René Girard arrived at Johns Hopkins University as associate professor in 1957 — it was not his first home in the United States, but it was the place where he was to leave a permanent intellectual mark on the century with his provocative and seminal debut book, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure. The 1961 book, published initially as Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque in France, was hardly the only attempt to study the nature of desire, but Girard was the first to insist that the desire we think is original and objective is, in fact, borrowed from others, that it is “mimetic.” In this, he was giving a strong reading of Plato, Aristotle, and Hegel, but with a new twist.
The problem with attempts to describe Girard’s work — including this one — is that they are less rhetorically commanding and confident, less elegantly pugnacious and provocative, less witty and wise than Girard’s own writing, which serves as a sharp Toledo blade piercing reader expectations. Others have written shelves of books about his work — and yet if an interested person should come to me asking how to approach Girard’s oeuvre, I would refer him or her to Deceit, Desire, and the Novel rather than secondary sources and interpreters.
The prominent Marxist theorist Lucien Goldmann is a case in point. His labored discussion of Girard’s first book in Towards a Sociology of the Novel offers an intriguing comparison with the works of Hungarian literary historian and critic György Lukács. For Girard, as well as for Lukács, “the novel is the story of a degraded search (which he calls ‘idolatrous’) for authentic values, by a problematic hero, in a degraded world.” But from there we wander into the weeds of abstraction.
By contrast, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel remains practical, lucid, and focused on the novels at hand and what they reveal about human nature.
At the heart of the book is our endless imitation of each other. Imitation is inescapable — it’s how we learn, it’s why we don’t eat with our hands, it’s why we communicate beyond grunts. When it comes to metaphysical desire — which Girard describes as desires beyond simple needs and appetites — what we imitate is vital, and why, and can be a symptom of our ontological sickness. While he did not coin the word “mimesis” — Erich Auerbach predates him, along with Aristotle and even Plato — certainly much of its usage in our contemporary culture comes from René Girard.
The “Romantic lie” Girard attempts to dismantle is the myth of personal autonomy, the “authentic self” so dear to thinkers from Rousseau onward. The hero wants something, and it is really “he” who wants it — unaffected by others, as if he were not also a slave to public opinion and the approbation of friends and family. Girard saw an inevitable third in these transactions — the one who modeled the desire, who taught us to have it.
Central to the novels he examined is the protagonist who aspires to freedom but is not free at all, since he (or she) worships the “mediator,” living or dead, whose desires the heroes adopts as their own. “The object is to the mediator what the relic is to a saint,” Girard wrote. Julien Sorel adores Napoleon, and keeps the emperor’s memoirs hidden under his mattress; Emma Bovary worships the fashionable ladies in Paris, and takes lovers in imitation of them.
“Even the most passionate among us never feel they truly are the persons they want to be,” he explained later in a Stanford essay. “To them, the most wonderful being, the only semi-god, always is someone else whom they emulate and from whom they borrow their desires, thus ensuring for themselves lives of perpetual strife and rivalry with those whom they simultaneously hate and admire.” We want the object because we believe it will make us akin to the admired rival, a false god we come to fear and hate as well as revere and emulate. Rivalry becomes obsession, enduring even after the objet du désir has been knocked out of the tennis court.
Wagner’s Ring Cycle provides one example: “The gold is nothing, clearly, since it’s the ray of sunshine that alights on it and transfigures it. And yet the gold is everything, since it’s what everyone is fighting over; it’s the fact of fighting over it that gives it its value, and its terror,” Girard explained in an interview.
Girard describes two kinds of mediation. In “external mediation,” the mediator exists outside the world of the hero, and remains a remote idol — the stories of Amadís de Gaula for poor Don Quixote, or, the knightly tales for the Inferno’s Francesca da Rimini. These forms of imitation are delusional enough, but they are unlikely to foster conflict and violence by their very nature. All hell breaks loose, however, in internal mediation where the mediator is alive and within the sphere of the hero, and hence capable of resistance and reciprocity. Imitation turns into rivalry, and adoration alternates with hatred. The protagonist must “rescue” the beloved from the antagonist, or kill the king to attain the throne that he feels rightfully belongs to him. Or she longs for the admiration of the clique that mistakenly extols the rival, and not her — she deserves tenure, or the Pulitzer Prize, more than the other. Eventually, the rivalry is so strong that the coveted object disappears — the shuttlecock is batted into the bleachers, so to speak — and the rivalrous doubles resemble each other more and more in their mutually destructive “Spy vs. Spy” antics — all the while insisting that it’s their differences that set them at odds.
“The romantic is a prisoner of the Manichaean opposition between Self and Others and thus always works on one plane only. Opposite the empty and faceless hero who says ‘I’ is the grinning mask of the Other. Absolute exteriority is opposed to absolute interiority.” For that reason, “[t]he romantic work is a weapon aimed at others.” From these apparently straightforward observations follow so much else. The book, ostensibly a case study of five authors, reaches beyond literature to talk about our psychology and the cultural problems of our world, including fashion, advertising, manners, propaganda, and intellectual fads.
Deceit, Desire, and the Novel already bears Girard’s signature writing style — formal yet engaging and approachable, erudite, incisive, and masterful — it’s the book that would make his reputation. I found the book rather addictive, though Library Journal called it “a highly complex critique of the structure of the novel,” and added a warning: “As may be expected, the interpretations are highly psychological, the argument philosophical, and the intellectual footwork, dazzling; but for the reader, the going is slow, and conviction, grudging.”
For many, however, it was a revelation. “You can always trust a Frenchman to view the world as a ménage à trois,” wrote Andrew Gallix in the Guardian, describing Girard’s theory of mediated desire. “Discovering Deceit, Desire and the Novel is like putting on a pair of glasses and seeing the world come into focus. At its heart is an idea so simple, and yet so fundamental, that it seems incredible that no one had articulated it before.”
Deceit, Desire, and the Novel does a deep dive into a handful of authors — Cervantes, Stendhal, Proust, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert — and into a few works in particular (principally Don Quixote, The Red and the Black, The Possessed, and Remembrance of Things Past). These authors, Girard claims, not only saw the mimetic disease in themselves, but found the antidote. While it’s far more than a case study, those not already familiar with the five authors he studies are likely to be left out in the cold. Although he claims “all” great literature is constructed this way, in fact the subset he considers is small and focused. He makes no attempt to shoehorn everything into his theory — and he’s making larger points about our culture, at least as important as his literary reflections.
How much was Girard cherry-picking? And was the genre he was critiquing already exhausted before he set pen to paper? Literary fashions change faster than human nature, after all. French literary critic Walter Strauss asked the question in Comparative Literature:
Professor Girard clearly aligns himself with the antiromantics, and consequently rejects all modern nihilism; indeed, his remarks on contemporary writing tend to be hostile (though often perceptive). I am afraid his quick dismissal of Nietzsche prevents him from carrying his valuable explorations beyond Proust into the “age of suspicion.” But precisely here I would wish that the study had dealt with Kafka and possibly Beckett; does not the entire process of mediation, and with it the possibility of “vérité romanesque,” totally collapse with Kafka? And is there not in Kafka and in Beckett an urge to surmount desire, or to renounce it? The sheer force of Professor Girard’s convictions prompts me to raise these questions, not in the spirit of cavil, but in the spirit of homage to the splendid achievement of the critical intelligence exemplified by this book.
However, he overlooks how Girard dealt specifically with Beckett, as well as Camus and Sartre, in one of his final chapters; their protagonists, he argued, are often modern incarnations of the Underground Man, in whom metaphysical desire is even more successfully buried under a false cloak of autonomy. “Many superficial resemblances can be traced between Dostoevsky and other recent fiction. In both there is the same hatred of Others, and the same radical disorder, the same ‘polymorphism’ in the collapse of all bourgeois values.” Kafka is discussed half a dozen times throughout Deceit, Desire, and the Novel.
Closer to home, Johns Hopkins’s distinguished existentialist philosopher and theologian Ralph Harper in the Journal of Religion tackled the spiritual implications of Girard’s work. Given how much these issues were to preoccupy Girard in future years, Harper is worth quoting at length:
He suggests that all five novelists were participants in the “death of God” drama of our civilization. Not only is it true that the heroes of the novels imitate each other rather than Christ, the real point is that they imitate while pretending to believe that spontaneity, autonomy, and originality are the new values of emancipated man. And each in his own way has discovered — however consciously is another matter — the false promise of metaphysical autonomy and therefore has felt it necessary to take desire — imitate someone else — in order to go on pretending that God is really dead and man god. And so when we remark on the absurdity of mediated desire, we are really noticing the pathos of metaphysical disappointment.
He concluded, “To be made uneasy by this thorough analysis is probably one of the consequences of the pervasiveness of the disease, which Girard calls contagious, and a testimony to the psychological and metaphysical acumen of the author of this fascinating book.”
A new author could not have asked for more. In the years since, many have misunderstood Girard, sometimes, it seems, almost intentionally. Let’s take a moment to lay to rest some of the charges: some have accused Girard of being doctrinaire, applying his elixir too universally. Yet most French intellectuals do precisely that when establishing their theories; they have to assert a case strongly to be heard at all in the clamorous world of French letters. Is Girard’s work any more didactic than Sartre’s heavy-handed Critique of Dialectical Reason, for example? In Girard’s work, there may be less of a “formula” than meets the eye, in any case. Girard’s bold, declarative language disguises how much he is often weaving together his ideas as he writes, with his own inventive genius in the ink. “René is brilliant enough to find reasons,” his Hopkins colleague Professor Richard Macksey said to me. “Usually great men focus on one idea — he’s had several, and he has the genius to glue them together.”
Another misconception has offered ready kindling for his critics: Girard is certainly not insisting that mimetic desire is the only dynamic at work in human relations, though one could certainly get that reading in some of his less careful passages; nor is he arguing that the biological drive for food and shelter is mimetic. He made it clear that he has concerned himself, largely, with the human endeavors where mimesis is at work. As he himself said, novelists, playwrights, and archaic religion “are inevitably concerned with rivalry — conflictual mimetic desire, which is always in the way and is a huge problem for living together — doesn’t mean it is the only thing there is.”
He added that “writers are obsessed with bad, conflictual mimetic desire, and that’s what they write about — that’s what literature is about. I agree with Gide that literature is about evil. That doesn’t mean evil is the whole of life. I hear this question all the time: ‘Is all desire mimetic?’ Not in the bad, conflictual sense.”
Nor is Girard denouncing mimetic desire, which he sees as unavoidable, and often desirable. Even “bad” mimetic desire, he said, is a doorway, and intrinsically good, “in the sense that far from being merely imitative in a small sense, it’s the opening out of oneself.” If so, then mimesis is not the problem, and that takes us one step back into perhaps more metaphysical territory, since “the degradation of the fictional world is the result of a more or less advanced ontological sickness,” as Goldmann writes. What is ultimately sought is vertical transcendence, not horizontal fixation. Why the resistance to Girard’s ideas, which can so easily be found in our daily lives as well as in our literature — and not least of all, engraved on our own hearts?
“People are afraid that all people are equal.” Those words of Girard’s colleague, the Dante scholar John Freccero, haunted me, for a reason: in a sense Deceit, Desire, and the Novel could be studied from that particular angle, from the fear we have that our terrestrial gods are false and, ultimately, just like us. The insistence on our radical differences grows louder, more strident — as Girard wrote in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, even as “technical progress is wiping away one by one the differences between men.”
Cynthia Haven is the author of Joseph Brodsky: Conversations (2003), Peter Dale in Conversation with Cynthia Haven (2005), Czeslaw Milosz: Conversations (2006), and An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz (2011).