Violence and the Sacred

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Jean-Pierre Dupuy:

" GIRARD BELONGED to the great Franco-German-British tradition of religious anthropology, which was brought to a premature halt in 1939 by decades of structuralism and post-structuralism. In particular, he belonged to the French sociological school, with the works of Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, Durkheim, and Marcel Mauss, and to the British anthropological school, with James George Frazer, William Robertson-Smith, and the Belgo-British anthropologist Arthur Hocart. He had affinities as well with Friedrich Nietzsche and Freud, who gave these traditions new momentum. If Girard’s theory is right, Girard himself invented nothing; those “things hidden since the foundation of the world” have become an open secret.

Must not a science of mankind pose the question of the origin of religion? Must it not address the problem of what makes all non-modern societies refer the social bond to an entity radically exterior to the world of men, namely, the sacred? Must not a science of economy ponder the major historical coincidence of the modern world, i.e., the simultaneous retreat of religion and the apotheosis of market value? In posing these questions, Girard does no more than renew the great tradition of religious anthropology.

Religious anthropology, before its demise, reached the following conclusions:

All non-modern social and cultural institutions are rooted in the sacred. Of the three dimensions of the sacred—myths, rituals, and prohibitions—the most fundamental is the ritual. The most fundamental form of ritual is the sacrifice. Sacrifice is the reenactment by the social group of a spontaneous primordial event, namely, a process of collective victimization, which resulted in the murder of a member of the community. Eliminating the victim reestablished peace and order.

Here lies the origin of the sacred. The victim is taken to be the cause or the active principle of both the violent crisis and its violent resolution. This principle unites within itself opposite predicates—infinite good and infinite evil—and thus can only be of a divine nature.

Christ’s death on the cross is but one case of the primordial event. As far as facts alone are concerned, there is no difference between primitive religions and Christianity. The difference lies in interpretation. Unusually, the story is told from the victim’s viewpoint, not that of the persecutors. The Gospels proclaim his innocence. Modern institutions embody a tension between the drive to scapegoat and the Christian anti-sacrificial drive.

Those findings were far-reaching, but there were serious contradictions.

Robertson-Smith likened the sacrificial ritual to an offering, a kind of exchange between the god and the offerer, as if some kind of reciprocity could exist between the divine and the human levels. The objection was obvious: why would God expect anything from humans?

Durkheim solved this enigma elegantly. For him, the divinity is society conceived symbolically, and the totem in particular is a symbolic, religious representation of the community, at once the symbol of the god and of the society. Religion, then, is a set of beliefs and practices by which society represents itself to itself. If we feel dependent on God, it is because of our dependence on society, which in turn depends on us, the individuals. If society were not embodied in the individuals and their mental representations, it would amount to nothing. It is a reciprocity of sorts. Durkheim’s account, however, had its own shortcomings, which were exposed by British anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard.

For Durkheim, the social whole is transcendent in relation to its individual constituents, but he accounted for this transcendence in two opposing ways. First of all, we are the products of our cultures, institutions, languages, symbols, etc.; they make us, we do not make them. At the same time, during a ritual or a festivity like a carnival, for example, the individual fuses with the crowd. Religion emerges from this cauldron, generated by the collectivity. The transcendence of the collective is brought about first by social order and then by social disorder.

Girard was able to unravel this paradox.

A process of social totalization appears at times infinitely close to a process of social decomposition, as if social order contained social disorder, in the two senses of the word “contain.”

It is now fashionable in the humanities to dismiss out of hand any theory that purports to explain everything, all the more so if it offers a simple explanation for the complexity of the world. Freudians and Marxists, for instance, lost a lot of ground partly because they went too far. Every dream became something of a sexual nature. Every relationship among people was based on a materialistic dialectic. It might be tempting to reject Girard for similar reasons. But the all-embracing aspect of Girard’s thesis is a consequence of its being a generative hypothesis, focusing on the point of hominization and the events that differentiated between animal hierarchies of difference based on physical dominance, and human hierarchies of difference based on human cultures.16

At the heart of Girard’s hypothesis is the proposition that the sacred is nothing other than the violence of men. At the paroxysm of the sacrificial crisis, in the contagious murderous frenzy where every enmity converges upon an arbitrary member of the collective, putting that individual to death abruptly restores peace.

This action has three results. First, mythology: the victim is interpreted as a supernatural being, capable at once of introducing disorder and of creating order. Next, ritual: it initially mimes the violent decomposition of the group in order to stage the re-establishment of order through killing the surrogate victim. Last, the system of prohibitions and obligations: these are meant to prevent a new eruption of conflict.

The sacred is fundamentally ambivalent. It uses violence to hold back violence. It contains violence. The sacrificial gesture restores order, but it is still a murder. The ambivalence applies equally to the system of prohibitions and obligations. The social structures which usually unify the community are precisely the same ones that, in times of crisis, tear it apart. Girard believed that this ambivalence damaged irreparably the machine for making the sacred. As this machine functions less and less well, it produces more and more violence, and this violence has lost the power to impose order on itself.

Such is the modern world, in a low-gear mimetic crisis, “without catastrophic escalation or resolution of any kind.”