What Oedipus can teach us about the COVID crisis

by Cynthia Haven

What is worse – coronavirus itself, or the social and economic catastrophe that comes with it?

René Girard, one of the leading thinkers of our era, argued that the biological and social aspects of a plague are interwoven: he points out that historians still debate whether the Black Death was a cause or a consequence of the social upheavals in the 14th century.

The Stanford professor, who died in 2015 at age 91, has been called “the new Darwin of the human sciences,” but he began as a literary theorist. His work, beginning in the 1960s, offered a new concept of human desire: our desires are not our own, he said, but are “mimetic.” As social creatures, we learn what to want from each other. Imitation leads to competition, which leads to conflict, which then spreads contagiously throughout a community. Eventually, the community targets one person or group to blame for the disorder, someone like Oedipus. The targeted scapegoats are punished, expelled, or in the past, often killed. Girard began in literature, but quickly took on anthropology, sociology, religions, and more. And while he initially wrote mostly about myths in archaic societies, he eventually became an observer of contemporary culture, focusing on rivalry, violence, and warfare today.

Towards the end of his life, he wrote about the social ramifications of natural disasters, and plagues are no exception. Certainly our desires and hostilities have proven as contagious as COVID-19, which has in many ways fueled and exacerbated them, and variously targeting presidents, governments, protestors, and the Chinese for blame.

In 2005, Girard met with Robert Pogue Harrison, author of Juvenescence: A Cultural History of Our Age; Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, and The Dominion of the Dead, for a two-part interview on Harrison’s celebrated “Entitled Opinions” radio and podcast series, available on iTunes.

The full transcript is among the interviews included in the Conversations with René Girard: Prophet of Envy, edited by Cynthia L. Haven, published this month by Bloomsbury.

Harrison:  How does a natural disaster, like a plague, unleash mimetic contagion among a community?

Girard: We have lots of descriptions, ancient and modern. If you read descriptions of plagues in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, you will see that many people understand that scapegoat phenomena are connected. Of course, as long as the real plague is going on, a scapegoat is not going to solve the problem.

Harrison:  Right.

Girard: But the problem that it will solve is the total disunion, the disruption of the community, which is caused by the mimetic belief of everybody that someone else is responsible.

Harrison:  This is the cornerstone of your theory of the foundation of ritual. It entails the scapegoating of a victim by a collective. Can you say how you went from mimetic desire to your theory that the so-called “scapegoat mechanism” lies at the origins of human societies?

Girard: Mimetic desire, when it spreads, spreads violence with itself, conflict among people, rivalry, because it means that people all desire the same thing. Now, how far can that go?

There are signs that communities—archaic communities, but even modern communities, all communities—are subject to disturbances that tend to spread to the entire community contagiously, through a form of mimetic desire. If you have two people who desire the same thing, you will soon have three, when you have three, they contaminate the rest of the community faster and faster. The differences that separate them collapse. And therefore you go toward what I call a mimetic crisis, the moment when everybody at the same time is fighting over something. Even if that object disappears, they will go on fighting, because they will become obsessed with each other. And as that conflict grows, it threatens to destroy the whole community.

What happens to end that sort of crisis? My answer to this is that one particular victim seems to more and more people to be responsible for the whole trouble. In other words, the mimetic contagion moves from desire to a specific victim.

When this happens, everybody becomes hostile to that victim. Ultimately, that victim is going to be … the only technical term that exists in English is “lynching.”

The lynching of a victim, of a single victim, causes the community to be reconciled against that victim. Therefore that victim is hated as being responsible for the trouble. But immediately after, if the trouble ends there, that victim will be worshipped as the one who resolved that conflict. In my view, the main characteristic of archaic or even ancient gods is that they are both bad and good. That duality is extremely important – a sign that behind that victim is the “scapegoat” of that community. In other words, the victim universally chosen, is not in fact responsible for anything, but is chosen by the mimetic contagion and, therefore, is perceived, first, as guilty and then as a savior, a god.

What amazes anthropologists about the ritualization of violence is that sacrifices are usually preceded by a free fall, in which the entire community has been disrupted. They don’t understand why, in order to stop disruption, you should go into a greater disruption. But what you do is to imitate the whole process of crisis and resolution, and that is what ritual is. And indeed, it works.

Harrison:  Let me read something that you said in an interview you gave with Diacritics in 1978: “It is true that many interpretations and variations of the same mythical text are possible but they are all false and one interpretation alone is true, the one which reveals the structuring power of the persecutors’ standpoint, to which all the others remain blind.”

Would you say in retrospect that you overstated the case?

Girard: The case is overstated if the evidence that goes with it is not mentioned, which is the case now. You have to see the evidence.

To have a scapegoat phenomenon in a text, no scapegoat must be mentioned, because people must believe in the guilt of the victim. The god who is a scapegoat is both very bad and very good. How can you make sense out of that continuously without something like the scapegoat phenomenon? How could not the sacrificial crisis, in which everybody is against everybody else, ultimately be solvable through this principle of the single scapegoat?

Mimetic desire spreads around in diverse ways until it gets all people fighting. The only way to solve this type of conflict is through a single victim. And a single victim is possible because, at that point, everybody is doing the same thing.

I could reply with a question, “Do you believe there are scapegoats in our society?”

If there are scapegoats in our society, it’s obvious that, in an archaic society, these scapegoats would have been victims, would have been killed.

Harrison: But let’s take a commonsensical reading of mythology – for example, Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It is a compendium of all sorts of different kinds of myths –

Girard: Yes, but it’s a compendium without the end. Ovid is doing something very literary and very different from a myth.

He’s collecting myths for their picturesqueness. He’s very popular with us precisely because he takes the teeth out of them and turns them into stories. So thanks to people like Ovid, we think that myths are nothing but stories.

Harrison: So the myths that you have in mind are which ones exactly? Are they archaic myths, the oldest ones?

Girard: Well, sure. We don’t have too many myths from these really archaic societies because it was very difficult for nineteenth-century Westerners to get the natives to tell their myths in an intelligible way. But some people were extremely gifted at that, and we have enough myths to understand that they are scapegoat stories. They are all misunderstood scapegoat stories.

Harrison: Let’s take one myth. The Oedipus myth was huge for Freud. He built a whole theory of the unconscious on it. You have your own reading of that myth. It is the perfect mimetic crisis situation that you were describing earlier. There’s a plague…

Girard: There’s a plague going on and it is described in the tragedy. There was probably also a sacred kingship, in which the king was a god. Therefore, he had to be guilty like a god. He had to commit incest and parricide. He had to commit all sorts of crimes. We saw with our own eyes, at the beginning of colonization, that there were sacred kingships in Africa which were just like the Oedipus myth. When they appointed the king, they had him commit incest with his sister or his mother, and he was told he had to do it to scare his own people into believing that he was both a dangerous man and a savior, for the reasons that mythical heroes are.

Harrison: Well, here one gets a sense of how you bring a very special hermeneutic to bear on the ancient texts and the archaic myths that we’re dealing with. From what you say, they are distortions of some originary event. They have power to reveal what’s at work. Archaic societies were founded on this connection between violence and the sacred…I’m using the title of your book here, Violence and the Sacred (1972), in which you see violence as the necessary form of the sacred in ancient societies. However, they come together in a way that, actually, enables societies to survive these crises.

Girard: That’s right –

Harrison: Societies survived their mimetic crises by committing measured, ritualized acts of violence, which saved the collective from cannibalizing itself.

Girard: And there’s proof that it works. Even someone as intelligent and as modern as Aristotle thought that the tragic hero who was killed at the end was fundamentally guilty. In other words, hamartia indicates mythical guilt – which no one has ever identified, really. It is the guilt of Oedipus.


Does it sound far-fetched? Maybe not so much. René Girard notes that in Crime and Punishment, “Raskolnikov has a dream during a grave illness that occurs just before his final change of heart, at the end of the novel. He dreams of a worldwide plague that affects people’s relationship with each other. No specifically medical symptoms are mentioned. It is human interaction that breaks down, and the entire society gradually collapses.” He cited this passage:

He dreamt that the whole world was condemned to a terrible new strange plague that had come to Europe from the depths of Asia. All were to be destroyed except a very few chosen. Some new sorts of microbes were attacking the bodies of men, but these microbes were endowed with intelligence and will. Men attacked by them became at once mad and furious. But never had men considered themselves so intellectual and so completely in possession of the truth as these sufferers, never had they considered their decisions, their scientific conclusions, their moral convictions so infallible. Whole villages, whole towns and peoples went mad from the infection. All were excited and did not understand one another. Each thought that he alone had the truth and was wretched looking at the others, beat himself on the breast, wept, and wrung his hands. They did not know how to judge and could not agree what to consider evil and what good; they did not know whom to blame, whom to justify. Men killed each other in a sort of senseless spite. They gathered together in armies against one another, but even on the march the armies would begin attacking each other, the ranks would be broken and the soldiers would fall on each other, stabbing and cutting, biting and devouring each other. The alarm bell was ringing all day long in the towns; men rushed together, but why they were summoned and who was summoning them no one knew. The most ordinary trades were abandoned, because everyone proposed his own ideas, his own improvements, and they could not agree. The land too was abandoned. Men met in groups, agreed on something, swore to keep together, but at once began on something quite different from what they had proposed. They accused one another, fought and killed each other. There were conflagrations and famine. All men and all things were involved in destruction. The plague spread and moved further and further. Only a few men could be saved in the whole world. They were a pure chosen people, destined to found a new race and a new life, to renew and purify the earth, but no one had seen these men, no one had heard their words and their voices. – (From Crime and Punishment, trans. Constance Garnett)