The Cure for Envy
René Girard's Mimetic Theory, Part 4
Thank you for bearing with me during this now quite extended series of posts.
If you want to catch up, in Part 1, I introduced Girard’s thought and tried to situate in the contemporary intellectual and political climate, in Part 2, I attempted to reconstruct the account of imitative desire that Girard develops in his first book, and in Part 3, I looked at how Girard imagines possible escapes from the webs of mediated desire. In this part, I hope to return to the political implications of Girard’s thought and perhaps develop a few lines of critique that may help us to better understand it.
Also, I have been skipping the usual Reading, Watching posts to complete this series, but, in case you are interested, I had a very interesting discussion with my friendsand about the rise of interest in irrationalism and the occult in Silicon Valley that is now available to watch on YouTube. It touches on some of the same themes discussed in this series and my earlier writing on reactionary modernism.
I also think this will most likely be my last post of the year as I’m going to take a little time off. That always has a way of changing, but in the meantime, I hope you are having a lovely holiday season and wish you all happy new year!
The other day at dinner, my father said to me, “I guess I understand all this Girard stuff, but what does it have to do with politics?” It’s a fair question and one I started to get to in the first part when I sketched some things that the right today finds attractive or useful about Girard. I suggested that there was a kind of amphibian quality to Girard and two sides of him: a reactionary side and a progressive side. I think this holds true when you read the texts closely.
It is certainly easy to imagine how Girard could be appropriated by the Right. For instance, his account of universal envy and the mechanism of scapegoating that societies use to avoid it could be easily applied to something like cancel culture and “wokeness”: its victims are the targets of a jealous mob and/or they are selected as sacrificial victims chosen as a convenient Other to avoid facing real, underlying problems. There is probably more about the psychology of social envy in some of these situations than many people would like to admit. But what Girard says is very far from the kind of vulgar Nietzcheanism that would ascribe all moral sentiments to the ressentiment of lesser beings. We often hear the term “victim culture” being derisively employed, but to the Christian Girard “victim culture” is a sign of social progress, the universalization of pity and compassion. For instance, look at what he writes in his later book I See Satan Fall Like Lighnting:
Our society abolished slavery as well as serfdom. Later has come the protection of children, women, the aged, foreigners from abroad, and foreigners within. There is also the battle against poverty and "underdevelopment." More recently we have made medical care and the protection of the handicapped universal.
Every day we cross new thresholds. When a catastrophe occurs at some spot on the globe, the nations that are well off feel obligated to send aid or to participate in rescue operations. You may say these gestures are more symbolic than real and reflect a concern for prestige. No doubt, but in what era before ours and under what skies has international mutual aid constituted a source of prestige for nations?
There is just one rubric that gathers together everything I am summarizing in no particular order and without concern for completeness: the concern for victims. This concern sometimes is so exaggerated and in a fashion so subject to caricature that it arouses laughter, but we should guard against seeing it as only one thing, as nothing but twaddle that's always ineffective. It is more than a hypocritical comedy. Through the ages it has created a society inc comparable to all the others. It is unifyng the world for the first time in history.
What Girard says here is quite “woke”: “The most effective power of transformation is not revolutionary violence but the modern concern for victims. What pervades this concern and makes it effective is a true knowledge of oppression and persecution.” What Girard is arguing is the originally Christian sources of democracy, human rights, and humanitarianism. Of course, this idea that the Enlightenment, the Revolution, and all the subsequent democratic, egalitarian, and humanitarian projects are, at root, secularized forms of Christianity is hardly original. Nietzsche famously believed this as well, but he doesn’t think that genealogy recommends those projects—quite the contrary. Although Girard associates this universal victimology with progress, he hints it can give rise to insoluble problems and does not itself provide a final criterion of judgment:
We are always prepared to translate all our conflicts, even those that don't lend themselves at all to it, into the language of innocent victims. The debate over abortion, for example: whether we are for it or against it, we always have to choose our side in the interest of the "real victims." Who deserves our sympathy more-the mothers who sacrifice themselves for their children or the children sacrificed to contemporary pleasure-seeking and "self-fulfillment"? There you have the question.
Derisiveness about abortion aside, there is something to this. Think about the way the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is conceived of in the West: who are the bigger victims? Are they Palestinians, suffering under the burden of the Nakba and all the subsequent dispossession and occupation, or the Jews, the ultimate pariah, scapegoated people who have finally come to have their safe haven in a hostile world and are still under relentless attack? The next question is just how productive this framework is to resolve any conflict? Doesn’t the mirroring of claims of victimhood lead to its own escalation of violence? One can imagine another form of mimetic competition here, where being the biggest victim is the goal. And certainly, critics of contemporary culture have not been shy to point out that there is a perverse social prestige to be won by showing one’s emotional scars.
Still, it is striking how Girard totally rejects Nietzcheanism and how he directly associates his thoughts with Nazism:
Since the Second World War a whole new intellectual wave has emerged, hostile to Nazism but more nihilist than ever, more than ever a tributary of Nietzsche. It has accumulated mountains of clever but false arguments to acquit its favorite thinker of any responsibility in the National Socialist catastrophe. But still, Nietzsche is the author of the only texts capable of clarifying the Nazi horror. If there is a spiritual essence of the movement, Nietzsche is the one who expresses it.
This would make Girard an ill fit among the neo-pagan, vitalist, and “post-Christian” tendencies currently developing on the right. He would join the left in seeing something very Nazi about the whole thing. Suffice it to say, many readers of Nietzsche might object that his interpretation was pretty crude.
But it has to be admitted that there is a lot in Girard that can be used to easily justify a rejection of modern progressivism and the left in general as another form of domination. He writes, “The current process of spiritual demagoguery and rhetorical overkill has transformed the concern for victims into a totalitarian command and a permanent inquisition.” And, speaking of rhetorical overkill, he goes on to say:
All through the twentieth century, the most powerful mimetic force was never Nazism and related ideologies, all those that openly opposed the concern for victims and that readily acknowledged its Judeo-Christian origin. The most powerful anti-Christian movement is the one that takes over and "radicalizes" the concern for victims in order to paganize it. The powers and principalities want to be "revolutionary" now, and they reproach Christianity for nor defending victims with enough ardor. In Christian history they see nothing but persecutions, acts of oppression, inquisitions.
This other totalitarianism presents itself as the liberator of humanity. In trying to usurp the place of Christ, the powers imitate him in the way a mimetic rival imitates his model in order to defeat him. They denounce the Christian concern for victims as hypocritical and a pale imitation of the authentic crusade against oppression and persecution for which they would carry the banner themselves.
In the symbolic language of the New Testament, we would say that in our world Satan, trying to make a new start and gain new triumphs, borrows the language of victims. Satan imitates Christ better and better and pretends to surpass him.
Now, Girard may have a subtle phenomenology of religious feeling elsewhere, but this labeling of secular concern for social justice as being “satanic” is not far from the rants and raves one might associate with a fire-breathing fundamentalist rather than a dignified theologian. Also unattractively self-pitying is Girard’s contention that Christians have replaced Jews as the primary scapegoat in the world: “Up to and including Nazism, Judaism was the preferential victim of this scapegoat system. Christianity came only in second place. Since the Holocaust, however, it is no longer possible to blame Jews. The intellectuals and other cultural elites have promoted Christianity to the role of number one scapegoat.” This is the sort of wounded self-regard one sees often among the religious right: an insistence on their own prime victim status. One would think that Girard might’ve noticed that this was entering Christianity into the victimhood Olympics and therefore the very kind of mimetic competition he counsels us to avoid.
The relative crudeness of these observations is why I tend to think that Girard’s first book—Deceit, Desire, and the Novel—is his most interesting work. In it, there is a more sophisticated critique of both revolution and reaction through his reading of Stendhal, with side excursions on Balzac, Tocqueville, and Flaubert. Stendhal, who was born in 1783 and was of the first generation that came of age in the revolutionary era, is a telling choice for Girard. He shares Girard’s ambivalent stance towards the Revolution and democracy: he admired the passionate dedication of the Jacobins and as a young man even celebrated the execution of the king, but he had aristocratic tastes; he deplored the universal mediocrity and leveling tendencies of modern democracy, especially fearing what their results would be the loss of elegance and art. His head is Enlightened, his heart is Romantic. To refer back to the first part, he is also both a Cartesian and Pascalian: a cold, rational analyst and a passionate enthusiast. This ambiguity is why Stendhal always attracted admirers on both the reactionary right and the republican left: anti-Dreyfusards Barrès and Maurras were fans, but so was the socialist Léon Blum, who wrote an admiring book on Stendhal. There, Blum described Stendhal’s sensibility, “… while reason recognizes democracy for the best of governments and protests against any social distinction between men, the heart and the nerves demand perfectly harmonious sensations that only the touch of an elite can provide.”
There may be less of a contradiction in Stendhal’s views than appears at first blush: ultimately, he is a kind of aristocratic liberal who believes in meritocracy. This is a meritocracy of passion: nobility, true nobility, belongs naturally to the passionate, expressive person. As Girard explains:
In Stendhal's eyes, nobility belongs to the man whose desires come from within himself and who exerts every ounce of his energy to satisfy them. Nobility, in the spiritual sense of the term, it therefore is exactly synonomous with passion. The noble being rises above others by the strength of his desire. There must originally be nobility in the spiritual sense for there to be nobility in the social sense. At a certain point in history both senses of the word "noble" coincided, at least theoretically. This coincidence is illustrated in The Italian Chronicles. In fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Italy the greatest passions were born and developed in the elite of society.
But nobles go from being just the most energetic and passionate section of society to merely a class, an entrenched part of the social hierarchy, and so they devolve from being spontaneously passionate to anxiously self-aware and jealous of their status. But part of this coming to self-consciousness of the aristocracy is still disinterested and magnanimous: the aristocratic adoption of the philosophy of the Enlightenment still demonstrates their virtuous, self-sacrificing disposition. They are liberal because they are aristocrats:
He remains spontaneous even in his reflection. Unlike the [reactionaries] he does not expect the ideas he adopts to serve the interests of his class, any more than he would ask a challenger, in a truly heroic era, to present proof of nobility; the challenge alone would prove the nobility of the challenger, in the eyes of someone with self-respect. In the realm of thought rational evidence takes the place of the challenge. The nobleman accepts the challenge and judges everything in universal terms. He goes straight to the most general truths and applies them to all mankind. He does not acknowledge any exceptions, especially those from which he would profit.
This taking up of Enlightenment ultimately brings about the destruction of the world of the aristocracy and its privileges, but this is an extension in the realm of thought of the old aristocratic pride, “Truly noble reflection resigns itself to that death, just as the truly noble warrior is prepared to die on the battlefield.”
But after the revolution any attempt to reconstitute the aristocracy as a class or caste is doomed: under the Restoration, they are just fighting solely to secure their material interests and privileges now, they have become bourgeois. When the monarchy is destroyed, there is no external mediator, no sun, to keep everything in orbit: there is just the internal mediation, an anarchic, social struggle where anyone can become a rival. They have lost the blithe innocence and gaiety of the salon and are bitter, resentful little plotters in parliament. In fact, they are worse than the bourgeoisie and the reaction just shows how fully the revolution has done its work: They have entered the world of internal mediation and its rivalries, and they have taken part in modern, competitive society with its endless petty social distinctions and comparisons: “The nobleman constantly grows nearer the bourgeois, even in the hatred he feels for him. They are all ignoble, Stendhal writes somewhat strongly in his letter to Balzac, because they prize nobility. . .”
This may not be strictly historical, but it is a wonderful dialectical account of self-undermining worthy of Hegel or Nietzsche. And, as such, points to a deeper phenomenological or psychological truth underlying social phenomena. We know this to be the truth: we can all witness the vulgarity and crudeness of those who worship and try to reestablish the social privileges of days gone by as well the repulsive resentment and meanness of reactionaries who still fancy themselves part of an unrecognized noble caste.
Balzac says a similar thing about the laying low of the aristocracy in the world of the bourgeoisie. In a wonderful passage in Cousin Bette he decries there are no more frivolous and excessive expressions of passionate life as there were in the old days:
The great men and women of the Empire, in their follies, rivalled the great aristocrats of the old régime. Under the Restoration the aristocracy has always remembered having been persecuted and robbed, and so, with few exceptions, become economical, careful, and provident: in fact bourgeois and inglorious. Now, 1830 has completed the work of 1793. In France, from now on, there will be great names but no more great houses, unless there are political changes, difficult to foresee. Everything bears the stamp of personal interest. The wisest buy annuities with their money. The family has been destroyed.
We can now begin to understand Stendhal’s lifelong admiration for Napoleon, as well as why the protagonists of his novels idolize Bonaparte but struggle to find a place in the era directly after his rule. The Empire was both meritocratic—Napoleon rose from a relatively humble background on the sheer force of his passion—and heroic—it provided something glorious live and fight for. The parts of Napoleon that come in for Stendhal’s censure are precisely those that are the most bourgeois: his fear of a return of disorder and Jacobinism and his desire to be accepted in the fashionable world of the Faubourg Saint-Germain. But in his absence, as Allan Bloom writes, “The last of the heroes has disappeared forever, and we must make do in this dull world without him.” Dull and dour, governed by vanité triste—sad vanity.
The world of the bourgeoisie is not suspended in the air, it’s not simply a matter of values. Or it is, but in a different sense of the world “value.” The bourgeois world is not just a set of dispositions, it’s a system of production, it is driven by commerce, the market, and above all, money. The pursuit of money builds up new privileges and knocks down old ones, it subordinates all other values to its dominion. It is both equalizer and leveler—it creates one universal medium of value that in principle can be possessed by anyone, no matter how mean or low of birth—and it creates thousands of barriers to frustrate our desires. I suspect that when Girard is talking about “internal mediation,” he has discovered another word for money: not literal, cold-hard hard cash, but for the domination of society by the commodity fetish, by exchange-value above all else. Girard seems to be aware of this, but he just believes he’s discovered something deeper than the commodity form that secretly governs society: “Marx's alienation is analogous to metaphysical desire. But alienation has little correspondence with anything but external mediation and the upper stages of internal mediation.” Perhaps.
Everything Girard associates with internal mediation involves something like an application of commercial and market relationships to qualitative pursuits like love: we are intrigued when there is interest from another buyer, but we must hide our own interest, if we are to be successful, we must preserve our capital, not make unprofitable declarations of passions. His account of what he calls the romantic idea of desire—believing the things we desire have some intrinsic value—is cognate to Marx’s commodity fetish, where things only appear to us to have the shimmer of wealth buried deep within them, but, in fact, only have that because of where they are situated in the entire whole network of social relations. According to Girard, we also quite literally fetishize our mediators, he talks repeatedly about how they become gods or idols to us. Girard calls the types of desire we get from internal mediation, “metaphysical desire,” and the entrance into the realm of metaphysics and theology is exactly how Marx characterizes what happens when something becomes a commodity: “It changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness.” Girard states that the choice of mediators appears arbitrary, that there’s nothing really special about them, and that they can even be imaginary figures or held unconsciously. So where do they come from? One answer is that they are just expressions of the imprint of the process of mediation as such on all our activity: we tend to experience value as such in so far as it comes from its being a value for others. We may not want literal money and therefore convince ourselves of the nobility of our ambitions, but we want things that behave like money, that are exchangeable, that store and even accrue value. Behind all of our desires in their apparent specificity and uniqueness Girard finds the abstract process of internal mediation; for Marxists, it is commoditization.
I will let the reader decide what feels like the more fundamental phenomenon in modern life, but allow me a small interlude. Think of incels today. These people seem to be consumed with painful human needs that are somewhat sympathetic, the need for sex, love, and companionship. They suffer from terrible envy and jealousy. But on close inspection, they are only interested in women in so far as they are money-like, in so far as they have exchange-value. At the extreme ends of this illness, no concrete, flesh-and-blood woman can satisfy their issues: Their very interest in them would signify their actual lack of value. They are lost in a world of abstract value that can have no real concrete manifestation: they are speculators caught in a perpetual stock exchange of hatred and resentment.
I’m not the first person to notice this convergence, a “homology” he would call it, between the Marxist tradition and Girard’s concepts. In the 1960s, shortly after the publication of Girard’s first book, the French philosopher and sociologist Lucien Goldmann compared Girard’s reflections on the novel to Georg Lukacs’s Theory of the Novel (1915) and believed they had come up with a very similar account. He was not all that impressed with the triangular theory, thinking that Girard was exaggerating its importance, but the shared discovery of Girard and Lukacs was that the novel was about what Lukacs called a “problematic hero” looking searching “authentic values” in a “degraded world.” Why is it degraded? Because of the rule of exchange value:
In the economic life, which constitutes the most important part of modern social life, every authentic relation with the qualitative aspect of objects and persons tends to disappear - interhuman relations as well as those between men and things — and be replaced by mediatized and degraded relation: the relation with purely qualitative exchange values.
This is what Marxists famously refer to as reification. But some sensitive souls are still oriented towards use-value, not exchange-value, the particularity of things, their fittingness to our special human needs, their actual concrete being rather than their role as an index in an abstract regime of price. These problematic individuals, in that they are uncomfortable and ill-fitted to the whole program, feel alienated, value, and search for authenticity. Novels tell of such searches. This is accomplished by the transcendence provided through what Girard calls the comic and Lukacs, irony, which is essentially the ability to view from above and outside, to overcome and observe with detachment previous versions of oneself that are caught in lower forms of desire and valuation. Now, as you will recall, Girard believed that such authenticity could actually be found in the novels. Lukacs believed that the experience of authenticity in the novel, the overcoming of alienation by author and hero, was merely notional, imaginary: it could not sufficiently undue the real conditions of the world. They give us, as Goldmann, puts it, “simply an awareness of the vanity, the degraded character not only of the earlier search but also any hope, of any possible search.” Novels are like the Kohelet in Ecclesiastes: they tell us “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” And that is part of the reason, why, not long after The Theory of the Novel, Lukacs becomes a Communist: this project must be done in reality.
To return to the beginning, I think this homology between internal mediation and the commodity is what Peter Thiel and I believe others on the right are seeing in Girard. Thiel’s vision of monopoly capitalism, which focuses on the creation of pure, productive use-values and isn’t troubled by competition and the market, is trying to pry apart the commodity form and keep only the good, healthy, concrete part while casting off the alienating, abstract stuff. This I believe points to some dim awareness of these reactionaries of a fundamental contradiction of capital: the mass production of commodities is both the source of profits, but also ultimately undermines profit. To preserve value, they are looking for a way to somehow freeze the relations of production and exchange, to arrest the churn of the market society before it consumes them, too. Hence the strictures against competition.
Thiel, in effect, says, “We should have more machines, not just more money and markets.” This is the reactionary modernism of Thiel’s project I’ve written of elsewhere: a combination of the desire for technological advancement with a rejection of modern, liberal society. This is just a peculiar form of the commodity fetish and it explains Thiel’s preoccupations with both blood, both biological race, and literal blood transfusions and machines: they are all similar attempts to pry the commodity form apart. As Moishe Postone writes: “blood and the machine are seen as concrete counter-principles to the abstract. The positive emphasis on "nature," on blood, the soil, concrete labor, and Gemeinschaft, can go easily hand in hand with the glorification of technology and industrial capital.”
There is something obviously silly about the spectacle of a capitalist calling timeout on competition, sort of like a football player spiking the ball in the end zone and then declaring the game over. It also is, as Marxists used to say, insufficiently dialectical: it does not realize that monopoly and competition are always in a relation. As Marx wrote:
In practical life we find not only competition, monopoly and the antagonism between them, but also the synthesis of the two, which is not a formula, but a movement. Monopoly produces competition, competition produces monopoly. Monopolists are made from competition; competitors become monopolists. If the monopolists restrict their mutual competition by means of partial associations, competition increases among the workers; and the more the mass of the proletarians grows as against the monopolists of one nation, the more desperate competition becomes between the monopolists of different nations. The synthesis is of such a character that monopoly can only maintain itself by continually entering into the struggle of competition.
Naturally, calling for an end to competition is itself competitive behavior, especially when it comes from those on top. Reactionaries who use Girard in essence are saying, “Let’s have the old, more permanent forms of interpersonal domination back, those are less terrible and alienating than this society. Let’s put people in their proper place again.” But Girard is also more dialectical than this: he knows that any time someone is trying to put themselves outside of the webs of internal mediation, to show themselves above competition, or to insist on natural privilege, it just reveals how deeply enmeshed they are in it. With his critique of reaction borrowed from Stendhal, he sees that the people who try to reverse the course of modernity are just the ones most captured by it, the ones who accuse others of envy, the most envious. Reaction is not the cure for envy but its most acute symptom. I tend to think the only cures remain as they ever were, the highest callings of humanity as defined by Hegel, the three expressions of Absolute Spirit: religion, art, and philosophy. And perhaps, with Marx, revolution—in whatever form that may take.
Postscript: I know I hinted at forays into Dante and Balzac as counter-points to Girard, but this is now quite long and I have tested my readers’ patience with my fixation on this topic. But I will return to the subject in subscribers’ only posts for the most interested people.