“Scandal to the Jews, folly to the pagans” (1 Corinthians 1:23)

Many years ago I wrote an article with this title (Diacritics 9, 3, Fall 1979) about Girard’s vision of Christianity in Des choses cachées…, which had appeared the previous year. If I now reprise it, it is in appreciation of how well Girard’s own Christian intuition has been able to renew the scandalous power of Christianity over the Jews and Pagans of the contemporary intellectual scene.

As Girard’s own example proves, there are certainly real Christians in the modern world, along with plenty of real Muslims. As for pagans, they are legion. I’m not so sure about the Jews. Orthodox Jews tend to be anti-modern; non-religious Jews tend to be pagans, often unsympathetic to Israel. There are no doubt examples of “real” modern Jews; I am not sure I am worthy of being cited. Let us just say that I am Jewish enough to be scandalized in something like the original way by Girard’s Christianity.

Had I stayed at Hopkins after 1978, my relationship with Girard would have been very different, and there might have been hope for a true collaboration. But however excellent our personal relationship might have remained—and it was never less than cordial—Girard would never have accepted my version of the originary hypothesis. The scapegoat was the central pillar of his edifice, the link between the Crucifixion and the origin of humanity. To abandon this conception for a “minimal hypothesis” that brought sacrifice back to its alimentary roots in food distribution would have been unthinkable whatever the probabilities, and it is no surprise that so few Girardians have been willing to give even passing consideration to GA—or to attempt to supplement Girard’s scenario by their own theory of language origin. Yet in this, curiously enough, the Girardians are more in tune with modern human science than the few brave partisans of GA. The idea of understanding the origin of the human and of the sacred as coeval and essentially identical with the origin of language in an event, although in abstracto intuitively obvious, is in our “scientific” era a far greater scandal than the scandal of Christianity. (It is more “scientific,” for example, to seek the origin of the human mind in such activities as flint-knapping, a skill whose acquisition spurs neuronal development; see, e.g., “Tales of a Stone-Age Neuroscientist,” Scientific American, April 2016.) But there are scandals and scandals; and the Christian scandal has conquered most of the world, so well that the current refluxes of paganism and Islam are more tributes to the universality of its conquest than proofs of its incompleteness.

In Chronicle 507 I touched on the subject of the religious element of Mensonge romantique as an explanation for this work’s undiminished popularity and power. It is a theory of the novel as the representative artistic genre of the bourgeois era that is also a conversion manual: novel-writing as Christian evangelism by other means. The novel in classical society, as epitomized by ces romans qu’on ne lit que d’une main, was traditionally reputed indecent, and the concluding moral, as exemplified by the “punishment” of Mme de Merteuil at the end of the Les liaisons dangereuses, a hypocritical pretext for enjoying the immorality that precedes. (In Gustave Lanson’s classic Histoire de la littérature française, this greatest French novel of the 18th century was mentioned only in a footnote.) We might counter that if Laclos gives the Marquise smallpox as an authorial mark of disapproval, Valmont’s death at the hands of Danceny and more generally the failure of Merteuil’s design to destroy the love of Valmont for Mme de Tourvel are at the center of the plot, even had Merteuil’s features remained as fair as ever—or that the rehabilitation of Prévan is not dependent on her physical disgrace. But more fundamentally, today we realize more clearly that, short of pornography, or perhaps even not, the titillation of evil and the falseness of “triangular” desire are the means given the novel by the sinful world to teach its readers to renounce idolatry and recognize Christ’s mediation, which blesses true human love in contrast with the desires inspired by vanity.

Girard’s genius was not simply to point out that works of literature perform what Aristotle called 2400 years ago the “purgative” function once devolved on religious ritual, but to present this fact obliquely to the reader in the form of a pragmatic paradox. One can read Mensonge as (1) a theory of the novel, (2) a theory of desire, and/or (3) a theory of modernity-as-“secularization,” but above all the book poses to the reader the question of his own desire, and suggests that the very reason why we love great works of literature is that, as sinners unaware that we are in search of salvation, we are vulnerable to the salvific lessons they contain.

I proposed some years ago in Science and Faith that the key Christian revelation was that to Saul/Paul on the road to Damascus, without which Christianity would doubtless have remained a Jewish sect and not evolved into the world religion it became. To speak purely in natural terms, Saul’s vision was not the work of another will; the only external force in this scene is divine, or in GA terms an emanation of the public/private scene of representation. It is nevertheless the posing of a pragmatic paradox. To persecute someone is normally taken to signify contempt, not worship. This reversal is, in the psychological terms of the revelation, a realization on Saul’s part that his obsession with persecuting the Christians demonstrates not contempt but envy of them, and consequently his unintentional acceptance of Jesus’ divinity. The more scandalous he finds their worship of a crucified prophet, the more he seeks to end it, but by doing so, the more he demonstrates his own fascination with it and consequently his own participation in it.

Once Saul had this revelatory intuition, it became retroactively true. It is the revelation itself, the establishment of Jesus on Saul/Paul’s internal scene of representation, that is the “proof” of Jesus’ divinity, and whether or not third parties accept this proof, it cannot be disproved on its own terms—and indeed its denial can be construed as a further confirmation of it, just as was Saul’s before his conversion.

The Jews had shown that the most powerful religion is not the one backed by the most powerful army, but the one that allows a battle’s losers to claim that their defeat was not a victory for the opponent’s gods but a punishment inflicted by their own. In originary terms, the center of the scene of representation is not a place of strength but of weakness; it is by means of its powerlessness that the spirit that presides over it imposes the deferral of violence through the exchange of the sign, and subsequently of the worldly goods whose exchange comes to be modeled on that of the sign. That is the lesson of monotheism, one that in the course of their history the Jews learned largely at their own expense.

Christianity crystallizes this lesson in the “scapegoating” of an innocent victim, and one who seeks in Christianity the foundation of a worldly anthropology could never accept the idea that the originary model of the Crucifixion might be something so unspiritual as a scavenger hunt leading to an “aborted gesture of appropriation” and the sparagmos, not of a universally hated human victim but of an edible animal. Yet sacred texts that purport to explain animal sacrifice as the substitution of an animal for a human/divine victim, as with the “binding of Isaac,” nonetheless quite transparently show the opposite: Abraham’s aborted sacrifice of his son occurs in a world that takes animal sacrifice for granted. The ultimate point of the traditional explanation of the Akedah, as of “In the beginning was the Word,” is to cover over the disquieting paradox of language itself: its making-significant through a sign that can only be motivated by the prior significance of its object. To make God the sacrificial victim inverts the banal anthropological fact that it was by the sign that the victim was made god.

Girard rediscovered the specific element of ego-deconstructing pragmatic paradox, the key factor in Saul’s conversion, that is operative in Christianity. The idea that rejection is in fact fascination, that anathema is really a sign of worship, is a coup de grâce to the autonomy of the modern, “secular” ego. Girard’s equation of mediated desire with idolatry is less a truth about individual desire than a weapon in the service of imitatio Christi.

We are often aware, whether in shame or pride, of “mediators” for many of our behaviors and even our most significant decisions; these need not be denied by the “romantic lie” but may even be perversely flaunted: Don Juan is very much aware that his desire is whetted by a woman’s relationship with another, not to speak of those men who pay other men to sleep with their wives. Or to take an example from Mensonge itself: in Le rouge et le noir, Julien’s love for Mathilde must be characterized as “triangular,” with Julien refusing to admit that the relationship is a zero-sum game of mimetic conquest, in contrast with his “true” love for Mme de Rênal that provides an authentic spiritual compensation for early death. But what if we claimed that the figure of Julien sustained by his “true love” insouciantly facing death gives proof that Stendhal himself had fallen for the romantic lie? The origin of this love is if anything more mimetic than that for Mathilde, who is after all a woman of Julien’s own age and not married to another. Why must we take the author’s own evaluation at face value as a criterion of the authenticity of this love rather than seeing it as part of a Byronic transfiguration of a real personage from the Gazette des tribunaux whose end was quite different? One cannot help noting, for example, that in Autant-Lara’s 1954 film drawn from the novel, the relationship between Gérard Philipe as Julien and Antonella Lualdi as Mathilde, despite her incongruous Italian accent, is far more appealing than that with Danielle Darrieux as Mme de Rênal—and surely not because Darrieux is an inferior actress. Mathilde, “triangular” or not, is clearly the one Julien should have married…

But, of course, the conversion-element is necessary both to Stendhal’s novel and to Girard’s reading of it, and the hero’s death, like the Princesse de Clèves’ ultimate retirement to a convent, shows us how to fit the story into the pattern created by the Crucifixion—even if for GA this pattern can be traced to the more “minimal” model of the originary hypothesis. But no conversion can be effected by the exposition of such a theory, which does not undo the ego to reconstruct it in the imitation of Christ.

Along the same lines, Saul’s surprise at hearing Jesus’ voice in the sky could just as easily be taken as a demonstration that his very persecution was motivated by an insecure grasp of his Jewish identity, which if held in self-confidence would hardly have demanded persecution of the Christians. Antisemitism itself is nothing but the projection of Saul’s revelatory experience onto the Jews as a whole. Bleeding Christian children to make matzoth or squeezing blood from communion wafers “demonstrates” Jewish envy of Christian religious symbols that in point of fact have no meaning for them. The notorious “blood libel,” currently updated to the accusation that Israelis harvest and sell the organs of Palestinians, is pure fantasy. But then, no fantasy is “pure,” since faith always consists in, is in fact reducible to, using a sign to signify something as if it were already signified by it. Saul/Paul himself undoubtedly believed in the revelation on the road to Damascus. One might even say that Paul invented antisemitism by the act of telling this story on himself, and by extension, on all Jews. That was a felix culpa if there ever was one.

What then are Jews to do to impose the simple truth of monotheism when faced by the psychological power of the double bind imposed by Christianity? What then is GA to do to defend a minimal anthropological hypothesis in the face of the psychological power of the double bind unleashed by Girard? And what are any of us to do as heirs of the Judeo-Christian West to resist the ever-increasing double-bind of the victimary, which forces propositional truth to pay blackmail to the cause of moral equality?

The ultimate confirmation of GA is simply its power to reveal this inextricable paradox. No doubt it is far easier to leave it unrevealed and accept the salvation of “mimetic theory.” But Stendhal would have appreciated the pleasure of knowing that a happy few dare to forgo the delicious pain of conversion for the more subtle pleasure of shaving with Ockham’s razor.