In 1972, the French literary critic René Girard, who for many years has taught in the United States, published a book entitled La Violence et le sacré (Violence and the Sacred, 1977), which advances nothing less than a theory of the evolution of culture. Girard’s starting point is the recurrence of the scapegoat figure or surrogate victim in myths and rituals throughout the world. He argues that such myths had their origin in real acts of collective violence, in which an innocent victim was sacrificed to restore order to the community.
Girard’s account of the scapegoat mechanism acknowledges the evolutionary links between animal societies and human societies (without, like some contemporary thinkers, completely blurring the distinction between them). Any society, human or animal, must have a means for resolving conflict. In Girard’s formulation, the basis for conflict is “mimetic rivalry”: “If one individual imitates another when the latter appropriates some object, the result cannot fail to be rivalry or conflict.” Among animals, intraspecies rivalry is commonly resolved without a fight to the death, in the submission of the weaker antagonist to its dominant counterpart. Among humans, there is no guarantee that the antagonists will not kill one another, and perhaps many others as well, for beyond the level of subsistence, human desire is not guided by rational need. As Girard observes, “Once his basic needs are satisfied (indeed, sometimes even before), man is subject to intense desires, though he may not know precisely for what. The reason is that he desires being, something he himself lacks and which some other person seems to possess.” Thus, one desires something not for itself but because others desire it. Given this irrational power, mimetic rivalry, if unchecked, can lead to the destruction of the entire community.
A community is particularly vulnerable to such unchecked violence at times of social disorder, whether caused by external factors (such as a plague or flood) or by internal dissension. It was to prevent the collapse of the social order, Girard argues, that the scapegoat mechanism evolved. He stresses the unconscious nature of the process: The violent antagonism that threatens to destroy the community is focused upon a single individual—an outsider, a foreigner, or an individual from within the community who is set apart from the group by a physical handicap or by a distinguishing trait of some other kind. The individual who is sacrificed, the scapegoat, is invested both with extraordinary malign powers—the ostensible reason for his death—and with equally extraordinary beneficent powers, for by this death order has been restored.
The significance of the scapegoat is confirmed by archaeological investigations which suggest that many ancient communities centered on sites where surrogate victims were sacrificed. The polis itself, Girard contends, originated with collective violence. His conclusion is unequivocal: “All religious rituals spring from the surrogate victim, and all the great institutions of mankind, both secular and religious, spring from ritual.”
This is a greatly simplified sketch of Violence and the Sacred, which covers much territory not hinted at above. In fact, it covers perhaps too much territory (Girard himself has described the book as “essayistic”), but its path-breaking achievement was widely recognized. The response of Le Monde was typical: “The year 1972 should be marked with an asterisk in the annals of the humanities. La Violence et le sacré is not only a great book, it is also unique and profoundly contemporary,” the first such study to present a coherent theory of “the religious and the sacred from a truly atheistic viewpoint.” In subsequent books, including Des choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde (1978; Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, forthcoming from Stanford University Press), “To Double Business Bound”: Essays on Literature, Mimesis, and Anthropology (1978), Le Bouc émissaire (1982; The Scapegoat), and a volume edited by Robert G. Hamerton-Kelly, Violent Origins: Walter Burkert, René Girard, and Jonathan Z. Smith on Ritual Killing and Cultural Formation (forthcoming from Stanford University Press), Girard has continued to refine his hypothesis.
Along the way, it has become clear that some of those critics who praised Violence and the Sacred did so on the basis of an ironic misreading (witness Le Monde’s emphasis on Girard’s putative atheism). At the same time, the suggestive range of Girard’s thought has become increasingly apparent. His challenge to certain influential assumptions of ethnology and anthropology, to poststructuralist literary theory, and, more generally, to some of the most deeply ingrained biases of modern secularism (yet also to long-established dogmas of Christian theology)—all of this makes his work indispensable to a wide and diverse readership.
Whatever the reader’s angle of approach, The Scapegoat provides the best...
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