Girard on Cycles of Mimetic Violence

An Excerpt from René Girard’s I See Satan Fall Like Lightning [Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001], the conclusion to chapter two, “The Cycle of Mimetic Violence,” pages 28-31.

What we discover in the Gospels, in the death of Jesus as well as the death of John the Baptist, is a cyclic process of disorder and reestablishment of order that reaches its high point and ends in a mechanism of victimary unanimity. I am employing the word “mechanism” to signify the automatic nature of the process and its results, as well as the incomprehension and even the unconscious obedience of the participants. The most interesting biblical texts in relation to the victimary process are those that the Gospels themselves connect to the life and death of Jesus, those that recount the life and death of the figure named the Servant of Yahweh or the Suffering Servant.

The Servant is a great prophet who appears in the part of the book of Isaiah that begins at chapter 40, the part generally attributed to an independent author, Second Isaiah or Deutero-Isaiah. The passages evoking the life and death of this prophet are sufficiently distinct from those around them that they can be grouped into four separate sections that read like four grand poems, the songs of the Servant of Yahweh. Though the beginning of chapter 40, the first chapter of Second Isaiah, is not one of those, in certain respects I think it should be linked to them:

A voice cries
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isa. 40:3-5, RSV)

In this leveling, this universal flattening, modern exegetes see an allusion to the construction of a route for Cyrus, the king of Persia, who permitted the Jews to return to Jerusalem. This explanation is certainly reasonable but a little flat. The text speaks of flattening — that is clear — but it does not speak about it flatly. It presents flattening as a subject so grand and impressive that to limit its scope to the construction of a great highway, even for the greatest of all monarchs, seems to me too narrow a view of it.

One of the themes of Second Isaiah is the end of the Babylonian Exile, which happily for the Jews was effected by the famous edict of Cyrus. But other themes are interwoven with that of the return, particularly the theme of the Servant of Yahweh. Rather than construction work undertaken with a predetermined goal, the text I quoted is reminiscent of a geological erosion, and I think it is necessary to see there an image of those mimetic crises whose essential feature is the loss of differences, the transformation of individuals into doubles whose perpetual conflict destroys culture. The text assimilates this process to the collapsing of mountains and the filling of valleys in a mountainous region. Just as the rocks are transformed into sand, so the people are transformed into an amorphous mass incapable of understanding “the voice crying in the wilderness,” yet they are always ready to eat away at the heights and to fill up the depths in order to remain at the surface of all things, to reject greatness and truth.

As troubling as this leveling of differences may be, this overwhelming victory of the superficial and the uniform, the prophet invokes it because of the great transformation for which it paradoxically prepares the way, a decisive manifestation of Yahweh:

And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

This epiphany here prophesied is evidently realized twelve chapters further on, in the collective murder that ends the crisis, the murder of the Suffering Servant. In spite of his kindness and his love for others, the Servant is not loved by his own people, and in the fourth and last song, he dies at the hands of a hysterical crowd that mobs against him. He is the victim of a true lynching.

To understand Second Isaiah properly, I think it is necessary to trace a great circular arc that emerges suddenly from the original flattening, from the violent undifferentiation, and that comes down in chapters 52 and 53 in the narrative of the violent death of the Servant. This circular arc reconnects, in short, the description of the mimetic crisis to the chief consequence of this crisis, the lynching of a single victim. This death, the murder of the great prophet rejected by his people, is the equivalent of the Passion in the Gospels. As in the Gospels, the collective lynching of the prophet and the revelation of Yahweh make up one and the same event.

Once we apprehend the structure of crisis and collective lynching in Second Isaiah, we understand also that it constitutes, just as in the life and death of Jesus in the Gospels, what I call a mimetic cycle. The initial proliferation of scandals leads sooner or later into an acute crisis at the climax of which unanimous violence is set off against the single victim, the victim finally selected by the entire community. This event reestablishes the former order or establishes a new one out of the old. Then the new order itself is destined someday to enter into crisis, and so on.

As in all mimetic cycles, the total sequence of events is a divine epiphany, a manifestation of Yahweh. The mimetic cycle is represented in Second Isaiah with all the splendor characteristic of the great prophetic texts. Like all mimetic cycles, this one resembles those that precede and follow by its dynamism and its fundamental structure. (At the same time, of course, it includes all sorts of features that belong only to it and that we need not enumerate.) The proof that the same sequence is indeed found in the life and death of Christ, as the four Gospel writers saw it, is that we encounter in the four Gospels a description of the mimetic crisis that is literally the same as the description in Second Isaiah. This description constitutes the heart of what John the Baptist prophesies concerning Jesus. To remind the audience of this chapter of Isaiah, to have them think of that description of crisis and that announcement of the divine epiphany, is the same thing as prophesying Jesus: it is to announce that the life and death of Jesus will be similar to the life and death of the prophet of former times. It is to allude to what I call a new mimetic cycle, a new eruption of disorder culminating in the unanimous mimetic war of all against one.

John the Baptist is identified with “the voice crying in the wilderness,” and his prophetic proclamation is entirely summarized in the quotation of chapter 40 of Isaiah. What the prophet intends to prophesy may be summarized as follows: “Once more we find ourselves in a great crisis, and it will end with the collective execution of a new envoy of God: Jesus. Yahweh will use his violent death as the occasion of a new and supreme revelation.”

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