Oedipus was innocent
- Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith by Norman Cohn
Yale, 271 pp, £20.00, October 1993, ISBN 0 300 05598 6
During the high tide of theory in the early Eighties, René Girard was the critic who received most honour in his own country and least in the Anglo-Saxon world. As early as 1981, the year before the publication of Le Bouc émissaire (The Scapegoat), his most accessible book, Girard, a professor at Stanford, was at number 14 in the magazine Lire’s hitparade of French intellectuals, while Derrida and Baudrillard were not even in the top 40.
A decade later, Girard’s theory is still relatively little known outside France and California. But the theory is not difficult to summarise, for his several books – notably Violence and the Sacred, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World and The Scapegoat – develop only a single argument. Social order, he suggests, is founded on difference, but difference is then replaced by the rivalry that is initiated when people imitate one another’s desires. Individuals begin to see one another solely as obstacles to desire, and resort to a mimetic violence in which all differences disappear. The mimetic crisis is resolved by the selection of a scapegoat who is put to death as the embodiment of undifferentiation and the obstacle to all desires. The collective murderers are then reconciled to differentiation, order is restored, and the scapegoat is remembered not as an innocent victim, but as the (sometimes sacred) being who caused the crisis and had to be killed in order to end it.
Girard starts with works that are now routinely read as texts of persecution – such as Guillaume de Machaut’s Le Jugement du Roy de Navarre, which describes the massacre of the Jews whose crimes are responsible for the plague in the town where the poet lives – and invites readers to apply the same demythologising techniques to texts in which (unlike the literature of medieval anti-semitism) the guilt of the victims is still assumed. The Oedipus myth is one example. There is a plague: Oedipus is held to be responsible on account of the difference-dissolving crimes of incest and parricide, and is banished so that order can be restored. Rather than pure fiction, or the realisation of guilty infantile desires, the story of Oedipus is, Girard claims, another text of persecution, the mythologised version of the historical scapegoating of an innocent cripple. There is no Oedipus complex: Oedipus was innocent.
The juxtaposition of the Oedipus myth with an anti-semitic text may seem far-fetched, but it is given some justification by the conflation of Oedipus and Judas Iscariot in medieval Christianity. In the life of St Matthew in the Golden Legend, Judas’s parents are warned of their son’s future role, and set the infant adrift in a small chest; he lands on the island of Iscariot and is adopted by the Queen, but is forced to flee after murdering his new brother; on his return to Jerusalem, Judas inadvertently kills his father and marries his mother, and then repentantly joins the followers of Jesus – which is when the trouble really starts. Girard seems never to have discussed the story, but it provides striking support of his thesis, for within the figure of Judas, the emblematic focus of anti-semitic persecution, are contained two Girardian scapegoats – Oedipus himself, and Moses, the adoptive murderer.
Although Girard believes that all myths can be demythologised in this way, few texts fit the theory very neatly, and it is far from clear that his hypothesis is widely applicable. It should, however, be of some relevance to those who, like Norman Cohn, are concerned with the dynamics of persecution. Cohn’s classic, The Pursuit of the Millennium, posited a connection between millenarian thought and the persecuting impulse, and one of the ways in which Girard’s scapegoat theory seems most likely to be useful is in the interpretation of apocalyptic texts, which purport to reveal what is hidden, not at the foundation of the world, but at its end.
Despite the messianic tone of his own writing, Girard has little say about apocalyptic literature. However, there are obvious parallels between what he terms a mimetic crisis and what apocalyptic texts depict as an eschatological crisis. Not only do some of Girard’s cited descriptions of mimetic crisis employ the imagery of Christian apocalyptic, but even where the accounts are independent (as when he draws examples from Classical mythology) there are the same inexplicable portents and plagues, and the constant mimetic violence of twinned antagonists – nation against nation, kingdom against kingdom, Gog against Magog, Romulus against Remus, Eteocles against Polynices. As the apocalyptic Ethiopian Enoch describes it: ‘In those days ... brothers will fall together in death until their blood flows as if it were a stream.’
According to Girard, a mimetic crisis is resolved by the scapegoat mechanism. Thus, in Euripides’ Phoenician Women, Oedipus is forced to leave Thebes; and in Livy, Remus is struck down in turba (which Girard interprets as a collective murder) and Romulus disappears in a cloud (or gets ripped to pieces by the senators – another collective murder) before being proclaimed a god. But in apocalyptic, men appear rather than disappear in the clouds, and the resolution of the crisis seems to have an inverted form: not the violent exclusion of an individual by the collectivity, but the violent inclusion (or re-inclusion) of a concealed or celestial individual whose authority is imposed on the world. This eschatological figure is frequently one who, in Girard’s theory, would be counted as a scapegoat. In the apocryphal Testament of Abraham, for example, the first judgment is performed by Abel, whose murder preceded the founding of the first city; and in the Similitudes of Enoch, the ‘Son of Man’ who judges the world has been ‘hidden from the beginning’, and is identified with Enoch, the patriarch whose mysterious disappearance from earth (for Girard, a telltale sign of a scapegoat) is recorded in Genesis. The structure is most obvious in the book of Revelation, in which it is ‘the Lamb that was slain’ who opens the seven seals and receives the kingdom of God. Girard might not concede the point, but ‘the wrath of the Lamb’ sounds very much like the vengeance of a sacrificial victim, the return of a scapegoat.
Vol. 16 No. 6 · 24 March 1994
From Michael Haslam
In his illuminating review of Norman Cohn (LRB, 10 March) Malcolm Bull seems to make unnecessary difficulties for himself by persistently identifying the Scapegoat with he Sacrifice. Unless things have changed since I went to Sunday school, the whole point about the Scapegoat is that it isn’t sacrificed, and it isn’t killed: it is expelled.
‘The Sacrificed’ has its twin and opposite in ‘The Expelled’. Two goats are brought before the Lord. By lot, one, the sacrifice, is given to the Lord, and killed; the other is sent away, ‘for Azazel’, into the desert: ‘the scapegoat’. (The Lancashire joke about this used to be that it were better to be the scapegoat than to be found acceptable to the Lord, since he desert to a goat is like a briar-patch to Brer Rabbit.) I’d have thought this observation ought to strengthen Malcolm Bull’s observations about such founding twins as Cain and Abel, and Romulus and Remus. What has confused the issue, I think, has been the glib identification of Jesus with the scapegoat. Jesus may have been the acceptable sin-offering, but then he ought to have had a twin, who was simply ‘sent away’.
The charming paradox about the tale is that he mentally recycled sacrifice is actually lost, while the scapegoat, mentally cast out to endless loss, is actually left alive and might turn up any day, like the proverbial Clegg Hall Boggart, or bad penny. Politically, too, there has always been a difference between the figure killed and the figure expelled. For one thing, it’s generally been easier for the figure expelled, one way or another, to return.
Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire
Vol. 16 No. 7 · 7 April 1994
From Norman Cohn
Malcolm Bull has written a most interesting article around my book Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come (LRB, 10 March). His comments on this, and indeed on my historical writings as a whole, are thoughtful and much to the point. And his interpretation of the catastrophe at Waco is the most illuminating of any that have come my way. However, I am certain that he is mistaken on one important matter: when and how Christianity came under Zoroastrian influence.
Bull suggests that Zoroastrian influence may have reached Christianity via Manicheism. Chronology is against him. The Gnostic religion known as Manicheism was founded in the third century AD – and everything that Jewish and Christian apocalyptic has in common with Zoroastrianism can be traced back many centuries before that. The vision of a world created by a good god, and itself essentially good, but invaded and harassed by an immense, supernatural power of evil; the sense of incessant struggle between the forces allied with the good god and the forces allied with the evil power; the conviction that the good god will achieve a final and total victory, which will purify the world for ever and ever – all this is to he found already in the Book of Daniel, which was composed between 169 and 165 BC. Even more explicitly, it is to be found in the Book of Revelation, which dates from the end of the first century AD. Augustine was able to draw on the great vision, in Revelation 18, of the fall of that embodiment of evil, ‘Babylon the great’; and so, alas (as Bull indicates), was Koresh of Waco.
There is more specific evidence that apocalyptic Jewish sects did indeed owe much to Zoroastrianism. The precise correspondence of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel 2.40 sq. with the Zoroastrian apocalypse known as vahman Yasht would surely be proof enough by itself; and so would certain passages in the Community Rule from Qumran. As for the absence of Iranian loan-words in Hebrew – I can only say that it impresses me much less than it seems to impress Bull. In cases of culture contact it is quite normal to adapt words in one’s own language to express new concepts. Why, after all, should Jews call the evil power by the Zoroastrian name Ahriman when they could so easily adapt the good old Hebrew words Satan (‘adversary’ or ‘accuser’) or mastema (‘hostility’), or else diabolos (the Greek equivalent of satan, and the origin of our ‘devil’)? Which is what they did.
What matters, surely, is the fact that the dualism and the eschatology that one finds in Jewish and Christian apocalypses are quite alien to the ancient Israelite religion as one meets it in the Old Testament – whereas they are central to Zoroastrianism. It remains to explore the channels through which Zoroastrian influence penetrated into Judaism – or rather, into certain branches of Judaism. That is now being done. In the Hellenistic period Zoroastrian, Jewish and Christian intellectuals will have had no difficulty in communicating, since they had a common language, Greek. The circumstances which brought them together have been investigated, not only by the Iranian Mary Boyce but, more recently and over a wider area, by the Professor of Religious Studies in the School of Oriental and African Studies, John Hinnells.
It is becoming ever more apparent how lively, widespread and long-lasting Zoroastrian-Jewish contacts were. And for my part, I become ever more convinced that (if I may quote myself) ‘amongst the fringe groups in Judaism the Jesus sect was the one that was most exposed to Zoroastrian influence.’
Wood End, Hertfordshire
Vol. 16 No. 8 · 28 April 1994
From Malcolm Bull
Michael Haslam (Letters, 24 March) is quite right to point out that in my piece on Norman Cohn (LRB, 10 March) I made no distinction between scapegoats and sacrificial victims. In Girard’s theory of victimisation there is no distinction: the paradigmatic victim is the Greek pharmakos, who (according to some sources) was both expelled and killed, rather than the scapegoat of Leviticus. However, given his interest in doubles, it does seem odd that Girard has not made more of the Israelite ritual.
In a generous letter (Letters, 7 April), Norman Cohn suggests that I anachronistically proposed a Manichaean origin for the Zoroastrian elements in Christian apocalyptic. This was not my intention. Although I argued that direct Zoroastrian influence on Judeo-Christian apocalyptic may be ‘less significant than Cohn suggests’, I did not deny that there was some evidence for this hypothesis. But considering the extent of the parallels there are surprisingly few such connections between Zoroastrian and Jewish (let alone Christian) writings. I thus suggested that if one wants to attribute the enduring significance of eschatological dualism in Christian history to Zoroastrianism, it may be more fruitful to consider the point at which apocalyptic was repudiated than the point at which it originated. I mentioned the Manichees in order to indicate the ultimately Zoroastrian contribution to Augustine’s reactive construction of millenarianism as heterodoxy, and not, as Cohn implies, in a misguided attempt to give an alternative account of the origin of Christian apocalyptic.
Wolfson College, Oxford
From Brian Southam
Malcolm Bull remarks that the work of René Girard ‘is still relatively little known outside France and California’. There is no reason why this state of ignorance should prevail. Athlone has published six of his works, including Deceit, Desire and the Novel, Job the Victim of his People, The Scapegoat, Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World, To Double Business Bound and Violence and the Sacred.
Athlone, 1 Park Drive, London NW11 7SG
Vol. 16 No. 9 · 12 May 1994
From Hyam Maccoby
Michael Haslam says correctly that a scapegoat is expelled, not sacrificed (Letters, 24 March). He also points out that frequently in myth there is both a victim and a scapegoat, and that the two figures may be closely related as brothers or even twins. Examples are Cain and Abel, Romulus and Remus, Set and Osiris, Mot and Baal, Loki and Balder.
Mr Haslam fails to notice that the scapegoat is sent away because he is the executioner of the victim. In my book The Sacred Executioner (1982), which explores many examples of the victim-scapegoat pair, I suggest that the biblical pair – the goat which is sacrificed and the scapegoat which is ‘sent to Azazel’ – symbolise an earlier rite in which a human victim was sacrificed by a dark figure who was sent into the desert. The ‘sacred executioner’ is banished rather than killed, because he has served the tribe by accepting responsibility for the salvific deed of blood.
Mr Haslam wonders why Jesus did not have a scapegoat twin. The answer is that he did – Judas Iscariot. In Judas Iscariot and the Myth of Jewish Evil (1992), I explored a complex of evidence pointing to an original identification of Judas as Jesus’s brother. Jesus, as a salvific human sacrifice, had to have a betrayer or executioner who would absorb the guilt of the sacrifice. The mythologising of the individual Judas symbolised the election of the Jews collectively to the deicide role.
Malcolm Bull (LRB, 10 March), on the other hand, does notice that the Jesus/Judas pair belongs to the same category as the Cain/Abel and Romulus/Remus pairs, though he wrongly includes Gog and Magog (who are always allies, not opponents, except in the earliest reference in Ezekiel 38.2, where Gog is a king and Magog his land). Mr Bull, however, sees these pairs as dualistic ‘binary opposite’ of good and evil, and fails to realise that the ‘evil’ member of the pair performs an indispensable role in the drama of sacrifice.
Leo Baeck College, London N3