This is the second part of the talk delivered at the joint COV&R-GASC meeting held in Tokyo July 5-9. The first part is found in the previous Chronicle.
Girard’s remarks on the Holocaust situate it in the context of his vision of Western society as increasingly reflecting the Judeo-Christian concern for victims (le souci des victimes). Thus he understands the Nazis as in essence disciples of Nietzsche, reflecting the latter’s original and perverse insight into the victimary vocation of the West. For Girard, Nazi antisemitism is a reaction to Nietzsche’s revelatory understanding that post-Enlightenment Western society, “secular” in appearance, remains dominated by the Christian, victimary values whose “decadence” he denounces. This revelation of the victimary, whatever we think of it, is the source of a new “degree of freedom”: once we become aware that the victimary is indeed the direction the world is taking, and if this world, as Germans after WWI were likely to find, is going badly, then a political doctrine designed explicitly for combating the concern for victims—which was to adopt over time Mussolini’s term of fascism, sticking together without concern for outsiders—became a political possibility.
Girard’s analysis strikes me as an excellent starting point for the explanation of the Holocaust, provided we integrate into it the notion of Jewish firstness. Nietzsche saw clearly enough that it was Jewish monotheism, with its insistence on universal moral equality among human beings under One God, that was at the origin of the Christian care for victims. (Girard too has always insisted on this. In a moving passage in Des choses cachées, he insists that Judaism is the ultimate worldly religion, of which Christianity is more the deconstruction than the successor—that there can be no such religion superior to that of the Pharisees, which is indeed the basis of modern, “Talmudic” Judaism.) By morally equating the Jews with “vermin,” Hitler could claim to be purging the human race of egalitarian-victimary sensibilities that were in effect extraneous to the human essence, so to speak rewriting the originary event. Nietzsche’s analysis was of particular value for Hitler, because in describing Christian “slave morality” as of Jewish origin, Nietzsche, despite his repudiation of antisemitism, performs the classic antisemitic gesture of eliminating through denial the Jewish claim to firstness. Unconcerned with chronology, Nietzsche presents the Jews and their Christian heirs as usurpers of what should have remained a heroic mode of centrality; for Nietzsche, Achilles’ noble “rage” has nothing in common with le ressentiment. Hence the myth that presents the “Aryan race” as the truly “first” authors of Western civilization, corrupted by Jewish-Christian slave morality, and whose values the Nazis will restore. Ominously, the Nazi denial of the historical firstness of the Jews eliminates the witnessing role they had played within Christian society and that protected them at least in principle from genocide.
Here are the chief points about the Holocaust in Je vois Satan tomber comme un éclair:
Le but spirituel de l’hitlérisme, à mon avis, était d’arracher l’Allemagne d’abord, l’Europe ensuite à la vocation que lui assigne sa tradition religieuse, le souci des victimes. (264)
[The spiritual aim of Hitlerism, in my opinion, was to free first Germany and then all of Europe from the vocation assigned to it by its religious tradition, the concern for victims.]
[Les Nazis] s’appuyaient dans ce domaine sur le penseur qui a découvert la vocation victimaire du christianisme, sur le plan anthropologique, Frédéric Nietzsche. (264-5)
[[The Nazis] relied in this domain on the thinker who discovered the victimary vocation of Christianity as an anthropological phenomenon, Friedrich Nietzsche.]
Dans certains inédits de la dernière période, Nietzsche évite la double erreur positiviste et post-moderne et découvre la vérité que je ne fais que répéter après lui . . . dans la passion dionysiaque et dans la passion de Jésus c’est la même violence collective mais l’interprétation est différente . . . (265)
[In certain unpublished writings of his last period, Nietzsche avoids the double error, positivist and postmodern [of seeing either facts without interpretation or interpretation without facts], and discovers the truth that I am only repeating after him: . . . in the Dionysian passion and the passion of Jesus, the same collective violence is at work but the interpretation is different.]
Pour discréditer le judéo-chrétien, Nietzsche s’efforce de montrer que sa prise de position en faveur des victimes s’enracine dans un ressentiment mesquin. . . . C’est la fameuse « morale des esclaves ». (267)
[To discredit the Judeo-Christian, Nietzsche attempts to show that its stand on behalf of victims has its roots in petty resentment. . . . This is the famous “slave morality.”]
And following the defeat and revelation of the horrors of Nazism, we have the victimary postmodern world of today, obsessed with victims to the point of suspecting even the most potentially creative modes of firstness:
Loin d’étouffer le souci des victimes, [l’entreprise hitlérienne] a accéléré ses progrès mais l’a complètement démoralisé. L’hitlérisme se venge de son échec en désespérant le souci des victimes, en le rendant caricatural. (271)
[Far from snuffing out concern for victims, [the Hitlerian enterprise] only accelerated its progress, but has left it completely demoralized. Hitlerism has avenged its failure by making the concern for victims despairing and caricatural.]
The Judeo-Christian West, although it continues to play the predominant role, no longer simply dominates our “global” planet; its fundamental anthropology, which Girard has done so much to elucidate, is no longer without significant challenge. In particular, in addition to Ahmadinejad’s threats to ignore no first use = don’t cast the first stone and use the Bomb, militant Islam has taken advantage of the victimary climate of the West both to terrorize it with the accusation of Islamophobia and to take an unapologetic stance in asserting its claim of unique religious validity. Aside from the most backward Communist tyrannies, no non-Muslim country would dream of excluding churches of other religions, forbidding the possession of their religious materials, let alone executing converts to them. The contrast is quite obvious with the “oikophobic” West, which scarcely protests, let alone attempts to prevent such practices, which include the persecution of Christians in many countries (such as recently in Egypt). Part of the difficulty of the current Syrian civil war is that religious minorities like Christians prefer the protection of the Alawite dictatorship with all its brutality to the (Sunni) Islamic forces that are likely to prevail if the former is overthrown.
What in this is of anthropological interest, both theoretical and practical, is that a world that has learned the lessons of WWII, that has become “Judeo-Christian” to an often caricatural extent, treating every Other as a potential victim and every act of the Other’s violence as an occasion for forbearance—such a world is vulnerable to a strategy that rejects forbearance (since God is great and man exists only to serve him, man can, indeed, must exercise total violence on his behalf) and rejects concern for victims (since the “victims” of God’s true religion are apostates who deserve their fate), except insofar as its users can manipulate their enemies into feeling that they have made them into victims.
The reason this logic is not more salient is simply that the West remains confident in its technological and military superiority. We have seen that this superiority is anything but an external contingency. It is the worldly confirmation of faith in the Judeo-Christian anthropology whose liberating force on the human front has permitted a qualitatively more massive transfer of initiative / firstness to the natural world of things, and ultimately to the constructed cultural subset of this world, the laboratory, from which have emerged the theoretical discoveries of natural science that in their turn have made possible our technological progress.
Were it not for this superiority in dealing with the natural world, which even after the end of “total war” continues to be tested on the field of battle, what we think of as the West’s superior insight into the origin of humanity would not only lose influence through military defeat, its very value as anthropology would be called into question. In the long term, the capacity of an “anthropology” to serve as the foundation for the most successful society is the highest proof that it grasps the fundamental truth behind human social organization. Or to put it a bit differently, the anthropology, religious or other, that liberates humans to operate on natural reality with the most degrees of freedom is prima facie the most effective theorizer of the human itself.
No one can deny the West’s historical status of firstness with respect to natural science and the weaponry that derives from it. Yet firstness is a mode of deferral, not of ontological differentiation; it cannot confer permanent superiority. And now that the techniques of war are approaching their “ultimate” limit, by dint of the anthropological superiority of its Judeo-Christian heritage, the West may be said to have prepared the ultimate test of the eternal struggle between the irrational and the rational, connaissance and méconnaissance, or to put it in still more characteristically Girardian terms, the logos of violence and the logos of peace.
Iran’s quest for atomic weapons may then be seen as a test of the relative anthropological truth of the Judeo-Christian and the Islamic traditions. What has empowered the Islamism of recent years is quite simply moral outrage at the kind of modernity that Christianity has made possible. Sayyid Qutb’s focal position in this movement reflects his reaction to the “decadence” of American life in Colorado in the late 1940s; we need not imagine how he would have reacted today, because we have plenty of evidence. Well, these traditional societies, brutally confining to women, whom they oblige to maintain high birth rates, limiting “knowledge” to the Koran, hostile to any form of self-expression, do have a point, even from the perspective of containing violence. For one thing, they don’t defer enough violence to evolve the ideas of nuclear physics and generate atomic bombs. But now the paradox has come home to roost in the confrontation between the traditional and the modern made possible by penetration of the scientific, technological, and above all, military revelations of the West into an increasingly global marketplace. The originary paradox with which the human began cannot be “transcended,” not even by the Prince of Peace himself. If our fate is now “in our hands,” we have only gone in a vast circle back to our beginnings.
I have had more than one occasion to write about the 1959 Resnais-Duras film Hiroshima mon amour that opened the postmodern era. In this film, as you probably recall, the Japanese and even the Germans are characterized not by massacres and militarism, but by vulnerability. The war is no longer seen as it was by those who fought in it, as a struggle between good and evil, but as an unfortunate eruption of violence among brothers. It matters not who began the fight, nor who had “justice” on their side; the important thing is that it is over, and it is for the winners to offer sympathy and protection to the losers. Hiroshima is the symbol of Japan’s loss of the war, and the heroine’s dead German soldier-lover is likewise a representative not of the Nazi occupation of France but of Germany’s defeat. Love is accepting to see the losers in this light, as victims. This film sheds a positive light on the hypervictimary attitudes of the postmodern era.
But Resnais’ film was made over fifty years ago, at a time when the winners could afford to be generous and the losers to be grateful for their generosity. Things are different today. Perhaps we may find a cautionary pendant to Hiroshima mon amour in Lars von Trier’s remarkable recent film, Melancholia. In striking contrast to Resnais’ picture of love and rebirth, von Trier’s film ends with the total destruction of the Earth. This destruction is presented as an astronomical event, and when I first heard of this, I imagined that Melancholia was just one more silly sci-fi disaster film. Not at all. A planet bearing the eponymous name Melancholia invades our solar system and destroys the earth. It is a fantastic and daring objective correlative of the depression of the main character, played by Kirsten Dunst, who expresses in extreme terms the oikophobia that has infected the West. To quote her climactic lines from the film: “the Earth is evil, life on Earth is evil, nobody will miss it.”
An apocalyptic fantasy. But René Girard has taught us to respect Apocalypse. And I fear there may be more realistic, more human objective correlatives to this sentiment than rogue planets afoot in the world today.