Humans are those kind of animals who are not content to mate, eat, drink, and otherwise whittle away existence by taking care of their natural appetites. When these appetites are filled, other animals fall asleep. Mankind alone gets up to build altars, start wars, and have his nails painted. He is riveted by a primordial lack that eating does not fill and scratching does not sate. Struck by the difference between our odd, fluid minds and the comparative solidity of the outside world, we desire solidity, being, reality, and the fullness of existence. This was obvious in the habits of our religious forefathers. Mircea Eliade, the 20th century’s great student of primitive religion, argues that “religious man can live only in a sacred world, because it is only in such a world that he participates in being, that he has a real existence. This religious need expresses an unquenchable ontological thirst. Religious man thirsts for being. His terror of the chaos that surrounds his inhabited world corresponds to his terror of nothingness.”
The present age has sloughed off several thousand years of religion, but it has not slaked the thirst for being. Indeed, the recent lack of sacramental and symbolic signs of the lack, search, attainment, and loss of “real existence” has shoved our religious behavior into our psychological and personal relationships. We can no longer press our heads against a sacred tree and feel Being return to us against the threat of primordial Chaos — now we press our heads against lovers, therapists, and computer screens. Our tacit secularism won’t let us regain our metaphysical solidity by offering incense to the gods — now we offer incense to our neighbors, imitating them in the hopes of attaining the solidity that we, alone in our heads, seem to lack.
This imitation is relatively unremarkable, so long as it is of a relatively distant figure — like Abraham Lincoln, a grandfather, the lead singer of My Chemical Romance, or a Saint. But the moment we begin to imitate our neighbor (from the Hebrew, meaning near-dweller) we begin to flirt with violence. This is because imitation generally takes the form of a desire for our neighbor’s objects. Again, anyone who has seen children has seen this play out:
Toddler A: Life is a gift, I will toddle contentedly.
Toddler B: Wow, look, a toy truck. (He picks it up.)
Toddler A: Life suddenly has very little meaning unless I possess that truck. (He moves to possess it.)
Toddler B: This truck, which I picked idly, and with a vague notion that it looks a bit like the one with which my splendid, quasi-divine parents haul manure, has suddenly increased in value. In fact, it is my most valuable possession. I will defend it from outside appropriation. (He moves the truck away from Toddler A’s reaching claws.)
Toddler A: What began as a strong sense of that toy truck’s value has once again increased. I must have it, caution be damned. (He strikes Toddler B.)
Toddler B: (Screams, tries to bite Toddler A’s hip.)
Barring adult intervention or strong moral education on the value of sharing and the renunciation of desire, the scene ends in violence. Aristotle argues that “man differs from the other animals in his greater aptitude for imitation.” A brief look at the daily news confirms that man also differs from the animals in his greater aptitude for violence. Girard argues that these two facts are the same — imitation puts us in inevitable conflict with the neighbors we imitate.
In fact, our imitation puts us into inevitably escalating conflicts with our neighbors because, as in the case of the crib, objects increase in value to the degree that our neighbor desires them: The uninteresting truck becomes valuable to Toddler A when Toddler B picks it up; it becomes more valuable to Toddler B when he sees Toddler A’s desire for it; this increase in Toddler B’s desire increases Toddler A’s desire all the more — and so on until violence. As toddlers behave, so do teenage girls, grown men, primitive tribes and modern, nuclearized nation-states.
Our present age is in stark denial about this fact. We hear vague denunciations of violence that describe it as the result of “being unable to accept our differences.” To cure our horrid, hateful century of its never-ending wars, hate crimes, and sordid, suburban barbarisms, it would be sufficient — the argument goes — to cease reacting in horror to difference. But the truth of the crib is the truth of the world — we react in horror towards sameness, because the growing sameness of two mutually imitative parties threatens to unleash violence as they battle over the same objects.
This fact hides itself, because those engaged in violence always speak of differences as a smokescreen to hide their own lack of being. The mass-shooter writes manifestos lambasting the difference between himself and the crowd (they are sheep, he is enlightened, etc.) but his actions are only comprehensible to the degree he fears, not a difference, but an identity between himself and the crowd. He shoots because they are taking up his space, smothering his uniqueness, breathing his oxygen, ignoring him and thereby relegating him to the same being-less status that he assigns to them. He shoots insofar as a relationship of imitation puts him and the unspecified “them” in conflict over the same objects. Theories of “senseless” mass violence would do well to take into account the fact that our culture simultaneously places an infinite value on “personal uniqueness” while plowing ahead in the build-up of a mass, technological society in which “personal uniqueness” is all but impossible, leading to the predictable situation in which individuals are gutted, infuriated, and resentful of precisely this “mass” that does not recognize the individual uniqueness supposed to provided the value and the key to our existence. In the mind of the shooter, the shooter and the “mass” are in conflict over the same objects — “distinction,” “recognition,” “individuality,” and so forth.
We should not believe violent peoples’ defence of their own violence, which always blames difference. This is the profound inadequacy of the talk-show denunciations of “racism,” “prejudice,” and “hate” as the cause of each new horror. They accept the terms of suicide-bombers and shooters, who say as much. Rather, it is only insofar as one fears the encroaching sameness and likeness of the “different” party that one begins to nurse the desire to obliterate them. This seems to be a better explanation for why the shootings and killings we call “senseless” are so often murder-suicides — the shooter dies alongside his mimetic rival, because he was never trying to get rid of a difference he did not like, he was reacting against a horrifying identity between himself and his perceived rivals as they mutually imitated each other in the quest to appropriate “real existence” from the other. To shoot them is to shoot himself.
Archaic religions understood the relation of violence and the sameness that results from imitation. Thus, most religious prohibitions exist to prevent, not difference, but imitation and the sameness that results. Communities were not as cushioned from violence then — two parties, warring over the same object, could unleash a hailstorm of violence decimating the entire group. Thus, to protect themselves from the perils of imitation, religions prohibited it, or severely limited its form.
Freudians and anthropologists have long puzzled over the incest prohibition — why, they wonder, is there a universal “no” placed over familial sexual relations, a “no” usually enforced by horrible punishment? Girard provides an answer, one that posits no subconscious Oedipus Complex — there is a religious prohibition against incest because there is, in all human societies, a wisdom born from the experience that imitation of a near-dweller leads to violence. The son may imitate his father in terms of his career, his gait, or some distant, shareable good, but if he imitates his father in terms of his wife, then his imitation puts two near-dwellers into conflict over the same, finite good. Violence is not far to follow. Thus: “None of you shall approach a close relative to have sexual intercourse” (Leviticus 18:6)
This explains the odd story of Ham, who goes into the tent of a drunken Noah, and “sees his father’s nakedness” and tells his brothers. Noah wakes and curses Ham’s son, Canaan, to a generation inflicted by violence. The story seems bizarre unless, as Dr. John Bergsma has successfully argued, one understands the phrase “to see his father’s nakedness” as an idiom indicating maternal incest — Ham takes advantage of Noah’s drunkenness, sleeps with his mother, and brags about it to his brothers, precisely because his act of incest was an act of mimetic rivalry, by which Ham believed to have taken the power and position of his father. Noah wakes and curses the child born of incest, Canaan, to be a man beset by his origins in a violently appropriating act.
Human beings are violent animals because human beings are mimetic animals, and their imitation of their models inevitably puts them into conflict — the model becomes an obstacle and a rival to his disciple, and vice versa. This might be comical in the crib, but when the model is a neighbor, and the object through which one seeks to appropriate his appropriate his apparent solidity of being is his wife, his throne, his mother, his home — then imitation ends with a rock to the head. And the trouble with rocks to the head is that they rather inspire more rocks to the head — violence is born of imitation, and it inspires more imitation, usually in the form of vengeance.
Primitive history is rife with examples of communities self-destructing. One act of violence unleashes an imitative pattern of reciprocal vengeance — what we might now refer to as a “blood feud.” Whether or not Hobbes was correct to argue that life in a state of nature is “nasty, brutish and short,” it is undeniable that, in certain times and places, life has become all three, and entire cultures have imploded. Archaic religion is the fear of violence, expressed in prohibitions that always work against imitation, sameness and the escalation of violence that the two invite. This works in ways we might expect — in bans on incest, homosexuality, theft, covetousness — and in ways that are foreign to moderns who do not think sameness and imitation are reminders and thus symbols of violence — like taboos on mirrors, twins, left-handed people, menstrual blood, and so forth. Girard’s theory is that this fear-based category of prohibition comes from a well-grounded fear of apocalyptic destruction lingering in the cultural memory of communities that had suffered wars, blood-feuds, and other escalation of violence unto terrible and awesome proportions. Archaic religion understood what modernity, with its joyful casting off prohibitions and its never-ending wars, refuses to understand — that violence comes from imitation.
Kyle Morton of the band Typhoon, is a man out of time and out of place. His head whirls with “images of the primitive awakened from a dream” because he does not feign detachment from the primordial experience of imitation-violence-prohibition that constitutes mankind’s religious past. In the song Darker, he confesses that the modern vision of the self as a wellspring of unique desires is “a convenient lie” — in truth, he and the nation he lives in are beset by the nearness of models who inevitably become rivals, tempting both parties to violence. The model is the “you” in: “But you. You won’t even fight me fair. Wait for the darkness. Catch me unaware. You pull me close. Then you twist the knife.”
This line is a succinct description of mimetic violence. Our model does not fight fair. Rather, we are fooled into conflict, beginning our imitation positively, admiring the other and wishing to “have what he has.” In this darkness, the convergence of ourselves and on our model on the same, unshareable object; the growing conflict between ourselves and the friends and neighbors we imitate “catches us unaware.” First we are pulled close in imitation, then we feel the knife of rivalry and the temptation of violence.
This is tragic. Anyone who has had a friend turn inexplicably into an enemy; a lover turn into an unquenchable source of wrath and hatred; a beloved teacher slowly turn into an object of annoyance, scorn and derision; anyone who has tried, in youth, to lovingly imitate an older sibling only to find, again and again, that your imitation fills him with shame and ends up in years of resentment and violent outbursts; anyone, in short, who has lived the relation between imitation and violence has had their heart broken. For what Girard argues, and what history and crime statistics confirm, is that one’s friends are one’s most likely enemies; that, in the long run, the person who you admire enough to imitate is the person to most likely twist a knife into your belly, or you into his.
When Kyle says, “I don’t want to live with the kinds of trouble I keep finding myself in” he is referring to relationships of violent rivalry. This is a kind of trouble that we usually “find ourselves in” rather than one that we seek out.
The romantic lie, which denies that our desires are imitative, means that we are puzzled by the continued presence of violence in our rational, secular, scientific world. That we are the children of the Holocaust, atom-bomb, and the school-shooting is not something we can readily understand. That we are the inheritors and propagators of a never-ending state of war is something we bemoan, but have no theory to explain.
Kyle Morton reveals the connection that Girard reveals — we are violent because our desires are imitative. He thus advocates a renunciation of desire: “So that’s it. I wash my hands, I cut my ties to the world and its vicious appetites. Yes, I am ready to die.”
Renunciation, death to oneself, giving up the jittering push of one’s desire: this is the sermon that Typhoon has been preaching. Because violence is swatted back and forth in an escalating ping-pong match of crime and vengeance, the only real solution to the problem of violence is to exit the game entirely.
This is one of the many commandments of Jesus Christ — to “turn the other cheek”; to “love your enemies [and] do good to those who hate you.” Exiting the game of violence means acknowledging the guilty part we play in establishing its escalating back-and-forth. Thus Jesus describes the destruction of violence as a reciprocal act, as in “forgive and you will be forgiven. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned.” Because we imitate the desires of our neighbor we are always, directly or indirectly, responsible for the glut of violence that weighs heavy on our world. Girard argues that Christian conversion always involves discovering our complicitness in escalating the back-and-forth of rivalry. He says, “to understand human beings, their constant paradox, their innocence, their guilt, is to understand that we are all responsible for this state of things because, unlike Christ, we’re not ready to die.”
Read the first part: The Mirror Within the Mirror