lds-herm blog

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

The Scapegoat, ch. 4: “Violence and Magic”

Posted by Robert C. on August 14, 2007

I’m not sure if this chapter was easier to read, or just easier relative to other things I’ve been reading, or if I’m just understanding Girard’s writing style better. At any right, I found lots of interesting things to think about in this chapter.

First, I find this idea of good-and-bad-as-one very interesting. On p. 47, “Lopez, like Oedipus and like Apollo himself, is both master of life and master of death.” Not quite sure why, but this reminded me of a character type called the “superfluous man” found in Russian literature, epitomized best by Lermontov in A Hero of Our Time. If I recall correctly, the setting is in Russia after the Napoleonic wars and the book is about this character who, if he had lived during the war, surely would’ve been a great war hero—he was courageous, and intelligent, and was well liked by others. However, living after the war, he doesn’t have much to engage him, so he mischievously starts playing games with a woman’s emotions (again, it’s been too long since I’ve read that book, though I found it very interesting). Anyway, this idea of hero-as-villain and villain-as-hero resonates with me. I haven’t seen the Spiderman 3 movie, but my sense is that this same idea comes into play there, as it does in many other great superhero plots. And of course we see this in LDS scripture regarding Lucifer who was one of the great ones in heaven (too much of a hurry to track down the exact verse…).

We also see this in Job. I coincidentally just posted some commentary on Job 1:6-9 at the wiki (sort of in response to a discussion that sprang up on lds-phil). As, arguably I suppose, the quintessential scriptural book on the problem of evil, the evil that arises is very explicitly allowed by the LORD. And Satan there is among the sons of God. This intimate, familial relationship between good and evil is something that seems to play an important role in Girard’s theory, and I find it fascinating—He who has unusual power to stop evil also has unusual power to allow evil. I think this is a very important idea in grappling with the problem of evil—if God is the one we thank when good things happen, doesn’t that mean He is the one we should blame when bad things happen? God’s love and God’s wrath, two different sides of the same coin? Our enemies are our friends? Hot or cold, but not lukewarm? Hmmm….

Another strain of thought I had while reading this chapter is in regard to the modern conflict between science and religion. In some ways, I think many of Girard’s main ideas deconstruct themselves (I’ve clearly been hanging around Joe too long…). That is, he seems to be leaning on a modern, scientific vantage point to reveal the main two stages of the scapegoating mechanism (persecuting and sacralization), and yet it seems that this viewpoint itself scapegoats non-scientific accounts. I don’t want to just repeat this point which we’ve discussed before—what I find interesting in this chapter is, again, the discussion of a search for causes.

I started reading this excerpt from Thomas Nagel’s The View From Nowhere where he contrasts an outsider’s, detached or objective viewpoint with an insider’s, subjective viewpoint. That Nagel excerpt is discussing (very roughly, again, I haven’t even read that whole excerpt…) free will, how we subjectively experience free will even though it can never be objectively accounted for. No matter how good we get at, say, scientifically forecasting others’ actions, I think there will always be a gap of uncertainty in which the person’s personal and idiosyncratic motivations have lots of room to play—and this play that remains a mystery to others.

Back to Girard, I was reminded about these ideas from Nagel when I was reading about the “detached obvserver” (p. 55, 2/3 down) who “only sees a helpless victim,” in contrast to those taking part in the ritual. Again, I couldn’t help thinking what I think is at least somewhat against the current of Girard’s thought here, that is, what a detached observer might think about a sacrament or a prayer. Fortunately, or at least hopefully, there is not the same kind of violence associated with modern rituals of worship, though it seems this makes the danger more acute because the violence we engage in is more subtle and difficult to notice.  In addition to this notion of imbuing rituals with meaning that is missed from a detached, objective vantage point, I think this is equally interesting to think about in terms of inter-personal relationships, the difference between interested vs. disinterested action, giving a gift and expecting something in return vs. giving “with pure intentions,” etc.  I also have Jim’s “Rethinking Theology” article in mind here, and the way Paul talks about this (in 1 Cor 2 esp.), how only to “insiders” (i.e. those who believe) does the gospel make sense, to all others it is nonsense….

Science has been so successful in terms of technological advancement, that it seems the tendency is to want to demythologize (uh oh, that word again…) all of life in similar terms. But it seems this runs the risk treating all of life technologically. But even if society “wants” to do this in some sense, it isn’t able to—and this is what I think Girard is right to point out: these mythical patterns and currents continue, more unconsciously and hidden than before. By pointing them out and thinking about them, we will become more aware of our own tendencies toward persecution, and our own notions of sacredness.

(As a post-script, I have to add that the statement that was perhaps most unnerving of all of this to read to this point was on p. 54 near the bottom: “Because of this, there is less resistance to the truth, and all of mythology will soon be understood.” I don’t buy this claim, because it seems to totalize mythology which I think is not totalizable, but as I tried to articulate above, I think there is much to be gained from Girard’s thinking without going quite this far….)


2 Responses to “The Scapegoat, ch. 4: “Violence and Magic””

  1. joespencer said

    Whoops! I had seen so little happening that I have not yet returned to reading Girard. I’ll catch up if I can tomorrow and have some comments to make.

  2. joespencer said

    Robert, you are far more charitable—less scapegoaterly—to Girard than I have the tendency to be!

    I like the themes you draw from the text here, but it seems necessary to point out as well that Girard (given I am reading him correctly) would probably take issue with what you are drawing from him. That is, you are raising interesting questions, but they are questions Girard himself would find them irrelevant. Which is to say that I saw little more in this chapter than a continuation of the themes I drew out in my post on chapter 3: Girard sees Western civilization as moving inexorably toward an ultimate demythologization (if such a thing is possible).

    In fact, to be quite fair, I think Girard is unfair in claiming that scholars universally miss the connection between the violence of ritual and the sacrality of the deified mythological figure. It seems to me that Eliade very competently deals with just that theme again and again, and I can only imagine that there are other scholars who are doing the same. (And I suppose that means that if I take Robert’s comments here as drawn from a scholar like Eliade, I have absolutely no complaint at all.)

    But enough about Girard for the moment. I’ll try to get back to Robert’s comments soon, here.

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