Associate 2003-04

C Stephen Jaeger

Germanic Languages and Literatures


Professor Jaeger’s project is a criticism of theories of violent origins, beginning with European Romanticism and leading up to the influential works of René Girard, Violence and the Sacred (1972; Engl. trans., 1977) and Walter Burkert, Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth (1972; Engl. trans., 1983).

Theories of violent origins have their beginnings in European Romanticism, with the cult of genius and the criminal genius, the privilege of genius to commit amoral acts, and Goethe’s idea of the “Demonic” embodied in extraordinary characters. They are aided and gain a hard, deterministic edge in Darwin’s theories of survival of the fittest. They gain theological cachet in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, historical/scholarly currency in Jakob Burckhardt’s Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, and are lived out in the lives of Byron, Rimbaud, and Baudelaire, to mention only a few. They are also vehemently opposed by Dostoevsky.

Professor Jaeger’s criticism of this line of thought aims at its romantic essentialism (i.e., founding myths determine our nature in the present). Romanticism produced regressive thinking in opposition to the Enlightenment idea of progress, owing especially to Rousseau. A return to hidden origins seemed the way to recover a lost identity, both individual and national. Nostalgia for the primordial, the original, the essence, is a bequest of Romanticism. Jaeger’s central claim is that the theories of Nietzsche, Girard, and Burkert are simply romantic myth-making, despite their presentation as science and scholarship.

The myths of violent origins have proven useful as instruments of social criticism and as interpretive schemes in cultural and literary analysis, and have been powerful inspiring forces in literature, art, and music--but catastrophic as patterns of action or social values. Jaeger’s criticism suggests that their influence, like that of Romanticism in general, is strongest in the realm of the imagination and most dubious in that of institutions.