Some people have attributed the recent murders in Aurora to “radical evil.” I think there is indeed a sense in which this category applies, but a concept with so many connotations must be defined rigorously lest it become no more than a pretentious way of distancing oneself from something ugly. For if we seek a specific mark of Cain that makes one person in many millions capable of committing such horrible acts, we are forced to realize that, whatever proximate cause may push a given individual over the edge—and whether, as I rather doubt, those particularly vulnerable to such pushes can be identified in advance in any useful way—the force that pushes is a universal one. Its name, as my reader may already have surmised, is simply resentment. GA is a minimization of common sense, which explains why after 30 years of research and speculation its fundamental principles have never been disconfirmed—and perhaps also why knowledge of it remains limited to the happy few readers of these Chronicles and Anthropoetics. GA’s very anonymity, my complaints about which in a recent Chronicle drew some admonitions from our gentle critic Matthew Taylor, whom I had the pleasure of seeing recently in Japan, may just as well be made part of the explanation. Incidentally, the Davies Group, which has published a number of GA books, beginning in 2007 with Adam Katz’s collective The Originary Hypothesis and including last year’s A New Way of Thinking, is located in Aurora, Colorado.
A couple thousand years ago, one Herostratus is said to have burnt down the temple of Artemis at Ephesus so that people would remember him. And, despite the efforts of the Ephesian authorities, so we do. And so we continue to do on a lesser scale for Herostratus’ copycats through the ages, including the Aurora killer, whose name I will not do him the favor of repeating. These may be called the antiheroes of resentment, willing to accept opprobrium as the price of significance. I don’t have to tell you how many times you’ve seen my picture on the front page of your local newspaper. But if I donned a suit of body armor and shot up a movie theater… No doubt the Aurora murderer, like the would-be killer of Gabrielle Giffords, is “insane” and cannot be judged by criteria I would apply to myself. I can talk about emulating him, but you know very well this isn’t going to happen. But just because I have a moral sense that prevents me from going out and randomly killing people (the “simplest” act of Surrealism, as you may recall—descendre dans la rue et tirer au hasard dans la foule [to go down in the street and shoot at random into the crowd]—Surrealism being a movement of self-conscious publicity seekers, as are most artists, especially in Paris) doesn’t mean that Mr. X and I don’t share the same desires and motivations. Nor, I would insist, does it mean that we don’t share the same moral sense. It is only that he was able to overcome his for the purposes of his act.
Laure Murat, my colleague at UCLA, has won acclaim for her meticulous and insightful study of the archives of French mental hospitals, L’homme qui se prenait pour Napoléon [The Man who Took Himself for Napoleon] (Gallimard, 2011). Laure’s analysis of the hallucinations of insane individuals who see themselves as Napoleon or Louis XVI leads her to the conclusion that these fevered imaginations follow political trends, that is, that they tend to see themselves in roles that the general public perceives as charismatic. Or in other words, the insane, just like everyone else, identify with celebrities, only more so. An important consequence of which is that, like everyone else, the insane experience the resentful frustration of not being celebrities, only more so.
In the Aurora case, the “celebrity” identified with by the killer was a fictional character (Bain… er, Bane) who in this latest Batman version, so they tell me, is the perpetrator of horribly sadistic crimes. Since history is ongoing, the question as to whether the sadism of popular culture tends to provoke imitation or better defer it is the very model of undecidability, but so far, deferral may be said to be winning. Steven Pinker optimistically points out that historically, violence has declined over the long term; modern society is orders of magnitude less violent than tribal society. One could even make the case that the excessive spectacularization of mass crimes such as Aurora reduces the number of future crimes by exhausting the publicitary energy available for such horrors, paradoxically raising the bar for future copycats. But to ask such questions is both to display and to compound their undecidability. Let us recall our recent discussion of the deferring effect of The Bomb, which “perpetuates” peace, until the moment when…
To explain what happened in Aurora, we need make one further point. Herostratus’ destructive action was not concerned with people but with sacred space. He didn’t shoot up the agora (and no doubt mass killing is a much more difficult proposition in the absence of modern explosives); he destroyed the city’s most celebrated temple. No doubt we have experienced acts that similarly destroy a sacred space, and where people are killed as well; we need only recall 9/11. But these attacks on monumental edifices (World Trade Center, Pentagon, White House) are generally politically motivated; they attack an order (call it “Western capitalism”) for the benefit of another order (call it “Islam”). Similarly, T. McVeigh was making a political statement by blowing up the Murrah building in Oklahoma City. In contrast, Herostratus’ was not a political act; we assume that in Ephesus, whether one worshiped or not at the temple, as a citizen one was presumed to identify with it; there was no “anti-Artemis” faction, or at any rate supporting such a faction was not H’s point. Today’s apolitical publicity seekers in the mold of Herostratus eschew monuments and simply kill people. For one thing, “human life” in modern societies is felt as more precious than in the past. But above all, assaulting other humans gives what I fear to call an “esthetic” unity to the murderer’s act. On the one hand, it brings him instant fame. (It always is him, isn’t it? Must I still do penance for not “including” women in the originary event’s deferral of violence?) But on the other hand, it punishes a representative sample of the general population for having ignored the killer. In more familiar circumstances, such as the Columbine massacre, where the killers lived in proximity to their victims, the connection between murder and resentment is more obvious, but this connection transcends personal acquaintanceship. Anonymous victims are a mirror image of one’s own anonymity.
Solutions? Whether more or less gun control would or would not help prevent shoot-ups of this sort, the most obvious preventive measure would be what was tried unsuccessfully in Ephesus: not to print the killer’s photo on the front page, not to use his name, not to publish reams of analyses that make an otherwise anonymous loser a privileged object of public attention simply because he has committed mass murder. But since, by the Bronx Romantic’s own definition, humanity is the species whose greatest danger comes from itself, human beings are supremely concerned with maintaining the deferral of violence. Violating this taboo is consequently the most attention-getting thing one can do. (And, conversely and perversely, understanding this in an originary sense is precisely the least attention-getting thing one can do.)
The “insane” person knows better than anyone else the infallible source of fame, not “undying,” perhaps, but for a poor slob with no achievements to speak of, a few years on Lexis-Nexis is pretty good. And with the death penalty fast becoming extinct—I understand that for killing over 70 people our Norwegian friend faces a maximum sentence of 21 years in an extremely user-friendly prison—something to be enjoyed for many years, unless one’s fellow inmates decide to “take the law into their own hands,” as someone did a few years ago for the anthropophagic Mr. Dahmer. The glory of appearing on the front page might lose some of its value if one faced swift execution. But even in the most obvious cases, this is something we can no longer ask of our “advanced” societies, any more than we can demand a news blackout. On the contrary, we are treated to the televised spectacle of the Aurora suspect’s hearing.
Epilogue: Satan and radical evil
The other day Trevor Merrill was reflecting on how to understand Satan in a GA context. Girard wrote a book in 1999 entitled Je vois Satan tomber comme un éclair [I see Satan fall like a lightning flash]; here and elsewhere in his later work, he often refers to Satan as a personification of mimetic desire. But Girard doesn’t deal specifically with Satan’s use of language, nor with his familiar embodiment as a literary character.
It seems to me that the notion of the Satanic allows us to clarify what we mean intuitively by the “radical evil” of the Aurora incident. In literary works such as Faust, Satan-Mephistopheles tempts the hero with riches, beautiful women, and other rewards for “selling his soul.” No doubt in a literary work, the author himself is “Satanically” tempted to heap rewards on his characters. There is a kind of film comedy I always find irritating that attributes creative talent, fame, and fortune to characters by all appearances totally mediocre, sometimes as architects (George Costanza favored this profession), more rarely as artists/musicians, and by far most frequently as writers. How many movies have you seen where the heroine/hero, getting over a divorce or some other trauma, decides on a whim to “tell her/his story” and becomes an instant celebrity? (Cut to high-powered book-signing ceremony attended by the ex…)
But if we take fame as the fundamental human value, the greatest gift that Satan can offer, a gift that is indeed a kind of immortality, then we need not create a fictional universe for him in which to offer it. The Satan who is always with us, the embodiment of our resentment, has on permanent offer to any and all of us the kind of fame earned by Herostratus and by his emulator in Aurora. Kill a bunch of people and you’ll get your picture in the paper. Violate the sacred law that binds society together, the law of moral reciprocity that is as central a product of the originary event as language itself, and the world will be perturbed enough to endow you with significance. An ugly significance, no doubt, that in our increasingly rare moralistic moments we call infamy rather than fame, yet the only one that requires no productive talent to procure, but is at the disposal of pretty much anyone with a little bit of force and ingenuity.
We may then define with some degree of rigor as radical evil the evil that is committed for no end other, not than “itself,” but than immortalizing its otherwise anonymous perpetrator. (The Holocaust and other genocides would not qualify by this definition, but the question of evil social orders is a more complex one than that of the evil that lurks in each one of our souls. The horrors of the Holocaust or of Pol Pot’s Cambodia are only compounded by the utopian nature of these massacres, eggs broken in the service of monstrous eschatological omelets.)
And here, I dare say, is the “upside” of the horror of such deeds. Virtually all of us are anonymous, even those on the lower rungs of the Wikipedia. You and I will almost certainly never see our photograph on the front page of a newspaper, unless… But although the fame of Herostratus is available with a little effort to most of us, a given individual can be relied on with near total certainly not to succumb to Satan’s temptation. We accept the moral law, even when there is no death penalty to dissuade us. We cannot think of killing our fellow humans unless they are trying to kill us.
And thus do we reaffirm our common humanity, which brings us together in the wake of massacres in a way just slightly different from our solidarity in the face of natural disasters. It is not a “visceral” but a moral solidarity, the solidarity of those whose love is greater than their resentment. Satan has his occasional victories, but those who remain come together afterward to celebrate his defeat. Je vois Satan tomber comme un éclair.