‘No gods anywhere now, not for me, now’: Meillassoux’s Oedipal atheism
In Difficult Atheism I left the discussion of Meillassoux’s divine inexistence after having sketched a series of arguments detailing why I think he does not succeed in demonstrating the principle of factiality in the way I think he intends. In this post I want to take these arguments a stage further and ask ‘so what?’ If, as I think is the case, Meillassoux does not pull off the grand challenge he sets himself, what then? Is it all over? Do we leave him move on? Is there nothing more to say?
I don’t think so. So far we have tended to take Meillassoux au pied de la lettre and work on the principle that his ‘divinology’ must either succeed or fail in its own terms, with no third option, but here I want to suggest a different reading of Meillassoux, one that starts where Difficult Atheism finishes.
This reading begins with two premises. The first I have already stated: in my opinion Meillassoux fails in his explicit aim of demonstrating divine inexistence, for reasons I won’t rehearse again here. The second premise is that any reading of Meillassoux’s ‘The Divine Inexistence’ must come to terms with, and provide some sort of accounting for, why his thought imitates theological terms and theological structures as much as it does. Meillassoux’s divinology is so close to theology, not only in its motifs (think of Meillassoux’s Child of Man, the rebirth of the dead and the bringing of justice, conversion, the ex nihilo) but also in its overall structure (with its arc of a secularised creation—redemption—consummation/judgment) that any comprehensive reading of ‘The Divine Inexistence’ has to have an answer to the question of ‘why so much imitation?’ I am not saying there is only one answer to that question, but it seems to me that every reading of Meillassoux has to have something to offer in that department.
Discussion to date has centred mostly around whether one or another Meillassouxian motif still has the whiff of incense about it (Peter Hallward on the ex nihilo in his Radical Philosophy review of After Finitude is the first example that springs to mind). The reading I am proposing here does not pick through these motifs again, one by one, but seeks to understand them as a whole, not as a series of propositions but as a coherent gesture that traces itself in such a series. I want to explore not whether this or that motif is still trading on its theological capital, but what we can say about Meillassoux’s imitation of theological motifs per se, regardless of whether we end up concluding they remain theological or not.
Starting from these two premises—Meillassoux imitates a remarkably comprehensive theological structure, and he fails in his explicit aim—I offer the following reading of ‘DI’ with the intention of making sense of the imitation and not writing him off because of the failure. In other words I aim to make sense of his imitation of theological motifs and structures as a coherent gesture and not just as a set of atomisable propositions, and I also aim to make constructive sense of his failure to come good on his promise to demonstrate divine inexistence, rather than merely dismissing it, or him.
More broadly, the possibility I want to open here is that, even if ‘The Divine Inexistence’ is not successful in its own terms, that very failure can itself help us to understand what different forms post-theological thinking might take. To be clear, I am not saying we should all from now on read Meillassoux in this new way, but I am offering it as a way of broadening the debate beyond the simple (sometimes simplistic) question of whether his divinology works in its own terms or not. There is more to Meillassoux’s engagement with theology than a yes/no answer to that question.
The reading has two moments: 1) What I have elsewhere identified in the ‘split rationality critique’ can be read as a moment of Meillassouxian tragic hubris, and 2) his attempt to demonstrate divine inexistence can be read not as a proof his divinology in its success, but as a catharsis of the divine in its failure.
This reading is elaborated in conversation with themes of imitation, failure and catharsis in Hölderlin’s ‘Remarks on Oedipus’, as glossed by Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe in Typographies 2: l’imitation des modernes, partially translated into English as Typography: Mimesis, Philosophy, Politics. Lacoue-Labarthe’s thoughts on Hölderlin are set alongside other treatments of the theme of imitation in Western thought and literature, and they help us to approach Meillassoux with an eye not simply to whether this or that motif imitates of theological thinking, but through a consideration of the significance of imitation itself.
Lacoue-Labarthe on Hölderlin’s Oedipus
Oedipus, it is well known, describes himself in Sophocles Oedipus Tyrannus after his fall as atheos, without god or abandoned by the gods: ‘No gods anywhere now, not for me, now’. It is usually assumed that Oedipus’ nefas, his infringement of divine law, is the murder of his father and an incestuous relationship with his mother, but Hölderlin discerns a different cause of his downfall: an unwarranted trust in his own power to interpret. Oedipus arrogates to himself the divine role of prophecy in his interpretation of the following oracular words:
King Phoebus in plain words commanded us,
drive out the pollution of the land, nourished on this ground,
do not nourish the unholy.
This oracle need not have had anything to do with King Laius’ death, Hölderlin insists, but could simply mean that Oedipus should ‘generally create a strong and pure court and keep order among the citizens’. Oedipus’ nefas is to interpret it ‘in a priestly fashion’, in other words taking upon himself a divine role, bringing together the saying of the oracle and the story of Laius’ death. Hölderlin summarizes:
in the immediately following scene the spirit of Oedipus, knowing all, expresses, in angry premonition, the nefas itself by interpreting the general command as pertaining to the particular and then applying it to the murderer of Laius, and then casting the sin as inﬁnite.
Oedipus’ nefas, then, is to assume the prerogative of the divine and ‘interpret the statement of the oracle towards infinity’ as Hölderlin says elsewhere. He is guilty of hermeneutic hubris, according a divine certainty to his own powers of interpretation or, in Lacoue-Labarthe’s terms, ‘The tragic fault is the imitation of God’. I have shown in my ‘split rationality critique’ of Meillassoux how he similarly interprets the notions of contingency and hyperchaos towards infinity, like Oedipus elevating his own reasoning above the mortal sphere of change and contingency. It is in Meillassoux’s trust in his own logic to survive any hyperchaotic change that he imitates the divine.
Yet it is this failed imitation of the divine, Lacoue-Labarthe argues, that leads Oedipus be atheos. It is through striving, and in a measure succeeding, to imitate the gods that Oedipus is estranged from the gods. This logic, according to which Oedipus’ imitation of the divine both brings him close to the divine and estranges him from the gods, is for Lacoue-Labarthe an instance of hyperbology, the paradoxical logic of imitation he identifies in a number of Western thinkers of mimesis from Aristotle through Diderot to Nietzsche, and of course including Hölderlin himself. Oedipus’ atheistic condition is hyperbological because it is through his mimetic proximity to the infinity of the gods that he finds them most absent. The logic of hyperbology is ‘the more x, the less x’: the closer Oedipus is to the divine, the more he will find himself abandoned by the gods.
However, Oedipus atheos provokes, for Lacoue-Labarthe, a catharsis of the divine. His imitation ‘towards infinity’ of the divine oracle is not merely offset by his subsequent abandonment by the gods; the essence of the tragic is the monstrous coupling of god and man in an unlimited becoming-one that is purified (katharei) by a limitless separation. Tragedy presents the necessary cathartic purification of all hubristic imitation of of the divine; it is a catharsis of desiring to imitate the divine, achieved through a hyperbolic mimesis resulting in hyperbolic abandonment.
This condition of Oedipal abandonment is, Lacoue-Labarthe insists, a turning of humankind to the earth and an opening of an a-theistic space that is unrelated in any way whatsoever to the ‘death of God’, in either its speculative-Lutheran or Nietzschean guises, and therefore free of the problems of theological imitation that haunt the death of God in Western thought. The catharsis of the divine does not consist in the death of God but in a ‘categorical turning away [détournement]’ form God. Détournement, it is worth pointing out, not only means ‘turning away’ but also ‘(mis)appropriation’; it is what the SItuationists did with the images of Gaullist France in May 68, and what unnamed photoshoppers did with Nicolas Sarkozy’s ‘La France Forte’ poster in the 2012 French Presidential elections. The term captures the double sense of a turning-away-as-imitation and, in a way I don’t have time to elaborate more here, it opens a way to think the post-theological in the West that does not rely on the problematic notion of the death of God.
This catharsis is crucially, for Lacoue-Labarthe, not a dialectic but a paradox; it issues not in a sublation of the theological into the a-theological but in a tension maintained between infinite imitation and infinite separation. Catharsis is a paradoxical logic that maintains the contradiction of ‘the more… the less…’: ‘the more unlimited the becoming-one, the more unlimited the separation itself ’. The desire to imitate the divine leads to an utter separation from the divine, with imitation and separation frozen in a non-dialectised relationship.
This atheism is not a proof of divine non-existence (understood in the terms of traditional atheism, not Meillassoux’s divine inexistence), for this would once again be a bid for the infinite. Rather Lacoue-Labarthe describes this mimetic logic in terms of a homeopathic medicine or an animal sacrifice that expels violence from the polis by the simulacrum of a spectacular transfer of the murderous desire to an animal.
If Meillassoux’s nefas is his imitation ‘towards the infinite’ of his own rationality, then as in the case of Oedipus it is this imitation of the divine that leaves him without god. If Meillassoux’s claims are correct then he can legitimately expect the coming of the Child of Man and the future existence of the divine in the fourth world, as ‘The Divine Inexistence’ describes. But if he cannot then he is bereft of any such future hope, bereft of hope in the rebirth of the dead, in justice for past wrongs. Like the Oedipus of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus he suffers a state of unremitting abandonment. It is because of Meillassoux’s failed imitation of the divine that he is atheos. If Meillassoux’s system in ‘The Divine Inexistence’ paints a picture of a universe in which God is currently absent but can be hoped for and expected in the future, then the Meillassouxian nefas brings about a double absence, taking away not only the presence of the divine but also any sanctioned hope in future divine existence.
The question that remains, however, is over the extent to which Meillassoux’s failed imitation may, like that of Oedipus of Typographies 2, issue in a catharsis of the divine. In answering this question we may first note that the logic of the catharsis of the divine is that it is necessary to over-reach and fail. If we read ‘The Divine Inexistence’ in terms of such a catharsis, then, it is not in the least an embarrassment that Meillassoux draws on so much theological material and such a comprehensive theological structure. It could not be any other way; it is his felix culpa. Oedipus would not be atheos had he not failed in his attempt to become like the gods by interpreting ‘to infinity’. In the same way, Meillassoux would not be without god if he had not failed in his attempt to demonstrate divine inexistence. Both Oedipus and Meillassoux are ‘without God’ as a result of their own failure.
And what about the catharsis of the divine for Meillassoux? We might say that it is because his imitation of theology is so wholesale that, when it fails, he is left nowhere to go, no hope for redemption in some as yet unexploited theological motif or structure of thought to keep alive the divine hope. If post-theological thought merely imitates this or that theological motif then there is always more theology waiting around the corner, more hope for a theological redemption in the ideas not yet exploited, but only an attempt to incorporate and imitate the whole arc and structure of (Christian) theology as such, when it has failed, is left with nothing. Oedipus is only atheos because his imitation of the divine was so grand, so infinite. So also Meillassoux, in seeking to imitate not this or that element of theological thinking but its overall structure finds himself, when he fails, an abandoned Oedipus without hope but, also, without god.
 Peter Burian and Alan Shapiro (eds.), The Complete Sophocles, Volume I: The Theban Plays
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) 278.
 Friedrich Hölderlin, ‘Remarks on Oedipus’, in J. M. Bernstein (ed.), Classic and Romantic German Aesthetics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) 196.
 Hölderlin, ‘Remarks on Oedipus’ 196.
 Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Typographies 2 : L’Imitation des modernes (Paris : Galilée, 1986) 128. CW’s translation.
 Lacoue-Labarthe, L’Imitation des modernes 128.
 Lacoue-Labarthe, L’Imitation des modernes 198.
 Lacoue-Labarthe, L’Imitation des modernes 198.
 Lacoue-Labarthe, L’Imitation des modernes 128.