Intellectuals as Castrators of Meaning An Interview with Réne Girard - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

Intellectuals as Castrators of Meaning An Interview with Réne Girard

“After language, man is becoming deconstructed”: Eugenics is a form of
human sacrifice : “Sexuality is the problem, not the solution”:
The ruthless ideas of a great thinker

Translated by Paul N. Faraone and Christopher S.
Morrissey from an interview by Giulio Meotti in Il
Foglio (March 20, 2007). Reprinted with Permission.

Despite being 84 years of age, René
Girard has lost none of his nerve as a
definitively radical thinker. He is working
on a new essay about Karl von Clausewitz.
The author of great contemporary works
such as Violence and the Sacred and The Scapegoat,
recently elected among the forty “immortals”
of the Académie française, René
Girard is, along with Claude Levi-Strauss,
our greatest living anthropologist. In this
interview with Il Foglio, Girard returns to
that which defines “the great anthropological
question of our time.”

He himself opens with a question:
“Can there be a realistic anthropology
that precedes deconstruction? In other words,
is it licit and still possible to affirm a universal
truth about humankind? Structuralist and
postmodern contemporary anthropology
denies this access to the truth. The present
school of thought is ‘the castration of meaning’.
But such ways of discussing mankind
are dangerous.”

Girard comments on the “scandal” of religion as
it originated in the epoch of neo-secularization:
“From the enlightenment onwards, religion
was conceived as pure nonsense. Auguste
Comte had a precise theory on the origin of
truth, and his eighteenth century intellectualism
is reminiscent of much that is in vogue
today. Comte said there are three phases:
religious, which is the most childlike; philosophical;
and finally, scientific, the latter
being the closest to the truth. Today, in
public discourse, the aim is to define the
‘non-truth’ of religion, however indispensable
religion is for the survival of the human
race. No one asks what the function of
religion is; only faith is spoken of (as in, ‘I
have faith’, or not). What is the consequence?
The revolutionary theory of Charles
Darwin once hoped to demonstrate the uselessness
of a fifteen-thousand-year-old institution
like religion. Today the demonstration
is attempted in the form of genetic chaos
research as enunciated by neo-Darwinism. If
you listen to a scientist such as Richard
Dawkins—an extremely violent thinker—
you see religion as something delinquent.”

But religion has a function that goes beyond faith.
Girard sums up the truthfulness of monotheism’s
gift with one phrase (and then elaborates):
“The prohibition against human sacrifice.
The modern world has decided that the
prohibition is nonsense. Religion has returned
to being conceived of as the costume
of the good savage, a primitive state of
ignorance under the stars. Religion, however,
is necessary to suppress violence. Man
is a unique species in the world: he is the only
one who threatens his own existence with
violence. Animals in sexual jealousy do not
kill each other. Human beings do. Animals
do not know vengeance, do not know the
destruction of the sacrificial victim, which is
a phenomenon tied to the mimetic nature of
the applauding multitude.”

Unfortunately, today there is only one definition
of violence, that of pure aggression:
“This is because one wants to render
oneself innocent. Human violence, however,
is the result of desire and imitation.
Postmodernism is not able to speak of violence.
Violence is placed in parentheses and
its origin is simply ignored. And with it, the
most important truth: that reality is in some
measure knowable.”

René Girard comes from French radicalism:
“I filled my head with the farcical, with
the stupid, simple mediocrity of the avantgarde.
I know well how the postmodern
denial of reality can lead to the discrediting
of the moral questions about man. The avantgarde,
at one time relegated to the artistic
field, today extends to the scientific, which
thinks about the origin of man. In a certain
sense, science has become the new mythology:
man has created life. For this reason, I
welcomed with great relief the explanation
of Joseph Ratzinger of ‘biological reductionism’—
the new form of deconstruction, the
biological myth. I find myself having recourse
to the distinction the ex-Cardinal
made, between science and scientism.”

The only great difference between man and other
animal species is the religious dimension:
“This is the essence of human existence. It
is the origin of the prohibition of sacrifices
and the prohibition of violence. Where religion
has dissolved, there is the beginning of
a process of decomposition. Micro-eugenics
is our new form of human sacrifice. We no
longer protect life from violence. Rather we
smash life with violence. We seek to appropriate
for ourselves the mystery of life for our
own benefit. But we will fail. Eugenics is the
culmination of a school of thought initiated
two centuries ago and which constitutes the
greatest danger to the human species. Man is
the species that can always destroy itself. For
this reason, religion was created.”

Today there are three areas—nuclear weapons,
terrorism, and genetic manipulation—in which
man is especially placed in danger:
“The twentieth century was the century
of classical nihilism. The twenty-first century
will be the century of alluring nihilism. C. S.
Lewis was right when he talked about the
abolition of man. Michel Foucault added that
the abolition of man was becoming a philosophical
concept. Today, one can no longer
speak of ‘man’. When Friedrich Nietzsche
announced the death of God, in fact he was
announcing the death of man. Eugenics is the
negation of human rationality. If one considers
man as the outcome of mere chance and
as crude material for the laboratory, a malleable
object to be manipulated, one reaches
the point of being able to do anything to
man. That ends with the destruction of the
fundamental rationality that belongs to the
human being. But man cannot be reorganized
thus and still remain man.”

According to Girard, besides religion, we are losing
sight today of the function of even another
anthropological institution, namely that of matrimony:
“A pre-Christian institution, and strengthened
by Christianity, marriage is the indispensable
organization of life, bound to man’s
quest for immortality. In creating a family,
it is as if man is seeking the imitation of
eternal life. There have been places and
civilizations where homosexuality was tolerated;
but no past society had ever placed it
on the same legal level as the family. In
marriage, we always have a man and a
woman; that is, opposites. In the last American
elections of 2006, the true winner was
elected in the referendums: natural marriage.”

The Metaphysical Boredom of Europe

Girard agrees that Europe is immersed in what the
Arabist of the Sorbonne, Rémi Brague, calls
“metaphysical boredom”:
“His is a beautiful explanation, and it
seems to me that the superiority of the
Christian message each day becomes more
visible. When it is most attacked, Christianity
shines with greater truth. Being the
negation of mythology, Christianity shines
especially in the moment in which our world
once again fills itself with sacrificial mythologies.
I have always understood the ‘scandal’
of the Christian revelation in a radical
way. In Christianity, rather than assuming
the point of view of the crowd, we assume
the view of the innocent victim. Thus Christianity
deals with a complete reversal of the
archaic scenario. And it brings about the
exhaustion of violence.”

Girard talks about our obsession with sexuality:
“In the Gospels, there is nothing sexual,
and this fact has been completely romanticized
by contemporary Gnostics. Gnostics,
as always, exclude categories of persons, and
transform them into enemies. Christianity is
the exact opposite of mythology and of
Gnosticism. Today, a form of neo-paganism
is being advanced. The greatest error of
postmodern philosophy is to have thought
that it could freely transform man into a
mechanism for pleasure. From this pursuit of
pleasure comes de-humanization, which
begins with the false desire to prolong life’s
pleasures by sacrificing the greatest goods.”

Postmodern philosophy, he says, is based on the
false assumption that history has ended:
“From here, there is born a culture shipwrecked
in the present. From here, there
originates even a hatred for a vibrant culture
that affirms universal truth. Today, it is
widely believed that sexuality is the solution
to everything; instead, it is the origin of the
problem. We are continually being seduced
by a suggestive ideology of allurement. Yet
deconstruction does not contemplate the
sexuality at the core of human folly. Our
insanity thus lies in our willing efforts to
make sexuality a banal, frivolous matter. I
hope Christians don’t follow this direction of
deconstruction. For violence and sexuality
are inseparable. This is why sexuality contains
both the most beautiful and the darkest
elements that we carry within.”

We are in the midst of a divorce between humanity
and syntax, says Girard; it is the divorce
between reality and language:
“We are losing every contact between
language and the regions of being. Today we
believe only in language. We love fairy tales
more than in any other era. But Christianity
is a linguistic truth, the logos; Thomas Aquinas
was the great promulgator of this linguistic
rationality. The great success of Anglo-
American Christianity and thus of the United
States is not unrelated to the extraordinary
English translations of the Bible. Yet in
Catholicism today, there is not too much
rationality, but rather too much sociology.
The Church is too often compromised by a
flattery of the times and of modernity. In a
certain sense, such problems began with the
Second Vatican Council; but yet they also go
back to a loss of eschatological Christianity
that preceded it. The Church has not reflected
enough on this pre-conciliar transformation.
How can we justify a total elimination
of eschatology, even from the liturgy?”

Nihilism and Apocalypse

Girard reiterates that humanity has never been in
such danger as it is today:
“This is the great lesson of Karol Wojtyla’s
formula: ‘The Culture of Death’. It is his
most beautiful linguistic formulation. And it
goes well with the other great formula, that
of Joseph Ratzinger: ‘The Dictatorship of
Relativism’. This nihilism of our time is also
called deconstruction, or simply ‘theory’.
But if nihilism is transformed simply into a
respectable philosophical ‘theory’, then everything
becomes frivolous, everything is a
play on words, everything is a joke. So we
may begin with the deconstruction of language,
but we then finish with the laboratory
deconstruction of the human being.”

Along with the loss of respect for human life, the
deconstruction of the body is the other idea that
Girard challenges:
“This comes from the same people who,
on the one hand, want to prolong life infinitely,
and yet, on the other hand, say that
the world is overpopulated.”

The literary critic George Steiner writes that even
atheism is metaphysical, and Girard comments:
“Certainly, Steiner has always had marvelous
ideas. G. K. Chesterton said the
modern world is full of Christian ideas gone
mad. Even the enlightenment had thus been
a product of Christianity. Take a figure such
as Voltaire, an example of bad enlightenment
who contributed to the de-
Christianization of France. Just the same,
Voltaire always defended victims, and was
thus a great Christian, even without knowing
it. For this reason I say that bad interpretation
of Christian doctrine is even worse
when coming from outsiders to the tradition.
Christianity continues to propose to us
a fascinating and persuasive explanation for
man’s evils. But we are losing this apocalyptic
dimension of Christianity, by which
people become aware that no society can
survive without religion. Christian romanticism
has forgotten that Christian religion
has had, as its foremost achievement, the
defusing of sacrificial violence. Today, Christian
religion is more realistic than the optimism
of science, science that creates man in
order to kill man. Thus the apocalypse is not
the anger of God, but rather the wrath of
man upon himself. The apocalypse is not
behind us, but stands before us. The Apocalypse
was not written for God, but for man.
The present Christian fundamentalists are
apocalypse believers in a mistaken sense;
they believe God will punish man, not that
man will punish himself. Today, we must
have a regard for the apocalyptic, in order
never to forget that violence is indigenous
with man.”

Islam lacks something important: the Cross
Ratzinger’s talk in Regensburg was, according to
Girard, decisive:
“The challenge Ratzinger launched towards
relativism is salutary, not only for
Catholics, but for secularists as well. And I
regard Ratzinger as a sign of hope for
Europe. He is a Pope very similar to, but also
very different from, John Paul II. Wojtyla
was unstoppable; he always wanted to be
seen and heard. Benedict XVI wants more to
pacify people; he is a great teacher of reflection
and modesty. The Christian religion,
the greatest revolution in human history, is
the only one to remind us of the correct use
of reason. It is a challenge that carries with it
the concept of guilt. For a long time, Europe
had decided that the Germans had to be the
scapegoats for World War II; it was impossible
to attack communism or nazism. Once
the death of God was declared, along with the
end of the possibility for the word ‘enlightenment’
to have any religious meaning,
there had to arise an ‘anti-God’, a counterdivinity:
communism. I agree with Ernst
Nolte’s thesis on the affinity between nazism
and communism. Every totalitarian regime
begins with the suppression of religious liberty.
Today, this anti-life counter-divinity is
revived in scientism.”

Girard confirms that this exaltation of man as a
counter-divinity is the sense of the phrase of Henri
de Lubac, which is often abused (as if it were
instead an ideal): “Atheistic Humanism”:
“I was honored by his friendship. When
he was accused of not being Christian, de
Lubac said that all he wrote was just and that
there was nothing heretical in it. The great
demographic crisis in the West is one of the
various signs of the paralysis brought on by
‘atheistic humanism’. The ideology of our
time is hostility towards life as such. Modern
culture maintains that all mythology, whether
old or new, is life-affirming; on the other
hand, it maintains that religion is life-denying.
But the truth is exactly the opposite. The
new Dionysianism of modern culture has a
violent and deadly face. Among the first to
understand this was Thomas Mann. Yet what
dominates today is a form of existential
nausea, inherited from the romantic spleen.”

We are so ethnocentric, says Girard, that we think
that only others can be in the right when claiming
the superiority of their own religion:
“Islam maintains a relationship with death
that convinces me that this religion absolutely
fails to engage with ancient myths.
Islam’s mystic relationship with death makes
death even more mysterious. Islam is a religion
of sacrifice. The Christian, however,
doesn’t die to be imitated. We have to
remember the words of Christ to Paul: ‘Why
are you persecuting me?’ In Christianity,
which destroys every mythology, there is a
constant dialectic between the victim and the
persecutor; in Islam, this does not exist. Islam
eliminates the problematic victim. In this
sense, there has always been a conflict between
Christianity and Islam. In Islam, the
most important thing is missing: a Cross. As
in Christianity, Islam rehabilitates the innocent
victim, but it does so in a militant way.
The Cross, on the contrary, puts an end to the
ancient and violent myths. The Cross is the
symbol of the inversion of violence, of the
resistance to lynching. Today the Cross opposes
the Dionysian sacrifice of the new
myths. Christianity, differing from Islam,
prohibits sacrifice.”

René Girard has always chosen to not say easy
and accommodating things:
“I was, even here in America, much
ostracized. Today, I couldn’t care less about
what others think of me. We must not
surrender ourselves to the alluring; there is
much to learn from the past. I often reread
the story of Joseph in the Old Testament
because it is the most beautiful exemplification
of Christianity. I was married in 1951;
I have nine nephews and three children. My
wife is Protestant, and has never converted to
Catholicism.” At this point, one of the many
seraphic laughs of this stern and upright man
comes forth.

“I have one son in business; my daughter
is a painter; and my other son is a lawyer.
Concerning America, I love its great paradox:
it has within itself the most efficacious
protection against all the worst aspects of
itself—the protection that Europe ignores.
Here in America, I recognize true independence.
I am surrounded by life.”

On his own status as an intellectual, one of those
so-called ‘castrators of meaning’:
“The least that I can do is to think that this
is the time for silence, but a silence fraught
with meaning.”

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