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“More than ever, I am convinced that history has meaning—and that its meaning is terrifying,” wrote René Girard.
The apocalyptic Girard saw that history was trending toward increased mimetic conflict. For the first time in history, humanity had all of the technological means to destroy itself almost instantaneously.
The only thing more terrifying than believing that history has a meaning and that its meaning is terrifying is everyone believing that history has a different meaning.
Girard thought history’s meaning was terrifying because humanity had rejected a lifeline from God—the only thing that could keep it from imploding. The Belgian playwright Émile Cammaerts summed up the predicament in different terms: “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing. They then become capable of believing in anything.”
Meaning-makers are a dime-a-dozen. Meaning comes from each person’s stable of mimetic models. There is no transcendent model, no meta-narrative, no meaningful story that binds us all together as part of a shared stream of history. Americans can’t even agree about the founding date or principles of our country.
This is the situation diagnosed by the French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard, who wrote that the mark of post-modernism is “incredulity toward metanarratives,” or a refusal to agree about which story we’re all actually playing a part in—like leaves that don’t recognize the very tree on which they’re growing.
Here’s Bob Dylan, reflecting on the American Civil War:
“Back there, America was put on the cross, died, and was resurrected. There was nothing synthetic about it. The godawful truth of that would be the all-encompassing template behind everything that I would write.”
You may agree with that interpretation or not, but it was shared by many people for some time.
Today, the President of the United States could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and nobody would be able to agree about what actually happened. Within an hour, thousands of different stories would spread. The Social Media Machine and the media would quickly form 10,000 different micro-narratives, each one adopted and fed by different micro-communities.
A lack of shared experience has contributed to this, but also a lack of belief that meaning is made and shared between people—not a product of our independent, autonomous, Imperial Selves. Meaning is now individual.
This modern notion was summed up by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s notorious words in the 1992 Casey case: "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life."
René Girard’s concept of the Romantic Lie—the idea that our desires are the product of our autonomous selves—applies just as well to narratives. We could call them Romantic Narratives. They’re the product of Romantic Lies.
Yes, we live in a “narrative economy”—but those narratives only last as long as an NFT has gas, or the length of time between Federal Reserve meetings, or as long as the news cycle.
We live in a world with many micro-narratives, but with no underlying, unifying meta-narrative.
With the loss of meta-narrative comes a loss of pattern recognition.
Searching for Patterns
In 1871, Heinrich Schliemann, a German businessman and amateur archeologist, set out to find the lost city of Troy with a copy of the Iliad under his arm. He was the only one who believed that the texts of Homer actually contained truths about the real world.
While everyone in the academy laughed at him, Schliemann dug up in 1873 what would come to be recognized as the ancient city described in Homer’s works. With his discovery, Schliemann reignited Homeric studies, archeological interest, and the study of classic Greek culture.
Schliemann is the best precedent for the discovery of the French social theorist René Girard.1 Girard read classic works of literature—Cervantes, Stendhal, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, Proust, and others—with fresh eyes, believing that they contained truths about human nature. He believed, contrary to many other literary theorists of the day, that one could find a pattern or basic structure across the texts.
The pattern that Girard found was a structure of desire: it is fundamentally mimetic. Because people model their desires on what other people want and come to view them as rivals to the fulfillment of their own desires, there is a principle of rivalry at the heart of human relations. (Ezra Klein, in his Why We’re Polarized, doesn’t seem to grasp the role that mimesis plays.)
This kind of anthropological pattern recognition is sorely needed today. Rather than ask what the rise of cryptocurrency says about the nature of money or government control or finance, we could ask what it says about us.
Rather than rail against Silicon Valley fraud in the person of Elizabeth Holmes, I wonder if we could learn something important about ourselves and why Holmes was able to do what she did in the first place.
Rather than view ancient and sacred texts like the bible as outdated, with nothing to say to people of our time, it would be worth examining them closely—as Schliemann and Girard would’ve done—to see what deep truths the text hold about human nature.
Girard differed from Schliemann in one other key way: he believed that truths about human nature could be gleaned not just from what the texts actually said, but what they didn’t say.
He saw that even if a meta-narrative was a lie, it was still a meta-narrative and thus worth paying attention to because language reveals just as much as it conceals.
What’s the meta-narrative of modern society? What’s the fundamental truth that more and more people believe but no-one seems to want to articulate explicitly? If Girard is right, we should find clues to this meta-narrative everywhere.
Before we get to that, though, here’s a brief look at some of the traditional narratives.
The Anti-Hero’s Journey
Another major figure of the twentieth century who saw patterns in texts was the great Joseph Campbell, professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College whose work was in comparative mythology and comparative religion. He is most famous for his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, published in 1949, in which he laid out his theory that every hero depicted in great stories undertakes a journey with a similar structure.
We tell stories because we look for meaning and significance in our lives. Journalist Bill Moyers puts it like this:
“We all need to understand death and to cope with death, and we all need help in our passages from birth to life and then to death. We need for life to signify, to touch the eternal, to understand the mysterious, to find out who we are."
Coping with life, finding significance in life, and living vicariously through someone else as a form of entertainment is more than mere entertainment—when we laugh or cry, there is something deeper going on. Something is touching our soul.
People around the world, no matter where they are, tell the same kinds of stories. That’s because the human psyche is essentially the same. We see ourselves as individuals on our own personal journeys. We are all the hero of our own life. And what is the hero? It’s the representation of our own psyche’s quest to distinguish ourselves from other people. Each of us is the main character in our own drama.
The problem is not seeing how our drama is caught up in the greater drama of humanity—connecting the personal narrative to the meta-narrative.
Blake Snyder, in his book “Save the Cat!: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need” (which should be required reading by every reader, even every entrepreneur—not just screenwriters), writes that the most important scene in every movie used to be the “Save the Cat” scene. It’s not often included in movies today.
“Because liking the person we go on a journey with is the single most important element in drawing us into the story… It’s the scene where we meet the hero and the hero does something—like saving a cat—that defines who he is and makes us, the audience, like him.”
He goes on to say that there are really only 10 types of movies:
Buddy Story: Male/Male or Male/Female—doesn’t matter. Two characters who hate each other at the beginning of the story become friends. See Planes, Trains, and Automobiles or Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
Institutionalized: Someone is stuck with a group of people (One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest). The movie is all about: “Am I the crazy one, or are they the crazy ones?” I think these are my personal favorite.
The Fool Triumphant: The main character seems like a fool, but he’s the one who succeeds and ends up looking like the healthiest one of all (Forrest Gump).
The Golden Fleece. The oldest type of story—a person or group sets out to find something. The Wizard of Oz.
Superhero. Somebody discovers that he/she is a super-being. The fun part is all about seeing them adapt and live that newly-discovered identity out.
Who Done It/Why Done It: A detective story like China Town—trying to figure out a mystery.
Monster in the House: classic horror films.
Out of the Bottle: Cautionary tale. Someone gets or makes a wish, and it changes their life. Liar, Liar.
Dude with a problem. Someone who is ordinary has something extraordinary happen to them and they have to deal with it. Harry Potter.
Rites of Passage: A big change in life—kid to teenager, or someone who is working retires, etc. Ratatouille is a nice example of this. It’s about a rate who wants to cook. But he has to undergo a rite of passage.
(P.S. Basically every startup narrative falls into one of these 10 categories, too. Look for it.)
These ten forms of story still hold. You’ll find soporofic NetFlix shows harnessing their power weekly.
But there’s a twist: there’s now an Anti-Hero’s Journey. A deeply ambivalent or immoral character travels down the ladder rather than up it.
While the idea of an Anti-Hero has been around for a very long time, the modern idea of an irredeemable evil character like Walter White (I love Breaking Bad, by the way) reveals what I think is one of the dominant meta-narratives: a belief in a Manichean.
(In my recent interview with Chloé Valdary on race relations, she used this phrase to describe the modern situation—completely unprompted. So many are seeing it.)
In a Manichean worldview, everything and everybody can be divided neatly between good or evil, light or dark, love and hate. Manicheanism was a religion popular in the 3rd century (which claimed Augustine of Hippo as one of its strictest adherents for a time before his conversion), founded by the Parthian prophet Mani in the Sasanian Empire. It was founded on a radical dualist cosmology and anthropology.
In the Manichean mind, there’s a battle between good and evil taking place at all times. And like all good heresies, it contains a kernel of truth which it dramatically distorts.
Today the categories are different. You’re racist or anti-racist; for progress or against it; American or un-American. Few people care about saving the cat. Politicians intentionally do things to make their political enemies hate them.
Saving the cat has devolved into virtue signaling to one’s own group. I’m not even sure what the universal symbol of cat-saving is anymore. Everyone is saving whatever the equivalent of a cat is—and within their own micro-narrative.
Today, cats have a thousand faces. And herding those cats will prove to be impossible.
We save all the victims, but they can no longer unite us.
Thank you, as always, for reading.
As an aside, this is a video of people really saving a stray cat from a fall at a Miami Hurricane’s football game last week.
The favorite analogy of Girard’s friend and Stanford colleague, Robert Harrison: https://bookhaven.stanford.edu/2015/03/heirs-of-history-or-its-orphans/