Note: this is the text of a talk, so please forgive the extremely colloquial style.|
It is also a draft. Comments welcome.
Let us begin at the beginning: mimetic desire. According to Girard, all desire
is mimetic: that is, we never want something because it is objectively valuable,
or even because it meets our own subjective needs, but only because someone else
wanted it before us.1 The object is never special, never unique; no such differences
exist, the kind of differences that would give us a reason to desire this rather than
that; as Girard uncompromisingly puts it, "similarities alone are real."2 Some poor
fools may believe that we sometimes desire things for reasons, but this is the famous
mensonge romantique, the romantic delusion which Girard decries from one end of his
career to the other.3
Those who actually believe this if there actually are any must be in a very
awkward spot every time Valentine's Day rolls around. Every store they go to, rows and rows
of cards about the uniqueness of the boyfriend or girlfriend but nothing that speaks the truth!
Well fret no more: here finally is the Valentine's Day card for the Girardian in the family.
Give it to your wife and see what happens! No, seriously. I dare you.4
Why Not Be Nice?
As you can tell, I personally do not believe this theory, or any of the equally odd things
that supposedly follow from it. This, however, is no reason for me to be standing up here
saying so. All the more so since I really like René. He's a sweet, generous soul.
He writes clearly and elegantly. He is not a cynic. And incredibly for a theorist of his
generation, he does not believe that a wordplay counts as an argument. Still, when you see
the vitriolic things he has to say about genuinely smart people like Frazer and Auerbach
and Plato, you figure: someone has to stand up for them.5 (Remember when humility used to
be a Christian virtue, and pride one of the seven deadly sins?6 Those were the days!7)
And someone has to stand up for love, individuality, and autonomy, those vital dimensions
of human experience which it has become fashionable to challenge but against which Girard,
for one, offers no good arguments. Finally, I trust that René will forgive me.
After all, no-one's desire is his own, right? If I developed the desire to critique his theory,
I must just have fallen among the wrong models.
The Four Stages
Stage One of the Girardian theory, then, is that all desire is mimetic. Now since all desire
is mimetic, that means that any given object in the world is either not desired by anyone or
desired by more than one person. That inevitably leads to rivalry, and rivalry in turn very
often leads to violence. In fact, there is no other possible cause for violence: all violence,
without exception, is a direct result of mimetic rivalry.8 That's Stage Two of the theory.
For most of human history, the best that could be done about this was to channel the murderous
rage onto a single victim, rather than have it tear society apart. This is Stage Three of the
theory: the scapegoat mechanism.9 According to Girard, every single community in the world
started exactly the same way: a loose assemblage of individuals, an escalation of mimetic rivalry,
then an actual murder of an actual human being.10 Without that actual murder of an actual human
being, all those lovely laws and customs and traditions would never have been established.
Of course, the scapegoat is only a temporary measure for the calming of rivalrous rage.
We need something more reliable. Enter the Bible. The Bible-New Testament part especially
makes it clear that the victim of violence is innocent. It thus reveals the founding mechanism
of society. And by revealing it, it stops it from functioning.11
A Theory of Violence
I don't have time today to explain in detail why Stages Three and Four are unsustainable.
But I want to explain why the theory of violence makes no sense, before returning to that
of mimetic desire. As you recall, the theory is that all violence originates in mimetic rivalry.
Allow me to propose an example in the form of pictures:
Two men stand beside a lake on a hot day. Jimmy decides to go for a swim. Joey, who would
of course never have had this idea in his life, decides to do likewise. Inevitably, this causes
a death struggle between the two men as they fight over the lake.
This is of course insane. These two men are not really about to fight. Why not? Simple: because
there's plenty of lake to go around. Mimetic desire is not enough to cause rivalry; in order to
have rivalry, you also need scarcity of resources.
Mimetic desire, then, is not sufficient to cause rivalry. But it's also not even
necessary. Consider another example involving water: the Israel/Palestine conflict. These days,
one of the main obstacles to peace is the issue of water rights. Water is scarce in the Middle East,
and it turns out that Israelis and Palestinians both need it in order to survive. Even Girard
wouldn't claim that the Israelis want to drink water just because the Palestinians do. So here
you have a deadly rivalry that has absolutely no need for mimetic desire in order to get going.
Of course some desire is mimetic. And of course some mimetic desire leads to rivalry, and of
course some rivalry leads to violence. But not all violence derives from this, and indeed probably
not very much violence derives from this. All you need is a desire not mimetic desire,
any desire plus scarcity of resources. Even a physical need will do, when coupled with
scarcity of resources. That's why Hobbes's theory is, and has always been, far more helpful
than Girard's. "If any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy,
they become enemies," said Hobbes,12 long before Girard was born, in a book which most serious
thinkers have read, and without any need for fanciful metaphysical speculation.
But the hardened Girardians will say "what do you mean, any desire, even non-mimetic? There is no
such thing as non-mimetic desire!" So let's return to Stage One of the theory: all desire is mimetic.
Oh my goodness me, where to start? Well, how about we start from pica. Pica is an eating disorder
whose sufferers feel an overwhelming desire to eat odd things, things like paint, or pillow stuffing,
or candle wax. Pica sufferers tend to feel deep shame about their desires, and as a result, they do
not talk about them: their condition is typically discovered when they are rushed to the emergency
room with stomach pains. So I ask you: where is the model for someone's desire to eat paint? Nobody
talks about it, so nobody knows about it, so there simply cannot be a model.13
To turn from something rather unhealthy to something perfectly healthy, but still
stigmatized in many contexts, consider homosexuality.14 If a young man growing up in Alabama turns
out to be someone who desires other men, not women, where should we say he got this desire from?
Something tells me it was not because he saw a bunch of gay couples and thought it was cool.
Maybe you'll say that Girard isn't thinking about general preferences like that; he's thinking
about specific objects of desire. Thus, for example, my good friend Lanier recommended Kundera's
Ignorance to me; I read it; I loved it. Clearly I loved it only because Lanier, someone I admire,
recommended it to me. Sounds good. But hang on: Lanier also recommended Kill Bill to me, and hoo baby,
that film sucked. What went wrong? How did I manage to be unaffected by the very same mediator?15
Maybe a different mediator was the model? But then, who was the meta-model who told me to pick the
second model rather than the first model? And who was the meta-meta-model let's call it a supermodel
who told me to trust that meta-model rather than some other meta-model who might have told me to stick
with Lanier's judgment? These regresses have to end somewhere, and I don't think it's with Gisèle Bündchen.16
Or maybe Girard is thinking about things like this: the iPhone I bought. Yes, it's heavily advertised,
heavily recommended. But then, so's the iPad, and I didn't buy that, in spite of the fact that the very same people who
like the one tend to like the other, so it's hard to imagine that all of a sudden a different mediator has been called
into action. And here are some other things I didn't buy:
Why not? Maybe you'll say "it's because cool people like the iPhone." But cool people also
like coffee, something I've never managed to like, any more than I like cilantro, or opera, or babies.
Thinking of babies, Girard even thinks his theory applies to kids. "Nothing is more mimetic,"
he says, "than the desire of a child."17 One wonders, has he ever met a child?18 Has he ever tried to feed
one a brussel sprout? "Yum yum," we say, absurdly hoping that our desire for healthy food will carry over
mimetically. "BLECH," says the child, unceremoniously spitting it out.
At the very least, then, kids know what they don't want. But in fact, they also know what they
do want. Proust's protagonist wants a goodnight kiss from his mother. Girard ties himself in pretzels
such acrobatics are frequent, as we shall see-trying to prove that this is only because she has somehow "instigated"
his desire.19 That's a pretty good trick! If Girard could teach us how to make other people want to kiss us, now
that's a book I'd run out and buy.
The "Great Novelists"
What is really amazing is that even Girard's ostensibly staunchest allies, the great novelists, are not actually
on his side. Stendhal, of course, doesn't agree in the slightest: he knows perfectly well that some desire is
authentic, and that's precisely why it makes sense to inveigh against the inauthentic kind. As for Proust,
here's what Girard has to say, with his typical, um, exuberance: "it is not an exaggeration to say that, in all
of the characters of Remembrance of Things Past, love is strictly subordinated to jealousy, to the presence of
the rival."20 Allow me to propose a friendly amendment: it is an exaggeration to say that. Notoriously, the parents
of the narrator hardly insignificant figures are entirely immune to jealousy.21 Even Swann, who becomes a fanatically
jealous lover, does not begin this way,22 and Proust's narrator is quite categorical that the new jealousy, far from
constituting the essence of his passion, in fact represents a denaturing of that passion.23 This is reconfirmed when
Swann ceases being jealous and yet remains very much in love.24 Some people like to say that knowing Girard's work
makes people better readers of literary texts. Well, if knowing Girard makes people read literary texts like he reads
literary texts, then look out below, that's all I can say.25
More important for our present purposes, consider what happens when Saint-Loup, after having heard so much
about the amazing Albertine, finally sees a photograph of her.26 Does he fall madly in love with Albertine? Does he heck!
He is stunned, can't believe that the marvelous Marcel can have lost his heart to such a crashingly ordinary woman.
(This happens, by the way, in real life too: when our best friend starts dating someone lame, we don't fall in love
with her, we just get really bummed out.) Girard likes to say that the great novelists tell the truth. Well unfortunately
for him, people like Proust do tell the truth, and the truth is that sometimes people desire mimetically, but mostly they do not.27
We should not be surprised that Girard misreads Stendhal and Proust. He systematically misreads pretty much every text
he addresses. With novels, as we have seen, he has a penchant for hyperbole, cheerfully extrapolating at will from a set
of isolated cases to a universal law. He also likes to "discover" cases of mimetic desire where they do not exist, using
a technique so original that I am tempted to coin a whole new fallacy, what I will call the apud hoc ergo propter hoc
fallacy, just for him. Whereas the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy involves believing that something must have caused
something else that just happened to occur afterwards ("there were no brassieres or crosswords before 1913, so clearly
brassieres and crosswords caused World War One"), the apud hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy involves believing that something
must have caused something else that just happened to be next to it. This is how Girard "demonstrates" that Juliet's desire
for Romeo is not spontaneous: since Romeo has just broken up with Rosalind, that means that Rosalind is a potential model
for Juliet, and this without further ado becomes evidence that Rosalind actually is the model for Juliet's desire.28
Next to Rosalind, therefore because of her: that's a neat trick, one which has been sufficient to convince many an enamored
reader with blissfully low evidentiary standards.
When it comes to myths and bible stories, Girard's main strategy is to cherry-pick: whatever features
he doesn't like are irrelevant; whatever features he does like, by contrast, turn out to be cast-iron "proof" of his theory.
Thus it doesn't matter that Oedipus killed his father; this is just a post-hoc fabrication by the Thebans.29 It doesn't matter
that Christ explicitly says that his death is part of God's plan; Girard knows better.30 And it doesn't matter that Adam
disobeyed God; bible schmible, this part is made up.
A second strategy is to ignore the order of events in a narrative and reorder them as is most convenient.31
(Using this strategy, incidentally, I can "prove," using the Trojan Horse, that every culture is founded on a great act
of kindness: whatever the myth may say, the Trojan Horse was a genuine gift, one that was offered at the dawn of civilization
from one group of hominids to another; the "war" is merely the decline of civilization from that Edenic origin. Nice story, no?)
A third my favorite is to say that when a myth says the exact opposite of what Girard thinks, that's even more reason to think
it is evidence for him.32 Myths, he says, have to conceal the truth (about the innocence of the scapegoat, the reality of the
victim) otherwise they could not function, so of course they do not support his theory. This is a stunningly brazen thing
to say in itself, and one which you might think runs into a bit of a problem given the way in which Girard treats biblical
stories such as that of Joseph and his brothers. These stories somehow do manage to tell the truth, according to Girard,
which rather suggests that myths can function without such concealment.33 But then again, what's one more sleight-of-hand
Girard's final strategy with myths is, well, simply to make stuff up. Ostensibly, you recall, every community
begins in collective violence. Now the Bible is a pretty important text for Girard, so you'd think it might be a bit of a
problem for him that Genesis shows nothing of the kind.34 Problem? No problem! All you have to do is to pretend that the
tohu-va-vohu, the primal chaos out of which God created the world, is really a representation of something that happened
much later, when there were plenty of humans around: it's "the undifferentiated reciprocity of mimetic conflict."35 Then
pretend that Adam was innocent, and that he was exiled by people, not by God and bingo.36 Never let the facts get in the way
of a good story!37 Or again, let Potiphar be Joseph's adoptive father.38 Why not? And let the disciples not just be cowards
but people who actively turn against Christ.39 Girard requires this for his theory. So why trust those shoddy gospel-writers?
Over and over again, it's the same thing: the Venda Python story,40 the Wicked Husbandmen,41
Moses,42 Jonah,43 Odysseus44, Molière,45 Flaubert,46
Proust47 ... Every story has to be "fixed" before it can come to count as evidence
of Girard's theory. But look, if the story had to be fixed, it can't count as evidence. If you want to convince me that
all cats are green, it won't do to round up all the cats and paint them green before handing them to me to prove your point.
But that's just what Girard does. Girard loves to tell us that his claims are "fully demonstrated"48 and
"scientific."49 I'm sorry to have to say this, but if you tamper with the evidence, you cannot claim to be doing science.50
Very few people, of course, have been taken in by the Girardian cat-painting. (As Girard himself recognizes, actual
anthropologists, classicists, and theologians do not pay him much attention.51) Still, Girard was elected to the Académie
fran¨aise, and there is today an entire institute, "Imitatio," devoted to the dissemination of his beliefs. Clearly some of his
followers, like those at Imitatio, are attracted primarily by the religious dimension of his work, in the hope perhaps that mimetic
theory can-as Girard himself believes-bring new souls to Christianity.52 (Incidentally, Girard has not always been entirely honest
about the relationship between his religious and other commitments. In order to allay the suspicion that some of his theoretical
stances may be driven by his faith, he tells us that he became a Christian because of his discovery of the scapegoat mechanism,
not the other way around.53 Yet Violence and the Sacred was published in 1972, some thirteen years after Girard's conversion
in 1959.54 Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, which he published in 1961, contained plenty of Christianity but not a single scapegoat.55)
A second set of followers presumably enjoys the combination of negativity and hyperbole that promise to give a
single unified explanation of all phenomena while striking the proper world-weary, gauloise-smoking, leather-jacket-wearing pose
that has been such catnip for literary critics over the years (think of Foucault's theory of power, Derrida's theory of language,
Adorno's darkly messianic Marxism, and so on). And a third set of followers probably just likes a theory that is so easy to apply
to literary texts. All you need to do is to find, or indeed invent (apud hoc ergo propter hoc, remember!) a "triangular" relationship
among characters, then append Girard's magic name, and hey presto, you have yourself an article. The world of literary theory, like
the world of fashion, is one of those places where mimetic mechanisms do function; with ironic appropriateness, the primary reason
that people drop the name "Girard" is you guessed it that other people do.
I believe, however, that a fourth factor has been more important than all the others in drawing readers toward Girard,
a factor we should straightforwardly call confusion. Girard's theory, let us recall, is that I desire something because somebody
else desires it too, even though in itself it is no more valuable than any comparable object. All kinds of things could count as
instances of this phenomenon: a teenager craving tickets to the latest "boy band" concert in emulation of her friends; a fifty-year-old
banker buying a motorbike in emulation of Steve McQueen; a graduate student wanting to read Deceit, Desire, and the Novel in emulation
of her advisor. So far so good; the problem is that all kinds of things do not count as instances of mimetic desire, yet are often
advanced in apparent support of the theory.
Mere envy, for example, does not constitute mimetic desire. Joseph's brothers do indeed envy his privileged
position in the family. But is this mimetic desire, as Girard claims?56 No. Joseph's brothers do not want their father's love
just because Joseph wants it; they want it because it is something that is good to have, something they would have wanted if
Joseph had never existed, something pretty much everyone has a reason to want (siblingless children included). The same goes
for peer pressure. If Herod cedes to the will of his wife, and if Pilate cedes to the will of the Pharisees, then they do so
strategically, not passionately. Neither of them has actually been infected by the "contagious" wishes of those around them;
it is deeply misleading, then, for Girard to say that both are "mimétiquement dominé[s]."57
Nor, for that matter, do instances of following suit count as evidence for Girard. I live on a street where
parking is illegal between 12 and 2 on Thursdays. The parking enforcement officers only come by once during that period,
however, and after they have gone, it is safe to park. What happens, then, if I come home at 1:45 p.m. and see that several
cars are parked on my street without tickets? No doubt I will take this as a sign that the parking enforcement officer has
already been and gone, and I will park my car. I will be following the example of the cars before me, to be sure. But I will
not, for all that, be borrowing their desire.58
In every one of these cases, we are dealing with illicit extensions of the term "mimetic desire."
Some followers of Girard may feel that his theory gains support from the fact that I park where other cars are parked,
that Pilate succumbs to peer pressure, and that Joseph's brothers are envious of him. (They may also, equally fallaciously,
believe that it gains support from the existence of mirror neurons, or from the fact that people sometimes take revenge on
others for injuries done to them.59) Such phenomena, however, are irrelevant. Girard's style his repeated use of the word
"mimesis" in a variety of different contexts-cunningly invites the inattentive reader to conflate them, and many inattentive
readers have gleefully accepted his invitation. That is no reason for us, however, to... follow suit.
Not Just an Exaggeration
Some more gentle Girardians might accept the criticisms I have made above. You're right, they would say, there are indeed
a number of problems; like all great theorists, Girard does indeed overstate his case. Still, they would add, there is
something important there; Girard is nonetheless generally on the mark. Perhaps such people think that if it weren't for
Girard, no-one would ever have noticed that violence happens, or that scapegoating happens, or that sometimes people try
to "keep up with the Joneses." Did I just say "keeping up with the Joneses"? This expression has been in common parlance
since 1913 at the latest.60 Meanwhile, La Rochefoucauld was talking about borrowed desires in the seventeenth century.61
And God knows how many plays-like Musset's On ne badine pas avec l'amour-have involved Character A trying to make Character B
jealous by pretending to be in love with Character C.62 As for the scapegoat, Frazer has an entire volume of The Golden Bough,
running to some four hundred and seventy-two pages, dedicated to it. My point is not that Frazer has it right; my point is
just that everyone has always known that scapegoating happens, just as everyone has always known that mimetic desire happens,
and that rivalry happens, and that violence happens.
So no, this isn't a theory plus exaggeration. The exaggeration is the theory. Without the exaggeration,
Girard is merely stating what everyone already knows. Without the exaggeration, there's no "debunking." Without the
exaggeration, there's no Académie fran¨aise. The exaggeration is what propelled Girard to fame; the truth,
in the meanwhile, remained what it had always been. Mimetic desire is not ubiquitous. It is not even predominant.
It might actually be useful to know just how much of the time it happens, but repeating the blanket claims of a Girard
is a surefire recipe for not finding out.
René Girard, to repeat, is one of the nicest people I know. When Valentine's day rolls around, however,
I think I'll be sticking to the "I actually love you" kind of card.
© Joshua Landy, 2011
1 "The romantic vaniteux always wants to convince himself that his desire is written into the nature of things, or...
that it is the emanation of a serene subjectivity... The objective and subjective fallacies are one and the same...
Subjectivisms and objectivisms, romanticisms and realisms.... all depend directly or indirectly on the lie of spontaneous
desire. They all defend the same illusion of autonomy to which modern man is passionately devoted." (DDN 16)
2 "Hamlet's Dull Revenge."
3 Thus still in Le Bouc émissaire, "l'être humain n'a pas de désir qui lui soit propre." Significantly,
Girard also states that "recognizing mimesis is a great debunking tool because it deprives us moderns of the one thing
we think we still have left, our individual desire." ("The Anthropology of the Cross") If Girard were merely saying
that we sometimes desire mimetically, there would be no "debunking": it would leave open the possibility that many of
our choices, including the most important, are made "spontaneously," in which case we retain our "individual desire."
My strong suspicion is that many Girardians take this to apply to everyone else, but not to them. Intriguingly, this
hypocrisy is something Girard already warns against in DDN: "All this of course is very banal, very common-this holds
true of everyone-except us. Romantic pride willingly denounces the presence of the mediator in Others," writes Girard,
but not its presence in our own lives. (DDN 38)
"Frazer's own thesis... is naïve" (Things Hidden); "many later writers have in effect done little more than repeat
in somewhat different form Frazer's own profession of ignorance. ... Such phrases as 'physical loads' and 'bodily
and mental ailments' recall nothing so much as the platitudes of second-rate theologians" (Violence and the Sacred)
"Ce qui fait défaut à Platon.... c'est l'essentiel." (Des choses cachées) "Pas plus que les autres interprètes,
Auerbach ne voit ce qui, à mes yeux, est seul essentiel." (Les origines de la culture 119) "Let's face it, readers,
including academic ones, usually read texts pretty simplistically." ("The Anthropology of the Cross") "If you read
the commentaries customarily written... not only by Christians but also by so-called 'scientific' exegetes, you will
be amazed by the universal inability to recognize meanings that are... obvious" (Things Hidden). "Biblical specialists
are misled on this point in much the same way as ethnologists, and all other specialists in the human sciences" (Things Hidden).
"Beaucoup d'éthnologues, de classicistes et de théologiens ont beau écarquiller les yeux, disent-ils,
ils ne voient pas de bouc émissaire dans les mythes. Ils ne comprennent pas ce que je dis." (Quand ces choses commenceront)
On Girard's healthy degree of self-esteem, see Pommier 8-9, from where I am also borrowing some of these quotations.
Jesus:_"And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted."
(Matt. 23:12, Luke 14:11) St. Paul:_ "Be not wise in your own conceits." (Romans 12:16) St. Augustine: "Pride is
the commencement of all sin." (On Nature and Grace, ch. 36).
In 1976, Girard published an essay titled "French Theories of Fiction: 1947-1974." After having discussed such figures
as Jean-Paul Sartre, Roland Barthes, and Claude Lévi-Strauss, Girard ends with-himself. Comparing his own approach
to that of thinkers like Freud and Marx, he writes that it "simply works better than any of these theories" (1976:122).
"le mimétisme..., source de tout désordre." (Le Bouc émissaire) "le vrai secret du conflit et
de la violence, c'est l'imitation désirante, le désir mimétique." (Celui par qui le scandale arrive)
"Violence is... a by-product of mimetic rivalry." ("Mimesis and Violence") "Dès que nous désirons ce que désire
un modèle assez proche de nous dans le temps et dans l'espace... nous nous effor¨ons de lui enlever cet objet et la rivalité
entre lui et nous est inévitable. C'est la rivalité mimétique. ... Elle est responsable de la fréquence
et de l'intensité des conflits humains, mais chose étrange, personne ne parle jamais d'elle." (Celui par qui le scandale
arrive 19) One consequence, it should be noted, is that there are never any guilty parties : "Under the influence of the judicial
viewpoint and of our own psychological impulses... we want to distinguish the culprit from the innocent and, as a result, we substitute
discontinuities and differences for the continuities and reciprocities of the mimetic escalation." ("Mimesis and Violence")
"The escalations of mimetic rivalry to which archaic societies are prone stir up all kinds of disorders until their very intensity produces a unanimous polarization against a more or less random victim. Mimetically carried away, the entire community joins in, and as a result, mutual suspicions are extinguished; peace returns." ("Python and his Two Wives")
"These imitations had their origin in a real event." (Violence and the Sacred) Note that this
is the crazy part of the view. There's nothing unusual in suggesting that communities sometimes vent
their frustrations on innocent individuals; this is a well known fact. What is odd is the idea that
every community was founded on an actual murder of an actual person. What are the chances? And who could know?
"By revealing the founding mechanism, they [the Gospels] stop it from functioning."
(Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World) This of course is a much contested view.
One very obvious reason to wonder about it is the fact that Jesus himself says, in two of the Gospels,
that there will be more, not less, conflict as a result of his arrival: "Think not that I am come to
send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance
against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother
in law. And a man's foes shall be they of his own household." (Mt 10:34-36) "Suppose ye that I am
come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division: For from henceforth there shall
be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three. The father shall be divided
against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter
against the mother; the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against
her mother in law." (Lk. 12:51-53) Fortunately for Girard, he does not care what books actually say.
This is what permits him to state categorically that "there is not a single action or word attributed
to Jesus... that is not consistent with the rule of the Kingdom... all of his actions are directed
toward nonviolence." (Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World)
Hobbes, Leviathan 13.
Pommier mentions mental disorders, though not pica, at p. 45.
Cf. Pommier 38.
Cf. Pommier 33-4.
There is of course a second regress, equally damaging for Girard. Let's say I like Kundera because Lanier does. Well, he must like Kundera because somebody else does. And so on. Surely someone must have liked Kundera first, otherwise how could this whole sequence of events ever have been set in motion? (Cf. Pommier 18.)
"Violence, Difference, Sacrifice."
Girard, of course, has met children, and inevitably believes that what he has seen merely reconfirms his beliefs.
When an interviewer asked him whether he planned to give an empirical grounding to his theory, he responded
I kid you not as follows: "I have observed a lot of mimetic rivalry lately with my grand-children."
("The Anthropology of the Cross") This is like saying that all socks in the entire world are black, the evidence
being that I just pulled a black sock out of my drawer. After I delivered this talk, one Girardian told me that
I myself was imitating Girard, "thus proving him right." But again, the existence of one example of imitation
(or even hundreds) would not constitute proof that everything is imitation.
"When the mother refuses her son a kiss she is already playing the double role characteristic
of internal mediation: she is both the instigator of desire and a relentless guardian forbidding
its fulfillment." (DDN 35) Hence, ostensibly, "desire is triangular in the child just as it is in the snob." (DDN 35)
DDN 23. Or again: "Proustian desire is always a borrowed desire." (DDN 34)
Just in case you're thinking "but that's just the Narrator's family," do not forget the Marquis de Norpois and Mme de Villeparisis...
"à la recherche des plaisirs que son agrément nous donnait, s'est brusquement
substitué en nous un besoin anxieux, ... un besoin absurde, que les lois de ce monde
rendent impossible à satisfaire et difficile à guérir-le besoin insensé
et douloureux de le posséder." (S 227)
"le plaisir qu'on avait le premier jour espéré des caresses, on le reçoit plus tard,
tout dénaturé sous la forme de paroles amicales, de promesses de présence qui... amènent
de délicieuses détentes." (TR 126)
"sitôt que... le désir de l'enlever à tout autre n'était plus ajouté
par la jalousie à son amour, cet amour redevenait surtout un goût pour les sensations que lui
donnait la personne d'Odette" (S 299).
The way I see it is this: it is indeed a shame to overlook mimetic desire where it exists
(a "type two" error, or false negative), but it is just as bad to "find" it where it does not exist
(a "type one" error, or false positive). As we have seen in numerous examples, what Girard himself
has done is to replace a trickle of type 2 errors with a veritable avalanche of type 1 errors.
Hardly a great improvement.
"Il se figurait que j'étais un être si supérieur qu'il pensait que, pour que je fusse
soumis à une autre créature, il fallait que celle-là fût tout à fait
extraordinaire. ... Enfin je venais de trouver la photographie. ... Sa figure exprimait une
stupéfaction qui allait jusqu'à la stupidité. "C'est là la jeune fille
que tu aimes ?" finit-il par me dire d'un ton o¯ l'étonnement était maté par
la crainte de me fâcher. Il ne fit aucune observation, il avait pris l'air raisonnable, prudent,
forcément un peu dédaigneux qu'on a devant un malade... qui... vous parle d'un être
céleste qui lui est apparu et continue à le voir à l'endroit o¯ vous, homme sain,
vous n'apercevez qu'un édredon." (Albertine disparue 21) According to Girard, we should recall,
all of Proust's characters are "vaniteux," and "a vaniteux will desire any object so long as he is convinced
that it is already desired by another person whom he admires." (DDN 7) Robert de Saint-Loup is convinced
Albertine is desired by the Narrator; Robert de Saint-Loup admires the Narrator; Robert de Saint-Loup is
a vaniteux; ergo Robert de Saint-Loup has no choice, he must desire Albertine. But no, he doesn't.
On this point, cf. Pommier 38-9.
Mimesis and Theory: Essays on Literature and Criticism, 1953-2005.
"The victim cannot be perceived as innocent... The myth reflects the standpoint of the scapegoaters." ("Mimesis and Violence")
In all three of the synoptic Gospels, Jesus attributes his impending fate to the will of God: "not what I will,
but what thou wilt" (Mk 14:36, Lk 22:42, Mt 26:39). Girard, however, insists that it is a catastrophe entirely
brought about by human actors. (Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World)
The "theme of disorder," for example, "does not always come first since it is seen as a consequence of the scapegoat's misdeed"
("Python and his Two Wives").
"The Oedipus myth does not tell us Oedipus is a mimetic scapegoat. Far from disproving my theory, this silence confirms it."
("Mimesis and Violence") "Myths, they would say, are not about scapegoating because they don't talk about it. But that's
just the point: they don't talk about it; they disguise their generative center." ("The Anthropology of the Cross")
Notice that Girard insists on "the necessary misinterpretation and transfiguration of the event by the religious communities
themselves." ("Mimesis and Violence"), writing that "mythology and religious cults form systems of representation necessarily
untrue to their own genesis." ("Mimesis and Violence") Since Christianity is a religion, this should presumably mean that
it too must necessarily falsifies its origins, concealing both the innocence of the victim ("the victim must be perceived
as truly responsible for the troubles that come to an end when it is collectively put to death... the victim cannot be
perceived as innocent" ("Mimesis and Violence") and the reality of the founding murder ("the inaccessible character of
the generative event is not merely an obstacle unrelated to the theory... rather, it is an essential part of that theory...
the generative violence must remain hidden" (Violence and the Sacred); "all human religions and all human culture...
come down to the collective expulsion of the victim... this foundation can remain a foundation only to the extent
that it does not become apparent" (Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World). Yet all Christians know,
of course, that the death of Jesus really took place, and that he was innocent.
As Girard admits, "in the story of the creation of the world, the founding moment comes at the beginning
and no victimage is involved." (Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World)
See "Mimesis and Violence" for the phrase, and Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World
for application to the "tohu-va-vohu."
See Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World.
This line is sometimes attributed to Mark Twain.
"If we take into account that Joseph's Egyptian master behaved toward him as a father, then the accusation of
[Potiphar's] wife has an almost incestuous character." (Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World; also
in "Mimesis and Violence") Potiphar is kind to Joseph, but there is absolutely nothing to suggest that he treats
him as a son. On the contrary, when Potiphar's wife makes advances to him, the bible is careful to repeat that
she is the wife of his master [adon] (Gen. 39:7, 39:8), reminding us that he is a slave. The word recurs two more
times in the chapter, at 39:19 and 39:20.
"Jesus is presented to us as the innocent victim of a group... which, for a time at any rate, is united against him."
(Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World) Again, this unity is required for Girard's scapegoat theory,
but it is just not accurate. (On the case of Peter, see Pommier 102.) Compare Girard's statement that "the refusal of
the Kingdom by Jesus' listeners will logically impel them to turn against him" (Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World):
here Girard is ignoring the perfectly reasonable option of simply ignoring Jesus and going about one's business, not taking either side.
This is a myth told by the Venda tribe of South Africa. The water god Python has two human wives. The second wife discovers
his true identity; a drought follows; then the angry wife disappears, and the drought ends. Girard concludes, of course, that
"the victim must be real": in other words, there was a real woman who once upon a time was killed, the victim of collective
violence which everyone believed brought the drought to an end. So in Girard's version, "disappearing on your own" mean
"being killed by lots and lots of people." ("Python and His Two Wives.")
In the Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen (Mk. 12:1-12, Mt. 21:33-44, Lk. 20:9-19), Jesus speaks of a man who lets his vineyard
out to tenant farmers. These tenant farmers then decide to keep all the fruit for themselves. Each time the owner sends a
servant to collect the rent, they beat the servant and send him back. Finally the owner sends his son, and the tenants murder him.
In two of the three versions, Jesus says that the owner will respond by killing the tenants. "What shall therefore the lord of
the vineyard do? he will come and destroy the husbandmen, and will give the vineyard unto others." (Mk. 12:9; cf. Lk. 15-16)
It is fairly clear that this parable, probably not authentic, is a reference to God's punishment of those who crucified his Son.
Yet Girard wants to use this parable to prove the exact opposite, namely that apocalyptic violence will come not from God but
from human beings. His "evidence" is that in the Matthew version (only!), Jesus does not actually say that the owner will come
and take his revenge. But even here, Jesus asks the same question ("When the lord therefore of the vineyard cometh, what will
he do unto those husbandmen?") and he receives the same answer ("They say unto him, He will miserably destroy those wicked men,
and will let out his vineyard unto other husbandmen, which shall render him the fruits in their seasons."), and he appears
entirely satisfied with it. Girard's account is at Des choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde 274-8; the analysis
is Pommier's (95-98).
"Moses is evidently playing the part of the scapegoat," says Girard. This of course means that the Jews have for millenia
been repeating an Egyptian myth, foolishly believing it to be one of their own. "In order to 'function' normally... Exodus
would have to be an Egyptian myth; this myth would show us a sacrificial crisis resolved by the expulsion of the trouble-makers,
Moses and his companions." (Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World)
Here is Girard on Jonah: "The ship represents the community, the tempest the sacrificial crisis. The jettisoned cargo is the
cultural system that has abandoned its distinctions. The fact that everybody calls out to his own particular god indicates a
breakdown in the religious order." (Violence and the Sacred) Reading this is like reading Augustine on the parable of the
Good Samaritan: the man, says Augustine, is Adam; going down from Jerusalem to Jericho means falling from Eden into mortality
(Jericho=yareah=moon=mortality); the robbers who set upon him are the Devil and his minions, and they steal not his effects
but his immortality; the Samaritan is Jesus, the inn is the Church, the innkeeper is Paul, and so on and so on. By the
twentieth century, serious theologians were no longer indulging in such unconstrained, essentially arbitrary readings.
But Girard is still flying the flag, and his out-of-control allegoresis is on full display in his analysis of Satan,
whom he characterizes as simultaneously the mimetic model, the mimetic process, and the founding mechanism, all at once.
(Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World)
Girard wants the blinding of the Cyclops to look like a sacrifice; to this end, he claims that it is something that is both
collectively decided and collectively enacted. Neither, however, is true, as a cursory reading of the Odyssey makes clear.
In fact Odysseus comes up with the plan on his own, and he implements it with the help of only four crewmembers. See Pommier 72-73.
As Pommier points out (74), the notion that this attack could in any way be seen as a sacrifice is quite outlandish.
The real Don Juan, says Girard, lacks autonomy, and Molière's version (Dom Juan, 1665) makes this clear: after all,
Molière's Don Juan says he has decided to seduce a woman just so as to destroy the happiness she and her current boyfriend
are enjoying. This is indeed a case of heteronomy; Don Juan's desires are indeed conditioned here by those of other people.
But as Pommier remarks (25), the case is not generalizable. Don Juan tells Sganarelle that he is constantly falling for women
at first sight, and indeed we see this in action, when he meets Charlotte and is immediately taken with her. (Perhaps a hardened
Girardian would say that he magically intuits that she is engaged, but most of us do not believe in such magic.)
With Flaubert, the damage is less extensive, but Girard still manages to get it wrong, suggesting that only two very minor characters
in Madame Bovary Catherine Leroux and Doctor Canivet have desires that are spontaneous. This, of course, is to
ignore the much more central Charles, a much-maligned (and much-ignored) character whose reputation has only recently begun to be
rehabilitated. See my "Passion, Counter-Passion, Catharsis: Beckett and Flaubert on Feeling Nothing." The Blackwell Companion
to Literature and Philosophy. Ed. Garry Hagberg. Oxford: Blackwell, 2010: 218-38. And Girard does not mention the delightful example
of love at first sight in L'Éducation sentimentale, the infamous "ce fut comme une apparition." See Pommier 32-33; for similar problems
with Cervantes, Stendhal, and Dostoevsky, see Pommier 27-35.
We already saw above how Girard bangs round Proust into a square hole. One could add that Girard also claims with no evidence
whatsoever that in Proust the true self "imitates constantly, on its knees before the mediator" (DDN 298), and that he believes
the problem with voluntary memory is that it represents other people's views of experience: "Recapturing the past is recapturing
the original impression beneath the opinion of others which hides it; it is to recognize that this opinion is not one's own." (DDN 38)
"The thesis of the scapegoat owes nothing to any form of impressionistic or literary borrowing. I believe it to be fully
demonstrated on the basis of the anthropological texts. That is why I have chosen not to listen to those who criticize my
scientific claims." (Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World) Choosing not to listen to those who criticize: not
very scientific either.
"Our theory should be approached, then, as one approaches any scientific hypothesis." (Violence and the Sacred)
Sure enough, elsewhere Girard confesses that there is in fact nothing scientific about any of it. "The theory as a whole,"
he admits, "cannot be subjected to empirical verification or falsification." ("The Anthropology of the Cross") Or again,
"it is the sort of thing you either see or do not see. It's like a flash of lightning; you either get it or you don't get it.
Ordinary reasoning just loops back on its own premises. ... Everything great is always a question of faith." ("The Anthropology of the Cross")
One should bear in mind Karl Popper's famous statement: "In so far as a scientific statement speaks about reality, it must be falsifiable."
"Beaucoup d'éthnologues, de classicistes et de théologiens ont beau écarquiller les yeux, disent-ils,
ils ne voient pas de bouc émissaire dans les mythes." (Quand ces choses commenceront) It should be noted that Jean-Pierre Dupuy,
who has taken Girard's writings very seriously, adopts a highly critical attitude toward them. Perhaps one day the Académie française
will make up for its Girardian misadventure by appointing the more careful yet no less interesting Dupuy.
"The knowledge of mimesis," says Girard, "is really tied to conversion." ("The Anthropology of the Cross") One might imagine
that the strategy is a Pascalian one: convince nonbelievers of the misery of their condition in order to bring them to faith.
"All that I did in Violence and the Sacred was to retrace... my own intellectual journey, which eventually brought me
to the Judeo-Christian writings, though long after I had become convinced of the importance of the victimage mechanism. ...
I remained for a long period as hostile to the Judeo-Christian texts as modernist orthodoxy could wish."
(Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World)
"I had an extremely bad period, and this period coincided with the liturgical period of Lent in 1959. I was thirty-five years old. ...
I went to confession and I had my children baptized. My wife and I were remarried by a priest." ("The Anthropology of the Cross")
"Christian symbolism is universal for it alone is able to give form to the experience of the novel." (DDN 310)
"Novelistic conversion calls to mind... the Christian rebirth." (DDN 308) "Conversion in death... [is] an almost
miraculous descent of novelistic grace" (DDN 309-10).
Girard: "the biblical text... sees Joseph as an innocent scapegoat, a victim of his brothers' jealousy, the biblical formulation
of our mimetic desire." ("Mimesis and Violence")
This is Pommier's point (94, 112-4). For Girard's claims, see Le bouc émissaire and "The Anthropology of the Cross."
This example is from Lee Konstantinou (pers. comm.).
As Pommier delightfully puts it (52), when someone starts shooting at you, you do not think "hey, that's a great idea,
I'll do that too!" Or think of it this way: the desire of your attacker is for you to be dead. If desire were really
contagious, you would wish to kill yourself, not him.
This is when the first instalment of the comic strip "Keeping up with the Joneses" saw the light of day.
"Rien n'est si contagieux que l'exemple" (Maxime #230); "il y a des gens qui n'auraient jamais été amoureux
s'ils n'avaient jamais entendu parler de l'amour." (Maxime #136). Girard, of course, never mentions La Rochefoucauld: see Pommier 42.
See act 3, scene 3. Goodness knows how many god-awful television shows have also featured the plot device
"X tries to make Y jealous." Here is a list I managed to assemble in about fifteen minutes: Saved by the Bell:
The New Class, episode 63: "The Fallout," December 2, 1995; Full House episode 43, "Luck Be a Lady (1)", 21 February 1989;
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 3 episode 9, "The Wish," 8 December 1998; Frasier season 11, episode 6, "I'm Listening,"
28 October 2003; The Big Bang Theory, season 2, episode 2, "The Codpiece Topology," 29 September 2008. I do not think
the writers for all these shows were reading Girard.