If generative anthropology is less well known than “mimetic theory,” it is not simply because the latter is easier to understand. The primary reason is that, although GA can talk about sacred “fear and trembling,” it does not provoke such emotions, whereas from the first (see Chronicle 507), Girard speaks directly to the soul. Mensonge romantique is a compelling theory of the novel because it is in the first place a work of conversion, whose theoretical brilliance is focused on identifying the protagonist’s “idolatrous” mediations with those of the author’s prehistory, and by an inevitable extension, of the reader’s. There is nothing spurious about these identifications, even if their tendentiousness tends to gloss over the dominant and equally authentic mode of the novel, that classified in Lukacs’ Theory of the Novel as the Erziehungsroman, or more familiarly, the Bildungsroman. Whence the interest of the fact that in his later years, according to Andrew McKenna and others, Girard enjoyed reading the novels of Jane Austen, where the characters’ conversions to authentic love take place within the world, allowing them to live happily ever after to sustain the human community—for the sake of which, one might say, their tragic fellows have Christ-like given their lives to purge it of its self-destructive tendencies.
Although GA takes into account the deferral occasioned by the sacred and does not make the error of metaphysics in assuming that language can deal with significance independently of its experiential source, it cannot take it into account experientially. GA is not written in the prophetic mode of Girard, but in the language of metaphysics, however “deconstructed.” And to understand in what sense, a generation ago, deconstruction had a similar, if more cerebral, existential effect, we should recall its links to 60s-era Marxism. Deconstruction may have been a critique of metaphysics, but it took the language of metaphysics as a synonym for the rationale of bourgeois society in general. This is confirmed by the fact that the residual philosophes in this tradition, such as Zizek, Badiou, or Agamben, have continued to assert this neo-Marxist stance, often in yet more radical forms.
As readers of these Chronicles know, GA is a synthesis of these two tendencies of “post-structuralist” French Theory, of which the less visible but more crucial was largely represented by Girard alone. This synthesis can be seen as one more stage in Western civilization’s millenary interaction of Hebrew and Greek thought, although to grasp it more accurately we should rather speak no longer of “thought” but of anthropological discourse. For the Greek-Hebrew partnership has been from the beginning a quarrelsome marriage of metaphysical and religious expression that finds its unity not in any academic field but in the totality of human self-understanding—the overall project of which was originally embodied in the university. Whence the epithet of “humanistic” that GA attaches to its brand of anthropology.
There is a permanent need for empirical anthropology, and no reason for GA to think of “absorbing” it. But to understand what can broadly be called the discursive basis of Western Civilization, GA should be seen not as a radically new concept, but rather as a self-conscious attempt to bring together what the authors of both philosophical and religious texts had always been doing.
This is the sort of process that old Hegel understood better than anyone, which is why I consider him the great master of modern metaphysics. It is no accident that it was the neo-Hegelians far more than the neo-Kantians who had the truly radical ideas about transcending metaphysics. That several hundred million deaths can regrettably be attributed to the various political implementations of this tendency is from our standpoint only one more reason for urgency in promoting a new understanding of these developments. For whatever his errors, Marx’s watchword that humanity exists primarily to change the world and not simply to explain it cannot be gainsaid. Life is praxis, and no branch of knowledge, however “theoretical,” exists as an end in itself.
With this in mind, the reader can understand why a human being should turn to religion not (only) to find personal consolation in faith, but to examine what faith can tell us about the human. This is the path first taken by Girard, himself a man of faith. But we should not neglect the similar movement in deconstruction. Derrida was very much a Jewish thinker, and the role of Jewish thinkers in the Christian era may be summed up as not refuting Christianity so much as denying its necessity, that is, the necessity of the paradoxical trinitary union of God and man—a denial that I believe, to add a fresh layer of paradox, could only be effectively made after the triumph of Christianity in the West.
Jews are those who deny the necessity of Cur deus homo? Hitler’s dream of exterminating the Jews was only superficially “pagan.” Its roots, like those of Marxism, lay in Christianity, which is not to blame Christianity for Hitler any more than for Stalin. The gap opened up by la différance is on the one hand the equivalent of Sartre’s néant, but on the other it is the God-defining separation from God that mystics and saints have ever sought to annul by identification with the sacred itself. And in this regard, it is hard to deny the human appeal of identification through love with Christ. The Jew can love God, even “converse” with him, but he can never speak of and to him, as so many Christians have done, as brother or even as bridegroom. By retaining both versions of Biblical religion, the West brings together both the best and the worst of both worlds.
The originary scene resolves the problem of the protohuman excess of mimetic desire. The sharing of the central object is the point of departure for the social conception of love as binding human beings in a transcendent, sacred/significant rather than a merely visceral/appetitive way—even if its visceral form is also more unproblematic, as dog owners often have occasion to remark.
I have defined love as “the transcendence of resentment.” (This formula first appears only in Chronicle 121, but the conception was presented in Chronicle 6.) I see no need to repudiate this definition, but I think it can be sharpened, particularly in the sense that love is in the first place a religious emotion, and it is this mediation by the sacred that defines what we now call love. At the origin, love is the transcendence of originary resentment, the hostile reaction to the sacred object’s self-refusal—the root of the Satanic.
Given humans’ long gestation period and the even longer infancy of our neotenic offspring, requiring extended maternal care, it is reasonable to presume that hominins at the protohuman stage were already monogamous. That “romantic love” in its modern sense was born only in the Middle Ages, and that its classical antecedents, as we see in the works of Sappho and in Plato’s frequent references to homosexual love—in the absence of any similar heterosexual attachments—corroborate the hypothesis that in the Classical confluent of Western culture, love of the sacred enters into interpersonal relationships only in contrast with the child-producing institution of marriage. Indeed, this contrast remains institutionally, if not erotically, a feature of medieval “courtly love” as well, whose “romantic” association with marriage in modern societies is quite recent. In contrast, the sacralization of the erotic within the marriage bond can be traced to the Old Testament, where homosexuality is repudiated and adultery condemned.
Hence Helen’s role as the différend at the origin of the Trojan War is quite distinct from that of a Beatrice or a Laura. Her seduction by Paris no doubt distinguishes her from a valuable object that could simply be stolen, but this possession of agency is no more respected than the wishes of Briseis when Agamemnon takes her from Achilles. Nor do we hear of Menelaus composing love-sonnets in her absence.
On this point, as on many others, we should follow Girard’s lead in understanding the Christian idea of love both as grounded in a more fundamental intuition than that of the Greeks and as, unlike the Hebrew, emphasizing its transcendence of social norms. We never hear of “loving” the Greek Gods, and although the love of God is fundamental to Hebrew religion, it is never expressed in orthodox Judaism in anything like an erotic mode. What is lacking is the Incarnation’s opening to the ultimate parity of the two parties, which permits love to become attached to erotic desire.
The idea that God is love sums up the essence of transcendence as the source of human relations. No doubt this formulation lacks the differentiating/deferring aspect of transcendence without which it could never have emerged in the first place, but its point is not theoretical but, in the deepest sense, practical. It assumes something we cannot simply take for granted: that we can all experience love, and that this experience tells us what in humanity transcends us as individual human beings. And it is this conviction that inspires in the Christian world what we can call in the broadest sense romantic art and literature: art that makes the achievement of love between two human beings the fictional equivalent of unity with the sacred. No doubt the danger of romantic love is the idolatry of mensonge romantique, but in enjoying the novels of Austen, Girard himself lent credence to the ultimate possibility of its unity with vérité romanesque.
As a wise old Irishwoman in Miles Franklin’s outback novel Ten Creeks Run points out, when God wanted to have a son, he wouldn’t have a man as its father, but he was perfectly content with a woman as its mother: mother-love, the most visceral yet non-hedonistic form of human love, could well be conceived as a human parallel to divine love. And it is a variant of such love, mediated through the exaltation of the Virgin, that gave birth to the modern conception of romantic love, sacramental before it is physical, yet not afraid to recruit the energy of desire, sexual as well as filial. This fusion is predicated on the prior prohibition of incest that is the traditional benchmark of human societies, separating the caress of mother and child from the embrace of lovers.
Where then, might we ask, is “love” in the originary event? At the risk of passing from the sublime to the mundane, although not the ridiculous, there is no ritual of human society both older and more vigorous than the sharing of food. The prehuman antecedents of this sharing need only be mediated by sacred deferral to make it the visceral basis of the transcendent emotion of love.
That we are tempted to model our origin on the most extreme sacrificial practices when we practice food-sharing ceremonies virtually every day, and in more intense and elaborate forms on special occasions, reflects the sense of alienation from our origin that was an unfortunate byproduct of the anthropological discoveries of the 19th century. But just as Lévi-Strauss refuted Lévy-Bruhl’s mentalité primitive by assimilating the “savage mind” to that of the modern bricoleur, we should emphasize less the exotic than the common elements of such fundamental human activities. That virtually every non-perfunctory personal encounter between two or more people involves at least an offer to share some kind of refreshment cannot be explained by a biological imperative.
From the point of view of GA, the fact that “God is love” is for Christians most intimately experienced in the Eucharist or its equivalent makes us realize that the Christian infusion of human affect into religious devotion, far from a symptom of mere emotionalism, is the equivalent of an etiological, that is, an originary investigation. The totalistic intuition of God’s presence that we can observe in the language of the exemplary believers that the Catholic Church canonizes is moving even to atheists, for this language incarnates the paradox of transcendence in linking the otherness of the sacred/significant to the most fundamental human needs.
La petite sainte
As an example of the Christian expression of the discourse of religious love as an acknowledgement of, and as such, an aspiration to transcend the paradox of transcendence, I offer an excerpt from the writings of the Carmelite Thérèse Martin (1873-97), France’s vastly popular petite sainte, with a statue in virtually every French church. Years ago, my Catholic ex-wife Monique and I visited les Buissonets, the modest middle-class home in Lisieux where Thérèse and her four sisters, all of whom also took the veil, had lived during her early adolescence.
Before pooh-poohing the following text as a naïve outpouring of emotion, the reader should know that John Paul II thought so highly of the theological value of Thérèse’s writings that, on the centenary of her death in 1997, he designated her as the youngest of the (only) thirty-three Doctors of the Church.
Act of Oblation to Merciful Love
[composed on the occasion of the Feast of the Trinity, June 9, 1895]
O My God! Most Blessed Trinity, I desire to Love You and make you Loved . . . I desire to accomplish Your will perfectly and to reach the degree of glory You have prepared for me in Your Kingdom. I desire, in a word, to be a Saint, but I feel my helplessness and I beg You, O my God! to be Yourself my Sanctity!
. . .
In order to live in one single act of perfect Love, I OFFER MYSELF AS A VICTIM OF HOLOCAUST TO YOUR MERCIFUL LOVE, Asking You to consume me incessantly, allowing the waves of infinite tenderness shut up within You to overflow into my soul, and that thus I may become a martyr of Your Love, O my God!
. . .
May this martyrdom, after having prepared me to appear before You, finally cause me to die and may my soul take its flight without any delay into the eternal embrace of Your Merciful Love.
I want, O my Beloved, at each beat of my heart to renew this offering to You an infinite number of times, until the shadows having disappeared I may be able to tell You of my Love in an Eternal Face to Face!
(Story of A Soul, translated [slightly modified] by Fr. John Clarke, O.C.D. Copyright (c) 1976 by Washington Province of Discalced Carmelites, ICS Publications, 2131 Lincoln Road, N.E., Washington, DC 20002 U.S.A., pp. 276-278: https://www.ewtn.com/therese/readings/readng4.htm)
What this text reveals not merely in but through its lack of sophistication is a necessarily paradoxical effort to express the transcendence of worldly language in language. Thérèse wants to be a saint, but she wants this not as an accomplishment but as a divine gift that she does not “merit,” but to which she submits. Yet the text is nonetheless a voluntary offering of herself.
The word “Holocaust” has horrible associations in the 20th century, and its victims could have taken no consolation from Thérèse’s love (although John Paul II’s calling the Jews his “elder brothers” is not likely to have occurred without it). But for our purposes here, Thérèse’s sacrifice is noteworthy for its rejection of any self-abnegating gesture. Thérèse does not need to wear a hair shirt or flagellate herself, her will is to act as though by the will of the Trinitarian God. Her desire to “renew this offering an infinite number of times” with each heartbeat can only be understood in the world as a hyperbole, but in the kingdom of God it is within the power of the sacred, of transcendence. To call it a paradox, one feels, would reduce it to metaphysics, whereas its whole point is as an expression of the faith that it is not paradoxical, that it expresses the inexpressible unity of what transcendence separates and which is, in its origin, la différance.
It is Thérèse’s exclusive focus on this union that defines faith itself to the exclusion of all else that made her Histoire d’une âme a worldwide best-seller and led to her canonization. Unlike Pascal’s soul qui cherche en gémissant, Thérèse’s surrender to love allows her to act to the limit of her forces without the Jansenist anxiety of lost grace.
Some mystics seek to leave the material world by punishing their own materiality with torture. But (as did the Buddha in a very different context), Thérèse never approved of asceticism. She saw her physical suffering and mortality as signs of her dependency on God’s grace and opportunities for the joy of submission to divine will. These sentiments are recognizable extensions of the relief felt by the participants in the originary event to be held in a state of deferral, not by their individual fear but by the sense of a “greater power” deferring their action. The fact that they could not articulate this sentiment as clearly as Thérèse is a sign not of the anachronism of this parallel, but of the unity of human history—and of the progress of the human spirit that after many millennia allowed a young woman in 1895 to express the paradox of faith so movingly.
Years ago, Richard van Oort pointed out that GA is not a religion. Nor is it a substitute for religion. Like all theoretical discourse, it can seek only to express in rational, metaphysical terms the content of faith. It traces these tools, the declarative sentence and its products, back to the originary experience whence they emerged, but it does not pretend, as does Thérèse’s or any discourse of faith, to provide its readers with a pre-metaphysical equivalent of the originary experience. To that extent, GA is compatible equally with religion and with atheism, and indeed with those intermediate states that this dichotomy expels from consideration, but with which even the most saintly, Thérèse included, have been acquainted in those moments when they doubt their link to the transcendental.
To be continued…