Scandal and story-telling

One of my favorite podcasts is the New Yorker Fiction Podcast in which a published New Yorker Magazine story author picks another author’s story from the archives, reads it out loud and discusses it with a New Yorker editor. Listening to that podcast a few days ago, I chanced upon the story “Adams” written by George Saunders and read by Joshua Ferris. (Here is a link to that podcast reading and discussion. Here is a link to the text of the story from the New Yorker archives if that works better for you.) I mention it because Saunders’ story is a near perfect illustration of the dynamics of scandal, which I described this way in my earlier discussion of Mimetic Theory:

Pursuit and defense of an acquisitive desire mimetically reinforces the desire of the rival/model/obstacle and vice-versa, leading to an escalation of conflict unless something external to the conflict (like a taboo or a legal authority) intercedes or unless one of the rivals submits or dies. Girard calls this mimetic escalation the skandalon, a Greek word meaning “trap” or “snare.” A chief characteristic of scandal is that attempts to escape a problem only makes the problem worse (analogous to pulling against a snare). An example is the behavior of nations when they feel threatened by other nations. (A familiar situation?) Their defensive preparations look to their rivals like aggressive provocations, which only increase the perceived threat. The rival then arms itself defensively, which is interpreted as aggression by the other side, and so on and so on. Therefore, the actions that were undertaken to secure each nation from threat have actually increased the threat and have fed a dynamic that is dangerously self-reinforcing (e.g. Europe, circa 1914.)

A few things to note in the story itself:

1. The title “Adams” is the surname of the title character; it is also the plural of “Adam” — i.e. humanity in the plural. On Girard’s reading, a human being is always also a multiple in the sense of having his/her own desires as mediated by others.

2. This story was written in 2004 as the U.S. response to 9/11 was in full gear. According to the podcast, the story is often read a parable of those times, which are still in some ways our times. My only hesitation in recommending that reading wholeheartedly is that it would tend to incite either a smug or reactive response, depending on your political opinion of the Bush Administration. I think that we all participate in episodes of scandal, and that scratch the surface of a political opinion and a scandalized consciousness will likely be at work under the veneer — just not as extreme as the character Adams, I hope!


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