“Once a person begins to desire what the model desires, he learns very quickly that disclosing the desire – naming it, speaking it – is the shortest route to making certain that he will never obtain the object. In this situation only dissimulation will succeed, and the best way to dissimulate is to say the opposite of what one means.”
Jeremiah Alberg, Beneath the Veil of the Strange Verses: Reading Scandalous Texts
Everyone lies. We tell little lies all the time, sometimes in the name of kindness or courtesy – “No, really – you look great in that color!” or “You have the last piece of my birthday cake, I insist.” Sometimes we catch ourselves or others in really big lies – “I am not a crook!” or “I only drink socially” or “My government does not engage in torture.” But what if language itself began with a lie? A lie so big that it had the generative power of a big bang? That’s the intriguing thesis of Jeremiah Alberg’s new book, Beneath the Veil of the Strange Verses: Reading Scandalous Texts, which uses the insights of mimetic theory to uncover the way language is so infected by rivalry that its ability to connect us to the truth is compromised.
Let’s begin with an everyday example that illustrates what Alberg is talking about:
My daughter, Emily, was shopping last week at a home furnishing stores. She was looking for a red pillow to go with a new area rug. As she was holding the perfect pillow in her hands, a woman came up to her and said,
“I was just looking at that one. I only put it down for a second.” Was this a lie or the truth? Emily, having been raised on the milk of mimetic theory, knew instantly that it might contain a little of both and that she was being drawn into a mimetic rivalry with a stranger. What is a mimetic rivalry? It’s when someone is infected with a desire for something that you possess because you possess it. In other words, the truth was not what that woman said to Emily, but what my daughter instinctively understood: “She wants the red pillow because it is in my hands. My holding it has designated it as a desirable object. But she thinks her desire is original, that she wanted it first!”
Emily could feel her own desire enflame instantly. A half dozen reasons why she, Emily, had every right to the pillow went through her head, and she felt that a contest could have quickly erupted. She knew that if she wanted to avoid a conflict and have any chance at the pillow, Emily would have to pretend she didn’t want it. So she lied. “Oh, that’s fine” she said, “You can have it.” Feigning disinterest, Emily walked over to another stack of pillows and pulled out a different red pillow, one with a butterfly on it. Emily thought it was particularly ugly, so she pushed it back into the stack and sure enough, the woman rushed over still holding the first pillow. She said, “Oh, that one that you just touched! Can I see it?” Emily said, “Yeah, sure!” then milled around looking at other pillows, while the stranger was deciding between the two pillows now in her hands. In a few seconds, she said, “You know what? I don’t want this one anymore. You can have it,” handed the first pillow to Emily and walked away with the butterfly one.
The Lie That Keeps the Peace
This incident strikes a familiar cord because we often instinctively understand that to get the object of our desire, the best strategy is to pretend that we do not desire it. Lying, in other words, not only gets us what we want but it does so peacefully. If Emily had decided to argue with the woman over the pillow, she could have won a war of words with her or even a tug of war, but something much more important would have been lost. Both Emily and her rival would have experienced a rupture in the peace of their day. Hmm, lying can avoid conflict and get what you want? A lie that is as good as gold and better than MasterCard – what a strategy!
The lie came with a cost, however. Emily used language to obscure her rival’s view of reality, to keep her in the dark about Emily’s true desires. I can imagine the story the rival told about finding the butterfly pillow, and I doubt that Emily figured in it at all. If she did, the rival would not have been able to tell an accurate story about Emily’s desire because she never had access to it.
The First Lie: Language’s Big Bang
It turns out that Emily’s use of a lie put her in touch with the origins of language! Her use of a lie born of rivalry was like a time machine taking her back to language’s big bang. Language emerged from an attempt to talk about a very first “thing”, language’s “singularity”. Lots of guesses have been made about what that first thing was: Was it a carcass that would feed the community or perhaps a hunting band attempting to coordinate their attack or a woman, a sexual object, that men were competing over? Of course, none of us will ever be able to find concrete evidence of what the thing was, but we can observe its ripple effects in human civilization. Detectable in myths of human origins, this first thing caused ripples through our cultural universe just like the background radiation detectable in our physical universe. Prof. Alberg would see a background ripple from language’s big bang in Emily’s use of language. Her lie born of rivalry contains evidence of the “first thing” and that language began not just by talking about it, but by telling a lie about it.
The solution that humans stumbled upon at our origin was the solution of the scapegoat, in which all the quarrels of the community were turned against one victim who was blamed for everything. Uniting against this victim unifies the community, calms down the quarreling and restores the peace. Scapegoating incidents like this happened thousands of times over thousands of years as humanity slowly ritualized and mythologized these murders into a foundation upon which to build and maintain unity (enabling the emergence of moral codes, legal systems and police forces).
But there is a lie at the heart of scapegoating and a successful scapegoating depends upon our faith in the lie, in the community being utterly convinced that the lie is the truth. The lie is that this random passerby who was sacrificed by the community was not the source of the initial rivalry or any of the others that escalated from it. There is also a truth, of course – all good lies have an element of truth in them. The truth of scapegoating is that by uniting against him or her peace was successfully restored to the community. This combination of truth and lie is the big bang of language and all of human culture. As such, there is not a singularity at our origins, but a duality that persists in the truth/ lie paradox of language. Alberg explains how the randomly chosen scapegoat victim is the “duality” at the origin of language:
“He or she is an innocent victim who is held to be guilty of all the evil but who now becomes the source of all blessing. The evil and the blessing are real, but the victim’s guilt and beneficence are not true… Thus the transcendental signifier [the first source of meaning] is a fundamental misrecognition of the truth. It’s representation in language shares in this duplicity.”
The Scandal of Language
If the guilt of the scapegoat, however mistaken, is not unanimously believed, then the benefit of peace that results from his expulsion or murder cannot be achieved. The peace that made human culture possible depends upon the lie, and language itself emerged out of the necessity of maintaining the deception. This is what Alberg refers to as the “scandal” of language – it presents itself as representing the truth yet its hidden purpose is to prevent our access to the foundational truth of human culture, the truth of the scapegoat’s innocence. The “first thing” of language, the big bang of human culture, turns out to be an innocent victim killed by a community. To gaze directly at that truth would shake the foundation of culture; to avert our gaze is to be trapped in the lie. And so language is infected by the necessity of the lie and our use of language is corrupted from the beginning. A scandalous conclusion, to be sure.
From a shopping trip for pillows to the origins of human language! We have taken an incredible journey in a short time, but one that I hope has whet your appetite for more. I invite you to watch the video interview I conducted with Alberg, to join me for a live conversation with him on Thursday, March 27, to read his book and above all to begin to ask the question Alberg wants us to ask: Is there a way to “hold out the possibility of peace” amid escalating rivalries that does not depend on sacrificing an innocent victim and then lying about it? Surprisingly enough, Alberg believes that while being scandalized can block access to the truth “it is also the place where the battle between staying with the illusion or looking long and hard at reality is played out.” He speaks to his readers directly: “Our journey is to get beyond scandal.” Journeying beyond scandal with Alberg is an enlightening and personally transformative experience. Please don’t miss it!