the creation and re-creation of culture that always involves the initial presence of the founding murder.”

What of the qualification? Certain narratives and meditations, in Girard’s view, “go beyond the explicit thinking of their authors.” Nietzsche’s Gay Science being one of these, its author unsurprisingly lacks awareness “of what he is expressing in the famous aphorism,” which in fact implies a meaning “essentially realistic and sacrificial” wherein “the birth of religion [and] its death… amount to the same thing.” Girard points out an element of the “God-is-Dead” episode overlooked by commentators (he mentions Heidegger) who “place the text within… modernist routine.” Thus, “the most revealing sentence is the one that says that God’s death forces the murderers to invent a new religious cult.” Nietzsche’s own “new” cult to replace Christianity, whose putative demise he celebrated, took the form of an old cult in revival: For Christ, Nietzsche wanted to substitute Dionysus. Girard’s deft analysis reveals Nietzsche’s deep confusion about the significance of the two symbols that provided his discourse with its dialectical poles. Nietzsche’s error having inveigled its way into axiomatic status in postmodern thought, whoever corrects Nietzsche also corrects postmodernism. The author of The Anti-Christ(1888) identified Christianity with crowds and mobs, what the German language denounces as die Pöbel; he identified individuality, integrity, and authenticity with Dionysiac rapture.

As Girard details in Violence and the Sacred (1972) and The Scapegoat (1982),Dionysus, far from signifying individuation, represents none other than the crowd itself in its most bloodthirsty mood. Heraclitus famously opined that Dionysus and Hades (or Death) were one and the same and he too, a religious reformer, glimpsed this god in orgies and bloodletting. Nietzsche, who knew his Pre-Socratics well, certainly knew the Heraclitean fragment. What amounted to his rivalry with Christ blinded him, however, to the prophetic admonition in his favorite antique writer. Girard remarks that “being jealous of Christ… inevitably means siding with Satan,” one of whose monikers in the New Testament, “Legion,” substitutes aptly for the mob. As Girard sees things, “to be on the side of Satan means that one sides with the crowd against the innocent victim, whatever name one chooses to give to that.” That Nietzsche indeed sides with the crowd is apparent from his first book, The Birth of Tragedy in the Spirit of Music (1872), where he extols the fusion of the spectatorship in the theater with the chorus onstage. Nietzsche sided with the crowd in another, ironic way: He openly despised victims, especially Christ, for their weakness, while praising Bacchic libido for its strength. He despised Socrates and praised the sophists for the same reasons. Girard writes, “Nietzsche aimed at a deconstruction of Christianity, which he [nevertheless] understood correctly as the defense of victims.”

One of Girard’s interlocutors in Evolution and Conversion, João Cezar de Rocha, asks whether the scholar’s indictment of Nietzsche as a virtual Satanist unduly reifies Satan, a question that allows Girard to clarify an essential element of both his apologetics and his anthropology. “One shouldn’tbelieve in Satan,” Girard responds. Satan assumes the status in Girard’s interpretation of Christianity of “a powerful trope for describing the unanimity of the crowd when it accuses the victim of being guilty, and then murders the innocent victim without any remorse.” Satan functions as “non-being in the sense that the scapegoat mechanism is unconscious.” The name Satan would also represent the panic that attends the breakdown in the community: “In the rivalry business of doubles a transcendental force has always been perceived.” When rival-doubles come to blows, their enmity, in addition to affrighting, exerts an imitative allure, attracting partisans to mimic the combatants and plunging the community into spreading disintegrative violence. The victimary mechanism resolves this violence by focusing ire on the singular – and arbitrarily, selected, hence also innocent – scapegoat. “There is no coordination from outside, the system functions all by itself.” Because the scapegoat mechanism operates automatically, names like “Moira in Greek culture and Schiksal in Heidegger” can stand for the same phenomenon as the name Beelzebub. Girard thinks of Dante, who in The Inferno pictured Satan as “a big machine, a sort of colossal puppet,” fixed in the ice.

The Biblical revelation consists of the unveiling and explication of the scapegoat mechanism and the critique of its rhetorical obfuscation in myth. In Girard’s understanding of Christianity, the Passion begins a gradual exposition and neutralization of scapegoating that remains in agonizing process, incomplete, to this day, and whose consummation, which nothing can hasten, belongs to an unforeseeable future. Meanwhile, by depriving people of their persecutorial default-response to crisis, the Gospel actually exacerbates the human ordeal, imbuing victimization with the guilt of consciousness while at the same time constituting a new scandal for the great majority that has not yet reconciled itself with the Paraclete’s non-sacrificial dispensation. “Very often,” Girard remarks, “Christian principles prevail in a caricaturist form, whereby the defense of victims entails new persecutions… You have to prove that your opponent is a persecutor in order to justify your own desire to persecute.” It is paradoxical: “The world is becoming more and more Christian, but also less and less so, and one should emphasize both aspects.”

II. In its main title’s first element,Evolution and Conversion makes an unavoidable topical reference, highlighted in the titular parenthesis, Dialogues on the Origins of Culture. The copula, “and,”functions both as the hinge in a dichotomy, keeping the two concepts separate, and as the sign of unavoidable continuity between them. Whereas the term evolution implies a purely natural process, its counterpartconversion implies consciousness and a break with nature. Given public identification of Girard as a Christian apologist, some readers might find themselves mildly surprised that the early sections of Evolution and Conversion, addressing the case of Charles Darwin, bestow praise on that controversial figure. Girard accepts the scientific conclusion about the pedigree of Homo sapiens, seeing no contradiction in that matter between science and religion; in this acceptance of speciation, Girard’s view remains consonant with Catholic doctrine on the reconciliation of natural science and faith. As for Darwin, despite his being “naïve in his conception of religion,” Girard judges him “extremely powerful and admirable in his way of arguing.” Indeed, “the theory of natural selection seems to me quite powerfully sacrificial.” On the Origin of Species (1859) strikes Girard as participating in “the modern discovery of sacrifice as the foundation not only of human culture but also of the natural order,” which would put that book in an odd constellation with works by Joseph de Maistre, Charles Baudelaire, Søren Kierkegaard, and James G. Frazer.

Like Darwin’s variation-producing mechanism of natural selection,foundational murder, replicated in ritual sacrifice, gives rise across time, from its simplicity, to the full richness of institutions. Foundational murder itself arises in the first place from the “hard-wired” mimetic propensity in human behavior. That Homo sapiens constitutes a “symbolic species” stems from the effects of mimesis in the human collective.

If Biblical literalists experienced disappointment in Girard’s surprisingly open rapprochement with Darwin, militant anti-Christians would chagrin themselves equally in Girard’s demonstration of how Darwinian logic bolsters the case that the Bible deals in truth. Girard cautiously welcomes E. O. Wilson’s position that despite being a fantasy, religion must possess “intrinsic adaptive value.” Girard writes: “This is what I am suggesting when I say that religion protects men and societies from mimetic escalation.” Not only does religion have the survival-merit granted it by Wilson, but “it is also the source of hominization, of the differentiation between animals and human beings.”Evolution and Conversion makes a back-reference to Girard’s most ambitious work, Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World (1977), where he develops the phases of the event by which pre-humans cross the threshold into humanity.

In Things Hidden, Girard stipulates that “forms of human sociality, unlike animal forms, cannot develop directly out of mimetic rivalry, but they do develop indirectly from them through the intermediary of the surrogate victim.” Girard speculates that in the biological development of the hominid species that would become human, “intensification of mimetic rivalry… destroyed dominance patterns and gave rise to progressively more elaborate and human forms of culture.” Consciousness and symbolism figure in the event because “even the most elementary form of the victimage mechanism, prior to the emergence of the sign, should be seen as an exceptionally powerful means of creating a new degree of attention, the first non-instinctual attention.” According to Girard, the passage from universal violence to pacific order, as mediated by the victim, “creates the most favorable conditions for the emergence of this new attention.” Consciousness being inseparable from signification, the corpse functions as the primordial signifier, with the total scene as the signified. Under the sign, the community can now recall the event, so as to bring to bear on new outbreaks of rivalry the anodyne of sacrifice. Because the incipiently human group chooses to reenact the event, its members will effectively have converted from instinctive-animalistic to genuinely human behavior. Subsequent conversions will acquire their possibility in that prototype of intentionality.

In Evolution and Conversion, Girard revisits his theory of hominization: “One can argue that many groups and societies… were destroyed by lethal infighting, by the explosion of mimetic rivalry being unable to find any form of resolution,” until “the scapegoat mechanism provided [for] the fitness of the group.” Because in Girard’s thinking consciousness and culture belong together as two sides of the same phenomena – transcendence in symbolization – and because the original, compact consciousness and culture take the form of the sacred, consciousness and culture would, themselves, be fundamentally religious. The modern mind never sees it that way, of course. Whether it is Voltaire or Nietzsche, or Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins, the modern mind, jealous of its own ego, pretends that it stands separate from institutions, from influence, especially that of religion. Dawson provides Girard with food for thought. Whereas promisingly Dawson acknowledges “a radical break between animal and human,” he proposes no means to bridge the gap that incipient mankind must have crossed. As for Dawson’s “memes,” says Girard, “seem to emerge out of nothing, while the selective force, which should discriminate between the memes… retained and the ones… discarded, remains unexplored.” Such conjuration typifies modern and postmodern thinking.

All archaic religion and all pagan culture derive in Girardian theory from the primordial event. Echoing the sacrificial matrix, worldwide myth repeats itself endlessly using a few variants of the same story about a mischief-maker whose immolation brings order from chaos and establishes the community. The crimes of the scapegoat correspond to specifiable stereotypes. Oedipus in the Sophoclean tragedy represents the full array of ascriptive offenses. Ritual in turn corresponds to myth, displaying the same variants of a few basic actions, almost to the point of monotony. The mythic-ritualistic dispensation likely prevailed for hundreds of thousands of years, which makes religious innovation, should it appear, the most rare of cultural occurrences. Innovation comes with Judaism and Christianity – with “The Scandal of Christianity,” in one of Girard’s chapter-titles. “In a nutshell, myth is againstthe victim, whereas the Bible is for the victim.” The Greek word parakletos,Girard reminds his readers, designates “the lawyer for the defense.”

Girard cites the Second Century writer Philostratos and the Gospel of John to instantiate the Pagan-Christian contrast. Writing of the famous pagan “guru” Apollonius of Tyana (15 – 100), Philostratos (172 – 250) tells (Book IV, Chapter 9) of his activities at Ephesus during a time of trouble. Today people would laud Apollonius as a community organizer. Finding the Ephesians in social crisis, he gathers them in the theater and claims to reveal the cause of their unrest, a blind beggar, whom he then urges the citizens to lapidate. The stoning cures the crisis. It is the familiar structure in myth and ritual of what

Girard calls “unanimity minus one,” or what contemporary community organizers, in their street demonstrations, refer to as the ninety-nine per centversus the one per cent. In the Gospel of John students of Scripture find the story of adulterous woman and the mob of righteous men who seek from Jesus rabbinical leave to lapidate her. The rebbi from Nazareth will not countenance it: “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Shamed, the crowd disperses. The Good Word has salvaged the lady-victim. “The disappearance of religion is a Christian phenomenon par excellence,” Girard avers; of course… I am referring to the disappearance of religion in so far as we see religion aligned with the sacrificial order.”

III. The cast of characters in Battling to the End differs rather startlingly from that in Evolution and Conversion, where the evolutionary theorists, socio-biologists, ethnologists, and anthropologists come under critical scrutiny. Battling to the Endbegins as a meditation on the anthropological significance of the studyOn War (1827, unfinished) by Carl von Clausewitz (1780 – 1831), continues as a discussion of mimesis as a force in history, and returns towards the end to the human prospect in the context of the contemporary moment. Clausewitz fills the role of a central character, an early discoverer of the mimetic principle; the poet Friedrich Hölderlin (1770 – 1843) and that Maîtresse du Salon and codifier of the comparative method in literary criticism, Anne Louise Germaine de Staël-Holstein (1766 – 1817), also have important roles to play. The names strike the modern mentality as quaint, heterogeneous in ensemble, and perhaps unserious. What wisdom could a defeated officer, a madman living in a tower, and a facilitator of polite conversation about belletristic judgment share and what is it that these odd people might tell today’s sophisticates that relates to their condition? Much as it turns out. Girard’s canniness encourages him in seeing his specimen connoisseurs of Menschlichkeit as closely related to one another in thought and in his weighing their discoveries as equal in importance to those, say, of Darwin and Frazer. Girard wants to rehabilitate such names, to which, in the contemporary period, various stereotyped dismissals have applied themselves.

First and foremost, however, comes Clausewitz. “The Prussian General… had intuitions very similar to my own,” Girard writes; and “because he was at the turning point of two eras of war [he] bears witness to a new situation with respect to violence.”

In Evolution and Conversion, Girard discovers that Darwin perceived more clearly concerning anthropology than did Nietzsche, whose limitations he reveals. In Battling to the End, Girard discovers a corresponding clarity of perception in Clausewitz, “a major author,” over Hegel, whose limitations he also reveals. Like Nietzsche after him, Hegel invested in “an excessive belief in individual autonomy.” That belief entailed an error about originality and identity that prevented Hegel, as it did all Nineteenth Century egoists, from grasping that “reciprocity,” or imitative violence, has its own logic that can trump reason and dissolve persons in “undifferentiation.” Consider Hegel’s notion of the hero, which Girard summarizes as “reasoned transcendence of private interest.” The Hegelian hero’s self-offering in battle “makes him spiritual.” For Clausewitz on the contrary, as Girard writes, “military heroism is less transcendence than aggravated mimetism.” Clausewitz sees the hero differently from Hegel because he sees war differently from Hegel, on the zero-sum rivalry-model of the duel, with its propensity for “escalation to extremes.” Indeed, On War begins with the comparison of war to the duel.Thus, “At the time when Hegel was thinking about possible consistency between human reason and the Logos, Clausewitz is telling us that [war] is really a duel.” Then too “the oscillation of the antagonists,” which Clausewitz observed in the Napoleonic campaigns, “leads straight to modern warfare” and to the dire contemporary situation wherein “the alternation can go to extremes and pass into reciprocity.”

While Girard has always set himself apart from his contemporaries in the humanities by his preference for ordinary language over neologisms, and while reciprocity is not an unusual word, the usage of it in the just quoted line might require a gloss. Reciprocity belongs to mimesis. It also belongs to the sacrificial crisis in that it produces the primordial victim and generates scapegoating. Reciprocity has to do with undifferentiation, a telltale symptom of social breakdown, which myth often symbolizes in the image of plague. InViolence and the Sacred, Girard cites the exchange of execration and threat between Oedipus and Tiresias in Sophocles as the paradigm of the phenomenon. As the accusations become ever stronger, the contestants, in the increasingly absurd extremity of their claims, become decreasingly identifiable. The community as a whole, some people siding with one contestant and some with the other, likewise descends into undifferentiation, as everyone becomes the model-rival of everyone else. This moment is the extreme, the war of all against all, with its threat of total annihilation. In discussing war in Battling to the End, Girard writes, “what Hegel did not see…is that the oscillation of contradictory positions, which become equivalent, can very well go to extremes.” Hegel believed that every contest was a moment of the overall dialectic and that reconciliation (Aufhebung), not annihilation, was the predestined outcome. Yet as Clausewitz believed, in Girard’s summation of his thinking, “the realities of war entail that ‘hostile feelings’ (battle lust) always end up overwhelming ‘hostile intentions’ (the reasoned decision to fight).”

In Girard’s view, Clausewitz saw better than Hegel that what had previously held national conflicts in check no longer could. Recall Girard’s assertion inEvolution and Conversion that, “religion protects men and societies from mimetic escalation,” and Christianity most of all, but by persuasion rather than compulsion. Then consider: The Reformation shattered the Church into schisms; the Enlightenment’s critique of religion badly eroded belief among elites; and from 1789 onwards, European radicals excused and even exalted violence as a justifiable means to their utopian end. An officer in the army of Frederick Wilhelm III, Clausewitz participated directly in the Napoleonic phase of the French Revolution, being present on the line at Jena in 1806, witness to the Prussian defeat. He joined the Czar’s army to sustain combat against the victor. Battling to the End remarks the unprecedented character of Napoleonic warfare, with its mobilization of the populace and willingness to expend massive levies in adventures like the Russian Campaign; he emphasizes the Napoleonic wars as the first ideological wars and as the turning point from a self-limiting institution of war to modern total war:“With respect to total war and totalitarian regimes in the twentieth century, we have spoken of the ‘militarization of civil life.’” Girard believes that, “we have turned the page on regulated, codified conflicts.”

Girard writes that Clausewitz foresaw the organization of whole societies for the waging of permanent war against all enemies, present, future, and imagined. According to Girard, Clausewitz grasped that war-posture invites a mimetic response. Once one society marshals itself totally for the purpose of war, all adjacent societies must do the same. The differences between one society and another begin to disappear. Mere suspicion of bellicose intention provokes preemptive action and reciprocity. Today on a global scale, in a process that began in the Napoleonic era, “we are nearing… the sacrificial crisis… the critical point when the group borders on chaos.” The proliferation of nuclear weapons means that the crisis, when it comes, can escalate all the way to total annihilation. Girard argues that, “convergence onto scapegoats has become impossible,” such that “mimetic rivalries are unleashed contagiously with no possibility of warding them off.” The modern world is thus existentially threatened by its own, post-Christian tendency toward the “escalation to extremes.” Modernity can neither abjure violence nor polarize it effectively around plausible victims; it can only match violence with violence. It is another grave affliction of post-Christian mentality that it cannot imagine dire extremity, but believes itself immune from catastrophe.“From this point of view,” Girard writes, “[George W.] Bush is the very caricature of what is lacking in politicians, who are incapable of thinking apocalyptically.”

IV. Battling to the End represents Girard’s turn towards history. Girard envisions history, thanks to his lifetime involvement in the study of archaic societies, myth, and Scripture, on the largest scale, and as a narrative, the grammar of which allows for prophetic glimpses, as through a glass darkly, of probable futures. Girard thinks historically the way Oswald Spengler andArnold Toynbee before him have thought, and as Clausewitz did, despite his penchant for subordinate clauses. A man of letters, as was Spengler particularly, Girard reads history with the novelist’s eye for how, in the unfolding of large events, a tiny detail, the curriculum vitae of one sensitive or critically situated person, can sum up a global Gestalt. Charles Dickens novelized in that way, as in A Tale of Two Cities (1859, coincidentally the same year as Darwin’s Origin of Species), and so did Victor Hugo in Notre Dame(1831, the mortal year of Clausewitz and Hegel) or Les Misérables (1862). Clausewitz is already such a person, but so are the others whose lives and thought Girard takes as specimen instances. Hölderlin, the self-cloistering poet and student of Greek myth, is one. Madame de Staël, the organizer of Franco-German salons and authoress of De l’Allemagne (1813, the year of Bonaparte’s exit from history), is another. In assessing the work of Hölderlin and Staël, Girard avoids merely formal assessment. Despite the admonitions of the New Critics against “the fallacy of intention,” Girard assumes that perspicacious readers can discern the intended message that clear-sighted authors quite consciously put into their texts.

Contemporary literati largely submit to Martin Heidegger’s reading of Hölderlin, which exaggerates the poet’s pagan nostalgia and tries not to mention his Christian convictions. Like Hegel, Hölderlin witnessed the Battle of Jena, but he also remarked, as Hegel failed to do, the absolute fascination that Bonaparte in his triumph exercised over his contemporaries. With the advent of Napoleon the West had entered the era of what Girard calls “internal mediation,” in which everyone becomes everyone else’s model-rival. In Battling to the End, Girard sets out to correct Heidegger’s anti-Christian misreading of Hölderlin and to show how clairvoyantly the poet grasped his own moment in its historic, religious, and anthropological implications. Hölderlin’s “central intuition,” Girard writes, consisted in his recognition “that there is absolute similarity but also absolute difference between the Christian and the archaic.” The insight separated Hölderlin from his fellow seminarians Hegel and F. W. J. Schelling, who looked to make good the non-presence of the Biblical God, felt as an agonizing lack, in a revival of the pagan gods. Nietzsche stubbornly peddled the same theme in his day and Heidegger again in his.

Yet Hölderlin never saw the Christian-Pagan dichotomy in dualistic terms, a type of petulance that Girard lays against Nietzsche and Heidegger. He who sets himself against the Olympians cultivates rivalry, like the one that Nietzsche cultivated with respect to Christ. Hölderlin believed, rather, that “Greek religion cannot be used against Christianity” because “Christianity has changed Greek religion forever.” In Girard’s reading, Hölderlin understood the Passion to have revealed that, “to bet on Dionysus is to believe in the fertility of violence.”

Girard argues that Hölderlin, who wrote a poem called “Patmos” and who knew how to think apocalyptically, saw what Clausewitz saw: Christian Revelation had demystified paganism, depriving humanity of its pre-Christian innocence and leaving humanity on its own, in the silence of God, to confront reciprocity without protection. The “presence” of the pagan gods had corresponded with the violence of social breakdown and the awe of restorative murder. After the Passion, however, scapegoating persists only in bad faith hence also ineffectively. To rein in the otherwise inevitable escalation to extremes in the armed but de-institutionalized world that the Gospel itself produced, the sole recourse is Christ’s invitation not to imitate, hence also come into rivalry with, other men, but rather to imitate Christ’s imitation of the Father. “Dionysus is violence and Christ is peace,” Girard writes. Hölderlin “understood Hegel’s naiveté to a greater extent than any of Hegel’s modern adversaries, who have not had the strength to return to Christianity as [Hölderlin] did.” Enlightened people to this day believe with Hegel that reality is rational. Hölderlin grasped, as does Girard, that reality is mimetic – isreligious. Hölderlin’s withdrawal to a carpenter’s tower for forty years gave evidence not of mental derangement but of commitment to Christian practice, the modern equivalent of St. Anthony’s Thebaïd.

As for Staël, modernity appreciates her mainly as a quirk. Like George Sand and Carolyn Sayn-Wittgenstein, feminists comment on her, wrinkling their noses at male disdain. Girard actually understands her. Staël examined whole nations as objects of a comparative-critical reading: “On the one hand, she pointed out the German’s self-conscious distrust of French wit, which is quick to target similarities and regard those who deviate from them with suspicion; on the other hand, she showed the German language’s capacity for abstraction, which is paradoxical given the German people’s leaning towards conformity.” Staël discovered that “nationalism is essentially mimetic.” Humiliated by Napoleon at Jena, Prussia imitated him, until at Sedan in 1870, General Moltke, Chancellor Bismarck, and Kaiser Wilhelm I together enjoyed the exquisite pleasure of vanquishing Napoleon III and making him a prisoner. European history from Napoleon to Hollande-Merkel consists in repetitive, Gallo-Teutonic confrontations-in-similitude, with regular escalations to the extreme. Sedan avenged Jena; Versailles avenged Sedan, and the jack-booted march down the Champs Elysées in May 1940 avenged November 1918. The next clash will, of course, surprise everyone.

Events following 1914 and 1939 retroactively guaranteed Hölderlin and Staël’s common prophetic clarity and Clausewitz’s too and underscored the necessity of a new conversion. Lenin thought he could found communism by killing his opposition and Stalin by starving the Ukraine and shooting his generals; Hitler thought he could establish National Socialism in the secret mass-murder of the Jews. In its Epilogue, Battling to the End advances the discussion to the present moment, from which, as Girard sees things, the outlook appears bleak. “Terrorism has raised the level of violence up a notch again.” The Jihad and the West’s bewildered response to it are “mimetic,” involving two forms of “fundamentalism.” One of those fundamentalisms is Western secular dogmatism, complete with its politically correct blinders and increasingly Islam-like internal strictures – a defective substitute-creed that can neither think religiously not envision catastrophe; the other is Islam. Thus, “George Bush’s ‘just war’ has revived that of Muhammad, which is more powerful because it is essentially religious.” Indeed, “We are witnessing a new stage in the escalation to extremes,” in which reciprocity “uses Islam as it used to use Napoleon and Pangermanism.”

Girard makes no excuses for Islam, even while he harshly criticizes the West for its childishness and stupidity: “To the great surprise of our secular republicans, religious thought is still very much alive in Islam.” Nor does Girard propose equivalency between Christianity and Islam. He sees Islam as a non-participant in the Biblical revelation of scapegoating that therefore remains in the mode of archaic, sacrificial religion. It is not an indictment of Western affluence, but of Western intelligence, when Girard asserts in a Spenglerian sentence that, “Terrorism is the vanguard of a general revenge against the West’s wealth.” Reality is not rational, Girard argues: Reality is mimetic and it is religious. There are, however, two kinds of religion: The archaic and the Biblical. When secularity rejects the Biblical, it defaults to the archaic. The twin possibilities differ starkly: Either a new conversion; or an escalation to extremes pitting against one another two anthropologically imbecile contestants – Islam and the West – armed with nuclear weapons.


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