Part I – The Bacchae. According to Friedrich Nietzsche, writing in his Birth of Tragedy (1871), Euripides (480 – 406), whose main activity coincided with the nihilistic destructiveness of the Peloponnesian Wars, betrayed “the public cult of tragedy,” to whose canons he merely pretended to adhere, while secretly doing everything he could to subvert them. The power of myth attained its “most profound content,” Nietzsche writes, in the works of Aeschylus and Sophocles, and its “most expressive form.” Then Euripides intervened, imposing the withering literalistic interpretation of “the typical Hellene” or paltry rationalist on the properly mythic material of the most sublime of poetic genres. “What was your wish,” Nietzsche proposes rhetorically, “when you tried to force that dying myth into your service once more.” Nietzsche means the Myth of Dionysus, which, as he addresses directly the playwright, “died beneath your violent hands.” Euripides, so Nietzsche claims, sacrilegiously “abandoned Dionysus,” substituting “sophistical dialectic” for the ancient Dithyramb, and giving to his characters “counterfeit, masked passions” and “counterfeit, masked speeches.” Nietzsche’s accusatory phrase, “violent hands,” works a bold verbal legerdemain, especially considering Euripides’ final play, The Bacchae, which concerns itself with the same deity in whose cult and celebrations tragedy had its birth. With his second person formal, his “you,” Nietzsche assumes the stance of a public prosecutor, pointing his finger of indictment at the defendant and calling out the cultural equivalent of a capital crime. That crime is sacrilege. Nietzsche even compounds his indictment: “Through [Euripides] everyday man pushed his way through the auditorium on to the stage.” Euripides, a kind of coward and panderer, stirred the mob into profaning the sacred scene, so that he might deflect guilt from himself. The district attorney knows better. He will bring home his charge.
Euripides’ Bacchae itself constitutes an indictment, not so much a criminal as an anthropological one. The last extant play in the Tragic Succession of Athens turns back to the origin of tragedy. In his drama, Euripides would investigate the primal motives of the Dionysiac religion, and even of the Bacchic cult as the matrix of a religious genus that a fully conscious, fully moral humanity would do better to repudiate than to validate, revere, or conserve. Nietzsche’s “violent hands” and his mob belong not to Euripides but to the god himself, as the dramatist has discovered, and as he reveals in his drama. As Walter F. Otto writes in his study of Dionysus, Myth and Cult (1933), the lore represents Dionysus “as the god who comes, the god of epiphany, whose appearance is far more urgent, far more compelling than that of any other god” (Chapter 5). The Dionysiac epiphany, Otto adds, “Reveals itself in the… phenomena which accompany the approaching and imminent god”; that is to say, “pandemonium and its related counterpart, deadly silence” (Chapter 7). The epithet Bromios or “roarer” attaches itself to the god, who often appears as a theriomorph of one species or another, but typically a bull, but also a lion or a panther. The god’s cultists greet his apparition with “wild shouts of joy” (Chapter 8). As for Otto’s “deadly silence” – it follows the deeds of the maniacal worshippers, which invariably reach their climax in sparagmatic mayhem. Even the perpetrators fall into awed quietude. For Nietzsche, Dionysus provided the élan essential to creative endeavors. Otto sympathizes to an extent with Nietzsche, but for Otto Dionysus, when he appears, presides over a catastrophic descent from civilized order into pre-cultural disorder: “No single Greek god even approaches Dionysus in the horror of his epithets, which bear witness to a savagery that is absolutely without mercy” (Chapter 9).
Euripides gives the first speech of his play to the god himself. Dionysus interweaves autobiography with motive. He has returned to his birthplace, Cadmeian Thebes, ostensibly to avenge his mother’s death. Semele lay with Zeus, he in disguise, and boasted to her sisters of her liaison. They disbelieved and mocked her, suggesting that the so-called god should prove his status by self-revelation in his true form, which in the Chief Olympian’s case would be the lightning-bolt. Semele used feminine wiles to put Zeus in a deadly double-bind. When the divine effulgence consumes Semele, at least part of the blame falls on her girlish narcissism and inanity; but the rivalry of the sisters and the division of the family into factions figure as important details, too. In the moral entanglement that Dionysus imputes to these events guilt mingles everywhere – and any vengeance that justifies itself based on that guilt must therefore strike everywhere. Guilt becomes irrelevant. Dionysus presents himself, not as the rectifier of a particular or differentiable offense, but as the power of general dissolution whose hatred extends to any manifestation of order. Lysios, one of the epithets that bedecks Dionysus, means “he who breaks things up.” Order itself, the order of the family or of the city, affronts the mob and must atone. Dionysus in his opening monologue speaks these lines (Davie’s translation): “I have spurred those same sisters to madness and driven them in distraction from their houses”; but it will only suffice that, “all the female seed of Cadmus’ people, all the women folk, I have caused to quit their homes in frenzy.” Dionysus likewise turns his ire on his cousin by maternal descent, “Pentheus,” grandson of Cadmus and current King of Thebes, “who makes war on divinity in my person by thrusting me away from his sacrifices and making no mention of me in his prayers.”
René Girard’s Violence and the Sacred (French original, 1966) owes no small debt to Otto’s Dionysus, even though Girard only mentions that title, never quoting it, but, confusingly, quotes instead from Rudolph Otto’s Idea of the Holy (1917). Girard places the Bacchic annunciation in the context of what he calls, in a chapter devoted to the topic, “The Sacrificial Crisis”; to which topic he returns in a chapter entitled, simply, “Dionysus.” In Girard’s anthropology, violence maintains a dis-relation with difference, and difference a relation with order. Girard’s sacrificial crisis consists in the breakdown of internal differences in the community and its result, the outbreak and spreading of reciprocal violence. Modernity, which idolizes the concept of equality and makes of it a policy-goal, and which under its liberal persuasion allegedly abhors hierarchy and seeks to dismantle it, understands Girard’s exposition with great difficulty or, in most cases, not at all. Tragedy represents the clash of would-be powers through the stichomythia, whereby “the resemblance between the combatants grows ever stronger until each presents a mirror image of the other.” Girard writes, “The destruction of differences is particularly spectacular when the hierarchical difference between the characters, the amount of respect due from one to the other, is great.” The differences between king and subject, adult and adolescent, citizen and foreigner, and male and female have drastically diminished. “Wherever differences are lacking,” Girard asserts, “violence threatens.” The very signs of order dissolve in a process of “de-symbolization.” Symbols provide the interface between the external order of the civitas and the internal order of consciousness. Their disappearance belongs to the Dionysiac dementia because without them the individual can no longer make sense of the scene.
In the First Choral Ode, Euripides emphasizes the link between undifferentiation and violence. The Maenads sing how, “Blessed is the man who has the good fortune to know the gods’ mysteries, who consecrates his life and makes his soul one with the throng, worshipping Bacchus in the mountains with holy purifications.” The personality melts away, giving place to the crowd; the cultist “whirls his thyrsus,” a primitive weapon, “on high”; the chorus admonishes itself to “show reverence when you wield the wand with its violence.” When the First Choral Ode concludes, Teiresias and Cadmus enter the stage dressed, each “in the costume of a Bacchant.” Euripides thus illustrates the collapse of the Theban hierarchy. The elders imitate the young; men accouter themselves in the garb of women; and royalty merges with the insurrectionary sub-commonality. Pentheus sets himself to resist foreign incursion, but succumbs to the growing madness. Euripides provides a textbook example of the stichomythia in his exchange of single lines pitting the king against the interloper. The Bacchae anticipates every horror movie since George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead; or since Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Violent mimesis spreads like a plague; to the intoxicating sickness of it, everyone becomes assimilated. Otto comments how, in The Bacchae, the Maenads “pounce upon a herd of cattle, fell the most powerful animals among them, and tear them from limb to limb.” Is it a herd of cattle – or a band of men? Agave, mother of Pentheus, will mistake her son for a lion; she will direct the mob to assault him and she will flaunt his severed head, which she herself dissevers, as a trophy. The horror occurs offstage. Attica in the Fifth Century BC had a different sensibility from Hollywood in the Twentieth.
For Girard, in his “Dionysus” chapter, Euripides presents “the Bacchic spirit… as indistinguishable from the infectious evil.” Girard draws the parallel between the perfusion of deadly violence in The Bacchae and the perfusion of the pestilence in Oedipus Rex. The theme of purification pervades both tragedies. Teiresias says to Pentheus, “Your thought is unhealthy.” Thought itself is unhealthy. Purity – and with it, peace – shall establish itself only when all resistance to madness ends and a delusionary unanimity obtains. When the pan-dementia manifests itself in the unanimity-minus-one of Pentheus’ sparagmatic demise, delusion relinquishes its grip. Cadmus talks Agave out of her conviction that she has ripped the limbs from a wild beast until in self-condemning awe she recognizes the filial aspect in the token of her fell deed. Girard intends more than a literary analysis of the Euripidean text. He sees in tragedy considerate reflection on a primordial event that all rituals reenact at one stage of remove or another. Ritual sacrifice originates in the spontaneous action of crowds when tit-for-tat violence marches through the community. Ritual sacrifice imitates an originary murder in which the crowd focused its violence on a more or less arbitrarily selected scapegoat. Culture has been stuck in endless cycles of violence since its beginning, no less today than in the Classical Century. Euripides has an inkling of this truth, and so did Sophocles and both men anticipate the final anti-sacrificial insight – the Gospel declaration of the victim’s innocence and the mob’s unconsciousness. Girard writes, “The Euripidean version of the myth emphasizes the spontaneous aspect of the ritualistic proceedings and thus affords us a fleeting glimpse – or at least a strong intimation – of a real relationship between the rite and a past event, grounded in fact and partially reconstituted by the dramatist.”
Part II – America Burns. When the Bacchants in Euripides’ First Choral Ode assert that in order to experience divine ecstasy the participant must become of one mind “with the throng,” they refer, not to a super-mind, although they imply that, but to a sub-mind. Girard emphasizes the unanimity common to mob action and ritual sacrifice – which, in his judgment, imitates a very real first mobilization of the enthusiastic all-but-one against the hapless one. A number of writer-thinkers anticipated Girard, who stands indebted to them but, for some reason, rarely cites them. Take Joseph de Maistre, or René de Chateaubriand, or Gustave Le Bon. Maistre, surveying the landscape of the Revolution, saw in it a recursion from the codification of law into a resurgence of apotropaic bloodletting. All three men, not Maistre alone, wrote with reference to the French Revolution. Maistre and Chateaubriand lived through the Revolution while Le Bon drew much of his research from it. In his Elucidations on Sacrifice (1827), Maistre derives immolation from the state of general disorder; he remarks, as does Girard, on the ubiquity of sacrifice in pre-modern societies. “Up to twenty thousand human victims per year had to be brought to the Mexican priests,” Maistre writes, “and to acquire them war had to be declared on some people” (Lebrun’s translation). Maistre compares Revolutionary violence to “the customs of the Iroquois and Algonquins.” In his memoir (1850), Chateaubriand describes an incident of the July 1830 Revolution: A group of radicals parades down the street displaying the heads of their victims on pikes. Le Bon, in his study of The Crowd (1895), argues of the throng that “its acts are far more under the influence of the spinal cord than the brain”; and thus that, “this mobility” of les foules “renders them very difficult to govern, especially when a measure of public authority has fallen into their hands.” It belongs to Le Bon’s argument that the convictions of crowds invariably assume a religious shape.
In May 2017, signaling the mounting hysteria over the election in the previous November of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States, the self-styled comedienne Kathy Griffin publicized a photograph of herself holding a simulacrum of the President’s severed head. The object had obviously been conjured in a special effects studio and reflected the realistic gore of contemporary horror cinema. In a divided nation whose internal tensions were increasing day by day Griffin’s smug performance elicited chattering delight on the Left and generalized disgust on the Right. Doubtless Griffin had no familiarity with The Bacchae, but the image that she offered might have come from Euripides’ play – Agave returning proudly to Thebes and brandishing the bloody capitus of Pentheus, her son, the enemy of Dionysus, her god. Who was – or is – Griffin’s god? Who is the god of the atheistic, anti-Christian Left, to whom Griffin’s mock-sacrifice paid homage? If Maistre, Chateaubriand, Le Bon, Otto, and Girard trafficked in anthropological truth, there would be such a god. In postmodern discourse this god manifests himself as the other, the marginalized, the intersectional, and the victim; also as black life, as in the notorious slogan. These sociological categories exist in opposition to such demonizing classifiers as “racist,” “sexist,” “homophobe,” “transphobe,” “Hitler,” and “Ku-Klux-Klan.” The triumph of the deity will consist in his liberation of the oppressed from their oppressors in a permanent dethronement of Hitlerian tyranny. Like the revolutionaries of 1789, the modern Left worships Liber, one of the Latin epithets of the Dionysus; they act for Liber and when they do, they become Liber, just as the Bacchants, in the effectuation of their rites, became Dionysus. In Liber, the Left projects its hyper-antinomianism.
The rioting that began in Minneapolis after the death under police custody of a multiple-count felon and fentanyl addict, who, however, embodied black life, established a segué from the Wuhan pestilence, with its shutting-down of the economy and its regime of masks, to a phase of overt and, for its perpetrators, joyous mayhem. As Girard argues, plague and civic unrest intertwine; they make themselves difficult to distinguish. In his essay on “Plague in Literature and Myth” (1974), Girard writes how, “The distinctiveness of the plague is that it ultimately destroys all forms of distinctiveness.” Otto reserves an entire chapter of Dionysus to masks. He writes, “It is characteristic of the age-old gods and spirits who appear in masks that they appear with exciting immediacy before the faithful.” The Olympians, in whom the principle of order resides, are by contrast remote. Disease, including mania, undoes differentiation, but so does apotropaic gesture of donning the mask. For Otto, “Dionysus was presented in a mask because he was… the god of confrontation.” Again – nothing signifies one-mindedness like the mask, which hides the person in the crowd’s get-out-of-jail-free anonymity and serves to intimidate any rival and all. That is why bank-robbers wear masks. Anonymity always-already constitutes a threat. Every sane polity indeed outlaws the wearing of masks in public. When an arbitrary regime mandates that the customer mask himself in order, say, to conduct business in a bank, perspicacity recognizes that law – and with it, civic order – has fled into suspension. The appearance of maskless rioters thronging together in the street never contradicts the face-covering regime; it merely signifies the throng’s having exited the law so as to impose its delirium where and when and how it wants.
In Classical Civilization, Sophocles and Euripides wrought artistic representations of what Girard calls the sacrificial crisis, for presentation in the theater. Christendom in the time of the Religious Wars had engravers like Dürer and Holbein to work up the equivalent, to see it published and distributed. The current crisis relies on the subscendent medium of cell-phone-based videography for documentation. This medium makes up in quantity for what it lacks in artistic penetration. Consider this record of a masked BLM incursion into a Washington DC restaurant, where couples and families try to resume normal life under the relaxation of the plague regime. Viewers witness the mob pressing sidewalk diners against the plate-glass of the restaurant itself. Several details of this particular example of mob-behavior stand out. The mobsters wear masks. They have garbed themselves uniformly in black apparel. Most are female, but the Corybantes are male. The Corybante leaning into the trapped diner, a terrified woman in a pink t-shirt, is male and so is the Corybante standing behind him on a chair. They heckle the victim, demanding that she execute the words and gestures that would signify solidarity with black life. In this particular video the BLM salute reveals an essential but hitherto unremarked trait: The upraised right arm with the hand contracted in a fist looks like ritualistic knife-wielding, only lacking in actual blades. It corresponds, in other words, to a sacrificial circle. A chubby male with a skateboard, which he might at any moment convert into a bludgeon, angrily pounds the concrete with his wheeled device. One of the females demands to know whether the seated woman is a Christian, a bizarre question which, however, reveals the mob’s own, sacrificial religiosity. The same question reveals the mob’s exteriority to anything actually Christian. “Let him who is without sin…”
In another, deeply disturbing clip, this one from Portland a few weeks back, black-clad, masked female assailants attack an old woman who has presumably come out of her store to extinguish a fire set by the same miscreants in a trash can. Girard notes in Violence and the Sacred and The Scapegoat (1981) that the crowd’s choice of victim in the sacrificial crisis corresponds to a pattern. Mobs prefer victims who will not fight back, a category into which fall children, the elderly, cripples, and the isolated. The victimized woman in the Portland clip satisfies three of these criteria, being aged, needing a walker to get about, and stepping out on the sidewalk alone. A horror-movie atmosphere suffuses the action; it takes place at night, with the mob conjuring itself suddenly and surrounding the victim, as in the zombie or vampire scenario. The Maenads trap the old woman against a blank wall. One of them has looted a can of paint, which she bangs violently against the wall in order to free the lid. With her accomplice making sure that the old woman cannot escape, the main perpetrator douses the victim with white paint. The perpetrator shouts, “This isn’t your world anymore.” With a BLM ensign in evidence, the white paint assumes a sacrificial symbolism. It articulates the opposition between black life and white death, and draws on the novel meaning that has inveigled the words white and whiteness. The outburst of rioting takes its “rationale” in the claim that whiteness itself is a pathogen, one that selectively and ceaselessly kills black life. Dousing the old woman with paint chastises and marks her with her own essence. By a supreme irony – as in the Washington DC confrontation – the assailants are white, and in this case, blonde.
The Adam Haner incident, which also occurred in Portland, and the clip of Senator Rand Paul and his wife under mob-harassment on leaving the Republican National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, tie contemporary violence to the sacrificial pattern established by Euripidean tragedy and analyzed by Otto and Girard in their Twentieth Century commentaries. In the contagious violence of social breakdown, as Girard especially has remarked, differences, the source of order, become undifferentiated. Both Otto and Girard call attention to the sexual ambiguity of Dionysus in The Bacchae. When Dionysus takes human form, Euripides describes him as an effeminate adolescent with long curly hair, as though in him sexual dimorphism had become blurred. The Haner video shows its protagonist coming to the rescue of a “trans woman” who probably wanted to join the crowd, on whom, however, the crowd had turned. Haner sympathized with the BLM agenda, but he nevertheless saw gross injustice in the assault on the victim. The rioters resented Haner’s appropriation of their targeted prey, the “trans woman.” They chased Haner down, kicked him in the head, and left him seemingly lifeless on the asphalt where had fallen. In Charlotte, when Senator Paul and Mrs. Paul exited the convention center, a waiting mob pounced on them. The harasser-in-chief is a tall but scrawny male with hippy-like long hair who matches Euripides’ description of the incarnated Dionysus. Paul’s attacker is far from harmless; he is vicious, screaming obscenities an inch or two from the senator’s face. He harasses Mrs. Paul in a similar way. The police escort does very little.
Part III – There is No Conclusion. As I write (Sunday 30 August 2020), news comes from Portland of a man wearing a pro-police insignia felled by gunfire. Haner will likely suffer long-term consequences from the knock-out blow that he incurred, but he survived his ordeal. The Portland Patriot – a man named Aaron Danielson – not so much. Bizarrely (31 August 2020), rumors circulate that Danielson’s killer was affiliated with an offshoot of BLM, namely “blacktranslivesmatter.” America’s Reign of Terror seems ongoing, having already lasted three months, at least, and with no end in sight. Recently, Hillary Clinton, Kamala Harris, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have publicly urged the rioters, whom they refer to as peaceful protestors, to sustain their mayhem, but mayhem is not amenable merely to being sustained. An external force can quash it. Absent that external force, mayhem escalates. The homicide in Portland partakes in escalation. And it spreads. Now Kenosha, Wisconsin, pushes its way into the news. The “Social Media Age” propels mimesis. It makes mimesis continental, global. It organizes anarchy. The Insurrection of 2020 originates in the Left’s takeover of institutions, especially those of education, and more especially those of so-called higher education. Religiously Anti-Christian, the Left has done its best to undermine the Christian basis of traditional American society. By abolishing Christianity, however, the Left has “progressed” into nothing. It has regressed, falling back into the sacrificial patterns of all Pre-Christian religions. Under “cancel culture,” the Left destroys lives. Under BLM and Antifa, the Left murders directly and enthusiastically. The Danielson case in Portland exemplifies the Left’s murderous impulse – but so do the actions of blue-state governors like Whitmer of Michigan and Il Duce of New York in forcing the elderly into disease-traps where, through contagion, thousands died. When will the perpetrators be held accountable?
A Note on the Gallery. Violence fascinates. In Girard’s anthropology the original, spontaneous act of scapegoating reproduces itself as ritual – and ritual reproduces itself in communal spectacle, and finally in art, as strikingly in Attic tragedy. Strong traces of sacrifice yet permeated Classical Civilization in the age of the tragedians, but in staging a play, no one died. Indeed, a central criterion of tragic production removed any violence from blatant representation on stage. Direct violence struck the civic authorities as obscene, leaving the playwrights to represent it by solely verbal means. In the Western tradition of painting, after the Renaissance, mythic events reappeared in the repertory of topics, hence the illustrations to this essay by Lazzarini, Gleyre, Bouguereau, and others. In the oil-on-canvases illustrating Greek Myth, a paradox takes hold that should be brought to mind. The artists draw beauty or even sublimity from violence. In doing so, they tend to remove their audience from the reality of violence. Auguste Vinchon’s Head of Feraud depicts an essentially sacrificial act, but because its subject was one, in its day, of recent history, it likely disturbed contemporary viewers more than Bin’s Death of Orpheus or Gleyre’s Danse des Bacchantes, both of which prettify and romanticize the savagery that they represent. Nietzsche, the atheistic arch-modernist, with a discussion of whose Birth of Tragedy this essay began, likewise romanticizes savagery
Nietzsche knew full well the origins of the Dionysus Cult, brilliantly exposed by Euripides in the play that puts a period to the efflorescence of tragedy. In The Bacchae, the proponents of “the god of lynching,” as Girard styles him, shout, Crucifigatur! – and that from the first line of the drama to the last. This makes of The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche’s first Anti-Christian tract, to be followed up by such as The Genealogy of Morals (1887) and The Antichrist (1888). It is interesting that Nietzsche accused Euripides of substituting dialectics for drama. Socrates, the innovator of dialectics, suffers the same fate as King Pentheus. The collectivity makes him its scapegoat. Nietzsche’s “Atheist Humanism,” as Henri de Lubac calls it, is one source of the current, radically debased anarcho-tyranny. Perhaps I should not blame Nietzsche so directly, but rather a line of stupid misreadings of Nietzsche in the service of malicious ideologies. Nietzsche, despite his tendencies, offers some worthy insights into the crowd mentality. I have posted the photograph of the old woman in Portland, who was surrounded by rioters and doused with paint, in order to furnish a graphic representation of actual violence – of actual scapegoating victimization — in contrast with the aesthetic transformations of the oil-on-canvas painters.