Reflections on Girard: When Desire Turns Ugly — Fr. Michael Kirwan

July 5, 2012

Antonio Salieri from Amadeus

In a further part of these posts on Girard, we will expand and deepen our understanding of Girard’s discovery of mimetic desire, most especially concerning its darker or conflictual aspects. As well as the novelists whom Girard has been considering, such as Cervantes and Dostoevsky, another important literary source needs to be introduced. Not for the last time in this book, I will refer to Girard’s use of Shakespeare in order to illustrate his theory, in particular his collection of essays entitled A Theatre of Envy: William Shakespeare (1991). Girard himself stresses the significance of the dramatist for his entire project, when he writes in the Introduction to that book: `My work on Shakespeare is inextricably linked to everything I ever wrote, beginning with an essay on five European novelists: This is , quite a large claim, so we must see what it entails.

The argument of A Theatre of Envy is that Shakespeare, early in his career, made precisely the same discovery as Girard — that desire is mimetically configured, though Shakespeare uses his own terminology: `suggested desire’, ‘jealous desire’, `emulation’, and above all, ‘envy’. As his dramatic career progresses, Shakespeare not only learns to present more and more complex versions of this phenomenon, he does so in such a way that they can stand alongside the more standard `non-mimetic’, that is, more popular, interpretations of the plays.

The challenge Shakespeare sets himself, according to Girard, is to write about emulation and so forth, but in an indirect or hidden fashion, so as to appeal to different levels of sophistication in his audience. Girard notes, wryly: `As for Shakespeare, he quickly realized that to wave mimetic desire like a red flag in front of the public is not the sure road to success (as I myself have never managed to learn, I suppose)’ (1991, p. 4).

The plays which most attract Girard’s attention are A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Troilus and Cressida. Before this, the basic mimetic pattern is set out in Two Gentlemen of Verona, in which two very close friends become rivals, because they have aroused in each other a passion for the same girl. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the treatment of this same theme is more sophisticated and effective.

Of the 38 chapters in A Theatre of Envy, six deal with scenes from this play alone: Girard rates it so highly as an exposition of mimetic desire that he declares it should be `compulsory reading for anthropologists’. According to Girard’s mimetic reading of the Dream, the classic notion of stable and autonomous love — what we have been calling `the Romantic Lie’ — is ruthlessly and persistently held up to ridicule. The plot centers on two pairs of lovers whose relationships become entangled, so that the young men fall hopelessly in love with each of the girls in turn, at the same time.

Why does this happen, and why should erotic wires get crossed in this way? One of the lovers, Lysander, does famously declare that `for aught that ever I could read/ Could ever hear by tale or history/ The course of true love never did run smooth’. (Yet again, we have someone bowing to the authority of fictional literary examples, in order to declaim what `true love’ is like!) Lysander is saying that the barriers traditionally placed in the way of true lovers have always been imposed from outside: either parental opposition (as it appears so threateningly at the beginning of the play), or disparity of age or social status, or simply fate (if we think of the `star-crossed lovers’ in Romeo and Juliet). Beneath this luxuriant verbiage lies the shaky syllogism which Shakespeare is keen to question: `these fictional true lovers all endured hardships; we too are having to endure hardships; therefore we must be true lovers’.

As it happens, the plans of the lovers in the Dream are sent awry, not by any of these imposing obstacles, but by a bunch of incompetent and mischievous fairies who are a little too clumsy with their love potion. The play can be enjoyed on this child-like level, but if we read the play as grown-ups, says Girard, Shakespeare is really presenting before our eyes the volatility of mimetic desire. (When Puck declares at the end of the play: `And Jack shall have Jill’, he is being particularly sardonic.) We must not take these tripping fairies too seriously: this is an adult play, the roots and causes of the lovers’ discords are to be found within and among themselves, and nowhere else.

To return, however, to the analysis as it unfolds in Deceit, Desire and the Novel. So far we have looked in general at the mechanics of mimetic desire, which are to be found as a common feature in the writers Girard has selected. The true significance of this discovery can only be appreciated, however, when we look at the differences between the authors as well as their similarities.

The five writers are not quite placed in chronological order, according to which Proust should come after Dostoevsky but we have a general survey of the novel, spanning the modern period from the early seventeenth to the twentieth centuries. Each writer configures the theme of mimetic desire differently, Girard maintains, because extreme mimetic pressures and influences make themselves increasingly felt during the modern period, pressures which are manifest in the social interactions recorded in his chosen novels.

Rather than look successively at Cervantes, Flaubert, Stendhal, Proust and Dostoevsky, let us examine the argument by comparing the first and last of these. On the face of it, Cervantes’ character Don Quixote and the tormented heroes and anti-heroes of Dostoevsky’s novels seem to occupy different planets. Don Quixote, we have always thought, is a comic tale of a misguided buffoon, who embarks on ludicrous adventures, but thankfully comes to no harm.

The reason is the hierarchical relationship between the model and the imitator. Because the model is a fictional character, there can never be a rivalrous conflict between Don Quixote and Amadis; the gap between them cannot be transgressed. In the same way, the social distance between Don Quixote and his acknowledged pupil and servant, Sancho Panza, prevents any conflict between them. The novel ends without violence.

This `safe’ form of mimesis is called `external mediation’ or ‘external mimesis’. As long as social differences or other distinctions are able to channel mimetic desire, the conflictual potential of mimetic desire is never actualized. This can be expressed once again by means of the triangle which is the principal geometric figure of mimetic desire: if we think of an isosceles triangle, with the model or mediator at its apex, then degrees of mediation can be expressed in terms of the distance between the apex and the base. In `safe’, external mediation, we have a tall triangle, with a clear distance between mediator and subject. If the triangle is made more squat, then we have the more perilous situation of `internal mediation’, where the subject and model are, literally, too close for comfort.

In Dostoevsky, we have just such a triangular pattern. The characters move on the same social level, and we are confronted with a much more frenzied world of destructive mimetic interaction — culminating in the alleged father-murder in The Brothers Karamazov. Here we find a rivalistic desire between individuals, frenziedly struggling for the same social space. Meet `Underground Man’:

`I am a sick man … I am an angry man. I am an unattractive man. I think there is something wrong with my liver . .

The speaker is the unnamed, splenetic anti-hero of Notes from Underground, whom Dostoevsky describes as `this real man of the Russian majority’. He is a petty bureaucrat, a man consumed by a ferocious obsession with other people’s opinion of him, who finds himself nauseated by the company of his peers at the same time as he is hopelessly fascinated and attracted by them. He spends months considering how to get revenge on an army officer who has publicly humiliated him.

Later, in a richly comic scene, the Underground Man drunkenly gate-crashes a banquet of former school companions, now army officers and civil servants like himself, whom he loathes and despises, yet whose company he cannot bear to be without. He exasperates and offends by his presence, like a moth crashing continuously into a lamp:

Smiling scornfully, I paced backwards and forwards on the side of the room opposite the sofa, along the wall from the table to the stove and back. I was trying with all my might to show that I could do without them; meanwhile I purposely made a clatter with my boots, coming down hard on the heels. But it was all in vain; they didn’t even notice. I had the patience to walk about straight in front of them in this fashion from eight o’clock till eleven, always in the same track, from the table to the stove and from the stove back again to the table: `I am walking to please myself and nobody can stop me.’ . . .

To humiliate oneself more shamelessly and willfully was impossible, and this I fully, all too fully understood, yet all the same I continued to pace from the table to the stove and back. `Oh, if only you know what thoughts and emotions I am capable of, and how enlightened I am!’ I thought sometimes, turning in imagination to the sofa where my enemies sat. But my enemies acted as though I wasn’t even in the room. Once, and only once, they turned towards me, and that was when Zverkov began to talk about Shakespeare and I let out a sudden contemptuous laugh.

It was such a vilely artificial snort that they all ceased talking at once and silently watched me for about two minutes, attentively and seriously, as I walked along the wall from the table to the stove, without paying them the slightest attention. But nothing happened; they did not speak to me and after two minutes they ignored me again.

Compare this passage with Proust’s description (from Within a Budding Grove, quoted in Things Hidden, p. 301) of holiday-makers, strolling by the sea at Balbec:

All these people … pretending not to see, so as to let it be thought that they were not interested in them, but covertly eyeing, for fear of running into them, the people who were walking beside or coming towards them, did in fact bump into them, became entangled with them, because each was mutually the object of the same secret attention veiled beneath the same apparent disdain.

Girard draws on another story by Dostoevsky, The Eternal Husband. The `eternal husband’ of the title is Trousotsky, whose wife has just died. She had had two lovers, one of whom also dies: Trousotsky attends his funeral procession, where he displays quite extravagant grief. The widower then attaches himself in the most bizarre fashion to the other lover, Veltschaninoff, with whom he is clearly fascinated. He visits him uninvited in the middle of the night, drinks his health, kisses him on the lips … in short, his wife’s lover has become his model, mediator and obstacle. Trousotsky moves round him like a planet circling the sun.

The plot becomes even more bizarre when Trousotsky falls in love again, and declares that he wishes to remarry. He asks Veltschaninoff to help him choose a present for his beloved, and even to accompany him on a visit to her. The predictable happens: Veltschaninoff easily charms his way into the affections of the fiancée and her family, so that Trousotsky himself is now totally disregarded.

This looks like the most masochistic kind of behavior; in fact, the Eternal Husband is incapable of loving someone unless his choice has been ratified and approved by his model-rival. Veltschaninoff is an accomplished `Don Juan’, and without his seal of approval, the girl will appear to be worthless to Trousotsky. He yearns to be like, or even to surpass, his rival, to have his success with women, but because he only encounters failure he can never escape from Veltschaninoff’s influence.

The triangularity of the Eternal Husband’s desire is reaffirmed at the end of the novel, when the narrator (who is Veltschaninoff himself) meets Trousotsky, years later, together with his charming new wife … in the company of a dashing young officer. As Girard observes in his later book on Dostoevsky: `Masochists are always fascinated artisans of their own unhappiness’:

Why does [Trousotsky] rush into his own humiliation? Because he is immensely vain and proud. This response is paradoxical only in appearance. When Trousotsky discovers that his wife prefers another man to him, the shock he experiences is dreadful because he makes it a duty to be the center and navel of the universe. The man is a former serf owner; he is rich. He lives in a world of masters and slaves and is incapable of envisaging a middle term between these two extremes; the least failure condemns him to servitude. A deceived husband, he pledges himself to being a sexual zero. After having thought of himself as someone from whom power and success naturally radiated, he now sees himself as human waste from whom impotence and ridicule inevitably ooze.
(Girard, 1997, p. 49)

It should be clear from these two stories alone that the Russian novelist offers very striking expositions of the most extreme kind of mimetic interaction, which justifies Girard putting Dostoevsky at the climax of Deceit, Desire and the Novel. Because the distance between hero and model has been shortened, the potential for both morbid fascination, and for rivalry and violence, is intensified.

The contrast between mimetic interaction in Cervantes and Dostoevsky is like day and night. And yet both writers, according to Girard, are seeking to illustrate the same psychological mechanism: mimetic desire. Why, then, is there such a shocking difference between them?

One answer is to look at the social and cultural differences which set the seventeenth-century writer apart from the nineteenth-century one. This period sees the erosion of precisely those hierarchical boundaries which prevented Quixote and Sancho Panza from coming into conflict. We alluded to this in Girard’s distinction between `external’ and `internal’ mediation. In this increased potentiality of mimetic desire from Cervantes to Dostoevsky is mirrored the development of our modern world, a world in which long-established differentiation is eroded in the face of equality and democracy. Mimesis therefore encounters fewer and fewer barriers; in place of external mediation we have more and more internal. This world is characterized by intense competition, rivalry, envy and jealousy.

Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan puts forward a diagnosis of this condition. The problem begins, for Hobbes, with the competitive nature of the modern world, and its unavoidable logic of acquisitive mimesis. In Chapter 13 of Leviathan, `Of the Naturall Condition of Mankind, as concerning their Felicity, and Misery’, he wrote:

From this equality of ability, ariseth equality of hope in the attaining of our Ends. And therefore if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and in the way to their End, (which is principally their owne conservation, and sometimes their delectation only,) endeavor to destroy, or subdue one another …Againe, men have no pleasure, (but on the contrary a great deale of griefe) in keeping company, where there is no power able to over-awe them all. For every man looketh that his companion should value him, at the same rate he sets upon himselfe … so that in the nature of man, we find three principall causes of quarrell. First, Competition; Secondly, Diffidence; Thirdly, Glory.

(But on the contrary a great deale of griefe) in keeping company, where there is no power able to over-awe them all. For every man looketh that his companion should value him, at the same rate he sets upon himselfe … so that in the nature of man, we find three principall causes of quarrell. First, Competition; Secondly, Diffidence; Thirdly, Glory.

By `diffidence’, Hobbes means the wariness which people show towards each other, precisely because they are of equal ability, with no one noticeably stronger than the others. This diffidence is at the same time a source of self-assertion, since each desires the esteem or `recognition’ of the others. As Hobbes memorably describes just after this passage, this means that the `natural’ state of humanity is one of all-pervasive warfare.

According to Girard, these mimetic pressures build up intolerably, so that by the nineteenth century the disease has its own name: the Underground Man and Trousotsky, along with numerous other Dostoevskian heroes, are suffering from ressentiment. The French word is preferable to the English `resentment’, because it conveys better this sense of emotional ricochet, where the affective life of the hero is borrowed from or dictated by someone else — with turbulent consequences.

Perhaps a more familiar example here would be the character of Antonio Salieri in Peter Schaffer’s play and film, Amadeus. The play is about the life of Mozart as told from the perspective of Salieri, the imperial court composer. He has dedicated his life and music to God, only to find himself confronted in rivalry by a dissolute yet brilliant genius. The comparison is a disastrous one: Salieri, now convinced that God is mocking him, renounces his piety and determines to frustrate God’s purposes by destroying his `creature’. At the close of the drama, Salieri (incarcerated in an asylum because of his jealous obsession) declaims himself to be the `patron saint of mediocrity’. More accurately, he ranks alongside the Eternal Husband and the Underground Man as one of the patron saints of ressentiment.


Fr. Robert Barron, one of our faves here at PayingAttentionToTheSky, takes up the summer mega hit, The Hunger Games (a retelling of the mythological story of Theseus and the Minotaur), and Girardian Theory in an article in the National Review.

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One comment

  1. Great Blog. Thank you for publishingThomas Hobbes writes in Leviathan that in order to rid ourselves of the state of nature and create a peaceful society, we must engage in social contracts with each other by allowing a sovereign to make decisions for all people as a group, which would limit our individual freedoms. According to him, this is the only way to ensure the safety of the people. In traditional cases, this would mean creating an autocracy, which seems outdated in our modern world.

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