The Philosophy Behind Desire As Mimetic Theory — Fr. Michael KirwanJuly 6, 2012
Up to now, the first phase of mimetic theory — the discovery that desire is mimetic — has been presented through Girard’s reading of key novelists and of Shakespearean drama. We will next examine his theory against the background of other philosophical approaches to the same theme. It is clear that existentialist writers such as Sartre and Camus are very influential for Girard, but two other texts will be considered here, as a way of sharpening up the distinctive claims of mimetic theory: Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (as interpreted by Kojeve), and Max Scheler’s Ressentiment.
Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit deals with two themes which are of significance for Girard’s project: the desire for recognition (Anerkennung), and the Master-Slave dialectic. The `version’ of Hegel which concerns us is the interpretation given by Alexander Kojeve, in a famous series of lectures in Paris between 1933 and 1939, which excited and influenced a generation of important thinkers, including Hannah Arendt, George Bataille, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Jacques Lacan. Rene Girard read the text of Kojeve’s lectures as he was writing Deceit, Desire and the Novel in 1959.
Like Girard, Hegel gives an important role to desire in the formation of the self. His argument, as summarized by Kojeve, runs as follows. Hegel’s statement that `the human is self-consciousness’ requires a view of the subject that goes beyond Descartes’ `I think therefore I am’; the human is more than just a thinking subject. In order to be able to say `I’, a subject must have desire, and this has to be a desire for a non-natural object, if man is to transcend his animal nature. For Hegel, the only possible candidate for such an object is the desire of another. This means, to be recognized by the other person, to place oneself as the object of someone else’s desire. Self-consciousness, for Hegel, is a function of the desire for recognition:
Desire is human — or, more exactly, `humanizing,’ `anthropogenetic’ — only provided that it is directed toward another Desire and another Desire.To be human, man must act not for the sake of subjugating a thing, but for the sake of subjugating another Desire (for the thing). The man who desires a thing humanly acts not so much to possess the thing as to make another recognize his right — as will be said later — to that thing, to make another recognize him as the owner of the thing. And he does this — in the final analysis — in order to make the other recognize his superiority over the other. It is only Desire of such a Recognition (Anerkennung), it is only Action that flows from such a desire, that creates, realizes, and reveals a human, non-biological I.
(Kojeve, p. 40)
The subject’s desire for recognition is so overwhelming that he is prepared to fight for it, even to the death — as are all the other competing subjects, similarly struggling for recognition. So for Hegel, human existence is unthinkable without bloody wars for prestige, conflicts in which, paradoxically, `man will risk his biological life to satisfy his nonbiological desire’ (Kojeve, p. 41). In fact, exactly such a struggle was going on outside Hegel’s window, so to speak, as he was writing the Phenomenology: in 1806, Napoleon’s troops were moving to encounter the Prussian army at the Battle of Jena.
Nevertheless, although the subject is prepared to struggle and lose his life, it is also the case that a struggle in which all the combatants are killed, except for the solitary victor, would be counterproductive. That victor would no longer be a human being, because human reality consists in the recognition of one man by another. One can only posit, therefore, a struggle in which both adversaries remain alive, but in which one yields to the other — a victor who becomes the Master of the vanquished.
`The vanquished has subordinated his human desire for recognition to the biological desire to preserve his life; this is what determines and reveals — to him and to the victor — his inferiority’, while for the Master the opposite is true (p. 42). For Kojeve, this Master-Slave dialectic is the key to understanding the Phenomenology. The Master’s willingness to wager his life, and the Slave’s unreadiness to do so, are what establish the hierarchy between them. However, this is not the end of the story. The Master is acknowledged as victor, but only by a slave consciousness, which is of little value to him.
`Mastery is an existential impasse’ (p. 46). The Slave, on the other hand, is put to work by the Master, but precisely this work enables him, over time, to build up an independent consciousness. He works directly upon the world to transform it, and gradually becomes aware of the contradictions in his situation. The Slave, in contrast to the Master, can progress. There are three stages, or ideologies, to his progression: stoicism, skepticism and `unhappy consciousness’; all are attempts by the Slave to reconcile his sense of freedom with the objective condition of his enslavement.
As mentioned above, Girard was reading Kojeve’s lectures on Hegel at the time of writing his book, and we can see a number of clear structural parallels with his own mimetic theory. Above all, the link between desire (which is mimetically structured) and conflict (the desire for recognition; the Master-Slave dialectic) is emphatically stated.
However, a number of important differences between Hegel and Girard need to be stressed. They differ above all in their understanding of desire: Hegel speaks of `desiring the desire of the other’ (in other words, I desire that the other should desire = recognize me), while Girard’s mimetic theory holds that I `desire according to the other’ (my desire is directed according to what the other desires — I yearn for the same object as she does, whatever it may be). Girard also expresses misgivings about the necessary relation in Hegel between desire and destruction or negation. Hegel places violence at the centre of his system, and in effect sacralizes it, so he is unable to offer a way out of the problematic of violence.
Girard allows the Christian revelation, positively assessed, an increasingly prominent place in his thought. In Deceit, Desire and the Novel this preference is more implicit, but is nevertheless evident in his contrast of the `Hegelian dialectic’ with the `novelistic dialectic’ (that is, the process of enlightenment and conversion which he traces through the novels of Proust, Dostoevsky and the others). Hegel and Girard look as if they are talking about similar states of alienation, but there is a real difference between them. Hegel’s ‘Promethean’ philosophy celebrates the subject’s optimistic drive out of alienation and towards self- fulfillment, while the `novelistic’ imagination has seen through this dream and no longer believes it:
Hegel’s unhappy consciousness and Sartre’s projet to be God are the outcome of a stubborn orientation to the transcendent, of an inability to relinquish religious patterns of desire when history has outgrown them. The novelistic consciousness is also unhappy because its need for transcendency has outlived the Christian faith. But there the resemblances end. In the eyes of the novelist, modern man suffers, not because he refuses to become fully and totally aware of his autonomy, but because that awareness, whether real or illusory, is for him intolerable.
The need for transcendency seeks satisfaction in the human world and leads the hero into all sorts of madness. Stendhal and Proust, even though they are unbelievers, part company at this point with Sartre and Hegel to rejoin Cervantes and Dostoevsky. Promethean philosophy sees in the Christian religion only a humanism which is still too timid for complete self-assertion. The novelist, regardless of whether he is a Christian, sees in the so-called modern humanism a subterranean metaphysics which is incapable of recognizing its own nature.
(Girard, 1965, pp. 158-9)
The `subterranean metaphysics’ to which Girard refers reintroduces the theme of ressentiment, exemplified as we have seen in the figure of the Underground Man in Dostoevsky (Notes from the Underground, incidentally, and perhaps not surprisingly, had a marked impression on Friedrich Nietzsche). A classic if idiosyncratic study, Ressentiment, by the German philosopher Max Scheler (first published in 1912), offers a thorough analysis of the phenomenon, which he characterizes as follows:
Ressentiment is a self-poisoning of the mind which has quite definite causes and consequences. It is a lasting mental attitude, caused by the systematic repression of certain emotions and affects which, as such, are normal components of human nature. Their repression leads to the constant tendency to indulge in certain kinds of value delusions and corresponding value judgments. The emotions and affects primarily concerned are revenge, hatred, malice, envy, the impulse to detract, and spite.
(Scheler, p. 29)
Scheler wishes to examine the claim of Nietzsche that ressentiment is a source of moral judgments, and while he finds this a plausible notion, he is not convinced by Nietzsche’s declaration in On the Genealogy of Morals that Christian love is the most delicate `flower of ressentiment’. Two passages from Genealogy of Morals give the flavor of Nietzsche’s argument:
The slave revolt in morals begins when ressentiment itself becomes creative and ordains values: the ressentiment of creatures to whom the real reaction, that of the deed, is denied and who find compensation in an imaginary revenge. While all noble morality grows from a triumphant affirmation of itself, slave morality from the outset says no to an `outside’, to an `other’, to a `non-self’; and this no is its creative act.
(First Essay, Section 10)
Nietzsche declares Christianity (ostensibly the most exalted form of loving religion) to be, in fact, the purest form of ressentiment, a’farsighted, subterranean revenge’. Certainly, if Hegel presents a system that is only superficially Christian, then Nietzsche’s opposition to Christianity is at least manifest. In fact, for Girard, this opposition is a fruitful one, as he takes up the challenge of Nietzsche’s formulation, `Dionysus or the Crucified’.
But you are finding this hard to swallow? You have no eyes for something which took two thousand years to triumph? … But this is indeed what happened: from the trunk of that tree of revenge and hatred, Jewish hatred – the deepest and most sublime hatred, that is, the kind of hatred which creates ideals and changes the meaning of values, a hatred the like of which has never been on earth — from this tree grew something equally incomparable, a new love, the deepest and most sublime of all the kinds of love — and from what other trunk could it have grown? … But let no-one think that it somehow grew up as the genuine negation of that thirst for revenge, as the antithesis of Jewish hatred! No, the opposite is the case! Love grew forth from this hatred, as its crown, as its triumphant crown, spreading itself ever wider in the purest brightness and fullness of the sun, as a crown which pursued in the lofty realm of light the goals of hatred — victory, spoils, seduction — driven there by the same impulse with which the roots of that hatred sank down ever further and more lasciviously into everything deep and evil.
(First Essay, Section 8)
Girard approves of Scheler’s attempt to challenge the identification which Nietzsche makes between Christian religious sentiment and ressentiment. Scheler’s failure to do this effectively, for Girard, arises from his inability to grasp the mimetic nature of desire; he is not able to fit the pieces together, even though he has done an admirable job of collecting them in the first place. In any case, his study of the phenomenon of ressentiment and of its significance for understanding the modern era, makes him a useful philosophical conversation partner in the articulation of mimetic theory.
Girard has declared that his overall project can be said to be `against — or anti — Nietzsche’, even though the German philosopher understood the uniqueness of Christianity in a way that few of his contemporaries were able to do. In an essay from 1978, entitled `Strategies of Madness — Nietzsche, Wagner, and Dostoevsky‘, Girard explores the bizarre relationship between Nietzsche and Richard Wagner. Nietzsche’s worship of the composer betrays a mimetic fascination no less intense than the one that held the Eternal Husband enthralled to his wife’s lover, or the Underground Man to the colleagues he both despises and adores.
Nietzsche’s self-identification with, alternately, Dionysus and Christ, as his sanity deserts him, is a further indicator that his understanding of ressentiment is a knowledge which has been bought at considerable personal cost. In a 1984 essay, entitled `Nietzsche versus the Crucified’ (reprinted in the Girard Reader), Girard asserts:
These later fragments [of Nietzsche's work] are the height of ressentiment in the sense that the final breakdown also is. Nietzsche’s superiority over his century and ours may well be that he alone pushed the ressentiment that he shares with quite a few lesser mortals to such a height that it yielded its most virulent and significant fruit. None of Nietzsche’s achievements as a thinker can be divorced from ressentiment, whether the subject is Wagner, the divine, or Nietzsche himself in Ecce Homo.
(Williams, 1996, p. 246)
The question of Nietzsche, ressentiment and Christianity is neatly summed up as follows:
Ressentiment is the interiorization of weakened vengeance. Nietzsche suffers so much from it that he mistakes it for the original and primary form of vengeance. He sees ressentiment not merely as the child of Christianity, which it certainly is, but also as its father which it certainly is not. (p. 252)
However, in the same essay, Girard relativizes the whole problem of ressentiment, when he reminds us that compared to the twentieth-century threat of nuclear holocaust (and indeed, one might add, of the bloodletting that came soon enough after Nietzsche’s death), `ressentiment and other nineteenth-century annoyances pale into insignificance’. There is such a thing as genuine, all-destructive vengeance, of which ressentiment is a weakened simulacrum. Only a relatively peaceful and stable society would have the leisure to concern itself with it. Had Nietzsche known the real horrors which were to come after his death, and with which his own theories would be associated, perhaps the theme of ressentiment would have been far less prominent in his writings.