The Girardian theory of tragedy considers the tragic form as expressing a delusion concerning the heroic stature of its protagonist. His personal qualities, the fatality of his agon and its usually fatal consequences, in a word, what distinguishes Oedipus from you and me, is a mythic element designed to prettify the ugly reality that the tragic hero is no more or less than a garden variety scapegoat, chosen “arbitrarily”–say, for his swollen feet–and retrospectively accused of all sorts of horrors as a pretext for our having done away with him. The greatness of tragedy, if greatness there be, lies in the ability of its greatest masters to see through the arbitrariness of its form, so that the spectator experiences a partial revelation of the emissary mechanism that underlies all cultural phenomena. Maybe Oedipus didn’t “really” sleep with his mother; maybe he was just the victim of a familiar twelve-letter accusation. Maybe not Oedipus but a plurality of bandits really killed Laios, as Sandy Goodhart suggested in a celebrated article (“Lestas Efaske: Oedipus and Laius’ Many Murderers”; Diacritics 8, 1, Spring 1978). In his agons with Tireisias and Creon, it becomes ever clearer that, feet aside, Oedipus is not predestined for tragedy; a small deviation in the course of the agon, as in that of the chaos-theory butterfly, would have made one of his rivals the victim in his place.

This is a fascinating way to read tragedy, but once the rush of superiority has passed, one wonders why the deindividualizing agon bears tragedy’s sole truth while its noble, individualizing elements are demystified; one may even suspect that the debunking procedure is no less an arbitrary ritual of sacrifice than tragedy itself. It may be a vulgar insult to accuse Oedipus of sexual relations with his mother, but it is certainly more humiliating still to accuse the myth of making it all up. Is the ultimate anthropological truth that all human difference is arbitrary, or as they say nowadays, socially constructed?


For Girard, the originary mechanism embodies the arbitrary difference of which tragedy is made, based as it is on the violentméconnaissance that culminates in the lynching of a fellow human, whose exclusion is the foundation of the nascent community. But the originary event does not require the centrality of an arbitrarily chosen human scapegoat. It is more parsimonious, on the contrary, to hypothesize that the human occupation of the sacrificial center was a later development; the myths Girard used to corroborate his human-scapegoat theory reflect the Big-Man stage of social evolution rather than its equalitarian inception. But in the absence of such a figure, the universal human reciprocity of the originary scene, having dissolved all prior differences, lacks a basis for tragic narrative. If culture begins with all humans acting in harmony, then anything tragic in the human condition can be explained only by a falling-away from originary perfection.

It might be alleged that it is resentment occasioned by the originary difference between the sacred referent and the sign by which we designate it that is the prior source of our resentment against our fellow human beings. My resentment of firstness on a human scale is but the shadow of my originary resentment of the central object whose sacrality survives its physical dissolution through the persistence of the sign. The “tragedy” of the human condition is sometimes described in terms of the tension between body and soul, the worldly mortality of the human being and the immortality of the signs by which he communicates. But in order for this originary tension to give rise to the human agon of tragedy, there must exist a human analogue to the absolute difference of the central object.

Adam Katz’s suggestion that firstness is present in the originary scene provides the originary hypothesis with the basis of a minimal theory of tragedy. Katz observed that in the most parsimonious description of the event in which the participants exchange the “aborted gesture of appropriation” that becomes the sign, someone goes first. The originary reciprocal exchange of signs that creates the human by deferring the conflict attendant on shared mimetic desire plausibly begins with some individual taking the initiative and subsequently being imitated by his fellows. The importance of Katz’s emendation of the hypothesis is not simply in helping us better to visualize the hypothetical originary event. It gives ontological status to the fact that mimetic phenomena, however dedifferentiating, are characterized by differences, and that rather than ofeffacement we should rather speak of the deferral of such differences. Even if at the outset the initiative of the “first” user of the sign confers no advantage and presumably goes unrecognized by the participants who imitate his action, as human culture evolves, the extension of the deferral of conflict that the act of signification brings about will plausibly lead to a growing awareness of these differences. Whereas in Girard’s formulation the only difference created by the originary human act–stipulating for the moment that the “emissary mechanism” can be conceived of as having a punctual beginning–is that between the many and the one, the mob and the victim, the originary hypothesis entails without the necessity for further presuppositions a differentiation within the group supplementary to the “absolute” difference between the sign and its object. Without this secondary category of difference, not merely the future usurpation of the center by the Big Man but the deferred alternation of the Maussian exchange-system that structures premodern society would require a supplementary hypothesis. For one clan to hold the totem feast this month while the neighboring clan awaits its turn requires confidence that firstness is not asymmetric superiority but merely deferral of reciprocity, and the basis for this confidence can most parsimoniously be found in the originary event.

The presumption that originary firstness precedes and is absorbed by the reciprocal exchange that defers mimetic violence helps to explain the familiar intuition that tragedy is the supreme narrative expression of the “human condition.” The firstness of the tragic hero is not the passive consequence of his selection by the mob. Although the divinity originates in the (presumably animal) victim of the originary feast, the human complement to the victim’s passive uniqueness is the active assumption of firstness, which is the originary source of the Big Man’s and eventually the king’s assumption of central power. Tragedy derives its narrative energy from the resentment aroused by the usurpation of the center, but this usurpation has its roots in the “egalitarian” moment of origin.

Suppose firstness were not a human necessity; suppose all the participants in the originary event emitted the sign simultaneously. The tension between human mortality and semiotic immortality would still exist. Even if I never dreamt of resenting my fellow man, I would resent the sacred object whose being I could never possess. But how could this emotion be confined to the sacred? Even if the difference between me and the sacred is “absolute” and that between me and an Other only relative, how could the resentment of ontological injustice not spread by analogy to the real or fancied injustices of daily life? To construct the originary hypothesis without the category of firstness is to make inessential the differential temporality of human action, with its potential for opacity and suspicion, and consequently to foreclose the possibility of understanding what configuration permits the extension of originary resentment of the sacred into resentment of our fellow humans.


The rehabilitation of the tragic is not a refutation of the anthropological revelation contained in Christianity. What it puts into question is the linear vision of history that makes Christianity the bearer of the entire anthropological truth latent in tragedy. Christianity entails an ethically higher level of human organization than tragedy, the creation of a society whose labor was performed by slaves. But had Christian Europe’s advance in social organization, which would eventually generate modern bourgeois society, simply “transcended” classical culture, Christianity would not have struggled over the past half-millennium to defend itself against secularization. That the traditional story of the Renaissance that links the emergence of bourgeois society to the rebirth of classical culture, if not of the political and economic organization that accompanied it, errs in denigrating the Christian component of its origins, is no justification for denying the tension between Christian faith and what our analysis allows us to understand as the individual assumption of the tragic necessity of firstness that characterizes classical culture.

The tension is not between faith and its absence but between minimal and maximal degrees of faith, to which correspond the converse degrees of the personal assumption of firstness. All human existence is founded on faith in the shared transcendence of representation–minimally, of language–and consequently on originary sacred difference and the resentment of this difference. Tragedy depends on this minimal faith; we are all bearers of difference, on the model of sacred difference but incompatible with it, provoking resentment that no sacred ritual can contain. In contrast, Christian faith maximally conflates sacred difference with human firstness, thereby transforming our resentment of firstness into worship. In Science and Faith (1989), I proposed that the key event of Christian revelation occurs on the road to Damascus: when Jesus appears to Saul as the one he persecutes, he makes him realize that the very fact of persecution is equivalent to worship, that hostile obsession with the Other is the sign of the divinity of that Other. Saul’s conviction of the necessary connection between persecution and worship, as embodied in his vision of Jesus, reflects his awareness of the movement that Jesus had led and the experience of its troubling persistence after his crucifixion. One persecutes what one resents, and what Saul resented in Jesus was no doubt the posthumous persistence of his firstness in the face of this humiliating punishment–a personal exemplification of the curse of the “chosen people” of which Saul was well aware.

By accepting to make this one human being responsible–as would later be said, as a “person of the Trinity”–for transcendence itself, by accepting the divinity of human firstness, Saul freed himself from the burden of resentment. The mystery of the cross is the conflation of the firstness of the human whose aborted gesture first expressed renunciation of the central object with the sacrificial status of that object itself. The two modes of difference that together constitute the originary scene, that of the object whose appetitive attractiveness is converted into sacred significance and that of the individual who inaugurates this significance by signaling his withdrawal from the symmetry of potential mimetic conflict, are brought together in the person of the crucified Jesus.

This suggests the originary analysis of Christian faith as the assertion of the identity of these two modes of difference, that of the human utterer of the sign and that of its sacred referent, as expressed most succinctly in John’s “In the beginning was the logos.” With this analysis in mind, we can understand the phenomenon of monotheism prior to Christianity as a more austere form of this conflation in which the unique God is identical to the sacred, to transcendence itself, and is consequently the model of human firstness, without however being identical to it. Christian faith in this identity is maximal, or as in Tertullian’s famous credo, absurd. It includes and transcends tragedy in the sense that Jesus’ agon is the model for all firstness; but it abolishes it at the same time through the faith that the mortal incarnation of transcendence is for all humans the abolition of mortality itself. By identifying our resentment of the Other with our fundamental resentment of the divinity, Saul’s revelation makes of our resentment the sign of our transcendence of death. Man and God are revealed to have the same fundamental ontology.

The Christian is expected to turn all his resentment of human firstness toward Christ and abolish it in contemplating the agony of the crucifixion. Throughout the Middle Ages this remained the principle of a ritual-based society, one full of violence and sin but within which violence and sin could be contained. What the Renaissance discovered that returned tragedy to the stage was the social necessity of firstness in human relations–not the anointed king’s divinely sanctioned firstness but that of Hobbes’ Leviathan and more generally of the bourgeois “freed slave,” whose activity would henceforth increasingly be structured by human desire, the “private vice” that, as Mandeville would note, produced market society’s “public benefits.” The functioning of the social order would be increasingly less compatible with directing all resentment to the divinity as its universal mediator.

The resuscitation of tragedy by the bourgeois exchange system was not a negation of but a supplement to the Pauline revelation. Since the coming of Christ, to enter on the tragic stage was no longer the universal human fate, but the Renaissance hero returns to it nevertheless, caught in a mechanism of firstness and resentment that he understands from without but with which his society’s surviving ritual order obliges or tempts him to engage. Hamlet is even less than Oedipus an arbitrarily chosen victim; he relishes his victimary role and would prolong it indefinitely in the familiar posture of the man of resentment who defines firstness as disaffection from the scene. The Girard who best understood Hamlet is not the author of “Hamlet’s Dull Revenge,” which makes him like Oedipus a scapegoat for our bloodlust, but that of the Dostoevskian analyses of Mensonge romantique.