Evolution and Conversion, cont’d (5)

(Previous posts on this topic: here, here, here, and here.)

The focus of Chapter 5, Method, Evidence and Truth, is evidence, and what kind of evidence or proof is needed for mimetic theory. If you are already convinced that mimetic theory and the scapegoat mechanism operate basically as Girard has posited, then this chapter is probably skippable. Otherwise, it’s interesting for its exploration of ‘detective novel’ evidence — indirect, and often hidden or muddied by the perpetrator — and its suggested similarity to Girard’s evidence.

The Darwin quote that introduces the chapter speaks for my response to mimetic theory:

“What I believe was strictly true is that innumerable well observed facts were stored in the minds of naturalists ready to take their proper places as soon as any theory which would receive them was sufficiently explained.” (in Darwin’s Autobiography)

** Concerning evidence and proof:

For Girard, it is the “multiplicity of consistent elements that constitutes proof.

I would say that a preponderance of consistent indirect evidence may not prove a theory (though it can convict a person in a court of law) but it is highly suggestive and should be taken seriously.

Girard seems both baffled and irritated that “modern intellectuals” either don’t grasp, don’t take seriously, or don’t accept mimetic theory even as a hypothesis to be proved or disproven:

Practically every story of origin or foundational myth states that society was founded upon a murder. One has the same plot in the Bible with Cane (Genesis 4) or in Livy’s account of the origins of Rome. Mircea Eliade talks about what he calls the ‘creative murder,’ which can be found in myths from the Middle East, as well as from China and beyond. However, so far as my work is concerned, I am still accused of simply rehashing an old Freudian idea. It seems that some scholars aren’t able to see how overwhelming the evidence is! … Why do so many scholars dismiss the founding murder as insanity, instead of accepting it at least a hypothesis?”

Anthropologist A.M. Hocart‘s work, Kings and Councillors (1936), is invoked and discussed quite a bit. Girard says, “According to [Hocart], anthropological evidence is always indirect, circumstantial, like a clue in a detective story. If we isolate these clues, we cannot reach any final verdict, but they are so numerous, ubiquitous and consistent that any doubt disappears.”

Hocart also speaks of Darwin’s evolution theory: “[H]aving been converted by comparative evidence, they set out to find direct evidence in order to confirm their deductions ….”

Girard comments on this, saying that this passage (of which I’ve selected only a sentence) “shows that in the theory of evolution, not only was the circumstantial evidence decisive but it also allowed the finding of the direct evidence, which now seems essential. The same thing happens with mimetic theory. There is no direct evidence for the apparently fantastic claim that the foundational murder is real and universal.” Several times in the book, Girard encourages forensic anthropologists to find direct evidence of his theory.

On the same theme of the reluctance of most scholars to even entertain mimetic theory, Girard suggests that “the real obstacle in the case of the mimetic theory hasn’t simply been the incompleteness of the record but the unwillingness an inability of our world to question its own fundamental assumptions.”

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he says, “the general ambition, apart from a few exceptions, was to show that Christianity was a myth like any other. In a way, we could say that I renew that project. However, I do in reverse, because I realize that it is Christianity that reads mythology better than any anthropologist, and allows us for the first time to unmask the mimetic mechanism and, particularly, the nature of the scapegoat murder.”

Asked a bit later if he’s saying that to understand mimetic theory we have to acknowledge our own mimetism, he responds, “Yes.  There cannot be any positivistic separation between observer and the object of observation: we are all implicated in the mechanism. The mimetic theory demands an ‘existential understanding’ to be fully grasped.”

Further: “Borrowing from Freud’s terminology, I would say that the mimetic theory is a ‘narcissistic wound.’ It is a wound to narcissism per se, for it shows that one’s desire isn’t as free as modern individualism would like it to be; and it is also a wound to the traditional theories of culture, for it clearly states that the beginnings of human culture were grounded in a founding murder.”

In this context, conversion means accepting the mimetic nature of desire. Otherwise, one would fall back on the old authentic/inauthentic binary opposition, which is the perspective of mimetic desire that hasn’t been acknowledged as such. The ‘inauthentic’ person is the one who follows directives from others, whereas the ‘authentic’ is the person who desires autonomously. We have already seen how misleading and illusory this sort of individualism is. The only way to overcome it is through a conversion, which ultimately leads to a revision of one’s own religious belief.”

Girard suggests that “one of the reasons it’s so hard to present evidence is mimetic theory” is that “evidence is hidden through the unconsciousness,” yet “the fact that evidence has been erased may work as a super-proof, a meta-evidence because it shows the crucial importance of the element that has been erased. If someone removes the traces of a murder, it means he is strongly implicated in it. … I’m convinced that there is a real event, which is hidden, covered up, traces of which are erased. Nonetheless, in a Freudian sense, this erasing of the traces isn’t itself without traces.”

Girard agrees with his questioners that “misrecognition in modern times” may be a defence against “the threat of overt self-criticism that would bring about the collapse of the individual identity and its convictions.” He says, “I think you are right, because so much effort goes into preserving concepts such as individualism and the autonomy of desire.”

** Religion is rational:

Girard sees religion as very rational: “In sociobiological terms, it has an extremely powerful adaptive value.”

** Literature v. Science

There’s some mention of the ‘two cultures’ of literature and science — it’s suggested that Girard “transformed literature into a scientific instrument of enquiry” — and of which has primacy in describing human relationships. That reminded me of this NPR story over the weekend about Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, titled “Virginia Woolf at the intersection of science and art.” It’s very pertinent to the discussion.

** Speaking of the ‘truth of texts’:

“I do believe in the truth of the text. I do not think all texts are truthful, but I believe, exactly like Freud, that ritual necessarily imitates an event which actually occurred. In its narrative, myth necessarily distorts that same event, but in such a way that the principle of the distortion can be discovered. To say that I simply mistake ritual and myth for the truth is a gross simplification of my work. I’m not talking about an absolute truth of the text, and I’m only saying that there is something hidden in the text, which refers to an actual event: the scapegoat mechanism.”

Next: Chapter 6, The Scandal of Christianity


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