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  • “A Candle in Sunshine”Desire and Apocalypse in Blake and Hölderlin
  • Michael Kirwan, SJ (bio)


René Girard, in the wake of the critical theorists Adorno and Horkheimer, offers “an analysis of the present epoch.” His work can be seen as a further attempt to articulate the “dialectic of Enlightenment”: to explore precisely why, despite the hopes invested in the possibilities of human emancipation, the “enlightened world radiates disaster triumphant.” Like them, Girard seeks to diagnose the present age and its Siamese twinning of emancipatory knowledge and barbarism.

He does so by invoking messianic religious themes, notably the biblical theological category of apocalypse.2 In Battling to the End—by Girard’s own admission, a “bizarre book”—the apocalypse has quite specific geographical and historical coordinates. The hypermimetic rivalry between France and Germany that escalates through the nineteenth century reaches a symbolic tipping point in Hegel’s fascinated interpretation of Napoleon Bonaparte’s intervention at Jena in 1806—a fascination shared by Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831), Prussian military theorist and author of the unfinished treatise On War. Girard thinks through Clausewitz’s appalled realization of the special nature of this [End Page 179] conflict: namely, that the intense “escalation to extremes” that ensnares these two protagonists will prove capable of overwhelming the “sacrificial” function of warfare. In other words, war will no longer have the capacity for channeling and containing conflict within strictly codified parameters.

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The Last Judgement (1808) by William Blake (1757–1827), The Egremont Collection (accepted in lieu of tax by H.M. Treasury in 1957 and subsequently transferred to the National Trust). © NTPL/John Hammond

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Following this logic, Girard argues that the total mobilization of populations begun with the French revolutionary army has indeed escalated, into the nightmarish catastrophes engulfing Europe and the world in the last century, which we now experience in the form of a global and globalized “war on terror”—a “global civil war.” Robert Hamerton-Kelly understands the situation as apocalyptic, defined as “an interpretation of politics in the form of a coded narrative.”3 Drawing on the root meaning of apokalypsis as “unveiling” or “disclosure,” he declares that ”something is being revealed about our world order, whether by divine grace or human reason,”4 a revelation that not only documents the threat to order but is itself a cause of the instability.

Whether this heightened sense of history and its convulsions constitutes a significant change in mimetic theory, an “apocalyptic turn,” is open to debate. Hamerton-Kelly reminds us that Girard’s writing has been apocalyptic from the outset: witness Girard’s discussion of “The Dostoyevskian Apocalypse” in his first book. In his other main works, Girard has developed “an apocalyptic anthropology” that unveils the sacred structure of “this world.” This is apocalypse, but with a twist:

Mimetic theory is ironically apocalyptic, because it is the opposite of what normally passes for that genre. It is nonviolent, while the vulgar apocalypse is violent, it decodes while the vulgar encodes, nevertheless, it is apocalyptic because it deals with universal history and human nature and assumes that historiography is possible and the human story is not “a tale told by an idiot.” It is apocalyptic because it decodes the encryption of violence in the vulgar apocalypse, in symbols such as the divine judgement and the torture of the guilty.5

Bringing this context to light is less a matter of archaeology as of astrophysics: here, as it were, is modernity’s “big bang,” the point of origin of the matter and anti-matter of resentful energy that now threatens to overwhelm us.6 Girard’s reading offers much for the historian to grapple with, and yet it calls for more than historical analysis. In addition to Hegel and Clausewitz, Girard summons a further witness, Friedrich Hölderlin (1770–1843), a “theological poet” or Dichter, whose life and verse are read as a further commentary on the turbulent opening decade of the nineteenth century. The aim of the present article is to elucidate this poetical-theological dimension of Girard’s argument, partly by highlighting Girard’s invocation of Hölderlin, but also...