Sunday, 22 April 2012

Sovereign Hunger

Qualms mostly quelled, I went to see The Hunger Games with my brother and sister. Fr Barron in his commentary remarked on the connection with RenĂ© Girard’s idea of the scapegoating mechanism, in which all the tensions within a society are discharged on a few selected victims. Blaming, ostracizing or even killing them gives a temporary peace: order is restored.

The blame does not need to be placed on the individual. In the Hunger Games, the tributes expiate the past sins of their districts and, in doing so, atone for the nation (as Seneca remarks: it ‘knits us all together’, makes us at-one). Every time at the Reaping of the tributes, the President’s words are replayed:

This is how we remember our past. This is how we safeguard our future.

Scapegoating can take various forms. The victims are not necessarily depicted as repulsive; in fact, quite the opposite happens in the Hunger Games, where the tributes receive all kinds of goods, are dressed up to the best of their advantage and enjoy the admiring attention of all. They are the pride of their district: not only a sacrifice for expiation, but also a representative of the people.

This reminded me not so much of René Girard as of William Desmond, and his concept of the erotic sovereign. Eros, as Plato reminds us, is born of Plenty and Poverty, full and starved by turns; so there are erotic energies in man (including but not limited to the sexual) that strive to overcome all finite limits, all poverty in every sense of the word.

This can be seen in the hero, the self of infinite purpose, who strives without end to become more fully himself. (‘I want to still be me,’ as Peeta says; there must be an inner unity to the hero, a singleness of purpose, not mere good fortune.) The hero is isolated, like the scapegoat; just as the scapegoat is singled out to bear the blame of the community, the hero is singled out to bear the glory of the community. Singled out: single indeed, but always out of the whole and in relation to it. As Desmond says, the ‘unsatisfied longing for perfection is buoyed up in the vision of exemplars dedicated to ascend to the heights.’

The Hunger Games depict excellently what it means to be an erotic sovereign. It starts when Katniss and Peeta drive into the Capitol; Peeta looks out of the window and waves, awed by being the focus of so much attention. But the climax is yet to come. It comes at the Tribute Parade, where the team of each district wheels into a huge stadium in chariots. Katniss and Peeta are last in line, as usual, and we have already seen that their stylist has been planning something. We get a panoramic view of the whole stadium watching the chariots roll in to the triumphant anthem ‘Horn of Plenty’; the first verse’s last note is drawn out, something like a hush falls, and people lean forward in surprise, the commentator asking his buddy ‘What is that?’ As the swollen fermata bursts into an intenser hymnody, the entire cinema screen is at once filled by the living lit-up face of Katniss.

The Horn of Plenty for us all!

And I thought it was impressive on a laptop. Before we have recovered, we see Peeta and Katniss in tight black suits, flames billowing behind them.

Two young people, holding their hands up, saying, ‘I’m proud I come from District 12. We will not be overlooked!’ Now I love that!

Desmond says that erotic sovereigns are daimonic: powers between gods and ordinary mortals, marked by nobility but more intensely in danger of betraying the good. Daimons are lifted into the air; they do not yet dwell in heaven. Let anyone who thinks that he flies take heed lest he fall. Katniss falls. Because she is virtuous, because she has the makings of a sovereign, the whole nation of Panem focuses its hungry desires on her. Under such pressure, she cannot remain honest; she turns away from reality towards the show and the applause, from love of her neighbours to the subtle domination of the crowd. Human, all too human.

We might conclude that there should be no place for erotic sovereignty in our society, since it is too dangerous both for the rulers and the ruled. (As if we ultimately had a choice to exclude it!) Yet Desmond suggests that we need them, for if they remain open to true transcendence, they show us ‘the glory of the world’ and the realized promise of excellence here and now. Without them, we do not really grasp what it means to be human. One is reminded of Goethe saying: ‘Without having seen the Sistine Chapel, one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.’ Erotic sovereigns not only channel desires; they excite them. Besides that, they are essential as ‘judges free of the tendency to say only what many will want to hear.’ No one can rob them of their standard of excellence. Without such exemplars, virtue in a society will erode. Less and less will knit us together. We will distrust all greatness and deny our own.

En tois epouraniois, in the heavenly things or the heavenly places, is where the daimons live. The Greek phrase, as Heinrich Schlier points out, is used frequently in the Letter to the Ephesians. Christ fills the epourania; the Church is blessed in the epourania; but all spiritual powers, for good or evil, also inhabit the epourania. The epourania is the realm of the ‘transcendent’ in the broadest sense of the word. It is a word that Desmond uses quite frequently. Schlier (being German) defines it: ‘that which opens up a ‘space’ for man on earth and the earth as such, through which he gains an ultimately infinite breadth and depth beyond the earthly … that which is open to him beyond himself, allows him possibilities and prospects.’ The epourania is ‘the manifold ‘presence’ of powers, namely of space and time and spirit, so of conceding and encompassing, urging and destining powers.’

Now Christ both is in the heavens and has ascended above all heavens. His sphere encompasses all, and we can choose either to live in his heaven or in another, ruled by different powers than Christ. We choose a space ‘into which and from out of which’ we live, and a lord to rule over us. We can live in the confusing, cramped, dark spaces of lower lords (the stadium, the arena), but we are called and enabled to dwell in the epourania in Christ Jesus. In all cases there will be strife. If we struggle for power in the stadium, the arena or any such ‘heaven’, we will find no rest; but if we live in Christ, other pretended masters will find it curious and irritating that we do not submit to their lordship and play by their rules. The heavens resound with the trumpets of war.

All this is frightening. We might try to stay at home (and succeed in various degrees), clear of the invisible pulling into the unknown, saying no to the spotlights and despising or pitying the people in them, secretly claiming for oneself the greatest of gifts: humility. But, as C.S. Lewis said, we might be mistaking the decrease of nature for the increase of grace. Pride is not starved by erotic anorexia. If we deny the goodness of greatness, can we be happy for others’ temporary (perhaps timely) sovereignty? Can we be grateful for our own moments of soaring? Can we aspire to the ‘riches of grace’ (another Ephesian phrase), grace, the all-encompassing expanse in which true Plenty meets Poverty and gives birth to beauty?

If we share in the mystery of Good Friday and even of Easter, perhaps we can share in the mystery of Palm Sunday as well; without forgetting that the King wept at the height, looking out on Jerusalem. We may be focal points, but the light comes from elsewhere; we are to be magnifying, not refractory. Thus we shall be able to walk boldly en tois epouraniois, in poverty and plenty, remembering the law of the Lord: not ‘Kill or be killed’, not ‘Live and let live’, but ‘Be killed and let live.’

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