The Violent Sacred

I probably won’t be posting anything more this week. This is only partly because I have nothing to say – after all, that never really stopped me before. I’ll just be busy. But I can contribute an excerpt from a admirably short and clear book that I am paging through on the thought of René Girard written by the Jesuit theologian Michael Kirwan, Discovering Girard. The book not only summarizes Girard’s thought with literary examples, but also has helpful sections on the future of mimetic theory and objections to Girard’s theory (including Hans Urs von Balthasar’s critique). In going over these objections, Fr Kirwan covers a common concern about the seemingly totalizing, “all-or-nothing” nature of Girard’s thought and concludes that “it is probable that the drive to establish the theoretical credentials of mimetic theory should not be over-indulged.” Girard, Kirwan says, has himself disavowed the “theoretical status of his work” for more modest descriptions of his “insight” or “thesis.”

I’ve posted about Girard before – with regard to the Book of Revelation here, and the Rule of St Benedict here.

Here, then, is an excerpt from Fr Kirwan’s book (tell me what you think in the comments box). First, I should quickly define what mimetic desire is. We desire, Girard would say, in imitation of others, who inevitably become our rivals. In Kirwan’s words, “Instead of desire being a single linear relation (subject A desires object B – ‘Quixote desires to be a perfect knight’), we have three elements: A only desires B because C (in this case, Amadis de Gaul) has directed his attention towards it. Fr Kirwan:

… I wish to consider a very disturbing short story by Franz Kafka, entitled In the Penal Colony. It tells of an explorer visiting an island prison colony, who is invited to watch the execution of an insubordinate prisoner. An officer and a soldier are in attendance. The officer shows off with grim relish the machine by which capital sentences have traditionally been carried out on the island: the condemned man, he explains, is strapped onto a bed with a battery attached. The bed vibrates in correspondence with ‘the Harrow’, a complicated array of quiverying needles and spikes. When these are set in motion, they ‘write’ in in fine calligraphy the commandment which the victim had transgressed, in this case the words ‘HONOUR THY SUPERIORS’. THe machine adorns this script with elaborate flourishes across the entirety of the man’s body, an agonising process which takes place over a number of hours. During this time, the officer explains enthusiastically, a significant transformation takes place in the victim:

But how quiet he grows at just about the sixth hour! Enlightenment comes to the most dull-witted. It begins around the eyes. From there it radiates. A moment that might tempt one to get under the Harrow oneself. Nothing more happens than that the man begins to understand the inscription, he purses his mouth as if he were listening. You have seen how difficult it is to decipher the script with one’s eyes; but our man deciphers it with his wounds. To be sure that is a hard task; he needs six hours to accomplish it, by that time the Harrow has pierced him quite through and casts him into the pit where he pitches down upon the blood and water and the cotton wool. Then the judgment has been fulfilled, and we, the soldier and I, bury him.

During this description, the officer anticipates – and dismisses – all the liberal objections of the horrified explorer. He believes totally in the justice and efficacy of this process and this apparatus. He is worried, however, that its days are numbered: the liberalism of the new Commandant in charge of the colony, the difficulty of maintaining the machine (it is beginning to creak, spare parts are hard to obtain), the decline of the execution itself from a once dignified and popular public ritual to little more than a shabby ceremony, move him to try and enlist the explorer’s support, that as a visitor he might persuade the Commandant of the island of the value of this method of ceremonial execution.

When the explorer finally explodes and announces his disgust at the barbarism of the whole procedure, the officer falls silent. Then he releases the prisoner, who all this time has been awaiting his fate. He sets the machine to inscribe the words ‘BE JUST’, and he straps himself onto the bed. Now the apparatus is put into motion, but it quickly starts to go horribly wrong:

The Harrow was not writing, it was only jabbing, and the Bed was not turning the body over but only bringing it up quivering against the needles. The explorer wanted to do something if possible, to bring the whole machine to a standstill, for this was no exquisite torture such as the officer desired, this was plain murder. He stretched out his hands, but at that moment, the Harrow rose with the body spitted on it and moved to the side, as it usually did only when the twelfth hour had come. Blood was flowing in a hundred streams, not mingled with water, the water jets too had failed to function. And now the last action failed to fulfil itself, the body did not drop off the long needles, streaming with blood it went on hanging oveer the pit without falling into it. The Harrow tried to move back to its old position, but as if it had itself noticed that it had not yet got rid of its burden it stuck after all where it was, over the pit … And here, almost against his will, he had to look at the face of the corpse. It was as it had been in life; no sign was visible of the promised redemption; what the others had found in the machine the officer had not found; the lips were firmly pressed together, the eyes were open with the same expression as in life, the looks calm and convinced, through the forehead went the point of the great iron spike.

After this, the explorer, the soldier and the now redeemed prisoner return to the town; eventually the explorer leaves the island, in visible disgust at all that he has seen.

Few of Kafka’s stories remind us so vividly of his day job, as an insurance clerk dealing with industrial injury claims! This aside, what is Kafka trying to tell us, with such an extraordinary and gruesome tale? Obviously, if it is a ‘parable’ then we should be wary of trying to pin its meaning down too closely. But for our purposes we can say that this extraordinary tale is about the ‘dismantling’ of the violent sacred. The officer is proud and protective of his execution machine, which dispenses a justice so perfect and so transcendent that even those being punished are taken up by its radiance. And yet he is concerned that it is losing its force. For reasons that are made clear, both the governing authorities and the people in general show less and less interest in this ‘sacred’ procedure, while the machine itself is beginning to creak because it is not being maintained properly. Only the officer really believes in it any more; and when the explorer expresses his disgust, this seems to be the final straw. When the officer places himself on the Harrow, its terminal malfunction is finally made apparent.

We have seen previously what happens when a society needs to preserve or re-establish order within itself. Such a community will have recourse to what Girard calls the scapegoat mechanism: a crisis which has come about because of the uncontrolled activity of mimetic desire is itself resolved by mimetic means. The aggression which is threatening to tear the community apart is rechannelled onto an individual victim or marginal group. This purely social process of expulsion of extermination appears to the perpetrators as if it is a holy action, because it brings, if only temporarily, the peace and harmony which the group desperately needs. Precisely becuase the sacrifice seems to be efficacious, it must be ‘of God’. Even the victim, being simultaneously good and evil, is accorded the status of a primitive deity. Here, once again, is Girard’s formulation: ‘violence is the heart and secret soul of the sacred’.

The officer’s macabre enthusaism for his execution machine in the Kafka story, and for the ‘transcendent’ enlightenement it brings about, even in the most hardened criminal, will stand for an illustration of the violent sacred at work. The third phase of Girard’s mimetic theory, the subject of this chapter, concerns the role of the Gospel, and of the Bible in general, in disabling this machine and exposing the falsity of the claims to sacredness which are associated with it.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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