BY Erik Morse in Critic's Guides | 01 MAR 10
Featured in
Issue 129

Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoît Chantre

René Girard (Michigan State University Press, 2009)

BY Erik Morse in Critic's Guides | 01 MAR 10

Wilhelm Wach, Carl von Clauswitz, 1820. Courtesy: akg. images. 

Fervent Catholic apologist and pioneer of the so-called mimetic school of anthropology, René Girard has trodden a scholastic path rife with intriguing contradictions. As a member of L’Académie française and Professor Emeritus at Stanford University’s French and Italian studies department, Girard’s career-long synthesis of behaviour theory and Christian dogma has produced dissension from both social scientists and nonsectarian humanists. Likewise, Girard’s unorthodox exegeses of the Passion of Christ and resurrection resulted in conflicts with many Vatican II catechetics. Despite the double-edged sword that Girard has encountered from the left and the right, his contributions to modern theory – including Deceit, Desire and the Novel (1961) and Violence and the Sacred (1972) – have earned a surprising discipleship among a new generation of religious scholars and Postmodern critics.

With Battling to the End – an informal dialogue between Girard and his long-time associate Benoît Chantre – the author has taken the ramifications of Christianity to its (il)logical extreme: warfare. While mimetic theory privileges violence as the fundamental contagion between individuals, the book elevates Girard’s classical description of the sacrificial lamb (what he calls the ‘founding murder’) to a world stage.

His subject is the 19th-century general and combat theorist Carl von Clausewitz, whose singular contribution to the discipline, Vom Kriege (On War, 1832), became the Ur-text for European demagogues and military strategists of the last 100 years. Although Clausewitz had little in the way of battlefield experience, his service under the Duke of Brunswick in the Cannonade of Valmy in 1792 left a profound blight on him. In the short skirmish, the professional armies of Europe’s First Coalition were roundly dispersed by the largely conscripted forces of the French Revolution. As Goethe prophesied of Valmy thereafter: ‘From this place, and from this day forth begins a new era in the history of the world, and you can all say that you were present at its birth.’

General Clausewitz chose a similarly apocalyptic tone in his preface to On War, and, as Girard explains in his critique, it was Clausewitz who first recognized in the escalating tensions between France and Prussia the foundation of modern warfare – what he would term ‘total war’. Unlike ‘real war’, which Girard claims most strategists underscored in order to privilege the machinations of the commander and the state, ‘total war’ transcended political rationality for the principle of the duel – the singular and primal form of reciprocal combat which ends in death. In the latter, conquest is no longer the chief object of combat; rather, the destruction of war becomes its own end. With the phenomenon of mass conscription, Napoleon provided Clausewitz with the horrifying realities of ‘total war’: complete militarization.

All of this forms a prelude to On War, but Girard is quick to pronounce Clausewitz’ project a flawed masterpiece because it ultimately eschews the primal energy of ‘total war’ for the political strategist, or the ‘warrior genius’ – an appellation that would reappear in various forms in the tenets of Nietzscheism, Bolshevism and Nazism. For the Catholic Girard, Clausewitz’ omission of Christ is the underlying fallacy behind his turn toward Enlightenment philosophy and away from the reality of apocalypse. If this leap from military history to Christian mysticism (and from Clausewitz to Jesus) proves confounding, Girard is insistent that the Passion and Second Coming are inextricably linked to the increasing human desire for violence, the so-called escalation to extremes. ‘There is nothing nihilistic about the apocalyptic spirit,’ Girard explains. ‘It can make sense of the trend toward the worst only from within the framework of very profound hope.’ In fact, the paradox Girard belabours throughout Battling to the End is Christ’s call for both peace and violence, initiating a world order that must pass through the atrocity of war in order to gain entrance to the Kingdom. Understanding this eschatology is only possible after man accepts mimesis to be his essential reality and the reality of religion. In other words, man is a religious being in so much as he is a violent being.

True to form, Girard dispenses more questions than answers and, throughout, accepts his dual role as intellectual and parishioner. The danger lies in the supreme delectation that he takes in interpreting Clausewitz as a Gospel prophet. While On War can be appreciated as a theoretical chronicle of Europe’s tumultuous combat history composed by an astute Prussian strategist, Battling to the End is an altogether different creature – an ambitious, often frustrating, religious endeavour that Clausewitz could hardly have fathomed.

Erik Morse is the author of Dreamweapon (2004) and Bluff City Underground: A Roman Noir of the Deep South (2012). He is a former lecturer at SCI-Arc, Los Angeles, USA, and the 2015 recipient of a Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant.