I recently signed a contract with the Thiel Foundation, the parent organization of Imitatio, to write a monograph about the evolution of René Girard’s thought from Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque through the full development of his anthropology in Des choses cachées…, and thence to my own work, beginning with The Origin of Language.
We must let “history” decide whether GA is, as RG suggests in some remarks on the subject, an example of méconnaissance that replaces the scapegoat of mimetic theory (MT) by a “social contract,” or on the contrary whether Girard’s anthropology should be understood as a preliminary version of GA that lacks a theory of representation. The fundamental debate concerns not so much the relative importance of two thinkers and their thoughts as the articulation of two ways of thinking.
MT and GA cannot be distinguished merely by confronting their models of desire. The Girardian model, whatever its power, remains within the medias res of the world. As such, it is tributary to the metaphysical mode of thought that takes the existence of representation/language for granted, denying their specific pertinence even as it takes its most telling examples from literature. GA is a new way of thinking because it situates mimetic desire within the context of the originary hypothesis rather than beginning from desire as a “structure” empirically observable in human interaction.
At the time of Mensonge, Girard had not yet elaborated a general anthropology. But if we “retrodict” the triangular theory of Mensonge from the anthropology first elaborated in La violence et le sacré, the communal source for the triangle of metaphysical desire is the mutually mediating lynch mob that surrounds the emissary victim. I attack the victim because my neighbor does, and vice versa. And following his collective immolation, I worship whatever trace of him is preserved, equally in imitation of my neighbors. Thus irrespective of any differences with GA, in Girard’s own anthropology the sacralization of the central victim is the point of departure for human desire and the source of the deviation of “metaphysical desire” onto objects no longer collectively but personally designated by others as mediators. This is implicit when Girard refers to metaphysical desire in Mensonge as “idolatry,” worship of persons rather than gods, and suggests that the critique of this deviation is specific to the novel. Thus the book concludes with Dostoevsky in the words of Alyosha Karamazov exhorting us to return from the decadence of human mediation to the human-divine mediation of Jesus, whose transcendent example will preserve us from the conflicts of “internal” mediation by each other.
GA’s model of desire is coeval with language because it is coeval with the human. It avoids the problems associated with Girard’s geometrical metaphor by situating desire from the outset in the configuration of a scene, which remains unchanged whether there are two or twenty persons on the periphery. This configuration conceptualizes both “triangular” rivalry for an object—the peripheral participants whose impossible common desire for the central object makes it sacred and inaccessible—and the “jealous” rivalry familiar to readers of Proust, that described in a lucidly argued as yet unpublished essay by Jean-Pierre Dupuy entitled “La jalousie et les triangles trompeurs.” Here what is important is not the mediator who designates the object of desire—the rival whose wife or mistress one falls in love with—but rather the rival whom one’s beloved prefers, whose “being” or prestige is not the cause but the product of one’s own desire, as in Swann’s jealousy of Odette’s relationship with the vulgar Forcheville. The central object once established as the source of meaning, jealousy is another name for the resentment of those on whom it shines more brightly than oneself. But our originary resentment of the sacred object because it withholds itself from us makes us from the beginning rivals of the center; the human ego is that of a failed god. If prehuman appetitive mimesis may be broadly understood as “triangular,” in the human context the fundamental mimetic-desiring relation is that of resentment, the fearful and hostile feeling, whether or not justified, that someone else is closer to the center than oneself, either enjoying its favors or usurping its role.
Dupuy argues that in the typical case of desire in modern literature, as well as in life, the triangular model of a mediator who designates to the subject an object of desire is less universal than that of jealousy, where what is desired is not an object designated by a mediator but the subject’s reaction to a perceived totality that excludes him. To use Dupuy’s example, Don Juan’s interest in Zerlina is not due to the “mediation” of the peasant Masetto, but simply to the fact that the girl’s attachment to her peasant companion excludes the Don. Juan is an aristocrat whose liberation from the old social norms allows him to share, so to speak parasitically, the early modern market’s desire for the “infinite,” which he understands as the accumulation of what exists already rather than as an entrepreneurial drive to create something new. His affinity for other men’s wives and fiancées is not the effect of “triangular” imitation so much as a discovery procedure for the desirable; Juan locates his targets through the jealous irritation provoked by couples indifferent to his presence. Similarly, in a study Dupuy refers to, a baby becomes jealous of his mother’s attention to a doll, not because the doll possesses “being,” but because the baby is offended by witnessing a mother-doll unity that excludes him—I would say more precisely that what offends him is that his mother’s love goes to the rival-doll rather than himself. In the normal course of events in market society, we encounter objects of desire more readily than mediators. Before falling in love with my mediator’s wife, I’m more likely to fall for a coquette whose apparent preference for other men makes me suffer. This “Proustian” case is one that Dupuy, following an essay by Nicholas Grimaldi, analyzes in some detail.
Yet although the jealousy model may well be more productive overall than the triangular model, like the latter it is a structure, a model derived from empirical observation with no claim to an originary relationship to the human. In contrast, the model of resentment familiar to readers of these Chronicles derives directly from the hypothetical originary event. The central focus of desire is the source of all significance in both the broadest, most “symbolic” and the most literal sense, since the significant can only be defined as the quality of what is designated by language. All resentment is generated by exclusion from the center, and resentment of others reflects our sense that someone else is closer to the center and its significance than oneself. More than mere rivalry for a central object of desire, resentment reflects the cultural or human reality of central significance and its extension to objects or persons that come to be associated with it. In the study referred to by Dupuy, the mother’s care, like all acts of love, is a sign of the sacred significance of its object, the source rather than the consequence of the rivalrous significance the baby attributes to the doll that occupies the mother’s attention. Dupuy’s definition of jealousy—un sujet fait face à un monde clos dont la définition et la clôture sont l’effet et la cause de son désir [a subject faces a closed world whose definition and closure are both the effect and the cause of his desire]—is precisely the configuration that defines the resentment of the peripheral participant who reacts violently to any sign of being kept away from the central object. As Dupuy insists, any group that excludes us provokes jealousy or resentment, whether or not its members singly or collectively possess any supplementary Being.
I had planned this Chronicle before reading Dupuy’s essay, prepared to critique Girard’s mimetic triangle on the basis of methodology alone as an empirical structure with no roots in an originary vision of the human. The triangular model can be made compatible with the originary hypothesis only once it is understood primarily in terms of representation rather than behavioral imitation. But reading Dupuy led me to realize that since resentment, which I had called many years ago “the first word of Western culture”—translating the word menin or “rage” that opens the Iliad—is more fundamental than the varieties of “metaphysical” desire described by Girard in Mensonge, the latter should be understood as variants of resentment that reflect the conditions of social interaction in the nascent and industrial phases of bourgeois market society. The general configuration of mimesis that precedes the human is a biological tendency rather than a cultural configuration; in contrast, the mimetic triangle of Mensonge is cultural, determined not by a mimetic “instinct” but by the effect of socially significant scenes of representation, whether they be those of Emma’s romantic novels or the dinner party from which the Underground Man is excluded.
In turn, this insight suggests a more generous reading of the “triangle” of Mensonge. To speak of the triangle merely as a structuralist construction is to ignore the Christian anthropology that underlies it and defines it explicitly as a mode of decadence. Girard’s epigraph from Max Scheler, L’homme possède ou un Dieu ou une idole [man possesses either a God or an idol] makes clear that mediation by our fellow humans, even by the “external” heroes of books and history—Napoleon or Amadis of Gaul—is a fallen version of mediation by God, the Christian form of which is the imitation of Christ. Girard’s thesis is that the novel expresses opposition to the “mediated” values of the market system by demonstrating the necessity (whether in or out of “the world”) of returning to the transcendentally distant mediation of Christianity. We must have a mediator, Girard tells us, and it is up to us to choose the transcendence verticale of Jesus over idolatry of another denizen of this world. Seen in this light, the triangle indeed has an originary source, not in the “emissary murder” of La violence but in a center defined by God as the origin of the human and its representations, the origin designated in John’s “In the beginning was the Word.” In this context the question raised by Dupuy concerning the relative superiority of the triangular and jealousy models may be answered in Girard’s favor. However accurate the jealousy model may be in phenomenological terms, its substitution for the triangular model in the analyses of Mensonge would weaken the moral thrust of the author’s implicit Christian anthropology. In Dupuy’s model of desire, the novelistic sufferer from “metaphysical desire” ultimately follows a correct anthropological intuition in which the excluding unity he resents is a figure of human unity as a whole. Thus his sufferings, even when futile, cannot be condemned as immoral, but are a simple consequence of his humanity—a position that Proust in particular would no doubt have endorsed. In contrast, desire presented not as a reaction to an excluding unity but as the idolatrous imitation of another is both humiliating and arguably immoral on its face. We must distinguish this idolatry from the sins of Don Juan, whose patent superiority to his rivals is characteristic of a dramatic rather than a novelistic hero; in his imperious mode of jealousy, Juan does not idolize his rivals, or even his lovers, but himself as the rival of all potential centers of desire.
The great achievement of Mensonge is less its elaboration of an universal theory of desire than its discovery that nostalgia for transcendent mediation is the deep structure of the modern novel. The novelistic critique of desire that Girard examines is triangular in essence because the interactions of the market system can be reduced to human relations only by personalizing the ad hoc experiential sources of value that distinguish this system from the traditional, ritual-based world. Girard’s triangle and its operations have the advantage over jealousy in explaining the structure of desire in the novel; the triangle expresses—and condemns—the productivity of desire in the bourgeois world in finding new objects for its protagonists.
The dependency of the “metaphysical” model of Mensonge on Christian anthropology is ultimately a reflection of the fact that it was in Christian societies that the market first evolved. Because of its basis in human mediation, Christianity is not wholly assimilable to a system of ritually grounded rules. It is the foundation of its ethic in the imitation of Christ that is precisely what lends itself to creative extension, or seen in a different light, perversion, into mediation by others—and ultimately to the discovery that Girard and then GA would make that the human itself is explicable as the product of the mutual mediation of desire.
In the context of Western history, a path leads from resentment to jealousy to the “triangular” desire of market society and the novel, each successive step involving an extension of the previous one that is always ready to fall back into it. What GA does that other modes of thought do not is to clarify the source of these several modes of desire by tracing this path back to the configuration of the originary event.