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Colloquium On Violence & Religion



COV&R-Bulletin No. 11 (Oct. 1996)

From the Labyrinth to the Tragic Mask (by Giuseppe Fornari)

Presentation of the unpublished research paper "The Esoteric Knowledge of theGreeks", read at the Center for International Security and Arms Control, Stanford University (CA), July 21,1995.

1. Ancient Greece appealed to me an ideal area for testing out the mimetic theory and for studying it in depth. Greek civilization not only lies at the root of our own but, as a result of the decisive influence of Christianity, it is also remote from us. The very importance and ubiquity of Greek culture has made it a perfect mimetic object of desire in western civilization. At various times, Hellas has been regarded as possessing Pure Beauty, the Will to Power, and the mysterious, unattainable Truth of Being. Greece has really been mythologized at a secondary level by the several kinds of Hellenism in our culture. A close critique of this tendency, avoiding any concession to the currently fashionable cultural relativism, might well prove to be both extremely useful and, as it were, therapeutic. Besides, the Greeks have only themselves to blame in the first place for this mythologizing. Few people have been so gifted and so vain. Posterity has slavishly venerated mistaking the sublime image they left of themselves, taking it at face value, thus succumbing to a singular strategy of seduction that has gone on claiming victims and winning accomplices for almost 2500 years. Classical art, with the superhuman harmony of its idols and monsters, is this seduction in figurative guise: a deceptive, persecutory perfection of Beauty excluding the ugly and deformed, just as the polis expelled the pharmakós. Only by ridding ourselves of the Greek gods, ignoring Nietzsche and Heidegger's nostalgia, can we truly understand the greatness of Greek culture which, in the light of Girard's theory, still reserves some surprises for us. In order to give some indication as to the contents of my paper, I shall say something firstly about the ideas of the labyrinth and symbols, and then something about the mask and the connected concept of enigma. These are interchangeable concepts, all aspects of one reality: the sacrificial foundation.

2. The labyrinth and the sumbolon. My general thesis is that Greek culture demonstrates a growing awareness of the mimetic phenomena and sacrificial violence that human society is founded on. But this awareness is difficult to apprehend and to express openly and therefore remains the restricted domain of a few initiatory cults and wise men. Hence the term "esoteric knowledge" is intended to be a simple description and not some sort of mystical evocation. The first manifestation of this knowledge considered in my study is Orphism, in close connection with the Eleusinian mysteries. As I see it, this movement presents clear evidence of a cognitive reflection on the symbolism of the Cretan labyrinth, that is, the cave or sacred space, well-documented in myth and by archeological evidence, where initiatory and sacrificial rites took place. The labyrinth is a fundamental symbol for Greek civilization, the mirror held up to this hypermimetic society where it indirectly recognized itself, a place of paradoxes representing the mysterious, inevitable nature of the sacred. The true labyrinth is the victimary space where foundation occurs, the rotational topology of the community which, in the doubles crisis, seeks out and finally seizes its center, the founding scapegoat. In the labyrinth, total disorder becomes order, total darkness is made light and violent death becomes life. The center of the labyrinth is both bloody and brilliant, and the Minotaur is also Asterios, the Starry One. Through its intuition of mankind's birth from the center of the labyrinth, Orphism seeks liberation from violence and a definitive way out. In the main Orphic myth, mankind is born from the ashes of the Titans, who have been struck down by a thunderbolt from Zeus for having surrounded the child Dionysus and devoured him raw (the Minotaur is just one of Dionysus' innumerable manifestations). There is thus a Titanic part in man founded on violence and a Dionysian part, which is divine and needs to be freed from the tomb of body (soma as sema). The key to attaining this goal is a thorough examination of the concept of symbol (sumbolon), with its topological model, the labyrinth. The Greek word sumbolon means a token (usually the astragalos, a certain bone found in the goat's foot), which was split in two and thus provided a means of recognition for two strangers. More generally, the sumbola were the formulae and sacred objects used in the mystery rites. But sumbolon derives from sum-ballein, whose primary meaning according to the Liddell-Scott dictionary is throw together, dash together. The first sumbolon is clearly the victim himself, Dionysus surrounded and torn to pieces by the Titans in the omophagia,the devouring of the victim's raw flesh. Orphism attempts to make the very genesis of human symbolism its own, from within. The sumbolon is the victim (Dionysus) whom the worshiper becomes one with, while the sumbolaare the god's quartered parts as represented in the rite. They are the multiplicity which must result in final, once and-and-for-all unity. Salvation is attained when Dionysus rises again, his dismembered limbs reassemble in the ritual's final sumbolon and the worshiper is deified. To drink from the fountain of Mnemosyne, Memory, is to reach A-letheia (from lanthanein, to hide, conceal). This is the re-velation, the negation of concealment, of Titanic violence. Dis-membering is followed by re-membering, which brings salvation by freeing the initiate from his Titanic part. Undoubtedly there is profound awareness of Mankind's sacrificial origin here. Yet, the frame of the Orphic conception is still myth, while magic and sacrifice remain the means of salvation employed by Orphism. The sacrifice is repeated in a genetic reconstruction but it is not really exposed. Greek tragedy attempts to take this further step.

3. The enigma of the mask. In tragedy, the ritual becomes spectacle, with the parts of the sumbolon becoming theatrical parts, represented on stage by the supreme theatrical symbol, the mask. This derives from the ancient ritual sumbolon of the victim's head and skin, a frozen symbol of the doubles crisis and of the sacrifice that resolves it. It is, as it were, the only face of the labyrinth we are able to see: the visible representation of the invisible foundation. Like all masks, the Greek mask kills, but it speaks before killing, expressing itself by means of an ambiguous veil of words. The labyrinth epitomized by the mask, expands again into the labyrinthine sumbola of words. This verbal labyrinth is the enigma, the logical trap that both conceals and reveals. The enigma both says and does not say, thus reproducing the ambivalent foundation of the sacred. There is a circular movement in tragedy away fromand towards the mask, a continual oscillation between sacrificial refoundation (victim as structure) and exposure of the sacrificial violence (victim as theme or motif). This oscillation can be summed up in what I term the principle of tragic impersonality. The author's awareness prevents him from showing human things as they commonly appear; however, at the same time, he is incapable of solving the problems posed by their representation. Thus unable to identity with any character in the play, he is forced to hide behind the representation, in exactly the same way that the actor hides behind the mask. The act of writing becomes a metaphoric mask, an enigma that implies some risk to the writer himself. We should always remember that logical and moral aspects coincide within the framework of tragedy. In more recent times, many writers faced with the problem of representing violence, but without knowing how to remedy it, have resorted once again to the Greek mask of tragic impersonality. The role of hupokrites (from hupokrino, subject to inquiry), that is, of the actor who had to respond to the Chorus, is ever-present in art and life. There is no tragedy where all is clear. This structural ambiguity sealed the fate of Greek tragedy. For this reason, I concentrated on the Bacchae by Euripides, since it sums up and concludes the creative cycle of Greek tragedy. Here, the true nature of sacrificial violence is shown in a way unparalleled in the ancient world, so much so that the ancients regarded it as a sort of sacrificial "Bible", while its success was unchallenged before the Christian era. The traditional elements of the Dionysian cult, normally given a refined, reassuring interpretation by the humanists, both ancient and modern, are here properly reassigned to their wild origin: the Maenads' chastity represents mimetism that is foundational regarding sexuality; wine represents mimetic ecstasy and the blood deriving from it; and women represent men in disguise. The sacrifice is finally achieved through the Dionysian rite of omophagia, when Dionysus' rival, Pentheus, he Theban king, is torn to pieces. At such a juncture, the symbolic, representational framework of myth and tragedy breaks down. Pentheus' sumbola are finally reassembled, as in the Orphic ritual: the parts picked up by Cadmus on Mount Cithaeron and the mask-head held by Agave, Pentheus' mother, are joined together again. But this time there is no Dionysian resurrection: Pentheus' corpse remains only what it is. The Thebans are scattered and war prevails in Greece. The story ends with Agave's impotent, desperate cursing of the Bacchanale. It would be no exaggeration to state that this cognitive and moral paradox marks the end of the most creative period not only of tragedy but also of Greek civilization, overwhelmed by the Peloponnesian war, the mimetic suicide of Greek culture. Nevertheless, Greek philosophy makes one more attempt to find an answer. Pre-Socratic philosophy had tried to solve the enigma of the foundation with a logical, cosmological form of development but now, with Plato, the game of esoteric knowledge is brought to an end. He seeks to conceal the violent foundation so imprudently touched upon by esoteric wisdom and to repeat a definitive sacrificial foundation. He provides two models in the Republic and the Laws, the one more Utopian and the other openly persecutory. Plato's attempt fails but gives birth to Western philosophy. The victim, the secret center of the labyrinth and of esoteric knowledge, is now openly denied and tragedy itself is utterly condemned. An abstract, aseptic theory of ideas becomes the core of philosophies initiatory wisdom. Thousands of years later, the same mythical representation of Being returns in Heidegger, with even more sinister implications. A pure, speculative version of metaphysical desire takes the place of an intolerable truth. The A-letheiavanishes only to return unwittingly in the monstrous guise of totalitarian ideologies. The Gospel revelation, coming centuries after the Greek wise men, is alone capable of showing the way out of the labyrinth, of unmasking the hupokrites. Only the Gospels can show us, behind the tragic mask, the face of the victim, the face of Christ. And we must choose between the fascinating but paralyzing end of Greek knowledge and the Christian revelation of the victim. I think that the usefulness of my research may consist precisely in making this choice.