Posts Tagged ‘René Girard’

Long after the Cold War, have we become our opponents? Václav Havel weighs in.

Saturday, February 25th, 2017
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I have long observed how people become the thing they hate most, so when René Girard described how locked rivals come to resemble each other more and more, it was no surprise to me. Czech writer, dissident, and president Václav Havel apparently felt much the same way. This recent New Yorker article – Pankaj Mishra’s “Václav Havel’s Lessons on How to Create a ‘Parallel Polis” – has been an open tab in my Google Chrome window for at least a week. Don’t you wait that long to read it. Despite Mishra’s Manichaean cast of mind (it’s not a case of the pure and the monstrous, we could all use a little self-examination), it is essential reading that expresses some important thoughts for this particular historical moment:

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Have we become “statistical choruses of voters”?

The problems before humankind, as Havel saw it, were far deeper than the opposition between socialism and capitalism, which were both “thoroughly ideological and often semantically confused categories [that] have long since been beside the point.” The Western system, though materially more successful, also crushed the human individual, inducing feelings of powerlessness, which—as Trump’s victory has shown—can turn politically toxic. In Havel’s analysis, politics in general had become too “machine-like” and unresponsive, degrading flesh-and-blood human beings into “statistical choruses of voters.”

According to Havel, “the sole method of politics is quantifiable success,” which meant that “good and evil” were losing “all absolute meaning.” Long before the George W. Bush Administration went to war in Iraq on a false pretext, Havel identified, in the free as well as the unfree world, “a power grounded in an omnipresent ideological fiction which can rationalize anything without ever having to brush against the truth.” In his view, “ideologies, systems, apparat, bureaucracy, artificial languages and political slogans” had amassed a uniquely maligned power in the modern world, which pressed upon individuals everywhere, depriving “humans—rulers as well as the ruled—of their conscience, of their common sense and natural speech, and thereby, of their actual humanity.”

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With Polish dissident editor Adam Michnik

Since Western democracies as well as Communist dictatorships had suffered a devastating loss of the human scale, it mattered little that free markets were more efficient than Communist economies. For, Havel believed, “as long as our humanity remains defenseless, we will not be saved by any technical or organizational trick designed to produce better economic functioning.” Individual freedom and social cohesion were no less under threat in the depoliticized capitalist democracies of the West. “A person who has been seduced by the consumer value system,” he wrote, and who has “no sense of responsibility for anything higher than his own personal survival, is a demoralized person. The system depends on this demoralization, deepens it, is in fact a projection of it into society.”

After he became President of his country, Havel attacked, in 1997, its “post-communist morass”: an iniquitous capitalist economy that convinced many that “it pays off to lie and to steal; that many politicians and civil servants are corruptible; that political parties—though they all declare honest intentions in lofty words—are covertly manipulated by suspicious financial groupings.” But Havel had long before noticed some manifestly deep similarities between the two rival ideologies and systems of the Cold War; they had provoked him to describe the Cold Warriors who wanted to eradicate Communism as “smashing” the mirror that reminded them of their own moral ugliness. Indeed, Havel predicted in the mid-nineteen-eighties, even as Communism began to totter, that the kind of regime described in Orwell’s “1984” was certain to appear in the West. He warned “the victors” of the Cold War that they would inevitably resemble “their defeated opponents far more than anyone today is willing to admit or able to imagine.”

Read the whole thing here.

The year is already off to a great start for Ewa Domanska

Tuesday, January 17th, 2017
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2017 got off to a great start for one of our favorite people – the Poznan-based Stanford scholar Ewa Domanska. (We’ve written about her here.) She just got a big promotion from the President of Poland – with a big celebration at the Polish equivalent of the “White House” in Warsaw. The chic scholar is now a full professor of the human sciences. She teaches most of the year at the Department of History in the Adam Mickiewicz University at Poznan. Her teaching and research interests include comparative theory of the human and social sciences, history and theory of historiography, posthumanities and ecological humanities. She’s into “posthumanism,” too.

We met over our mutual interest in a mutual friend, the late French theorist René Girard. She’s told me of his influence in Poland during the Solidarity years, when his theories about violence were daily realities for the Poles, who were reading The Scapegoat in their classrooms.

From her letter:

Ewa Domanska 2011Just before Christmas I received an official letter from the Chancellery of the President of the Republic of Poland that he granted me the title of full professor (so-called “Belweder”) of the human sciences. In Poland, the procedure is long and takes two to three years. You have five independent reviewers who evaluate your academic achievements and the book that is presented as your main “opus,” and one super-reviewer who evaluates the work of reviewers (formal procedure) and also summarizes all what was said about the achievements. Last Wednesday, there was a big celebration in Warsaw in the Presidential Palace, where I received an official document. It was a very nice event, where fifty-nine new professor got their promotion from hands of the President, Wojciech Duda. We came with families and friends.”

And one of them snapped the photo above.

Ewa teaches at Stanford every spring. It looks like we’ll celebrate with a little champagne when she comes back to California in March.

A “crisis of degree”: an opportunity to binge on Shakespeare this holiday weekend – and it’s free!

Friday, December 30th, 2016
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WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 01/05/2016 - Programme Name: The Hollow Crown: The Wars Of The Roses - TX: n/a - Episode: The Hollow Crown: The Wars Of The Roses (No. Henry VI Part 1) - Picture Shows: *STRICTLY NOT FOR PUBLICATION UNTIL 00:01HRS, SUNDAY 1ST MAY, 2016* Gloucester (HUGH BONNEVILLE), Talbot (PHILIP GLENISTER), Plantagenet (ADRIAN DUNBAR), Warwick (STANLEY TOWNSEND) - (C) Carnival Film & Television Ltd - Photographer: Robert Viglasky

Hugh Bonneville as Gloucester, Philip Glenister as Talbot, Adrian Dunbar as Plantagenet, Stanley Townsend as Warwick. (Photo: Robert Viglasky)

The heavens themselves, the planets and this earth 
Observe degree, priority and place …
Office and custom, in all line of order …
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows!

So begins the newest round in Hollow Crown series, encompassing William Shakespeare‘s Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3, and Richard III (last season presented Richard II, Henry V, and Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2). But don’t go looking for a prologue in any of these plays that will include the words I’ve just cited. The lines are, in fact, a truncated version of Ulysses’s speech in Troilus and Cressida, Act I, Scene 3, as the Greek leaders discuss the morale of their army.

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One tough cookie.

The late great French theorist René Girard cites Ulysses’s address in his Theater of Envy as “a meditation on the violent breakdown of human society in general, the undoing of the cultural order” – yet he didn’t find much to suit his purposes in the history plays. For me, however, these plays resound with his “mimetic crisis,” as kings fall and usurpers grab power, all in quest the “hollow crown” as a mimetic objet du désir – the “hollow crown” is a recurrent image in these BBC performances; at one point, it is tossed into a swamp, at other points, it’s an object of mesmerized fascination. Shakespeare was keenly aware of the “the canker vice,” “that monster envy” that causes ambition, selfishness, and conflict. The Bard’s “sacred kings,” victims readied for sacrifice, underscore the messages of Violence and the Sacred.

Yet the French theorist who was 100% non-Anglo could be forgiven for his relative (but only relative) disinterest in the “Hollow Crown” plays, which were principally designed to buttress the Tudor regime’s claims to the English throne. When the boy Earl of Richmond is briefly and reverently introduced in Henry VI, all Shakespeare’s audience knew why: he would become the grandfather-usurper of the Great Queen, Elizabeth I, and the future Henry VII needed all the prettifying he could get.

Hurry hurry and hurry and watch the new season – the link is here. The first of the plays will no longer be available after Jan. 3, and the others expire in the weeks following. It’s a great opportunity. Henry VI isn’t often performed, for good reason – it’s three parts, and doesn’t really wrap up until Richard III. Moreover, the weak and vasillating Henry VI is an unsatisfying focal point for so much dramatic emphasis. (I find the same for Richard II, who at least is given some grand and memorable speeches). The performance of Tom Sturridge doesn’t persuade me otherwise – but Sophie Okonedo‘s ambitious and vengeful Margaret of Anjou is great compensation (she was the wife in Hotel Rwanda). So are a range of other top-notch performances –Ben Miles as the wily and ambiguous Somerset (fans of The Crown will remember him as Princess Margaret‘s boyfriend, Peter Townsend), and Hugh Bonneville‘s Gloucester come to mind. (A small note: as far back as we can go in history, we seem to find haircombs. Could none of these characters, especially King Henry, have found one?)

I’ll finish with Richard III sometime this weekend. Meanwhile, here’s a video highlight (Sophie O. takes the term “bitch-slap” to a whole new level):

 

Did Dante go mad in his hell?

Saturday, October 15th, 2016
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Virgil says don't listen

Did Dante lose it altogether? Hmmmm…

The Book Haven always enjoys Robert Harrison‘s reflections on Dantehere and here and here. There’s more of them this week over at the New York Review of Books website. Some will find it a controversial p.o.v. – I’ve studied Dante with Robert, as well as John Freccero (and Jeffrey Schnapp), so it’s less unfamiliar territory for me.

Robert has a slightly Girardian take on the Inferno – that is, adopting some of the perspective of the late, great French theorist René Girard – with his emphasis on reciprocal and escalating violence. You hit me, I hit you back, only harder. It’s the ruling principle of the Inferno. 

In a nutshell: Girard argued that we copy our desires from each other, and hence we long for the same object, honor, recognition, friendships as others do. Envy is one of our most underestimated vices. This “mimetic desire” leads to rivalry and competition, and sometimes violence and war. However, Robert brings genocide into the mix, with his eloquent and passionate argument.

Here’s a provocative excerpt from Robert’s essay, “Dante: He Went Mad in His Hell”:

If revenge and reciprocal violence are the essence of God’s justice, Dante’s Inferno despairs of God. It is impossible, at least for this reviewer, to read the cantos that bring Inferno to a close and not come to the conclusion that “Dieu n’est pas là,” as a French nun said of Bosnia-Herzegovina when it tore itself apart with civil war in the 1990s. The extravagance of the punishments in lower Hell suggests that in those cantos, if not in the canticle as a whole, an infernal rather than divine justice is on display.

When violence enters its cycles of reciprocity, when it spreads like a contagion out of all proportion, it turns into a form of mimetic insanity, drawing everyone, including God, into its vortex. Because Dante scholars operate on the assumption that their author is always in full control of his poem, they tend to blind themselves to all the indications that Dante—the author as well as his character—is starting to lose his mind at the end of Inferno.

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We miss you, René.

In Inferno 28 the mimetic contagion is such that the pilgrim abuses a sinner with the words, “And death to your clan!” In canto 33, after Ugolino recounts how he cannibalized his children in the Tower of Hunger, Dante the author succumbs to wild murderous impulses. In his animus against the city of Pisa he bids the Arno River to overflow “so that it may drown every person in you!” Later in the same canto, Dante turns his rage against the city of Genoa: “Ah, men of Genoa, foreign to every decent usage, full of every vice, why have you not been driven from the world?” This is not the character but the author speaking. It is astounding, but true, that even the most acute commentators of The Divine Comedy pass over in silence these genocidal fantasies at the end of Inferno.

Read the whole thing here.

Noam Chomsky thinks the U.S. is “one of the most fundamentalist countries in the world.” René Girard replies.

Friday, February 12th, 2016
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Chomsky

Curmudgeonly? (Photo: Duncan Rawlinson/Creative Commons)

The Académie Française memorial service for René Girard in Saint-Germain-des-Prés will take place this weekend. The Book Haven has written much about the French theorist, who died on November 4 (see here). I will not be in Paris, alas, except in spirit. So René was much in my mind when I read the latest headline from Noam Chomsky. According to The Wirethe controversial public intellectual thinks America is “one of the most fundamentalist countries in the world.” Really? He’s including Pakistan, Libya, Saudi Arabia in the competition? I wondered.

In fairness, his comment is much is much more nuanced than that … well, not much more. According to the article: “There are not too many countries in the world where two-thirds of the population awaits The Second Coming, Chomsky said, adding that half of them think it is going to be in their lifetimes. ‘And maybe a third of the population believes the world was created 10,000 years ago, exactly the way it is now. Things like that are pretty weird, but that is true in the United States and has been for a long time.’” Guess I haven’t been hanging out in the right circles. How quick we are, however, to distance ourselves from those people. That should be a tip-off.

I returned to what René had to say on the subject in a short (about 100 page), very readable Q&A book, When These Things Begin: Conversations with Michel Treguertranslated by Trevor Cribben-Merrill and published by Michigan State University Press in 2014. An excerpt:

MT: What do you think of the “creationists” who take the Bible literally?

RG: They’re wrong, of course, but I don’t want to speak ill of them because today they are the scapegoats of American culture. The media distorts everything they say and treats them like the lowest of the low.

MT: But if they’re wrong, why not? You speak of scapegoats, but, as far as I know, nobody’s putting the creationists to death, are they?

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I’m with René. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

RG: They’re ostracized from society. It’s said that Americans can’t resist peer pressure, and it’s generally true. Just look at academia, that vast herd of sheep-like individualists: they think they’re persecuted, but they’re not. The creationists are. They’re resisting peer pressure. I take my hat off to them.

MT: But what if they’re absolutely wrong? For someone who places such emphasis on the truth, whatever the cost, I suddenly find you very indulgent.

RG: And what do you do with freedom of religion? In America, as elsewhere, fundamentalism results from the breakdown of an age-old compromise between religion and anti-religious humanism. And it’s anti-religious humanism that is responsible for the breakdown. It espouses doctrines that start with abortion, that continue with genetic manipulation, and that tomorrow will undoubtedly lead to hyperefficient forms of euthanasia. In at most a few decades we’ll have transformed man into a repugnant little pleasure-machine, forever liberated from pain and even from death, which is to say from everything that, paradoxically, encourages us to pursue any sort of noble human aim, and not only religious transcendence.

treguerMT: So there’s nothing worse than trying to avert real dangers by means of false beliefs?

RG: Mankind has never done anything else.

MT: That’s no reason to continue.

RG: The fundamentalists often defend ideas that I deplore, but a remnant of spiritual health makes them foresee the horror of the warm and fuzzy concentration camp that our benevolent bureaucracies are preparing for us, and their revolt looks more respectable to me than our somnolence. In an era where everyone boasts of being a marginal dissident even as they display a stupefying mimetic docility, the fundamentalists are authentic dissidents. I recently refused to participate in a supposedly scientific study that treats them like guinea pigs, without the researchers ever asking themselves about the role of their own academic ideology in a phenomenon that they think they’re studying objectively, with complete and utter detachment.

What can I say? He will be missed. No one like him. And I wish I were in Paris this weekend.

What was the most important moment in René Girard’s life? “Coming to America,” he said.

Wednesday, January 20th, 2016
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Rene Girard (1)

Outside the Stanford Faculty Club. (Photo: Ewa Domanska)

René Girard‘s biographer – that’s me – chats with blogger Artur Sebastian Rosman over at Cosmos the in Lost. We did the interview about the important French theorist and immortel of the Académie Française shortly after his death on November 4. I was pleased Artur decided to run it yesterday, on the day of René’s memorial service. Read the whole thing here. Excerpts below:

Artur Rosman: Were you familiar with Professor Girard’s theories before you met him? What did you think of them?

Cynthia Haven: His name was familiar to me as an important French theorist, but that was about all.

The more I learned and read, the more I was surprised that more hadn’t been written about him in the American mainstream media. After all, he’d made his home in the U.S. since 1947.

Many felt his ideas were abstruse and difficult. On the contrary, I found the ideas to be pretty straightforward, and not hard to explain – although some of the applications of his ideas, and the research he uses to support them from the fields of, say, anthropology, can be challenging. I began writing a series of articles about him. He told me afterwards that this was the first time ordinary people understood what he was doing, although I think he was being overly generous. He signed my copy of Mimesis and Theory, “To Cynthia, with all my thanks for her splendid contribution to my scholarly reputation.”

I find his ideas have enormous explanatory power not only for the world we see around us – but the world we find within us. People may question his reading of archaic societies or historical events, but the place to verify his theories is within oneself. We imitate each other. We are driven by competition and rivalry with the real or imagined “other.” We struggle to acquire status symbols, which we fantasize will make us more like the one we idolize . We join in Twitter mobs, or Facebook mobs, that castigate and vilify the person or group we think is responsible for all our ills, and whose elimination will bring peace at last. The Democrats. The Republicans. Donald Trump. …

I recently ran across this quote from René’s The Scapegoat: “Each person must ask what his relationship is to the scapegoat. I am not aware of my own, and I am persuaded that the same holds true for my readers. We only have legitimate enmities. And yet the entire universe swarms with scapegoats.” True for us all, still.

***

AR: What were the most formative experiences in Girard’s life? How did they shape his thought?

CH: I once asked René what the most pivotal experience of his life was, and he replied that the major events were in his head. That’s what everyone else said about him, too. However, events in our heads are put there by the things we see around us. Events in our head tend not to stay with us unless they explain what we see around us. Otherwise they’d be no use.

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Another important decision in his life: with his wife Martha outside his Stanford home.

I pressed harder, and he responded emphatically, “Coming to America.” That event in 1947, he said, made everything else possible. René is an American phenomenon, as much as a French one. Without America and the bigger vision it offered after the war, there would have been no books, no theories, and no academic career.

He had been trained as an archiviste-paléographe at one of France’s grandes écoles, the École des Chartes in Paris. It was the same school his father had attended. It was a training ground for archivists, librarians, paleographers. The suit didn’t exactly fit him. In the rigid French professional hierarchies at the time, the opportunities it provided were narrow.

And of course America led to other things. An exceptionally happy marriage, for example. Martha McCullough was in one of his first classes at Indiana University. The name stumped him midway through roll call. “I’ll never be able to pronounce this name,” he said. They met again a year or so later, when she was no longer his student. And he fixed the name problem for her in 1951, when they married. The stability and contentment of that 64-year marriage cannot be underestimated in supporting his very long, very fruitful career.

Let me add two more. Another formative experience was the “strange defeat” of France in 1940. Franco-German relations fascinated him throughout his life. It’s a straight line from the toy soldiers he played with as a child, reenacting the Battles of Austerlitz and Waterloo, to his final book, Battling to the End. Certainly the topic frequently recurred in my own talks with him. Clearly he was pondering the real nature of the struggle for much of his life. It would be the centerpiece in Battling to the End.

And finally, of course, his conversion experience. “Conversion experience” is a mysterious, much-misunderstood term. He didn’t say much about it – he said the subject was difficult to explain, and counterproductive to his work in advancing his mimetic theory. But one time he discussed it was in the book I mentioned earlier,When These Things Begin. Here’s what he said about that period in autumn 1958, when he was working on his first book, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, which discusses Cervantes, Proust, Stendhal, Flaubert, and Dostoevsky: “on the twelfth and last chapter that’s entitled ‘Conclusion.’ I was thinking about the analogies between religious experience and the experience of a novelist who discovers that he’s been consistently lying, lying for the benefit of his Ego, which in fact is made up of nothing but a thousand lies that have accumulated over a long period, sometimes built up over an entire lifetime.”

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Au revoir.

“I ended up understanding that I was going through an experience of the kind that I was describing. The religious symbolism was present in the novelists in embryonic form, but in my case it started to work all by itself and caught fire spontaneously. I could no longer have any illusions about what was happening to me, and I was thrown for a loop, because I was proud of being a skeptic. It was very hard for me to imagine myself going to church, praying, and so on. I was all puffed up, full of what the old catechisms used to call ‘human respect.’”

Read the whole thing here.

bookUpdate on 1/23: Some nice pick-up over at the World Literature Today blog hereWe’ve been longstanding friends with the eminent WLT – even before our profile of leading Polish poet Julia Hartwig. “Invisible, you reign over the visible: Julia Hartwig’s reality mysticism” was republished by the Milena Jesenská Blog here.

Memorial service and reception for René Girard on Tuesday, Jan. 19. Be there.

Saturday, January 16th, 2016
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Martha and René Girard in 2008. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

A memorial service will be held Tuesday, Jan. 19, at 2 p.m. in Stanford Memorial Church for the renowned French theorist René Girard, who died in November at age 91. We have written about him so many places on the Book Haven, it is hard to know where to begin, but you might try here and here and here and here. We’ve even written about the memorial service before, a month ago here. Consider this a final reminder.

Prof. Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Peter Thiel, and René’s son Martin Girard will be among those speaking at the service.

A reception will follow at the McCaw Hall at Arrillaga Alumni Center at 326 Galvez on the Stanford campus, from 3 to 5:30 p.m.

The renowned Stanford French professor was one of the 40 immortels of the prestigious Académie Française. René Girard joined the Stanford faculty in 1981.

He is the author of nearly thirty acclaimed books, including the provocative and seminal Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (1961), Violence and the Sacred (1972), and Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978). His last major work was Battling to the End (2007).

He died at his Stanford home on Nov. 4 at the age of 91, after long illness.

Read the full obituary here.

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Reception at the Alumni Center (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

The Stanford Memorial Church is one of the easiest places to find on the Stanford campus – you can see it as you drive down the campus’s landmark Palm Drive. The century-old building has been called “the University’s architectural crown jewel.” The Arrillaga Alumni Center is a few minutes away on foot, and I’ve been promised there will be signage (plus a lot of other people heading in the same direction).

Arrive early to find parking. And bring an umbrella. It looks like rain.

 

Keats on Milton: “life to him would be death to me,” or, a bad case of mimetic envy

Friday, January 1st, 2016
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keats-milton

Famous marginalia seems to be all the rage right now – so I thought I’d start the year with this one, John Keats‘s mark-up of his edition of John MiltonParadise Lost. The relationship of Keats and Milton was a fraught one, marked by imitation, rivalry, and rejection  – a classic case of what René Girard would call “external mediation,” where the target of envious admiration exists outside the daily sphere of the desirer. After all, Milton had died well over a century before Keats was born, so it was clearly a one-sided relationship. Sometimes those are the easiest kind. You get less back-talk.

"What was he really like?"

Bad case of mimetic envy

The history of this particular set of marginalia is such a complicated one that a whole book has been compiled on it: Keats’s “Paradise Lost” by Beth Lau. It’s an opportunity to read Milton’s masterpiece over Keats’s shoulder, so to speak.

In his review of the 1998 book, UC-Irvine’s Hugh Roberts writes: “Only Spenser and Shakespeare rival Milton as ‘precursor poets’ for the English Romantics, and the relationship with Milton is arguably the most interesting, as it is the most fraught with ideological and other tensions. From Blake’s assertion that Milton was ‘of the devil’s party without knowing it,’ to Shelley’s musings on the ‘strange and natural antithesis’ by which Milton’s poem had become an ideological prop to Church and State conservatives, to Keats’s ultimate conclusion – after trying to out Milton-Milton in his Hyperion – that ‘life to him [Milton] would be death to me,’ the Romantic poets made themselves unruly disciples, self-consciously reading their master’s epic against the grain.”

milton2One Milton scholar, Martin Evans, credibly claims that Milton is the most learned poet in the English language. I suspect Keats thought so, too. Here’s own reaction, a poem on discovering a lock of Milton’s hair, is not one of his best efforts, but insightful nonetheless:

Chief of organic numbers!
Old Scholar of the Spheres!
Thy spirit never slumbers,
But rolls about our ears,
For ever, and for ever.

Read the whole poem, “Lines on Seeing a Lock of Milton’s Hair” here. And happy new year.

Stanford says farewell to French theorist René Girard on Jan. 19

Monday, December 14th, 2015
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Memchu

Meet you there. (Photo: King of Hearts/Wikipedia)

A memorial service will be held Tuesday, Jan. 19, at 2 p.m. in Stanford Memorial Church for the renowned French theorist René Girard, who died in November at age 91. We have written about him so many places on the Book Haven, it is hard to know where to begin, but you might try here and here and here and here. He was one of the 40 immortels of the prestigious Académie Française, and one of the leading thinkers of our era – a provocative sage who bypassed prevailing orthodoxies and “isms” to offer a bold, sweeping vision of human nature, human history and human destiny. According to Stanford’s Hans Ulrich “Sepp” Gumbrecht, “Despite the intellectual structures built around him, he’s a solitaire. His work has a steel-like quality – strong, contoured, clear. It’s like a rock. It will be there and it will last.” We couldn’t agree more.

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Au revoir, René.

He will be missed by many – in fact, already is missed by many. It’s bound to be a crowded event, but there is always room for one more. The Stanford Memorial Church is one of the easiest places to find on the Stanford campus – you can see it as you drive down the campus’s landmark Palm Drive. The century-old building has been called “the University’s architectural crown jewel.”

Parking? That’s another matter. Arrive early.

Read his full obituary here.

Have a scapegoat for Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 25th, 2015
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President Barack Obama, National Turkey Federation Chairman Gary Cooper; and son Cole Cooper participate in the annual National Thanksgiving Turkey pardon ceremony in the Grand Foyer of the White House, Nov. 26, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

President Obama, National Turkey Federation’s Gary Cooper, and Cole Cooper in last year’s “pardon” at the White House. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

I’ve always been ashamed of the annual White House ritual: the turkey pardoned for a crime it did not commit. Mock laughter accompanies the mock crime. Meanwhile, while thousands upon thousands of other helpless animals are slaughtered across the nation. 

All across America, fractious families unite for the day over the real carcass of a dead bird – it is the very symbol of a national and familial unity. Is the Thanksgiving turkey a classic scapegoat? I figured I couldn’t be alone in my hunch, and I wasn’t. René Girard, who died earlier this month, is much on my mind this Thanksgiving, and he helps us get a handle on the strange ceremony, with a little help from his friends:

truman-turkey

Harry Truman started it in 1947.

Karen Davis writes in More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality (Lantern Books, 2001):

“The idea of a Thanksgiving turkey as a scapegoat may seem like a parody of scapegoating, but what is the scapegoat phenomenon but a parody of reason and justice? The scapegoat, after all, is a goat. Animals have been scapegoats in storytelling, myth, and history every bit as much as humans and probably more, as the scholar of myth and ritual, René Girard observes in Violent Origins: Ritual Killing and Cultural Formation (Stanford University Press, 1988). Social animals especially have been scapegoated since time immemorial. ‘[I]n all parts of the world,’ Girard says, ‘animals living in herds, schools, packs – all animals with gregarious habits, even if completely harmless to each other and to man,’ have been vilified.

“This is not simply a matter of other cultures and ancient history. Evans shows how the belief that ‘everything must be “well-thought, well-said and well-done,” not ethically, but ritually, contributed to the fact that until quite recently, European societies hauled birds and other creatures before the bar in legal ceremonies as absurd as any scene in Dickens. ‘[E]xtending from the beginning of the twelfth to the middle of the eighteenth century,’ he tells us, the culprits were ‘a miscellaneous crew, consisting chiefly of caterpillars, flies, locusts, leeches, snails, slugs, worms, weevils, rats, mice, moles, turtle-doves, pigs, bulls, cows, cocks, dogs, asses, mules, mares and goats.”

Jared Christman explores another angle of the ritual, writing in Grave Pawns: Civilization’s Animal Victims: “The pardon therefore performs the same basic function as the scapegoating sacrifice theorized by Girard in Violence and the Sacred, although instead of one special victim being scapegoated, every animal except for one special non-victim is scapegoated.”

eisenhower-turkey

Eisenhower kept it up.

“Around the Thanksgiving table, the cultural relations of the nation merge with the blood relations of the family. Through the carcass of the sacrificial victim, the family becomes a microcosm of the nation and the nation becomes a macrocosm of the family. The size of the culinary victim is key: the entire turkey can be dismembered and consumed at a household gathering. This creates a ritual symmetry between the dimensions of the victim’s body and the dimensions of the cultural building block of the family. …

“This sovereign ‘pardon’ of a token animal has become ritually necessary because the industrialized scale of Thanksgiving creates a pressing need for expiation and the shifting of blame from the victimizers to the victims. Against the holiday’s backdrop of rampant factory farming, the pardon of the “innocent” bird scapegoats every other “criminal” turkey for advanced civilization’s sins against nature. …

“With each passing year, the comforting illusions of the Thanksgiving feast, its New World mythology, conceal less and less the industrialized context of the sacrament. Any serious pretense of the new Eden is long gone. The bird upon today’s Thanksgiving table is a bloated, assembly-line caricature of the wild turkey of the 17th-century American woods. Of soupcourse, even the mythology of the original Thanksgiving of the Plymouth pilgrims was a bright shining lie. The cagier fowl of yesteryear’s table was the victim of a ritual protocol of nation-building about as new as the Old World hills.”

Well, there you have it. History has it that the real Thanksgiving was celebrated in St. Augustine, Florida, some years earlier in 1565, when the Spaniards shared a communal meal with the local Timucuans. What was on the menu? Bean soup. Read about it here.

Update: NPR is onto the story here.