The Mechanism

“In a nutshell: before the advent of Judaism and Christianity, in one way or the other, the scapegoat mechanism was accepted and justified, on the basis that it remained unknown. It brought peace back to the community at the height of the chaotic mimetic crisis. All archaic religions grounded their rituals precisely around the re-enactment of the founding murder. In other words, they considered the scapegoat to be guilty of the eruption of the mimetic crisis. By contrast, Christianity, in the figure of Jesus, denounced the scapegoat mechanism for what it actually is: the murder of an innocent victim, killed in order to pacify a riotous community. That’s the moment in which the mimetic mechanism is fully revealed.” — René Girard, in Evolution and Conversion: Dialogues on the Origins of Culture

Quoted by Chronicles of Atlantis, with accompanying photo at that website.

This may not be what was intended, but reading Girard and learning about mimetic theory these last few years has led me to become extremely wary of all sacrifice (making sacred) — which actually I think is intended — and also sceptical and even perhaps cynical of self-sacrifice, in myself and others.

Sacrifice seems so often to go hand-in-hand with feelings of righteousness and resentment, and the act of scapegoating, and it offers an enormous payoff both for acknowledging the sacrifice as such and for denying all else. I see self-sacrifice now as mostly an acceptable way to make oneself sacred, a kind of self-divination that can be deeply satisfying and comforting to the sacrificer. (A short time ago I would have agreed that ‘we are all sacred,’ and yet now I think that such language amounts to a sort of trick, a means of identifying and attacking ‘the profane,’ that which we think is unworthy.)

I think we are called to compassion — i.e., suffering with, abiding with, experiencing what the other experiences without clutching onto the experience — which sometimes entails sacrifice of one’s ego, one’s desires, and at times one’s life; and yet I can’t be unaware of the ego-needs and the desires that are met in the act of sacrificing oneself in both mundane and extraordinary ways, in the stories we tell ourselves and others about the sacrifice — before (if premeditated or foreseen), during and particularly after the fact — and in the refuge taken in false modesty that seeks to lift up our own altruism and to deny our own selfishness. And contrariwise, even boasting of our selfish motives can itself become a show of ego self-sacrifice, a twisted pretense of appropriate humility that serves only to enhance the perception of oneself as a hero, a god, someone who isn’t even aware of the good they’ve done. We are a tricky, tricky lot, it seems to me, capable often of hiding the complexity of our own motives from our own minds and hearts.

I can imagine self-sacrifice as a consequence of feeling in the flow of all life, as a heartfelt response to feeling loved, as an act intertwined with living an abundant life, though I have a more difficult time imagining that the story about the act could leave it at that without justification, fabrication, meaning-making, and so on…. What I can’t imagine is self-sacrifice as a measurement on a moral scale without also thinking about the Pharisees and their sacrifices, abstinences, denials of pleasures, etc., for the sake of God, and how good they felt about their worthiness under God because of those sacrifices.

Self-sacrifice that comes from a sense of duty and a need to ‘do the right thing,’ and that carries with it a sense of having done right, done well, been worthy and pleasing, feels to me likely to slip unobserved into a self-congratulatory act, and perhaps to leak into resentment, bitterness, anger and eventually accusation when the act is unappreciated, unrecompensed, unacknowledged, unnoticed, and even unaccepted, and/or has an outcome considered bad by the sacrificer. (Or, alternately, the sacrificer may view the lack of appreciation and the bad outcome as yet another burden added to the sacrifice s/he is making, which just enhances the satisfaction s/he feels in making such a sacrifice.)

If such an act derives from wanting to measure up, wanting to do what’s right and to be right, then it seems mined with explosive devices that will likely damage the sacrificer, as it did the Pharisees, without their noticing it. If, on the other hand, such a sacrifice derives from a feeling of being loved completely for who one is (and isn’t), from a knowledge at the core — or perhaps simply from a quick glimpse that’s never been quite edited out — that we are the recipients of a gift that our word ‘life’ doesn’t even begin to describe — Well, that kind of sacrifice could, it seems, be experienced not as giving up anything, not as an unequal exchange, not as suffering at all except in the sense of ‘suffer’ as ‘allow’ or ‘undergo.’  We might then undergo sacrifice as a bit of ash undergoes a lava flow or as a drop of rain undergoes a thunderstorm. What would that be like?

(I ordered Evolution and Conversion yesterday, and a few days ago received a copy of Girard’s other book published this year, Mimesis and Theory: Essays on Literature and Criticism, 1953-2005, from which I may occasionally quote as I get into it. I’ll probably skip around … Writers whose works he explores include Stendhal, Voltaire, Valéry, Tocqueville, de Beauvoir, Proust, Racine, Sartre, Hugo, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare … I haven’t read most of the original texts, so it may be hard going. See TOC here.)


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