Essay on Rene Girard at The Brussels Journal

My latest at The Brussels Journal is an essay entitled “René Girard on the ‘Ontological Sickness.’” I taught Girard’s I See Satan Fall like Lightning to the students in my “Introduction to Literary Criticism” this semester and found myself re-reading him with a good deal of renewed interest. Girard’s notion of “ontological sickness” explains a good deal about modernity, especially about what is sometimes called “entitlement mentality.” In the essay, I try to show how this is so. The essay includes an interpretation of what I regard as one of the major modern parables about the “ontological sickness,” the HAL subplot of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The link is

I offer a sample below.

In Things Hidden, Girard writes: “Modern people still fondly imagine that their discomfort and unease is a product of the strait-jacket that religious taboos, cultural prohibitions and, in our day, even the legal forms of protection guaranteed by the judiciary place upon desire. They think that once this confinement is over, desire will be able to blossom forth [and that] its wonderful innocence will finally be able to bear fruit.” The modern subject, wanting liberté, inveterately seeks liberation and just as inveterately experiences the belaboring frustration of its every liberating triumph. The “Declaration of Sentiments” (1848) of the Seneca Falls Convention of early feminists employs the essential “liberationist” vocabulary: “Disenfranchisement,” “social and religious degradation,” a mass of the “oppressed,” whose constituents “feel… aggrieved” and who want “rights and privileges” wickedly withheld by malefactors. The male oppressor, as the document asserts, “Has usurped the prerogative of Jehovah himself, claiming it as his right to assign for [the generic woman] a sphere of action, when that belongs to her conscience and her God.” In her much-celebrated speech on the same occasion, Elizabeth Cady Stanton invoked the image of the sovereign self in its absoluteness: “There is a solitude… more inaccessible than the ice-cold mountains, more profound than the midnight sea,” which neither “eye nor touch of man or angel has ever pierced.”

The themes of the usurpation of being and of the radical autonomy of the individual, Girard’s self-inflating quasi-divine ego, come into their necessary conjunction at the inception of what would later take the name of women’s liberation.

The feminist “Declaration” and its adjunct texts were already hackneyed. Jean-Jacques Rousseau had set the tone brilliantly nearly a century before, in his Discourse upon the Origin and the Foundation of the Inequality among Mankind (1754). The second part of Rousseau’s essay begins with the speculative scenario that must have inspired Karl Marx to write The Communist Manifesto (1848 – the same year as the Seneca Falls Convention): “The first man, who, after enclosing a piece of ground, took it into his head to say, ‘This is mine,’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society.” Not merely property, but society itself, for Rousseau, is theft or usurpation. Under tutelage of Girard, one might reduce the formula even further: Usurpation is the Other, by the mere fact of his existence. In the sequel, Rousseau, speaking on behalf of the usurped, rouses the mob against the usurper: “How many crimes, how many wars, how many murders, how many misfortunes and horrors, would that man have saved the human species, who pulling up the stakes or filling up the ditches should have cried to his fellows: Be sure not to listen to this imposter; you are lost, if you forget that, the fruits of the earth belong equally to us all, and the earth itself to nobody!”

7 thoughts on “Essay on Rene Girard at The Brussels Journal

  1. “…what will become autonomous is desire itself, in the form of an ever-expanding mimetic crisis, which dissolves all differences and makes of everyone, vertiginously, everyone else’s model and rival all at the same time. In that crisis, humanity will have regressed to a pre-human moment…”

    That sounds apocalyptic. And inevitable?

    • Globalization is apocalyptic. Modernity is anti-human. Anti-human globalization can’t possibly be nice – and it seems to be inevitable. (At a certain point, once the car has rolled down the slope, it will inevitably roll over the cliff. It need not have rolled over the cliff had someone applied the brakes at an earlier point, but no one did.) Anti-human globalization’s climax will be a terrible Grace for humanity, which only advances from a narrower to a wider epistemology by Grace. My suspicion is that we fail properly to assay the severity of our crisis, or the depth of our ignorance, or the urgency of the objective requirement for our humility.

  2. Pingback: Essay on Rene Girard at The Brussels Journal | Reaction Times

  3. I quite frankly don’t understand thoughts like this, precisely because I understand them too much. This is the N+1th realization that focusing on your own ego, your selfhood, your emotions, being self-centered, is a sure way to misery – that the only way to happiness is reducing your ego, your vanity, and opening yourself up and giving yourself over and making yourself small and not important – in a joyful way.

    The philosophy / religion that focuses on this problem and on this problem ALONE, exclusively, with surgical precision, is called Buddhism.

    But Girard is a Christian. And this is why I don’t understand it. If a man understands the problem of the ego, why does he need the whole edifice of Christianity instead of just waging a war on it directly, without multiplying entities, like Buddhists do? Why can’t he be a pure anti-egocentrist i.e. Buddhist? Why is the idea of a creator god and its human incarnation needed for them just to realize the ego is a false center? Theology as a such, and thus kind of anti-.egocentric philosophy have very, very limited overlaps.

    • Thank you for taking the time to read the essay.

      Girard is not an anti-egoist. He does not see the ego as false. Girard hardly writes of the ego or of ego-centrism. “Ego” is a differentiated term in Western discourse: It refers to a balanced self, balanced in respect of other selves and in respect to its environment. Girard is not even an “anti-mimeticist” although he is the theoretician of mimesis. He recognizes abundantly all the positive results of mimesis; but he also grasps the destructive effects of mimesis and, further, he reads Scripture as grasping the destructive effects of mimesis and of specifying the injunctions that best keep mimesis channeled. I can see that Buddhism is a “leap in being” beyond the Vedic ethos, and that it too, confronts the problem of unshackled mimesis. It seems to me nevertheless that Christianity has a more fully articulated anthropology than Buddhism. Girard has explicated that anthropology more profoundly than any other commentator known to me.

  4. However, thank you for making me aware of Barfield’s works, this has been one of my pet dreams to find a scholar who can demonstrate the degeneracy of modernity through the changing meaning of words.

    • You will have noticed that I began the essay on Girard with an extended reference to my earlier essay on Barfield. That is because there is a strong parallelism in their separate strands of investigation.


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