August 12, 2018
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November 11, 2017
I'm ashamed to say I only recently got around to watching Roberto Calasso's lecture on Rene Girard at Stanford University from 2014. It's refreshing to watch him dismantle the worldviews of those delicate Ivy League sensibilities (no disrespect to the often insightful Robert Harris). The scienceers (people who think that scientists are priests and that science, just shy of sexual satisfaction, will somehow make them happy) were quite disturbed to hear him say that concern for ecology is not enough to fix our problems, nor is neuroscience the end-all-be-all in human understanding.
Rene Girard saw mimetic rivalry as the constant theme of man's downfall throughout history. A devout Catholic, though not necessarily a biblical literalist, he would have equated it, perhaps metaphorically, with the work of Satan. Men mirror the desires of other men and take what they have away from them to have it for themselves.
Roberto Calasso said, in his Paris Review interview:
'The point is, man has a surplus of energy which he has to dispose of. That surplus is simply life. There is no life without surplus. Whatever one does with that surplus, that decides the shape of a culture, of a life, of a mind. There were certain cultures that decided they had to offer it in some way. It is not clear to whom, why, and how, but that was the idea. There are other cultures, like ours, where all this is considered entirely useless and obsolete. In the secular world, sacrifice shouldn’t have any meaning at all. At the same time, you realize that it does, because the word has remained very much in use. In discussions of the economy, analysts speak all the time of sacrifices, without realizing what is inside the word. Even in psychological terms, sacrifice is a most usual word. It is considered illegal—for instance, if one celebrated a sacrificial ritual in the middle of London or New York, he would do something illegal, he would be put in jail. Sacrifice is connected to destruction—that is an important thing and the most mysterious one. Why, in order to offer something, you must destroy it. '
This statement strikes me as very Bataillean, though with Calasso's particular flair.
Funny enough, when offering criticism of Levi-Strauss for not engaging with the subject of sacrifice in his anthropological work, Calasso was then reminded by the interviewer of Bataille, for whom sacrifice played a major role.
'Bataille is the opposite. Bataille wrote of sacrifice all his life. His best book on that was La part maudite, a very audacious work. But Bataille was not a rigorous thinker. He wrote too much and had a terrible habit—ressassement, endless repetitions. Yet in a way, he put the question at the center of everything.'
After dismissing Bataille, he goes back to the subject of sacrifice and makes yet another Bataillean statement:
'Maybe it’s simply because sacrifice brings us into dealings with the unknown. In the act of sacrifice, you establish a relation with something that you recognize as enigmatic and powerful. Our collective psyche seems to have lost touch with it, although science is providing countless motives for being overwhelmed by the unknown. The unknown itself is in our own mind as well—our mind is in its largest part totally unknown to us. Therefore, it is not only a relation to the exterior world, it is a relation to ourselves. We establish a connection with the unknown through the act of giving something and, paradoxically, the act of destroying something. That is what is behind sacrifice. What you offer and what you destroy, it is that surplus which is life itself.'
Throughout Calasso's work, however, he makes frequent mention of Rene Girard, who's work also dealt largely with sacrifice, but from a far different perspective than Bataille. While Calasso seems to claim a much greater affinity with Girard than Bataille, I tend to think he has far more actual affinity with Bataille.
For Girard, sacrifice is examined solely in a configuration of jurisprudence. This he links to religion and ancient myth, with the Judao-Christian tradition offering the first signs of the divine scapegoat's narrative innocence. It is a simple equation that Girard sees everywhere.
Calasso and Bataille, on the other hand, both set the course of their configurations onto a different path; one which doesn't trap itself in the different codings of one text against many, but which is slightly more epistemological. They concern themselves fundamentally with the impulse to destroy and its relationship to reciprocal surpluses of energy.
It is interesting that such rigorous critiques of something so morbid, so hidden deep within our past, could happen at the hands of a group of men with such a strange relationship to the secular west and the intellectual environments around them in each respective case. Calasso speaks with reverent forbidding about the unknown and the mythical gods he revisits in his texts. Georges Bataille, though an atheist, started a secret society called Acephale, which he described as intensely religious. Girard was a Catholic. Calasso, paradoxically, says that the west has always been secular, but then claims that the modern secular world is the last great myth. Girard often seems to suggest, rather, that the secular world is a crude extension of the Christian tradition--a sort of inverted Nietzscheanism. Bataille radicalized the headless destiny beyond the summit.
Girard is always trying to enclose the world. Calasso and Bataille seem to be reaching beyond it.