Chronicles of Love and Resentment

Eric Gans

Originary Guilt

No. 333: Saturday, April 15, 2006

At the recent American Comparative Literature Association meeting at Princeton (about which I may have more to say in another Chronicle), Adam Katz and I discussed among other things the significance of guilt as a component of the originary event. The ideas expressed below are an extension of this discussion.

In Totem and Taboo, Freud goes to great lengths to derive the Oedipus complex from an "originary" father-murder. Freudís murder scene is a direct ancestor of Girardís, which replaces the tyrannical father by an "arbitrary" emissary victim. For both, this event is the beginning of interdiction. Freud attributes the "sonsí" subsequent renunciation of the fatherís wives--the purported origin of the incest taboo--to guilt over the murder. But the guilt in Freudís scene does not require a murder; it is structurally implicit in the sons' resentment of their asymmetrical relationship with their father. The resenter desires the end of this asymmetry at the same time as he requires its persistence in order to maintain his desire. As for Girardís "unanimous" participants, the extreme contrast between the preceding mimetic crisis and the peace that follows the discharge of aggression in the murder provokes a feeling of awe in which both the crisis and the peace are identified with the victim of this aggression. The overt sense of guilt toward the victim begins for Girard with the Judeo-Christian tradition, as exemplified in the Biblical story of Cain and Abel.

For generative anthropology, guilt is best understood as a correlate of participation in the originary sparagmos. We understand guilt not as an emotion but, like resentment, as an existential attitude or disposition, a function of the structure of the scene. Where Freud puts the father at the center, in our more parsimonious configuration, originary resentment is directed at the sacred center as such. (The Girardian scapegoat is an emanation of this resentment rather than the other way around.) Since the central object, but not central Being, is destroyed in the sparagmos, originary resentment is followed by originary guilt, both of which are directed not at fellow humans on the periphery but at the sacred center itself, which mediates all interhuman relationships. The Ten Commandments make this mediation evident, if not explicit, by listing first crimes against God, then crimes against other humans.

The representation that sacralizes the object anticipates its desecration; the sacred feast is a guilty celebration. Freudís originary intuition is justified, except that guilt is not a derivative of the Oedipus complex but of our coexistence with the sacred. Guilt is the awareness inherent in the sign that its user is complicit in the destruction of the sacred object. The resentment previously focused on the object is now directed at the sacred itself as a being or force that interdicts the full possession of this object . Since the center is now empty, the resentment can only be renewed in the participantís "guilty" imagining of the remembered victim. The deliberate evocation of the object through representation arouses in the perceiver the oscillatory movement between the representation and its imaginary referent that we call the esthetic.

When interdictions become laws, criteria are established by which their infraction may be judged. In appearance, such procedures localize guilt among those responsible for specific infractions, leaving the others "innocent." But originary guilt or original sin is a part of human ontology that preexists the juridical notion of criminal or civil guilt, which derives from it. The violation of a law may even be motivated by the need to expiate originary guilt through one's crime; readers of literature will not lack for examples.

As a test of the concept of originary guilt, we may turn to the Heideggerian-existentialist view of the human as presence-to being (Dasein) thrown-into the world (geworfen), filled with Angst before death. How are these "modern" attitudes to be understood in terms of the originary hypothesis?

The ontologies of Heidegger and Sartre are atemporal; modernity, to the extent it is considered at all, is characterized by the "inauthentic" dissimulation of the truths of the human condition, which implicitly provides a stimulus to the philosopherís analysis. The inherent problem in these ontologies of the human is that a trait such as thrownness (Geworfenheit), which we associate willy-nilly with the era in which the analysis was composed, has no clear anthropological status. We are all formed within a culture we did not create, but is the member of a tribal culture "thrown" in the same way as we but merely less, or differently, aware of it? Considered in the context of the originary hypothesis, the lateness of the "thrown" individual is not merely the fate of those not present at the originary event, but of its participants as well, in the sense that the being of the central object is experienced as preexisting the sign that represents it. The participant who first converts his gesture of appropriation into a sign implies that the object is not a neutral element selected out of the world by his appetite but is, within the "cultural" context of the scene, the preexisting source of his attentiveness to it, which we must therefore call desire. The use of the sign, in other words, is from the outset a tacit admission that its user was "thrown" into the world where representation of a preexistent Being is necessary. The sign-user is present-to being by definition, but insofar as he must obliterate this presence, he experiences originary guilt for his "crime."

Similarly, being-for-death, which depends on our consciousness of our own mortality, has its origin not simply in the fear of death that makes the individual participants in the scene back off from attempting to possess the object, but in the incarnation of this fear in the object itself, for whose destruction the participants are responsible. What does it mean to know that we will die? We do not know it merely as a proposition, something that is the case. In the originary scene it is the contrast between the permanence of the sign and the impermanence of its referent that provides us with the means to "know" our own death. But the sign does not refer to us directly. In order to "be toward death" we must identify with the central object as victim and see ourselves in its place. The appearance of half-human, half-animal figures in archaic cave paintings gives evidence that identification with the sacred victim was present at the earliest stages of human culture. The alternation between this originary identification and our originary guilt for participation in the victimís demise becomes explicit in the esthetic form of tragedy, where we identify both with the victim's desire and with the necessity of his agony.

We do not become aware of our originary guilt through a collective unconscious. Religious traditions, in one way or another, make us aware of the "original sin" we inherit from the originary scene. In all human experience this awareness is minimally provided by our possession of language, which links us historically to the violence of the originary event as well as to its deferral of violence. This suggests a way of understanding what we really mean when we characterize our society as secular as opposed to religious. In a religious community, an explicit story links our shared humanity to the originary event, so that our participation in the transcendence afforded by the sign is at the same time participation in the destruction of its originary referent. (Since the story, however "holy" its believers take it to be, posits a series of events, it can also be disbelieved; "free-thinking" is a possibility inherent in thinking tout court.) In contrast, in what we call secular society, no such story is generally accepted. But rejecting such stories on principle does not sever our historical connection to the originary event; it merely makes it less accessible, harder to thematize in relation to the individual self. The "secular" individual is forced to reconstitute for himself this historical connection that religious discourse provides as a ready-made package for the individual believer to assimilate to his own experience; whence the familiar Angst of modernity. Whence also the possibility of conceiving of an explicitly minimal reconstitution of the originary scene.

I have already dealt with the postmodern phenomenon of White Guilt at some length in several previous Chronicles (310, 311, 313, 316, 320, 323); a few words will suffice to situate it in the context of the present discussion. The Holocaust provided the West with a "secular" demonstration of originary guilt; unfettered human self-affirmation was equated with genocide. Whence the turn against not merely inequality but any form of consumption. White guilt is still expiating the originary sparagmos. An essential feature of white guilt, which these analyses have tended to take for granted, is its unreflective character. It is often expressed in religious terms, but not generally those of oneís own religious tradition; on the contrary, the tendency is to adopt a "personal" religion, whether Buddhism or Gaia-worship, primarily as a vehicle for the guilt. The Girardian scapegoat too may be seen as a figure of this postmodern return of originary guilt.

Generative anthropology differs from previous modes of thought by making explicit the historical derivation of guilt from the origin; it postulates the existence of a chain of events and leaves us to discover and reconstitute its links on the basis of available evidence. No doubt this does not simply free us from originary guilt; but conversely, this very fact is explicable most parsimoniously by the historical connection to the originary scene that GA proposes. The psychoanalytic search for the source of guilt in an unconscious trace of experience, personal or collective, is merely an attempt to short-circuit the reconstitution of this connection. On the contrary, accepting our originary guilt as a guarantee of anthropological knowledge is the first step toward acquiring it.

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Eric Gans / gans@humnet.ucla.edu
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