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Colloquium On Violence & Religion



COV&R-Bulletin No. 5 (Oct. 1993)

Richard J. Golsan, René Girard and Myth: An Introduction. New York & London: Garland, 1993. Hdb. pp vii + 237.

Richard Golsan's René Girard and Myth: An Introduction is the seventh, most recent, volume of Garland's Theorists of Myth series and, notably, the first in the series which concerns a truly interdisciplinary approach to the study of myth. How to present such a complex theory to students of myth presumably unacquainted with Girard's work is Golsan's challenge. His response is commendabble: he oresents a very readable introduction which includes features of interest to the specialized scholar as well.

The introductory material in chapters one through five comprises an overwiew of Girard theory which follows the chronological development of Girard's thinking about the mimetic model and, by extension, examines the role of myth within that theory (chap. 3). Golsan illustrates the points under discussion with excerpts from Girard's works, which he supplements with commentary on Louis- Ferdinand Céline's Journey to the End of the Night (51- 55). He concludes the overview with a thoughtful and informative account of the criticism that Girard's work has elicited to date (107-28). Hayden White's misinterpretation of Girard as an "apologist of reaction," Sarah Kofman's attack against Girard's criticism of Freudian narcissism, and Toril Moi's contention that Girard's devaluation of the mother informs his rejection of the Oedipal complex are among the examples reviewed. Golsan considers criticism of a less spectacular nature as well: Robert Greed Cohn's charge of the unidimensionality of Girard's concept of desire, Françoise Meltzer's argument against the scapegoat theory's "reduction" of literary texts, Elizabeth Traube's similar charge with regard to Girard's anthropology; and Richard Kearney's critique of Girard's definition of myth and mythical thinking as persecutory. The discussion of Girard's critics concludes with comments on Burton Mack and Lucien Scubla's dissenting views on Girard's interpretation of Christ and the Passion, and Jean-Marie Domenach's charge that Girardian anthropology borders on sacrilege. It is followed by abbreviated comments about the interdisciplinary work that has been undertaken to date in the application and development of the Girardian model (124-28). COV&R members will find the remaining three sections of Golsan's book to be of special interest: the interview with Girard (129-49), Girard's analysis of a Venda myth (151-79), and the most extensive bibliography of studies by and about Girard that has been published to date (181-237).

A striking point of Golsan's interview with Girard which is certain to attract attention is Girard's response, after more than ten years of silence, to the charges of male chauvinism and sexual repression leveled against him ("The Narcissistic Woman: Freud and Girard," Diacritics, 1980: 36-45) by Sarah Kofman. Girard's rebuttal to Kofman's charges, vigorous and controversial as ever, betrays the somewhat frustrating mental acrobatics of the male critic whose work is rebuked by the forceful voice of a female counterpart. The gender-oriented ritual is, notably, shot through with tones of compromise: throughout the interview Girard alludes to the potential of the mimetic model for feminist criticism, to the tendency in Shakespeare to make the woman's voice the voice of truth, and to his own belated discovery of Virginia Woolf's The Waves: a "unique masterpiece," as Girard describes it, "in which imitation expresses itself in the most simple, direct, obvious and beautiful fashion imaginable; ... the ultimate and supreme novel ... that puts an end to the genre of the novel" (133-34).

The interview also highlights questions about the interdisciplinary possibilities that the mimetic theory opens with biology (human sexuality) and the potential for a systematic analysis of the evolution of external and internal modes of mediated desire. And it offers less elaborated, but nonetheless provocative, glimpses of Girard's thinking on "the monogamous relationship as the greatest achievement of human culture" (146), on his own conversion from agnosticism to Christianity and the relation between his beliefs and his work (129-30), and on his double-barrelled opinion of the American university system (147-49).

In commenting on the literature of the post-modern age, Girard notes that "the time for description [of the mimetic mechanism] is over and the time for systematization has arrived" (133). His essay "A Venda Myth Analyzed" develops along these lines, beginning with the definition of the five basic themes common to foundational myths: the crisis of disorder or undifferentiation; projection of guilt onto the scapegoat, who often bears preferential signs of victimage; punishment by death or expulsion of the victim; and the return to order and subsequent sacralization of the victim.

Girard stresses two points throughout the remainder of the essay. He argues against the excessive interpretive prudence exacted by the "law of contamination by the unbelievable," explaining that, in the case of etiological myths, the reverse of that law--or contamination by the believable--should in fact set the interpretive standard. He further encourages students of myth to "entertain the possibility that an accusation and scapegoat mechanism might be involved in the genesis of thematically and structurally similar texts" (163), just as medieval historians have done. In this way "the demythification of myth will become as easy and banal," Girard contends, "as the demystification of a witchcraft trial record has been for centuries" (173).

The concluding bibliography is organized chronologically and divided into sections on Girard's works (books and their translations, articles, contributions to collected works, and interviews), and sections on publications about Girard (including books, collective works, debates, and reviews). This elaborate resource is, however, somewhat user-unfriendly, since it forgoes the conventional alphabetical listing by authors' names.

Golsan's book, in sum, is worthy of attention. It appears at a time when Girard's work is attracting widespread interest, as evidenced by the remarkable surge of publications on Girardian theory that have gone to press since 1991. And René Girard and Myth is, notably, the first introductory text on Girardian theory to appear. For the student of myth the book marks a promising prospect for the future direction of myth studies; for the Girardian, it signals the move from marginal to mainstream of a theory that not only rocks the closed hierarchy of academic disciplines but may open the way to an eventual, even wider, interinstitutional dialogue.

Judith H. Arias