- Introduction to "Toward a Triangular Aesthetics"
Rereading this piece written over forty years ago recalls for me the revelatory effect of La violence et le sacré when it appeared in 1972. From Mensonge romantique's theory of desire designed for the novel and its place in the moral history of the modern West—a point too often neglected by those who read it as an across-the-board description of human desire—René Girard waited a full eleven years before producing this seminal work, which proposed a radically new fundamental anthropology.
My response to this revelation took well over a decade to achieve its mature expression, and even The Origin of Language in 1981, which contained the first version of the originary hypothesis of human/language origin, did not yet provide a fully developed model of the originary event, which evolved into a scene rather different from its original Girardian model. But it was Girard who had been the first to radically found his anthropology on an event, even if he demurred from affirming the uniqueness of this event; uniqueness more heuristic than "real," but a necessary element nonetheless.
No doubt Freud supplied Girard with an important prototype in the father-murder of Totem and Taboo, but the birth of the Oedipus complex as [End Page 1] hypothesized by Freud is never presented as the origin of humanity itself, and critics have had little difficulty in showing that, even aside from its fantastic nature of the murder scene, the kind of social organization it presupposed would have been inconceivable in the absence of an already-human, that is, representation-based, culture. In contrast, Girard's explicit aim was to offer a model of how human culture as such—albeit viewed exclusively from the side of sacred ritual and neglecting the question of language—could have been born from the minimal trait of "too much mimesis." Despite Girard's durable and well-merited celebrity, his daring intuition of human mimetic intelligence as most crucially the source of violence and the need to control it continues to elude the thinking of social scientists of all stripes.
The specific burden of this article was to integrate this new anthropological revelation into my current preoccupation with esthetic theory—let us not forget that both René and I spent our careers as professors of French literature. After I came to UCLA in 1969, Alain Cohen, a graduate of the UCLA department teaching at UC San Diego, had introduced me to the ideas of the "Palo Alto" or Batesonian school of psychology and in particular to the 1967 book by Paul Watzlawick et al., The Pragmatics of Human Communication, whose authors develop the conception of pragmatic paradox. Having long been attracted to paradoxical thinkers such as Pascal or Kierkegaard and to paradox in general as a potential transcendence of rationalism, including Hegelian rationalism, I attempted to understand the "esthetic effect" of art as a form of pragmatic paradox. I continue to consider this idea essential, and have expressed it more recently in terms of the circular oscillation of the art-consumer's attention between the artistic "sign" in the work and the "referent" he constructs in his imagination and that constantly leads him back to the work.
Although this idea of the esthetic might have been said to be already anthropological, there was nothing originally "originary" about it. Yet, after reading La violence, a connection emerged that, by the time of my visit to Hopkins in 1978, had evolved to the point of allowing me to formulate an "originary hypothesis" that elaborated on and modified Girard's scenario. It seemed to me that Girard's conception of human origin, which for the moment "strategically" occluded the overarching Christian vision explicit in Mensonge romantique, could be assimilated to esthetic paradox, in that in both cases, what was an apparently closed or "circular" mechanism generated something qualitatively [End Page 2] new in the mode of the "always-already," as the Derrideans would put it. Indeed, at the time of the Esprit article, I had not yet thought about the relevance of the key Derridean concept of deferral to the Girardian scene, which I...