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  • The Earthquake of 1906, the Christian Anarchy of Dorothy Day, and the Opened “Tomb” of René Girard
  • Ann W. Astell (bio)

The autobiographical writings of Dorothy Day (1897–1980) feature a childhood memory of catastrophe and conversion, her traumatic experience at age eight of the earthquake that rocked San Francisco and Oakland in 1906, leaving half of San Francisco in ruins and sending 50,000 refugees in flight from the burning city, many of them in ferries across the bay. Day’s observations of the spontaneous behavior of people who helped one another at that time of crisis guided her later in dealing with the great crash of 1929 and the subsequent economic depression, during which, in 1933, she cofounded with Peter Maurin (1877–1949) the Catholic Worker Movement and its many Houses of Hospitality.

Day’s experience of an anti-sacrificial civilization of love emerging spontaneously out of a chaotic situation of social crisis seems to challenge René Girard’s theory of the scapegoat-mechanism as the normative way of restoring order and peace to a community whose very existence is threatened by anarchy. A closer examination of Day’s experience and social thought in conversation with Girard’s reveals that Girard and Day agree about the violent origins of all culture, which Day envisages as revealed by an earthquake, Girard as concealed by a tomb—related foundational images that, as we shall see, Scripture scholars [End Page 19] find collocated especially in the final chapters of the Gospel according to St. Matthew. The difference between the two images—one natural and one man-made—should not, and indeed cannot, be overlooked, however. The earthquake and its social effect as observable phenomena force the consideration that Girard’s early formulations of his theory, which explicitly distanced it from naturalistic explanations of myth, need to be revised in a way that accords more closely with his own later, apocalyptic thought.

In an article published recently in Contagion, Matthew Pattillo has shown that Girard’s writings parallel, and to some extent directly affected, those of Jacques Ellul,1 the noted Christian anarchist who cites Girard explicitly on occasion and whose many books, according to Mark and Louise Zwick, “influenced the later Catholic Worker Movement.”2 In this article, I follow Pattillo’s lead, going back in time in order to examine ways in which the mimetic theory of Girard illumines the early thought and practice of Day, highlighting the originality of Day’s Christian anarchism as a remedy for a culture founded on violence. Whereas Girard posits a prereligious phase of anarchic, contagious violence, to which the rituals and prohibitions of religious societies responded (thus distantly preparing the way for a secularized modernity in which “law and order” stand opposed to an ever-threatening “anarchy”), Day finds a freely chosen Christian anarchy the best cure for anarchic destruction and totalitarianism alike, thus forging what Pattillo calls a “‘third way’ beyond law, beyond morality, beyond chaos.”3 In the end, the prolonged crisis within which the Catholic Workers shape their anarchistic “new society” against an eschatological horizon confirms Girard’s apocalypticism, even as it serves to place it in conversation with the apocalyptic philosophy of history of the Russian philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev (1874–1949), whose thought influenced Maurin and Day.4

The Earthquake and the Tomb

For Girard, the tomb is the real and metaphoric evolutionary origin of human civilization. “Culture,” he writes,

always develops as a tomb. The tomb is nothing but the first human monument to be raised over the surrogate victim, the first, most elemental and fundamental matrix of meaning. There is no culture without a tomb, and no tomb without a culture; in the end, the tomb is the first and only [End Page 20] cultural symbol. The above-ground tomb does not have to be invented. It is the pile of stones in which the victim of unanimous stoning is buried.5

Moving from its literal, historical meaning in connection with a primeval murder, Girard elaborates the metaphorical significance of the tomb for culture as a whole. As a site serving two functions simultaneously—namely, those of honoring the dead and of concealing a corpse—the tomb...


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