By Per Bjørnar Grande
Published Online (2008)
Introduction: Historia calamitatum is closer to autobiography than to any other genre, despite its being structured as a letter. The drastically unhappy events and the first person perspective, however, resemble the picaresque novel (which was yet to be invented). The most striking thing about Historia calamitatum, which makes it fundamentally different from Abelard’s philosophical writings, is its mimetic tendency, a tendency that is due both to the biographical genre and to Abelard’s insights into the way mimetic desire works in interpersonal relationships. Therefore, it would seem likely that René Girard’s mimetic theory as well as his scapegoat theory might prove useful in understanding Historia calamitatum.
Let’s start by discussing the mimetic tendency in confessional literature. Confessional literature seems to contain a more mimetic understanding of reality than does philosophical literature. Philosophical literature, especially in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, was structured more according to symbolical concepts and allegories, and was somewhat distanced from desirous and interpersonal relationships. Confessional literature represents both a self-mimesis and a shift in mimetic models. In the Christian confession, the past is often presented as desirous, as imitating ideals other than Christian ideals. The confessional writer recaptures this period of living in sin. He relives it by representing his past, and sees his new life in the light of an imitatio Christi ideal. Confessional literature preserves a basic understanding of mimesis, both in late Antiquity and in the Middle Ages, thus paving the way for the first novels, in which mimesis plays such a central part. The mimetic tendency in confessional literature becomes obvious when we compare Abelard’s Historia calamitatum with some of his other, more neo-Platonic inspired philosophical works. The tendency to ignore mimesis in his theological and philosophical works reveals, simultaneously, the mimetic tendency, the lack of symbolism and the more direct description typological of the biographical genre.