Posts Tagged ‘Eric Voegelin’

Io Sono Con Te: A film with a René Girard p.o.v.

Monday, February 21st, 2011

Over the last few years, I’ve come to serve as a sort of electronic butler for René Girard.  Other journalists, readers, and fans often email me if they want to reach the reclusive octogenarian.  I am happy to assume the role; I consider myself a friend as well as an occasional interlocutor.  A few weeks ago, however, the ad hoc role offered an unusual bonus:  I received an email from Italian director Guido Chiesa, who has just completed Io Sono Con Te, featured a few months ago at the Rome Film Festival and covered in Espresso, L’Osservatore Romano, and the Italian editions of Rolling Stone and GQ. It was filmed in Tunisia with mostly local, and often non-professional, performers.

René Girard‘s work was a great source of inspiration for our project and it helped us a great deal during the writing of the script and the understanding of several Biblical passages about Mary and Jesus’s childhood,” he wrote.  So he sent a DVD and press kit to me, as well as René.

Chiesa’s results are interesting, to say the least.  He retells the Nativity and childhood of Jesus from a Girardian p.o.v.

Not sacrifice, but mercy

Chiesa’s film confronts us with an archaic world of pervasive, quotidian violence – the contemptuous violence of Roman occupation; the temples soaked in blood and sacrifice; the slaughter of helpless animals.  Even Joseph is dominated by a fictitious (but altogether plausible) older brother, the head of the clan who is quick with his hands and his temper.

“Why do you have to take it out on someone?” one woman asks.  “Why is a scapegoat necessary, why do we need an outlet for aggression and blame?” is the unasked question.  The mob, as always, is ruled by fear, conformity, vengeance, and the need to blame.

René writes about the terrible tendency to target an alien, an outsider, the oddball.  Hence, Mary is seen as a skandalon, as René would say.

Mary as skandalon

Chiesa’s Mary is exceptional.  He has cast a very young Tunisian girl, speaking a Tunisian dialect, for most of the 100+ minute film; there’s nothing ethereal or otherworldly (or even conventionally beautiful) about her:  she’s round-faced and solid as a fire plug, simple and clear as water.  When her cousin Elizabeth frets over the complexity and bloodiness of Mosaic law, Mary tells her unaffectedly that what is needed is “not sacrifice, but mercy.”  It’s a persuasive message.

And perhaps it’s a message that has won:  René contends that, from these archaic societies to the Christian era, the word “sacrifice” changed. When used in the archaic world, it always meant the sacrifice of another – a human or animal sacrifice.  Now, “sacrifice” always suggests a sacrifice of oneself, of doing without something.

‎We noted the anniversary of Eric Voegelin’s death yesterday, so that’s an excuse for a relevant quote: “Christ is the head of the corpus mysticum, which includes all men from the beginning of the world to its end. He is not the president of a special-interest club.” Which would mean, of course, that there are no outsiders, outcasts, aliens, or oddballs.  This is of course, the implications of the Girardian theory.  It’s not a conclusion anyone comes to quickly.

The other face of time

The characters in the film, as people everywhere, are figuring this out as time rolls forward – hence, the scene with the tentful of confused “wise men” (not the iconic three).  “Loving your neighbor” finally extended outside the tribe, at least in theory if not practice, through the centuries.

The next day I got a full belly of archaic societies again, New World style, with the Olmec exhibition at San Francisco’s de Young Museum.

These dauntingly huge statues were made for one apparent purpose:  to impress and intimidate.  When the rulers were toppled, their colossal heads were defaced, and that was that.   The exhibition even featured a massive, heavily decorated “butcher box” for blood and human parts in sacrifice rituals.

Happy birthday, Wystan

It reminded me again of Chiesa’s haunting film, depicting a society dominated by those who seek power for its own sake, a world where power is all – just before that hierarchy was to be turned upside down, not all at once, and not even today, but poco a poco – by an execution where (since it is W.H. Auden’s birthday today, and since his words were rolling through my head in the museum):


… three pale figures were led forth and bound

To three posts driven upright in the ground.
The mass and majesty of this world, all
That carries weight and always weighs the same
Lay in the hands of others; they were small
And could not hope for help and no help came …

The powerless will always be alone.

Postscript on 2/23:  Several people have asked me how to get a DVD.  I emailed Guido Chiesa and asked.  His response today:  “The DVD will come out in Italy on April 16th, but it won’t be fit for the American TV standards. I guess the only way would be to find an American distributor willing to put it out there: any idea? I suppose you don’t have anything to do with the film’s world, but maybe some of your Facebook’s friends know a powerful movie-mogul…”

Eric Voegelin and the eagle eye of an archivist

Friday, February 18th, 2011

Voegelin letters (Photo: Hoover Archives)

Linda Bernard was deep in the pages of Edmund de Waal’s acclaimed The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss, a family memoir of the Ephrussis, a wealthy Jewish clan who fled the Nazis in 1938.  Something clicked.

Here’s what clicked:  the Hoover archivist saw the name of Eric Voegelin, an Austrian political scientist who, like de Waal’s great-grandparents, escaped Vienna when Adolf Hitler annexed Austria and died at Stanford in 1985.  “So often when I read books or articles about the tumultuous past century, I find a reference to someone whose papers we have in the Hoover Archives,” she wrote on a blog for the Hoover archivists:

“When I saw Voegelin mentioned in the book, I promptly checked the finding aid for his papers in our archives, which, coincidentally, I had prepared many years ago. Sure enough, there was her name in the correspondence series: Elisabeth de Waal—forty-five letters sent to Voegelin between 1938 and 1976 and seven carbon copies of Voegelin’s letters to her.”

In August 1966 (Photo: Hoover Archives)

Voegelin and Ephrussi met while students in Vienna in the 1920s and remained close friends throughout their lives abroad, he in the United States (and eventually at Stanford) and she in England, where she had settled with her Dutch husband, Hendrik de Waal.

Linda Bernard wrote the author a fan letter to author Edmund de Waal, who is curator of ceramics at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

“Not only did he reply immediately in the kindest way, but he offered to send us twelve letters from Voegelin to his grandmother, stating that his family would be honored to have them housed at Hoover, where they would complement the correspondence we already had.”

Archivist extraordinaire

So the dozen letters were recently added to Voegelin’s collection.  It’s quite an exciting find.  According to the Hoover Archives website, Voegelin’s widow gave the original cache to the archives in the 1980s, including 45 letters from Ephrussi to Voegelin (from 1938 to 1976), and seven carbon copies of his replies to her (from 1941 to 1974). We have what she said to him, but comparatively little of what Voegelin said to her. De Waal’s donation fills out his side of the conversation.

So what do the letters say?

Their correspondence (in German and English) addresses the fateful events of 1938. Particularly poignant in this regard is her letter of November 8, 1938, in which she informs Eric of the death of her mother (about which more is learned in The Hare with Amber Eyes). But beyond the politics of the day that affected them both so much is a rich dialogue over five decades on philosophy, history, religion, and law between two brilliant individuals.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux’s The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss looks pretty good.  Washington Post review is here.

Postscript on 1/19: ‎”The death of the spirit is the price of progress.” — Eric Voegelin died on this day 26 years ago.