Byron’s Shakespearean Identifications

I’m working on a chapter that examines Byron’s use of Shakespeare in his correspondence. The following attempts a Girardian reading of his relationship to his wife in the last years of his marriage based on his references to Shakespearean intuitions of mimetic desire:

Evidence of Byron’s identification with Shakespeare’s tragic figures, who are stripped of their sense of contained selfhood by the movement of mimetic desire, appears in Byron’s acknowledgement of the mediated nature of his desire for Annabella Milbanke soon after their engagement. In the days after her acceptance of his proposal, Byron wrote to her comparing his affection to that of Othello and confessing his tendency to jealousy: “I had struggled on in the full conviction that your heart was another’s … the … mention of your name by any third person–all and every thing which recalled you to my memory… conspired to tell me in the sensations they produced that I still coveted ‘a pearl–worth all my tribe’” (4.181). Byron’s mimetic propensity is illustrated in the mediated nature of his recollected desire for Milbanke, which appears in his pained, envious belief that she had accepted another proposal. Byron highlights the violent nature of his imitated desire by referring to the self-composed legacy that Othello relates to Lodovico over Desdemona’s strangled, lifeless body immediately before his suicide:

Then must you speak

Of one that loved not wisely but too well,

Of one not easily jealous but, being wrought,

Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand,

Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away

Richer than all his tribe…. (5.2.352-57)

Attempting to protect himself from the accusation of an irrationally jealous nature, Othello–now recognizing that Iago had mediated his jealousy vis-a-vis Desdemona and Cassio–hazards an explanation of his behaviour as owing to his “being wrought / [and] [p]erplexed in the extreme.” The word “wrought” has a double valence denoting both violently stimulated and artificially constructed; both meanings correspond to the characterization of the suggestion of jealousy communicated to Othello via Iago. Byron, by laying such emphasis on the mimetic social context of his interest in Milbanke before appropriating the remorsefully jealous voice of Othello, illuminates his nascent sense of subjection to the imitative forces of suggestion that have brought about their marriage.

Byron’s dark use of Shakespeare betrays his unarticulated sensitivity to the movement of mimetic desire that incites his envy. His humiliation at Milbanke’s rebuff of his first proposal continued to fester throughout their marriage. Marchand relates that Byron’s “resentments of her prudish and didactic attitudes before their marriage surged up to choke him with rage” (2.515). Some nights he would bring out letters that she had written him prior to and during their engagement, reading passages that he found particularly troubling, while reproaching her for rejecting his first proposal: “[H]is anger was so great [at these times] that she feared he might strike her” (2.515). Byron’s unbalanced behaviour betrays the effects of mimetic desire on the subject’s emotional state. In his reading of historical diagnoses of hysteria as phenomena that are in fact manifestations of the dialectics operative in mimetic desire, Jean-Michel Oughourlian relates Paul Briquet’s 1859 accounts of hysteria: “The hysterical claim expresses itself in two very common clinical phenomena: competitive overreaching and emulation” (184). Citing a case study collected by Briquet, Oughourlian highlights the “suggestibility” of those patients diagnosed as hysterical (184). Byron’s rages against Annabella led her to eventually suspect “that he was subject to insane delusions” (556). In its emulous suggestibility, Byron’s behaviour resonates with Briquet’s characterization of hysteria. For Byron, Annabella had become a model-obstacle; her exacting moral standards, the memory of her past rebuff, and his embarrassment before her due to the financial demands of married life caused him to view her as an idealized model, whom he was unable to fully master. As Byron confided to Lady Blessington, Annabella possessed

a degree of self-control that I never saw equalled….This extraordinary degree of self-command in Lady Byron produced an opposite effect on me. When I have broken out, on slight provocations, into one my ungovernable fits of rage, her calmness piqued and seemed to reproach me. (qtd. in Marchand 2.547)

Unable to live up to Annabella’s standards of exacting self-control and striving to secure the funds to maintain their ostentatious mansion on Piccadilly Terrace, Byron, via his rages, symmetrically opposes Annabella’s passive indictment of his erratic behaviour. The conflictual quality of the couple’s relationship escalated as Annabella took legal steps to formalize her separation from Byron.

Byron’s troubled marriage to Annabella resembles Girard’s characterization of a relationship of rival doubles, which manifests itself in dramatic swings in mood and demeanour. Of Byron’s and Annabella’s dispositions in the lead up to their separation, Marchand notes the wild oscillations in Byron’s attitude towards Annabella (2.556), and Annabella’s alternation between attempts to conciliate and her sense that Byron was inexorably insane (559-60). Both members of the marriage moved between extremes of excitement and calm. These alternations were such that Byron did not anticipate her discontentment was so great that she intended to leave him on the grounds that he was unstable, and, as he told Hobhouse, he felt that they had “lived on conjugal terms up to the last moment” (qtd. in Marchand 2.561). “Byron apparently thought,” writes Marchand, “that everything had been smoothed over by his apologies” (Marchand 2.561). The reciprocity between Byron’s erratic behaviour and Annabella’s strong reactions to this behaviour corresponds to the dynamics of an exacerbated binary system of mimetic rivalry, as Girard characterizes it in his critique of psychoanalytic theory. “In the world of doubles,” writes Girard, “there can be no neutral relationships. There are only those who dominate and those who are dominated. [...] This relationship puts us in mind of a swing, where one of those playing is always at the highest point when the other is at the lowest, and the reverse” (Things Hidden 305). In 1816 as his marriage was disintegrating, Byron was oblivious to the mimetic rivalry that he had come close to acknowledging in his analogies between himself Othello and Richard III. His resort to Shakespeare retrospectively illuminates the mimetic crisis he was undergoing in his relationship with Annabella and indicates that his knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays might eventually assist him in coming to a more lucid understanding of the mimetic nature of desire.

Two years later, in Canto IV of Childe Harold and in a letter to Lady Byron, Byron would eventually acknowledge the antagonism he felt towards Annabella and those who had assisted her in securing a separation. The 1818 suicide of a lawyer involved in Byron and Annabella’s separation, Sir Samuel Romilly, provides the occasion for an illuminating instance of Byron’s epistolary use of Shakespeare in theorizing his own tendency towards emulous desire. Romilly, whom Annabella’s mother consulted on behalf of her daughter regarding the separation, had accepted a general retainer to act as Byron’s council. Marchand relates that, when, on February 12, 1816, Byron wrote Hanson to ensure that Romilly was available to him, “Hanson was unaware that Lady Noel [Byron’s mother-in-law] had already consulted him. Not until March 16 did Byron learn that Romilly had been counseling Lady Byron” (2.577). Byron’s friend Hobhouse eventually confronted Romilly, who admitted that, having been already retained by Byron, he had erred in counseling Lady Byron: “Sir Samuel then declined to arbitrate the terms of the separation, but Byron never forgave him” (577). When in late October of 1818 Romilly’s wife, who had suffered a long illness died, the lawyer and politician cut his own throat (Melikan para. 14). Upon hearing the news of his suicide, Byron wrote to Annabella expressing his sentiments in the words of Macbeth. The letter expresses his resentment towards Annabella and those involved in securing the couple’s legal separation, while indicating that Byron, like Macbeth, possessed a self-critical awareness of the deleteriousness of his mimetic antagonisms. The tone of Byron’s 1818 letter is dark and, on its surface, cruel. It begins: “Sir Samuel Romilly has cut his throat for the loss of his wife,” and it goes on to recall how the lawyer was the “[a]pprover of the proceedings which deprived [Byron] of” his own wife (BLJ 6.80). Referring to his favorite novel, Tom Jones, Byron confesses that he does not feel at ease passing judgment on Romilly, “but,” he writes, “This even-handed Justice / Commends the ingredients of our poisoned Chalice / To our own lips” (80). Byron’s words are taken from Macbeth’s reflective and equivocating soliloquy prior to his murder of Duncan and his sons. As king, Duncan is the model of and obstacle to Macbeth’s desire for kingship, but, in contemplating his planned murder, Macbeth acknowledges that it is the nature of mimetic reciprocity for the act undertaken against one subject to be mirrored by that subject (or his supporters), which thereby returns to beset the first actor:

But in these cases

We still have judgement here, that we but teach

Bloody instructions which, being taught, return

To plague th’inventor. (1.7.7-10)

This reflection immediately precedes Byron’s quotation from the soliloquy, which reiterates the recognition of the reciprocal nature of grossly violent acts, or “even-handed justice,” by figuring Macbeth as a suicide, ensuring his own murder via his assassination of Duncan. It is to avoid the mimetic contagion of violence that Macbeth, earlier in the soliloquy, wishes: “that this [Macbeth’s murderous] blow / Might be the be-all and end-all, here” (1.7.4-5). For Byron, Romilly–having been retained to protect his interests, but violating his trust by acting as an obstacle between himself and Annabella–is a rival for the object of his domestic happiness. Byron’s choice of Macbeth’s reflections on the justice of mimetic reciprocity indicates his sense of responsibility for Romilly’s suicide and his apprehension that he too may, for his role in Romilly’s death, suffer a violent end.

The last lines of his letter to Annabella indicate why Byron draws on Macbeth’s reference to mimetic reciprocity by referring to–what Jerome McGann terms–the “forgiveness-curse” (Fiery Dust 43), which Byron levels against his enemies in the fourth canto of Childe Harold. This reference indicates that his interpretation of his part in Romilly’s suicide and his apprehension of the inevitable recoil of his actions upon himself are not merely superstitious ravings, but a metaphorical rendering of the influence of desire between subjects who encounter one another in a mimetic duel. To conclude his letter, Byron writes:

Perhaps previous to his Annihilation [Romilly] felt a portion of what he contributed his legal mite to make me feel,–but I have lived–lived to see him a Sexagenary Suicide.–It was not in vain that I invoked Nemesis in the midnight of Rome from the awfullest of her Ruins.–Fare you well” (BLJ 6.81).

Measuring his pain at the loss of Annabella against Romilly’s pain at the death of his wife, Byron indicates that he has long regarded Romilly as one of his most bitter rivals in law and life. Because of this apprehension of his rivalry with those who had prosecuted his separation from Annabella and, thus, calumniated his name in England, Byron, in 1817, made a versified appeal to Nemesis from the ruins of Rome’s colosseum and cursed his malefactors in this stanza of Childe Harold’s Canto IV:

And thou, who never yet of human wrong

Left’st the unbalanced scale, great Nemesis!

Here, where the ancient paid the homage long–

Thou, who didst call the Furies from the abyss,

And round Orestes bade them howl and hiss

For that unnatural retribution–just,

Had it but been from hands less near–in this

Thy Former realm, I call thee from the dust!

Dost thou not hear my heart?–Awake! thou shalt, and must. (4.1180-88)

In one of the stanzas which McGann designates as the most explicitly autobiographical in the canto (Byron 185), Byron’s invocation of Nemesis–the goddess responsible for enacting justice and vengeance through retribution–publically represents his resentment, which mirrors Annabella’s resentment manifest in the legal separation she undertook with the help of Romilly, while making reference to the mimetic rivalry inherent to Rome’s gladiatorial duels; the vengeance of the gods visited upon Orestes for killing his mother; and the barbarians’ vengeance against Rome, as manifest in the ruins of the colosseum. However, as McGann explains in his reading of stanzas 128-51 (Fiery Dust 42-43), Byron does not intend to uncritically accept the mimetic rule of visiting wrong-for-wrong, but inverts the deity’s traditional role by calling Nemesis to curse his enemies with forgiveness: “thou shalt take / The vengeance, which shall yet be sought and found” and “pile on human heads the mountain of my curse! / That curse shall be Forgiveness” (4.1193-94, 1206-07). In these lines, the poet self-consciously resists the impetus to mimetic rivalry by forcing “Nemesis to balance the scales of Justice not with vengeance but with forgiveness” (Fiery Dust 44).

Once again, Byron exhibits his tendency to read Shakespeare as a preceptor on the nature of mimetic desire, which is catalyst for both destruction and ameliorative, poetic creativity.  Girard contends that Hamlet’s crucial theme of deferred vengeance constitutes Shakespeare’s critique of the logic of violent reciprocity. Considering the expectations Shakespeare faced as a playwright in providing audiences with the “just,” violent recompense the genre of revenge tragedy demands, Girard writes: “In a world where every ghost, dead or alive, can only perform the same action, revenge…all voices are interchangeable. [...] To seek singularity in revenge is a vain enterprise, but to shrink from revenge in a world that looks upon it as a ‘sacred duty’ is to…become a nonentity” (Theatre of Envy 273). The fascination of Hamlet’s equivocation and delay, Girard goes on to argue, is evidence of Shakespeare’s attempt to extract his hero from the necessity of the genre’s violent reciprocity (283). By embedding within the play an implicit critique of revenge, Shakespeare both highlights the inimical nature of mimetic rivalry and demonstrates how representations of rivalry’s course are enriched with reflection on the ethical import of such real and represented actions. Girard does not undertake a reading of Macbeth, but Macbeth’s soliloquy, which Byron quotes from, closely resembles the violence-deferring equivocations that characterize Hamlet’s speeches. By quoting Macbeth in his letter to Annabella, Byron provides an exposition of his growing knowledge of Shakespeare’s understanding of mimetic rivalry and links his personal desire for revenge, as represented and creatively deferred in Childe Harold, to Shakespeare’s insights regarding the imitative nature of vengeance and violence.

Receiving the Hyssop

My spiritual journey has been both plagued and propelled by the question of suffering. The theological dilemma posed more than 2000 years ago by the Greek philosopher Epicurus still baffles theologians today: How do we reconcile an all-loving and all-powerful God with a world of suffering? My call to the priesthood and to pastoral ministry inspires me to find an answer as I foresee parishioners seeking consolation from me in the midst of painful and inexplicable loss. I refuse to offer cliché and potentially harmful platitudes such as “This is all part of God’s will” or “Perhaps God is chastising you” to parishioners who are suffering. I am committed to find a more satisfactory answer or, at least a more compassionate way of dealing with, the problem of suffering. With the beautiful and haunting chant of John 18-19 still echoing in my head from last night’s Good Friday service, I will seek to find a satisfactory theodicy in John’s passion narrative, with the help of Warren Carter, R. Alan Culpepper, James Alison, and Marcus J. Borg, primarily employing literary method and mimetic theory to interpret the text.

Identifying with the Enemy: In Pontius Pilate: Portraits of a Roman Governor, Warren Carter offers multiple perspectives on Pilate, ranging from villain to saint.[1] The bulk of his work, however, provides a sympathetic approach to the literary Pilate as described in the four Gospels, thus inviting the reader to see her or himself in Pilate, concluding, “The verdict we offer on any of these portraits is likely to say as much about ourselves as about Pontius Pilate.”[2] As Carter’s work invites us to identify with Pilate, I invite us to identify and even sympathize with those who denied, abandoned, betrayed, and crucified Christ.[3]

Receiving the Hyssop: A Literary Reading of the Passion: The pericope of John 18:28-19:42 is marked by seven explicit references to the Jewish Passover, thus forming a chiasmus with the receiving of the hyssop in the center.[4] The literary structure is outlined below:

A. Passover (v. 18:28: impetus for not entering headquarters)

B. Passover (v. 39: Barabbas spared)

C. Passover (v. 19:14: “the day of Preparation”)

X. Passover (v. 19:29-30: Jesus receives wine on hyssop)

C. Passover (v. 19:31: “the day of Preparation”)

B. Passover (v. 36: Bones spared)[5]

A. Passover (v. 19:42: impetus for burying Jesus nearby)[6]


At the center of the structure, Jesus receives sour wine on a branch of hyssop. The author of John intends to make a point by explicitly describing Jesus receiving the wine, an act not described in the Synoptic Gospels.[7] Also, no other Gospel author mentions the “hyssop,” which makes it clear that the author of John is offering his own interpretation of the Passion with this reference.[8] Culpepper agrees, “The reference to hyssop, of course, signals a fulfillment of the Exodus motif in the Gospel of John…Jesus also dies at the hour of the slaughter of the Passover lambs, his legs are not broken; and he drinks from the hyssop that is offered to him as he dies.”[9] If the apex of Christ’s ministry in John is the hour of glorification on the cross and the center of the hour of glorification is the receiving of the hyssop (as the outline suggests above), then understanding the significance of the hyssop is crucial to understanding the meaning of John’s Gospel and the importance of the Johannine Christ.

Receiving the Hyssop: An Alisonian Reading of the Passion: The hyssop acts as a symbol of the sacrificial system, which is the scapegoat mechanism clothed in sacred garb. The hyssop reminds the reader of the blood of the slaughtered lamb at the Passover and the human need for innocent blood to be shed in order for others to live peacefully.[10] In receiving the hyssop, Jesus receives the mechanism that has victimized and slaughtered thousands of innocent lives (human and animal) and will now victimize and crucify him. Jesus understands the situation, having what James Alison calls “the intelligence of the victim.”[11] Yet he receives the mechanism nonetheless.

However, he does not receive our destructive scapegoat mechanism to affirm it but to transform and dismantle it through his forgiveness.

Jesus knows that he will rise from the dead (v. 2:19) and, according to Alison, “resurrection is forgiveness”: forgiveness to everyone responsible for Christ’s crucifixion and death, including the Jewish authorities, the Roman soldiers, and the disciples who abandoned him, denied him and even betrayed him.[12] For Alison, the entire New Testament is the apostolic witness to the resurrection and even though the passion and death of Christ are the pinnacle of his ministry in John, the author expects the reader to know that the passion and death mean almost nothing apart from the resurrection. In other words, the author expects the reader to be wearing “resurrection” lenses while reading the passion account. More specifically, the author expects the reader to be wearing “resurrection-as-forgiveness” lenses while reading about Jesus receiving the hyssop. As we read about Jesus receiving the hyssop through the lens of “resurrection-as-forgiveness,” we begin to see that this act is in fact, Christ’s way of forgiving everyone even as he is being crucified. In Luke, Jesus prays on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). In John, Jesus says essentially the same thing by receiving the hyssop, saying, “I receive your mechanism of violence and I forgive you, even though you have betrayed me, left me to die, and killed me.”

By receiving the hyssop, Jesus indentifies with the Lamb (v. 1:29), saying, “I am the victim par excellence of the scapegoat mechanism for all time, which means that you no longer need to shed blood in order to placate violent tension. It is finished. I am the Lamb who lives forever slain, the agnus qui vivit semper.[13] And furthermore, I forgive you.” By receiving the hyssop, Jesus says, “I allow you to kill me, to sacrifice me as your scapegoat, to slaughter me as your Passover lamb. And even as you crucify me, I forgive you.” By saying this, Jesus dismantles the scapegoat mechanism, and invites all people to direct their need for a scapegoat onto him. Jesus understands the human need for a scapegoat, but in receiving the hyssop, he offers us a way out of our destructive mechanism by making himself the ultimate scapegoat so that no more innocent blood must be shed in order to placate mimetic rivalry.

This way out is re-enacted every time Christians gather to celebrate the Eucharist, which placates violent tension and mimetic rivalry by directing the need for a scapegoat onto Christ, symbolized in the bread and wine.[14] Violent tension is mollified and a peaceful community is therefore formed without the shedding of any innocent blood. Marcus J. Borg elaborates on the community-creating power of sacrifice by highlighting its association with the meal: “In the Bible, sacrifice is most commonly associated with a gift and a meal. The giving of a gift and the sharing of a meal are the classic means of bringing about reconciliation when rupture has occurred, whether with a person or God.”[15] Rather than directing its violence within, the community can direct its violence out on the Cross, where the violence is transmuted and where forgiveness is offered, resulting in a violent-free community.[16]

Conclusion: Receiving the Hyssop as Pastoral Theodicy: My reading of John’s passion has not led us to a philosophical defense of God (theos dike) as much as it has led to a pastoral theodicy, an understanding of God’s pastoral response to the human need for someone to blame in the midst of suffering. As I struggle to make sense of the problem of suffering in light of divine benevolence and omnipotence, I find myself putting God on trial and, in doing so, I am indentifying with those who put Jesus on trial, with Pilate (as Carter suggests), with the Jewish authorities and even with Judas Iscariot. When Jesus receives the hyssop, he says to me, “I allow you to put me on trial for all the evil in the world and for all the evil that you have experienced in your life. Furthermore, I will allow you to blame me and then convict me as guilty for all the suffering in the world and in your life. I understand that you need someone to blame and I will be that person for you. I know that you will never understand the reason for suffering while you remain in your finite understanding. So I will let you blame me, kill me and bury me. And even as you do this to me, I will forgive you. I will receive the hyssop.” Just as Jesus enters into the scapegoat mechanism as the ultimate victim he enters into my need for someone to blame, willing to be the victim of my own limited judicial system.

Jesus says this to everyone who struggles to make sense of the problem of suffering: “You will not be able to solve this problem, but give me the hyssop. You can blame me as if I were responsible and therefore guilty for all the world’s suffering. Let out all of your frustration and hate on me. I will take it. And I will forgive you throughout all of it.” In this way, Jesus holds us in our anger and frustration the way a parent holds a child who is throwing a temper tantrum. Even as the child is kicking and screaming, the parent still holds the child lovingly, knowing that the child does not, and perhaps cannot, understand. This reading of Jesus receiving the hyssop reveals a profound pastoral theodicy, letting me lay aside the impotent platitudes that I might be inclined to offer believers in the face of suffering. Here, we see God’s pastoral response to the human need for someone to blame, inviting suffering believers to bring all of their anger, hate and even violence to the Cross because that is where Jesus receives the hyssop, that is where Jesus accepts our anger and that is where Jesus allows us to blame him for all of the pain in our lives. In the process of blaming him and being forgiven by him, we learn to let go of our need to blame and scapegoat others and move into a deeper communion with our Lord, the pastoral Good Shepherd.

[1] Warren Carter, Pontius Pilate: Portraits of a Roman Governor (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2003), 3-11.

[2] Ibid, 159.

[3] Carter’s implicit invitation to identify with Pilate serves as a point from his work, which helps me with my project.

[4] The first pericope (John 18:1-27) is built around Jesus’ three “I am” sayings and Peter’s three “I am not” sayings with a reference to the “cup” and Caiaphas (18:11-14) at the center of the chiasmus. Due to the limitations of this paper, I will not interpret the first pericope.

[5] “These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, “None of his bones shall be broken” (Exodus 12:46, Psalm 34:20, John 1:29)

[6] I am not aware of other scholars who outline the pericope in this way.

[7] “When Jesus received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished’” (19:30, my emphasis).

[8] Although I refer to the author of John with the masculine pronoun, I am aware that the gender of the author has been reexamined. See Sandra M. Schneiders, Written That You May Believe: Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (New York: Crossroad, 2003), 233-254.

[9] Culpepper’s elaboration on the references to Passover in John’s Passion account serves as a point from his work, which helps me with my project. R. Alan Culpepper, The Gospel and Letters of John (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 235.

[10] Due to the limited scope of this paper, I cannot elaborate more on the connection between the hyssop and the sacrificial system / scapegoat mechanism, a connection which is central to my argument.

[11] James Alison’s notion of “the intelligence of the victim” (31-58), his application of mimetic theory to the passion and his understanding of resurrection as forgiveness (16) all help me with my project. James Alison, Knowing Jesus (Springfield IL: Templegate, 1994). In the same vein, S. Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross (Grand Rapids MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2006) also helps me to see the sacrificial system as the scapegoat mechanism in sacred garb and provides me with a frame for reinterpreting the passion and death of Christ.

[12] “Judas’ terminal sin was not his treachery (with all due respect to Dante), but his inability to believe in the possibility of forgiveness—what we usually call despair.” Alison, 9.

[13] Alison, 20.

[14] I define “symbol” here as a manifestation of a reality, which both reveals and conceals the reality simultaneously. Notes from Sandra Schneiders, “John: Theology and Spirituality: Introduction to the Gospel” (lecture, Jesuit School of Theology, Berkeley CA, February 24, 2011).

[15] Borg’s association of sacrifice and communal meal serves a point from his work which helps me with my project. Marcus J. Borg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary (San Francisco: Harper, 2006), 269.

[16] The author of John effectively conveys the community-creating power of Christ’s sacrifice by describing Jesus create community even at the foot of the Cross, between Mary and the Beloved Disciple (19:25-27).

Deleuze, Oughourlian, and Girard

In reading for my qualifying exams I’ve come across the Nietzschean concept of active and reactive forces–which are expounded by Gilles Deleuze in his essay, “Active and Reactive”. Briefly stated, active forces are the affirmation that wills the eternal return–wherein the subject accepts all that has happened and will happen by wishing it to happen repeatedly ad infinitum. Reactive forces are negative, as they express ressentiment (the will to revenge) and refuse to accept the superior power of the active forces. Reactive, vengeful forces are a will to nothingness.

Critiquing Deleuze and the other French Nietzscheans’ reading of the will to power in a comparison of Girard and Nietzsche’s treatment of desire, Tobin Siebers’s calls Deleuze’s opposition of forces within the will to power dangerously reductive. Siebers elaborates on Heidegger’s discussion of Nietzsche’s refusal of the impulse to be revenged on the past in order to illuminate the inevitability of mimetic contagion and eventual ressentiment. Ultimately, the vision of the eternally unresentful over-man is a utopian dream and the reactive will to revenge (nothingness) must be countered by submitting ressentiment and the will to power to an ethical critique.

How can mimetic theory shed further light on this “dangerous opposition between active and reactive often associated with the will to power” (The Ethics of Criticism, Siebers, p. 137)? How might mimetic theory expand on Siebers’s critique to engage with Deleuze and interpolate his categories in terms that are recognizable to theorists of mimetic desire?

In The Puppet of Desire (chapters 3 and 4), Jean-Michel Oughourlian distinguishes between obsession and adorcism as two manifestations of mimetic influence.

Obsession occurs when the desire of the other infects a subject through mimesis, but the subject–in order to preserve an autonomous self–will not admit her desire to be derived from the other. Oughourlian provides an historical example of supposed demonic possession–the mimetic crisis of a nun in a fifteenth-century convent–to illustrate how the obsessed subject displaces responsibility for the disturbing symptoms of her frustrated mimetic desire onto the malevolent, mythic other: the devil. She locates the devil in a visiting priest (the object of her obsession), whom she accuses of witchcraft–an accusation that precipitates the surrogate victimage of the priest via his subsequent execution.

Oughourlian compares the nun’s mimetic obsession with the practice of adorcism (or willing possession). Oughourlian draws an example of this practice from the anthropological fieldwork of Michel Leiris, who studied practitioners of traditional religious rites of adorcism in Northern Ethiopia. In his studies of these rites, Leiris encounters a woman named Malkam Ayyahu, who is renowned for her ability to submit to possession by the various deities of her culture’s pantheon. Rather than engaging in an inimical conflict with the cultural others by which all believers are liable to be inhabited, Ayyahu knowingly and intentionally accommodates herself to these entity’s mimetic influence. (In his preceding analysis, Oughourlian interpolates all cultures’ spiritualities as expressions of an intuitive understanding the contagiousness of mimetic desire, which determines the desires of subjects and subgroups within a given social order.) Unlike the nun, who refused to acknowledge the fact of mimetic desire operating upon her, Ayyahu accepts that her subjectivity is repeatedly reshaped by the cultural other and demonstrates her acceptance semantically by consistently referring to herself in the third person. Oughourlian asserts that recognizing the mimetic awareness illustrated by her advanced practice of adorcism, coupled with her mode of self-reflexive discourse, illustrates the principles of mimetic desire. He goes on to suggest that Ayyahu’s self-reflexivity forms a new anthropology, which takes the otherness–the mimetic nature–of desire as its foundational principle. Within her cultural frame of reference, the possibility of mimetic antagonism is low, since Ayyahu is never devoted to a particular self-of-desire that must be defended as an autonomous entity against the encroachments of an alien desire. Her openness to all possible desiring entities means she need not oppose any one desiring entity to another in a conflictual mimetic symmetry.

Applying this anthropology to Deleuze’s reading of Nietzsche, I’d suggest that we should understand Deleuze reductive categorization of the will to power and ressentiment–active and reactive–in the more practical, sociocultural terms outlined by Oughourlian: obsession and adorcism.

Obsession corresponds to the reactive force, since to refuse to acknowledge that the self is shaped by the cultural other–to ignore the mimetic nature of desire–positions the subject in an antagonistic relation to the other, which will lead to a mutual confounding of desire in the destructive reciprocity of violence– a will to nothingness.

Adorcism corresponds to the active force, since to stand open to the cultural other, as Ayyahu does–with no fear of losing an identity, which is recognized to be a provisional manifestation of mimetic desire’s movement–is to avoid the reciprocity of violence in the affirmation of the will to power.

Any criticism or feedback is much appreciated.

I’m writing a new chapter about the Ang Lee film ‘The Ice Storm’, and its function as a tragedy. The film is an adaptation of a novel, but with quite a different aesthetic. Here is a brief extract of my paper, for your consideration:


The Ice Storm traces the dramatic events of a single winter’s weekend in the lives of a few Connecticut suburbanites, in particular the Hood family and their neighbours the Williamses. It is 1973, and the spirit of sexual adventure arrives in these suburbs with the advent of the ‘key party’, at which the men put their keys into a bowl, and their wives in turn pick out keys assigning them a sexual partner for the night. On the night of the key party, an extraordinary snowstorm sweeps through the town, wreaking environmental havoc that parallels the built-up social chaos reaching its climax at the key party.

The novel written by Rick Moody was published in 1994, and the film by director Ang Lee was released in 1997, with Moody’s involvement as consultant.

Moody has written about his experience of the film adaptation, and made this comment:

“When I saw the final cut… the story before me was so removed from my own imagining that it was no longer necessary to think of it as my own.”

While he praised Lee’s film highly, Moody considered the film a very separate, and different, work to his own novel. One of the key differences Moody noticed was an aesthetic difference between his imagined characters and the actors who played those roles in the film:

“What I took away… was how beautiful everyone in the movie was. Of course, this had nothing to do with the book. The characters in the book looked like real people. They had bad skin, multiple canker sores, glasses. They were puffy, they didn’t exercise enough. These actors, on the other hand, were beautiful… Sometimes I was irritated by all this beauty, since it didn’t seem to have anything to do with my vision…”

In this chapter I go on to argue that the story is a Girardian tragedy, with its inevitable scapegoats. But in the film, these potential victims are no longer ugly, but beautiful. A scapegoat, in myth, is often marked as ‘different’; often ugly or deformed. Can movie-land, with its population of uniformly beautiful people, give us suitable scapegoats?

Embarrassed Resentment

(I’ve been reflecting on this subject as I prepare for my next qualifying exam.)

It is often observed by thinkers informed by Girard’s work that, with the escalation of mimetic rivalry in modern market society, resentment too is on the rise. (My understanding of resentment derives from Girard’s definition of ressentiment as it draws on both Max Scheler’s and Nietzsche’s definitions.) Recognizing and discussing resentment is often offensive to those who theorizes–and advocate for–a more peaceful social order. In my experience, those sceptical of resentment’s origin in mimetic desire worry that any discourse foregrounding our propensity to resent will tend to essentialize violence as a constitutive element of the human. This anxiety regarding theories of resentment combined with the embarrassment caused by acknowledging impotent jealousy in the highly competitive modern marketplace (e.g. the University) may be the chief sources of reticence to serious discussions of resentment.

The contemporary thinker, striving to attain Nietzsche’s utopian freedom from the ressentiment of slave morality, disavows the sting accompanying her thwarted attempts to distinguish herself in the marketplace of ideas. The modern subject denies resentment with good reason, since acknowledging the sentiment is to betray, what Girard terms, a lack of being–a defeated admission that one’s desires are derivative instead of self-fulfilled. Because they appear to desire themselves alone, the self-fulfilled act as mimetic magnets for the desire of others. In doing so, the seemingly autonomous, unresentful subject wins the game of mimetic desire. Alternatively, to admit resentment is to own one’s failure to acquire the value bestowed by the mimetic desire of others. While the majority of contemporary researchers and intellectuals avoid the embarrassing scandal of discussing market society’s endemic resentment, its source–mimetic desire–goes unexamined.

I believe that at least some of the scepticism confronting mimetic theory derives from the anxieties aroused by its assertion of resentment’s pervasiveness, an assertion which points to the unsavoury subject of culture’s violent evolutionary history.

How does this assessment mesh with your experience? When discussing mimetic theory with sceptics, what’s the optimal way to broach the prickly issue of resentment?

Hello all!

I’ve been thinking about the use of Girard’s thought (both the mimetic and sacrificial aspects) around the world of pornography. The problem is very subtle and it will take time and care to address it properly. Below is a brief excerpt from a longer piece I wrote some time back. I realize, now, that it is difficult to think critically of pornography while also acknowledging and counting in its very complex and multiple facets. Perhaps one way out of this would be to ponder the presence of violence in human sexuality in general, before and beyond the particular case of pornography… Anyway, let us start a dialogue on this to see how Girard can help to understand porn…

Society cannot survive without the coming and going of increasing tensions and liberating accusations. This is the role played, according to Girard, by modern institutions. While assuming the effective performance of a set of functions in a certain socio-professional field of activity, our institutions – as ‘descendants’ of ancient rituals – also regulate the social worry inherent to human societies. They do so by being the playgrounds where tensions will grow, where arbitrary selections of culprits will take place, and where reactions or symbolic punishments will be held. The entertainment and leisure industry is one of such institutions. It is in this setting that we find pornography and the pornographic actress. More than another example of modern and allegedly mild scapegoating, the pornographic actress may actually represent the most efficient safety net of our social tension. Like other modern scapegoats, the actress (virtually) receives the remaining tension of the watcher’s day of labor, and pays the price of coming across his path through the rather inhumane treatment now boringly common in the sub-genre known as gonzo pornography. But when the scapegoat is a colleague at work or in another community, the confrontation happens in the public sphere, and if it goes out of hand, there is someone to notice the unacceptable nature of the punishment. With pornography, this is not the case. On the one side, the actress receives her treatment in the larger context of a professional sphere where it is more or less clear that it is precisely what she is there for. On the other side, the watcher enjoys a pornographic content that is increasingly violent, and since he watches it mostly alone, no external person is there to comment on what seems to be a progressive alliance of sexual excitement and pleasure with verbal and physical violence. Thus pornography could be seen as the modern exutoire par excellence, the strongest leftover of our ancient sacrifices and of their cruel ritual extension. And this, at the heart of a society that has, paradoxically, strongly rejected these very practices.

Hi everyone,

I’m working on a paper that responds to some of Girard’s thoughts about anorexia, and also Mark Anspach’s writings about it. I find the idea of competitive/rivalrous dieting interesting, but I would like to interrogate the idea that extreme dieting is about unrealistic ideals of beauty. I’d suggest that there’s a misunderstanding here about women and desire, and what drives these kind of excessive behaviours. Is it hard for our culture to conceive of women as having complex interior states that have nothing to do with their traditional value to men– in fact, as objects, themselves, of sexual desire? Is this default reading of anorexia a blinkeredness, seeing women as objects– objects who grow obsessed with being the most desirable objects? What happens if we open our reading of anorexia to the possibility that women have desires that are entirely unrelated to sexual politics and aesthetic power?

I hope to provoke some thoughts from you, that will in turn provoke my writing!

“I am always told one must never do violence to the text. Faced with Guillaume de Machaut the choice is clear: one must either do violence to the text or let the text forever do violence to innocent victims.”
- René Girard, The Scapegoat.