In my previous Chronicle, I distinguished GA’s anti-apocalyptic perspective from the apocalyptic one that Girard conserves from the Judeo-Christian tradition. This distinction extends to that between GA as a “way of thinking” and “methods” of any kind. To understand the mimetic structures of a given work of art or political institution in a generative perspective, it does not suffice to denounce them as instruments of hegemony or even to reveal in them a growing rejection of the sacrificial. What allows humanity to survive, and must continue to do so if we are to survive at all, is the generation of ever-expanding possibilities of “deferring violence through representation.” GA‘s ethical imperative is not the revelation of violence or mimetic rivalry within literary texts, but the revelation of the historical contribution of each specific text to this expansion. I have already given a few examples in past columns: Emma Bovary as the archetype of the modern consumer, Hamlet himself as the initiator of a new way of dealing with mimetic rivalry, Proust’s narrator as the model of the self-constructed self. In this week’s column, I would like to make clearer the ethical imperative. Although one cannot in good conscience present a way of thinking that is simply “impractical,” the most rigorous way of thinking can only accomplish practical ends by avoiding the limited forms of closure to which both traditional and modernist rhetorics have habituated us.
Let us then think about the application of “method,” to narrow our focus a bit, to literary texts.
The most easily applicable methods, after the strictly formal-linguistic ones that no longer seem to attract much attention, are structural: they seek and find in texts structures independent of any particular historical context. Theirs is the attraction of “methodology” in general. This does not make them necessarily hostile to historical contextualization in the long term. On the contrary, the use of method is to permit a transhistorical perspective within which historical phenomena can subsequently be situated.
In this context, Girard’s mimetic theory of desire provides the basis for the ultimate or simply the minimal structural method. I speak here of the theory of “metaphysical desire” as developed in Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque (Deceit, Desire, and the Novel) rather than of the fully anthropological theory first presented in La violence et le sacré. The novel, and by extension, any cultural text, overtly presents a set of subject-object relations, the desire of X for Y; it is the reader’s task to seek out the hidden third party or “mediator” in each case. In so doing, one situates the given example of literary mediation within a quasi-historical scheme defined by the proximity of the mediator to the subject. According to the story told by Mensonge, a prenovelistic era of external mediation gives way to the age of internal mediation, of modernity and the novel. The perspective is openly apocalyptic; the internalization of mediation reaches its maximal intensity in Dostoevsky, where it encounters the only force that Girard considers capable of opposing it: that of Christianity.
However simplistic the method suggested by Mensonge, it articulates the passage from structure to history or from synchrony to diachrony far more clearly than popular methodologies of our time such as psychoanalysis or deconstruction; at the same time, it avoids the symmetrical defect of reducing all synchronic structure to binary master-slave relations. Because diachrony always tells the story of a structure that functions in synchrony, the evolution it describes cannot affect the structure itself, merely its “expression.” But the transhistorical reality of this structure is not an artifact of “theory”; it must be guaranteed by an anthropology. This, Girard realized intuitively at the moment of Mensonge, and concretely in La violence. If mimetic desire has transhistorical reality, this cannot be because it is independent of humanity’s historicity, but on the contrary, because it is foundational to it. (Freud’s attempt to make the Oedipus complex the origin of the human in Totem and Taboo reflects his realization of the same truth.) Thus the structure that permits the development of a method is anything but the arbitrary patterning to which structuralists à la Lévi-Strauss referred. On the contrary, to the extent that a structural method has any chance of revealing something about the human-in-general, it must be founded on an originary structure.
How does GA’s approach differ from even a method as originary as Girard’s? The answer is to be sought, in the first place, in the difference between the stories they tell. In Mensonge, the story was the internalization of mimesis. The external status of the mediator in Cervantes gives way to the ironic rivalry of Stendhal, the anxious snobbery of Proust, and finally to the paroxysms of Dostoevsky, whose vision leads through apocalypse to Christian love. The negativity of this movement is not a reason for pessimism; on the contrary, in the apocalyptic vision, the revelation of the idolatry of desire is a necessary opening to transcendental truth. In the Girardian interpretation of Hamlet discussed in Chronicle 141, the element of progressive revelation predominates; Hamlet illustrates the contamination of the pagan world of revenge tragedy by Christian non-violence. But in either case, the story is told against a horizon of closure.
This is not the place to answer the question as to whether non-eschatological narrative is truly possible. But there can be little doubt that method is always eschatological. The genealogical perspective inherited from Nietzsche and systematized by Foucault reveals its deepest methodological possibilities in the binarism of victimary thinking: history until now has been the self-concealing triumph of patriarchy, and by unveiling this triumph we begin to put an end to it. This critical story lacks closure only to the extent that those who tell it must be careful, as faithful disciples of the patriarchs they revile, to dissimulate their own institutional power; thus their own anti-triumph must take place only in small increments, final victory being indefinitely deferred. (The originary anthropology suggested by practitioners of this method is the usurpation of, say, matriarchal power by males. Feminism in particular and victimary thinking in general would be more challenging if they openly hypothesized this usurpation to be the origin of the human, but such a hypothesis would have unfortunate ideological consequences.) Girard’s apocalyptism is not more “closed,” merely more honest than that of victimary thinking: in both cases, anthropological truth is a “thing hidden since the creation of the world,” but what Girard understands as hidden and revealed is precisely the demonization of the Other that the very concept of patriarchy illustrates.
As I tried to bring out in last week’s Chronicle, Hamlet, and by extension of all cultural works, should be read in a perspective of openness rather than closure. This does not mean to promote the “open work” in the spirit of utopian modernism, but to understand cultural works, however they may fight against their closure, in terms of the openness they permit or empower. Hamlet is closed by death, but the cultural contribution of this greatest literary achievement of the Renaissance is precisely to have modernized the vengeful pre-modern genre of tragedy by transforming it into a model of “delay,” which is to say, of deferral. The empowering role of the model is more important than the work’s formal closure, which, like all ritual forms, is “always already” in the process of dissolving. Not that the tragic (or comic) end of the story is epiphenomenal. The model transcends esthetic closure only because this closure guarantees the meaning of the model of relationship to the world that the work presents. We may defer “forever,” but deferral is in the first place not a global but a local phenomenon. We imitate Hamlet not in his death but in his protoromantic attitude, just as we imitate Emma Bovary not in her suicide but in her consumerism.
No doubt the level of detail to which we can carry out the imitation is itself historically determined; it is what we know best of history. Classical tragedy did not permit imitation of its heroes. But the cautionary example of Oedipus is no less a variety of mimesis than the more seductive one of Hamlet. The tragic counterexample that no Greek would have dared choose as his model was not for that reason discredited; on the contrary, the sacralization of its violence as an object of deferral is an incentive to create the means for its worldly realization. Freud’s greatness was to have made the crimes of Oedipus accessible to the average bourgeois. History is nothing but the devolution of the sacred into the profane, and Christianity realizes the most significant step in this process: the assimilation of human praxis to the divine.
To be attentive to those elements of literary narrative that lead beyond the closure of the narrative itself is an existential reformulation of the cliche about works whose immortality transcends their historical situation. What gives it added power is its ethical focus. Great works give us additional means to acquire meaning. But because these means are won in the face of the denial, by the formal structure of the work, that they can be imitated at all, they lead to the erosion of the form that expresses this denial. The esthetic mediates between the sacred and the profane; by representing what we cannot do, it incites us to realize its representations.
To give another example, the lyric of Sappho reveals the power of sexual desire over the “masculine” world that seems to exclude it. In the lyric sphere, individually experienced desire becomes the source of meaning. It is easy to see lyric as a source of cultural empowerment; in fact, it is too easy. Lyric proposes to canonize sexual spontaneity, but as La Rochefoucauld pointed out, there would be few lovers if we hadn’t already heard about love. In glorifying sexual desire as a natural phenomenon, lyric demonstrates its meaningfulness as a human phenomenon. To make this point, it expresses “natural” desire in “cultural” terms–the familiar Derridean supplément. Yet denunciation of cultural self-blindness is not a sufficient analysis. Lyric does not simply appeal to immediacy in the mode of mediation. It negotiates a path between “naive” desire and the artifice of its assumption as a simple cultural role–a path on which we are still treading. For we have all heard of love, and we all engage in loving. Each figure of lyric poetry that translates our individual desire into the sphere of meaning provides a means to defer the potential violence of rivalry over our common desire.
Girard points out this ineluctable commonness; for him, difference is but a necessary illusion. Derrida finds behind difference not the commonness of rivalry but the always-decaying myth of central authority. In asserting its significance as prior to its assertion, the figure disguises its imperative point as a constative. But in the most comprehensive view, the figure is the addition of a new word to our cultural vocabulary, a new means–as measured on the historical scale of novelty–to perform the ever-renewed cultural task of deferring violence through representation. We can neither abolish difference in an apocalypse of sameness nor seek to ensure its perpetuation by separating its process from that of the ethical.
Human culture is neither a conspiracy of all against a few nor a conspiracy of a few against all. Through culture we tirelessly operate to keep ourselves alive, even if it be by denouncing it, or denying it more than a fragmentary existence. But the truth of culture cannot be formulated in such a way as to avoid the originary paradox that its revelation as truth is inseparable from its falsification. The things hidden since the foundation of the world can never truly be revealed; to think them is already to enter the forbidden sphere wherein their potency is denied. To practice “method” is to seek to maintain structure against the erosion of history. The only guarantee we can offer of an originary hypothesis of the human is that it cannot become the basis of a method, however conscientiously and sincerely we “apply” it. Its value is, on the contrary, that it allows and forces us to think each historical moment in its revelatory uniqueness. Only such thinking can liberate the true humility of democracy from the victimary snobbery of modernism.