Oedipus was innocent

Malcolm Bull

  • 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.

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