The Art of Disengagement
Midsommar, The Mimetics of Stoning, and subversion.
René Girard once remarked that the Egyptian pyramids—stone monuments constructed over the tops of dead kings—were architectural designs that symbolized something more profound in human behavior. The pyramids, he said, are a reflection of what a pile of rocks looks like after a collective stoning. Art reflects nature.
“There is no culture without a tomb and no tomb without a culture; in the end the tomb is the first and only cultural symbol. The above-ground tomb does not have to be invented. It is the pile of stones in which the victim of the unanimous stoning is buried. It is the first pyramid.” —René Girard
The pyramidal design of the Egyptians was not used for aesthetic reasons. It was used because it most accurately reflected a cultural truth: ritualized violence, covered up under layer upon layer of culture.
This week I’ll give the hidden backstory to the events that take place in the 2019 horror film Midsommar.
First, a word on stoning.
The Mimetics of Stoning
Where did the phrase “casting the first stone” come from, and why does it carry such cultural power? The words themselves come from the eighth chapter of the gospel of John, the story of Jesus subverting the ritual stoning of a woman caught in adultery.
But why the enduring power? Why has the phrase been passed down for thousands of years? What is it, really, about the first stone that is so important? Why did Jesus refer to it in the first place?
As Girard has written, the uniqueness of the first stone is something easily overlooked: it’s the only stone without a model. The person who throws the first stone has no mimetic model to follow, no example of violence to mimic. That’s why casting the first stone is so difficult.
The second stone is magnitudes easier to throw than the first because there is mimetic desire involved. The third is even easier—it has two models. Every stone thereafter has more and more models. The ninth or tenth stone can be thrown hardly without thinking. These stones have the force of eight or nine models or example stones behind them.
The “example” modeled is not just a behavior. That is not its power. It is a desire—the desire to make a victim pay for a crime. It’s this desire—and not the mere act of throwing the stone—that is nearly irresistible.
After all, if I told you to hurl a stone as hard and passionately as you could toward nowhere in particular—toward the sky—how mimetic would that desire really be? Not very. But if I hurled a stone toward the face of someone I’ve convince you is a monster—someone everybody else seems to think is a monster, too—well…
Now you have a target. Participation becomes easy.
We normally don’t use stones these days. We have other instruments—technological, media, and social in nature—to affect the same kind of outcome.
It’s not hard to imagine how stoning could have been a form of collective punishment for some transgression, real or perceived, in ancient cultures. For ancient peoples, a barrage of stones thrown at one person was one of the most devastating and deadly weapons available.
It’s not the power of the rock that is deadly; it’s the power of the social mechanism through which the rocks are thrown: all-against-one. A single rock thrown at me is not deadly; a hundred rocks hurled at my head in unison certainly is. Even the most powerful person in the world—even a king—becomes powerful when it is All-Minus-One versus One.
Stoning was a weapon that was “invented” quite naturally. It was an emergent property of the mimetic process. Never would everyone have decided to pick up and hurl a stone at one person at exactly the same time. This kind of behavior requires models.
Stoning, while originating spontaneously in ancient cultures, had developed into a highly ritualized form of punishment by the time the Torah was written. What had been done spontaneously was codified and written into the law. It had become a ritualized sacrifice.
This is where we pick up the story of Midsommar.
Strange People, or Kindred People?
Midsommar is a movie about a group of American grad students (notably, several of them study cultural anthropology) who are invited by a Swedish friend to his ancestral village commune in rural Sweden. Once there, the Americans find themselves in the middle of a pagan cult—a ritual celebration involving human sacrifice that occurs once every 90 years.
As viewers, we are dropped into the story at the beginning of one of these 90-year festivals, unaware of the historical development that led up to the strange ritual occurring in the first place. This is an important omission.
Midsommar is well-written and beautifully shot. It kept my attention for the entire 2 ½ running time. But I wanted to know more about the people who were involved this bizarre cult. Who are they, and how did they become like this?
I understand—it’s a horror film. We want to get straight to the horror and not spend a lot of time figuring how the monsters became the monsters. This isn’t Dexter. We don’t need to get inside the heads of these people. Again, this is a horror film, Luke—don’t ask too much.
But we should. The problem is not that we’re asking too much. The problem is that we’re asking too little. Not just about the film, but about the forms of ritualized violence that we see in our culture.
The greatest danger of watching a film like Midsommar is believing that the disfunction is something foreign, the stuff of horror movies alone, a village of backward, pagan Swedes—people that have nothing to do with us.
That’s a deadly mistake on our part. It is for some of the characters in the movie, too.
Two of the main characters look right past the horrific sacrifices and compete over who gets to write about the phenomenon in his doctoral thesis. It’s just “their culture,” they think (good cultural relativists as they are—something they probably learned from the social science departments at their prestigious universities).
Then they participate in the sacrificial rituals, not understanding that they are the sacrifice.
The film has a sense of inevitability about it, as most horror films do. But in this one, the horror is not a slasher character wielding a chainsaw or a knife. The horror is mimesis.
The scary thing for me is how easily the Americans play the roles that the Swedes want them to play. The primary danger to the Americans at this pagan festival is participating in the rituals without the power or ability to resist—they are like people at a stoning after the 8th or 9th stones have been cast.
Purdue professor Sandor Goodhart has remarked that there are no ‘observers’ at lynchings. “If you’re at a lynching, you are of the lynchers!”
Freedom is one of the key themes in the movie, and one of the key themes of this newsletter.
So while we don’t have time to explore the Girardian roots of a sacrificial crisis in one newsletter (two full chapters in Wanting unpack this in full), I do want to touch on one important aspect of being anti-mimetic: disengagement.
The Art of Disengagement
In a community as small and insulated as the Swedish commune in Midsommar—hermetically sealed off from the rest of humanity—mimetic desire runs rampant. Men imitate one another in wanting the same woman; women imitate one another in wanting the same men. People compete for honor and respect and status, but it can’t be evenly distributed. There are thousands of tiny squabbles, slights, and injustices. It must’ve been similar to Thebes before Oedipus was made a victim.
On the visible surface, it may not look like much at all is happening. But if we could shine a black light on the souls of the people involved, it would reveal intertwining and overlapping tensions, rivalries, and hatred—a war of all against all.
Under the surface, mimesis grows. The Swedes have no outlet for the growing mimetic tension other than the one that most cultures, through all of human history, have discovered: the scapegoat mechanism.
By directing their aggression away from each other and toward a scapegoat, they disengage from one another and unite against one. The scapegoat saves them from themselves.
Scapegoating rituals always provide a form of what Aristotle called catharsis. Through participation in the sacrifices, people are able to work out and relieve emotional and violent tensions which—if there were no outlet—would destabilize and maybe even destroy the community.
One of the most interesting features of the movie is the extent to which the entire community participates in the suffering of the sacrificial victims through their own cries, wails, tears, screaming: catharsis. It is their way of working out whatever internal issues they are plagued by at the expense of someone else.
They are caught up in a cycle of use and abuse that knows no end.
By the time the Americans in the film get to the commune in Sweden, the mimetic wheels have been turning for decades. The roller coaster has already made its ascent to the top of the hill. Getting off the ride at that point is extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible.
We have a bias in our society for engagement. The book The Power of Full Engagement was one of the most popular and influential books when I was cutting my death in the startup world. We’re told to lean in to things. To explore, to not be afraid, to probe the depths.
But that attitude is not always helpful.
The American anthropology students in the movie think they could be so detached so as to study the phenomenon of evil at enough distance to not get caught up in it themselves. The mysterium iniquitatis—the mystery of evil—is just that: a mystery. Thinking you can wrap your mind fully around it is a fatal conceit.
Whether you believe in supernatural forces or not, it’s worth noting that every exorcist in the world warns against the danger of becoming too curious about demonology. The moment you believe you are most immune to something is the moment you are most easily seduced.
The act of disengaging from the destructive forces of mimetic desire—the kind that pulls you in and takes over your life—is one of the most undervalued and unacknowledged abilities in the world.
The person who has the ability to disengage from the news is not “ignorant”—he’s anti-mimetic. The person who isn’t drawn into petty arguments and rivalries is not a coward—he’s prudent.
Pride and a false sense of independence make the number of people who have learned how to disengage exceedingly rare. We call those who are good at it “meek” or “docile,” in a diminutive way, without realizing the wisdom inherent in knowing what to look at and what not to look at.
Knowing what to pay attention to and what not to pay attention to is not “half the battle.” It’s practically the whole battle.
If we are likely to become what we most frequently think about and desire, then the things we look at, listen to, and entertain are the stuff that ends up being most formative.
As we head into the politically charged days and weeks ahead, it’s a good time to practice the art of disengagement—to know when to retreat or disengage from those conversations, from the media, and from the people who require scapegoats. Take the via negativa. Decide right now what you refuse to engage in.
Put wax in your ears and tie yourself to the mast of your ship, if needed. There are apps for that.
At the end of Midsommar, there is a scapegoat. There is catharsis. One character is visibly pleased about it—and the cost of that pleasure, the cost of leaning into it the cycle, is a lifetime of deadly mimesis.
We can start by examining our own relationship to the scapegoat. What feeling does it stir up within us to see the scapegoat sacrificed? Watch the movie. But more importantly, watch yourself—daily.
Then decide what is worth looking at, and what is worth running from.
A hypermimetic person is incapable of disengagement with the processes they are caught up in. An anti-mimetic person is able to disengage, and even subvert, these processes.
Anyone with the power to cast the first stone also has the power to cast a fishing line.
I’ll see you at the river.
Thanks for reading,
“Each person must ask what his relationship is to the scapegoat. I am not aware of my own, and I am persuaded that the same holds true for my readers. We only have legitimate enmities. And yet the entire universe swarms with scapegoats” —René Girard