By Aiman Reyaz, New Age Islam
13, March, 2014
Rene Girard, an anthropologist literary critic, wrote a book called the ‘Violence and the Sacred’. And he suggests that what any culture defines as the “sacred” is always an attempt to ward off “violence”. He puts violence at prior, at first. In all cultures there was a kind of primitive flux of violence and what we see as social law and religious law are always ways of somehow containing and controlling this violence.
So that is why the central institution of sacrifices was instituted in primitive people: first human sacrifices and then animal sacrifices which were done as a way of getting past the human sacrifices. And why would you have a culture of ritual sacrifices? Well , it is because the sacrificial murder is a murder that “cleanses” the community. The Greek tragedy is filled with these things. Think of Oresteia which is filled with blood revenge yielding to a code of law. That Aeschylus has really written a trilogy about the emergence of law that governs the call for blood.
Girard also talks about both parricide and regicide in Sophocles’ play ‘Oedipus the King’. This play is about both, killing the father as well as killing the king. Girard says that it is the erasure of difference, both in a family and in a social sense: the Head of the family and the Head of the society. And when you knock that person out you end up with a kind of flux once again, where no one has their delineated place anymore.
Girard also sees plague as the erasure of difference. Everybody can get it. One can get it from anywhere and one doesn’t know how it’s gotten. Now, this sounds satiric but let’s sees what happens with this reading. He starts from this view: he says the beginning of ‘Oedipus the King’ has the plague. What are they going to do about it? Well the culture of sacrifice says that there has to be somebody who has to be sacrificed. This is a fairly familiar model: somebody has got to be sacrificed.
And what Girard sees happening is the three men in the play: Creon, Oedipus and Tiresias were fighting it out to see who is going to be the sacrificial victim that will “cleanse” the pollution of the Polos, of the disease. Mind you that sacrificial rite frees everybody else from responsibility. And this is what the Oracle says: the city is dying because of one concealed murder.
I want the readers to think what an interesting statement this is. Is that why people usually have plagues? It could be for all kinds of reason. But this response says if you can find that murderer we are all healthy again; we are all in the clear again. There is a deep logic here: it is the logic of scapegoating (one can read the story of Jesus Christ (pbuh) this way- as a person who dies for their sins).
One significant death frees or cleanses morally and spiritually all the others. This logic is very ancient, it appears in many religions. And so what Girard sees is that these three men are, more or less, jousting with each other, to see which one is going to take the head. And it turns out to be Oedipus.
There is something very provocative about the Girardian theory. It has, as I stated earlier, its connection with the Christian myth and it has also, I think, deep connection with the whole project of civilization; civilization as a cleansing operation. One thinks of Freud’s ‘Civilization and its Discontents’: Civilization as a form of repression, as a way of policing the drives that are, in fact, at the core of human animal.
But also civilization as a set of cleansing procedures, as a way of making people feel safe again. And this has its medical dimensions- finding the person who has infected us so that we can then be free of this threat.
These are not just literary matters. It seems to me that the Oedipal scenario and of Shakespeare’s’ most famous play ‘Hamlet’ which says “something is rotten in the state of Denmark has a lot to do with many scandals. There is in a very profound sense that corruption in the government, corruption among the kings has a public dimension. This is not just prurience; it has to do with the pollution and the elements of the society at large.
The culture is sick. Thebes has the plague. Thebes is not the only country that has the plague or has had it. There is in some sense that once we are able to open our view onto the actual stakes that Sophocles is articulating and charting for us and then I see that this play continues to resonate even today.
One of the most obvious and also fruitful extensions of the Oedipus as well is the way in which the first proto-detective story in the West. That Oedipus is the detective. He is the person who is charged to solve a crime that has been left covered up.
When something terrible happens we want to have a solution for it. We want to know who has done it. The World Trade Centre explodes, there is an explosion in The Taj; the culture wants this to be just as the Greeks would have said that it was the barbarian who is the culprit. Culture wants this to be some identifiable, arrestable and either killable or expugnable outsider- a barbarian, a foreigner.
This goes back to any kind of violence that lurks in our community. There is a deep tug for us to say- if we can find the perpetrator of this or Girard would say if we could “invent” the perpetrator of this we could sleep better; we would have the illusion that we have solved this, we have “cleansed” ourselves and that we are somehow out of the woods.
So that that very logic of ritual sacrifices, or scapegoating- and mind you scapegoating has a horrendous history attached with it, it’s been attached to the treatment of Jews, minorities’ etc- always for the same reasons. If you can lay the wrath on these people (if the problems in Germany were because of the Jews after the Great War) then in some sense the whole populous lives better, it sleeps better. It thinks that we have now pinpointed the source of the disease and we can move on. So there is a terribly potent, rich and scary logic.
1. ‘Violence and the Sacred’ by Rene Girard
2. ‘The Scapegoat’ by Rene Girard
3. ‘Sacrifice’ by Rene Girard
4. ‘The Interpretative Afterlife of Oedipus’