Introduction. The action of Flaubert’s Herodias, one of the Trois Contes or Three Tales of 1877, occurs on the birthday of Herod Antipas or Antipater, the Hellenized “Tetrarch” of Judea who is in fact a client-king permitted to rule over his people solely by the political calculation of reigning Roman emperor, Tiberius. Tensions run high in Judea. The influential preacher John the Baptist, whom the Tetrarch currently holds imprisoned in a dungeon, has denounced Herod for his marriage to the divorced wife, Herodias, of the Tetrarch’s exiled brother, Herod Philip I. The marriage amounts, says John, to incest. Apart from the specific charge, the Baptist’s preaching has stirred up religious turmoil in the kingdom, encouraging a general dissidence. The Pharisees, for example, feel displaced in piety and thus in status as strict interpreters of the law by John’s extravagant Puritanism; they already incline to distrust Herod, largely Greek in education and taste, an obvious puppet of Rome, and in these ways only barely a Jew. Flaubert writes, “The Jews were tired of [Herod’s] idolatrous ways.” As readers later learn, Sadducees, Essenes, and Samaritans, and others live grudgingly with one another in Herod’s realm; the reasons for their mutual mistrust seem more or less exaggerated and ritually or tribally driven. Herod’s factional ties in Rome also complicate his life.
In Rome political jockeying takes place ceaselessly among various power brokers who would gain influence over the monarch for their own corrupt benefit. Herod thinks to himself, for example, that, “probably Agrippa [one of his rivals] had ruined his credit with the emperor.” His other brother Philip is meanwhile “secretly arming” behind his borders while Arab warriors in service to an ambitious raider-king have encamped themselves on his southern march. Herod vacillates between the possibilities of making a pact with the Arabs or making one with the Parthians, Rome’s enemy and counterweight in the East. Herod is proverbially between a rock and a hard place – or between the abyss and the Resurrection.
The more you can attribute blame for some bad thing to others, the less blame you need to shoulder yourself, and the less guilt you then need to suffer. And as guilt lessens, so does the costliness of the personal sacrifice adequate to its expiation.
On the Eve of Christmas under the reckoning of our Orthodox brethren, we are pleased to offer a Guest Post by Mark Citadel:
At a time when Eastern Christianity celebrates Christmas (as per the Julian calendar), the importance of Christ’s birth is more often misunderstood than it is underemphasized. Indeed, for the true Christian who sees beneath the surface of what holidays have become, Easter (or Pascha) is far more important than Christmas, for it contains the recognition of action on the part of Christ to redeem mankind so that he may not perish from the Way. Whether this action is more fully defined by sacrifice or victory is irrelevant to the event’s significance as such. Events surrounding the death of Christ are adorned with symbolism, and areas of vagueness that have intrigued theological study for centuries. Yet of course without birth there is no death, and thus to ponder the Incarnation itself is necessary for a richer understanding of His final significance.Frithjof Schuon wrote on the nature of the risen Lord:
If the Incarnation has the significance of a “descent” of God, Christ is thus equivalent to the whole of creation, containing it in a way; he is a second creation, which purifies and “redeems” the first.
In preparation for teaching a literature course in the 1950s, René Girard reread some of the classic novels. In the process he realized that the novelists had had profound insights into aspects of the human condition and that to a large degree, they were the same insights…
In Deceit, Desire and the Novel, possibly René Girard’s best book, he argues that denying the existence of God does not remove the desire for transcendent meaning. Thwarted from seeking spiritual satisfaction from above, the desire gets directed towards other people who it is imagined have god-like qualities of self-sufficiency and autonomy and that we alone have been excluded from this divine status – creating resentment and compounding human misery.
Likewise, various utopian ideas are an attempt to create heaven on earth, frequently creating hell on earth. Trying to satisfy transcendent desires in the realm of the immanent is a disaster, both in politics and in relationships between people.
In this essay published at the Sydney Traditionalist Forum, I also draw connections between Girard and St. Augustine’s notions of the role of God in human life.
A culture does not subsist in virtue of its members, or of their mere vicinity. Nor does it subsist in any formal specification of its systematic relations – laws, customs, language, technics, rites, and so forth – or of the propositions about reality upon which those formalities are founded, and from which they derive. Nor even does it subsist in the agglomeration of its people and the body of formal specifications of their systematic coordination thrown somehow together.
This, in just the way that I do not subsist in virtue of my cells, or of the formal specification of their systematic coordination. Rather, my cells and their formal coordination subsist qua mine in virtue of me.
The regnant occasion of my body, and of my life, is just me. I am the angel of my body’s life. I am the concrete real in whom the formal specification of its systematic coordination first subsists so as to be strangely attractive to my otherwise wayward cells and organs and subsidiary control systems. The relations constituting the system of me are very like those of feudal vassalage. My subsidiaries are loyal to me for the sake of their love for me, and mine for them.
So likewise a nation subsists, not in its people or in its laws or in the system of propositions in virtue of which those laws make any sense, but rather in the concrete angel who is its regnant occasion, to whom its components are all strangely attracted, and by whom they are all domesticated to his house, ordered and coordinated.
To be a person, to belong to a community, one must imitate and assimilate. To be a person, and not to belong to the crowd, one must resist imitation and assimilation. One must accept being the “minus one” in “unanimity minus one.” Yet, as the behavior of the Apostles testifies, this is the hardest thing to do.
Why does no one step forward to defend the scapegoat victim? An obvious answer is that aligning with the victim risks the wrath of the mob falling on the defender too.
The other is social conformity. On the face of it, this smacks of something wormlike and intensely ignoble.
In a famous experiment, a large crowd of people agree to lie. They will say that line A is shorter than line B even though the reverse is true. Just one person is the experimental subject and this person does not know about the pact shared by the others. This person will deny the evidence of his senses and agree with the crowd. Pathetic!
But, try to think of a single thing you think is true with important ethical implications that no one else at all believes. Give up? If no support is forthcoming from anyone at all – not a friend or family member – how would this belief be maintained?
Who has read and remembers That Hideous Strength– of the gigantic oeuvre of CS Lewis, the capstone, masterpiece, and summation – and who has lately followed the news in the alternative media must have noticed a horrible semblance of these last weeks to the gathering storm that novel so masterfully presents, of good and evil human, natural, and supernatural rising to a tremendous pitch of intensity and power as they drive each inexorably to a titanic, shattering battle. I do not mean here to specify all the parallels, but they are almost all there: corrupt government agencies with noble sounding names and ends that work in fact deep evil; a cruel fat sadistic lesbian harridan, plaything and willing instrument of obscure Satanic masters; inner circles within inner circles, each more vicious and twisted than the last; sexual sin run amok; young victims; hubris on a vast scale, pretensions to a Babelonian New World Order and a New Man; nominalist obfuscation, nihilism and relativism; sophistical professors and rotten priests; contempt for all that is good, true and holy, old and homely, right, simple, and sweet, or even simply and honestly rational (all in the name of rationality) – the whole nine yards. And arrayed against these Powers, a pitiful few doughty hapless writers and scholars, talking mostly to each other in a remote corner of the world of what is good and right, true and holy, strait and wise, solid and reliable.