Rene Girard & the latest war

Following the terrible sequence of summer news from Syria & Iraq, all the atrocities... occurred to me today that the strange convolutions of recent upheavals might find some meaning through the anthropological-theoretical lens of Rene Girard.  Girard knows One Big Thing (he's the perfect example of Isaiah Berlin's "hedgehog" - as opposed to the "fox", who knows a little bit about everything) - & I have to approach his totalizing theory with caution.  Yet here we have a formation of current events which apparently could be illustrations of his Big Idea.

For Girard, human life & culture are rooted in subconscious "mimetic rivalry", culminating in "mimetic violence", & resolved (very imperfectly) by ritual sacrifice/scapegoating.  Is it possible to consider the Sunni-Shiite divide in Islam as an example of this?  Girard says that what begins as mimetic rivalry over a desired object - the psychological mechanism whereby because he has this thing, it must be good, so I must have it - morphs eventually into pure rivalry : the object itself is forgotten, it becomes simply a matter of me against him, us against them.

The appearance now of the "Islamic State", or ISIS, seems to have upended the formalized (& centuries-old) rivalry between the two sects.  For the time being, & in some places, Shiite & Sunni political groups are actually working together.   The transgressive violence of ISIS has set this in motion : Girard's idea that the vertiginous magnetism of social breakdown, leading to the obliteration of all social differences in a chaos of destructive violence, is that most-feared thing, the only thing that could bring the two sides to work together.  So now Iran & Saudi Arabia & the US are all converging to combat the common menace.

The trouble is, ISIS does not quite fit the Girardian pattern of the "arbitrary sacrificial victim" - the scapegoat whose sacrifice "resolves" (for a while) the pattern of violence, rivalry & vengeance.  History is a little "messier" than theory (as Pres. Obama noted recently).  Once ISIS is defeated, another candidate for the leadership of glamorized political violence will arise, another iteration of the crisis.

It seems to me that the phenomenon of militant Islam is rooted in a theological notion, perhaps a distortion of normative Islam (I don't really know).  The notion is that humans - followers of the Prophet - can know God's will, and carry it out in terms of a political sovereignty based on force.  It is the totalizing concept of theocracy : that divine law and human laws are one & the same.  God is essentially an invisible cosmic commanding officer; & if you know God's will, and those others do not, then those others must eventually submit to your will.

There are other ways of thinking about God, and the human soul, and the destiny of the earth; other ways of thinking about law and political justice.  The ancient Egyptians, for example, had very considerable notions of law & justice, in a civilization which lasted 3 or 4 thousand years before the monotheistic religions arose.  Not that I am lobbying for ancient Egyptian culture : this is just one example.

The Western concept of "natural law" is another example.  It's possible to believe that "divine Providence" has provided humanity in general - across the globe - with innate notions of good & evil, right & wrong, which are suitable & equipped for the ordinary challenges of civil, earthly society.  The "theological virtues", on the other hand, are distinct spiritual gifts, which lift the human soul toward its supernatural, eternal destiny.  This is inevitably a personal journey; one cannot compel a person, either by law or by sheer force, to inhabit a moral/spiritual dimension which only God can offer.  This kind of idea is at the root of Roger Williams' pioneering political construct, the "separation of Church & State".  Let human law govern one global humanity; let divine grace govern the individual soul.

Some such alternative theological ideas might come in handy, during the long future struggle with militant & violent political ideologies of all kinds.



Another sort of topical poem.  I'm on a Ravenna Diagram allegorical roll.  You, cher lecteur, are meant to look beneath the surface, as well as surf the surface.  For example : "prose Popeye" is a pun for the Greek rhetorical term prosopopeia.  A very old thing in poetry... in culture generally.  "Personification."  Archaic, prehistoric, in fact.  You put on a mask (persona) in order to represent something very hard to picture.  An absent Presence.  So the idea here is that fanaticism has a very weak or corrupted "picture" of the Good, the Divine, the Holy, the Person.  So they attack ancient religions they know nothing about.  ISIS, for example (so ironically, the ancient Egyptian goddess...).  What is your "picture" of God?  We are all imperfect, many of us suffering from various mental distortions... so this might affect the image in our minds.  I think of Jesus in the Gospels saying "You must become as little children to enter the kingdom of God.  For these little ones always behold the face of their Father who is in heaven..."  Think of the adoration of children for the image of that which they need & love.  This is a psychological insight, you might say... to which my silly "prose Popeye" is pointing.


O big zebra-striped cicada
with the Air Force wings
found adrift this morning
in Sophie’s baby-purple wading

pool – can I identify with you?
Or maybe only your husk
was left behind.  Ask
Jonah in his whale, or Zarathustra

in his Cyrus-shade (serene
weatherman).  Inquire
of the Yezidi-martyrs
on their mountain.  Savage scene

of human inhumanity
today.  The mimic-men
love Mickey Mouse – then
spool to hate such levity;

they kill what they deny (themselves)
persecuting poor Me
in the name of purity –
pure folly (petty peevish dwarves).

I’ll circulate the prose Popeye
instead.  A sailor-sketch
of Pappy in his ketch
(the Pope, perhaps?).  Only the sigh

of Peacock Angel – delicate thread,
goldfinch trompette marine...
yet you sense what I mean :
bright Joan – ah! – surfing from the dead.



A Game of Chess


Another eleventh (August this time)
on brick-silly wasteland of
one shady summer patio.  Well
of hurry-up peas... bee-balm...

Joe-Pye weed... & yet this elfin
flower-team backyard
is not exempt.  The hard
news (frenzied shrunken headlines)

bearbaits me too.  From River Alph
to Yezidi desert, innocent
Peacock Angels get bent
down again.  The gibbering gulf

twixt glib libel & Guelf remains kiln-set
in demosthenic night.  Rainbows
of violets against violence? – how
coin bowl for Guinea-worm alphabet?

Sketches of Spain... Spanish Castle
Magic.  Convivial Jorge
the Gardenia been draggin’
me, all over.  Plays chess, too.

Iris, sez I, is a yurt-mother.
King’s taken baby steps
between crooks, bishops...
Q’s unreadable.  & here’s another

pawn to put in (yawning spacesuit).
A pair of carpenter asps
of the caduceus, Jasper –
dove from the deep.  Shalom (checkmate).



On the Inability of our Elected & Well-Paid Partisans to Enact Immigration Reform, or Any Other Useful Legislation


August, goldenrod of the Caesars...
& the paisan smile (inscrutable
& sad).  Drawn to the water table
of lakes & seashore, the sea’s recess.

Fold-on-fold cascades (irretrievable
decades).  In the crazy-quilt
of recursive fields... your guilty
maize, & mine (South-Sea Bubble

of the mind).  The Omaha train
pulls out at 7.  Osage
family.  On the last stage of
mourning (in the land, under the rain).

Traveling without their kids (Honduran,
Guatemalan)  refugees
from the stupidities.
Natural harbor (salty, hardpan).

Paralloid Congress troops into recess.
Up to the lake somewhere.
Collective crowd-esteem, hot air
fog spectacles with greediness –

navigators led by speech-balloons
exhale (from stingy lungs)
each bartered hearts’ unsung
remorse.  So an unseen moon’s

ray numbers our undoing.  Unkind
theoreticals & partisan
we mold a house from sand
that cannot stand.  Yet, love is blind...



Lafayette, we are here

The first poem I wrote after arriving in Providence had an epigraph, "after reading Apollinaire".  That was 44 years ago, in the spring of 1970.  I'm still after Apollinaire, I guess.  This is another "occasional poem", on the sad occasion of the 100 years of war since the War to End All Wars began (in which my grandfather, Edward S. Gould, was a captain in the 124th Artillery.  "Lafayette, we are here").

(A few days ago I remembered that in my grandparents' apartment, near the U of M & the Mississippi River, there was to be seen not only Grandpa's big brass shell ("the last shell fired in the Great War," he always said), & not only his rack of ever-present pipes & tobacco fumes, but also an old print, hanging over the dinner table - a formal 18th-century dance, with Lafayette twirling on his toes, & George Washington & friends off to one side, looking on.)


That pudgy Parisian poet-vet
tattooed all over with scars –
a Queequeg of the War
to End All Wars (but not just yet) –

he of the blundered parentage (the
Pope was perhaps his father?)
– all that Roman bother –
a fenced-in pyramidical sage

gypsoid tumbleweed, fuming
over his Dallas Lorelei
across the Rhine (goodbye,
good luck)... O trench-spit spuming

rural rose!  & the grapevine murmurs
Marne, Loire... the soil
of France – the ceaseless toil
of dew, pour l’amour de Dieu (showers

of tipsy fireflies in the wind-blown
hair of remote by-ways, so
gently merveilleuse)...
Adroit the boatman, who hath sewn

these sails – hath bent these anchored ribs
into prow, & figure-
head (one pierced oreille);
subtle the fisherman (Gennesareth

swab) who scanned these Galilean farms
with an ear to the waves.
Apr├Ęs l’Armistice, he saves
a little pipesmoke... (ashen charms).



Cosmos vs. chaos


        one if by land, two if by sea

The labyrinth of your fingerprint,
Sophie.  The human touch,
impregnable (not much).
Love’s murmur in sleep – rue, mint...

only rumors, next morning.
Kuala Lumpur, O
KL!  Five years ago now.
Humid trance-kayak, flush with beaming

taxi-drivers (& one friendly Parsi
from Indie-archipelago).
Quiet storefront Tao-
templa.  Shrines, mosques...

all side-by-side (recumbent lakes
amid brass moped squalls).
Phoebe & Khaled’s
tropical apartment (your namesakes’

Polynesia to come).  Long flight
Boston Los Angeles Seoul
(Malaysia Air).  All
to knit my future son, in law (bright

Baba-to-be, Sophie).  They fall
into the sea, these planes.
Or to the earth.  Cranes
drift to Missouri... elegant, sprawl

(regal, awkward) in the naked stream.
All the birds of the air
shall make nests... where?
OK, acorn (steep cowpoke dream).