René Girard, the Prophet of Envy

The surest sign of innate virtues is innate absence of envy.

La Rochefoucauld

… John Lennon. Spooky. As long as you are not a celebrity yourself, you do not know how spooky it is. They love you because you are like how they would like to be, and they hate you, because you are like they are not. There is always this ambivalence towards a celebrity, and you never know what aspect would manifest next. That was also the case with Rigel. At first he was friendly because he thought he would talk to some bigwig, and that had nourished his European vanity, now he was angry because he thought that the bigwig would consider himself as someone bigger than him or so.

Robert Pirsig, Lila: An Inquiry into Morals

According to René Girard (1923 – 2015), people within society to a considerable degree revolve around mimesis. Since individuals usually do not have original desires of their own (or are not very well aware about them), they imitate others. If mimetic imitation fails – and there is a lot of potential for failure within mimetic dynamics – it produces grief, unhappiness, rivalry, conflict, resentment and envy. Societies are bound together through mimesis and imitation (they may actually and originally stem our from it); if mimesis between individuals and groups fails, society may eventually fall apart. Because of this, societies and collectives (and, finally, individuals themselves) are permanently undergoing vibrations caused by successful/positive/harmless/productive mimetic dynamics and more sinister mirror images of unproductive and/or conflictual mimetic dynamics.

In Girard´s reading of ancient and atavistic myths (as well as his highly interesting interpretations of world literature, like that of Shakespeare), human society is based on pacifcation of primordial violence and conflict, revolving around mimesis and envy. Human collectives are permanently endangered of rivalries between its members that may spill over the collective at large and become endemic and self-sustaining. „It is unpleasant to see that the sanctum of human culture is, in reality, a rotten core“, he notes in his great book about Shakespeare (Chapter 25). The „rotten core“ of culture is, in his reading, the sacrifice of a scapegoat. When mimetic rivalries or more anonymous tensions (that cannot be controlled) within a collective rise, more and more members of the collective will look for a scapegoat upon which they can unleash their violent frustration. Outsiders (that cannot be mirrored and therefore may produce sentiments of estrangement) and individuals that are handicapped in some way (and therefore seem „impure“ and provoke sentiments of disgust) are prone to become scapegoats. Ancient and atavistic myths and mythology, including christianity, often revolve around the collective murder and sacrifice of a scapegoat-like individual that cannot be beared by the collective as it unsettles the collective and its hierachies, whereas via that sacrifice the mimetic rivalries become pacified and the dead scapegoat canonised as a cultural hero or a god. That is the „rotten core“ of culture, and something that society (most noteworthy contemporary Western society) has chosen to suppress and erase adequate memory from it. It is (if it is true) not a convenient truth, to be sure.

In an article („The emotional lives of others“ by Andrew Beatty, published in the Aeon magazine, 8 July 2019) it says about an atavistic slash-and-burn culture (that of the Niha, who live on an outlier island in the far west of Indonesia): „The dominant emotion – the one people talked about and surmised in others but rarely owned up to – was ‘painful heart’, a virulent brew of resentment, envy and spite. A great deal of life revolves around this sentiment, held to motivate sorcery, the sabotage of crops and the poisoning of fishponds. In a society configured by competition and prestige, ‘painful heart’ is the dark side of swaggering one-upmanship. The overlooked and eclipsed are the resentful counterparts and secret enemies of the feastgiver, the ‘big man’. They need to be pacified.“ In his book about A Natural History of Human Moratily Michael Tomasello notes that „on the whole, chimpanzees and bonobos live their lives within a permanent competition for resources, within which they permanently try to outdo others, by combating them, tricking them or taking away their friends and allies“ (Tomasello notes that humans are somehow different and innately more altruistic). Baboon apes are said to live „in a permanent anxiety dream“. „Deeply ancient wisdom“ is something that sounds mysterious and attractive to many, we would like to know what „deeply ancient wisdom“ of our earliest forefathers has looked like; also we would like to know „roots of it all“, in order to know what may supposedly be the root of human condition and the true heart of ourselves. Despite that I consider it possible that „deeply ancient wisdom“ of our earliest forefathers may be just some unfounded and impractical stupidity (in a short story of eccentric science fiction writer R.A. Lafferty it is a joke that is so funny that is forever obscured because it is too funny to tell), it may be that deeply ancient wisdom is something unpleasant. Deeply ancient wisdom may revolve around pacification of primordial violence. Philosophies and idologies often rest on a specific vision of the most ancient humanity (that it has been matriarchy in the vision of feminists or some sort of communism in the vision of communists etc.); Girard´s body of work revolves around illustrating that the most constant motive of human history is mimesis.

That mimesis, imitation and mimetic conflict would be of such importance is not something that sounds intuitive. That seems hard to swallow (even for Peter Thiel). It has to sink in. The problem with René Girard`s body of work is that it revolves monomanically around the topic of mimesis, in that fashion it appears as rather totalitarian than monolithic. Girard seems to dissolve quite anything into mimesis. Of course, most of things that happen within society, and also the things that happen within oneself, are related to something else in society. But this does not mean such relationships and interdependencies are, truly, mimetic. Conflicts often revolve around what is considered to be right and wrong, i.e. something that is considered as objective. Alliances in war and in peace usually are about political gain, economic and strategic considerations and their motives usually lie within considerations of Realpolitik (and, therein, frequent alliances between cuturally distant groups as well as frequent conflicts between groups that are considered as culturally quite similar never cease to be a source for astonishment and wonder for third party, objective observers). It is not true that children`s playgrounds are arenas of jealousy, envy and conflict (as is stated by Girard), and that children permanently want to have the things of other children. Agreed, of course, such things happen, but I like to watch children playing because of seeing them cooperating within loose and dynamic circles, spontaneously and innocent, most of the time. When a child came up with something at school that seemed interesting, like a yo-yo, a butterfly knife or cigarettes, most of us needed to have or to practise such things themselves, of course: because they had some inherent quality, at least for a while. But the quality lay within the object (a yo-yo is rightfully desired by a child at elementary school, like butterfly knifes and cigarettes are rightfully desired by children a little older). It was not about mimesis, and we did not fall into conflict over yo-yos. In his book about Clausewitz (and elsewhere) Girard is pessimistic as concerns the potential of radical escalation of mimetic conflict (also as a likely scenario for the future and on the world stage), nevertheless conflicts are usually contained and further escalation is halted (unless escalation is deliberately chosen as a strategy). Eventually, societies hardly collapse, even not when devastating stress is inflicted upon them. The thing about mimetic rivalry, in general, is that you do not know, and cannot truly predict, what will happen next. As mimesis is two-faced, mimetic cooperation may turn into rivalry, friends become enemies and vice versa, all of a sudden. Many other factors (than pure mimetic rivalry) have to be taken into account if you want to extrapolate how mimetic dynamics will unfold and sustain themselves. There is a considerable difference between friendships and rivalries revolving around something and such that revolve around „nothing“.

I personally cannot say that mimesis would affect me a lot, true, however, I am (somehow) exceptional and therefore might not serve as an illustration (what I do serve for, nevertheless, is pointing out that things usually not need to be as they seem and that stuff has a lotta more facettes than is captured within grand design theories like that of Freud, Marx, Schopenhauer … and Girard). Of course, I seem to be affected by mimesis and by the behaviour of my surroundings all the same, for instance, do not like to embarrasingly shine out of a crowd, even if it is harmless like walking through a row in a cinema, but the motivation might be different (obeying the rules and motivation not to embarass others); at any rate, mimetic behaviour is tricky as you are usually not aware of it. Of course, one would usually not consider oneself prone to mimetic rivalries or to be an imitator. One would not directly consider oneself as envidious. One would say of oneself: I want to do something that is worthwhile and that has value. But the ego, also in its more innocent appearances, is nasty – self esteem is something dangerously unstable. Your self-esteem rests on doing some things well and producing some worthwhile things. Enter someone who does it better. Can you take that? Can you stand that? Enter the possibility of mimetic rivalry. Keep in mind that for the exceptional, and more intelligent person, it may appear easy to think of himself as a smiling Buddha, levitating above trivial and stupid conflict of others, since such a person is not embedded within the fierce competition among peers (as a positive aspect of the negative circumstance that the more intelligent person often is excluded from such collectives); if some people of equal, or higher intelligence come in, he may find himself in such a competition himself (high IQ societies are not least known for such struggles within their members). Finally, if you´re a Buddha, you´re likely to be quite singular (in your lifetime). But what if Jesus Christ and Mohammed come around? Would this cause a religious war? That cannot be ruled out. Therein, also the most noble things may be „rotten“ at the core. That „rottenness“ nevertheless stems out from individuality between people, and that truths may be, in part, heterogenous and incompatible, but true nevertheless: everything is perspective (therefore I recommend trying to become the all-seeing eye as the transcendent perspective. That is all I can do).

Despite being a towering and very educated intellectual and one of the titans that offer a grand perspective on humanity itself, René Girard is not very well known. The same thing applies for the scholar who would actually come up first with emphasizing on mimesis as constitutive for the establishment of society: Gabriel de Tarde (1843 – 1904). During his lifetime, Tarde has been overshadowed by the massive influence of Emil Durkheim, later he became recognised by intellectuals like Deleuze/Guattari or Peter Sloterdijk, nevertheless he still does not seem to get his share as concerns recognition (also ironically seemingly in the works of René Girard). In contrast to Durkheim, who thought of the social realm as something constituted by dynamics that are above purely inter-individual dynamics and processes and as something in its own right, Tarde primarily emphasised on such inter-individual dynamics (namely mimesis) as constitutive for society. This caused grudge in Durkheim who refuted Tarde. That (general) lack of recognition of both Tarde and Girard seems illuminating. Maybe they´re repressed out of a bad conscience of humanity. Or at least because it runs counter the hippie spirit of liberal intellectuals and their underlying flower power ideology of a genuinely constructive humanity. Maybe the rotten core is also within the concept itself. They´re not actually predictive, as mimesis is not predictive. Anything can happen within mimesis. Some tendencies, like scapegoating, and the general tendency of proneness to mimetic dynamics within society are nevertheless something one should be highly aware of.

What sense should we ever make out of all that what is presented by René Girard? When asked in an interview he responded: „The first sense to make is that most men, and especially the most powerful, were not full of peace and good intentions. Human life is essentially drama. Maybe one thing the churches do not emphasize enough is you notice that human beings like drama. They would like to be part of an immense fight between good and evil, and so forth.“ (Insights with René Girard, video, Hoover Institution) What is, given such circumstances that are heavily manifest in reality, ever left to be done? How can such a mess be encountered? If we behave as Christians, says Girard! Jesus Christ does not want to imitate anyone, he wants to imitate God. God, itself, is free from mimetic rivalry. God is neither greedy nor egoistic. God lets the sun shine likewise over the good, the bad and the ugly. God is self-sufficient (as God contains all aspects of the world, hence: enrich yourself and educate yourself better in order to widen your cruising radius and your actions scope, asshole!). God is the great wide open and the antithesis to mimetic rivalry.

Christians usually want to imitate Jesus Christ, if they´re sincere about it. The other day, when observing some young American-styled, Jesus Freak Christians at the Praterstern, where they tried to proselytize people, I could not help becoming a bit critical of them. Actually, such extremely happy Christians somehow impress me, how they seem to be able to completely overlook the more tragic aspects of existence, and within religion itself. I have also undergone religous and borderline experiences and I can say that I have seen God (respectively the Holy Ghost), but I do not seem to be able to become like that. And although I would prefer to feel better than I currently do, I doubt that I would want it in such a way. It finally approached me that their undifferentiated enthusiasm for Jesus seems to stem out of narcissism, that they feel completely loved by Jesus and that they´re the ones that are in a position to radiate such love themselves and proselytize and convince people that they carry the ultimate truth etc. I.e. you have vanity again, as you have it with La Rochefoucauld. Vanity, though, generated and sustained from mimesis. But these are only dimly contoured ruminations (and you also have to take into account that ordinary people cannot distance themselves well from their emotions and reflect them, let alone have great capacity for critical thinking etc., in general, they easily fall apart when affected by something because they´re superficial, etc.; in general, I do not understand people very well. That is why I am such a great writer).