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Colloquium On Violence & Religion



COV&R-Bulletin No. 7 (Oct. 1994)


Eugene Webb, The Self Between: From Freud to the New Social Psychology of France. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1993. xi + 268 pp.

Eugene Webb intends to offer with this book, which is beautifully titled, "a sketch of some important developments in recent French thought--principally, though not exclusively, psychological thought" (vii). In the first chapter (3-25) he outlines "The Cultural Situation of Psychoanalytic Thought in France," showing the cultural reasons as to why Freud's work became eventually deeply imbedded in French thought. This, however, was possible only because "France has remained France, and the French Freud is a Freud considerably altered" (4). It is a beautiful and enlightening overview of French cultural life after World War II, with roots reaching back into the 17th century (Descartes). Kojève and Lacan are among those who are treated. Chapter 2, "French Critiques of Freud" (26- 86) offers insights into the work of Francois Roustang, Marie Balmary, and Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen. This, again, is a beautiful, well-balanced treatment, showing a deep knowledge of the authors involved. Balmary in particular might be a surprise, because she is the least known of the three and certainly not the least interesting of them.

Having provided this interesting and very relevant context, Webb describes in chapter 3 "René Girard and the Psychology of Mimetic Desire" (87-119). It is, to repeat, an achievement to offer insights into the complicated material with the help of stories and quotations from literature. Nevertheless, in some respects it is the least clear chapter of the book. Especially for those who don't know Girard's work, it is difficult to understand clearly what model-rival and model-obstacle relationships are, how they come into being, and what their consequences are. The same is the case with external and internal mediations. The former certainly is not always "cooperative or benign modeling" (119), although of course it is our only chance to find freedom (cf. 150). Nor does it become clear that all relationships in the context of the mimesis of desire are double binds and not only model-obstacle relationships (95, 189).

Chapter 4, "Jean-Michel Oughourlian and the Psychology of the Interdividual" (120-51), is a good treatment of the work of this longtime friend and collaborator of Girard. Chapter 5, "The Social and Political Dimension in the Girardian School" (152-75), describes the hypothesis concerning the origin of culture, showing that Girard builds on the work of predecessors. Chapter 6, "Psychology and Transcendence: Beyond the Interdividual" (174-207), first deals with "René Girard on True and False Transcendence," presenting Girard's insights on the gospel and his position concerning "Christianity." The other part of this chapter is on "Marie Balmary and the Knife of Differentiation." The last part is especially interesting for Girardians. Balmary remains Lacanian, but is in many respects near to Girard, although I think not as close as Webb occasionally tries to show.

All these chapters are very interesting and stimulating, both for "Girardians" and those who are not yet and never will be. They should be read very carefully, for they continually provoke to further thinking. It is a book to meditate on and not simply to read.

The last chapter, chapter 7, "From Psychology to Philosophy of Consciousness" (208-48), is the real pièce de résistance of the book. We could expect that of the author of Philosophers of Consciousness. It is certainly a necessary chapter and at the same time a very controversial one.

The first question is whether the mimetic model and its application, the hypothesis about the origin and character of human culture, is really psychology. I don't think so. It is (an) anthropology. We should not move, in my opinion, from anthropology to philosophy, as if philosophy were the next stage. That is admittedly the classic step. Nevertheless, from the Girardian viewpoint philosophy is a part of anthropology and not the other way round. Philosophy as a human undertaking is an expression of metaphysical desire, which, by the way, is stressed time and again by Webb. It is a pity that Eric Gans, who is very clear about this, is not even mentioned in the book. But of course he is American, though a bit French in the sense that his first works were all published in France.

Furthermore, I cannot believe that we will ever be able "to transcend mimetism" (220), as I cannot believe in value (226) or in the fundamental, and in this context useful, difference between appetitites and needs on the one hand and desires on the other. Our only chance is to come into mimesis with the only one who was outside of the mimesis of desire, with Jesus, in external mediation. In that way we find freedom and our real differences, as the quotation from Raymund Schwager (230-31) shows clearly. I would add that this freedom is not only about existing differences (231) but also about new ones, human possibilities which never get a chance in the culture of the mimesis of desire. And I agree that for this freedom we need "repentance" and "conversion" (243-44).

In our type of culture the great theme of life is metaphysical desire. Webb stresses the importance of this throughout the book, although less consistently in the last chapter. In our modern culture it could be that we get less and less freedom from metaphysical desire and because of that we strive all the more for this freedom. However, we cannot strive for it because liberation from metaphysical desire is given to us, in a relationship of freedom. In that very moment our consciousness changes and is enriched.

The content of this chapter is rich. The theme is set in a broad context, with pages on Newman and Heidegger and, again, Balmary. It is a wonderful introduction for the discussion in which this review participates. By the way, in this chapter Eugene Webb gives the impression somewhat of being romantic and that is lovely, even if I can't agree.

A beautiful book, carefully written, nicely made.

Roel Kaptein