Psychoanalysis and Sacrifice Difference and Identity between Psychoanalysis and Mimetic Theory


Girard reviews where he most agrees or not with Freud, Lacan, and French thinking in general over the last 40 years, particularly that of Lévi-Strauss. Girard’s thought, born out of Comparative Literature, claims yet again its distance from contemporary philosophical trends which, from his point of view, prevent us from reading the violent background from which human culture has emerged. In this sense, Girard is the rigorous heir of the Freud of the Totem and Taboo.

Sergio Benvenuto – Your reflections started with your book Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque: the unmasking of the Romantic hero, the triangular desire. Can you tell us how your reflections began?

René Girard – That was a youthful reflection of mine, from the time when I taught French literature in the United States. My training was not in literature, and I was at a loss as to just what I would say to my students. Literary criticism currently attempts for the most part to put the accent on what separates; however , my scientific-based inclination was towards those aspects works have in common. I perceived that simple desire connecting an object to a subject does not exist in those works; there is always a third party. However, that third party is not necessarily a father or other member of the family, as Freud sustained, but a model of desire which one tends to imitate. It is often a social model–all society, public opinion–however, it can also be an individual one, one admired, the desire of which one imitates. Imitating the desire of someone else is to desire the same object as that person does and in a universe such as ours, a democratic universe, in which men are in such proximity, it is obvious that the same object will inevitably become the object of multiple desires, inevitably creating rivalry. Rivalry is a direct consequence of what I will call mimetic or imitative desire, or it can also be triangular desire–because the relationship between the subject and the object is dominated by this or a mediator model which tends to transform desire into rivalry. It was on this essential point that I wrote this book on five novelists.
First of all, there is Cervantes, who states openly: “I imitate the tales of chivalry and in particular the best knight-errant who was never defeated”. However he never encountered Amadigi de Gaule as a rival, mainly because Amadigi de Gaule never existed, and then, even if he had, he would be separated from Don Quixote. Another example of mimetic desire in Don Quixote is the desire of Sancho Panza. Sancho loves to eat and drink wine; however he would also like to become governor of an island handed over to him, obviously, by his master, Don Quixote. Sancho has therefore a quixotic desire, and consequently he imitates Don Quixote. However, he does not imitate Don Quixote with rivalry; he has too much respect for him; he could never be as audacious as to consider himself his rival.
Take the novels of the 19th century, Stendhal’s Julien Sorel, for example. Julien Sorel wants success at all cost, and he is the first great representation of the opportunist of the 19th century. He imitates Napoleon, but he is actually imitating his boss, Monsieur de Rénal; and so, as he cannot immediately become that which Monsieur de Rénal is, he courts his wife, with the desire of becoming the lover of Monsieur de Renal’s wife.
Then there is Dostoievsky, a specialist in this type of relationship. His short story, “The Eternal Husband,” tells of a man who has lost his wife, who had betrayed him constantly. He seeks out his wife’s lovers and attempts to interest the latest one in the young woman he is considering marrying to take his wife’s place. He has the impression that if his one-time rival fails to become interested in the woman he wants to marry, then she is not desirable. Is he mad then? Personally, I believe that in dealing with that type of illness–a combination of desire and rivalry–novelists of the Dostoevskian type achieve a depth, a knowledge which surpasses Freud’s. Within Don Quixote, there is another story entitled El curioso impertinente , “the impertinent curious man”, that is, one who should not be so curious. The story tells of a man who married his wife thanks to the intercession of his friend. Some time after the marriage, he approaches his friend, saying: “I would like you to court my wife, in order to test her faithfulness”. He suffers from the same illness as the eternal husband. And you can find the same story in Shakespeare as well, and in the works of many other writers.
Another example of mimetic desire, which doesn’t come from a novel or a play but from a poem, is the fifth canto of Dante’s Inferno. Maybe it’s the most famous episode in Dante: the Paolo and Francesca episode. It is Francesca herself who tells Dante the story of how they fell in love. They are in-laws: Francesca is married to the brother of Paolo, and at the beginning they live peacefully together. These in-laws are not in love at all, and they entertain each other by reading the novel of chivalry Lancelot du Lac. In Lancelot there is the queen, Guinevere, Genieve in French because it is a French novel, and she falls in love with the hero Lancelot, Lancillotto in Italian. She is moved to that by a traitor, Galot, galeotto in Italian. It is interesting because he is mentioned at one point. Anyway they are reading that novel and the episode about the queen and her lover, and at the moment when the knight Lancillotto kisses the queen, Paolo and Francesca turn toward each other and kiss. This is the beginning of their love; there is nothing else. One of the explanations of Dante: there is that line which is “Galeotto fu il libro e chi lo scrisse”, “A “Galot”, a traitor, was the book and the one who wrote it”. In other words, books are not innocent, books have authors, they try to seduce you and then, when you are seduced, you imitate them.
The mediator, what I call the Model of Paolo and Francesca and their love, is this scene in the novel, just as Don Quixote is imitating novels of chivalry. Don Quixote says “the best knight errant is Amadigi of Gaule [who never existed] and I imitate him because that’s what a knight errant should do.” So the amazing thing is that, especially in Romantic times, the Paolo and Francesca episode in the Divine Comedy was regarded as a model of Romantic love and therefore as a perfectly spontaneous love by people like George Sand, who went to Venice with Alfred De Musset and Chopin, some of her lovers. But these Romanticists were using them as models of themselves, because in order to be spontaneous they needed a model, which is the opposite of spontaneity. And additionally they never mentioned the fact that when Paolo and Francesca fall in love, rather than paying attention to each other, they are paying attention to a book–they will do the same thing as the two characters in the book.
So it’s interesting that in literary criticism Paolo and Francesca become archetypes of true love which is so strong, so pure and so authentic and therefore not imitatable, because that’s what authentic means: it’s so authentic that they even love each other down in Hell. But Romanticists would never see that it’s a story of the book as seducer, and not the other man or the woman as seducer. They never see the mimetic desire which is really the source of the strength of the desire revealed in the poem. If you look at the poem, indeed Paolo and Francesca, you have a feeling they are very much in love and that we have only one thing about their love: the book. Literally, Dante does not add anything extra, he does not describe that love: all he gives us is the book. So, if you start observing the paradox of what is going on there with Paolo and Francesca, it is read all over the world as purely authentic love, when there is actually nothing but the book. Ultimately, when you point this out and ask “look! what else is there?”, people resist, for they need to maintain this idea of authenticity. We are all so brainwashed by Romanticism that we don’t see the book.

Benvenuto – Don’t you think that what you are saying about Paolo and Francesca and mimetic desire fits certain psychoanalytic theories? It seems in tune with Lacan’s idea, when he says that desire for humans is just the desire of the Other.

Girard – Yes, no doubt. But at the same time Lacan will never point you to mimetic desire. In Lacan these formulas remain like a kind of secret. He never gives a real example of it. Why doesn’t he go to Dante? Then Lacan ultimately would tell you that this desire is imaginary or something like that. He would use that term because the imaginary is not the real.
Lacan has the distinction between the symbolic which is difference–we have to think of ourselves as different–and the imaginary, which is a mirror effect. So there you can get lost, trapped into identity. But for him this identity is not real; this identity remains imaginary. For me it’s the opposite. To me what Lacan calls the symbolic is really culture, in so far as we live through its differential categories. And what Lacan doesn’t see is what I call the sacrificial crisis. There is no history in Lacan: symbolicity is there, once and for all, it’s like a fact, and the imaginary is like another aspect of life, and you reconcile the two or you don’t reconcile the two, and then you have neurosis and so forth. But this is not true at all. What I call the sacrificial crisis in Lacanian terms is the dissolving of symbolicity into pure identity. Lacan is like a deconstructer: he doesn’t want any real identity, any reciprocity in human relations. He wants only difference. Anything which is reciprocal becomes only imaginary.
I don’t agree with him. I think the reality of human relations is always reciprocity. Whether or not we have good relations with each other, we exchange signs of friendship, courtesy, or gifts, things like that, and it will always be reciprocal. Even if we become enemies, things will still be reciprocal because we will then exchange signs of conflict, enmity or blows or atom bombs. The entire French theoretical school–Lévi-Strauss is really the originator of all that–wants to do away with identity: they cannot have a real. They don’t see anything real. There is something very profound in their refusal of real identity, because it’s what culture would like to refuse. Culture tries to deny to us the existence of the sacrificial crisis and the dissolving of symbolism.

I don’t understand precisely what you mean by identity in relation to reciprocity, because reciprocity implies identity. And in which sense is your approach better than French thought that denies identity?

The word “identity” is really the crux of the matter because it means both identical and its opposite. When you say, “He has a problem of identity”, you mean he doesn’t feel different enough from other people; he gets confused. His identity is not certain, but we really mean that he is different. So when I say that psychiatrists will never solve our problems of identity, I mean that they are wrong from the very beginning: they use a word that means both things at the same time, and they haven’t yet cleared up the problem of these two meanings. Why do they mean the same thing? Precisely because identity and the sense of difference always has that tendency to collapse into identity in the sense of complete reciprocity, which is symbolized.
Lévi-Strauss says that culture cannot say anything about identity, because there is no identity in culture. And I will reply “Yes!” There cannot be any single sign for identity where there is a mythical theme that expresses the conflicts between identicals as totally reciprocal: the theme of twins. Take, for example, Ethiocles and Polinysis. They fight all the time, they cannot be reconciled, and they finally become super-twins: Ethiocles and Polinysis kill each other at exactly the same time. In this way tragedy speaks against the theory of no identity in the French sense, against Lévi-Strauss, Lacan and Deconstruction. Tragedy brings in identity in the shape of the twins, because twins are the mythical symbol par excellence. I speak about this in my most recent book, Celui par qui le scandal arrive. When Lévi-Strauss sees twins in his myth, he differentiates them. He does not realize that the meaning is the lack of difference, and that’s where I differ from him.
I see culture as so afraid of identity that, indeed, it never talks about it at all. And our sign system cannot express identity, or else we have to use paintings like the twelve tins of Campbell’s soup by Wahrol that are really pretty identical, whether or not they like it.

Do you think that American Culture and maybe even American psychoanalysis is more interested in identity than are the French and Continental European cultures, in general?

The interest of French thinkers is how far they can manage to push the notion of difference and deny the notions of reciprocity and identity, which makes it possible for someone like me, reacting against them, to say “Hey, you forget about violence. You forget about real life. You are telling us there is no conflict”. Conflict and identity today are re-entering the picture massively, so that’s why we are at the end of that period. In a way it was a kind of attitude of luxury toward life: there is nothing but difference and therefore nothing is serious. There is no reckoning because we move from difference to difference and so on, and there is nothing but difference.

Coming back to Freud: Don’t you think that someone could say the Oedipus conflict in the Freudian sense, as a child’s psychological wish for the mother and wish to kill the father, could be interpreted, in your terms, as a mimetic triangle? That the son loves the mother incestually only because she is the love object of his father?

In my opinion, Freud tried initially to develop the Oedipus complex from the basis of desire that is mimetic, yet he is inclined toward the desirability of objects (his Besetzung or cathexis). Anyway, mimetic desire never assumes a dominant role in Freud’s analysis (1).
There is something really perverse about Freud in saying that the origin and main locus of mimetic rivalry is the relationship between father, mother and son. But if you start thinking about healthy fatherhood, things appear different. I realized that in rearing my own sons. When you have sons who are growing up, and if you have one who is really successful, you find that he cannot talk to his peers about his successes because his peers have the same goal as he. If he brags about his success to his friends, there will be trouble; he will lose his friends. But then he will go to his father, who belongs to another generation, and his father will be only proud of this son.
Freud has fatherhood all wrong. When you are growing up, you should have normal conflicts with your father. But to say that it’s a structure of fatherhood to be in conflict, that is a reverse of the truth. With my son, for example, I suddenly discovered that one’s children come to their father to brag because they know you are not their rival and that you are going to be happy, because we all are in the same camp, the same family.

Winnicott says that during adolescence both males and females unconsciously want to kill their parents because it’s the only way for them to grow up.

I don’t believe it. And today I have history on my side, because Fatherhood is becoming so weak that Jean-Michel Oughourlian (2), who is a psychiatrist and has an eye for that because he has a psychoanalytic practice, says that now all psychoanalysts talk in a language that Freud wouldn’t recognize. They are still saying that we have to inject more Oedipus into our patients, which really is amazing! They say: “You mean they don’t have any spine left? They are spineless?” If you ask “Why?”, they answer: “Because they don’t have any Oedipus. So we have to inject it into them.”

What about Freud’s theory of religious rituals and his idea that religion is essentially an obsessive ritual?

There is something true about the obsessional because ritual, in my view, is an effort to avoid violence. But the whole idea in Freud, that culture is neurotic and so on, is meaningless, because words like neurosis are essentially negative and are opposed to an idea of health; if it were true that rituals are neurotic, there would be no standard of health. Therefore the word is fairly meaningless. Rituals may be a little obsessive, but Freud doesn’t admit that there is something objectively justified in them, and almost everything in religion has some justification.

What is ritual for you?

After a scapegoat action, a community is free of violence. So, we can suppose that it enjoys that freedom for a while, but that it then quickly realizes that mimetic rivalry is going to come back. So, they seek to prevent it. They are all terrified by the idea of getting into a fight between all and all–and terrified of death, and the suffering that it entails and so on. So they immediately think about the past and remember “that mysterious creature that saved us, and that we maybe killed. What can we do to enjoy the benefits of that experience again?” And then the idea is to kill other victims.
The ritual must be the first human act, in other words, a planned, intentional act, intended to revive the peace of the community through the killing of a victim. You can imagine it at the most primitive level: some monkeys discovering that a certain form of murder of another monkey brings back the peace. So, they think, “do it again!” But the intention must already be there: planning and so forth, and the entire psychology of the planned act.
Anthropologists consider this to be a comedy of disorder. Instead of getting away from the disorder, of course they first try prohibitions, but when that doesn’t work they try ritual. So they enter into the disorder to end it as fast as possible. They try to jump start the whole crisis in order to shorten it, by going into it as if it were a theatrical play.
So that’s the reason why, in so many communities, the great rituals begin with ritualized fights and insults–but even ritualized they can be pretty realistic, for example what we discovered in Australia at the end of the 18th century–and after that they sacrifice a victim. That’s what ritual means to me. So how could it be? Ritual is the original human experience, a religious experience of killing that victim not for violence but to reestablish peace. Look at the great African rituals, the ones that Glaxman, an anthropologist, named “rituals of rebellion”. He called rebellion the disorder at the beginning. But the disorder is really just a sacrificial crisis, when everybody is against everybody else, some group against some group, and so on.
Freud doesn’t explain this phenomenon. Nor do the people who claim: “Well, people just like disorder, they like to have fun, and so they just want to do away with prohibitions”. This is really trying to put a modern mentality into it. But if primitive peoples go into the crisis, it’s because they trust that the crisis will resolve itself, and not just for the sake of having a crisis. It’s not because they enjoy disorder, but they go into it in order to restore the order as fast as possible. But they think that in order to trigger the scapegoat, they first need the disorder, because you can really unite against the scapegoat only if you are first in trouble, only if everything is disintegrating, so you really are worried about the community. And then you can transfer, because fundamentally the idea of scapegoating is an idea of transference. That transference onto the scapegoat is primarily collective.

Is there an essential difference between the sacrifice of the goat—an animal—and sacrifice of a human victim? What in fact shifts the sacrificed object toward the animal or toward the human being?

The original scapegoat must almost always be–and I cannot prove this–a human component of the community, someone who participates in the violence and disorder and, suddenly, finds everyone turned against him, which then resolves the problem of the disorder. What then, is the ritual sacrifice? In the human community there is mimetic desire, and therefore contagion, then there are always these crises and consequently the phenomenon of the scapegoat who resolves the crises. Thus, we might suppose that there was a crisis of the type I have described, resolved by a scapegoat, thus healing society. However, at a certain point, the phenomenon of mimetic rivalry appears. And then, the fear arises of falling back into that state of crisis which was the cause of so much damage; one will ask: “how can we avoid falling once more into that state of crisis?” And the obvious answer will be: “Repeat the resolution of that state of crisis; choose the sacrificial victims ourselves and relive the crisis. Disorder will purposely be created, ending by effecting the collective destruction of those victims, in the hope that this will produce the same results as before”. If you accept this definition of the sacrifice, you will see that it resolved all the problems, and it will help us understand why men are convinced that sacrifice brings about peace, because it recreates the same situation of crisis and the collective victim phenomenon which previously brought about peace. If you ask, instead, why sacrifice exists, the answer you will receive is: “God taught us to sacrifice by his own death or by killing a victim”.

Can we apply that also to the pagan sacrifice, which was conceived essentially as a gift to a god?

Certainly! The explanation of a gift to a god is an explanation which is at the same time foremost and secondary, because the main reason for which we sacrifice is that we wish to avoid the dissension and disorder menacing all communities. But as it is a rather complex problem, one accompanies it with a sacrifice. In archaic societies, the sacrifice is widespread. But why have the gods taught us to sacrifice? God loves sacrifice, since he accepted that one sacrificed to him to avoid being punished,; when we made the first sacrifice, he recompensed us and with reconciliation. Therefore, god loves sacrifice; it is not a question of our wanting to create victims, but the god’s, and consequently we give him victims. Thus, the gift is that which covers the truth of sacrifice.

Is it what Freud would call a projection?

One could use the term projection, however only just, although that description of the sacrifice is very natural, because one does not know how the community was reconciled at the outset. All that we know is that after having killed the first victim, one was reconciled with the god, as the god wished that one did just that–obviously so, since it was he who taught us to do so. When ethnologists pose the question as to why there is sacrifice, two answers are usually given: (1) “the god loves sacrifice, and perhaps eats the victims”, and (2) “the god, through the sacrifice, reconciles us”. Nevertheless, modern ethnologists have never taken into account these responses.

Then, there is a kind of essential affinity between the sacred, the religious and the sacrifice?

Of course! Sacrifice implies a sacred matter.

Then, how does your idea that the religious is at the heart of human culture derive from your idea of sacrifice?

How far back must we trace the sacrifice I describe? The mimetic thesis has the advantage that it can be traced as far back as the animal. To begin with, there are the problems of hominization, which are complex enough, as biologists do not yet understand how, for example, the female of the human species, homo sapiens, was able give birth to an infant which had to be protected for years, and which did not die; for, in order for that to occur, it was necessary that the males spared children of tender age so that they could be protected by their mothers, something which did not exist as regards animals–the predators, for example. Therefore, in the final stage of the development of human culture, what was necessary was a mix of culture and Darwinian evolution which up to a certain point was incomprehensible. However, as regards the ethnological descriptions of two animals which attack each other, Konrad Lorenz says that animals who do not know each other inevitably attack in their uncertainty; they offer combat to the adversary. If the adversary responds in a non-combative manner, then both turn on a third target which, in my opinion, is already the origin of the mechanism of the phenomenon of the scapegoat. Thus, one could deduce that the increasingly complex and increasingly violent forms of this mechanism, became defuse during the final stages of the evolution of primates to homo sapiens sapiens. Therefore, human culture has its origins in the religious; the rite is the invention of human culture. We kill this victim regularly to avoid imminent crisis.
For example, as male children in particular grow, they become dangerous for the community, as they have not been initiated into the system of the community. So, they are submitted to the ordeal of the crisis, the ritual test of the rites of initiation, and at the same time sacrifices are made, and the whole is called a rite of passage. Rites of passage are no more than the sacrificial technique applied to the young who, in the end, will not all die–generally none die; however, there are many rites of passage in which if adolescents do die, it is considered beneficial for the others. In other words, we have here a strong sacrificial characteristic; the more violence there is, the more it appears as protective against future violence. Similarly, funerals represent the treatment of the dead as sacrificial victims.

Do you think that in our modern, Western and Christian societies there still are rites of passage?

We have done our best to render education as dissimilar as possible to rites of passage and sacrifice; we have developed an exclusively positive notion of education which–and this is to the credit of our society–has eliminated sacrifice. However, despite all this, our very notions of education remain indebted to the concept of rites of passage; school examinations, for example, are comparable to ritual ordeals.

Generally you reject all theory of the unconscious, saying that you would prefer to talk about “méconnaissance”. It’s the same word that the French phenomenologists, especially Sartre, use. Do you prefer this word because you are closer to the phenomenological trend in French thought?

There are certainly aspects of phenomenology in my handling of these matters that are non-Freudian. I tend to prefer the phenomenological vocabularies. I’m not a positivist, in spite of what some deconstructers say. The way I reintroduce identity into the picture is very different from positivism, because identity for a positivist is very innocuous and good: it is the identity of concepts and objects. Instead I say it is the identity of conflict, and I’m not sure even I can see all the consequences of such a discourse, because ultimately this discourse is a choice between hatred and Christian love, and it’s difficult to implement in terms of a complete phenomenology. I agree with your observation, but I cannot add much more to it.
Phenomenology de-reifies certain positivistic concepts, like the concept of identity, and Lévi-Strauss was, in a way, the first to do that. The concept of difference is not originally his: he took it from Saussure’s Cours de linguistique générale. In a way Lévi-Strauss is the most original of these French thinkers, because he managed to use the word difference to describe so many things and to read so many texts, in particular the mythical text, by doing away with the kind of identity behind, which is indeed a little bit hidden because it is a source of conflict.

So, when he talks about me he says “Girard taught Totem and Taboo! Therefore he goes back to Totem and Taboo. He believes in a genesis of culture that you could generate. In this way he is a positivist like Freud. But he has no theory of system and of sign and significance, which would enable him to understand that you cannot use a genesis”.
Lévi-Strauss doesn’t understand what my notion of identity means. Lévi-Strauss thinks that I am a naive reader of Totem and Taboo because he hasn’t really read my work. But Lévi-Strauss’ influence, even on anthropologists who are not Lévi-Straussian, cannot be minimized. All of early 20th century anthropology was searching for the origin of religion, and Lévi-Strauss said “the problematic of origins makes no sense; you cannot find any origin because you only get into a vicious circle”. Then came Derrida who, with his logic of the supplement, made that notion of the vicious circle more precise. Ultimately it goes back to Heidegger’s idea of the hermeneutic circle. Therefore you cannot have any origin.
But you certainly cannot have any origin if you remain within the sacrificial system. You cannot have any origin of the Oedipus myth if you accept the guilt of Oedipus and all the other significances in the myth. That’s why my theory remains a hypothesis. If you say that Oedipus was innocent, then everything changes. You can have a genesis that is beyond the hermeneutic circle, which shows that one can put forth a hypothesis which will be so powerful that it will account for all the features of mythology, including such mysterious features as the limp of Oedipus, his royalty, and his foreignness, which one can find in so many myths, but which is precisely the objective randomness of the victim, because the myth will then give significance to any random phenomenon—the collective victimage–and will turn it into culture. My enterprise is to demonstrate the generation of meaning beyond the prohibitions required in structuralism, with which to a certain extent I agree–structuralists are right to criticize Totem and Taboo the way they do. Freud is very naive in thinking that you can have some kind of founding story just there.
The myth has pure randomness except for a few victimary signs—for example Oedipus’ limp–which you already have in animals when they hunt. Therefore you cannot say it’s only a human meaning. When lions and tigers choose their prey, they usually choose the handicapped prey: they are easier to catch. The animals that do that survive better, they eat more. From a Darwinian point of view, these animals will survive, and so more and more animals will do that. And it’s also right there in mythology. Because if you look at Greek or Indian gods, you will see that they are like the prey of animals: many of them are hunchbacked, handicapped people. Lévi-Strauss talks about that feature, but of course he will give some sort of mad reading of it through structuralism. He will not see that it is related to hunting.

You have an original idea of identity: as identity of violence. But apparently you also oppose Christian love as a new essential event, in the sense that Christian love is against identity.

No. I think that the mystery is that nothing is closer or more distant from the identity of hatred than the identity of love. That’s why the conversion phenomenon can take place so suddenly. Think about the words of Christ, for example, “I came to save the sinners and not the good people; because the good people are indifferent”. The sinners are hatred and in this way they are more ready to suddenly shift to the very opposite; they are more unstable. But the identity of hatred and love, the fact that there is no difference in either, is the real mystery. There is a possibility of suddenly seeing that the two worlds are at the same time totally unrelated, and at the same time as close as possible to each other.

Do you conceive the Christian event as marking a real historical change? How can you explain in anthropological terms this real shift in the history of human beings? You explain the origin of religion by an event–a sacrifice, a killing–but you don’t explain the counterpart of this, which is the Christian event.

I consider that behind any mythology there was a real crisis and a real drama. A fortiori I consider that the same is true of the Gospels. The Gospels at the beginning insist very much on the historicity of what they are reporting. In that reign, Pontius Pilate being procurator of Judea and so on… they are historical events, even if some of them are not quite historically accurate. There is an insistence on historical facts and indeed we know that this sacrificial crisis was true. And we also know it did go on to end with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish kingdom.
The community which was actually in a very serious crisis was the little Kingdom of Judea, which was a Roman protectorate at the time of Christ. And we really have some historical facts about that crisis: Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD and we have the word of John, saying “it is better that one man die”. Therefore the text tells us that the death of Christ was an effort to solve that crisis, according to Pilate–an effort that failed, because the death of Jesus didn’t reconcile the Jews with the Romans. And ultimately the Kingdom was ended. Today people say, “the Apocalyptic aspects of Christianity are not true, then the Christians were disappointed. The first Christians were a little bit like the madmen of today who say that behind the comet there is a spaceship which is waiting for them”. But it’s not true at all: their apocalyptic hopes were not disappointed. There are apocalyptic fears as well as apocalyptic hopes.
One apocalyptic event was the destruction of Jerusalem, which was like the destruction of the entire world. When Jerusalem fell, the Christians said, “That’s a part of the apocalyptic thing. But maybe we were wrong to see the two as being one single event. There will be what the Gospel of Luke calls the time of the pagans, which means the time of the Christians”. Actually that is why historians suppose that Luke was written after the fall of Jerusalem. But the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction later on of the Jewish Kingdom is very much part of the apocalyptic view of the Gospels, and this is how it was interpreted by the early Christians.
Therefore you have the whole scheme of the crisis. And there you have no salvation to escape God, because Jesus is a scapegoat that fails. All mythical scapegoats succeeded, in the sense that they were all viewed as guilt; everybody assembled because of them and then a new culture was created. But the essential thing about Christianity is that the scapegoat system failed. Therefore it’s an open world in which anything can happen, because it no longer has the sacrificial protections. So from here you can jump to contemporary terrorism, which shows the consequences of the lack of sacrificial protection.

Another quite important point in psychoanalysis is the theory of prohibition and the Superego as the agent of prohibition. What do you have to say about prohibition? In fact, you criticize any ideology attacking the idea that prohibition may be good, useful.

In my view prohibition is both good and useful. But very often prohibitions in primitive society are objectively wrong and absurd, because of mistakes in interpretation. For example a great number of archaic communities in Africa kill twins when they are born. They kill twins because they confuse the physical resemblance of twins with the reciprocity in conflict. Therefore, when twins are born, the community fears that they are like a germ, which would contaminate the entire community and would create a sacrificial crisis. Of course there are other archaic people who realize that the physical resemblance of twins has nothing to do with the cultural resemblances of violence.
But there are many cultures–and the Greek is one of them–which have tragic twins. The thing about twins that is superior to all Freudian symbolicity is that in the case of twins reality and symbolicity are as one. Twins are objectively rivals, because no one knows which one was born first. Sometimes they put a little red thread around their ankles when they were born, but then it disappeared—this happened in the case of Romulus and Remus. Livy says that the thread was lost. Therefore it’s impossible to make a distinction between the two. In this case, no one knows who is the heir of the father, if you believe in primo-genitur, the right of the eldest son. Therefore, reality and symbolicity merge completely in a powerful way, because only the mimetic theory sees that the main symbols are also reality. Take the symbol of the plague: a plague often is the real destruction of an entire community, but it’s also the symbol of that destruction.

In which sense do you say that some prohibitions are good? And in which sense do you say that the 10th Commandment is particularly important because it’s a prohibition of a desire?

The 10th Commandment says, “Do not desire what your brother desires”–your brother or your neighbor, depending on the translation. In English you say, “Do not covet…”—it’s a sneakiness in the translation. In Italian you don’t have that difference: you say “non desiderare”. In French there is convoiter, like English, so you have the feeling that maybe it’s not merely desire. But the Italian translation is more honest: that the standard desire is to desire what your brother desires; and if you desire what your brother desires, you cannot have any culture because you are soon going to have everybody fighting.
So the ’68 slogan, “It’s forbidden to forbid”, is nonsense. As soon as you get away from the bourgeois comedy of the Revolution, you realize that prohibitions do make sense: that they are indispensable to the life of the community and they are the first line of defense against the mimetic crisis. When things become violent, the mimetic crisis comes in, so you shift to sacrifice.

But Freud might object that the 10th Commandment is a failure, because you can’t completely forbid desire. What he calls the unconscious is just the “forbidden” desire. In conscious life you may not covet, but from an unconscious point of view you continue to desire your neighbors’ stuff. Freud could say, “I agree that prohibitions are essential, but at the same time there is an unconscious order in which for mimetic reasons you always desire what your neighbor has or desires”, because, as you have explained, the object of desire is always the other’s object. What’s your answer to such a Freudian objection?

These desires can be very concrete. When the Bible tells you first, “Don’t desire the wife of your neighbor”, that’s essential. Two thirds of world literature is about sexual rivalries. And then, do not desire the donkey of your brother: in other words do not desire the Mercedes Benz of your brother; and the Mercedes of your brother is much more important than anything Freud is talking about.

But a car may be a symbol for a woman.

It may be, but you desire the car far more often than you do the woman. It can be something else, for example your neighbor’s servants. It’s all the goods that are basically good and that therefore you desire, but you don’t need any unconscious there, and the Bible goes straight to the point. The Bible expresses in clear and rational terms what the prohibitions are.
They can add some rules which seem to us kind of mad, for example the rule about twins, but at the same time the important prohibitions—such as “do not covet your brother’s wife”–are always there.
There is never a “Do not covet your mother” rule. The best answer to the Oedipus complex comes from Joyce. About one third of the way through Ulysses there is a lecture of Stephen Daedalus, one of the heroes of the book, on Shakespeare. It’s the greatest thing on Shakespeare ever written, because it’s a mimetic interpretation of Shakespeare. In that interpretation there is an attack on a certain Viennese school that tells us that the 75-year-old mother of Hamlet is more desirable to him than Ophelia!
Suddenly the whole scholastic aspect of our world is shattered by Joyce’s humor. Now it is not enough to take on the Oedipus complex. I grant you that tensions between parents and children are very complex and that Freud did capture some of them. But he probably was at a moment in history when the role of fatherhood was questioned. It’s at the beginning of the 20th century, when we have for the first time a disappearance of the father; Freud came just before this disappearance, and in the history of culture it often happens that important things which are finally on their way out are clearly defined, and they seem to be there as powerful as ever. I see the aspects of culture that are now clearly defined as the aspects that are disappearing.

Is even the fading of fatherhood an effect of Christianity according to you?

Oh yes, because it’s a destruction of the family. It is amazing that Christianity doesn’t say to you, “be against your family”, yet it de-emphasizes the family. Christ says, “my real mother and brothers and sisters are those who follow the rules of the kingdom of God”. In Mark and Matthew, when people come and say, “your mother and your brothers are there, and are mad at you”, Christ says, “I don’t want to talk to them, because my real mother and brother are these people I’m talking to”. This de-emphasis is unique. It’s absurd to say that “the Gospels are against the family”. But Christ does say, “The family is not everything, the family should not get in the way of one’s spiritual life”. In the Gospel
there is also a man who because of his family doesn’t follow Jesus.
So the family should be put in its place: It’s a cultural institution among others.

Do you stress the point that for the Gospels the family is not so essential, because of the words of Christ “I am bringing you a sword to put the father against the son, etc.”? This famous sentence is very weird for a lot of Christians. What does it mean?

It doesn’t mean that Christ wants to do away with the family. He says, “I’m bringing you the peace that surpasses the peace of the world, that is incomprehensible in terms of the world”, and the peace of the world is always the peace of the scapegoats. And in a way there are scapegoat aspects within the unity of the family. When you meet with your closest family, you usually spend time making fun of people from the wider family ring, those who are relative outsiders, and who make perfect scapegoats. This scapegoating is not necessarily bad, but you unite around almost any mythical story, in which there is some kind of scapegoat, even if only a funny one, because a funny scapegoat is also an important one. In trickster myths there are funny scapegoats. And the family very often has its own mythology, usually constituted around some form of scapegoating, in order to save a weak unity of the family.

What is your interpretation of the fact that apparently through these words Christ is promising a kind of conflict? He says, “I am bringing a sword”… Is this in order to put the conflict into the family?

Since Christ is doing away with sacrificial protection, since all institutions, which includes the family, will weaken, they will weaken in a sacrificial crisis type of way. Jesus is announcing a situation in which there will be trouble in the family, as there will be trouble between nations, more trouble maybe than in ancient times, because sacrificial protections will be weakened or disappear completely.

Could you tell us something about your idea of scandal, skandalon, which means essentially obstacle? Maybe you don’t agree that this idea has some psychoanalytic implications, even if Lacan talks about obstacles…

The word skandalon is the Greek translation of a Hebrew term which, in Greek, comes from a verb which signifies to limp, skazo is to stumble over an obstacle. And the literal translation of skandalon is the obstacle. In the Hebrew bible, very often the word skandalon is translated with the Hebrew equivalent of “obstacle”. However, it is a very particular obstacle; and when one is considering an obstacle for the first time, it is normal that one circles around it. But skandalon is the obstacle which one cannot avoid; the more one collides with it, the more one has the desire to collide. It is a situation not unlike that of suffering from a toothache; one is always touching it with one’s tongue, in order to feel the pain more intensely.
The principle of the skandalon can really be defined as the principle of repetition in Freud, something which keeps repeating itself and which is usually a symptom. The obstacle up against which you run is also the object of your desire. Why? Because it is mimetic desire: you desire the object of your model or you are the model first. It doesn’t matter if you are the first model or the imitator. You are still in the imitation-imitated / passive-active with someone else who is both obstacle and model. So you keep running into them because you keep trying to get the object, even though they resist and may be stronger than you, in which case your desire increases. Therefore you will run up against them even more, entering into vicious circle of repetition of the symptom.

Let’s consider Christ’s famous words in the Gospels, when he talks about the scandal: “if your leg or your hand scandalize you, it is better to cut them off and…” What is the real meaning of this prescription? It’s always quite obscure.

In the mimetic theory it means that you are getting into a vicious circle, which is very easy to get into and very hard to get out of. Because as you get into it, this desire will increase because the obstacle always resists your desire; and if it resists successfully, you’ll desire more and more, and will run up against it more and more. Freud doesn’t talk about the fact that obtaining the object is the death of desire. If you can win over your model, if you get hold of the object, then the object won’t have any model. It won’t be transfigured by this transcendental light that comes from the model. That’s why we live in a world of total disenchantment. One thing Freud forgot was that one of the worst phenomena in our world is the death of desire. For Freud, desire was eternal, because you have only one mother and you always desire her.

But the desire can change its object, according to Freud.

It can only change its object. But the death of desire–one of the worst experiences of the modern world, that only a novelist can describe–plays no role in psychology or psychoanalysis. This is because you can have only one patient. So psychiatry, psychology, psychoanalysis and all these things always focus on the individual, and not on the relationship. If you focus on the relationship, like a novelist, you know that human affairs are such that desire is usually a one-way street. If it goes one way, it doesn’t go the other way, and vice versa. As you desire more and more, and more and more in vain, it is very important to hide your desire.
But why is it so important? Desire is humiliating because in desire you confess your own weakness: you need the outside world, and desire is always a desire for narcissism, in my view. Freud sees certain aspects of that. Therefore the other must prove himself more narcissistic than you, and the game of seduction means always trying to seem more indifferent than the other. Psychoanalysis doesn’t talk correctly about this indifference and so on. But every great classical playwright does: Goldoni does—for example in The Two Venetian Twins–in a way that is very close to Molière and Marivaux, because these are objective realities.
Molière also has a twin play, Amphitrion, and Shakespeare has The Comedy of Errors. It’s always a game of misunderstandings, where you expect something from the other which you do not get. These documents are tremendously important for our psychic life, because these twins talk about this reciprocity, and this reciprocity from the other is what we never expect.
In Shakespeare there are two pairs of twins. Aristocratic twins and slave twins, raised in different towns owing to a shipwreck at the beginning, who have lost each other. The play begins when the pair of twins looking for the other ones finally reaches the town of Ephesus, where the other twins are living, but they don’t discover this. It’s just a whole bunch of terrible misunderstandings because the foreign twins get mistaken for the local twins. The foreign twins think that they are victims of magic because Ephesus has a reputation of being a city of magicians, where bad things happen. It’s an early play of Shakespeare, but it has the structure of all his comedies: whether the heroes are twins or not, every one is always trying to be more narcissistic than the other and failing, and ultimately being fascinated by the twin who is not really different.

For both Lévi-Strauss and psychoanalysts, the taboo of incest is essential. For Lévi-Strauss it is the basis for all societies, even if the prohibited relative differs in every society, because it is the condition for the generalized exchange of women. What do you think about this?

In fact, in the Elementary Structures of Kinship, Lévi-Strauss talks about this at quite a length. This book about kinship was his first book, and made him famous, but it’s a very dry book. At the beginning he says precisely that he is going to interpret the incest taboo not as the incest taboo, but as the law of exchange. He says that people decide to exchange women just as they decide to exchange words or gifts.
There are some totemic societies in which they exchange corpses, and to me it is tremendously suggestive of what exchange is really all about. Someone dies in your community, but you don’t want to bury him since it might be dangerous because everybody is going to accuse everybody else of having killed the man. Anyway you always want a nearby tribe to bury your dead, and in exchange you bury theirs because that tribe is less likely to cause you trouble. You are like an undertaker doing business but not burying your own dead. With our dead we may fight about the past, we may accuse each other of having caused their death, and so on. It’s the same thing for women. The local women are the women you may fight over, because they are going to be the objects—in particular if they are sisters–of mimetic rivalry.
So, the law of exchange is the result of many sacrificial crises, many scapegoat systems, in which ultimately man does what no animal does. Instead of helping himself when he wants food, women, or territory, instead of going the easiest way which is the nearest at hand, which is what all animals do, man sets up rules for exchange. Of course animals have dominance systems, where one animal goes first and the other one will be served only if the dominant animal accepts. But men go into an entirely different system, into the system of exchange, and the main purpose of this system is to avoid internal trouble.
Ultimately, your interest is to get rid of your own women, who are intolerably conflictual, by giving them to a nearby tribe, which is also trying to get rid of its women. And you turn these women into gifts. The word for gift in many languages, in German for instance, means poison–all traditional gifts are poison. That means that we want to give to other people what causes so much trouble between us so that we get rid of it. But in exchange we get their women. We give one to this man, one to an other and so on, and hopefully we all will then get along together. But if we try to divide and share our own women, we may fight until the community is destroyed.
So, maybe over hundreds of thousands of years, men developed this system of going out, of moving abroad, which no animal does, and which is the opening to the world, in order to obtain from far away what animals get at nearby. Fundamental to man is that he explores the outside world and that he exchanges; this is the beginning of culture. But I think, contrary to Lévi-Strauss, that it stems from a fear of violence. In animal life, in order to get one particular race to reject even with horror the closest object at hand and shift to a more distant one, we may suppose that it took a great doing. That’s why all stories about exchange are also stories about conflict, within and without, because initially the people with whom you want to exchange resist. Or agree only with great difficulty, and very often with rituals connected to it, and a lot of fighting.

Is there any resemblance between Lévi-Strauss’s stress on primal exchange function and your idea of reciprocity?

No, because Lévi-Strauss will tell you that he basically sees the human race as a race of human structuralist scholars. He says: one fine day people wanted to classify, to make things orderly, so they started to exchange goods, and name them, make them separate. But it’s almost akin to a scholarly urge to classify things.

Lévi-Strauss’ theory escapes the real tragedy of violence.

It escapes tragedy completely, it’s even laughable. If it’s not entirely laughable, it is because there is something very positive about it: thinking in terms of difference–but without that identity, without that fear which I think is the motor of the whole thing. So I’m not anti-Lévi-Strauss, I’m against certain structuralist exclusions by Lévi-Strauss: exclusion ultimately of the violence that the scapegoat system channels into something positive–the fear of violence.
Culture originates in the mastering of violence through the scapegoat business; what structuralists say about culture does not satisfy me. I feel closer to the pre-Socratics, to Anaximander first. That famous saying of Anaximander, which Heidegger labels the most ancient saying in Western Culture, is “from the place where all things originate, there they will return. And this place from where all things originate from other things, we know that it’s the word apeiron”. In Greek apeiron can be translated as kaos, which can be translated as undifferentiation. “From the place where all things originate, they will all go back, punishing each other for their meanness and hostility according to the order of time”. This punishing each other for me is sacrificial crisis. Therefore it is a cyclic view of society which comes out of chaos. It doesn’t say why, but they will go back to chaos, as the peace that was there at the beginning turns into violence: reciprocal violence punishing each other according to the order of time. So you can see that with sayings like Heraclitus’s on violence, polemos: “conflict or fighting is the father and king of everything”. The origin of culture is that. If you take the sayings of Anaximander and Heraclitus, you have my whole system, which you can view as an interpretation of the pre-Socratics.
That’s why I’m very interested in Heidegger, who was going back to these things and interpreting them in a kind of Nazi way as a resurgence of violence. So it’s both very powerful and very disturbing, because in the Introduction to Metaphysics Heidegger is in favor of violence. The worst Heidegger is the most interesting, because he’s the one who says we have to move backwards toward the pre-Socratic philosophers, and I say we have to move even further backward, toward mythology and religion. So, even though my conclusions are totally different from the Heideggerian ones, there are aspects of 20th century intellectual life that are both very far and very close to me. It’s the case with Freud and with Heidegger.
It’s the same case with Nietzsche: Nietzsche is full of contradictions. He borrowed his notion of resentment from the French “ressentiment”. The re- shows the back-firing that is there in the skandalon: hitting the same obstacle that you’ve hit before and you want to hit again. Whereas a normal obstacle, you go around it and it’s all over. If you behave rationally toward any obstacle, you don’t go back to it. So the ideas of resentment and of a skandalon are related. The main psychological problem is the guy who becomes so fascinated by that obstacle that he cannot take the free road: he remains stuck there.
Look at Zarathustra’s model of life and at isolated sentences in Nietzsche, such as, “I’m not interested in weak opponents. I am chivalrous”. This is Nietzsche speaking, not only in the completely insane Ecce Homo but before: he says “…only the most powerful opponents interest me: they are the ones I want to defeat”. But if you read it that way, what does it mean? It means you are already in the skandalon… you are looking for a man who will be stronger than you. So my metaphor for Nietzsche is one that I borrowed from Don Quixote.
Don Quixote is on the road, and he sees a carriage which is a lion’s cage being taken to the king of Spain by a driver, and two lions are in the cage, because the king of Spain was already collecting wild animals. So Don Quixote stops everything and says: “I want to fight those lions! Open the cage!” The poor guy begs Don Quixote not to do that, but finally Don Quixote compels him to open it. But one of the lions doesn’t even wake up, the other takes one look at Don Quixote and goes back to sleep. So, the driver of the cart says to Don Quixote: “You must be a smart man. These lions refuse to fight with you. Therefore you are the winner. You can declare your victory.” Which is what that American senator wanted America to do years before they actually left Vietnam. He said, “Let’s declare a victory in Vietnam and leave”. That would have been an excellent solution. The world media would have said “No”, but who cares? No, people precisely care too much. So, Nietzsche is a man who not only wants the door of the cage to be open, he will even poke at the sleeping lions until they become furious and eat him. And Nietzsche was finally eaten, because when you say, “I want only the strongest opponents”, you will find out who is the strongest opponent when he beats you–and then you are caught in skandalon. So you can see the madness of Nietzsche right there.

Against all French modern interpretation—which tends to free completely Nietzsche’s thought from the suspicion of Nazism–you have mixed Nietzsche with Nazi-fascism. This is a scandal, for modern Nietzscheanism.

The pre-war interpretation of Nietzsche in Fascist Italy or Nazi Germany was more sound and made more sense than the left-wing French post-WWII interpretation of Nietzsche. That one is not really true because Nietzsche anyway was a dreamy, pathetic guy. He was not even a Hitler, from the standpoint of politics in the real world. He was a great intellectual in some ways, but one should write a satire of Nietzsche, and especially of his relationship with women. The source of Nietzsche’s tremendous irritation with Wagner was that, because Wagner in some ways was a normal man, he had a normal sex life with women, which Nietzsche never had. No one ever psychoanalyzes Nietzsche, because he is a great guru for modern thinking, no one criticizes him. If he had converted at the end of his life, there would have been thousands of psychoanalyses of Nietzsche, but he never did. And he is too useful to the modern mythical view to be psychoanalyzed. But Wagner said about Nietzsche that his real problem was masturbation..

Maybe Wagner was more Freudian than modern French philosophers…

Yes, because Wagner knew Nietzsche personally. When the Nietschians say that Wagner exploited Nietzsche, it’s a little bit true because Wagner wanted Nietzsche to celebrate Wagner, which he did to a certain extent in his work. Untimely Considerations was written under the sponsorship of Wagner, and Wagner expected it to be a praise of Wagner from beginning to end. The relationship between Wagner and Nietzsche is tremendously important, because Wagner was the skandalon of Nietzsche. And Nietzsche went mad at Bayreuth. Bayreuth was the triumph of Wagnerian narcissism. All Europe, including the Emperor of Germany, was there bowing in front of Wagner’s Ring. Then, Nietzsche was compelled to write the maddest of his books, Ecce Homo, and the last one which finished him, wherein he says, “I’m the greatest, I’m the smartest. It’s not Wagner, it’s me!” There is no more exemplary mimetic rivalry than that between Nietzsche and Wagner. But Wagner hardly paid any attention to him, because Wagner was the winner. Nietzsche was the defeated party, always.


Girard, R. with Oughourlian, J-M. and Lefort, G. (1978) Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987),

Oughourlian, J.-M. (1993) The Puppet of Desire: The Psychology of Hysteria, Possession, and Hypnosis, transl. by E. Webb (Stanford: Stanford University Press).


*Conversation held in Paris, November 2001,for Multi-Media Encyclopaedia for Philosophical Sciences (RAI Radiotelevisione Italiana).

(1) See on these aspects, Maurizio Meloni, “A triangle of thoughts: Girard, Freud, Lacan” in this same issue of JEP.
(2) Co-author with Girard of Things hidden since the foundation of the world (Girard 1987). He is also the author of Oughourlian (1993).

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European Journal of Psychoanalysis