Political Atheism, Part I
What could René Girard possibly have meant by this term? Invitation to a discussion.
Last month I hosted, with a small group of readers, a conversation with former Levi’s executive. The audio from that event is at the bottom of this post (for paying subscribers).
Today’s short piece is the first part in a series on the concept of “Political Atheism.” I’ll be hosting a Salon to discuss it on Sunday, March 26, at 4pm ET. A link to our Mighty Networks community, where you can RSVP for the event, is also below. I have to cap attendance at 50 for this one, so don’t wait!
Today I want to introduce a concept in the hope that it inspires some lively conversation over the coming weeks.
The great social theorist René Girard once used a peculiar turn of phrase in the fifth chapter of his first book, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel. He called the French writer Marie-Henri Beyle, who is better known by his pen name, Stendhal, an “athée en politique” (an “atheist in politics”).
(If you want to take an interesting side track at this point, you can learn more about Stendhal Syndrome, or what is commonly known as an “art attack”, here.)
Now what could this strange phrase, “atheist in politics”, possibly mean? I will not attempt to give you any sort of definition—besides, I only have a very rough, working definition myself now, which I am constantly refining—so today I will simply give you some context about where this phrase came from.
To understand it, we have to go back to Stendhal and situate ourselves in the period shortly after the French Revolution, when Stendhal wrote one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century.
The spirit of Stendhal is embodied in the main character of his most well-known novel, The Red and the Black. The novel tracks the political career of the young man Julien Sorel, who ends up gaining the ability to see through the folly of internal mediation that raged during the Bourbon Restoration period in France.
The novel is ostensibly dealing with the question of monarchism vs. liberalism. But it is the flimsiness of the opposition between the two—and the degree to which political allies are interchangeable—that makes the novel so fascinating to me.
When Julien Sorel’s primary benefactor switches political parties, Girard writes that:
“Julian savors the ‘conversion’ of M. De Renal as a music lover who sees a melodramatic theme re-appear under a new orchestral disguise. Most men are taken by disguises. Stendhal places a smile on Julian’s lips so that his readers will not be deceived.”
In other words, Stendhal wants his readers to be in on the joke. We are not to believe too strongly, or perhaps not at all, in what things appear to be on the surface. Especially political things.
The “conversion” that Julien Sorel undergoes during the course of the novel is not a religious one, but a conversion of another kind. We might call it a “political conversion”—yet not from one party to another, but a conversion of his relationship to politics (and to a particular kind of mimesis) altogether.
Later in the same chapter of DDN, Girard also refers to the novelist Flaubert as a political atheist and implies that Alexis de Tocqueville may have been one, too.
We might think of the alternative to a political atheist—a political believer—as one who is constantly taken in by those who have perfected the practice of Saying All the Right Things, one who fails to see the logic of mimetic rivalry driving the plot. The political theist believes in political gods that are not real.
The world of appearances is deceptive, but a political atheist like Julien Sorel—because of his stance of disbelief in front of the political machinations of his day—is able to see through the fakery.
If we go back much further, we can find many examples of political actors who have perfected the art of doing or saying the right things in the false belief that nobody can see through them to their underlying desires. The apostle Judas Iscariot, when witnessing a woman pour perfumed oil on Christ’s feet to anoint him, said what he thought was the politically winning remark: “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” In the next sentence, he is called a disingenuous thief by the gospel writer.
The gospels, as Stendhal did many years later, pull back the veil on the hidden mimesis operating at deeper layers of the story, and of humanity itself.