Myth and ‘Victimage’

Myth and ‘Victimage’

An Extract from

Kenneth Burke: From Myth to Ecology

(Anderson, South Carolina: Parlor Press, 2013), pp 128-138


Please note:

(1) No references are provided in this extract. See the book for full documentation.

(2) Where a book by Burke is quoted, abbreviated titles are given: eg, LSA = Language as Symbolic Action. Again, see the book for full documentation.



Burke’s chapter on Genesis [in The Rhetoric of Religion] confirms our intuition that his attitude to religious myth is consistently respectful, even if not always reverential. He is genuinely interested in what we may learn from it: “The Bible, with its profound and beautiful exemplifying of the sacrificial principle, teaches us that tragedy is ever in the offing. Let us, in the spirit of solemn comedy, listen to its lesson. Let us be on guard ever, as regards the subtleties of sacrifice, in their fundamental relationship to governance” (RR 235).

This vow to refuse the excesses of victimage, informed by respect for the most influential narration of the sacrificial motive, that of the Judaeo-Christian Bible, makes full sense only if we already know Burke’s previous thinking. If we have to confront a “tragic” situation, then our best device is the “comic” frame or perspective. The epithet “solemn” reminds us that comedy is not the same as mere humor: it comprehends the full range of human emotions, while committing itself to an outcome favorable to human well being. It is tolerant, eager not “to waste the world’s rich store of error” (ATH 172). As such, of course, it has much in common with the message of the New Testament: it is a secular equivalent of the symbolic act of redemption.

But if the comic vision is the promise held out by Burke, it is a perspective which permits few illusions. In a later volume, Language as Symbolic Action (1966), he offers a sobering “Definition of Man” which sums up many of those aspects of humanity which he has been documenting. Indeed, four of these aspects are listed in the first chapter of The Rhetoric of Religion, though without elaboration (RR 40). Here each “clause” is expanded, a “final codicil” added and the whole definition placed in italics to emphasize its importance for Burke:

Man is

the symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol-misusing) animal

inventor of the negative (or moralized by the negative)

separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making

goaded by the spirit of hierarchy (or moved by the sense of order)

and rotten with perfection.(LSA 16)

The first four clauses confirm what we have understood from Burke’s earlier speculations on dramatism and his more recent speculations on logology. What distinguishes the human being from the world of mere motion is symbolicity. Human symbols inevitably build up into more and more complex systems, predicated upon notions of order, dominion, obedience, and so forth –   culminating in the idea of an absolute symbol, or “Word.” Burke here justifies his addition of the last clause, or codicil, in two stages, one which endorses the word “perfection” and one which explains why he has had, regretfully, to include the word “rotten.”

First, he affirms that the “principle of perfection” is “central to the nature of language as motive.” For the very desire to “name something by its ‘proper’ name, or to state one’s needs so that one in effect “defines” the situation one is in, is “intrinsically ‘perfectionist’.” Here he invokes again the Aristotelian principle of “entelechy,” the notion that “each being aims at the perfection natural to its kind (or, etymologically, is marked by a ‘possession of telos within’).” Burke’s  only divergence from Aristotle is that he confines the term to the realm of “action” (the human tendency towards perfection by virtue of the nature of symbolicity) rather than “motion” (the tendency of non-human entities, such as trees, to grow and so fufill their potential) (LSA 16-17).

Second, with regard to the word “rotten,” Burke refers to the dangers of perfectionism, as derived from the culminative nature of symbol-making:

Thus, the principle of drama is implicit in the idea of action, and the principle of victimage is implicit in the nature of drama. The negative helps radically to define the elements to be victimized. And inasmuch as substitution is a prime resource of symbol systems, the conditions are set for catharsis by scapegoat (including the “natural” invitation to “project” upon the enemy any troublesome traits of our own that we would negate). And the unresolved problems of “pride” that are intrinsic to privilege also bring the motive of hierarchy to bear here; for many kinds of guilt, resentment, and fear tend to cluster about the hierarchical psychosis, with its corresponding search for a sacrificial principle such as can become embodied in a political scapegoat. (LSA 18-19)

Given that the cultural perils of perfectionism would seem to outweigh the natural pleasures of fulfillment, it is imperative that the symbol-making animal learns how to prevent symbolic thoroughness manifesting itself in social persecution. The scapegoat ritual must be acknowledged as a process implicit in language itself, but it must also be watched, checked, and corrected. Once again, the choice of paradigm comes down to a literary genre: should one live life as a tragedy or as a comedy? In a footnote included almost casually at the end of the essay, Burke gives his answer. His reflections on “victimage” have led him to think of global catastrophes such as the Nazi attempt at genocide, and also of the growth of weapons of mass destruction. These would seem to confirm a tragic view of human existence, but Burke declares his own choice of paradigm. As so often in his writings, it is the parenthetical remark which carries the weight of his thought:

In his Parts of Animals, Chapter X, Aristotle mentions the definition of man as the “laughing animal,” but he does not consider it adequate. Though I would hasten to agree, I obviously have a big investment in it, owing to my conviction that mankind’s only hope is a cult of comedy. (The cult of tragedy is too eager to help out with the holocaust. And in the last analysis, it is too pretentious to allow for the proper recognition of our animality.) Also, I’d file “risibility” under “symbolicity.” Insofar as man’s laughter is to be distinguished from that of the Hyena, the difference derives from ideas of incongruity that are in turn derived from principles of congruity necessarily implicit in any given symbol system. (LSA 20)

We are back once again with the need for “perspective by incongruity,” by which we are saved from the excesses of our own “piety.” But now it is clear that the overriding direction is that of the “comic corrective.” A cult of tragedy may have the advantage of having “victimage” as its focus, but the danger is that the expectation of tragic violence may turn into the encouragement of tragic violence. In perpetrating the scapegoat ritual, one would, after all, simply be confirming one’s own worst suspicions. Hence the gloomy self-importance of those who act on the dubious imperatives of the “final solution.” By contrast, a cult of comedy, while shrewdly realistic, would prevent such excesses by being more humane in acknowledging one’s own folly and in forgiving that of others. The comic vision is, in short, integral, where the tragic vision is divisive. Ideally, the one contains and corrects the other.




We may have noted the phrase “catharsis by scapegoat,” used above by Burke in his elaboration upon the final codicil of his “Definition of Man.” Again, it would seem to be Aristotle he has in mind, for it was he who famously defended tragic drama because of its beneficial effects: “Tragedy is the representation of an action that is worthy of serious attention … portraying incidents which arouse pity and fear, so that such emotions are purged by the performance.” Burke is fascinated by this contract of catharsis, by which the audience of tragedy agrees to acknowledge its hidden instincts, only to have them purified. Elsewhere in Language as Symbolic Action, he uses the Aristotelian principle of purgation in his account of Aeschylus’ trilogy, the Oresteia. He is concerned with how the three plays work on the level of formal “entelechy” by drawing on religious rites in order to resolve civic tensions. Here Burke’s work follows on, wittingly or unwittingly,  from that of the “Cambridge Ritualists” on myth and ritual.  True, his insights are less  historically specific, but they are also less burdened by the influence of Frazer.

To appreciate his analysis of the trilogy, we will need to remind ourselves of the plot. The first play, Agamemnon, shows us Agamemnon returning victoriously to Argos after the Trojan War, only to be murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra. The second play, The Libation Bearers, centers on the act of revenge carried out by his son and daughter, Orestes and Elektra: they murder Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. In the third play, The Eumenides, we see the Furies in pursuit of Orestes, who is eventually put on trial; he is freed, however, when Athena, goddess of wisdom, casts her vote in his favor. Moreover, he is no longer pursued, once Athena has reconciled the Furies to the new law of forgiveness and reconciliation. They themselves assume a new identity, that of the Kindly Ones, who bless the land and its inhabitants.

Burke’s “Form and Persecution in the Oresteia” is a piece of work written in rather odd, strained language, consisting mainly of a report upon what he wrote on the Oresteia in a now abandoned book. Nevertheless, the essay seems to make sufficient sense as an independent speculation.  Regarding the use of myth, Burke writes:

We were here generally concerned with stylistic resources whereby the important social relations involving superiority and inferiority could be translated into a set of “mythic” equivalents. Disorders within the polis could automatically attain tragic scope and dignity by translation into a corresponding “supernatural” terminology of motives. Hence, any civic issue could be reflected in a mythic idiom that transcended the political or social order, even if it did not have reference to the political or social order (and to the corresponding disorders). (LSA 126)

This is an insight which very much anticipates the “structural” reading of Greek mythology developed by Vernant, whereby the “cunning intelligence” of the myth is seen at work on certain contradictions within Greek society.

But what precisely is it that is being resolved? Burke next explains the form of the trilogy as being “persecutional” in direction: “a network of expectancies and fulfillments” which “can be summed up dramatically in such terms as Law, Right, Fate, Justice, Necessity” (LSA 127). These “Great Persecutional Words” provide the clue to the formal resolution. The process is analogous to that of the use of myth:

Whatever the social origins of such motives may be, once they are converted into the fullness of tragedy they have become cosmologized. Whereupon an almost terrifying thoroughness of human honesty is demanded of us, as audience. For now we are in our very essence persecuted, and there can be no comfort until we have disclosed and appropriately transfigured every important motive still unresolved within us. That is, one the irresolutions of the body, of personal relations, and of social relations have been heroically transmogrified by identification with the Great Persecutional Words, which are in turn identified with the vastness of Nature and the mystery of Super-Nature, no pleasantly pluralistic dissipation of outlook is any longer tolerable. (LSA 127)

The formal and the mythic aspects are brought together in the conclusion to the essay, where we read:

Incidentally, we have elsewhere in our text observed how well the use of the traditional “myth” in tragedy contributed to simplicity of design. For whatever the complexities of a unique situation may be, the myth reduces these to a few basic relationships. In this sense, the tragic playwright’s use of myth enabled him to get, in his medium, the kind of functional simplifications that we have learnt to associate with Greek sculpture at its best. (LSA 137).

All told, the perfection of form, derived from myth, effects a catharsis of the sacrificial motive. The audience feels that the correct ritual has been enacted, that the gods have been given their due, and that humanity has been purged of its violent tendencies. Burke approves, as is evident from the epigraph to his Grammar of Motives (1945): “Ad bellum purificandum” (“towards the purification of war”). Aeschylus’ tragedy manages, as it were, the scapegoating impulse: it purifies it by giving it complete dramatic expression. As Burke explains toward the end of that substantial volume, the need for war might be purged by encouraging “tolerance by speculation” or “Neo-Stoic resignation,” which is by no means akin to a “cult of tragedy.” Avoiding fatality and fanaticism alike, human beings would learn to acknowledge victimage, as a first step to coming to terms with it: “To an extent, perhaps, it will be like an attitude of hypochondriasis: the attitude of a patient who makes peace with his symptoms by becoming interested in them” (GM 442-3). The desire to sacrifice others will not go away, but the fact it will not go away makes it worthy of interest, if confined to the sphere of symbolicity. As William Rueckert puts it: “Purification by victimage is … best effected … in symbolic action generally, and poetic symbolic action specifically, for there actual victims can be replaced by symbolic ones, and actual physical violence can be replaced by verbal violence.  This idea is the basis of Burke’s theory of art as catharsis.”

But the tragic form, no matter how effective, still does not take us beyond  the “persecutional” logic mentioned above. Hence, Burke concludes his essay on Aeschylus by reminding us what normally follows a tragic trilogy, namely the “satyr” play:

The satyr play that rounded out this particular trilogy is missing. From our point of view, the loss to those who would systematically lurk, and would piously spy on great texts, is perhaps the greatest in all human history. For though we do know that the satyr plays were burlesques of the very characters who were treated solemnly in the tragedies, we would like to think that, in the great days, the same characters were finally burlesqued who had been treated heroically in the tragic trilogy. Such an arrangement would be very civilized. It would complete the completing. (LSA 137-8)

For no matter what benefits may be derived from the catharsis of tragedy, Burke remains convinced that only “mankind’s only hope is a cult of comedy.” Such a cult is surely implicit in his advocacy of “tolerance by speculation” in the Grammar.

Perhaps we might let C. Allen Carter sum up the Burkean case for comedy as the preferred paradigm:

Comedy, according to Burke, encourages us to reassess our notions of infallibility. Given the dialectical permutations of language, culture, and personality, Burke recommends that we hold our beliefs tentatively and that we consider those who hold other views, not as irredemiably evil or malicious, but as misguided souls who are actually our partners in the building of knowledge. … He finds the most dangerous temptation of language to be a temptation towards victimage. The comic approach deflects overly passionate linguistic dynamics, specifically the tendency to deify allies and demonize opponents … Specializing in incongruity is offered by Burke as an antidote to the desire to adopt a final attitude towards self and society.

Timothy Curtius would seem to agree, but for him Burke goes so far as to identify tragedy with victimage and to see comedy as the cure for both. While this might seem to contradict Burke’s own praise for the catharsis effected by the Oresteia, Curtius is no doubt correct to see the comic frame as intrinsic to the art of living that Burke espouses:

Burke advocates comedy because he believes he has good reason to fear that history has a tragic denouement, a “repetition compulsion” requiring an endless line of victims that, short of eliminating the symbol-using animal entirely, can never absolve or cleanse. We begin to understand why comedy was necessary for Burke’s praxis, why he insists that “criticism had best be comic.” His valuing of comedy over tragedy, which inverts the traditional genre hierarchy, is neither perverse nor quixotic: Rather the comic perspective and much of Burke’s praxis as a whole is designed to do one thing primarily, break the spell tragedy has over human motivation and create a comic persuasion as powerfully appealing as the mimesis of sacrifice itself.

There is, of course, a biblical case for seeing the comic perspective as the resolution of tragic contradictions. True, the Greek tragedians managed to find the perfect form, derived from myth and presented as ritual, by which to achieve the necessary catharsis. Moreover, the culture was sophisticated enough to see the necessity for the tragic trilogy to be rounded out by the satyr play. But in the biblical, specifically Christian, tradition, comedy is more than humor: indeed, it is the divine answer to the riddle of history. The tragedy of sin and suffering culminates in a comic vision of the “good news” of the Messiah and of “a new heaven and a new earth” issued in with the apocalypse. To be more accurate, two tragedies are contained by a comedy. The fall of Adam and Eve, which we may see as a tragedy, necessitates the crucifixion of God’s son, Jesus, which is yet another tragedy; but this terrible event in turn allows for the resurrection of the one true Christ and the salvation of all humanity, which we may see, strictly speaking, as a comedy. Of course, the inference need not be drawn that Burke’s comedy is Christian in character. However, his repeated declarations of respect for religious myth and ritual should remind us that his whole philosophy of logology is founded on the theological dialectic of words and Word. Certainly, his fascination with “the Logos” is a constant trait in his later work.

When Permanence and Change was reprinted in 1954, Burke used the occasion to write an appendix which was largely devoted to distinguishing between the sacred and the secular aspects of victimage. Quoting from Coleridge’s Aids to Reflexion —  “The two great moments of the Christian Religion are, Original Sin and Redemption; that the ground, this the superstructure of our faith” – Burke elaborates as follows:

Basically, the pattern proclaims a principle of absolute “guilt,” matched by a principle that is designed for the corresponding absolute cancellation of such guilt. And this cancellation is contrived by victimage, by the choice of a sacrificial offering that is correspondingly absolute in the perfection of its fitness. We assume that, insofar as the “guilt” were but “fragmentary,” a victim correspondingly “fragmentary” would be adequate for the redeeming of such a debt, except insofar as “fragmentation” itself becomes an “absolute” condition. (PC 284).

The problem of modern, secular society is that it favors “fragmentation.” This condition can itself become so pervasive as to demand purgation: “Fragmentation makes for triviality. And though there are curative aspects in triviality … they can add up to a kind of organized inanity that is socially morbid.” Burke reflects that “if people were truly devout in the full religious sense of the term, there would be no difficulty here. For in the pious contemplation of a perfect sacrificial universal god, there might be elements of wholeness needed to correct the morbidities of fragmentation” (PC 287). Hence the advantage of Christianity, where the scapegoat is the son of an all-encompassing deity.

Burke’s position here is pragmatic: he is concerned with what works. Religion has the advantage in this respect. Yet, as we read on, we realize that there is something about the Christian myth which he finds deeply inspiring. Typically, he makes this admission indirectly, in parenthesis, in the course of declaring that he is not “pleading for religion.” He is making a distinction between the kind of victimage appropriate to the century in which he writes, where hostility has become global, and where two world wars have been witnessed, and the sacrificial motive which is symbolically perfected in the realm of Christian myth: “In referring to the curative totality of the perfect sacrifice, as modified by the predominantly secular nature of modern civilization, we would suggest that the kind of victimage most ‘natural’ to such a situation would be some variant of the Hitlerite emphasis (which puts the stress upon the idea of a total cathartic enemy rather than upon the idea of a total cathartic friend)” (PC 288). One who willingly lays down one’s life for others represents a more complete scale of values than the nation which seeks out a people to blame and persecute as an “enemy.” The motive of the Christian myth transcends the divisions which fuel the continuation of victimage. Moreover, the healing, inclusive power of the story remains as an inspiration to resist the material manifestations of the scapegoat mechanism, such as Nazi genocide.

Burke’s approach to Christianity, to myth, and to sacrifice in many ways anticipates that of the French theorist Rene Girard. In his Violence and the Sacred (1972) Girard argues that religion arises from the repression of violence. Its chief impulse is the sacrifice of a human scapegoat, which allows the community to achieve unity by attributing the violence to the victim. Violence is thus at once denied and affirmed in a ritual act. Violence originates in “mimetic desire”, the drive to imitate the model that one both admires and fears. It is the basis of a dilemma. The model seemingly exists to be imitated; but to imitate the model completely would be to have and be what the model has and is, and so to displace one’s rival entirely. Mimetic desire would, if fulfilled, result in the collapse of the social order, with chronic aggression being the norm. Again, that is where the scapegoat figure serves its central purpose: the sacrifice of the scapegoat restores order and unity. The “impure” violence of resentment is purged by the “pure” violence of ritual. Myth is the narrative arising from the ritual, its function being to camouflage what is really going on, to lie about the violent basis of society.

In Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World (1978) and in The Scapegoat (1982, translated 1986), Girard refines this argument that “Mimetic violence is at the heart of the system.”  Myths are disguised texts of persecution. What in the ritual is the arbitrary persecution of a victim becomes in the myth the just punishment of a crime. This pattern of crime and punishment is the basis for social order. As for religion: the victim having been chosen at random and slain, is deified and is thought to have been resurrected. In worshiping the god, one is worshiping the power, or rationalized violence, of the establishment. However, there is a scapegoat narrative which does not function in this way: that of Christianity. For what Christ represents is the repudiation of violent myth. As the willing victim who sacrifices himself for all humanity, he puts an end to the scapegoat mechanism. The Gospels proclaim love and demonstrate the futility of hatred. Christianity is a “revelation” rather than a religion, given that religion is tainted by violence: it opens our eyes to the “foolish genesis of bloodstained idols and the false gods of religion.” That is, it raises awareness rather than encouraging blind hatred.

The continuities between Burke and Girard should be obvious, but it is worth comparing and contrasting them in order to make sure we have understood Burke correctly. We may grant that both seek to explain the connection between religion and violence; both refer myth back to ritual; both see the scapegoat ritual as the most important; and both are interested in how Jesus Christ’s crucifixion illuminates the nature of sacrificial suffering. But note the following:

1.Burke starts from the “symbol-using animal”; Girard starts from “mimetic desire.”

2.Burke sees “guilt” as arising from “order”; Girard sees “mimetic violence,” the result of “mimetic desire,” as leading to social disturbance.

3.Burke understands the law – the “thou-shalt-not” – to be primary; Girard sees the scapegoat as primary.

4.Burke stresses the power of language to affect our attitudes to others and ourselves; Girard stresses the power of imitative behavior to affect language.

5.Burke sees victimage as inescapable, given the capacity of human language for negation; Girard sees language as a mere medium through which violence is expressed.

6.Burke sees Christianity as mythic but gives it a special place as a symbolic narrative which demonstrates how the impulse toward victimage might be contained or corrected; Girard sees Christianity as signifying the end of myth and of the scapegoating mechanism alike.

7.Burke advocates the restricting of victimage to the realm of symbolic action, rather than letting it spill over into society; Girard sees persecution as pervasive, but trusts that it may be overcome by means of religious faith.

The contrast may outweigh the comparison, but the influence is indubitable. Indeed, Girard has explicitly acknowledged his debt in an interview included at the end of his volume of essays, To Double Business Bound (1978):

Kenneth Burke acknowledges a “principle of victimage” that is at work in human culture and, to me at least, this is an extraordinary achievement. … [But] Burke sees victimage as a product of language rather than language as a product of victimage (indirectly at least, through the medium of ritual and prohibitions). He shares to some extent in what I would call the linguistic idealism of much recent French theory, but he does not push this idealism to some heights of absurdity.

This is qualified praise, but it is obviously given by someone who knows that his own work would not have developed without such an ambitious theoretical example. This is clear when Girard concludes his acknowledgment by regretting that Burke has never been translated into French and that he remains marginal in Europe, then looks forward to the day when “Kenneth Burke will be acknowledged as the great man he really is.”

Perhaps the charge of “linguistic idealism” will be seen to be less illuminating than Girard’s statement of indebtedness. We have already quoted Robert Wess, who speaks of Burke’s “rhetorical realism,” radically opposed to the “rhetorical idealism” of the deconstructionists. And it is this notion of language’s reference to something outside itself that will prove important, as we come to consider Burke’s views on nature, and to consider how he relates myth to ecology.