One point that has sometimes been made against Generative Anthropology is that the originary hypothesis and the mode of analysis that derives from it limit the universe of discourse to a single community, whereas many if not all traits of human history are inconceivable without a plurality of communities: war, the plurality of languages, polytheism and monotheism, market exchange. The anthropological significance of the plurality of societies is not merely that the Darwinian “struggle for life” leads to increased social efficiency; the interaction of human societies is cooperative as well as destructive. Although we need not speculate on how communities reach the point where they no longer recognize the common identity of their origin and of the sacred center to which they pledge allegiance, we must take into account the fact that the originary event makes such a splitting-off possible.
Insofar as humans are the animals whose greatest danger comes from themselves, their most critical source of conflict is within their own societies. But by the same token, to the extent that representational culture makes a functioning community possible, it makes inevitable the expansion of culture beyond the maintainable boundaries of a single society and its splitting into a plurality of communities. The communal solidarity created by the originary event is not a final state; it provides the individual members of society with the opportunity to engage in economically useful activities no longer in the one-on-one pattern of animal societies but focused on a common center that provides them with a criterion of usefulness, if not yet of value. This is the world of Marcel Mauss’ Essai sur le don [The Gift]. As a result of its superior organization, the newly human society will tend both to expand and to conquer and absorb surrounding protohuman groups. The subsequent division of the originary community and the “contagious” transmission of hominizing cultural values to other protohuman groups are inevitable consequences of the energies unleashed by the success of the originary event.
The relationship of a given culture to its Other is characterized, as in the episode of the Tower of Babel, by the absence of common representations of the experience both societies have inherited from the originary event. The Other culture is encountered as something monstrous that we understand through its analogy to our own “true” humanity rather than as a fellow heir of the originary scene. The strangeness of the Other lies between the transcendental otherness of the sacred center and the profane banality of the periphery, an intermediate state that Rousseau insightfully represented by the ambivalently admiring and alienating or “scapegoating” term géant in his Essai sur l’origine des langues. The interaction of cultures creates new information rather than illustrating fundamental generative paradigms. The simplest definition of the Other in anthropological terms is as that which is not amenable to the minimalism of originary analysis.
In this light, it is worth remarking that both major genres of ancient Greek literature, epic and tragedy, begin with accounts of cultural interaction. The Iliad is not simply about a war but concerns itself with both sides of the war; the same is true of the first extant tragedy, Aeschylus’ Persians. The Iliad defines the epic for all time as the story of a clash of civilizations, and although in the Odyssey the war serves as a mere backdrop for Odysseus’ local quarrel with the “suitors,” the exotic element returns in the included adventure tales, fantasies of external Otherness that are arguably what kept the second Homeric epic alive. Among Athenian tragedies, the seniority of The Persians may be fortuitous, but this example of historical Otherness should remind us of the cultural Otherness implicit in the entire mythic universe that we know from Homer, Hesiod, and their successors. The polytheistic pantheon reflects the social plurality that had come together in the Eastern Mediterranean, the first Western marketplace of goods and ideas. Philosophy too has its roots in the experience of social and linguistic plurality; like Herodotus’ story of the Egyptian pharaoh Psammetichus isolating a pair of children from speech in order to discover the oldest and presumably most “natural” language, both the motivated etymologies of the Cratylus and Plato’s defensive separation of words from Ideas can be understood only in the context of a plurality of languages.
Both the Iliad and the Persians are stories of Greek triumphs over enemies that threatened their civilization, yet both works make the defeat of their enemies occasions for mourning; the last line of the Iliad refers to Hector’s funeral rites. The cultural Other is assimilated to the otherness of the originary sacred. The “high-cultural” narrative thus founded turns on the deadly necessity of Otherness: epic depicts the inevitable violence between societies that makes obligatory the deferral of violence within, and the resentment (Achilles’ “wrath”) that results from it, whereas tragedy enacts the interaction of society with its Other as an encounter with a single protagonist, the Xerxes of the Persians being in this light a precursor of Oedipus. A further variation on this theme is the comic assimilation of Otherness through ridicule, which becomes formalized in the New Comedy or comédie de caractère in the “eccentric” comic hero: miser, misanthrope, malade imaginaire. The mimetic contagion noted by Girard in all these forms takes on a new complexion if we consider the symmetry of the tragic agon as a mode of assimilation of Otherness internal to the society, just as the symmetry of war allows the epic to depict the enemy as much like ourselves.
The esthetic moment of the originary scene is that of the contemplation of the sign in its adequacy to its sacred referent. The esthetic experience oscillates between the sign and the imaginary scene we construct with its aid; the sign represents the scene, but when we imagine the scene, we must return to the sign for confirmation. This experience differs from one art to another, but its fundamental structure remains the same; that we all have the intuition of this underlying identity is evident from the mere fact that we speak of “the arts.”
In traditional societies, and in parts of our own, the esthetic continues to exist as a contingency of the sacred context; the imaginary construct that depends on the sign is at the same time the communal sacred center, which ultimately needs no imaginary figuration, as the iconoclasm of monotheistic religion demonstrates. Secular, non-ritual art emerges in the context of Otherness. This is not simply because the Other can share our artworks but not our rituals. Art is for us, not for the Other; the Iliad does not depict the Trojans as similar to the Greeks in order to attract a Trojan clientele. What is crucial is that art serves a society that is aware of Otherness. Once we are aware of Others for whom our rituals are inaccessible, we can either assimilate the Other within our cultural imagination or take the radical step to monotheism, the denial of the validity of all other rituals and the consequent denial of legitimacy to other cultures. Hebrew monotheism is itself a mimetic reaction to the gods of Egypt and elsewhere; the culture of the One God is a refusal of Otherness. The universalization of the “god of the Hebrews” leads to a sharper if narrower intuition of the moral reciprocity of the originary event than that afforded by art, one in which each member of the community of believers is given a narrative guarantee of direct descent from a unique moment of creation.
The esthetic assimilation of the Other is not irenic: as the Trojans are given their voice in the imaginary universe, resentment emerges as the primordial literary theme within the Greek camp. Adhesion to one’s own culture becomes the problematic subject of a new form of narrative; Achilles’ wrath against Agamemnon is specific to a society facing its Other. Were Achilles and Agamemnon compatriots rather than leaders of armies allied against the Trojans, Achilles would either accept Agamemnon’s authority and put away his resentment, that is, accept to play his given role in his society’s ritual culture, or he would challenge Agamemnon for the kingship. Resentment, frustrated rage, as distinct from the cowardice or prudence that makes the weaker reluctant to face the stronger, is conceivable only within a social group whose solidarity is endangered from without.
In the Iliad the Achaians or Argives are not a compact ritual community but an ad hoc alliance of many principalities united by a military aim. The Otherness of the Trojans invades the world of the Iliad as an incentive to rationality, that is, the substitution of market for ritual exchange. In The End of Culture (1985), I developed the idea that the battlefield was the first “marketplace” in which “value” could be established–noting that the French word valeur means both value and valor. The hero of the Iliad is given the choice of a long, uneventful, meaningless life and a short, glorious, meaningful one, one that embodies his free choice to contribute to the communal effort. Within this newly instrumentalized world in which each individual makes a similar choice, the praxis of mortals becomes the subject of narration. The society now requires models for the meaning of life that in simpler times were supplied by the ritualized exchange of “gifts” that contributed to perpetuation and renewal. However unheroic literary protagonists eventually become, their creator has chosen for them glory over uneventfulness–a glory whose first task is to defend their society against the Other.
As I also noted in The End of Culture, ancient Egypt’s closest approach to secular literature occurs in about 1900 BC in the Tale of Sinuhe, which takes place in the interregnum between two pharaohs; the protagonist’s travels are a product of this gap in authority. But the denouement of the story is not the hero’s personal fulfillment or discomfiture but his welcoming back to Egypt by the new pharaoh, who erects for him a tomb on Egyptian soil. The pharaoh is no rex ex machina as in Molière’s Tartufe but a transcendent source of Being, a divinity on earth. Literature proper begins when individual resentment can no longer thus be contained within a compact ritual system; I would add here that this is the result of a confrontation with Otherness. Achilles’ resentment and its consequences, which lead to its eventual overcoming, work themselves out in the “marketplace” of the battlefield, not through the intervention of a god-king. The ritual affirmation of the primacy of one’s own society is reinforced by the esthetic practice that transcends it in the imagination. Confrontation with the Other makes art not “global” but nationalistic. To enjoy it is to adopt both its nationalism and its transcendence.
The frisson that great art arouses in us is our reaction to the imaginary possibility that human praxis, and why not our own, can have meaning, because it reproduces in itself the conditions of originary signification. The alternative, which produces a frisson of a different sort, is the adherence to the One God whose story cuts through the overgrowth of history to trace the linear descent of the children of the covenant from the moment of origin. The Bible is not a fiction, but it is a narrative without which the mere affirmation of the omnipotence of our God would be empty. If the story of Achilles offers me a model for individual praxis, the story of the Hebrews provides me with a direct link to the origin. The twin foundations of Western civilization are responses to the challenge of Otherness.