Review of Paul Gifford, Towards Reconciliation. Understanding Violence and the Sacred after René Girard, James Clarke & Co, Cambridge, 2020, 148 pp.
René Girard (1923-2015) was indeed one of the most extraordinary thinkers of the 20th Century. His theories were wide-ranging and developed over many years while remaining astonishingly self-consistent. He was a literary critic, which is how he began, but also a historian, anthropologist, philosopher and latterly a biblical scholar. His thought led him finally to be a Christian.
Gifford’s book is designed as an introduction to Girard’s thought. He begins by establishing that even in our secular society the sacred remains a principle of group cohesion and collective identity, and that we are fascinated and haunted by its relationship to violence as manifested in twentieth century history or more recently in phenomena such as Isis.
Girard’s understanding of the relationship between the sacred and violence, to which Gifford devotes the next chapter, begins with the human capacity for imitation. Since Darwin’s theory of evolution most thinkers have stressed the continuity between animals and human beings. Girard sees a qualitative difference due to man’s much superior capacity for imitation (mimesis). Though that capacity promotes collaboration it also leads to rivalry between individuals and groups seeking possession of the same object, and hence to a dynamic reciprocity which culminates in violence, “in feud, vendetta or crusade” (p. 27). Paul illustrates this by analysing the regression to archaic violence in Golding’s novel The Lord of the Flies, violence which is seen to require a victim, a scapegoat.
Where, in the history of human beings becoming human, do the origins of this sacrificial violence lie (Chapter 3)? At this point Girard becomes what one might call a “theoretical anthropologist” in the way we talk of a “theoretical physicist”: his theory tallies with much physical archaeological evidence but does not, or does not yet, satisfy “the cognitivist preference for verified facts” (p. 56-57). Instead, it provides an overarching explanatory framework into which facts fit. At the origins of human society Girard posits a “founding murder”, not a single event but a repeated act which becomes ritualised as an expression of violence but also as a way of dealing with it. There is much archaeological evidence for the prevalence of human sacrifice: an innocent victim is put to death for the good of all. As Gifford puts it: “The scapegoat acts de facto as a sort of lightning conductor for the violently destructive energies gathered within the community” (p. 37). By controlling and limiting violence, this repeated ritualised sacrifice permits the development of a distinctively human culture: “a hyperdeveloped, codified, generationally transmitted and renewed programme of group intelligence” (p.41).
In dealing with Girard’s commentaries on the bible (Chapter 4 and the first part of Chapter 5), Gifford stresses that for Girard religion is not “’natural’ (i.e. man-made)” or “’supernatural’ (i.e. God-given)” but that “both things may be – are most fundamentally likely to be – true” (p. 60-61). On this reading, the Old and New Testaments show emergent man coming to a better understanding of God. Girard’s theories of imitation and scapegoating cast new light on the story of the Fall from Eden. In the story of Abraham and Isaac human sacrifice is modulated to animal sacrifice. “Isaiah’s suffering servant” prefigures “the victim figure as saviour: rejected scapegoat of all, discharging the community of all its sins and violence” (p. 71). Yet the God of the Old Testament remains largely “the God of the archaic sacrificial system: the wrathful, retributive and often bloodthirsty Jehovah of Hebrew tribal imagining” (p. 71). The New Testament takes us beyond that understanding. In his teaching (for example in the Beatitudes) and his actions (for example in the story of the woman taken in adultery), Jesus shows how human beings can escape the dynamic of imitative confrontational violence. The Passion of Jesus recapitulates the founding murder but transcends it: “Jesus consents to enter into the scenario of the founding murder as victim in order to display that process at work in his people and in humankind and to reveal to all humans its nothingness in relation to the ultimate reality of the love of God” (p. 85-86).
Gifford’s book began life as a series of lectures given at Coventry Cathedral. This explains why the last part of Chapter 5 and Chapter 6 are devoted to the practical topic of reconciliation, the task to which Coventry Cathedra dedicates itself. Girard’s theories promote reconciliation in that they enable human beings of all faiths and none to reflect jointly on their beliefs in a new way. The anthropologist “provides a simple, concrete, but almost infinitely flexible – and therefore always pertinent – ‘grid’ for identifying problems and scanning their active components (negative mimesis, runaway dynamic, sacrificial logic, misrecognition, the mimetic crisis with its contexts and periodicities, etc.). Still more so when the scanning of the problems suggests a counter dynamic of transformation (simple in principle, fruitful in practice and variously applicable), namely, the transformation (metamorphosis, conversion) of bad (negative, hate generating) into good (positive, loving) mimesis” (p. 91). Girard is not necessarily optimistic that on a global scale such reconciliation can be achieved: humanity may be standing before “apocalypse or reconciliation” (p. 107). Yet the peace process in Ireland, as Gifford shows, was partly undergirded by Girardian thinking. And reconciliation between the different Abrahamic faiths may be possible if we recognise “that it is not ‘difference’ that separates us, but the mimetic rivalry we have in common…” (p. 120).
The book is rounded off by an extensive interview with Girard largely conducted by Gifford in 2009. Covering in a different way much of the ground previously traversed, it shows Girard expressing himself in language that is powerful and accessible. At times Gifford intervenes within square brackets to elaborate on his own or Girard’s words. Occasionally (pp. 133-134) it is not clear who is speaking, Gifford or Girard. In one sense this is true throughout the book. Gifford has fully entered Girard’s world and speaks from within it. The suspicion arises that before he was struck by a metaphorical bolt of lightning on a French camp site Paul Gifford’s first name was Saul. At any event he speaks with authority. He explores every corner of Girard’s work and counters all criticisms laid against him. The argument is lucid and compelling, enlivened by colloquial images and turns of phrase. This book is a challenging and a good read.
Alastair B. Duncan