Our stark choice is indeed as Nietzsche puts it, says René Girard. It is a choice between Dionysus and the Crucified: between the Biblical concern for the mob’s victim, on the one hand, or, on the other hand, the justifications and defenses of the lies of myth. The lies of myth are offered in the name of Dionysus, or any other god of the mob, as assuredly fictional but nonetheless life-giving social necessities. Biblical concern, however, is found in the injunction to renounce retaliation and revenge, in all its mob-sanctioned forms, and to live instead in truth, defending the weak, no matter the cost.

Yet Nietzsche sides with the necessity of the mythical lies. This is certainly visible in the following fragment from Will to Power (#1052, March-June 1888):

“…suffering–the ‘Crucified as the innocent one’–counts as an objection to this life, as a formula for its condemnation.–One will see that the problem is that of the meaning of suffering: whether a Christian meaning or a tragic meaning. … The tragic man affirms even the harshest suffering…”.

Nietzsche pits tragedy against Christianity. But we must ask with Girard: The harshest suffering of whom? The innocent ones? The guilty ones? Does Nietzsche really want to deploy art to erase this distinction?

For Nietzsche, it ultimately does not matter, because for him it is only within the purview of mythology to sort out the difference between guilty and innocent. Such details are, as they like to say nowadays, always and only “socially constructed.” Good and evil are purely mythical. The more fundamental reality, however, is what interests Nietzsche. And that deeper reality is the inescapable fact of suffering. On that basis, then, there is for Nietzsche the pressing need for a mythology somehow to affirm that suffering, so that life may go on, joyously.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche

It is a radical thesis, going to the root of Nietzsche’s vision. Nietzsche writes of the gulf he saw—the gulf between the commonplace vision and his vision—in chapter seven of The Birth of Tragedy. It is the gulf between everyday reality and Dionysiac reality. In a striking passage, Nietzsche writes of what Dionysiac man, looking into the abyss, shares in common with Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

“Both have truly seen to the essence of things, they have understood, and action repels them; for their action can change nothing in the eternal essence of things, they consider it ludicrous or shameful that they should be expected to restore order to the chaotic world. Understanding kills action, action depends on a veil of illusion—this is what Hamlet teaches us, not the stock interpretation of Hamlet as a John-a-dreams who, from too much reflection, from an excess of possibilities, so to speak, fails to act. Not reflection, not that!—True understanding, insight into the terrible truth, outweighs every motive for action, for Hamlet and Dionysiac man alike.”[1]

Girard would affirm that this passage understands Hamlet quite well. Hamlet is paralyzed by the sickening, tragic insight that in this world there are no alternatives to violence. There is only the cycle of retaliation and revenge, in all its mimetic forms.

Yet Girard sees even more clearly than Nietzsche precisely what form this sickness takes today. It is the sickness of our modern, post-Christian world. It is “an undifferentiated no-man’s-land between revenge and no revenge in which we ourselves are still living”.[2] It is “that no-man’s-land between total revenge and no revenge at all, that specifically modern space where everything becomes suffused with sick revenge.”[3] For, in our world, all thoughts of revenge are historically haunted by the Gospel.

Hamlet is not nauseated simply at the philosophical thought of the eternal return of the same: that thought of the eternal return of revenge. Rather, he is nauseated because this tragic knowledge of revenge’s eternal return in human affairs is a mimetically paralyzing sort of knowledge. It is at odds with the insistent, unreflective mimetic impetus for revenge that characterizes the man of instant action. If one pauses long enough in reflection, then one recoils in horror before one’s destiny to be another tragic cliché. We might say, Hamlet is conflicted about conflict: he wants it; but he hates himself for it. This is his entirely rational nausea.

But Hamlet’s own cure for such quintessentially modern, supremely rational paralysis—“this supreme menace to the will” (Nietzsche’s words)—is not ultimately found in the approach of “a redeeming, healing enchantress—art,” as Nietzsche would have it.[4] No, the play Hamlet does not end with a play. Art does not vanquish Hamlet’s reason in the end.

Rather, the play, “The Mousetrap”, the play within the play of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, purportedly enacted to catch the conscience of the king, ends up being merely the middle stage of the mimetic action, not its Nietzschean denouement. No, the play’s not the thing. It does not become the grand finale, as Nietzsche would have it.

Fullscreen capture 6262011 74550 PMInstead, as Girard notes, Shakespeare has Hamlet fight on to the death with his mimetic rival, Laertes.[5] And so, in the grand tradition of tragic reciprocity, revenge meets its fatally ordained tragic end, a labyrinth of revenge upon revenge.[6] Violence consumes itself, in the inescapable dramatic cliché.

Poor Hamlet, traumatized by his father’s death, knew that it would not be possible for him to benefit from a “weary, stale, flat and unprofitable” (Hamlet 1.2.133) repetition of the murderous event. At first, he seeks to find artistic purification for his sickness in quasi-Nietzschean fashion. He turns to the mimesis of poesis for his catharsis. He stages a play for the usurper king in the hope that art actually can trigger a remaking of the world.

But Hamlet finds out in disappointment that the staged drama can bring no this-worldly consolation. The messy drama of the world cannot be mirrored on stage and thereby managed. For in the real world, the tragic world, where there are no alternatives to violence, the play can only reflect back the violent mimesis of Hamlet’s violent world. Tragedy cannot rewrite this world and get a happy ending. True to its genre, it can only reflect reality: Lucianus, rival to Gonzago, poisons Gonzago. And just as the drama cannot be resolved credibly in any other way, so too, as Hamlet observes ironically of the play to Claudius, there is no other resolution available in real life either: “Your majesty, and we that have free souls, it touches us not.” (3.2.219–20)

The remark is ironical, because the power of mimesis is indeed most clear in the genre of tragedy. In this realization, we return to Girard’s great insight. We cannot fail to see ourselves at some level in the poetic play of mimesis, because mimesis will always touch our souls. Mimesis is, in fact, that very force that always moves our souls.

Our great challenge, therefore, is how we will respond to any dramatic enactment we see. Will we read the mimesis superficially, as a mirror of revenge? Or will we read, rather more profoundly, our own lust for revenge as the mirror of the tragic reciprocity we see on stage? If we do—once we see the mirroring being enacted primarily within ourselves, and not on the stage—then we too will increasingly feel Hamlet’s nausea.

For this very sickness leaves us with a highly focused, dramatically Christian question: In this world of ours, can we renounce revenge and retaliation in all its forms? Perhaps we still harbor the hope that the mirror of our own mimesis can serve the cause of a just retaliation. But then we are back again at the choice between Dionysus or the Crucified. And if our justice is to be more than a self-serving, socially constructed myth, then it has to be true justice. Yet if there is such a justice, could it not be the previously inconceivable possibility that the Crucified One has himself revealed?

For the Crucified One has entered the drama, and rewritten the ending, in a way completely unforeseen by anyone. Love, mercy, and forgiveness can miraculously heal our paralyzing sickness. And this divine, healing power is displayed whenever revenge and retaliation, in any form, is—daringly and dramatically—renounced and repudiated. However, if we decide with Nietzsche to choose Dionysus instead, then we too will discover how far we are Hamlet and how far Hamlet’s dreams are our own. As far as a sickness unto death.

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[1] The Birth of Tragedy 7; Whiteside trans. (Penguin), 39.

[2] “Hamlet’s Dull Revenge: Vengeance in Hamlet,” in René Girard, A Theatre of Envy (Oxford University Press, 1991), 271–289, at 284.

[3] “Hamlet’s Dull Revenge” 288.

[4] The Birth of Tragedy 7; Whiteside trans. (Penguin), 40.

[5] Cf. “Hamlet’s Dull Revenge”, 278–280.

[6] Cf. Giuseppe Fornari, “Labyrinthine Strategies of Sacrifice: The Cretans by Euripides”, Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis and Culture 4 (1997): 163–188, esp. 183–186.

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