For René Girard on his 100th birthday

The Genesis account is distinguished from other creation stories by an intuitive imperative of minimalism, of which the reduction to One God is only the most obvious feature. In Chronicles 675676, by way of appreciating the sharpness of biblical anthropology from GA’s minimal perspective, I discussed in some detail the anthropological content of the notion of “original sin” and its consequences in the first books of Genesis. My purpose was to focus on the key moment of the fall of man in relation to GA’s originary hypothesis in order to understand the anthropological significance of the order of events and their attribution to the different personages of the Biblical narrative. This Chronicle is an attempt to deepen this perspective.

We may assume that the success of the originary event in preventing conflict and allowing the egalitarian distribution of the central object of the scene produced in the originary community an “Edenic” effect of universal harmony that, beyond permitting peaceful alimentary satisfaction, would suggest to the participants that the unanimously experienced sacred interdiction had henceforth abolished all conflict.

The fruit of the tree of knowledge is not temporarily but permanently interdicted; this interdiction must be, yet cannot be obeyed. Like the awareness of sexuality and death that this disobedience implies, the new human society cannot avoid it. Making this knowledge the result of disobedience of God’s interdiction may be seen as the narrativization of the effect of puberty—the awareness of biological nature and its inevitable mortality—in human self-consciousness. The human adolescent’s discovery of his or her own sexuality is involuntary, yet cannot be achieved without a personal awareness that is at the same time its affirmation and/or rejection. The shame felt by Adam and Eve following the eating of the fruit reflects the guilt attendant on sexual desire/desirability, a new appetitive feeling for which the couple—no longer conceived atemporally as adults, but in time, as adolescents—are not prepared. This knowledge, seen from the perspective of adulthood, is the end of the child’s illusion of immortality, his or her entry into a world of aging and death, the sign of the worldly imperfection of mortality that cannot be transcended but merely suspended for a moment in the utopian-sacred world of the rite and feast embodied in the originary scene.

What this suggests is that, in contrast to the alimentary desires that can at least in principle be reconciled peacefully in the scenic setting inaugurated in the originary event, it is the sexual desires aroused at adolescence that pose the definitive challenge to the originary interdiction. For these desires, given their newly imperative power in combination with their interpersonal nature, cannot be fully subordinated to the sacred will that suffices to regulate the distribution of goods. The narrative’s insistence that even in the absence of a surrounding human community, the couple once made aware of their sexuality would feel shame at displaying before God the sexual traits that attract their partner’s desire cannot be demonstrated as a necessary effect of the originary event, but from a Girardian perspective, it is easy to see that even in the absence of third parties, the mimetic intensification intrinsic to sexual desire must be understood as incompletely controllable by the différance that resolved the problem of distribution. Once the self can itself become an object of desire, the sacred interdiction that permits communal distribution can no longer reliably be applied.

Hence once language and the sacred transform mimetically driven appetite into desire, the effect of desire on the sexual self is not occasionally but necessarily beyond the control of the sacred as a force of communal/sacred will. No doubt this conclusion, made clear in Genesis, does not justify Freud’s notion that sexuality supplies the energy of all desire, but it comforts his basic principle that sexual desire is desire in its most problematic, paradoxical sense, and consequently the most obvious source of psychopathology.

The Tree of Life, whose fruit would grant the couple the extratemporal existence of divinity, is in this context a paradoxical representation of the omniscience of sacred Being, making the liminality of Eden into a permanent residence and thereby abolishing the mimetic tension that the sacred exists to defer. For had Adam and Eve not eaten the fruit, we may presume that they would not have known sexuality and death, in which case their only cognitive difference from God would be their lack of knowledge of “good and evil,” of sexual difference and the mortality it implies. The paradoxical nature of God allows Him alone to be aware of mortality, which is to say of worldliness, of historicity, without experiencing it. But in Eden, we, as well as the authors of the Creation story, would never have existed.

The sexual shame felt by the couple is presented as the result of their disobedience of God’s command, in effect making them responsible for humanity’s need for reproduction and death—which is to say, its biological reality, which made the sacred necessary in the first place. Like God’s subsequent adjustments of the terms of human life (the Flood, the Tower of Babel…), we should understand this “evolutionary” modification of God’s original plan as the first and most fundamental of several “learning experiences” in which the divine embodiment of scenic harmony discovers the limitations of its ability to reproduce itself in the real world.

If we come to ask in this context how or why God already knew language although he could have no need to communicate with other beings, we may well find ourselves immersed in the kinds of kabbalistic speculations referred to in Chronicle 774: How does God create a non-sacred world out of himself; does it require his “shrinking” to create a space ejected from himself, etc. I think it is better to avoid crystallizing these paradoxes into an ontology. The contradiction inherent in a perfect being’s creation of something imperfect has no real-world equivalent and so cannot help us to understand its anthropological implications, but rather risks the same distraction from the search for human self-understanding as philosophers’ discussions about Being.

For what these reflections make us realize is that—independently of the existence of a self-contained sacred being—to the extent that it would need to know (human) language for the purposes of its own self-consciousness, the very concept of such a being is paradoxical; it would itself need to be subject to the sacred deferral of its “appetitive” will. We might say that the sacred could “know itself” in its own terms, not those our experience of human language provides for us. But given that we can only conceive “knowing itself” on the model of our use of language, there is no basis for further speculation.

From an anthropological perspective, we should understand the sacred as an intuition retrospectively guaranteed by the “perfect” resolution of the originary scene, and the task of human religion as reminding us, through worship of its divine embodiment, of the persistence of the foundation of this perfection in the imperfect world of human desire—which provoked into being the sacred scene of its deferral.

God could not have created Adam as a baby and let him grow into adulthood without raising the question of his biological etiology, which would imply a limitation on God’s power to create him in the first place. Adam and Eve must be created as adults because the adult stage is the “permanent” stage of life, which paradoxically implies both the bracketing of temporal movement (adulthood as insulated from both birth and death, thus not understood in terms of growth or decline) and at the same time, insertion via sexual maturity into the world of temporality. The time-based identity of the child and the post-reproductive adult then reveal themselves as “defective” modes of existence whose reality must be supplemented by adulthood to allow us fully to understand their participation in their species’ continuity in time.

The creation of the human couple “without sin” was in effect a contradiction not simply in ontological but in narrative terms. To make them children who discover at adolescence their sexual attraction as in Paul et Virginie (or The Blue Lagoon) would be to confuse the sacred’s primary role as the source of the deferral of desire with an embodiment of Darwinian evolution. The dialectic between God and Man as it unfolds in Genesis confronts God’s providential care for his human creation with the implications of the power he must confer on this creation in order that it be conceived as recognizing—that is, representing in language—God’s existence, and consequently its own.

In the terms of our anthropology, what humanity recognizes as sacred is in the first place the interdiction of the object of common desire and the need to represent it, to the other humans but also to oneself, and in the second place, the realization that this interdiction is not reflexive but conscious, subject to the will—hence to disobedience.

And concerning the temporal separation of these two experiences: interdiction and power of disobedience, although the tale might seem better constructed were the two elements reversed, so that the interdiction put an end to conflict (as we assume actually happened in the process of our species’ emergence), clearly the human story could not be told that way. Whether or not God could have anticipated “the fall,” the story can only be told starting with the sacred as a providential power beyond human will, so that the introduction of sin, of desecration, could only follow.

The contrast between the respect for the sacred that God decrees and its violation can only be realized as disobedience to a prior imperative: Video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor;  “I see the better and approve, and follow the worse,” as Ovid’s Medea puts it. And indeed, in human protohistory, following the successful resolution of the division of the spoils among the nascent human community, there may well have been a moment when human conflict as such might appear to the entire community to have been abolished. Throughout history such illusory moments of—shall I call it the end of history?—have periodically manifested themselves.

As for the fruit and the snake and Eve’s female resentment of her “lateness,” discussed in Chronicles 675-676, these fabulistic elements need not detain us if we understand the inherent limits of sacrality itself. As the miracle of the loaves and fishes suggests, if we obey the sacred, material needs will as a rule take care of themselves. But although divine providence allows humans to accomplish great things, it does not change physical reality; it defers and limits human conflict, but does not eliminate it, and indeed by transforming appetite into desire it may intensify it. To call the first sin felix culpa is guaranteed in Christian doctrine by the happy end of history brought about by the Second Coming, but eschatology is outside the province of anthropology.

The sacred as experienced by humans is not “perfection,” but merely the différance of desire, deferral to the need of the human community to avoid mimetic conflict. Animals have no need for the sacred because their inhibitory mechanisms provide them sufficient protection from self-destruction.

Why then, might we ask, do we attach our sense of the sacred to a Being invulnerable to biological mortality? The simplest explanation is that the divine will embodies the will to immortality, in Darwinian terms, of the species to whose perpetuation we as individuals contribute. The paradoxical inconsistency that distinguishes us from other living creatures lies in the human’s ability to represent this transtemporal will within his own mind, not just as an “intuition” but as a scenic reality articulable in language, that is, sharable on the communal scene of representation with any and all of his fellows, under one of the many names for the sacred. If we consider that consciousness of the scene is the first specifically human consciousness, in contrast with animal consciousness whose scene cannot be shared and communicated, then, simply on the example of the party guests and the last canape, although we experience the sacred force of deferral as the effect of an external will, its attribution to “the community” fails because this “community” cannot be conceived as a single interlocutor. The identification of the sacred will with that of the community by, e.g., Durkheim, can only be understood from an external, “theoretical” perspective.

If we say that “God speaks with the voice of the community,” this “voice” is a figure of speech; even a unanimous chant expressing ritual concordance can be no more than that of a mass of—mortal—individuals governed by the sacred will. Whereas even if the notion of the sacred being be as crude as the figure of the central desire-object itself, its will strikes the participants from without. It can be conceived as embodied in a fetish or a place, but what makes the notion of God paradoxical is that however the sacred being is conceived, what convinces us of the sacred’s power over us that we feel within ourselves cannot be expressed or understood in language for the simple reason that the language that we use, externally or even internally, does not have such power over us. The very fact that we “use” it is proof of the contrary. And just as Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s original interdiction, God’s word has over us only the power of persuasion, as we witness in all the great moments of revelation, from Eden to Mt. Horeb and from the Annunciation to Paul on the road to Damascus.

To be part of the human story, in a word, God can be only a character in a narrative. All of theology, we may say, consists in the attempt to reconcile this narrative persona with the omnipotence and omniscience we attribute to Him. Or as the Jews call him, to HaShem, the name.