The Scapegoat continues to elaborate and develop ideas already set in motion in René Girard’s previous works. The notion of the persecution text’s first stereotype—the loss of differentiation—can be traced back to, indeed, can only be clearly understood with reference to Mensonge romantique et verite romanesque (1961; Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, 1965). Instead of the usual dichotomy of the Self and the Other in literature, Girard argues that there is instead a triangle: the Self, the Other, and the desire to be the Other. Rivalry results because the Self in the novel wishes to imitate the desire of the Other, then desires the same object, leading to violence. The congruence of desires eliminates the difference between the Self and the Other.
From this first study based on literary texts. Girard has expanded his attempts to explain culture at large. Like some of his previous studies, The Scapegoat draws from several disciplines—anthropology, psychology, sociology, philosophy, and religion. His hypothesis that the victimage mechanism explains all cultural phenomena is developed in several books. In La Violence et le sacre (1972; Violence and the Sacred, 1977), Girard argues that the relationship between tragedy and society must be understood in terms of the scapegoats, who, regardless of their guilt or innocence, are treated with violence so that society as a whole may escape it. His controversial assertion that the scapegoat paradigm results from real historical events and is pervasive in historical and religious texts is developed in Des choses cachees depuis la fondation du monde (1978; Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, 1987) as well as in The Scapegoat. His assertion that the Bible is a prime source of demystification is the central argument in La Route antique des hommes pervers (1985; Job, the Victim of His People, 1987).
Throughout The Scapegoat, Girard’s clearly argumentative, sometimes defensive, tone suggests the ongoing and provocative nature of his hypothesis. René Girard offers nothing less than an explanation of the origins of religion and myth and ritual; furthermore, it is an explanation that posits the real, not the symbolic, violence at the heart of those origins. The argumentative tone is inevitable,...
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The Scapegoat is an important work of intellectual inquiry in several respects. First, Girard’s argument that the Gospels provide a key to decoding the scapegoat mechanism asserts the importance of biblical studies and may be seen as part of a larger trend, the renewed interest in the Bible as the “supreme supertext of Western civilization,” as Gerald Gillespie has expressed it in a review. Thus, for example, along with Girard’s The Scapegoat, Gillespie discusses Northrop Frye’s The Great Code (1983), and Frank Kermode’s The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative (1979).
Second, as an elaboration of Girard’s continued interest in the relationship between violence and religion, the scope of The Scapegoat places it in the category of those interdisciplinary studies which attempt to deal with large philosophical issues rather than narrow specialities. Though perhaps rather incidental to Girard’s main purpose, the results for the study of literature have been salutary. By rejecting the obsessive concern with the intricacies and problems of language in recent literary studies, Girard reaffirms the value of literature, arguing that it too can reveal the true nature of violence. Finally, Girard’s style, in sharp contrast to the dense and complex styles of many poststructuralist critics, is relatively simple and clear. As in The Scapegoat, Girard’s belief in the power of ideas to effect cultural change gives rise to an impassioned style that invigorates intellectual inquiry.