René Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure

Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary StructureDeceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure by René Girard

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

René Girard’s name is now unavoidable in circles where intellectuals, sometimes dissident ones, try to understand the trajectory of an online society. Intriguingly, Girard developed the social and even religious theory for which he is now known first as a study of fiction.

Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (1961) is the French thinker’s first book, published after he spent about a decade teaching French literature in the U.S. despite having initially specialized in history. This was the structuralist era, when intellectuals across disciplines redefined the objects of their inquiry as systems that cohered through the mutual differences of their internal elements, as Saussure saw language and Lévi-Strauss saw myth. Girard’s theory borrows from structuralism an interest in discovering elementary components at the base of complex structures like novels and societies.

He posits, therefore, a fundamental geometric relation governing the plots of great novels: the protagonist seems to desire something (wealth, status, a lover, etc.), but in fact really desires the object through a mediator whom the protagonist wishes to emulate or usurp. Desire, then, is mimetic—in the sense of mimicry—and triangular—because it doesn’t go from subject to object but from the subject through the mediator to the object. Girard’s first and clearest example is Don Quixote, who learns to want what a chivalric knight wants through reading about the hero Amadis of Gaul in medieval romances; his quest is less to possess the knight’s rewards than to become Amadis through this possession. Given Don Quixote’s reputation as the inaugural European novel, it’s no surprise to find that the pattern continues in later fiction: Girard’s main examples are the works of Stendhal, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, and Proust.

Girard, however, differs from structuralism’s tendency to see human subjects as effects rather than agents of linguistic and social structures. He asserts by contrast that his exemplary novelists do not passively act out a pattern but rather show us the pattern to tell us the truth about the modern world, a pattern the critic extends and clarifies:

A basic contention of this essay is that the great writers ap­prehend intuitively and concretely, through the medium of their art, if not formally, the system in which they were first imprisoned together with their contemporaries. Liter­ary interpretation must be systematic because it is the con­tinuation of literature. It should formalize implicit or al­ready half-explicit systems. To maintain that criticism will never be systematic is to maintain that it will never be real knowledge.

Through the great novelists, Girard articulates not just a theory of the novel but a theory of modernity. Triangular and mimetic desire is for him the deep structure of secular, egalitarian societies. Another name he gives mimetic desire is “deviated transcendency”: where we used to worship the divine—this he calls “vertical transcendency”—we now worship one another in an envious idolatry of wanting what our neighbor has or wanting to become what our neighbor is (Girard labels the latter “metaphysical desire”).

Whereas Quixote only mimicked the books he read in the early modern period, the post-1789 heroes of Stendhal and later novelists mimic their fellow citizens (Girard calls this “internal mediation,” because it’s internal to the social structure, as opposed to Quixote’s relation to a fictional character). Then they seek to overthrow them to enjoy what they have or become what they are, until the whole society is sucked, as in Dostoevsky’s Demons, into the whirling vortex of a covetous, resentful war of all against all. Not even romantic love is spared this torments of mimetic desire, because even where a third person is absent, sex is subject to what Girard calls “double mediation,” where one narcissistically loves only the image of oneself one provokes in the beloved, a glamor often achieved by the feigned indifference of “hard to get” that turns eros into a frigidly self-regarding mutual masturbation. This pretended aloofness, this refusal to own up to one’s mediated desire and social dependency, is the “deceit” of Girard’s title.

What is the solution to this crisis of modernity? If it was caused by deviated transcendency—the immanence of a secular and egalitarian society where people have nothing to worship but themselves in each other’s eyes—than a restoration of the properly transcendent object of desire (i.e., God) should put a stop to the cycle of rivalry. To this end, Girard notes the conversions that conclude so many great novels, from Quixote’s deathbed renunciation of chivalry to Raskolnikov’s Christian humility. By writing the novel, the novelist purges himself of mimetic desire and arrives at a prospect where he can look at human beings as fellows rather than rivals and can write his revelation in the form of great fiction:

The title of hero of a novel must be reserved for the character who triumphs over meta­ physical desire in a tragic conclusion and thus becomes capable of writing the novel.

Conversion, then, doesn’t require a literal turn to God—even if Girard, who aligns novelistic psychology with that of the New Testament several times in the book, distinctly implies that this will help immensely—but it does demand a transcendence of the social, a disciplined indifference to one’s own differential status in relation to others. Lesser literature belongs to a category Girard derides as the “romantic,” in which he includes most poetry, most 20th-century fiction, including the works of the Existentialists and the American modernists, and even the arch-realist Balzac; romantic literature does not analyze and transcend mimetic desire but only enacts it, by setting up the poet or protagonist as lonely hero confronting an indifferent society. Such a romantic illusion perpetuates the fiction of “autonomy,” which Girard sees as the deceitful basis of a desire that pretends to be one’s own and not that of another:

We believe that “novelistic” genius is won by a great struggle against these attitudes we have lumped together under the name “romantic” because they all appear to us in­tended to maintain the illusion of spontaneous desire and of a subjectivity almost divine in its autonomy. Only slowly and with difficulty does the novelist go beyond the romantic he was at first and who refuses to die. He finally achieves this in the “novelistic” work and in that work alone.

Against the avant-garde, with its interest in originality and shock, Girard memorably defends what he openly calls the “banality” of the greatest novels:

This banality of novelistic conclusions is not the local and relative banality of what used to be considered “origi­nal” and could again be given oblivion followed by a “rediscovery, and a “rehabilitation.” It is the absolute banality of what is essential in Western civilization. The novelistic denouement is a reconciliation between the in­dividual and the world, between man and the sacred. The multiple universe of passion decomposes and returns to simplicity. Novelistic conversion calls to mind the analusis of the Greeks and the Christian rebirth. In this final moment the novelist reaches the heights of Western literature; he merges with the great religious ethics and the most elevated forms of humanism, those which have chosen the least accessible part of man.

Girard’s relevance to the present should be obvious: social media has accelerated and automated mimetic desire so much that its users become mere vectors of advertising and propaganda as they pass on the memes they hope will make them akin to the influencers they want to be, whether the influencer is a makeup artist or the President of the United States. Girard’s further argument that mediated desire leads people to lash out at their mediators by accusing them of being what they themselves are—e.g., that the snob derides the snobbery of others—also illuminates the malevolent purity spirals of “cancel culture”:

The obsessed man astounds us with his clear understanding of those like himself—in other words, his rivals—and his complete inability to see himself. […] The sickest persons are always the most worried by the sickness of Others. After cursing Others, Oedipus finds he himself is guilty.

The religious overtone of Girard’s thought, finally, is attractive to an increasingly post-liberal intelligentsia, whether radical or reactionary, whose members seek an exit from neoliberalism’s tech-enabled compulsion to contagious consumer identity and outrage (see, for example, Geoff Shullenberger’s pieces here and here). When Girard mocks Hegelians and Marxists for thinking that the end of class struggle or material inequality could possibly end human conflict, when he quotes Dostoevsky and the Gospels, he hints that the escape route from this secular catastrophe of dehumanization might not be found on the left hand or the right but rather above.

Yet I have two questions about Girard’s philosophical or psychological thesis. First, is all desire mediated in the way Girard describes so that no genuine communion between subject and object is possible without passing through a mediator? Is there no such thing as goodness, beauty, or truth in a thing or a person that could attract me on its own merits and based on my own needs, and not on my wish to imitate and supplant a rival claimant? Great novels end when the protagonists overcome mimetic desire, often on their deathbeds, but what would a world without it look like? How does Girard account even for his own love of Cervantes and Dostoevsky?

In this severity, Girard reminds me of two other exacting 20th-century French thinkers. First is the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu with his thesis that the aesthetic can only ever be a counter in the social game of distinction inaugurated by modernity. For Bourdieu, Flaubert invents autonomous art, whose formal marker is its flagrant linguistic artifice, to create a space in the market where the not-conventionally-productive members of the bourgeoisie can profitably convert their spiritual goods into haute couture. As in Girard, motivation tends to be extrinsic, social, and selfish. The second thinker Girard recalls for me is Simone Weil, specifically the air of Catharism—an utter refusal of the things of this world, in defiance of at least Catholic orthodoxy’s injunction to appreciate God’s creation—that Czesław Miłosz detected in her work. In all three intellectuals, we find an implicit judgment of the social world as a nightmare where monstrous egos devour one another for the vain glory of social, economic, or sexual primacy—and more than this, such thinkers also tend to cut off most roads out of the social nightmare, such as love or art or nature, which they unmask as further appetitive delusions. That Weil and Girard at least leave us with God is a relief, whereas a friend of mine once remarked in a discussion of Bourdieu’s ideas, “Oh, if I believed all that, I’d just kill myself!”

My second question follows from the first. Mimetic desire is real in part, and we are no doubt encouraged in what we want by the people and institutions that form us; hence I read Girard because it suddenly seemed everyone else was reading him. But is it really so horrifying, always so bound to rivalry and violence? Just as Girard makes erotic love sound almost impossible since it will always partake of double mediation, he also seems to rule out benign influence or genuine tutelage. Yet it’s good for a young person to want to adopt the vocation of an admired teacher—as long as it’s a good vocation—and it’s good for me if I read good books because a person I admire recommends them. Girard criticizes the modern ideal of individual autonomy, but stigmatizing all mimesis, as if there were any other way to become a person than by modeling oneself on other people, seems only to validate it.

To end where I began, Girard premises his social theory on a literary theory, and here too I have some questions. His principles of exclusion and inclusion to the category of great fiction seem arbitrary or at least under-defined, for one thing. While based on the old contest between romance and novel—a literal translation of the book’s French title would be Romantic Lies and Novelistic Truth—Girard’s canon is nevertheless very narrow: only five novelists make the cut, though a few asides suggest that Madame de Lafayette, Tolstoy, and Camus (but only had he lived to write better novels than his earlier Existentialist romances) might also be included. Criteria so demanding should be more clearly explained.

Furthermore, exemplifying what I’ve always found to be the worst trait of the critic-as-theorist, Girard is uninterested in and seemingly unable to account for features of the literature he studies if they don’t obviously support his thesis—or, worse, contradict it. Where is his explanation of Cervantes’s complex metafiction, of Stendhal’s romantic irony as shown in his amusing mock-epigraphs to the chapters of The Red and the Black (“‘She isn’t pretty, she wears no rouge’—Sainte-Beuve”), of Dostoevsky’s experiments with time and perspective in The Idiot, of Flaubert’s straining to eliminate cliché and attain le mot juste in describing the phenomenal world? Girard barges past these curious aesthetic phenomena in his haste toward his theory of everything. While he seems to grant tremendous authority to literature in seeing the greatest works as bearers of the truth missed by every other discourse, he actually slights the literary by subordinating its particularities to a total theory.

Girard’s reproof of romantic individualism is compelling given some of the exaggerated forms it’s taken in the French avant-garde, but can we really be persuaded that there is no glory whatever in Don Quixote’s or Julien Sorel’s or Emma Bovary’s doomed quest to triumph over a society too cruel or banal to appease their desires? By insisting that their longings have no legitimacy, Girard deprives their stories of tragedy—their flaws become merely faults, and sordid ones at that, rather than the shadow-side of their outsized virtues. This brings me to my final point. Many Goodreads reviewers, probably drawn to Girard for the same reasons I was, mention reading this book without having read any of the novels it critiques. (I am not wholly innocent of this either: I never went past Swann’s Way in Proust, so I skimmed or skipped some of Girard’s long chapter on the Recherche.) But to read literary theory without reading literature is like reading a cookbook instead of eating. Don Quixote does contain what Girard sees in it, but it contains plenty more besides, so there is every reason, if we want to understand ourselves and our societies, to read the novel before the theory of the novel.