Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque, translated under the mindlessly alliterative title Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, appeared in 1961. It was René Girard’s first book, and I would be very surprised if it were not still his most popular and influential. Although La violence et le sacré (1972) and Des choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde (1978) contain the core of Girard’s anthropological theory, the very fact that he later came to call his thought “mimetic theory” rather than referring to the terminology of the (Colloquium on) Violence and Religion testifies to the centrality of Mensonge to Girard’s intellectual career.
Mensonge speaks to the reader as do few works of literary criticism. I think it appropriate to commemorate its author’s memory by attempting to explain the urgency of this book, which, more than a study of the novel or the elaboration of a theory of desire, is a work of spiritual instruction, a conversion manual whose intended sacred outcome justifies its “diabolical” hold on its reader.
Girard uncompromisingly equates the literary greatness of his five novelists with their spiritual greatness: having learned the Satanic nature of mimetic desire, they show us the way to salvation, the first ones only negatively, through withdrawal from the world or death, but in the end (skirting Proust’s esthetic solution), through an act of faith.
Desire, as opposed to appetite, is a cultural relation, which is to say that it is mediated by the signs of culture. What makes Mensonge a source of anxiety is that rather than expressing this general truth about the cultural sign-system, Girard insists that in the novels he analyzes, and by extension in our own lives, our desires are dictated to us by a “mediator,” a figure whose existence the romantic denies, whereas the novelistic [romanesque] convert, only after having admitted his mediator’s idolatrous presence, has been able to free himself from him. As the book’s epigraph tells us, we all possess either a God or an idol.
As we read of the mimetic nature of the desires of Julien or Emma, we cannot help thinking of our own, a tendency that the author is happy to encourage. The “triangular” analyses of Mensonge do more than illustrate a theory. Profiting from the contagion of desire that is what allowed us to enjoy the novels in the first place, they remind us that the very passages we found most delightful, such as the romantic conflict between Julien and Mathilde that is the emotional center of Le rouge et le noir, are those that best illustrate the danger posed to us by mimetic desire’s Satanic nature. Girard presents the novel and by extension art in general as a means to seduce us into experiencing mimetic desire in a scenic context controlled by the author, leading to an ultimate disillusion that should incite us to renounce our earthly mediator for the divine.
Read in a positive fashion, Mensonge is a guide to spiritual liberation. But at the same time, it risks being read in precisely the opposite sense. Because he speaks to the reader, Girard forces us to accept his premises and turns our resistance into proof of their validity. Thus the book often arouses violent reactions in those who, drawn in unawares, find themselves ensnared in its triangles of desire. If Girard had spoken of the mimetic merely as an element of culture in general, we would not resist him; but he forces us to either accept or reject the reality of a specific human being as mediator: either Jesus, or that fellow next door. And the fact that this suspicion is the most humiliating of all only lends credibility to the theory; if nothing makes me squirm like the thought that the entire course of my life has been dictated by my idolatry of Jean-Luc or Jean-Claude, doesn’t that prove that it has?
The reader, in short, cannot help being mediated by Girard himself, for whom it suffices to propose the protagonists of his novels as models for us to find their example inescapable, and our own sins impossible to deny. To the extent that it bears comparison with Freud’s, Girard’s theory of desire is much harder to escape. Freud’s family romance is restricted to a few predictable individuals, and one soon learns that instead of fighting the assertion that one is a victim of the Oedipus complex, it is simpler merely for a man to accept abstractly that he loves his mother and hates his father as a universal constant, in a certain theoretical universe at least, of the human condition. Girard’s “mediator,” in contrast, is a truly uncanny figure, present everywhere and nowhere. He is always embodied in a person, but in our modern inferno of “internal mediation,” our only way of telling which person is that he is someone whose mediating role we cannot help but deny. Because he/she does not possess the generic quality of a mother or father, whatever his prestige, we are embarrassed to identify him: no one can “deserve” to occupy the position of the sacred center. While others may take my reluctance to name my mediator as proof that I am ashamed to admit his existence, I will feel yet more anxiety if I truly have no one in mind than if I am merely denying someone’s existence. In the latter case, at least, I can claim to be on the way to salvation by having secretly confessed that my desires are not spontaneous, whereas if I can name no mediator even to myself, remaining certain nonetheless of his existence, I find myself in a situation of dereliction, unable even to begin the process of conversion that the great novelists have bequeathed to me.
To read Mensonge insightfully is to understand not only why Girard never elaborated his own theory of the “symbolic” sign and its origin, but why he denied throughout his life the value of any such theory. In this, Girard was in a strange sense the “double” of an analytic philosopher who considers language as a tool for logical thought but of no philosophical interest in itself—an attitude that defines what in other contexts I have called metaphysics. Girard surely held no brief for metaphysics, which in Mensonge he associates with mimetic or metaphysical desire. But his person-centered theology, which takes the identity of God and the Word—but the logos that is God is also the sentence/proposition, and language itself—as the only theory of language it needs, is in essence a one-step transformation of metaphysics. Neither Girard nor the metaphysician can accept the provenance of the declarative proposition from more elementary forms that are themselves inseparable from the mechanism of the sacred as means for deferring mimetic conflict. Both conceive meaning to be embodied in unequivocal truths such as the cat is on the mat and Quixote’s desires are mediated by Amadis, truths independent of language itself; for the one, empirical “facts” to be strung together by logic, for the other, relations of mimetic desire expressed in language without being of language.
Despite their enduring popularity, none of Girard’s later works, which range widely from scapegoating and biblical interpretation to the works of Shakespeare, with a final dark reflection on Clausewitz’s anticipation of the twentieth-century idea of total war as a warning for the West, are comparable to Mensonge in engaging the reader in a process of individual salvation. On the contrary, to the extent that we find these later writings compelling, it is in the context of an apocalyptic interpretation of Christianity that Girard, far from proposing it as a source of spiritual security, uses to warn us Cassandra-like that by revealing through Jesus the mimetic basis of sacrifice, God deprived us of his protection and left us on our own to defer humanity’s foundational violence.
I think this is the key point. Mensonge’s novelistic salvation history has a happy ending. Just as mimetic desire becomes more intense and “Satanic” from the beginning to the end of each novel, so the genre evolves quasi-chronologically from Cervantes’ externally mediated hero to Dostoevsky’s “underground” victims of internal mediation. Things get worse—but only to get better. It is darkest just before the dawn. First, the salvation theme that had been limited to the deathbed in Cervantes and Flaubert and death row in Stendhal becomes the very purpose of the protagonist’s life in Proust. But Proust’s circular narrative of the writer’s apprenticeship is still for Girard an esthetic diversion from the conversion theme in its ultimate form.
By ending his series of novelists with Dostoevsky, Girard sidesteps Proust’s modernist solution. “Modernity” in Mensonge is rather a descent into the apocalypse of The Possessed or The Eternal Husband, where characters are overtly obsessed with those who guide them in their anxiety-ridden and always frustrated search for Being. The solution in Dostoevsky is not to become an artist, but to follow the sainted Alyosha of The Brothers Karamazov in choosing Christ, the divine mediator.
We need not quarrel with Girard’s explanation that he ended the book on Dostoevsky because Russia went more quickly than Western Europe from a feudal to a quasi-modern society and its pathologies of desire were consequently more severe. But I think the more profound explanation is that, in response to this deeper despair, Dostoevsky portrayed a salvation not merely esthetic but religious. To end Mensonge with Bouvard and Pécuchet copying or Marcel beginning his novel would not have provided the reader and potential convert with a spiritual lesson of comparable power to that of Alyosha’s words to his young comrades:
“Karamazov,” cried Kolya, “is it true what religion tells us, that we will resuscitate from the dead, that we will see each other again, all of us, and Ilyusha?”
“Yes, it’s true, we will resuscitate, we will see each other again, we will tell each other joyously what has happened…”
[quoted by Girard as the closing paragraph of Mensonge; my translation]
We will tell each other joyously what has happened—we will write the novel of our own salvation! The apocalyptic conversion narrative in Mensonge fills the reader with anxiety only to dispel it in extremis. Like all religious parables, it offers the prospective penitent a joyous image of heavenly transcendence, whereas Girard’s later works address not individuals but collectivities and offer only warnings of impending doom.
La violence and Des choses cachées are Girard’s primary theoretical works; without them, “mimetic theory,” not to speak of GA, would never have seen the light of day. But one may well wonder if the world would have paid Girard’s theories so much attention had they not been preceded by this enthralling, infuriating, salvific coup de genie.