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.

In a mimetic crisis, order is restored by the sacrifice of the scapegoat and the acceptance of differentiation. In apocalyptic, order is usually restored through an act of differential judgment in which there are no intermediate categories or undifferentiated forms. The sheep are separated from the goats, and there is nothing in between. Even in seemingly undecidable cases, the logic of Judeo-Christian eschatology is as unyieldingly bivalent as that of Zoroastrianism, according to which the time of ‘mixture’ – during which the malevolent spirit, Angra Mainyu, corrupts the purity of creation – will be followed by a ‘making wonderful’ when all are resurrected to enter the burning river where the wicked perish and the righteous pass through to the time of ‘separation’.

The structure of apocalyptic thought appears, like Girard’s scapegoat mechanism, to be determined by the opposition between undifferentiation and difference, mixture and separation. Both apocalyptic and the scapegoat mechanism describe a process in which differential order succeeds undifferentiated chaos, but whereas the scapegoat mechanism is cyclical and conservative – the original binary oppositions can be repeatedly restored by the exclusion of the undifferentiated element – apocalyptic is dialectical and revolutionary. It is not the binary oppositions threatened by the period of undifferentiation that are re-established, but a new set. The scapegoat returns, and one of the existing opposites is eliminated; that which was excluded is re-included, and a new differential order is created by the opposition between the judge and the judged, the saviour and the saved.

The structural similarity between apocalyptic and scapegoating suggests that both may embody the same dynamic. But if so, are they mutually exclusive interpretations of social order, complementary ‘discourses of the limit’ – one of beginnings, the other of endings? Or are they alternative interpretations of the same events – one the perspective of the persecuted, the other of the persecutor? The obvious place to begin looking for an answer is the work of Norman Cohn. In The Pursuit of the Millennium, Cohn drew attention to the parallels between medieval millenarian movements and modern totalitarian ideologies. Both, he claims, took upon themselves the role of the eschatological saviour and the consequent obligation to redivide the world and eliminate the unwanted elements of the old order. In doing so they transformed the apocalyptic theology of the victim into the sacrificial ideology of the persecutor, killing innumerable innocent people simply because they were rich, or priests, or, most especially, because they were Jews. One person’s saviour is, it seems, another person’s murderer. But the complete equation may not be so simple. Most of the movements Cohn describes were themselves mercilessly suppressed and their leaders executed. One person’s saviour can also often be another’s sacrificial victim.

Cohn himself views the difference between the bloodthirsty millenarians he discussed in The Pursuit of the Millennium and the equally sanguinary persecutors of Europe’s Inner Demons (his recently reissued study of medieval witch-hunters) in terms of class. Both groups were motivated by ‘the urge to purify the world through the annihilation of some category of human beings imagined as agents of corruption and incarnations of evil’. But, Cohn suggests, millenarianism flourished ‘amongst the marginal elements in society – freelance intellectuals and semi-intellectuals, landless, rootless peasants, the poorest, most desperate elements in the urban population’, while the witch-hunters were ‘monks, bishops and popes, kings and great nobles, orthodox theologians, inquisitors and magistrates’. On this interpretation, the distinction between apocalyptic and scapegoating appears to be its socio-economic base, with both ideologies functioning as part of a system in which unsuccessful millenarians provide the scapegoats for the social order they seek to overturn.

In his latest book, Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come, Cohn investigates the origins of the apocalyptic mentality. He focuses on the common structure of Zoroastrian, Jewish and Christian eschatology, and the apparent absence of corresponding patterns of thought in the surrounding cultures of the Ancient Near East, with the aim of establishing that Zoroastrians were the first to create an eschatology, and that Judeo-Christian apocalyptic is dependent on it. He provides a concise survey of Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Vedic Indian beliefs about the relationship between cosmos and chaos (his terms for differential order and undifferentiation) which shows that none includes the notion of an end to history. He then summarises Zoroastrian beliefs, pointing out the similarities to the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Following recent scholarship, Cohn dates Zoroaster to a period between 1500 and 1200 BCE, rather than the sixth century. It is, therefore, easy to demonstrate that Zoroaster’s teachings predate the rise of Jewish apocalyptic; but it remains difficult to specify the precise points at which Zoroastrian influence was important. Although Cohn considers that ‘the similarities between Zoroastrianism and the notions that one finds in the Jewish apocalypses are too remarkable to be explained by coincidence,’ the parallels are mostly structural: an eschatological saviour (in Zoroastrianism, the Saoshyant, who is born after a bathing virgin conceives with the sperm of Zoroaster preserved in a lake), a general resurrection and judgment, and an eternal life beyond history. Despite two centuries of scholarly interest in the subject, and the prodigious labours of the Zoroastrian acholar Mary Boyce there is limited linguistic and historical evidence to support the idea that the Jews borrowed almost their entire eschatology from Iranian sources.

In a sense, the problem is the very extent of the structural similarities involved. If the parallels were less far-reaching, it would be possible to argue that little linguistic evidence of borrowing should have survived. But it is more difficult to accept the idea that the complete structure of eschatological thought could have transposed itself from a Zoroastrian to a Jewish context, while leaving behind virtually all its linguistic baggage. This is not to say that Zoroastrianism had no impact on Judeo-Christian apocalyptic – only that there is little evidence of intensive interaction between Jewish and Zoroastrian religious life.

How, then, are we to assess Cohn’s claim that the story of Zoroastrian-influenced apocalyptic continues in ‘innumerable millenarian movements, including those now flourishing so vigorously in the United States’? Although the Zoroastrian component in Judeo-Christian apocalyptic may be somewhat less significant than Cohn suggests, it is possible that Zoroastrian influence on Christianity came along more circuitous paths. Cohn’s account does not go beyond the New Testament, and Mary Boyce’s multi-volume History of Zoroastrianism has yet to reach the point where Zoroastrian/Manichaean relations are discussed, so the problematic question of the Zoroastrian impact on Christianity through the Manichaean tradition awaits further clarification. But to get some idea of how Zoroastrian influence may have been transmitted via this route, it is worth considering the case of David Koresh and the Branch Davidian Seventh-Day Adventists.

The siege at Waco had an uncannily Zoroastrian ending. Not only is fire, the eschatological cleanser, the sacred element of Zoroastrianism; and not only is Koresh, meaning Cyrus, the name of the Zoroastrian king of the Persians who found his way into Jewish prophecy as the man responsible for the reconstruction of the temple in Jerusalem; but the entire struggle between the Branch Davidians and the American state must have been viewed, on at least one side, as the final culmination of a cosmic battle between good and evil – a belief originally formed in the teachings of Zoroaster three thousand years ago.

Koresh, born Vernon Howell, was a former Seventh-Day Adventist who gained his interest in apocalyptic from attending an Adventist seminar on the book of Revelation. Almost all who died in the Waco siege were also former Seventh-Day Adventists, recruited by Koresh in the preceding five years; many were educated (one was a Harvard-trained lawyer) and several had studied for the Seventh-Day Adventist ministry. The Branch Davidians were not ignorant followers of a single demented leader, but the heirs of a well-defined theological tradition in which the apocalyptic texts of Christian scripture and the writings of the 19th-century Adventist prophet, Ellen White, were of central importance.

The connection between the Branch Davidians and the Seventh-Day Adventists has not been grasped by the media and has been downplayed by the Seventh-Day Adventist Church – a cautious, bureaucratic and wholly unthreatening Protestant sect of 19th-century American origin. However, the eschatological battle into which the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms unwittingly stumbled was very much an Adventist affair – a microapocalypse within the history of a small denomination and its tiny offshoots. The Davidians, the forerunners of the Branch Davidians, parted company with the main body of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in the Thirties, not least because they believed that its ministers would have to be slaughtered at the end of time. Even so, the Davidians and Branch Davidians accepted many of the Church’s teachings (including belief in the divine inspiration of Ellen White) and recruited almost exclusively from within its ranks. The rest of the world mattered little in comparison: insofar as Koresh saw himself as a classic saviour/executioner, it was as a saviour and executioner of Seventh-Day Adventists.

When the ATF and then the FBI surrounded the Waco compound, however, the apocalyptic struggle took on wider implications. According to Ellen White’s interpretation of Revelation, in the final phase of the cosmic battle between good and evil the two protagonists will be the United States government and those who, like Seventh-Day Adventists, worship on Saturday rather than Sunday. At the instigation of the Pope, the American government will execute those who fail to worship on Sundays and will relentlessly persecute those Seventh-Day Adventists who flee to remote rural areas to practise their faith. But before the Saturday-keepers can be annihilated, the Second Advent will take place, and the tyrannical American state and all its Sunday-keepers will be destroyed. This expectation is held by most Seventh-Day Adventists, and, with the variation that the Seventh-Day Adventist Church takes on the role of the papacy and joins the United States in persecuting them, by the Branch Davidians. The prospect cannot have been far from the minds of Koresh’s followers as the FBI attempted to intimidate them into submission. Even if the siege weakened faith in Koresh and his eccentric ideas (which it appears not to have done), it would simultaneously have reinforced Branch Davidian beliefs about being the victims of terrifying persecution. For former Seventh-Day Adventists, every day of the siege must have seemed like a fulfilment of prophecy, bringing closer the Second Advent and the overthrow of American power. To what extent the FBI negotiators were aware of this I do not know.

Although Seventh-Day Adventist eschatology has a certain superficial similarity to that of Zoroastrianism, the deeper connections are indirect, mediated in the first instance by Paradise Lost. To seek the origins of the Waco tragedy in differing readings of Milton may seem odd, but as Lydia Dittler Schulman’s recent study Paradise Lost and the Rise of the American Republic has shown, both sides in the War of Independence sought to demonise the other by appropriating Milton’s account of Satan’s rebellion. For the revolutionaries, Satan was the model of tyrannical monarchy; for the loyalists, his rebellion prefigured that of the American colonists. As Jonathan Odell described it in his satire, The American Times:

What Michael to the first arch-rebel said,
Would well rebuke the rebel army’s head;
What Satan to th’ angelic Prince replied,
Such are the words of Continental pride.

Ellen White used Paradise Lost as the basis for her own account of Satan’s rebellion, but added details that politicised the act of rebellion in terms reminiscent of the American Revolution. In White’s account, Satan seeks ‘to reform the government of God’; protesting that God takes action without consultation and invades the rights of angels, he demands that the angels ‘assert their liberty and gain by force the position and authority which was not willingly accorded them’. By infusing Satan’s rebellion with the spirit of the colonial revolt against Britain, White prepared the way for her portrayal of the American state as a satanic power which would one day hunt down the few remaining followers of Christ. In the propaganda war at Waco, the two sides were not only rehearsing alternative interpretations of Milton, they were arguing about the legitimacy of the American state.

The almost dualist edge in these post-colonial readings of Milton has sometimes been detected in the poet himself. The origins of this barely suppressed dualist heresy are easy to trace: Milton’s theological interpretation of Satan’s rebellion is indebted to Augustine’s tortuous efforts to distance himself from his earlier, Manichaean belief that the devil was a sinner from the beginning. And the Manichaean doctrine of independent, coeval principles of light and darkness is, in turn, a product of the faith’s Iranian origins, a reflection of Zoroaster’s belief that there were ‘two primal spirits, twins, renowned to be in conflict ... the good and the bad’. Augustine’s struggle with dualism was ultimately a battle with the Zoroastrian tradition.

Augustine’s rejection of both dualism and apocalyptic is closely connected to his interpretation of the founding murder of human history. Like Girard, Augustine is conscious of the parallel between the murders of Abel and Remus, and in the City of God he suggests that Cain, the founder of the earthly city, was the prototype of Romulus, the founder of Rome. But, he argues, the two murders were not of the same kind: whereas that of Remus was the result of mimetic rivalry, the struggle between Cain and Abel exemplified the conflict between good and evil; it was differential rather than mimetic. No scapegoat is hidden at the foundation of Augustine’s world. Abel was instantly resurrected in his brother Seth, and two distinct societies were formed, one by Seth, the other by Cain: the city of God and the city of man, Jerusalem and Babylon. Their citizens may change allegiances and intermingle, but they are never undifferentiated. Babylon is the home of a confusion that need not be resolved, for the citizens of the heavenly city are members of a separate community.

Augustine’s vision of the two cities left little scope for apocalyptic. Nothing is hidden; humankind is already divided; no revolution is required. Evil is not (as the Manichees taught) an independent entity which has become mixed with the good and needs separation; it is only a lack, a vacuum for goodness to fill. The devil has been bound from the time of Christ, and the millennium of Christ’s reign with the saints is a present reality. The Last Judgment, when it comes, will not establish a new differential order; it will tidy up the loose ends, and vindicate God’s earlier judgments.

The transformation of the apocalyptic dualism of Mani and Zoroaster into the theory of the two cities had the paradoxical effect of embedding dualism and millenarianism in the Christian tradition as the archetypal forms of dissent. After Augustine’s eschatology became the orthodoxy, anyone who sought to protest against it was forced to deny that the millennium had begun and/or turn the tables by saying that what purported to be the kingdom of the saints was actually the kingdom of Satan. A whole succession of medieval heretics thus appeared in the ultimately Zoroastrian guise of millenarianism and/or dualism, not so much because the heresies had roots in Zoroastrianism as because they were stamped in the press of an orthodoxy that bore the reversed imprint of the Manichees.

It is in this context that the narrowing sequence of millenarian conflicts leading to Waco is best understood. Whether it was the English Protestants against European Catholics, the American colonists against the British, the Seventh-Day Adventists against America, or the Branch Davidians against the Seventh-Day Adventists, the envisioned struggle always had the same pattern. In these eschatologies, the millennium has not begun but is near at hand; one side receives the divine favour withdrawn from its Satanic opponent; the forces of good and evil seem unevenly matched, but God intervenes to vindicate the righteous. This is perhaps the characteristic pattern of post-Augustinian social protest, for when a society lays claim to the millennium by suggesting that the kingdom of God is being realised within it, opposition is liable to be apocalyptic and sometimes dualistic. It can hardly be a coincidence that millenarianism still flourishes in the United States, the only modern state to claim such divine approval.

If one argues that the legacy of Zoroaster has been perpetuated because of its alterity, it also becomes easier to explain why millenarians have so often been the victims of persecution in Western society. They provide useful scapegoats not just because they sometimes constitute a threat to the existing social order, but because they espouse the very ideas that Augustine sacrificed to legitimate a Christian society. Even if it is harmless, millenarianism represents the return of repressed elements within dominant Christian thought, and as such it is frequently the object of paranoid fantasies about the crimes of its adherents. As Cohn notes in Europe’s Inner Demons, Augustine himself set the tone with accounts of orgies amongst the Manichees and child sacrifice by the millenarian Montanists. In this respect at least, little has changed over the centuries: incest, child-sacrifice and (in more recent years) child sexual abuse (a crime that neatly combines the other two) remain the standard accusations. The assault on the Branch Davidians was prompted, or justified, by the as yet unsubstantiated claim that children were being abused inside the compound.

In a society awash with accusations about child abuse, Satanism and the truly medieval compound of Satanic Ritual Abuse – which apparently leads to Multiple Personality disorder, a kind of medicalised demon-possession – it is hard to disentangle the accusations against Koresh from the general atmosphere of paranoia. However, most of the elements in the accusations against Koresh have precedents within the history of his own religious tradition: the Millerite forerunners of the Adventists were accused of leaving children to die as they waited for the Second Coming in 1844; Sybil, the pseudonymous client who provided her therapist with the first links between child abuse and multiple personalities, was identifiable as a Seventh-Day Adventist; more recently, Lindy Chamberlain, the wife of a Seventh-Day Adventist minister, was accused of having sacrificed her child at Ayers Rock. Koresh was a self-confessed sinner with an interest in firearms and a taste for younger women, but in these respects he can hardly be said to differ from many other American males. The evidence that he was a psychopath and a paedophile, as opposed to an unpleasant religious fanatic, has yet to be produced.

Koresh, the would-be Lamb of God, was certainly not the unblemished victim of traditional sacrificial rituals. But Girardian scapegoats can be rough, dirty beasts. And with a New World Order, and a New Covenant for the American nation, everyone has to make sacrifices.