This column is dedicated to the memory of Nicholas Collaros, my deeply regretted young colleague in the UCLA French Department, who died on Sunday, July 23.
I haven’t forgotten James Williams’ reply to my point that resentment can be expressed more sharply than love. I must thank him for giving me the opportunity to sharpen my own language. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that expressions of resentment are more powerful than acts of love, although in the absence of the former, the latter lose their urgency as acts, as reader preferences for the Inferno over the Paradiso, or for Milton’s Satan over his Christ suggest. I was referring not to the concreteness of such acts , but to their inarticulateness in contrast with the resentful imagination. Since resentment is a reaction to an already-constituted scene, it is representational from the outset and lends itself to precise articulation. Jenny can even tell us the number of sails and cannon on the ship that will come to avenge her.
Jim’s examples illustrate this very point. The scene of Christ kissing the Inquisitor–or even better, the one where Father Zossima bows down before Dmitri–derives its power as an expression of love precisely from its ostensivity, its showing rather than telling. In contrast to Jenny’s dream of vengeance, these gestures of love involve representation not as already constituted in words but as a primal act of designation. The makers of these gestures could not have expressed their love in words. Such an act is not a use of language but a founding of language. The sign is a new form of the originary name-of-God, addressed to a sinner in whom Christ or his surrogate discerns our human identity with the figure whose act of self-sacrifice is our civilization’s most significant archetype of the act of love.
To make the comparison in more rigorous terms, we may say that love is to the ostensive as resentment is to the declarative. Love defines a new significance, whereas resentment is parasitic on an old one. This is pretty close to Jim’s description of the distinction in terms of the relative originarity of human relationships; we need only remind ourselves that the fundamental forms of human relationships are precisely those we find incarnated in the forms of representation.
The point above about sacrifice reminds us of Girard’s insistence that the Crucifixion is not a sacrifice but the demystification of all sacrifice. We should not conceive of God as a father sacrificing his son for the benefit of mankind. But neither should we see the latter as a passive victim of human violence. Jesus on the cross figures the founding paradox of the human. On the one hand, he is wholly a man, suffering as one who cannot help but suffer. But we must also think of him as God, that is, as Being with no need to incarnate himself in human flesh, one whose endurance of suffering is wholly voluntary. The act of love embodied in the Crucifixion can be figured only by the most paradoxical, and therefore the most foundational of images, the one that inspired the phrase credo quia absurdum. The crucified’s words, most notably his Eli, Eli…, are secondary to his deed. What matters is not the representation he creates, but the paradoxical representation he becomes: that of the sacrifical victim as God–a figure who inspires not compassion but tenderness, as I will explain in another column. The mob, in contrast, sees in the Crucifixion the satisfaction of its desire: the image of Jesus on the cross, paradoxical as a figure of love, is unambiguous as a figure of resentment.
Once again, the moment of love is the moment of ostension, of presence and renunciation. The moment of resentment, in contrast, occurs after the sign has been emitted, when peace is assured, at which point adoration of central Being is transformed into the desire to obliterate it, to defigure the figure that preserved the community from violence. But the resentful dream of defiguration is parasitic, as are all such dreams, on the figure that concentrates in itself the mimetic power the resentful subject wishes to destroy.
I shall conclude this column with some reflections that Nick Collaros’s death and funeral service inspired.
I have always insisted that our unique knowledge of our own mortality is a product of the originary event; because humanity threatens to become the cause of its own death, death must be deferred by human action. Our Heideggerian “living for death” originates in our awareness of the necessity of this deferral.
In a powerful passage, Pascal described humanity as a group of prisoners some of whom are put to death every day in front of the others, who await their turn with no hope of being spared. The Greek Orthodox priest at Nick’s funeral service expressed this same vision with a quite different metaphor: because we were, as he said, all “terminal,” Nick’s death offers all of us an opportunity to reflect on the final value of our own lives. Pascal’s prisoners must wager on God because their lives are worthless without the hope of salvation. This “no atheists in the foxholes” argument supports the originary hypothesis; prayer in extremis repeats the use of the sign to defer violence and death in the originary scene. There in the church, we each entered a personal foxhole in which we saw the vision of our own death.
My own reaction provides existential proof of the underlying identity of the priest’s and Pascal’s vision. At the ceremony I had been aware of the uncomfortable presence of a colleague with whom I had never gotten along. The effect of the priest’s words was to make me feel impelled to overcome my resentment and make toward him a gesture of friendship. The memento mori didn’t make me feel like seeking to prolong my life-span by improving my diet or exercising more assiduously; it made me feel the need to avert conflict with my fellow man.
The power of the central being of the originary scene to defer our conflicts is not founded on guilt at his murder, as in Freud’s view, or in the exhaustion of our aggressive energy, as in Girard’s, but on the love, the reflection of our own mimetic desire, that emanates from the center. How petty our little quarrels seem in the face of death! But we do not hope to avoid physical death through loving each other. The immortality in which the scene of death inspires us to participate is not that of our individual selves, but of the shared world of signs that is the foundation of the human community. Nick’s death is exemplary as a figure not of fear but of shared renunciation; by abandoning life in the world, he becomes a representation of immortal Being, just as the originary central object, disfigured in the sparagmos, reveals to us the permanence of the Being–undecidably person and Idea–that sustains the human.
In my previous column, I promised to analyze the expression “I love you” in the light of the relationship between love and originary language; I will get back to this next week.