Metaphor versus myth. An introduction to Job, the Victim of His People

We always adore together, that is to say, by hating each other. Our common fervor prevents us from grasping the principle of this submission. But we hate today what we adored yesterday. Hölderlin meditated on this mystery of veneration turning to detestation in the three versions of his unique and unfinished drama, The Death of Empedocles, from 1797 to 1799. These three drafts were accompanied by an ambitious theoretical text, Reason to Empedocles, where the poet meditates on the old lesson of hubris. He shows that the hybridization between opposites (divine and human, finite and infinite), this mixture which any tyranny is, constitutes the catalyst triggering the lightning. Thus the one who has been blessed by fortune will incur the wrath of all. The idol has become a wreck. Two types appear: the one who resigns himself to this curse, out of respect for the gods, i.e. the crowd, and the one who does not, by accusing the gods and refusing to admit his guilt. The first type is Greek: it is Oedipus. The second type is biblical: it is Job. But both the Greek and the Jew, foreshadow a third one, according to René Girard. This third figure, announced by the other two, is Christ. The Passion thus brings to light the secret of the constitution of myths. Being both a Greek and a Jew, or a Jew whose true story is told in Greek, Christ is the key that unlocks all texts.

But “it is always the philosophers and the theoreticians who fail to grasp the mimetic desire and it is the poets who apprehend it”, writes René Girard in Job, the Victim of His People. In fact, the work of the latter can be read as a theoretical answer to what he calls “great literature”, the only one able to comprehend - thanks to its tightly knit relationship to language, the moment of the reversal from“all for one” to “all against one”, the passage from the idol to the wreck, from the king to the victim. The 1985 book thus brings “a certain novelty in relation to previous analysis”: Girard analyzes not the “all against all” of the sacrificial crisis, which was the subject of Violence and the Sacred in 1972 -but the “all for one” which is the positive and glorious reverse of the “all against one”. To find the mechanism of this “reversal”, he asserts, is to locate the “center of gravity” of a work: the unheard of moment when the character, the author and his reader are converted together to the same truth. This “point of equilibrium” is the moment of sacrifice, of the “death and resurrection” of the protagonist, to use the religious terms that political tragedy hides from us. It is in this “center of gravity” of the work that the author ceases to “mystify” his reader and to “mystify” himself, as the surrealist poets mystify their readers and mystify themselves with their confused metaphors -this “cancer of the language”, wrote Sartre in 1947. What every great poem must therefore bring is an exact metaphor. The truth is then given to hear in the heart of the poem, a true oracle and no longer a misleading one.

If it is not “philosophers and theorists” who “comprehend the mimetic desire”, but poets, then the Dialogues of the Book of Job, “are not an exception”, Girard states, concluding: “The mimetic principle is here highlighted by a great metaphor”. It is the image of the stream, both full and empty, overflowing and dry (6, 15-20):

But my brothers are as undependable as intermittent streams,
as the streams that overflow
when darkened by thawing ice
and swollen with melting snow,
but that stop flowing in the dry season,
and in the heat vanish from their channels.
Caravans turn aside from their routes;
they go off into the wasteland and perish.

That is the drama of Job: the people who imitated the so-called “friends” of Job out of admiration for this self-made man, now imitate the contempt that the same “friends” show towards the one who is said to have breached their trust. Job (like Empedocles or Oedipus) took advantage of his power. Should we believe these false friends? No, but rather listen to the metaphor: against the lie of the myth, choose the truth of the poem. And what does the poem tell us? That the “friends”, who had “swollen like the bed of passing streams” at the time of the melting of the snows, have disappeared under the ardor of the sun: they have literally “evaporated”. The tyrant can therefore only remain in power if he perseveres in his contempt for the people and if he continues to adore himself. It is only this indifference which allows him to always be a god for others and a god for himself. But the tyrant’s love for himself is mimetic, in that the tyrant imitates the love that the people have for him. How then does the “drying up” of this popular admiration take place? Girard suggests this by identifying Job and Oedipus in their common misfortune: like the Greek protagonist, the biblical character has made the mistake of being benevolent to those who beg him to heal them. Their disease, symbolized by the Theban plague in Oedipus Rex, is civil war. For the adoration of one goes hand in hand with the detestation of all: with a world in the grip of mimicry, a meaningless world, an “imaginary” world, Girard tells us. This absurd world has nothing ancient, it is more than ever ours. A world in which we never stop creating what humiliates us. When the demand grows like a torrent, the supply decreases. But when the supply increases, the demand “dries up”. These are the whims of the market that govern modern societies.

Let us phrase once again the law identified by René Girard: when I adore myself and am indifferent to others, my “friends” multiply in the adoration they bear me and in the hatred they dedicate to themselves. This hatred that makes us adore the one who despises us and “collaborate” with the one who humiliates us is the fever that makes meaning “evaporate”. The world has lost all meaning, a disease has spread in the city. We then call the tyrant to help. For the tyrant and the disease involve each other. We reach the “center of gravity” of the text: the tyrant starts to listen to his people, he awakens from his indifference. The catastrophe will then be set in motion and it will be fatal to the king. Thus, at the threshold of his palace, Oedipus welcomes the supplicants who have come to ask him to free them from the plague. But this plague, we know, is nothing else than tyranny itself. Emerging from his indifference to remedy what constitutes his own evil, exposing himself to the eyes of all, the tyrant makes the plague disappear and thus also makes the tyrant disappear. He destroys for a time the veneration that the subjects had for the sovereign and the detestation that they had for themselves. He should therefore not have listened to the people. That is the “economy of desire”, the demand collapses when the offer becomes too great. The moment the coquette yields to me, I do not to desire her any longer.

The image of the stream both overflowing and dried up, undesirable when it is full, desirable when it is empty, is not a gratuitous image. In other words, it is not a surrealist image: it is a “realistic” one, in the sense that it is the concern for the referent that motivates it. This metaphor then allows Girard to invent another one himself to name a unique principle. Job’s “friends” are not free, he tells us, “they are only grains of the crowd”. This superb and surprising image (superb because surprising) makes it possible to join the irreconcilable: fragmentation and confluence, analysis and synthesis, crisis and resolution. Our so-called “friends”, Girard suggests, are either “drops of water among other drops of water”, or “grains of sand in the burning desert”, wet fusion around the tyrannical Ego or boiling circle of plotters. Here is named the “reversal” which makes us pass from one mimesis to the other, from the veneration of the tyrant to his detestation. Precising here his previous analysis, it is what René Girard, calls the “double mimicry” or the “mimeto-masochism”. The law of desire increases in front of the obstacle and decreases when the obstacle is removed. The mimetic principle takes the form of a two-way mimesis, making and unmaking kings.

Because they are capable of bringing together two incompatible terms,1 some “great metaphors”, which can be found in the biblical text, thus underline the unity of the original principle. But this breakthrough that they make possible can turn into its opposite and make the metaphor an enigma. This is the effect of time. Everything happens indeed, suggests Girard, as if the driving force behind the evolution of the rites constituted a resistance to this original Logos, an “antipathy for the combination of these two phases” - in short, to say it more brutally, as if all the cultures were founded on a fundamental allergy to great poetry. Thus the enraged mob tears the poet Cinna to pieces in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. This resistance is not conscious, since it comes from the ritual “misrecognition”. Creating ever new forms, this ritual imitation conceals a little more each time the balance of the two tendencies (idolatry and victimhood), in order to deepen and differentiate only one of these tendencies. Hence the temptation, in which structuralism has rushed, suggests Girard, to be interested only in the differences. What Girard seeks to do, then, is first to think of analogy “as an inextricable mixture of difference and identity” and then to “master analogy through a particular conception of mimesis and the victim mechanism”. We can conclude that the mimetic theory has set about building a fundamental poetics. Are not the true poets those who “master the analogy”? Thus the metaphors of the biblical text travel back toward “the combination of the two phases”, royal and victimary, prior to all the differences produced by ritual imitation. Only the biblical text can hold together the “truth of the persecutors” and the “truth of the victims”, the speech of the “friends” and the word of Job. Only this text can create the metaphor of the stream full and empty, overflowing and dried up.

But the biblical text can only operate its essential “revelation” provided the speech of Job’s “friends” becomes a “mystification” and the word of Job an “unconditional, absolute truth”: the breach of equilibrium is essential here. This is the last reversal that the Book of Job has in store for us: a “religious volte-face”, writes René Girard, by which the unhappy man addresses himself to a completely different face of the divinity. If the enigma, as a “holding of incompatible terms aiming at saying what is”, corresponds to the “double mimicry” which makes and unmakes the princes of this world, the Book of Job operates “two great breakthroughs in direction of the god of the victims which do not have an equivalent among the Greeks”. The first, at the end of chapter XVI, reveals “a real opposition within the divine”:

Even now, my witness is in heaven;
my advocate is on high.
My friends treat me with scorn,
as my eyes pour out tears to God.
On behalf of a man he pleads with God,
as one plead for a friend.

It is a strange movement, indeed, to call upon God for help against God. What is the prophet doing here if not crossing the duality of mimicry to introduce this duality into God himself? We pass from the possible equilibrium, which is the condition for all metaphor, to the impossible equilibrium, which undoes metaphors. The prophet crosses the screen of images to touch, this time, not the victim mechanism as the basis of all human cultures, but the creative Logos which speaks in silence. A second breakthrough towards this God is then made in chapter XIX (25-27):

I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that in the end he will stand on the earth.
And after my skin has been destroyed,
yet in my flesh I shall see God;
I myself will see him
with my own eyes – I, and not a stranger.

To the opposition introduced by the first passage within the divinity, leaving “the god of the persecutors and the God of the victims in the presence of each other”, the second passage brings a resolution. It thus undoes the first equilibrium: “The two aspects of the dual divinity cannot balance or stabilize themselves,” writes Girard. They are incomparable and incompatible. The metaphor is broken here by the eruption of a completely different transcendence. This is what René Girard formulates when he writes: “The enigma of this text emerges in the light.” This imbalance within the sacred order has apocalyptic undertones. The second “breakthrough” brought about by Job’s words is a sign of an eschatological future: “He whom I shall see shall be for me.” This God, Girard points out, is the God of the “end of time”. But the paradoxical manifestation of this “God of victims” must also follow the path of “the ancient road of perverse men”. It is in this insistence on “mimetic processes” that the Passion “completes” what was only sketched out in the Book of Job. Girard thus leads us to the last great “reversal”, which brings us, with the disciples of Emmaus, from the enigma to the light that comprehends it, from death to the resurrection that overcomes it.

How can we not think here of René Girard himself who, after the success of Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World, in 1978, had just been subjected to violent criticism in France on the occasion of the publication of The Scapegoat in 1982, and whose analysis of Job itself, three years later, was to alienate many of his readers? Many then announced the end of the “Girard phenomenon”. This is why the virtue of Job, the Victim of His People is also to begin to familiarize the general public with the names of René Girard’s “true friends”, those who remained faithful to him, in a critical but always respectful dialogue: in addition to Roland Barthes, saluted here for the record, Éric Gans, Sandor Goodhart, Paul Dumouchel, Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Philippe Nemo, Georges-Hubert de Radkowski, and finally the irreplaceable Raymund Schwager to whom René Girard’s book is dedicated. It is therefore necessary to hear René Girard himself, his person and his story, when he spoke to us about Job:

From true friends we expect them to support us in adversity, when the world is hostile to us. And when vile flatterers surround us, we expect a stern warning. There is no true friendship without independence and courage / Only a strong capacity to resist mimetic drives can ensure this independence. All mimetic feelings go hand in glove. The stupid fads of fashion lead to the fierce exclusion of scapegoats. A rare and precious virtue among all: immunity to mimicry.

Translated by Florence Leborgne

  1. This expression often used by René Girard in his work refers to the definition that Aristotle, in the Poetics (22, 1458 a), gives of the enigma when it resorts to metaphor: Αἰνίγματός τε γὰρ ἰδέα αὕτη ἐστί, τὸ λέγοντα ὑπάρχοντα ἀδύνατα συνάψαι : “Indeed, the essence of the enigma is to join together, while saying what is, incompatible terms.” The metaphor is not gratuitous insofar as it aims at a referent. ↩︎