Intellectuals as Castrators of Meaning:An Interview with Réne Girard
Giulio Meotti -Il Foglio
Reprinted with permission. It is featured in the current edition of Modern Age (50, no. 2; Spring 2008).
Published in First Principles
Despite being 84 years of age, René Girard has lost none of his nerve as a definitively radical thinker.
He is working on a new essay about Karl von Clausewitz.
The author of great contemporary works such as Violence and the Sacred and The Scapegoat, recently elected among the forty "immortals" of the Académie française, René Girard is, along with Claude Levi-Strauss, our greatest living anthropologist.
In this interview with Il Foglio, Girard returns to that which defines "the great anthropological question of our time."
He himself opens with a question:
"Can there be a realistic anthropology that precedes deconstruction? In other words, is it licit and still possible to affirm a universal truth about humankind? Structuralist and postmodern contemporary anthropology denies this access to the truth. The present school of thought is 'the castration of meaning.' But such ways of discussing mankind are dangerous."
Girard comments on the "scandal" of religion as it originated in the epoch of neo-secularization:
"From the enlightenment onwards, religion was conceived as pure nonsense. Auguste Comte had a precise theory on the origin of truth, and his eighteenth century intellectualism is reminiscent of much that is in vogue today. Comte said there are three phases: religious, which is the most childlike; philosophical; and finally, scientific, the latter being the closest to the truth. Today, in public discourse, the aim is to define the 'non-truth' of religion, however indispensable religion is for the survival of the human race. No one asks what the function of religion is; only faith is spoken of (as in, 'I have faith,' or not). What is the consequence? The revolutionary theory of Charles Darwin once hoped to demonstrate the uselessness of a fifteen-thousand-year-old institution like religion. Today the demonstration is attempted in the form of genetic chaos research as enunciated by neo-Darwinism. If you listen to a scientist such as Richard Dawkins—an extremely violent thinker—you see religion as something delinquent."
But religion has a function that goes beyond faith. Girard sums up the truthfulness of monotheism's gift with one phrase (and then elaborates):
"'The prohibition against human sacrifice.' The modern world has decided that the prohibition is nonsense. Religion has returned to being conceived of as the costume of the good savage, a primitive state of ignorance under the stars. Religion, however, is necessary to suppress violence. Man is a unique species in the world: he is the only one who threatens his own existence with violence. Animals in sexual jealousy do not kill each other. Human beings do. Animals do not know vengeance, do not know the destruction of the sacrificial victim, which is a phenomenon tied to the mimetic nature of the applauding multitude."
Unfortunately, today there is only one definition of violence, that of pure aggression:
"This is because one wants to render oneself innocent. Human violence, however, is the result of desire and imitation. Postmodernism is not able to speak of violence. Violence is placed in parentheses and its origin is simply ignored. And with it, the most important truth: that reality is in some measure knowable."
René Girard comes from French radicalism:
"I filled my head with the farcical, with the stupid, simple mediocrity of the avant-garde. I know well how the postmodern denial of reality can lead to the discrediting of the moral questions about man. The avant-garde, at one time relegated to the artistic field, today extends to the scientific, which thinks about the origin of man. In a certain sense, science has become the new mythology: man has created life. For this reason, I welcomed with great relief the explanation of Joseph Ratzinger of 'biological reductionism'—the new form of deconstruction, the biological myth. I find myself having recourse to the distinction the ex-Cardinal made, between science and scientism."
The only great difference between man and other animal species is the religious dimension:
"This is the essence of human existence. It is the origin of the prohibition of sacrifices and the prohibition of violence. Where religion has dissolved, there is the beginning of a process of decomposition. Micro-eugenics is our new form of human sacrifice. We no longer protect life from violence. Rather we smash life with violence. We seek to appropriate for ourselves the mystery of life for our own benefit. But we will fail. Eugenics is the culmination of a school of thought initiated two centuries ago and which constitutes the greatest danger to the human species. Man is the species that can always destroy itself. For this reason, religion was created."
Today there are three areas—nuclear weapons, terrorism, and genetic manipulation—in which man is especially placed in danger:
"The twentieth century was the century of classical nihilism. The twenty-first century will be the century of alluring nihilism. C. S. Lewis was right when he talked about the abolition of man. Michel Foucault added that the abolition of man was becoming a philosophical concept. Today, one can no longer speak of 'man.' When Friedrich Nietzsche announced the death of God, in fact he was announcing the death of man. Eugenics is the negation of human rationality. If one considers man as the outcome of mere chance and as crude material for the laboratory, a malleable object to be manipulated, one reaches the point of being able to do anything to man. That ends with the destruction of the fundamental rationality that belongs to the human being. But man cannot be reorganized thus and still remain man."
According to Girard, besides religion, we are losing sight today of the function of even another anthropological institution, namely that of matrimony:
"A pre-Christian institution, and strengthened by Christianity, marriage is the indispensable organization of life, bound to man's quest for immortality. In creating a family, it is as if man is seeking the imitation of eternal life. There have been places and civilizations where homosexuality was tolerated; but no past society had ever placed it on the same legal level as the family. In marriage, we always have a man and a woman; that is, opposites. In the last American elections of 2006, the true winner was elected in the referendums: natural marriage."
The Metaphysical Boredom of Europe
Girard agrees that Europe is immersed in what the Arabist of the Sorbonne, Rémi Brague, calls "metaphysical boredom":
"His is a beautiful explanation, and it seems to me that the superiority of the Christian message each day becomes more visible. When it is most attacked, Christianity shines with greater truth. Being the negation of mythology, Christianity shines especially in the moment in which our world once again fills itself with sacrificial mythologies. I have always understood the 'scandal' of the Christian revelation in a radical way. In Christianity, rather than assuming the point of view of the crowd, we assume the view of the innocent victim. Thus Christianity deals with a complete reversal of the archaic scenario. And it brings about the exhaustion of violence."
Girard talks about our obsession with sexuality:
"In the Gospels, there is nothing sexual, and this fact has been completely romanticized by contemporary Gnostics. Gnostics, as always, exclude categories of persons, and transform them into enemies. Christianity is the exact opposite of mythology and of Gnosticism. Today, a form of neo-paganism is being advanced. The greatest error of postmodern philosophy is to have thought that it could freely transform man into a mechanism for pleasure. From this pursuit of pleasure comes de-humanization, which begins with the false desire to prolong life's pleasures by sacrificing the greatest goods."
Postmodern philosophy, he says, is based on the false assumption that history has ended:
"From here, there is born a culture shipwrecked in the present. From here, there originates even a hatred for a vibrant culture that affirms universal truth. Today, it is widely believed that sexuality is the solution to everything; instead, it is the origin of the problem. We are continually being seduced by a suggestive ideology of allurement. Yet deconstruction does not contemplate the sexuality at the core of human folly. Our insanity thus lies in our willing efforts to make sexuality a banal, frivolous matter. I hope Christians don't follow this direction of deconstruction. For violence and sexuality are inseparable. This is why sexuality contains both the most beautiful and the darkest elements that we carry within."
We are in the midst of a divorce between humanity and syntax, says Girard; it is the divorce between reality and language:
"We are losing every contact between language and the regions of being. Today we believe only in language. We love fairy tales more than in any other era. But Christianity is a linguistic truth, the logos; Thomas Aquinas was the great promulgator of this linguistic rationality. The great success of Anglo-American Christianity and thus of the United States is not unrelated to the extraordinary English translations of the Bible. Yet in Catholicism today, there is not too much rationality, but rather too much sociology. The Church is too often compromised by a flattery of the times and of modernity. In a certain sense, such problems began with the Second Vatican Council; but yet they also go back to a loss of eschatological Christianity that preceded it. The Church has not reflected enough on this pre-conciliar transformation. How can we justify a total elimination of eschatology, even from the liturgy?"
Nihilism and Apocalypse
Girard reiterates that humanity has never been in such danger as it is today:
"This is the great lesson of Karol Wojtyla's formula: 'The Culture of Death.' It is his most beautiful linguistic formulation. And it goes well with the other great formula, that of Joseph Ratzinger: 'The Dictatorship of Relativism.' This nihilism of our time is also called deconstruction, or simply 'theory.' But if nihilism is transformed simply into a respectable philosophical 'theory,' then everything becomes frivolous, everything is a play on words, everything is a joke. So we may begin with the deconstruction of language, but we then finish with the laboratory deconstruction of the human being."
Along with the loss of respect for human life, the deconstruction of the body is the other idea that Girard challenges:
"This comes from the same people who, on the one hand, want to prolong life infinitely, and yet, on the other hand, say that the world is overpopulated."
The literary critic George Steiner writes that even atheism is metaphysical, and Girard comments:
"Certainly, Steiner has always had marvelous ideas. G. K. Chesterton said the modern world is full of Christian ideas gone mad. Even the enlightenment had thus been a product of Christianity. Take a figure such as Voltaire, an example of bad enlightenment who contributed to the de-Christianization of France. Just the same, Voltaire always defended victims, and was thus a great Christian, even without knowing it. For this reason I say that bad interpretation of Christian doctrine is even worse when coming from outsiders to the tradition. Christianity continues to propose to us a fascinating and persuasive explanation for man's evils. But we are losing this apocalyptic dimension of Christianity, by which people become aware that no society can survive without religion. Christian romanticism has forgotten that Christian religion has had, as its foremost achievement, the defusing of sacrificial violence. Today, Christian religion is more realistic than the optimism of science, science that creates man in order to kill man. Thus the apocalypse is not the anger of God, but rather the wrath of man upon himself. The apocalypse is not behind us, but stands before us. The Apocalypse was not written for God, but for man. The present Christian fundamentalists are apocalypse believers in a mistaken sense; they believe God will punish man, not that man will punish himself. Today, we must have a regard for the apocalyptic, in order never to forget that violence is indigenous with man."
Islam Lacks Something Important: the Cross
Ratzinger's talk in Regensburg was, according to Girard, decisive:
"The challenge Ratzinger launched towards relativism is salutary, not only for Catholics, but for secularists as well. And I regard Ratzinger as a sign of hope for Europe. He is a Pope very similar to, but also very different from, John Paul II. Wojtyla was unstoppable; he always wanted to be seen and heard. Benedict XVI wants more to pacify people; he is a great teacher of reflection and modesty. The Christian religion, the greatest revolution in human history, is the only one to remind us of the correct use of reason. It is a challenge that carries with it the concept of guilt. For a long time, Europe had decided that the Germans had to be the scapegoats for World War II; it was impossible to attack communism or Nazism. Once the death of God was declared, along with the end of the possibility for the word 'enlightenment' to have any religious meaning, there had to arise an 'anti-God,' a counter-divinity: communism. I agree with Ernst Nolte's thesis on the affinity between Nazism and communism. Every totalitarian regime begins with the suppression of religious liberty. Today, this anti-life counter-divinity is revived in scientism."
Girard confirms that this exaltation of man as a counter-divinity is the sense of the phrase of Henri de Lubac, which is
often abused (as if it were instead an ideal): "Atheistic Humanism":
"I was honored by his friendship. When he was accused of not being Christian, de Lubac said that all he wrote was just and that there was nothing heretical in it. The great demographic crisis in the West is one of the various signs of the paralysis brought on by 'atheistic humanism.' The ideology of our time is hostility towards life as such. Modern culture maintains that all mythology, whether old or new, is life-affirming; on the other hand, it maintains that religion is life-denying. But the truth is exactly the opposite. The new Dionysianism of modern culture has a violent and deadly face. Among the first to understand this was Thomas Mann. Yet what dominates today is a form of existential nausea, inherited from the romantic spleen."
We are so ethnocentric, says Girard, that we think that only others can be in the right when claiming the superiority of their own religion:
"Islam maintains a relationship with death that convinces me that this religion absolutely fails to engage with ancient myths. Islam's mystic relationship with death makes death even more mysterious. Islam is a religion of sacrifice. The Christian, however, doesn't die to be imitated. We have to remember the words of Christ to Paul: 'Why are you persecuting me?' In Christianity, which destroys every mythology, there is a constant dialectic between the victim and the persecutor; in Islam, this does not exist. Islam eliminates the problematic victim. In this sense, there has always been a conflict between Christianity and Islam. In Islam, the most important thing is missing: a Cross. As in Christianity, Islam rehabilitates the innocent victim, but it does so in a militant way. The Cross, on the contrary, puts an end to the ancient and violent myths. The Cross is the symbol of the inversion of violence, of the resistance to lynching. Today the Cross opposes the Dionysian sacrifice of the new myths. Christianity, differing from Islam, prohibits sacrifice."
René Girard has always chosen to not say easy and accommodating things:
"I was, even here in America, much ostracized. Today, I couldn't care less about what others think of me. We must not surrender ourselves to the alluring; there is much to learn from the past. I often reread the story of Joseph in the Old Testament because it is the most beautiful exemplification of Christianity. I was married in 1951; I have nine nephews and three children. My wife is Protestant, and has never converted to Catholicism." At this point, one of the many seraphic laughs of this stern and upright man comes forth.
"I have one son in business; my daughter is a painter; and my other son is a lawyer. Concerning America, I love its great paradox: it has within itself the most efficacious protection against all the worst aspects of itself—the protection that Europe ignores. Here in America, I recognize true independence. I am surrounded by life."
On his own status as an intellectual, one of those so-called "castrators of meaning":
"The least that I can do is to think that this is the time for silence, but a silence fraught with meaning."