When I began working on my book on Carole Landis, I recall that Antoine Philippe felt that the project was incompatible with GA; he wondered if I was proposing Carole as the divinity of a new religion, like the female messiah sought by the Saint-Simonians under Prosper Enfantin, or Clotilde de Vaux, whose death inspired Auguste Comte, the founder of positivism, to create a bizarre “religion of humanity.” I didn’t have a good answer for Antoine at the time; this Chronicle is a brief attempt at one.
It might seem pretentious for me to write about poetry, given the extreme modesty of my poetic publication record (one poem in French, two or three in English). But I think the affiliation between GA and lyric poetry goes beyond the merely personal. What is unique and I hope enduring in GA is its focus on the scene. In The Scenic Imagination, I attempted to provide something of a prehistory of this focus. Thinking about the relationship of lyric poetry to the originary scene provides some additional insights.
There are many varieties of lyric, but the only kind I have ever been able to practice with any degree of skill or enthusiasm falls within the category of love poetry. The Western erotic tradition can be traced from Sappho through other Greek and Latin poets, notably Sappho’s disciple Catullus, is renewed in the high middle ages with the troubadours and the dolce stil nuovo, and reaches a kind of formulaic perfection in Petrarch, widely imitated by the other poets of the Renaissance. In the nineteenth century, the lyric expands beyond the bounds of love poetry to include the meditations of the poetic Self before the universe, but the traditional lyric themes are never forgotten. They provide the basis, for example, for the apparently wholly divergent, “impersonal” poetry of Mallarmé, whose poetics of absence describes fundamentally the same scene of the beloved’s eclipse as Lamartine’s arch-romantic “Le lac.”
My own poetry, for what it’s worth, is epitomized in “Promised Land,” which began as a brief French poem, “Terre promise,” and was then expanded in English word by word into what Ken Mayers called a “hypertext” poem. Biographical detail aside, the “promised land” identifies the beloved with the place to which access is forbidden; the Bronx Romantic, on the example of Alfred de Vigny, identifies with Moses, barred from the future land of Israel. The original French poem dates from 1970, nearly a decade before I began to put together the basic ideas of GA, indeed, a couple of years before Girard’s La violence et le sacré led me to take a second look at the master’s theory of desire.
It would hardly be accurate to claim that either the French poem or its English successor (which dates from around the time of the publication–not the composition–of The Origin of Language in 1981) is somehow a “source” or even an inspiration for GA. But with the years I have been struck by the way in which these poems share GA’s concentration on the scene. This concentration is at the heart of the distinction between GA and Girard’s mimetic theory. The central, sparagmatic event of the scapegoat “mechanism” is barely worthy of being called a scene; its participants share a central focus only in the process of the climactic lynching. No doubt at the conclusion of this event, one might speculate that the participants, in awe of the peace-bringing victim, sacralize his remains with a (linguistic) sign. Yet not only is this second scene only speculatively attached to the first, it is one about which Girard himself, whose emphases can hardly be ignored, has never done more than drop an occasional hint.
This is not to say that Girard should not be called a scenic thinker. The idea of refocusing Freud’s father-murder scene from Totem and Taboo, so unparsimonious as to be better described as a myth of origin, on an arbitrary victim as a mechanism for generating the originary human community, is a great advance on not only Freud but Durkheim, who remains bound to the rites instantiated in his empirical data, and who never sees that what makes the reinforcement of “solidarity” crucial is the danger of mimetic violence. But Girard’s scene is a place of aggression rather than awe; it lacks the element of deferral. Nor can I imagine Girard writing love poetry or books about beautiful actresses, and to the extent that these activities parallel GA’s focus on the scenic, they help explain its origins.
Perhaps the connection can be made clearer by the following epigram:
Gentlemen resent blondes
In the dumb blonde we witness
more than the power to speak
beauty is human fitness
The existence of a genre of “dumb blonde” jokes reflects male resentment of the power of female beauty, for which the blonde has long been the archetype. It is not so much that males themselves are rarely admired for their physical beauty, but that they are vulnerable to the aura that attends on beauty, however they affect to despise it. (I probably don’t need to point out that the poem, itself made of words, embodies the usual paradox of transforming its subject by thematizing it, reasserting the transcendence of language as the only way of celebrating the priority of the blonde’s beauty over the words we use to celebrate her.)
“Dumb blondes” (think of Marie Wilson, intelligent and sexy, enough in both departments to know that she could have a successful career in Hollywood only by playing dumb at Warner Brothers, and later as My Friend Irma on radio and TV) are not deprived of speech, but although speech is strongly selected for in the course of human development, leading to the descended larynx and specialized areas in the brain and all the rest of our speech apparatus, the most direct effect of human representation on selection for reproductive fitness is the institution of female beauty. The leading males may be good speakers, but they choose their mates for their looks.
As far as I know, the history of beauty’s role in human evolution has yet to be written, and the literature on prettiness in our own era is far from able to deal with its Darwinian implications. The advantage of lyric is that it can express “scenically” what theory is unable to elaborate as a causal sequence. Female sexual attractiveness may well have become a selection factor even before the originary event, although it could hardly have served as its precipitating cause. But its refinements must have been vastly accelerated by the scenic character of the human, and must have been increasingly selected for as the attraction to the sacred scene grew stronger. The becoming-scenic of sexual desire, with all it implies of the conflation of the sacred with the sexual, has surely been of vast importance for the subsequent evolution of our species.
Among the characteristic apotropaic tendencies of our victimary age, we tend unthinkingly to treat any aspect of sexuality beyond the bare necessities of reproduction, whether it be the female orgasm or romantic love, as culturally dependent (“socially constructed”). There is certainly something new about the “courtly love” begun in the eleventh century by the Provençal and then Italian and other European poets. But the sacralization of the object of sexual desire is already fully present in Sappho and surely goes back far earlier. Sappho’s writings, unfortunately nearly completely lost, follow the expansion of writing to include what can begin to be called “literature,” a phenomenon often associated with the transcription of Homer’s poems in the 8th century BC. Oral love poems or songs addressed to the beloved may be as old as language, at least what we call “mature” language. Since human sexuality, whatever the attractions of polygamy in certain circumstances, is essentially a monogamous phenomenon, the sacralization of sexual desire as a means of counteracting the male libido’s lability and susceptibility to mimetic contagion has clear benefits to social organization.
I have never accepted the abject relativism of “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” It is almost always more productive to trust our intuition as a starting point than to take the knee-jerk relativistic view that everything we feel is “socially constructed.” No doubt there are nuances of taste, but not only is there a very high correlation concerning the people and things that people all over the world consider beautiful, this even applies throughout the animal kingdom. If we find flowers beautiful, and the animals and insects that the flowers attract seem in their own way to agree, why should we not trust our judgment equally well when, for example, we see no beauty in female chimpanzees? No doubt male chimps are attracted to their females, but from everything I have read on the subject, esthetic appearance rates low on their list of desiderata. I need not rehearse the effect on sexual selection of the esthetic differences that separate the human female from the chimpanzee. What is of interest here is rather the emergence of beauty as a criterion of sacralization. That even today, with women as Secretary of State and Speaker of the House, a beautiful woman entering a room arouses a sense of awe among members of both sexes is not something to be taken lightly. In Agnes Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7, replace Corinne Marchand by just about anyone else and the whole point of the film would be lost. There is no shortage of obvious examples of the power of beauty; what is lacking is rather the willingness to overcome the inanities of PC to look at them with an open mind.
Beauty combines desire with interdiction in an experience analogous to the originary experience of the sacred. The lyric, of all literary genres, remains closest to the originary operation of the sign as designating/sacralizing the center from the periphery, whereas drama replays the originary scene as the political problem of human centrality in hierarchical society and narrative transforms the world–in the first place, the battlefield–into a “theater” of human action. The lyric poem shares with the hypothetical originary event a peripheral relation to a central object of desire whose very desirability makes it forbidden to the desiring human on the periphery, who emits a sign to re-present to his fellow humans what he cannot possess.
The lyric configuration applies as well to the “natural esthetic” by which we find beauty in “nature.” The typical assimilation of beauty to appetitive attractiveness in studies that seek the evolutionary basis of our preference for certain types of natural scenes not surprisingly eliminates the universal human element of representation and its link to interdiction. Beauty is always an object of implicit interdiction; landscapes solicit representation in the same way as do beautiful women. Why should finding beauty in gardens and forests be fundamentally different from finding it in the object of our sexual desire? It is hardly a coincidence that Western culture’s archetypal locus amoenus, the Garden of Eden, is centered around a place of interdiction.
Likewise, the oscillation between representation and imaginary construction that I have described elsewhere as the fundamental experience of the esthetic is present in an inchoate form in the experience of beauty outside the artwork. The aura that surrounds the beautiful woman is like a frame that separates her from the world and makes her resemble a representation of herself, so that we oscillate between perception and imagination as if we were contemplating a statue. The absence of the will of the artist that guarantees the coherence of the painting is partially made up by the woman’s own will to present herself as an esthetic whole; this is Kant’s notion of the judgment of beauty as a reaction to autonomy. But even when we attribute beauty to phenomena such as natural landscapes that are not products of human will or even human-centered natural selection, desirability itself creates a barrier of interdiction, as though we fear even when alone the implicit force of mimetic rivalry. That natural beauty is traditionally attributed to the creative power of God is just a variation on the originary equation of the sacred with the universally desirable.
There are no real coincidences in history, so the apparently anachronistic nature of my defense of the sacred nature of beauty cannot be dissociated from the power of the originary hypothesis as a minimal model for the origin of the human. Just as Girard’s anthropology (and, as I have recently had occasion to note, Bruno Latour’s) are in their own way products of the victimary era, so is GA, and each of these theories, also in its own way, goes against the victimary grain. Girard insists on the productivity of violence and the contravening power of Christianity; Latour’s renunciation of the “Western” myth of modernity seeks reconciliation through the reciprocal recognition of fundamental human equality rather than the triumph of victimary resentment; and GA turns against the victimary mindset altogether by recognizing the originary nature of resentment toward the center–except that this resentment is not rejected with Nietzschean contempt as an abjection to be overcome by the “superman”/artist but is understood as inherent in human desire, to be transcended constantly by all rather than in great gestures by the happy few. By adding sacred interdiction to raw sexual attractiveness, beauty inspires love and thereby acts to diminish resentment, despite the secondary resentment this transcendence itself inspires. Dumb blonde jokes are a small price to pay for beauty’s gifts to humanity.
We can add one more piece to the puzzle. The most determined opposition currently faced by modern-Western-industrial-consumer-market society is Islamic extremism, which I think may be most simply understood as the (hopefully) last stand of ritual-traditional society against the forces of the market. (Such aberrations as North Korea originate as offshoots of the internal opposition to the market embodied in Marxian socialism.) The context of this final conflict (see Chronicle 338) lends particular anthropological significance to the fact that the most visible difference between the two social orders is in the public appearance of women. I have no desire to weigh in on the wisdom of France’s recent ban of the burka and other total modes of veiling, but whatever one’s view, one must respect French society’s sense that it is threatened by a way of sacralizing female beauty diametrically opposed to its celebration by modernity. There could hardly be a more unambiguous recognition of the sacred nature of female beauty than total veiling. We should recall that the medieval Western sacralizers of the beloved were inspired by Arabic sources. Yet one wonders how highly erotic poetry is appreciated by the Taliban or Saudi Arabia’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.
Thus the great conflict of our era, which awaits only the Iranian bomb to burst forth in who knows what disastrous cataclysm, may be most simply defined by the irrevocable opposition of two ways of handling the characteristic configuration of lyric poetry–one of which, by extending and generalizing the lyric scene, unleashes the vast creativity of the market system and leads to GA’s “new way of thinking” about the human. I would not claim that we need the originary hypothesis to put the opposition in these simple if rarely expressed terms. My point is rather that Bronx Romanticism grants privileged access to such ideas, and that this privilege is also central to the scenic vision that discovered/invented the originary hypothesis.
Let me conclude this Chronicle by paying my respects to a beautiful blonde who was sadly too smart for her own good.