I have a graduate student, whose name will go here unmentioned, who snickers every time I mention words like “ritual” or “sacrifice,” and breaks into a big smile at “anthropology,” with or without “generative.” My student smiles at GA in the same way as we react to the fanatic who gives the same answer to every question–say, the antisemite who blames everything on the Jews. In her perspective, “anthropology” is my mantra, “ritual” or “sacrifice” my a priori answer to every cultural question. This is the simplest form of comedy, what Bergson called du mécanique plaqué sur du vivant [the mechanical adhering to the living]; we anticipate the other’s “mechanical” response and reward ourselves with laughter for our good judgment.
She is not unique; I still recall my late colleague Joe Riddel referring to Girard’s La violence et le sacré as “the sacrifice book.” People like Riddel belong to the world of demystifying “theory” within which, since the days of Raymond Picard’s dinosaur-literary-historian Nouvelle critique ou nouvelle imposture (1965)–and its far milder equivalents here from text-respecting New Critics–there has been virtually no conflict. Some people attacked deconstruction when Paul de Man was found to have written that antisemitic article, but decon’s mainstream critical successors in the various victimary-identity collectives have no quarrel with its attacks on “phallogocentrism,” which they merely deflect in a more obviously political direction. “Theory” is not something to smile at; it is built on politically sensitive dichotomies that make each text into a minefield–woe be it to the neophyte who chooses hegemony over oppression, the symbolic over the imaginary… Its Manichean dualism violently rejects GA’s minimalist monism.
Generative thinking strikes the impatient mind as reductive thinking, an arbitrary grid placed on the blooming buzzing confusion of empirical reality. Why not just be cultural empiricists and talk about stories, films, even religious rites, “in themselves,” without any a priori preconceptions? If it’s all “human” anyway, what do we gain by deciding before we start that the human has certain “originary” structures and hypothesizing what they might have been, or by reminding ourselves that esthetic forms derive historically from sacrificial ritual?
But the point isn’t just to say “sacrificial,” but to show how a given story is structured sacrificially. Tracing the cultural work’s originary derivation doesn’t rob it of its specificity but situates it in human history. This is the “Hegelian” aspect of GA; a historically existing reality is defined by its place in our open-ended movement of deepening ethical self-consciousness and the ever-new degrees of freedom it permits us to generate.
The skeptical cultural empiricist might reply that the visible traces of historical derivation contained in cultural works are sufficient to our understanding of them; those traces that have become so obscure that only cultural “archeology” can detect them are by that very fact no longer relevant. In analyzing a Hollywood film, it’s only necessary to examine it in the context of other films to which it makes reference; to go back to film’s sources in literature, let alone in sacrificial ritual, just introduces extraneous categories that history has in fact refined out of existence. Sure, Arnold blowing away bad guys is a sacrificial gesture, but neither the filmmaker, the spectator nor, the empiricist will claim, the analyst, has to know about this, because it’s been “discounted” by the film’s cultural context. The term “sacrifice” adds nothing to “blowing away bad guys,” because the latter implies all we need know of the sacrificial–all we need to know, that is, to produce the next Arnold film, where the bad guys’ costumes and the technical means of their annihilation will be different but the formula will be the same.
This is not a trivial challenge. I would even say that it is more serious than the challenge posed by “theory,” whose appetite for demystification is directed at a narrow university-based clientele. Cultural empiricism, in the person of my skeptical student, forces us to rethink the purpose of cultural analysis and how reference to the originary function of cultural phenomena (“originary analysis”) can help us to accomplish it.
The answer clearly cannot be given in the abstract. If all we know about a film is that Arnold “blows away bad guys,” a reference to the sacrificial can be no more than a pointer in the right direction. The value of GA’s minimalist anthropological paradigm is not in reducing the diversity of the cultural to a predictable set of originary structures, but permitting us to grasp the consciousness of and concomitant freedom within the originary structure embodied by the cultural work. As I have been emphasizing in recent columns, the cultural sphere functions only by supplying ever new degrees of freedom or “empowerment” to its audience. Some of these imaginary freedoms may be trivial indeed, but even Arnold’s “blowing away” will not work at the box office unless there is some new technological or other wrinkle that enriches the spectator’s imagination, his virtual toolbox of meanings.
Originary analysis cannot substitute for historical research; the more links one knows of the chain connecting the specific historical work to the origin, the more clearly one understands its unique contribution to the generative process. But without an anthropological paradigm, historical analysis has no overall point; it merely relates works to their ancestors by ad hoc criteria. Originary analysis allows us to see the persistence of the originary function of the work underneath its historical modifications and to understand these modifications as modes of cultural self-consciousness that permit the creation of ever-new meanings and means of meaning-production.
Some examples are in order. I’ll first briefly remind the reader of my recent discussion of Hamlet. Here the sacrificial structure of tragedy is evident, but that’s not what’s interesting about this play. My student may snicker at “the deferral of violence through representation,” but in Hamlet one sees this not merely in the overall structure of the play, but in the hero’s new way of representing the scene of representation to himself, self-consciously deferring the violence of his revenge and thereby enriching the cultural imagination. Another case I’ve discussed is that of Madame Bovary. Here again, Emma’s death at the end is “tragic,” including a Romantic element of ironic disillusion–her deathbed laughter at hearing the blind beggar’s song. But that’s not the original feature of this novel, which lies rather in Emma’s ability to defer her final self-sacrifice through her creativity in assigning significance to actions and persons with the aid of consumer goods. Hers is a less self-conscious reflection on the scene of desire, but it is a reflection nonetheless, one with a vast future ahead of it.
For a final and more probatory example, I take not a single work but a century of literary history dear to my scholarly heart. How can we understand the evolution of nineteenth-century French lyric poetry from Romanticism to Symbolism? No overview can do justice to any single poem. Yet such analyses are necessary if we are to have any notion of literary history. When one reads a poem by Lamartine or by Mallarmé, one wants to have a preliminary idea of its place in the tradition to which it belongs. What is needed is a general framework within which the evolution of the various elements of lyric can be understood.
Arguably the central element in all this poetry is the elegiac celebration by the male poet of a victimary female figure. This is already a favorite theme of the 18th century (Chénier, Parny…), but it is given a new strength by Lamartine, whose Méditations (1820), 19th century France’s first poetic best-seller, center on the poet’s love for his late mistress. Of these twenty-four poems, one, “Le lac,” is remembered far better than any other; it is structured as a scene of sacrifice in two temporal moments, the first, where the poet listens to his mistress lament the passage of time on the lake, and the second, when he returns, presumably after her death, to the lake shore and “speaks” the poem. The lake’s closure allows the poet to assimilate Nature to the scene of ritual generation of meaning.
If we now turn to Mallarmé’s late poetry, written eighty years after the Méditations, we find scenes of a female and, finally, a male figure’s sacrifice, often but not always through drowning, as the foundation of the symbolic order exemplified by the constellation Ursa Major (best known for the seven-star “big dipper”). The personal story of poet and mistress, the pictorial tableau, the appeal to nature are gone, replaced by the overtly speculative interrogation of an empty scene as the locus of a foundational sacrifice at the origin of meaning.
An empirical analysis could discover parallels in theme and structure between the two poets; but only from a generative standpoint can we understand the elimination of the personal as a deepening of anthropological self-consciousness, which is at the same time ethical self-consciousness. This deepening is concomitant with the sharpening of the poet’s critique of the centralization of the object of sexual desire on which lyric poetry itself depends. Where Lamartine laments Elvire’s “natural” death, Mallarmé describes this death as the result of violence. His final abandonment of the sacrificed female (siren, “nixe,” or Amazon), implicitly condemning the male-voiced lyric tradition for its exploitation of the woman-Other’s physical mortality, is thus a liberating or “empowering” gesture on the plane of gender relations.
Mallarmé’s poetry is the clearest example of the informing of literary production by anthropological self-consciousness; he discovers and expels the sacrificial element within lyric in the course of reflection on lyric itself. The modernist lyric, on whose turning-away from love poetry Mallarmé (via such writers as Valéry and Eliot) was arguably the central influence, is still reluctant to return to it, no doubt for fear of endangering the empowerment he effected.
There is no formula for the generation of new cultural works; it is rather these works that generate new possibilities for giving meaning to experience. Works of popular culture, such as the latest Arnold epic, can be created without fundamental anthropological reflection; but only through such reflection can the process of creation be renewed through self-understanding and raised thereby to a higher ethical level. Whether or not this is now taking place, it is crucial to leave the possibility open for the future. In particular, as I have also been saying recently (see Chronicles 96 &103), I think the time is ripe for a post-Mallarmean renewal of the lyric tradition in the context of today’s less sacrificial, more reciprocal gender relations. A prospect that even my skeptical student might find intriguing.