The prehistory of generative anthropology, beginning with René Girard’s Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque in 1961 and its theory of mimetic desire, puts mimesis at the core of our theory of the human. And although natural scientists can discuss the physiological aspects of mimesis: “mirror neurons” and the rest, just as they can study the components of language: sociality, neuronal capacity, vocal tract development, aural sensitivity… the fact remains that, just as natural science cannot explain the origin of language, the same can be said for the specificity of mimetic desire, which is simply human desire tout court.
Eleven years after Mensonge, in La violence et le sacré (1972), Girard expanded his insight about “bad” desire into a fundamental anthropology. The mimetic triangle became the basis for his model of the originary event, the “emissary murder” of the “scapegoat” by his unanimous fellows. This proto-human murder scene can be understood as a circle constructed from a multitude of triangles with the apex on the central victim, each participant mediating each of the others to desire/hate/sacrifice the latter—who is really the mediator of them all.
This is not the place to discuss my differences with this scheme, which remains an article of faith among Girardians. All I need say here is that it supplied the original inspiration for the originary scene described in The Origin of Language (1981), hence for the origin of GA.
What is important to discuss at this juncture, particularly given the focus of this year’s GASC on religion, which has already inspired a number of recent Chronicles, is in what sense the sacred has been from the outset at the heart of (mimetic) desire. This presupposition is already nearly explicit in Mensonge romantique, whose epigraph is L’homme possède ou un Dieu ou une idole (Jeder endliche Geist glaubt entweder an Gott oder an einen Götzen [Finally, every soul believes either in God or in an idol]; Max Scheler, Vom Ewigen im Menschen ).
Although most readers of Girard’s book presumably understood “mimetic desire” as a specific kind of desire, this is a misunderstanding. Taking Scheler’s aphorism as characterizing not merely each human’s transcendental aspirations but his desires in the everyday sense, we realize that already implicit in Girard’s triangle of desire was an anthropology that distinguished human desire from animal appetites, not simply as “more mimetic,” but as mediated by the sacred. Whether we consider the sacred as a being—God (culturally legitimate), or idol (illegitimate)—or simply a “force,” we cannot detach sacred mediation from desire without removing its human specificity.
Girard’s masterpiece is devoted to a series of novels of idolatry and deathbed conversion, in contrast to those characterized by György Lukács in his Theorie des Romans as embodying die gereiften Männlichkeit (in French, la maturité virile), that is, Bildungsromane in the proper sense, in which the protagonist puts away his childish mediations as he grows to maturity, or in Scheler’s terms, abandons the idol for God.
But the persistent popular vogue for Jane Austen even in the woke era—as well as my own preference for the tradition of the female Bildungsroman within which she wrote, which can be traced back to Eliza Haywood’s 1751 History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless, and includes the novels of Fanny Burney as well as my all-time favorite, Charlotte Lennox’s 1752 Arabella, The Female Quixote—demonstrates that still today, the happy couple remains the exemplary source of fulfillment for both sexes—provided that both, but particularly the woman, choose the proper companion. For clearly, Elizabeth Bennett Darcy would have been more capable than her husband of composing Pride and Prejudice.
The reason that Girardians to this day have trouble with the idea of “good mimesis” is that, following the negative examples from his tragic novels, they identify “mimetic desire” with idolatry. The problematic nature of mediation in these novels is a symptom of the emergence of bourgeois society, which encourages its members to forge their own professional identity rather than inherit that of their parents. This can only be accomplished by learning from models/mediators, who risk being treated as “idols” rather than simply exemplars of worldly wisdom and technique.
The point in real life, as the Bildungsroman makes clear, is not to avoid the imitation of models, but to maintain a “sense of self,” or more simply, of one’s soul, whose link to the originary sacred affords protection against idolatry. Thus it is the soul (Geist) that is the subject of Scheler’s aphorism.
As humans, each of us is a soul mediated by the sacred. Our imitation of others becomes idolatrous only if we experience them as mediators of sacrality itself rather than recognizing their own subordination to it. Christianity, by including Jesus within the Godhead, provides a divine/human model for the transcendence of idolatry, one that arguably permitted the West to unleash human mimetic creativity stifled in the lands of “oriental despotism” to inaugurate the market system and with it, scientific and industrial modernity. But as we are seeing today, this rapprochement of the sacred and the human has its dangers, not only within Western civilization itself, but in its competition with the despotisms it not long ago appeared to have definitively distanced.
The inspiration for iconoclasm in all its forms—within which we may include both the Islamic ban on esthetic representations and the Marxist denial of the immaterial, which characterize the two civilizational modes that today rival the Judeo-Christian West—is the suspicion that by producing an image of the sacred mediator, one is attempting to capture the power of the sacred itself. The idolater worships not the sacred as a being/force but this figure of the sacred, by means of which he feels he can capture its powers for himself rather than share in those of the community.
Westerners mock the fetishism of Lenin’s mausoleum and the ubiquitous images of Mao or Che in communist nations, but these icons, however fetishized, are/were worshiped as embodiments of the national regimes they created “in the name of the people,” not, as were the pharaohs or emperors of old, as supernatural deities. In contrast, Western historic figures no longer serve as such embodiments in the eyes of our progressive youth and their respectable adult followers.
At the other end of the spectrum, Islamic nations deny any direct communication between Allah and his Prophet, and no images of either are permitted. The apparently anomalous partnership of these two anti-Western forces in what the French call l’islamo-gauchisme reveals their hidden kinship.
Today, despots in both groups, Erdogan as well as Xi, have a clear sense of gaining on the West. What has gone wrong with the paradoxical/dialectical Christian solution to divine/human mimesis is not that these cruder systems have proved more attractive to their members, but rather that the Western solution itself, having generated the grandeur et misère of modernity, has all but lost the confidence of its own.
Judeo-Christian civilization is decaying before our eyes, and as theoreticians of originary anthropology, it is for us to explain how, in the space of a generation, “wokeness” with all its absurdities has demonstrated its ability to replace Christianity as the West’s quasi-official religion, in effect discrediting the solution it had put forth to the fundamental human problematic of mimetic rivalry. Otherwise how can we understand that nominal Christians and Jews would kneel to a bunch of political activists whose own declared “religious” affiliation is with Marxism?
In effect, what is being rejected in Christianity is the ascriptive/”racial” specificity of Jesus as a universal human mediator. It is surely one of the great ironies of history that the Islamic division of humanity into true believers and infidels has become more effective than the Christian West’s insistence that we are all “created equal.” The seemingly trivial focus on racial difference in the USA, a nation that had proudly overcome its heritage of slavery with strict anti-discrimination laws, illustrates the perverse realities of human mimesis that Girard had discovered in literary works and which are now forced on our social conscience.
The idea that God had incarnated himself just once in human form had permitted the indefinite expansion of the Western socio-economic system. But implicit in it was always the firstness that the Christian West derived from that of Jesus himself, a firstness that the West in its confrontation with the outlying continents not long ago affirmed explicitly in racial terms.
However generously the colonizers took up the “white man’s burden”—and King Leopold’s Congo Free State was emphatically not the norm of European colonialism—and however successfully Christianity itself has been able to transcend racial barriers in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, including China, the West’s vulnerability to racial resentment could only have remained unexploited in a world of saints. Nor is it surprising that the impetus for the current wave of woke decolonization came not from the European powers and their former colonies, but from the United States, where slavery and its Jim Crow aftermath had persisted longer and in more painful racial proximity.
Today’s woke racialisme would surely have shocked the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, whose triumph had first been announced by images of black children, protected by Federal troops, attending formerly segregated schools. Pace Dr. King, the first day that someone had the idea to compile statistics comparing examination scores by race was the last on which people would be judged by the content of their character.
It suddenly appeared that the old days of racial segregation and discrimination were less vulnerable to racial resentment than an age in which these procedures were forbidden by law. But none of this should shock students of human mimesis. We need only recall one of Girard’s favorite Shakespeare passages, from Troilus and Cressida I, 3:
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows! each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy…
For blacks excluded from it, the “white” school was an object of desire embodying access to a post-racial society. But once included, the cultural effects of their prior exclusion made them collectively unable to compete with whites on an equal basis. For obvious reasons, the politicians of the era, rather than emphasizing the exemplarity of successful minority competitors, reinforced the statistical sense of injustice that led to affirmative action, and today, nearly sixty years later, to massive investments in “equity, diversity, and inclusion”—“inclusion” often being defined as allowing separate non-white/gay/feminist dorms and graduation ceremonies.
Wokeness, as I have discussed elsewhere (see in particular Chronicle 690), is defined by our awokening to the non-correspondence of the racial and other ascriptive breakdown of various “privileged” groups with that of the general population, as would be the case if these groups obeyed the equalitarian “moral model” of the originary event, preserved prior to the invention of sedentary agriculture and “private” property.
The political point of wokeness is to convince the population, particularly the white population, that the legal interdiction of explicit racism was only a resurfacing over the implicit “systemic” racism that had previously been hidden beneath it. Why indeed should candidates for X position take a given test? The fact that whites generally do better than non-whites is proof positive that the test, rather than merely measuring competence to perform a specific set of tasks, was, whether unknowingly or deliberately, designed to produce this “disparate impact.” This argument, repeated ad infinitum, has triumphed in the courts, and above all in “public opinion,” that is, that of the professional elite.
As the disparaging term acting white makes clear, the sticking point of “racial equity” is the fact that Western society was created by Westerners, that is, whites, and making its benefits available to all races on an equal basis means rewarding non-whites for “acting white.” Just as Jesus was white, so are the typical role-models for success in Western society—whereas no Muslim thinks of himself as of a different race from Mohammed.
Thus we come to the question of firstness, the raison d’être of mimesis. If you want to learn to play the piano, you choose a model who learned to play first. It is here that Judeo-Christian civilization’s souci des victimes, its care for victims, from a morally praiseworthy concern for the less fortunate has been radicalized into a condemnation of their potential mimetic models. To the extent that “white” Western society offers itself as a model to “people of color”—a quality that does not really depend on skin tone—its exemplary position must be condemned, as though the content of any activity to be imitated—the apex of the triangle—were wholly contained in the racial identity of the model. Once the social reward attached to such activity, whatever its demonstrated societal usefulness, is attributed to racial privilege, the “victims” must then be permitted to share “proportionately” in the reward despite having failed to fulfill the requirements “white” society had imposed for them.
By insisting on the victimary status of the former objects of discrimination, this procedure ensures that whatever progress they might make, any failures can always be explained away by the alien nature of the models they were expected to imitate, that is, by the “systemic racism” of the society these models had created. Indeed, these failures only confirm the racism inherent in the system itself, as though its white founders had not simply exploited their own talents, but booby-trapped their civilization to make it all but impossible for others to succeed within it. And the fact that East Asians have done so well that they too are now discriminated against in university admissions reveals merely that they share in the “privilege” formerly reserved for whites.
This configuration assures that even if many non-whites perform well enough not to require compensation for white privilege, the supply of non-white “victims” will not diminish. This effect is strongly augmented by a growing tolerance of petty criminality and a diminished effort to move welfare clients, particularly single mothers, off the rolls into paying jobs—not to speak of the considerable financial advantage to such mothers of remaining single, given the dearth of attractive marriage prospects. And how much easier it is for whites to bewail their own “privilege” rather than encourage non-whites to eschew the victimary role and compete on an equal footing—whence the hostility of the entire victimary establishment—although not of non-white parents themselves—toward charter schools.
The doctrine of systemic racism, which tautologically blames the creators of our civilization for being well suited to its requirements—as in fact they appear less and less to be—is the final effort of what Girard called the “Satanic” force of “bad” mimetic desire to destroy Western civilization. What remains are despotisms, of which the most notable are either Islamist, where every man is a soldier of Allah and every woman a mother of soldiers, or modeled on China, a strictly hierarchical—and tacitly racist—technocracy.
Since its triumph in the French Revolution, the epistemology of resentment, the denial of the legitimacy of firstness, has been able to create only by first destroying. What is new about the woke version of this epistemology is that it creates nothing—the very essence of decadence—limiting itself to “canceling” the remaining traces of Western firstness. The Western social and political elite has been conquered by a pseudo-religion of spoiled children contemptuous of the parental sacred that they cannot imagine will not forever continue to protect them.
In a word, as Bill Maher put it in his March 13 broadcast, “Americans are a silly people.” Unlike the “serious” people he contrasted us with.