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.