Archive for the ‘René Girard’ Category


What Freud Got Wrong – Jared White

May 19, 2014
Your approach to Freud's consulting rooms at Berggasse 19… Most mental health problems, in one way or another, are  a result of not living the way God created us to live. The first and most important aspect to life and good mental health is love, after that, exercise, sunshine, fresh-air, and healthy foods all have a substantial impact on mental health. How any of that can be supplanted or replaced by drugs is questionable.

Your approach to Freud’s consulting rooms at Berggasse 19… Most mental health problems, in one way or another, are a result of not living the way God created us to live. The first and most important aspect to life and good mental health is love, after that, exercise, sunshine, fresh-air, and healthy foods all have a substantial impact on mental health. How any of that can be supplanted or replaced by drugs is questionable.

Much of modern psychoanalysis, the methods by which we judge mental health, is based on the ideas established by Sigmund Freud during the 1920s.  The term “Oedipus complex” might come to mind, as it should, for Freud’s thoughts about the “Oedipus complex” form the core of his theory and legacy. Few people, however, really know what the Oedipus complex is or how it shapes the ideas of so many of the therapists and psychologists that we blindly trust.  So what is the Oedipus complex? And is the premise of modern psychology an accurate or useful way to analyze the metal health of individuals or society as a whole?  The present state of mental health in America, the West, and many other parts of the world seems to be in dire straits, making this an important issue.

The Oedipus Complex and Modern Myth
For those who aren’t familiar with the story Oedipus Rex, it’s a Greek tragedy by Sophocles, written in the 5th century BC.  The basic plot of the story is that King Laius has a child named Oedipus, but the child is abandoned because of a foreboding prophecy that the child would kill his father and take over the throne.  

Then in a twisted turn of events, Oedipus survives into adulthood and kills his own father (like the prophecy predicted) on a country road (not knowing it was his father that he killed). Oedipus is then made king in his father’s place (still not knowing it was his dad he killed) and takes the hand of his own biological mother in marriage. The theme and underlying meaning of the tragedy, along with many other similar tragedies and myths, is the nature of rivalries between close relationships. Freud’s interpretation of this rivalry and the violence between father and son, as told in Oedipus Rex, is the basis of his psychoanalytic theory.

Basically what Freud tries to answer with the “Oedipus complex” is the question of the origin of desires that cause human conflicts. For example, why is it that a child desires the same objects that his parents desire?  In the exaggerated case of Oedipus, the underlying implication is that a boy desires his own mother. But why? In his earliest works, Freud places the origin of this desire with the child’s identification with his parents.

In other words, a child learns desire based on seeing what his parents desire and wanting to be like them. Later, however, Freud hypothesizes that desire arises from innate, physical desires, rather than from imitating a model (such as a parent). Ultimately Freud comes to the bizarre conclusion that at some point, a boy will suddenly become conscious of an innate desire for his mother, which he will then suppress in his subconscious mind. This suppressed consciousness, however, is supposed to influence other aspects of life and desire.

The upshot is that modern psychology is built on a couple of underlying Freudian assumptions:  For one, it’s believed that desires, even desires beyond basic biological functions, are primarily innate and focused purely on an object. A healthy, socially-adjusted individual then is one who successfully recognizes and suppresses his or her desires for socially inappropriate objects (whether actual objects or people).

Secondly, innate desires are considered highly individualistic, and individualism just so happens to be highly praised in Western society. Scholars, businessmen, artists — we all strive to be unique individuals, and we tend to deny the dynamics and influences of the group. Such denial, however, makes us even more susceptible to group think, advertisements, and propaganda.  Personally, I’m convinced that for those in therapy, these two assumptions can also cause a deterioration rather than an improvement in mental health!

Mimetic Desire and Ancient Knowledge
In his work Violence and the Sacred (which this article is largely based on), the renowned scholar Rene Girard argues that the real origin of desire and the cause of human conflict (whether mental or physical) is something he calls mimetic desire.  While the idea of mimetic desire isn’t really new (it can be argued that it’s something the Bible refers to as sin or covetousness), Girard provides a scientific explanation of the formation of desires, rivalry, and even what might be referred to today as “poor mental health.” Essentially, mimetic desire is as old as Adam and Eve or Cain and Able.  

Ancient stories, such as Cain and Able, teach us that desires come from an outside source, from a model, someone that can be imitated (hence the word mimetic in Girard’s theory). In other words, our desire for a particular object isn’t innate and doesn’t come from the appeal of the object itself, rather an object is made desirable by the person that possesses it. If you don’t think that’s accurate, think about any of the most effective television commercials. They’re never really selling an object; they’re selling the appeal of who one could become by acquiring possession of a particular object. For example, with the right luxury watch, any man might become as successful, rich, and handsome, as the man in the commercial.

The next truth stories like Cain and Able teach us (and human history will attest to), is that desire creates conflict. The reason desire creates conflict is because we don’t just desire the same object that our model possesses, we desire to actually become the model. The problem is that there are two obstacles to becoming or becoming like the model: the model himself and the model’s possession of the desired object.

Mimetic desire, fully played out, thus results in depression, jealousy, rivalry, covetousness, and ultimately murder (all consequences of a disturbed mental state). In order to become like the model, the subject has to either steal the object from the model and/or murder the model; the model is the chief obstacle preventing the subject from obtaining the model’s elusive state of being.  

The psychological implications of mimetic desire are paramount. If our desires are not innate physical whims but formed by the imitation of role models, then more often than not our desires are neither fixed nor reasonable.  They’re not fixed because a role model’s possessions and interests may change over time, and they’re not reasonable because one can never obtain the state of being of another human. These two obstacles result in continued frustration, depression, high and lows, violence, and generally “poor mental health.”  Thankfully there is a solution to the primary cause of most our mental dis-ease.  

The Real Cure to Many of Our Mental Health Problems 
Girard argues that there are essentially two solutions to mimetic desire, though the first solution is really more of a band-aid than a cure. First, the relational distance between a subject and his role model has a direct affect on the amount of mental stress and physical violence that might result from a given relationship. Relational distance might explain why the fiercest jealousy or violence often occurs between the closest friends or the most intimate lovers. If one chooses role models that are at a greater distance, however, like a sports hero on a professional team instead of a high school teammate, the tension caused by mimetic rivalry is lessoned.  Our society tacitly acknowledges this benefit by constant emphasizing the importance of positive role models for children.

The second solution is receiving and following in the steps of Jesus Christ’s sacrificial love. Instead of turning to violence and being controlled by the crowd, Jesus revealed that laying down one’s own life brings freedom and escape from the mimetic cycle. The ability to lay down one’s life, to surrender one’s desire (formed by imitation and ultimately resulting in a hatred for others), is only obtained by believing in the unconditional love of Jesus.  Love, which is sacrificial, can only be given after it is received.  In other words, those who believe, Jesus sets free from a mimesis that spirals towards death and leads into a mimesis towards life. Sacrificial love brings freedom from mental anguish, fear, jealousy, narcissism, concern over what people think, anxiety, depression, and a plethora of other mental health problems.

This isn’t to say that all mental health problems are solved by escaping mimetic desire, or that we’re ever fully free from mimetic desire. Looking to others for the cues for our desires is a constant struggle, one that requires daily returning to the love of Jesus and remembering his sacrifice through sharing communion with others. It’s also important to note that some mental health problems are caused by biology or the physical environment, such as when depression is caused by being inside for too long or when bi-polar disease is triggered by a nutrient deficiency.  

But this brings up another point, most mental health problems, in one way or another, are  a result of not living the way God created us to live. The first and most important aspect to life and good mental health is love, after that, exercise, sunshine, fresh-air, and healthy foods all have a substantial impact on mental health.

It’s a Western myth that we are complete individuals with innate and unique desires. While the idea of the “stalwart individual” might be appealing, our mental health is intimately tied to our relationships with others.  We get our desires from the people around us (whether friends, family, peers, advertisers, movies, etc), and our ability (or inability) to realize these desires is the principle cause of mental dis-ease.  The only way to escape the bi-polar high and lows of desire is unconditional, sacrificial love.


The Philosophy Behind Desire As Mimetic Theory — Fr. Michael Kirwan

July 6, 2012

Hegel and Nietzsche

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.


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.


René Girard’s “Mimetic Desire” — Fr. Michael Kirwan

July 4, 2012

Don Quixote is a 1955 sketch by Pablo Picasso of the Spanish literary hero and his sidekick, Sancho Panza. It was featured on the August 18-24 issue of the French weekly journal Les Lettres Françaises’s in celebration of the 350th anniversary of the first part of Cervantes’s Don Quixote. Made on August 10, 1955, the drawing Don Quixote was in a very different style than Picasso’s earlier Blue, Rose, and Cubist periods.

A couple of years ago I had my first encounter with René Girard when I was dealing with theories of violence and particularly Christ’s passion. As someone who has observed violence so often I found myself befuddled at times as to the why, particularly as it impacted myself and the rages I was victim to. While I am undergoing treatment for PTSD at the VA for my Vietnam experiences, I still seek answers both in a personal and also cultural way. Fr. Kirwan’s book Discovering Girard  is one of the best I’ve read and has a broader sweep than just Girard because he contrasts some of the latter’s theories with recent work in the field.


Girard’s theory begins with a realization of the importance of mimesis in human desire, a conviction that he arrived at while working on his first book, Deceit, Desire and the Novel in 1959. So we need to start with an explanation of what he understands by `mimesis’.

The five novelists whom Girard considers in this book deal with nothing less than `the collapse of the autonomous self’. The first and perhaps clearest example of what this means is Don Quixote, whom we will turn to shortly. As mentioned in the Introduction, however, this literary study was accompanied by a `collapse’ of an immediate kind for Girard himself, or at least a profound shake-up of his beliefs and values. In an interview he tells how he approached this study `in the pure demystification mode: cynical, destructive, very much in the spirit of the atheist intellectuals of the time’.

Such an attitude of `debunking’, however, can eventually turn back on itself. If all one finds in other people is inauthenticity and bad faith, something very like the religious concept of original sin will emerge into view: `An experience of demystification, if radical enough, is very close to an experience of conversion.’ Girard saw that the lives of a number of great writers manifest precisely this pattern, and by the time he came to write the last chapter of the book, he realized that he was undergoing his own version of the experience he was describing. This caused him to return to reading the gospels, and to acknowledge that he had now become a Christian.

Girard stresses that this was as yet only an intellectual-literary conversion, and a fairly comfortable one. When he had a health scare in early 1959, namely the discovery of a cancerous spot on his forehead, the issue became much more existential. His conversion was now a genuinely religious one, and he returned to the Catholic Church during Lent of that year, in time for a `real Easter experience, a death and resurrection experience’. He describes himself now as `an ordinary Christian’.

Here, then, is the key to understanding the writers under consideration in Deceit, Desire and the Novel. In spite of their diverse backgrounds and religious affiliations, they have in common an experience of conversion, which is also to be thought of as a `death and resurrection experience’. For the authors themselves, this experience of collapse and recovery may be implicitly or explicitly religious. For Girard, the kind of event that he is describing (whether it is understood religiously or not) is so pivotal to their works, that he takes it to be constitutive of the genre we call the `novel’. He therefore sets up a contrast between `novel’ and `romance’; the novel tells us the truth about human desire, whereas romantic literature perpetuates only untruth about the autonomy and stability of human desire.

The first author considered in Deceit, Desire and the Novel is Miguel Cervantes, the creator of Don Quixote. Quixote has decided that he wishes to be a knight errant. He has decided upon this as a result of reading courtly literature, and he explains to his servant, Sancho Panza, why he has chosen to take as his model Amadis de Gaul, the most prominent of the literary heroes he has been reading about:

I want you to know, Sancho, that the famous Amadis of Gaul was one of the most perfect knight errants. But what am I saying, one of the most perfect? I should say the only, the first, the unique, the master and lord of all those who existed in the world … when a painter wants to become famous for his art he tries to imitate the originals of the best masters he knows … In the same way Amadis was the pole, the star, the sun, for brave and amorous knights, and we others who fight under the banner of love and chivalry should imitate him. Thus, my friend Sancho, I reckon that whoever imitates him best will come closest to perfect chivalry.
(Don Quixote, cited in Girard, 1965, p. 1)

By allowing this fictional character to choose for him all the things he should desire, Don Quixote effectively abandons any independent judgment of his own. He has no independent `self’. Girard illustrates this state of affairs geometrically, by declaring that desire has a triangular structure. Instead of desire being a single linear relation (subject A desires object B — `Quixote desires to be a perfect knight’), we have three elements: A only desires B because C (in this case, Amadis de Gaul) has directed his attention towards it. Since Quixote’s desires are channeled or mediated by Amadis, point C of the triangle is called the `mediator’ or `model’.

Cervantes is not the first writer to consider the theme of mimesis, of course. A long Western philosophical tradition has followed Aristotle in the Poetics — `man is distinguished from other life-forms by his capacity for imitation’. All human learning, and especially the acquisition of language, takes place through imitation. What Girard insists has been neglected is an understanding of imitation which is expansive enough to include desire.

Not just language and external gestures, but desire is also conditioned by our imitative human nature. Girard notes that some writers are inexplicably ambiguous or hostile towards mimesis; for example, no satisfactory explanation has been offered as to why Plato (Republic, Book 10) considers mimesis to be dangerous or problematic, and it is precisely this mystery which Girard thinks he has solved. Before seeing why this might be so, we may first consider another description of mimesis, offered by J. M. Oughourlian, a psychiatrist and collaborator with Girard:

Just as in the cosmos, the planets, stars, and galaxies are simultaneously held together and kept apart by gravity, so also mimesis keeps human beings together and apart, assuring at one and the same time the cohesion of the social fabric and the relative autonomy of the members that make it up. In physics, it is the force of attraction, gravity, that holds bodies together in space. They would be pitilessly hurled against each other into a final fusion if gravity did not also preserve their autonomy, and hence their existence, through motion. In psychology, the movement of mimesis that renders one autonomous and relatively individual is called ‘desire’. . .

I have always thought that what one customarily calls the `I’ or `self’ in psychology is an unstable, constantly changing, evanescent structure. I think, to evoke the intuitions of Hegel on this point that only desire brings this self into existence. Because desire is the only psychological motion, it alone, it seems to me, is capable of producing the self and breathing life into it. The first hypothesis that I would like to formulate in this regard is this: desire gives rise to the self and, by its movement, animates it. The second hypothesis, which I have adopted unreservedly since I first became aware of it, is that desire is mimetic.
U. M. Oughourlian, 1991, pp. 11-12)

This model of universal gravitation is memorable and easily understood, and neatly refers us back to Quixote’s description of Amadis as `the pole, the star, the sun’, for anyone who wishes to be a perfect knight. It even hints at the way we speak about modern celebrity culture — the `stars’ and ‘megastars’ who populate the world of entertainment, media and sport are the focus of seemingly infinite fascination for mere ordinary human beings, so that we speak of their `pulling power’ at the box office, their rising and falling, and so on.

Also, the planetary model sums up well the spirit of Girard’s whole enterprise. Girard insists that with the idea of mimesis he has hit upon a simple but key organizing idea, one which will transform our way of thinking about the human sciences, just as the theories of gravity and evolution have drastically altered our understanding of physics and biology.

Lastly, this model alerts us to the darker side of desire. `Mimesis keeps human beings together and apart.’ As well as attraction, there is repulsion. Girard’s investigation of desire relates to a wider question: why, of all life-forms in creation, are humans apparently the most violent and prone to conflict? Girard wishes to distance himself, on the one hand, from theorists who posit an aggressive drive or instinct as the source of human conflicts. One reason for his disagreement is that Girard is working with a distinction between needs or appetites, which are ‘natural’, on the one hand, and desire, which is much more conditioned by culture and social interaction, on the other.

A second type of theory against which Girard is reacting is the romantic or liberal celebration of desire per se, according to which all human distress and negativity is an effect of the distortion of natural desire by external forces. The cause of conflict and aggression is located outside of the self, either in alienating social conditions, or in a repressive father-figure, and so on.

If the external factor is removed, the self is `liberated’ to express its desires unhindered. As the description offered by Oughourlian implies, this conception of the self as an autonomous unit is now being widely questioned by philosophers. Girard and others refer polemically to it as `the Romantic Lie’. The self is, rather, `an unstable, constantly changing, evanescent structure’, brought into existence by desire.

St Augustine expresses this theologically: `Lord, our hearts are restless, till they rest in Thee!’ The fact is, people do not know what they want — therefore they imitate the desire of others. We need only reflect upon the vast expenditure and creativity which goes into advertising — a medium, incidentally, which is becoming ever more forthright about its own mimetic strategies. Recent examples include the slogan in a major English department store, which declared unashamedly: `You want it — you buy it — you forget it!’, while my own favorite is a poster selling jeans, in which a scantily clad model scowls defiantly over the slogan: No one tells me what to wear!’

In fact, any kind of market is nothing other than a mechanism for the harmonious mediation of desires. If we think of a currency market where everyone wants to buy euros, my `desire’ will be to buy euros also. As soon as the market switches to dollars, my own preference will `mysteriously’ change accordingly. A number of economic theorists have in fact attempted to utilize mimetic theory in their analyses of market behavior.

From an evolutionary perspective, the mimetic adoption of another’s desire has replaced instinctual behavior as the prime determinant of human action. This is part of Girard’s explanation of why humans seem to be much more prone to deadly conflict than other life-forms. The instinctual `braking’ mechanisms which will normally prevent an escalation of conflict among animals, for example, are not present for humans. As if this were not worrying enough, the convergence of two or more desires upon the same object has, inevitably, a potential for conflict. Girard summarizes as follows:

We find ourselves reverting to an ancient notion — mimesis — one whose conflictual implications have always been misunderstood. We must understand that desire itself is essentially mimetic, directed toward an object desired by the model.

The mimetic quality of childhood desire is universally recognized. Adult desire is virtually identical, except that (most strikingly in our own culture) the adult is generally ashamed to imitate others for fear of revealing his lack of being. The adult likes to assert his independence and to offer himself as a model to others; he invariably falls back on the formula `Imitate me!’ in order to conceal his own lack of originality.

Two desires converging on the same object are bound to clash. Thus, mimesis coupled with desire leads automatically to conflict. However, humans always seem half blind to this conjunction, unable to perceive it as a cause of rivalry. In human relationships words like `sameness’ and `similarity’ evoke an image of harmony. If we have the same tastes and like the same things, surely we are bound to get along. But what will happen when we share the same desires? Only the major dramatists and novelists have partly understood and explored this form of rivalry.
(Girard, 1977, p. 146)

As long as the object of yearning is not closed off to general use – for example, if my friend and I want to learn the same language, or read the same book, or listen to the same piece of music — then conflict need not arise. But as soon as the object is cordoned off from this possibility of shared enjoyment, as is the case with sexual relationships, or jockeying for social prestige, mimesis will lead to competition. Once the desiring subject wants to possess the object for him or herself, the person who first brought the desired object to recognition becomes a rival and an obstacle. One word which Girard uses to describe the model who has become a rival is the biblical Greek word skandalon, scandal, or `stumbling block’.

Two hands reach, not quite simultaneously, for the same object. The outcome is bitter rivalry, even outright conflict.

It is striking how often this simple formula or image is used by Girard, especially with reference to children. He often cites the example of children playing in a roomful of toys, when an argument breaks out because two or more infants want to play with the same toy, even though there are plenty to go round. To repeat, desire possesses a triangular structure. Along the base of the triangle we find the desiring subject (who is also the imitator), and the desired object. At the apex of the triangle we have the model, the one who has indicated in the first place that the object is desirable.

It is also worth noting that the model/obstacle/rival need not in fact be an actual person. In fact, in three of the novelists considered by Girard, mimetic passions are aroused by the subject’s reading of fictional literature. Don Quixote imitates a fictional hero, Amadis de Gaul, as we have seen. Similarly in Flaubert: when Madame Bovary embarks on the first of her adulterous affairs, she recalls ecstatically the romantic literature which had nourished her desires up to that point:

Then she caught sight of herself in the mirror, and was amazed by the way she looked. Never had her eyes been so enormous, so dark, so deep: her whole being was transfigured by some subtle emanation.

`I have a lover! I have a lover!’ she kept repeating to herself, reveling in the thought as though she were beginning is a second puberty. At last she was going to know the joys of love, the fever of the happiness she had despaired of. She was entering a marvelous realm where all would be passion, ecstasy, rapture: she was in the midst of an endless blue expanse, scaling the glittering heights of passion; everyday life had receded, and lay far below, in the shadows between those peaks. She remembered the heroines of novels she had read, and the lyrical legion of those adulterous women began to sing in her memory with sisterly voices that enchanted her.

Now she saw herself as one of those amoureuses whom she had so envied: she was becoming, in reality, one of that gallery of fictional figures; the long dream of her youth was coming true. She was full of a delicious sense of vengeance. How she had suffered! But now her hour of triumph had come; and love, so long repressed, was gushing forth in joyful effervescence. She savored it without remorse, without anxiety, without distress.
(Flaubert, Madame Bovary, p. 153)

This link between reading and desire is also made explicit by the narrator in Marcel Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu: `But I was incapable of seeing a thing unless a desire to do so had been aroused in me by reading … I knew how often I had been unable to give my attention to things or to people, whom afterwards, once their image had been presented to me in solitude by an artist, I would have gone leagues and risked death to rediscover.’ As Girard points out, the printed word has a magical power of suggestion for the young Marcel, evident in his adulation of the writer Bergotte, and extending even to the theatrical posters he reads on the Champs Elysées.

To complete this initial survey of mimetic desire, we should add two further considerations. We have seen that Girard posits a triangular structure for desire: the subject’s desire for an object is mediated by that of the model, so that A desires B because C desires it. However, it is not strictly true that the subject always desires an `object’ at all. What really drives the individual may be something much more elusive and imprecise: the search for a quasi-transcendent state of well-being, of fulfillment, of self-actualization, which goes beyond simple possession of any object or set of objects.

Girard notes this distinction by referring to two kinds or degrees of mimetic desire: one is `acquisitive’ mimesis, where the desire is centered on a specific object (the child’s toy, for example), and the second is `metaphysical desire’, where no specific object is aimed at, but rather an indeterminate but insistent yearning for the fullness of `being’.

Secondly, we have seen that Girard talks about a `conversion’ experience which his chosen novelists experience (even though this does not necessarily involve an explicit religious adherence on the part of the author concerned). Girard considers this experience to be crucial to the effectiveness of the novel genre. He contrasts `novel’ and `romance’ as types of literature which, respectively, reveal the truth about (mimetic) desire, and perpetuate the `Romantic Lie’ about desire’s autonomy.

The Czech writer Milan Kundera, in his Theory of the Novel, has written appreciatively of Girard’s treatment of mimetic desire. Girard quotes Kundera as saying that mimetic desire is the distillation of `a particular kind of wisdom’, which contemporary culture and instrumental reason has difficulty in recognizing (Assmann, 1996, p. 289). Kundera’s most important novel, The Joke, in fact lends itself very well to a Girardian analysis, since the plot centers on the humiliating public ‘scapegoating’ of the protagonist by a zealous Communist tribunal.


René Girard’s `Thriller’ About Culture, Violence And The Sacred – Fr. Michael Kirwan S.J.

July 3, 2012

Without publicizing it, Sancho Panza succeeded, over the years, in diverting his demon (whom he later called Don Quixote) away from himself. This he did through reading many novels of chivalry and crime in the evening and night hours, so that this demon set out unstoppably to do the craziest things. However, because of the lack of a preordained object (which should have been Sancho Panza himself), these harmed no one. A free man, Sancho Panza serenely followed Don Quixote on his ways, perhaps out of a certain sense of responsibility, and had of them a great and edifying entertainment until the end of his days.
(Franz Kafka, The Truth about Sancho Panza)

We have no choice but to go back and forth, from alpha to omega. And these constant movements, this coming and going, force us to construct matters in a convoluted, spiraling fashion, which eventually runs the risk of being unsettling and even incomprehensible for the reader … I think one needs to read [my work] like a thriller. All the elements are given at the beginning, but it is necessary to read to the very end for the meaning to become completely apparent.
(Rene Girard, Celui par qui le scandale arrive, pp. 87-8)


For over forty years the French American cultural critic, Rene Girard, has been writing a `thriller’ about culture, violence and the sacred. In a dozen books, and in numerous articles and interviews, he does indeed seem to shuffle obsessively back and forth, between a few key insights — like a detective or a spy-catcher, looking for the vital clues.

The question which possesses him is both ancient and still relevant: what are we to make of religion? This means asking about the origin and function of religion, and it also means getting to grips with a curious paradox. The paradox is this: in pre-modern societies, religion was accepted as the force which united a society and gave it cohesion (the Latin word is religare, `to bind’), but in the modern era religion is largely treated with anxiety and suspicion, because it is seen as a source of division and conflict.

For most people today, religion is safest when regarded as a matter of purely private concern. Professor Girard offers a way of understanding this paradox, though it is a theme which he feels can only be approached in an indirect way. To many who have tried to engage with his work, his admission that there is a necessary difficulty and obliqueness about his style will come as no surprise. Whether things are made any easier by reading Girard with the same gusto as we might read Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or a classic Agatha Christie novel, is another question.

This intriguing comparison should not mislead us into seeing Girard’s work as entertainment or literary escapism. Just the opposite is true: the urgency, the `thrill’ of Girard’s work is the possibility of gaining original and challenging insights into some of our contemporary world’s most agonizing problems. Can we learn something about the complex interrelation between secular modernity and the religiously inspired terrorism which conceived the September 11th atrocity? Or about patterns of provocation and resistance, entrenched and ritualized in long-term conflicts such as Northern Ireland or the struggle for Palestine? Or about the bitter polemics concerning the `sacredness’ of life and reproductive `rights’ in the United States? Or about the kinds of stigma which attach to people living with HIV/AIDS?

The excruciating questions about religion’s ambiguous relation to different forms of violence are not new at all, but in the last four years have literally exploded into our awareness with a new ferocity. In fact, Girard’s work has anticipated this very recent development by four decades — all the issues mentioned above have been addressed, either by Girard himself or by thinkers inspired by him, using the theoretical approach he has been developing.

In its literal sense, theoria means a `looking at’ evidence from a particular perspective. Or, to put this another way, a special kind of `imagination’, as this word is used by Archbishop Cauchon in the epilogue of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan (1924). Here is a conversation between two churchmen, one of whom, de Stogumber, is speaking of the traumatic effect upon him of witnessing St Joan’s martyrdom:

DE STOGUMBER: Well, you see, I did a very cruel thing once because I did not know what cruelty was like. I had not seen it, you know. That is the great thing: you must see it. And then you are redeemed and saved.

CAUCHON: Were not the sufferings of our Lord Christ enough for you?

DE STOGUMBER: No. Oh no: not. at all. I had seen them in pictures, and read of them in books, and been greatly moved by them, as I thought. But it was no use: it was not our Lord that redeemed me, but a young woman whom I saw actually burned to death. It was dreadful: oh, most dreadful. But it saved me. I have been a different man ever since, though a little astray in my wits sometimes.

CAUCHON: Must then a Christ perish in torment in every age to save those that have no imagination?

There is surely a touch of racism here: Cauchon is French, so he naturally feels superior to the less sophisticated, less `imaginative’ Englishman. And Cauchon does seem to be right, up to a point. When human beings behave cruelly and atrociously — `man’s inhumanity to man’ — their actions suggest something like a catastrophic failure of imagination, a sheer incapacity to put themselves in the place of the victim who is being abused, tortured, or made to disappear. In the worst cases, such as genocide, there is even a refusal to acknowledge that the victims are human beings at all. As for de Stogumber, there is pathos in what he says about the inadequacy of even the holiest representation compared to `the real thing’, and about his capacity for deceiving himself, even about his own experience: `I had been greatly moved — as I thought:

Girard is concerned with some of the same issues explored in Shaw’s play: the representation of martyrdom and suffering, the adequacy of the Christian revelation. But there is one important difference which we can point to straightaway. Shaw’s character Cauchon rather superciliously implies that this `imagination’, the correct and humane way of looking at things, is somehow an obvious or natural point of view. Christ has shown us the meaning and reality of suffering, and that should be enough. Only the asinine dullness of (other) people stands in the way of our creating a truly sympathetic and harmonious world. Those like Cauchon (and of course Shaw!), who happen to be blessed with intelligence and sensitivity, can only roll their eyes in exasperation with the de Stogumbers of the world.

Rene Girard’s tone is different, and more humble. His interest in this `perspective of the victim’ began as a close reading of important works of literature, from authors such as Proust, Dostoevsky and Shakespeare. Later he turned his attention to anthropological and mythical texts (especially the Oedipus and Dionysus cycles), and later still to close readings of the Jewish and Christian scriptures. These varied sources have convinced him that this power of empathetic imagining, far from being something that we should expect of human beings, much less take for granted, is actually something miraculous.

If we look at the history of the world and its civilizations, imaginative sympathy for the victim is in fact a very rare quality. In most cultures, the exact opposite applies, because the weak and vanquished have no rights at all. If and when this sympathy comes about, it does so as the result of a titanic struggle within a person and within a society. The struggle is nothing less than what de Stogumber describes as a kind of `conversion’. And it is not just for the dull and unimaginative; it is a conversion which even some of the most sensitive and creative spirits known to humanity have had to undergo.

In the spring of 1959, after 26 years as an agnostic, Girard’s work on five European novelists (Cervantes, Flaubert, Stendhal, Proust and Dostoevsky) had led him back to an interest in Christianity. To varying degrees, the life and work of each of these authors displayed a similar pattern: each author underwent a `conversion’ experience, which liberated him to go on and write his most important works. At the same time, Girard was impressed by a common concern in these writers, namely their understanding of the nature of desire as `mimetic’ or imitated (a concept we will explore in more detail below).

The more mature the works of each of these authors, the more explicit and developed is their understanding of the mimeticism of desire. But even this interesting discovery by Girard would have remained on a purely intellectual level, if a sudden health scare had not intervened and caused him to reassess his own beliefs. The questions were now real-life and not just `literary’. Girard returned to the Catholic Church he had left behind in his childhood, and `mimetic theory’ was born.

Put very simply, this is a theory which seeks to elucidate the relationships — one might say the complicity — between religion, culture and violence. It has become standard to describe the theory as having three parts: the mimetic nature of desire; the scapegoat mechanism as the way in which societies regulate the violence generated by mimetic competition; and the importance of the Gospel revelation as the way in which this scapegoat mechanism is exposed and rendered ineffective.

It would not be too schematic to suggest that the three phases correspond to three academic disciplines or approaches with which Girard has been involved: literature; cultural anthropology; and theology or biblical study. At the risk of being even more schematic, one could match off each of the three phases with one key book by Girard, namely Deceit, Desire and the Novel (French original, 1961), Violence and the Sacred (1972), and Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World (1978). It is the second of these books that caught and staggered the imagination, with Le Monde declaring that `the year 1972 should be marked with an asterisk in the annals of the humanities’. A philosopher, Paul Dumouchel, sums up:

Beginning from literary criticism and ending up with a general theory of culture, through an explanation of the role of religion in primitive societies and a radical reinterpretation of Christianity, Rene Girard has completely modified the landscape of the social sciences. Ethnology, history of religion, philosophy, psychoanalysis, psychology and literary criticism are explicitly mobilized in this enterprise. Theology, economics and political sciences, history and sociology — in short, all the social sciences, and those that used to be called moral sciences — are influenced by it.
(Dumouchel, 1988, p. 23)

There are three structural elements of mimetic theory:

1.    That our desires are to a large degree imitated or derived through `mimesis’;

2.   That societies have a tendency to channel the violence which arises as a result of mimetic interaction by means of a process of `scapegoating’, which underlies not just religious practices (such as sacrifice) but also secular institutions;

3.    And finally, that the revelation which occurs in the Jewish and Christian scriptures is the primary force responsible for showing us the truth about this hidden violence, and for enabling alternative ways of structuring human living.

There are some more abstract methodological reflections, as well as some of the principal objections to the theory (Chapter 4); and lastly to consider how the theory might develop in the future (Chapter 5). Each of the three expository chapters begins with a precis of its content.

In the remainder of this writing, I would like to address some particular features which help us understand why mimetic theory is so energizing for some people, and so easily and vigorously dismissed by others. I hope light can be shed here by establishing five pointers or characteristics which will orientate us in the delicate task of `discovering Girard’.

Firstly, as we have seen, Rene Girard admits to a difficulty within his own work, which he appears to suggest is unavoidable. The insight that is to be won is inseparable from a particular kind of intellectual struggle which the reader has to undertake — precisely like reading a challenging and convoluted espionage novel. Anyone diving headlong into Violence and the Sacred or Things Hidden can soon find themselves disoriented and discouraged by the sheer fertility of ideas and references. This difficulty should not be overstressed, however.

Michel Serres has remarked that Girard’s ideas can be understood by an 11-year-old child, and one gets the impression that this simplicity and accessibility is more off-putting for some academics than the alleged convolution of Girard’s thought. Unlike some other contemporary theorists, who view language with such a mistrust that they seem to be working against the very medium in which they communicate, Girard believes in the possibility of communicating his ideas lucidly, and attempts to do so with humor and style.

Secondly, and related to this first point, there needs to be a clear distinction between Rene Girard’s work, and `mimetic theory’ as such. The theory now has a life of its own, as other scholars take on its central insights and re-fashion them, even if they disagree with Girard on significant points. Since the early 1990s a Colloquium has been in existence for literary scholars, theologians, psychologists, lawyers, etc. `to explore, criticize, and develop the mimetic model of the relationship between violence and religion in the genesis and maintenance of culture’, so it has become very much a collaborative and interdisciplinary effort. One example of this should be mentioned here: Girard has in several contexts expressed his indebtedness to the work of the Swiss Jesuit theologian, the late Raymund Schwager, who made a highly significant theological appropriation of Girard’s anthropology. While my book Discovering Girard is above all an elucidation of the thought of Girard, it will also seek to be attentive to these important collaborative influences, including that of Schwager and his colleagues at the University of Innsbruck.

The third point is a stylistic one, which affects the way Girard’s writings should be approached. Girard has been described as the `hedgehog’ thinker who `sees one thing’, as opposed to the fox who `sees many things’. Sometimes his eagerness to give testimony to his insight has led to over-reaching generalizations, which have then to be retracted or qualified. A prime example would be the discussion of `sacrifice’, which at first he refused to acknowledge as a suitable term to be used in the context of Christianity. Discussion with Schwager brought about a change of opinion on this, as he has readily acknowledged on a number of occasions.This in itself is unproblematic, except that the `retractions’ often appear in sources which are less accessible than his major works.

As is customary with French intellectuals, he will often develop or nuance his theory in interviews (the 1986 Festschrift for Girard lists 29 published interviews, and there have been many more since then). So, anyone reading Things Hidden for an account of what Girard believes about sacrifice would be seriously misled, because of his change of emphasis since this book appeared in 1978.

For this reason, I have proposed a threefold division of Girard’s work:

  • Three `classic’ texts (Deceit, Desire and the Novel; Violence and the Sacred; Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World)
  • Girard’s other books, consisting mainly of literary or biblical ‘readings’ in which mimetic theory is put to work (such as the books on Job, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare)
  • Important but less accessible sources, such as interviews in journals, or in books not translated into English, where significant developments of Girard’s thought are set out. As it is the literature in this third category which will be least familiar to a general English reader, I try to make special reference to it.

Fourthly, and to schematize this presentation even further, it is important to see the three parts of the mimetic theory as a conversation with some of the `big guns’ of modern thought. Much of what Girard has written is dependent upon the insights of three authors: Hegel, and more crucially Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Girard’s judgment on the last two of these authors is the same: they come very close to the truth about mimetic desire, but do not quite make it over the finishing line, and in fact mislead us all the more because they are so near yet so far.

This is why Girard’s thinking may well have a familiar feel to it: his account of mimetic desire has clear affinities with Hegel’s desire for `recognition’ by the other (‘desiring the desire of another’) as this is set out in the Phenomenology of Spirit; his account of violence as the origin of culture (otherwise referred to as  ‘originary violence’) bears a strong resemblance to Freud’s description of the primeval murder in Totem and Taboo; and Girard’s endorsement of the Christian revelation is very precisely an acceptance of Nietzsche’s challenge, `Dionysus versus the Crucified’ — except that where Nietzsche opts for Dionysus, Girard chooses the Crucified. As a coda to each of the individual chapters — on mimetic desire, scapegoating, biblical revelation — I will offer a brief analysis of each of these three important philosophical themes, in so far as they have an impact on Girard’s project.

A fifth and final point returns us to the literary theme with which we began. Girard is not afraid to think on the large scale: he offers a general theory of religion, and is prepared to take issue with major figures like Freud and Nietzsche. Much of the critical resistance to Girard stems from a judgment that this kind of thinking is outdated and inappropriate. This charge will be examined more closely in Chapter 4 below, but in any case it can be said that Girard’s main interest, his passion, lies elsewhere. From his earliest training as decipherer of medieval manuscripts, Girard has always been, quite simply, a reader of texts. He enjoys writing and talking about the great novelists and playwrights (at least those whose writings promise fertile ground for his theory), and seems in the end to be more comfortable discussing Dostoevsky,Joyce, and above all Shakespeare, than doing just about anything else. And it is here that a much humbler type of activity is under way, since Girard’s approach to literary texts is not much more than the application of two common-sense principles.

  1. First, great literature refers us to the `real world’, and should be taken seriously as a commentary on the conflicts and passions of real people and real societies.
  2. Secondly, the most articulate critic of a writer will be the writer himself, looking back from a standpoint of mature and tranquil reflection, so that the later works of Shakespeare or Camus can and should be used as a critical guide to the earlier ones.

One has to ask whether such an approach amounts to a `theory’ at all. It draws us once again to the question as to what kind of a body of knowledge we have here, which startles us with its mixture of psychology, anthropology, biblical revelation, literary-critical judgment. Does Girard offer a `system’ which floodlights the whole of human reality with a searing white light, or is this not rather an anti-systematic array of carefully angled spotlights illuminating particular texts and situations — this novel or that play, a historical chronicle, a newspaper article, an Amnesty International report?

Where is the authentic contribution of Girard’s version of mimetic theory to be found: is it in the earthquake and whirlwind of his evangelical clarion call in the face of both modernity and post-modernity — his heroic `voyage to the end of the sciences of man’ — or should we listen out for the still small voice of his close and judicious literary readings?


René Girard: His Life and Career – Fr. Michael Kirwan

July 2, 2012

This is a short bio of sorts about Rene Girard but at the end here it includes an excellent overview of his writing career for those who would like to explore further. The best thing I ever read (as overview) was a post from a couple years back  that includes some interview pieces and parts of an article.


Rene Girard would be the first to acknowledge the importance of biography in the shaping of any artistic or intellectual achievement, and the key facts of his own life, in so far as they have led to the birth of mimetic theory, can be set out here. He was born on Christmas Day in Avignon in 1923. His father, the city archivist, had little sympathy for Christianity, though his mother was a devout Catholic. From the age of 10 until his conversion at 36, Girard had little to do with the Church, being politically and intellectually a thinker of the Left. He studied late medieval history, more precisely manuscripts, presenting a dissertation in 1947 on the theme of `Private Life in Avignon in the Second Half of the Fifteenth Century’. A journey to the United States in the same year, and an experience of greater academic freedom in American universities, led him to the decision to emigrate from France to America.

After further studies in history he presented (in 1950) a second doctorate at Indiana University, on `L’opinion americaine et la France 1940–1943′. However, his earliest employment at Indiana was a teacher of French language and literature, with subsequent posts at Duke University, Bryn Mawr College, and then Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he was Professor of Literature from 1961 to 1968.

In 1966, Girard was one of the organizers at a seminar entitled ‘The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man with Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan and other critical theorists in attendance, the symposium was significant for bringing these new philosophical currents onto the American academic scene. The fact is useful to bear in mind, as a corrective to the impression which we can have of Girard ploughing an idiosyncratic and lonely academic furrow. In particular, Girard found the contact with Jacques Derrida of especial importance for his own theory of the scapegoat.

Girard was at State University of New York before returning to Johns Hopkins in 1976. From 1980 until his retirement in 1995 he was the Andrew Hammond Professor of French Language, Literature and Civilization at Stanford University in California. As Williams (1996) points out, Stanford University was certainly a prestigious location for Girard to find himself, but by the same token it was a centre for the kind of academic political correctness which has been inimical to Girard’s intellectual concerns. His publications in this time have covered ethnology, anthropology, psychology, mythology and theology, as well as literary criticism — even though his initial academic training, as noted above, was as a medieval historian. He still lives in Stanford, where he is married to Martha, an American. They have three children, and several grandchildren.

What, specifically, are the events in Girard’s life which have caused him to take such an obsessive interest in the themes of mimesis, violence and the sacred which dominate his work? Not surprisingly, growing up as a young man in France during World War II was clearly formative. A recent study has made reference to his involvement with the French Resistance during this time.

Speaking of this period, Girard recalls how impressed he was, even as a young agnostic, with the fact that those of his acquaintances who seemed most able to resist being caught up by the contagious attraction of Fascism on the one hand, and of Communism on the other, were the Young Christian Workers — perhaps a pregnant observation in the light of his later religious commitment. On several occasions Girard has spoken with some openness about his conversion while working on his first book: this was at first an intellectual conversion, then more properly religious, leading to his return to Christianity at Easter 1959.

Asked to reflect on experiences of personal marginalization which might account for his interest in the theme of scapegoating, Girard has pointed to the feeling of discrimination he felt as a `southerner’ when he arrived in Paris, and also the impression made upon him United States, though he stresses the novels of William Faulkner in this regard, rather than direct experiences of his own. Most significant, however, is his discussion, in an interview with Der Spiegel in 1997, of the impact of his brother’s suicide before Girard emigrated from France, and the difficulty of his family coming to terms with this tragedy without seeking to apportion `blame’.

Beyond these events, it seems that to understand where Girard is coming from we must turn to the texts that have energized and inspired him, and with which he has resonated most profoundly: the writings of Proust, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, and ultimately the gospels. Bridging his literary and his evangelical concerns are the anthropological and mythological investigations of his middle career, and especially classical Greek drama. The Girard Reader (1996) remains a valuable resource for tracing the development of his thought. As I have already suggested, it is probably most helpful to think of Girard’s writing career under the following three headings:

Three Key Works, In Which The Mimetic Theory Takes Shape:

  1. Mensonge romantique et verite romanesqe, Grasset, Paris, 1961 (Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure, Johns Hopkins UP, Baltimore, 1965)
  2. La Violence et le sacre, Grasset, Paris, 1972 (Violence and the Sacred, Johns Hopkins UP, Baltimore; Athlone, London, 1977)
  3. Des Choses cachees depuis la fondation du monde, Grasset, Paris, 1978 (Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, University Press, Stanford Ca., 1987. Research undertaken in collaboration with Jean-Michel Oughourlian and Guy Lefort.)

Books In Which The Mimetic Theory Is Applied To Specific Authors Or Texts:

  1. Dostoievski: Du double à l’unité, Paris, 1963 (Resurrection from the Underground Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crossroad, New York, 1997)
  2. To double business bound: Essays on Literature, Mimesis and Anthropology Johns Hopkins UP, Baltimore; Athlone, London,
  3. Le Bouc émisaire, Grasset 1982 (The Scapegoat, Johns Hopkins UP Baltimore, Athlone, London, 1986
  4. La Route antique des hommes pervers; Essais sur fob, Grasset, Paris, 1985 (Job: the victim of his people, Athlone, London, 1987)
  5. A Theatre of Envy: William Shakespeare, Oxford University Press, 1991 Je vois Satan tomber comme l’eclair, Grasset, Paris, 1999 (I See Satan Fall like Lightning, Maryknoll, NewYork, 2001)

Important interviews, conference presentations, etc.:

  1. `To double business bound’: Essays on Literature, Mimesis and Anthropology, Johns Hopkins UP, Baltimore; Athlone, London, 1978, including Girard’s interview from Diacritics 8 (1978)
  2. Assmann, H. (ed.), Sobre idolos y sacrifios: Rene Girard con teologos de la liberacion, Coleccion Economia — teologia, 1991
  3. Adams, R., `A Conversation with Rene Girard: Interview by Rebecca Adams’, Religion and Literature 25.2, Notre Dame Indiana, 1993
  4. Quand ces choses commenceront … Entretiens avec Michel Treguer, arlea, Paris, 1994
  5. Celui par qui le scandale arrive, Desclee de Brouwer, Paris, 2001, including an interview with Maria Stella Barberi

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