lds-herm blog

Discussion of hermeneutics, esp. as it pertains to LDS scripture

The Scapegoat, chapter 3: “What is a myth?”

Posted by joespencer on July 30, 2007

In chapter 3, we suddenly find Girard changing his story: the first two chapters have been a necessary diversion or a helpful distraction. He states this quite bluntly on page 28

As a result we no longer see it [the persecution event behind the persecution text] as controversial but as the pure and simple truth of these texts. And we have good reason. It remains to find out why such a solution does not occur to us in the case of a myth like that of Oedipus. That is the real problem. The lengthy analysis I havae just given of the type of interpretation that automatically results int he identification of stereotypes of persecution was necessary in order to understand that problem.

This point of transition is vital, I think (right now), to understanding Girard’s entire project: what does this move betray about what Girard is doing?

The problem is spelled out at some length on pages 24-30. A few snippets to guide the way…

“And yet ethnologists have never come to recognize this pattern of persecution in the societies they study. Why is that? . . . The second possible answer is that persecution exists but we do not recognize it, either because we are not in possession of the necessary documents, or because we do not know how to decipher the documents we do possess.” (pp. 24-25)

“To make my task easier I shall begin with a myth that is exemplary. . . . I shall then turn to myths that reproduce the pattern of persecution but in a form that is harder to decipher. Finally, I shall turn to myths that reject this pattern but do so in such an obvious way as to confirm its relevance. By proceeding from easy to more difficult I intend to show that all myths must have their roots in real acts of violence against real victims.” (p. 25)

“Just as in medieval persecutions, stereotypical persecutors are always found in myths and are statistically too prevalent to ignore. The myths are too numerous for us to be able to attribute the repetition of the model to anything but real persecutions.” (p. 27)

“The myth of Oedipus is not just a literary text, or a psychoanalytic text, but a persecution text and should be interpreted as such.” (p. 27)

“My hypothesis relies on nothing historical in the critics’ sense. It is purely ‘structural’ as in our interpretation of historical representations. We assert that certain texts are based on a real persecution because of the nature and the disposition of the persecutor stereotypes they portray.” (p. 28)

“We are dealing with cultural schizophrenia. My hypothesis would have served a purpose if it had only revealed just that. We interpret texts not by what they really are but by their external trappings (I am almost tempted to call it their commercial wrapping). A slight modification of the presentation of a text is enough to inhibit or release the only true radical demystification available to us, and no one is aware of the situation.” (p. 30)

(1) We do not know how to read; (2) so we must begin with the simplest texts and work toward the most difficult, always following the deciphering method foisted upon us by the simplest texts; (3) statistical analysis (again: remember that Girard had recourse to statistics in chapter 1) confirms the universality of the deciphering method; (4) this calls (under the emphatic word “should”) for a kind of ethics of reading; (5) undergirding all of this is the newly discovered fact (discovered by Girard) that the divide between myth and history is not a question of temporality; (6) if we follow all of these arguments, we will be able at last to undertake “the only true radical demystification available to us.” A great deal speaks in these six points, but two further quotations, now from later in the chapter, help us to recognize what is fundamentally at work here, I think:

“Again, to bring our overphilosophical interpretations down to earth, we need only place these mythical themes against a Western, rural background.” (p. 32)

“There was a time when no one could read even the distortions of persecution found in our own history. Finally we did learn. We can put a date to this achievement. It goes back to the beginning of the modern era and seems to constitute only the first stage in a process that has never really been interrupted but has been marking time for centuries because it lacked a truly fruitful direction that would stretch back to mythology.” (p. 38)

If these two passages do not betray the Aufclaerer, I don’t know what does! That is, Girard seems here to see the Enlightenment as a real enlightenment, as the rather sudden revelation (based on a few important shifts in presuppositions) that we were all great fools before, and now we know what all of human kind never could have known. As long as everything is taken up “against a Western, rural background,” we can recognize what is really at work in every text.

Given, of course, that we are still haunted by the ghosts of the Enlightenment, that though it failed as a project it nonetheless remains the framework of everything we do in Western civilization, are we therefore to get quite comfortable with its presuppositions? I am personally quite uncomfortable with them.

Yet—and this is what I have to face up to—I like a great deal of what Girard then goes on to do with mythology (the stereotypes are there, as Girard makes quite clear). And I think his articulation of the scapegoat as such is simply marvelous. The rather sketchy introduction of the theme of the sacred in connection with the scapegoat is especially rich, anticipatory. And then when he quotes perhaps my favorite poet, Baudelaire, on page 41 (Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frere: hypocrite reader, my semblance/reflection/double, my brother), I’m simply thrilled. Am I in love here, or am I repelled? Am I simply obsessed, rendering the text an object that sparks my desire to read? What am I trying to uncover in reading here? Or what violence am I trying to impose on this text?

Since violence and sexuality come together so profoundly in Baudelaire, let me conclude these questions with the whole stanza from which Girard quotes, first in a literal (and hence not poetically measured) translation, and then in two poetic translations, one by Stanley Kunitz and one by Robert Lowell. Just before the stanza in question, Baudelaire speaks of but does not yet name (he will in the stanza below) what unspoken thing it is that “voluntarily makes debris of the earth and swallows the world in a yawn.”

It is ennui! The eye burdened with involuntary tears,
it dreams of the gallows in smoking the hookah.
You are familiar, reader, with this delicate monster,
hypocrite reader, my equal, my brother!

I mean Ennui! who in his hookah-dreams
Produces hangmen and real tears together.
How well you know this fastidious monster, reader,
—Hypocrite reader, you—my double! my brother!

It’s BOREDOM. Tears have glued its eyes together.
You know it well, my Reader. This obscene
beast chain-smokes yawning for the guillotine—
you—hypocrite Reader—my double—my brother!


9 Responses to “The Scapegoat, chapter 3: “What is a myth?””

  1. cherylem said

    I thought this a fabulous post. Thank you. I want to read it with The Scapegoat in hand, which I haven’t yet been able to do and probably won’t be able to do until at least tomorrow.

    Also, I think you made a real effort on our behalf to speak our language – I appreciate this so much. I hope that inside yourself you aren’t giving a sigh and wishing we were all on your level; I still can’t believe how easy Girard seems to be for you. Even after all this time, I have to read so so slowly.

    I emphasize again how happy I am to be reading through the text with you and Robert and Rob and whomever else is going to be joining in.

    More tomorrow.

  2. robf said

    Finally finished this chapter last night. I’m still wary of his claim that real persecutions underlie mythic texts since real persecutions underlie historic texts with similar structures. Also not sure what to make of his claim that since scapegoats are portrayed as monsters, that mythic monsters are best seen then as scapegoats themselves. Its a bold claim, but not sure I buy it yet. Hopefully it will get more interesting when he starts to deal with real examples. And while I like the assertion that Freud missed the real import of the Oedipus myth, I’m not sure at this point what Girard intends to leave as a replacement for Freudian psychodynamics.

  3. joespencer said

    Good points, Rob. I’m at a loss as to how Girard would speak about Freud. In a sense, he seems very Freudian, but then he seems quite anti-Freudian (and not in the sophisticated, Deleuze and Guatarri sense). I’ll be thinking about this.

  4. Robert C. said

    OK, I’m going to try to finish up Chapter 3 in the next day or two (and hopefully Cheryl will be back, and hopefully nhilton will join us!).

    For now, let me say that I think this stance toward the Enlightenment is very tied up, at least in my mind, to the notion of scripture as sacred or authoritative ins some sense that I was trying to think about before. I’m not saying we shouldn’t look for subversive themes, I just want to get a better grip of what it means to approach scripture as scripture so I don’t inappropriately impose/mingle modernistic presuppositions on/with ancient scripture. If the point of scripture is to somehow help us bridge the distance between us and God (or is this even a good way to think about “the purpose” of scripture?), it seems that it is also important to think about somehow bridging the distance between the ancient and the modern….

  5. Robert C. said

    I finally finished the reading. What I’m thinking about now, for various reasons, is the way in which Girard thinks about causes and the ways we understand causes. Bottom of page 43:

    As long as external causes exist, such as an epidemic of plague for example, scapegoats will have no efficacy.

    I think plagues indeed are a good example for Girard to use to make his point, since it seems that we have pretty good scientific explanations of what plagues are and how they work, explanations which seriously question the ways plagues were interpreted in previous eras (i.e. acts of the gods). And it seems on this basis that Girard claims that we can justifiably disbelieve the guilt attributed to victims in persecution texts.

    On the one hand, I find the attitude of, for example, saying homosexuals contracting AIDS is punishment from God repulsive. On the other hand, I’m not sure I’m willing to disbelieve every instance in scripture where a plague is attributed to the wickedness of the people. Which, I think, gets right to the heart of what faith is, whether it is simply to believe something in the face of uncertainty, but with some sort of basis, or whether faith truly requires belief in something for which no reason can be given. I vacillate on this. On the one hand, I think love and grace are radically unjustified/groundless. But faith and/or belief? I’m fine with thinking that any “reason” we might base faith or belief on is pre-cognitive or irrational, I’m less fine thinking that faith is completely unjustified/groundless….

  6. joespencer said

    You have nicely articulated my own struggle, Robert.

  7. Cherylem said

    Hi all . . . actually I am just leaving . . . I’m going to try to write some stuff on Sunday, maybe. But all of August is looking bad for me. By September I will be back to normal.

    Please don’t give up on talking about this book in the meantime . . .

  8. cherylem said

    Hello all,
    This has been a silent bit on the Girard blog, and I have been gone a long time. With your forbearance, I’m going to spend a little time catching up, starting with chapter 3, which I reread today, along with the comments posted here.

    I loved chapter 3. I continue to think Joe’s opening comments are marvelous. I am very interested in Robert’s reluctance to ascribe all scriptural plagues as a type of scapegoating, as a refusal to see them as God’s punishment. But actually, I do not see scriptural plagues and natural disasters as God’s punishment, with an angry God sending down lightning bolts of plague and war. It is simply too easy to see a plague of any kind and say, it is God punishing us! Repent! Expel! Repent! Expel! etc.

    Here are some other comments in this chapter that I liked:
    (p 31): “In short, too rapid and visible evil reciprocity makes all behavior the same in the great crises of society that are apt to trigger collective persecutions. ” (Whether here on in another Girard post someone had talked about the need to slow reciprocity – I think as people and nations we do need to do this: slow it . . . . way . . . . . down.)

    I liked Girard’s discussion of the monstrous, the monsters who are mixtures of man and animal, the quote from Eliade (p. 34) that talks about the monstrous characteristics of heroes, including the ability to change themselves into animals. Since I’ve been listening on CD to the Harry Potter stories (I didn’t want to read #7 until I had reminded myself of all that went in the first six) I have been a little in awe of J K Rowling’s ability to take the monstrous and mythic archetypes and weave them into her stories.

    I am interested when Girard talks about our inability to recognize the victim, or the inability of the mythic storyteller to recognize the victim because the victim has become so totally monstrous (p. 35), and that the monster and his offense seem to be one – the offense seems to be an ontological attribute of the monster (p. 36).

    But as the chapter comes to an end I am finding Girard more compelling:
    p. 37: “We think we are free of mythical illusions because we have sworn not to be hoodwinked by them.”
    p. 37: “As for our ears, if we have them, they only hear this no one, no one . . . ”
    p. 38: It is in “poor taste” to notice that heroes are often assassinated by their own people.

    Girard has begun to cut close to the bone. Then the knife gets even closer when Girard says:
    p. 41: “those in our day who are the most proficient in discovering other people’s scapegoats, and God knows we are past masters at this, are never able to recognize their own. . . .Each person must ask what his relationship is to the scapegoat.” He goes on to say, ironically, “We only have legitimate enemies.”

    Finally, I am interested in Girard’s double transference – which I believe is his belief that the scapegoat provides both victim and god, in the process reconciling everyone else, including others who have been enemies before the scapegoat.

    This was just a small review for me, before I move on chapter 4. One question I asked myself, and would ask the group, (if anyone out there is still paying attention), is, a la p. 39: What illusions do we have that are shared by a great number of people, which would lend themselves to a moment ripe for the stereotype of persecution?

    Ah, but you all have been here and moved on . . . which I will also do shortly.

  9. Robert C. said

    Cheryl, you’re back and have more time now, but I’m pretty swamped. Nevertheless, I’ll try to find time for the next few chapters somehow in the next few weeks.

    I’ve been a bit fascinated lately with the whole problem of modernity and how that affects our very understanding of faith (and demystification, as we’ve talked about before a bit…), so I worry that believers are the ones most ripe for persecution in modern society, esp. in scholarly society (anthropologists aside, since these are who Girard himself takes aim at for having too much respect toward, as Joe’s mentioned before). In Mormon culture, I think we could talk about many other stereotypes, but the ones I can think of are sort of obvious and not so interesting to discuss. It’s the ones we don’t see that are most dangerous!

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