The journal First Things has recently featured on its website a short essay by Peter J. Leithart entitled ‘Clashing Victimocracies!’ The author explores the privileged and problematic position of the ‘victim’ in current social and political debate. In doing so Mr. Leithart invokes René Girard as well as two of Girard’s interpreters Eric Gans and Jean-Pierre Dupuy. Earlier this year a review of a new René Girard biography appeared in the Wall Street Journal of all places. It is encouraging to see widely read periodicals bringing Girard’s work to a larger audience. Our modest efforts here at the Cornerstone Forum have begun a fruitful conversation with the Catholic intellectual and theological tradition. And the Colloquium on Violence and Religion continues to introduce new generations of academics to mimetic theory as well as explore and critique Girard’s work. However, unless one is tuned into specific sites of Girardian interest it is only infrequently that you will hear his work cited.
In the early 2000’s during one of Professor Girard’s Friday afternoon seminars on the campus of Stanford University I recall someone asking him what he thought would be the effect of his mimetic theory after he passed from the scene. In his typically self-effacing manner Professor Girard suggested that it would similarly pass from the scene, or perhaps ‘go underground’ (a sepulchral image I thought). It has only been three years since René Girard departed this life. Even as the ravages of age had taken its toll on his mortal frame in his last years, his humility and gracious manner remained unimpaired. Yet it seemed his prediction was largely correct. The mimetic hypothesis and its apocalyptic perspective on human affairs is given little notice even as the world at large provides daily more evidence for its veracity.
This Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of the end of “The War To End All Wars”. The conflict lasted over four years and involved more than 70 million combatants. An estimated nine million soldiers were killed in the course of the war as well as seven million civilians. The Austrian novelist Robert Musil (1880 – 1942) wrote about Vienna in the period just before World War I in his book The Man Without Qualities Vol. 1: A Sort of Introduction and Pseudo Reality Prevails, from which the following is offered as a Veterans Day reflection…
Something imponderable. An omen. An illusion. As when a magnet releases iron filings and they fall in confusion again. As when a ball of string comes undone. As when a tension slackens. As when an orchestra begins to play out of tune. No details could be adduced that would not also have been possible before, but all the relationships had shifted a little. Ideas whose currency had once been lean grew fat. Persons who would before never have been taken seriously became famous. Harshness mellowed, separations fused, intransigents made concessions to popularity, tastes already formed relapsed into uncertainties. Sharp boundaries everywhere became blurred and some new, indefinable ability to form alliances brought new people and new ideas to the top. Not that these people and ideas were bad, not at all; it was only that a little too much of the bad was mixed with the good, of error with truth, of accommodation with meaning. There even seemed to be a privileged proportion of this mixture that got furthest on in the world; just the right pinch of makeshift to bring out the genius in genius and make talent look like a white hope, as a pinch of chicory, according to some people, brings out the right coffee flavor in coffee. Suddenly all the prominent and important positions in the intellectual world were filled by such people, and all decisions went their way. There is nothing one can hold responsible for this, nor can one say how it all came about. There are no persons or ideas or specific phenomena that one can fight against. There is no lack of talent or goodwill or even of strong personalities. There is just something missing in everything, though you can’t put your finger on it, as if there had been a change in the blood or in the air; a mysterious disease has eaten away the previous period’s seeds of genius, but everything sparkles with novelty, and finally one has no way of knowing whether the world has really grown worse, or oneself merely older. At this point a new era has definitively arrived.
This past week people across the United States participated in the public ritual of voting. These days, though, it is becoming less of a public act at the polling place and more of a private affair with the advent of absentee ballots. In the city in which I live most people choose to cast their votes by absentee ballot mostly out of convenience. This year for the first time I used an absentee ballot because I was actually absent from my home on the first Tuesday in November. So, instead of actually voting I spent some time thinking about how we came to call what we do the “vote”. For instance, why don’t we call it “electing” or making a “choice”, words more obviously descriptive of the act. Most likely it is because this act is so named in the Constitution. But where did the framers of the Constitution come up with the word?
The Latin root of our word ‘vote’ is votum, meaning a vow, or a solemn promise or wish to a god. Vote came into the English language sometime in the mid-sixteenth century from French where its meaning related to religious vows, and so we derive the forms votive, votary, devote. Shakespeare does not use the word ‘vote’, preferring ‘election’. In the Roman republic voting was a very public, personal and physical affair where citizens would on the appointed election day literally stand next to or close to the candidate for whom they offered their support. This was done on the Campus Martius (the Field of Mars dedicated to the god of war). This act was called in Latin, suffragium. Here is where we derive our word “sufferage”. And again, English received this word from French in the 14th century where its meaning related to intercessory prayer.
I wish I knew where and when the first use was made of the word ‘vote’ in English. It does not appear in Magna Carta, nor would one expect it since this was written in the period of monarchy and Parliament was not created yet. However,the backdrop of religious sentiment is evident in the terminology of our episodic choice of government office holders.
Here is a very timely message from the pen of Hans Urs von Balthasar, written decades before the current crisis in the Catholic Church:
“The bold venture of speaking openly concerns everything that must urgently be said in Church and State in order to restore the public atmosphere to health, as an aid for the wavering in spirit and for those who have been terrorized, disgusted, and desiccated by the silencing and repressing of the truth. It must be said without pathos or bitterness, without the will to wound or to take a secret revenge, without servile grumbling or supercilious gloating. Rather, it must be that specifically Christian way of speaking that is close to sacramental confession in its gravity and to a physician’s advice in its objectivity and that finds its clean tone in the at once modest and proud competence of the baptized person who makes his home in the Church and there enjoys the full rights of citizenship.”
Gil Bailie c. 1985
When Gil Bailie first encountered the work of René Girard in the mid-1980s he had for years been hosting weekly gatherings for discussion of classics from the Western literary and spiritual tradition. These discussions became over time more in the nature of talks or reflections as those who attended the sessions began to appreciate Gil’s unique perspective. That perspective was radically altered and reoriented when Gil began to seriously engage with Girard’s mimetic hypothesis. The psychological lens provided by Jungian analysis that for many seemed to cast a penetrating light into the nature of human affairs including religion, after contact with Girard, now came to appear as another obfuscating permutation of Gnostic mystification.
The new perspective was provided by an altered source of light. Previously, he had used an intellectual construct from Jungian psychology that stood outside of the literary subjects he was examining. The light of Girard’s mimetic theory came from within the works themselves, and could be seen to have originated in the revelatory light that burst forth from the literary sources of the Judeo-Christian tradition – the Bible, (as Girard himself acknowledged). It was in this vein that Gil was fond of quoting his friend Andrew McKenna, “The Gospels understand us better than we understand ourselves.”
Some of those presentations recorded around the time of this changed perspective are now becoming available on our website (as well as on Amazon and Audible). The latest of these are Gil Bailie’s Reflections on the Works of Herman Melville including Moby Dick and Billy Budd. They are offered here as CD sets or downloadable MP3 audio files.
Listen to excerpts from these archival recordings:
For anyone who may have read down to the end of this post…I suggest considering re-reading the Elizabeth Jennings poem In This Time that Gil shared earlier this year. It carries the metaphor of outworn myth and light in life’s journey to poetic heights.
Reflections for Labor Day:
God gave me being in order that I should give it back to him. It is like one of those traps whereby the characters are tested in fairy stories and tales on initiation. If I accept this gift, it is bad and fatal; its virtue becomes apparent through my refusal of it. God allows me to exist outside himself. It is for me to refuse this authorization.
Humility is the refusal to exist outside God. It is the queen of virtues.
The self is only the shadow which sin and error cast by stopping the light of God, and I take this shadow for a being.
Even if we could be like God, it would be better to be mud which obeys God.
To be what the pencil is for me when, blindfolded, I feel the table by means of its point-to be that for Christ. It is possible for us to be mediators between God and the part of creation which is confided to us. Our consent is necessary in order that he may perceive his own creation through us. With our consent he performs this marvel. If I knew how to withdraw from my own soul it would be enough to enable this table in front of me to have the incomparable good fortune of being seen by God. God can love in us only this consent to withdraw in order to make way for him, just as he himself, our Creator, withdrew in order that we might come into being. This double operation has no other meaning than love; it is like a father giving his child something which will enable the child to give a present on his father’s birthday. God who is no other thing but love has not created anything other than love.
Monumental Aztec Edifice of Skulls of Their Sacrificial Victims
One of the great values of what John Paul II called the Splendor of Truth is that it shatters even the most impervious ideological barriers erected to hide it.
A recent archeological find in Mexico City detailed in Science magazine (to view a short video and read the article click on the image to the left) has confirmed the existence of a Tzompantli – a monumental display of thousands of skulls of sacrificial victims. Some scholars had believed it to be a figment of the Spanish conquistador’s imagination, or perhaps an exaggeration meant as a slur against the indigenous people of Tenochtitlan – the chief city of the Mexica culture.
If we could line up the millions of unborn children killed on the stainless steel altars of the abortion industry we might be able to recognize the return to pagan principles that is occurring in a once Christian civilization.
The truth will set us free.
We are aware (and thankful) that we have many friends and supporters who live in countries around the world. Gil Bailie and I pray for those whose names we know wherever they happen to reside. However, today is our national ‘birthday’ celebration here in the USA and so I would like to ask a favor of you, to please say a prayer for the United States of America. I especially encourage anyone stopping by our lowly website to consider spending part of this national Independence Day holiday to take some time to pray to God for this country, its leaders, public servants, and citizens. My favorites are, “God help us!”, and “Lord, have mercy”.
There are many types of prayer, thanksgiving, supplication, penitential, etc – take your pick.
And don’t forget to pray for yourself and your own county and community as well.
God help us…