A Summary of the First Part of the First Book of Girard's Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World
October 10, 2019
Author: Bianca Yang
This is copied directly out of emails I shared with Brian Timar.
The book is written as a dialogue between Girard and Jean-Michel Oughourlian and Guy Lefort. I often felt like I was sitting in on a conversation without enough context. Much of my time was spent slowly rereading sentences and looking up, for the 10th time, what ethnology and ethology and structuralism were. I don’t understand structuralism at all, but I’m confident I’ll fix it when I go back for another pass through this first part and finish the rest of the book.
The book started by discussing the conflict that can emerge from mimesis and how primitive societies try to prevent these conflicts with prohibitions on things like twins or mirrors or repeating another person’s words or gestures. Some of these prohibitions (of which Girard does not give many, but you could imagine the institution of monogamy and basic property rights as other examples), like the mirrors or twins, seem absurd, but they show how little the primitive societies understand the underlying mechanism and thus how much sway this mysterious phenomenon of mimetic conflict held over them.
As usual, these prohibitions eventually break down. People get into such heated mimetic conflict that they threaten to tear apart the community. The solution that emerges is ritual. These rituals tend to be brutal, ending in sacrifice of human or animal. You can think of Aztec sacrifice as a particularly graphic example. The point of the ritual is to find a scapegoat (original meaning is the Biblical one) that can take on the burdens of the conflict and, through death, bring back peace. One important thing to note here is that this figure starts out as anonymous and becomes a definite entity that the community can rally against through the ritual. You can start to see some of why such a sacrifice figure becomes a sacred or worshipped figure by noting that this figure brings death and conflict in life but life and peace in death. They defy ordinary human “laws”. Because primitive societies have no idea why this mechanism works, they try to recreate the scenario every time something bad happens, like when a flood or famine or fire or war breaks out.
A big sacred sacrificial figure is Jesus. You could say Jesus is important because he is the “final” sacrifice. His sacrifice should end all sins and conflict, thus ending humans’ cyclical lifestyle and worldview. Without cyclicality, we can conceive of and pursue linear progress: tomorrow is better than today is better than yesterday. David Perell has a nice piece on Thiel and Girard and progress. Girard hasn’t yet discussed the Jesus idea yet, but I’m pretty sure he will come back to it as a prominent case study.
All these ideas seem pretty crazy, but Girard’s argument for why is that we have started to understand how this mechanism works. As a result, it has less of an effect on us. As a result, we have no strong modern analogies for understanding how this phenomenon could produce sophisticated human cultures and thus disbelieve that we can reduce religion and ritual and prohibition into the single idea of mimesis. Even Girard admits that this first chapter of exposition is insufficient, as good as phlogiston was as an explanation of combustion, and that the rest of the book should illuminate the details.
The second chapter is about tracing how power, in the form of kingship and monarchy, can emerge from the delaying of ritual sacrifice. The basic idea is that the victim becomes sacred upon conclusion of the ritual and that any subsequent incarnations of him must inherit some of this respect. Thus, if you can legitimately convince people that you, as the victim, deserve respect, you will extend the time until your sacrifice and accumulate legitimate power.