Figure 1. Sisyphus

Lorenzo Tomescu


In this paper René Girard’s theory — that society operates by virtue of a scapegoat mechanism — is shown to relate to psychoanalytic concepts that concern the artist’s social instinct. What this demonstrates is the relation between psychoanalysis, existentialism, and mythology. Furthermore, so as to emphasize the significance of foundational and generative anthropology as well as stimulate or provoke thought concerning a relation between the individual and a dissemination of his artistic expression, the term “divestiture” is suggested as a juxtaposition with psychoanalytic terms such as transference and sublimation. According to Girard, it is desire that is behind all human endeavour, whereas Girard’s pupil Eric Gans focuses on the origin of language. Since language operates using expressive characters, to create the product of the self, the artist (as image maker) is comparable with society itself. What this connection suggests is the inextricable bond between individual consciousness or expression and the sacrality of a human victim. It is this relationship that is perhaps most expressive of social consciousness. Therefore, the human being’s relation to art, as an expression of his reason and reason generally (as a social function), is cited in relation to Albert Camus’ 1942 philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus.

This is Not Desire: aesthetics of individualistic art

Artwork as divestiture of the artist’s energy is his investment in form. I argue that the term “divest” opposed to “transfer” or “channel” should be used to describe the larger creative process; once the artist’s energy or motive is channelled into a completed creation that energy, motive, or vision, is defined and limited. Expression of social limitation born from the cultural concept “art” is something strange, elusive, but magnetic and polarizing.

If properly understood as social limitation, an artwork demands our attention as an object representing the nature of its restrictions. In writing these words, the image of a nude baby swimming through a luminescent swimming pool chasing after an American dollar bill (on the cover of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” 90’s rock album) shoots to mind. With cock-sure brilliance, the American dollar bill is attached on a hook. The implications of the image are never-ending. We should point to the most obvious — the contrast between bare flesh, innocence, and what is, for most of us, still the greatest symbol of money and power.

It is of course an image that is popular and iconic. It seems at first to represent the freedom of greed, but it conceals the advent of teenage and then, maybe, corporate angst… The band obviously had something special in mind when they thought up this depiction. I point to it because of its directness. It is three-way — it is also fractal and prismatic. The baby, the article of money, and the “hook,” or the proverbial carrot on a stick. Does the baby or the money matter? Who lies above and how does the baby react to the money that, it seems, is driving him (or, he’s only drifting) upward out of the shallow-deep?

These are perhaps all cultural questions; eyes gazing dreamily into the pool. The image, after all, tries to suggest the antithesis of innocence.

I would like the reader to try to imagine that this album cover is just one iteration of the mythical image of the criminal Sisyphus. [1] The figure whose face is distorted and who pushes a boulder upward to reach a sort of summit: in his distorted facelessness is emphasized the movement and overexertion of the body. As he carries his own humanity upward with him, it is in danger of snowballing and crushing or leaving him faceless.

It seems a good way to introduce my artistic debt to psychoanalysis. In The Myth of Sisyphus Camus once asked the question “what is the reason for man’s eternal struggle?” The answer he gives is really reason itself. [2] Sisyphus is reason and his rock is man’s flesh. In Freud’s words:

The child’s parents, and especially his father, were perceived as the obstacle to a realization of his Oedipus wishes; so his infantile ego fortified itself for the carrying out of the repression by erecting this same obstacle within itself. It borrowed strength to do this, so to speak, from the father, and this loan was an extraordinarily momentous act. The super-ego retains the character of the father, while the more powerful the Oedipus complex and the more rapidly it succumbed to repression (under the influence of authority, religious teaching, schooling and reading), the stricter will be the domination of the super-ego over the ego later on — in the form of conscience or perhaps of an unconscious sense of guilt. (Freud 1989, 30)

Like the development of the self, the creative process and inspiration is anything but instinct. It is procedure that works so as to repeatedly limit the instincts. Struggling and denying every impulse the artist arrives at the results or completion of his works. This is the experience or existence of Sisyphus — in his downgoing — as the weight is too much for him and he must retrieve it. It is not a new idea that by working in his medium the artist’s instincts are sublimated. Though, there is perhaps something more fundamental than the idea of a sublimation of the individual artist’s socially unacceptable desires. We are back at the question of Sisyphus or Oedipus’ guilt. The idea might be explored more broadly.

Figure 2. Theseus and the Minotaur

In the artistic process the id or even the instincts of the individual artist, is not only that which is sublimated. As the artist creates a sign or even as he produces a sacred object, it is by this act that instinct is communally engrossed. If this is true, the artist’s creation conveys something of the very moment when the allotment of reason is more predominant than instinct. It is a fundamental lurch.

Art is a question very specific and very general. The specific and the universal, understood as essential to the creative process amounts to interplay between self reflection, technical adjustment and persona — from which the artist in time realizes that it is all a part of necessity: who do I copy? whom do I gesture? who do I owe? At the bottom of his struggle it is an “us and them” that existed, that is, apparently, hermetically enclosed or encircled by audience. Sisyphus, as he begins on ground level is not a disinterested viewer. And, the higher he climbs the more subject and object are fused. The evasive quest for minimalism in works that tend outward toward the landscape of the unseen perspective is action that is not ordinary aggression. It is violence. And so the exegesis of artwork must involve a contestation or a deferral from the image to the artist as, in each, the other naturally recedes.

The violence we do as a naïve chorus to any artwork, as we look or experience it, is the coaxing of the most prominent other from it. The attempt to find archetypal images concealed in a medium or object-thing. So it is the human faculty — desire — that concerns René Girard’s (philosopher of social science) theory of the scapegoat mechanism. He believes society is bound up by mimetic desire. Of course, mimesis relates to a strictly artistic concept; through art, an imitation of life. Yes, but Girard emphasizes that imitation is governed by desire, rather than disinterested or objective processes. His study concerning violent competition engendered by mimetic desire suggests the sacrality of a victim who, eventually, becomes the focus of society and art. The sacrificial victim is, arguably, the first object of art and the first artistic object.

Figure 3. Welder’s dream

Whereas, according to Girard a sacrificial victim, through the catharsis that its killing inaugurates allows for the founding of society, by illustrating a hypothetical originary scene, Girard’s pupil Eric Gans elaborates on the theory of mimetic violence. [3] Gans theorizes that proto-humans learned to defer their appropriative behaviour by gesturing knowingly toward the same object.

The violence of the sign or the sacred object, in place of simple aggression, is thus born and instituted. The sign has a type of imaginary-exponential quality. For example, man has never been able to fly, but as we are compelled by each other’s presence we again and again, ritually, point, say at the birds and thereby make of ourselves artists of their flight. Gans provides the illustration of the hunters who encircle a dead carcass and simultaneously reach out, and by doing so, retract or hesitate in their appropriation. He calls this the aborted sign of appropriation. It is at this moment or event that Gans theorizes that instinct is first transmuted or deferred.

But, into what? By restricting the instincts, a community channels instinct into what is called cooperative or organized human behaviour. Behaviour that is characterized by the sign or rather by language. So too, or even more primordially, in artwork, necessarily, there lies a representation of social techne or craft that conveys episteme (knowledge of ourselves). In explaining the originary hypothesis Gans and Girard suggest that we imagine that man by centering on man invents the play called social life. Though how exactly this focus is realized is contested.

Is a painting a fresh or a long torn apart carcass that you reach for the instant that you view it? Do we reach out with our own set of eyes (and all our other senses), or inevitably, behind and along with every discrimination does a hundred eyed beast lurk, mimetically trained, on the viewer’s gaze...? And is the struggle to free oneself from this following gaze the artist’s deeper object? If I try to think objectively about the meaning of an artwork’s delimitations a reference to Girard’s Deceit, Desire and the Novel seems useful:

The beloved is divided into both subject and object in the lover's eyes. Sartre perceived this phenomenon and based his analysis of love, sadism, and masochism on it in Being and Nothingness. This division produces a triangle whose three corners are occupied by the lover, the beloved, and the body of the beloved. Sexual desire, like other triangular desires, is always contagious.... To imitate one's lover's desire is to desire oneself, thanks to that lover's desire. (Girard 1961, 105)

Perhaps circumscribed by paint, the significance of some depiction of a human figure is that the artist’s own essence is exposed and concealed. Almost uncovered, the body of the work retains a singular focus, an intent or slogan. So, as an expression of limited sexual desire, the artwork tries to signify what is originally undivided. Desire is conceptually (but not always without violence) reduced. Such divestiture of the artist’s energy retains the suggestion that the artistic image is not simply static. Yet, it is the embodiment of a compromise.

Consider the contemporary obsession with the museum (in which artworks are enclosed) and (in addition to the museum enclosure) the formality to encase artworks behind a protective glass that is itself reflective of the viewer. In light of this practice of a “higher culture” that wishes to encase there is something that denotes our primitive concern with thanatophilia. Society founded on the corpse is consequently, imaginatively stitched together through representation or the attempt to recollect essences.

However, the Girardian hypothesis, that society is founded on murder, is a presupposition that is contested by Gans. He suggests that the founding of society — as it depends or is determined by language — cannot be as costly as Girard suggests. But, it may actually be (hold Sisyphus’ punishment in mind) that the tension between foundational and Gans’ generative anthropology is what is critically at stake in the relationship of the individual to art.

Without sensing that the acquisition or a consumption of art reflects the individual’s relationship to both his particular and his universal values, we are in danger of misunderstanding why language is essentially deferral. We run the risk of engendering the chiasmic difference that separates people (as between protagonist and a powerless chorus whose work it is only to interpret his fate) which Eric Fromm in On Disobedience illustrates:

There is indeed no greater distinction among human beings than that between those who love life and those who love death. This love of death is a typically human acquisition. Man is the only animal that can be bored, he is the only animal that can love death […] The love of death in the midst of living is the ultimate perversion. (Fromm 1981, 57)

Perhaps opposition to this ‘love of death’ can be perceived in that attempt to extrapolate from artwork the emergence of the individual; his sense for the formation of a social conscience that embraces what is alive. In this way we encourage the depth of our thought. When we sense the vibrancy of an artwork I suggest that it express the artist’s very own appreciation of transcendental conception and even that it contains the artist’s sensitivity to a metaphysics of the founding murder. Since, what else could be projected by the artist’s struggle against the paint or the mud or the earth?

Figure 4. An image of the artist’s anima


[1] Concerning a link between Sisyphus and money, it may be considered that the mythological criminal appears in the socially paranoid Elegies of Theognis (Thgn, 701-713).   

[2] Camus remarks “A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world.” (2004, 443)

[3] Gans describes his objective in Signs of Paradox “I propose to ground originary anthropology yet more rigorously than before by constructing the originary scene of language from the mimetic triangle alone.  The “triangular” version of the hypothesis is not a naturalistic description of a plausible scene of origin, but a minimal analysis of the emergence of the sign within the triangle of mimesis as a solution to the “mimetic crisis” between the subject and the mediator.” (1997, 2)


Basic Writings of Existentialism. Ed. Marino, Gordon. 2004. New York: Modern Library.
Freud, Sigmund. 1989. Sigmund Freud: The Ego and the Id. Ed. James Strachey. Trans. Joan Riviere. New York, N.Y. W.W. Norton & Company.
Fromm, Erich. 1981. On Disobedience and Other Essays. New York, N.Y.: Seabury Press.
Gans, Eric. 1997. Signs of Paradox: Irony, Resentment, and Other Mimetic Structures. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
Girard, René Noël Théophile. 1965. Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure. Trans. Yvonne Freccero. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins Press.
Hesiod and Theognis. 1973. Works and Days & Elegies. Trans. Wender, Dorothea. London: Penguin Books.


I am writing a thesis on Euripides' tragedy Herakles as a graduate student in the Humanities. Since psychoanalysis and Nietzsche's philosophy are indebted to the study of ancient Greek religion my artwork and methodology include reference to these important works. However, current scholarship has increasingly turned my focus toward the ideas of René Girard. Girard's ideas concerning a scapegoat mechanism allow for the interpretation of tragedy as what tragedy represents is the polarization of the community against an individual facing the malice of gods and mortals alike. An essential question is why the Greeks depict the victimization of the hero in plays that appeal to ritual. Attempting to answer this question I believe provides insight into the relationship between artistic representation and human psychology.

For me the notion “expressing oneself through art” has progressively changed to “art producing an impression of the self”. It is an acknowledgement that the propensity to sublimate or displace produces a sense of freshness that accumulates in creative processes. I have perhaps an uncharacteristic interest in the painting surface and how an artist can be tactilely intimate with the idea of individual expression. Often times, it will occur that a painting surface or a medium that can be sculpted, which is cleft or potholed, puts a demand on the intellect that would, otherwise, be unaroused. The result is that the pursuit of artistic achievement is increasingly within the activity of the bricoleur. He makes use of objects and derives ideas from the past and present.