Escaping the Kingdom of Futility
René Girard's Mimetic Theory, Part 3
In Part 1 of this series on René Girard, I gave a broad overview of his contemporary relevance and introduced some intellectual context to make sense of his thought; in Part 2, I outlined the theory of triangular desire from his Girard’s first book Deceit, Desire, and the Novel and added a few additional pieces of context that I believed were essential. In this part, I hope to complete the theory and reconstruct the account he gives of authenticity or escape from imitative desire. In the next part, I will get to the critiques.
Just as a small personal note, a lot of people have messaged me after the first two parts saying either they think Girard is a charlatan or that his thought is tantamount to fascism or complete nonsense. I have to say I am much more agnostic about it than all that. It’s funny: when I read it, I ‘m highly engrossed and convinced, but upon reflection and when I begin writing about it, I end up adopting a more critical tone. Some of his readings of novels are quite brilliant, insightful and even quite beautiful, but, ironically for such a systematic thinker, I think they often work better as little aperçus and aphorisms. I do think Girard is onto something, and it’s something quite powerful and real, but perhaps not everything, as his disciples seem to think. And I do think you can apply the theories fruitfully to your favorite books, but I can’t always decide for myself if its revealing deep structures or is just kind of a parlor trick. Anyway.—
So, we moderns are caught in the web of internal mediation, in “metaphysical desire” or “ontological sickness,” as Girard calls it from time to time: a vain world of false idols, universal hypocrisy, jealousy, envy, and hate. How dow we get out? Well, you can write a novel or undergo a religious conversion, both of which are kind of the same thing according to Girard.
But before we get to that I think it’s worth looking at how he deals, or does not deal, with the account of authenticity of one of his chosen novelists, Stendhal. To vanity Stendhal opposes what he calls passion. Vanity looks to others, passion to the self. As Girard writes:
Passion, in Stendhal, is the opposite of vanity…the passionate person; he is distinguished by his emotional autonomy, by the spontaneity of his desires, by his absolute indifference to the opinion of Others. The passionate person draws the strength of his desire from within himself and not from others.
Stendhal’s opposition between vanity and passion originates in his 1822 essay On Love, where he contrasts passionate love with vanity-love, which he derides as the desire to “possess a fashionable woman, much in the way one might own a fine horse — as a luxury befitting a young man.” He calls this vanity-love “insipid,” writes that it sometimes is not even accompanied by physical desire, but that also that it can deceive and its memories produce “a semblance of love; there is the pricking at your pride and the sadness in satisfaction; the atmosphere of romantic fiction catches you by the throat, and you believe yourself lovesick and melancholy, for vanity will always pretend to be a grand passion.”
You may notice how this seems to mirror Rousseau’s division of amour de soi and amour-propre I discussed last time. But passionate love for Stendhal is not the expression of the simple creature of nature, outside of society: it is a highly refined, cerebral experience given only to extremely sensitive souls—those “happy few” to whom he dedicates Charterhouse of Parma. It is an affair of the imagination, but one that can access higher things than status or wealth: “If such people are derided in drawing rooms or made unhappy by the intrigues of the worldly, they possess in compensation a knowledge of pleasures utterly inaccessible to those moved by only vanity or money.” Although it is a slightly different sense than we use the term today, Stendhal called On Love a book of ideology, and the passionate love affair, often unrequited as his own were, was Stendhal’s own personal ideology, a way of being that transcended the pettiness of the modern world.
Falling in love is illustrated by Stendhal through the famous metaphor of crystallization:
Leave the mind of a lover to its natural movements for twenty-four hours, and this is what you will find.
At the salt mines of Salzburg a branch stripped of its leaves by winter is thrown into the abandoned depths of the mine; taken out two or three months later it is covered with brilliant crystals; the smallest twigs, those no stouter than the leg of a sparrow, are arrayed with an infinity of sparkling, dazzling diamonds; it is impossible to recognise the original branch.
I call crystallisation the operation of the mind which, from everything which is presented to it, draws the conclusion that there are new perfections in the object of its love.
But according to Girard this process of idealization, this transfiguration of the beloved in the imagination, is the sure sign of mediation and vanity. And while for Stendhal passion is a stronger emotion than vanity-love, according to Girard, intensity and perturbations of the soul is a sure sign of mediated desire. According to Girard, true love does not disfigure or transfigure; it is a balanced and contemplative thing: “The qualities which this love discovers in its object, the happiness it expects from it, are not illusory. Love-passion is always accompanied by esteem…It is based on a perfect agreement among reason, will, and sensibility.” That very well may be, but it sounds more like Jane Austen’s world than Stendhal’s. Girard deals with this by saying, that Stendhal’s novels reveal a different model of love than his essay and as he matured he came to different views: “Stendhal wants to convince himself that one can escape vanity without having to give up modern self-awareness but this ideal was never incarnated in the novels.” This is a slightly dubious proposition if you are familiar with Stendhal’s novels. In The Charterhouse of Parma, Fabrizio’s “love” for the singer Fausta, mediated by his competition with her preposterously vain and jealous lover Conte M—, whom he actually sees before Fausta, ends with boredom and disillusionment. (Although, also murder.) His passionate love for Clelia, whom he can only see through a tiny slot in his prison window, must, of necessity, bloom largely in his imagination. And it’s not clear if the painful type of vain self-consciousness of Julien Sorel in The Red and the Black is not a necessary precondition the higher sort of realization he ultimately comes to. At the very least, there would be no novel without it.
And Girard seems to agree that one has to go through hell rather than around it. Girard’s solution to the problems of mediated desire also involve a reconfiguration of the imagination in a mystical experience that combines the religious and aesthetic. He calls the morbid preoccupation with the Other that he finds in the novels “deviated transcendency;” it is a result of a kind of idolatry brought on by internal mediation, we search for the divine in the world for nought. But this is just a kind of distorted analogy of the spiritual search: “Deviated transcendency is a caricature of vertical transcendency.”
Vertical transcendency is a kind of religious ecstasy accomplished by the heroes at the end of novels and by the novelists themselves. It is a liberation from the bonds of desire that allows for novelistic creation, a '“victory over a self-centeredness which is other centered…” and “a renunciation of fascination and hatred.” The model for this is recollection, in particular, the kind found in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the conclusion of which identifies the paradigm of all novelistic endings. Marcel’s moments of clear recollection of the past reveal, but are no longer infected by, the morbid desires that once plagued him. In one striking passage Girard compares the famous madeleine scene to the taking of communion:
The affective memory experiences again the impulse toward the transcendent and this impulse is pure joy be cause it is no longer interrupted by the mediator. The petite madeleine is a veritable communion; it has all the virtues of a sacrament. The memory disassociates the contradictory elements of desire. The transcendent releases its perfume while the attentive and detached intelligence can now recognize the obstacle on which it stumbled. It understands the role of mediator and reveals to us the infernal mechanism of desire…
To see the truth of desire is to see the double role, evil and sacred, of the mediator. The ecstasy of the memory and the condemnation of desire imply each other in the same way as length implies breadth, or heads implies tails. Proustian "psychology" is inseparable from mystic revelation.
The novel involves a heroic renunciation of preoccupation with the mediator, the Other, which is at the same time a kind of empathic identification with them:
Great novels always spring from an obsession that has been transcended. The hero sees himself in the rival he loathes; he renounces the "differences" suggested by hatred. He learns, at the expense of his pride, the existence of the psychological circle. The novelist's sell-examination merges with the morbid attention he pays to his mediator. All the powers of a mind freed of its contradictions unite in one creative impulse.
Christian imagery aside, this sounds very much like Schopenhauer’s concept of aesthetic experience, where “we enter the state of pure contemplation, we are raised for the moment above all willing, above all desires and cares.” Schopenhauer’s philosophy was notably influenced by his study of Hindu and Buddhist texts and its worth noting that commentators like Roger Shattuck and Harold Bloom have found an analogy of Hindu liberation of the self from desire in Proust.
This all very appealing and even quite beautiful. Although it may strike some has having a certain grandiosity, it is also psychologically plausible: creativity as a state requires at least temporarily bracketing or overcoming our torturous desires and that’s part of why it’s so deeply satisfying. But what of us who are not great novelists or mystics or heroes? What do we get? How can we escape? One thought I had was that what Girard is doing here is basically deploying mimetic strategy as a form of Christian apologetics: this is a book for people who strive for, want to emulate, idolize great authors and works of literature. It seems to say, “Well, maybe you can’t accomplish that in this life, but you can have something like the great imaginative transformation available to sublime genius through the experience of grace and conversion.” You can go to church and you can contemplate the great works, which are somewhat the same thing: “The truly great novels are all born of that supreme moment and return to it the way a church radiates from the chancel and returns to it. All the great works are composed like cathedrals: once again the truth of Remembrance of Things Past is the truth of all the great novels.” Is this an aestheticization of the religious or a religious appropriation of the aesthetic? Does it matter?
Even if we are not inclined to be religious, it’s just a plain fact that any kind of good or happy life requires the orientation of one’s imagination towards something other than totally self-centered pursuits: this can be a service of some kind, art, love, science, contemplation, you name it. The question that arises now is whether or not the modern world allows us the possibility to accomplish even relatively humble forms of happiness and satisfaction?