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The Prophet of Envy

Violence and the Sacred

by René Girard, translated from the French by Patrick Gregory
Johns Hopkins University Press (1977)
Basso Cannarsa/Opale/Leemage/Bridgeman Images
René Girard, 2000

René Girard (1923–2015) was one of the last of that race of Titans who dominated the human sciences in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with their grand, synthetic theories about history, society, psychology, and aesthetics. That race has since given way to a more cautious breed of “researchers” who prefer to look at things up close, to see their fine grain rather than their larger patterns. Yet the times certainly seem to attest to the enduring relevance of Girard’s thought to our social and political realities. Not only are his ideas about mimetic desire and human violence as far-reaching as Marx’s theories of political economy or Freud’s claims about the Oedipus complex, but the explosion of social media, the resurgence of populism, and the increasing virulence of reciprocal violence all suggest that the contemporary world is becoming more and more recognizably “Girardian” in its behavior.

In Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, Cynthia Haven—a literary journalist and the author of books on Joseph Brodsky and Czesław Miłosz—offers a lively, well-documented, highly readable account of how Girard built up his grand “mimetic theory,” as it’s sometimes called, over time. Her decision to introduce his thought to a broader public by way of an intellectual biography was a good one. Girard was not a man of action—the most important events of his life took place inside his head—so for the most part she follows the winding path of his academic career, from its beginnings in France, where he studied medieval history at the École des Chartes, to his migration to the United States in 1947, to the various American universities at which he taught over the years: Indiana, Duke, Bryn Mawr, Johns Hopkins, SUNY Buffalo, and finally Stanford, where he retired in 1997.

Girard began and ended his career as a professor of French and comparative literature. That was as it should have been. Although he was never formally trained in literary studies (he received a Ph.D. in history from Indiana University in 1950), he effectively built his theory of mimetic desire, in all its expansive anthropological aspects, on literary foundations. Somewhat like Heinrich Schliemann, who discovered the site of ancient Troy by assuming that the Homeric epics contained a substrate of historical truth, Girard approached literary works as coffers containing the most fundamental truths about human desire, conflict, and self-deception.

His first book, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, published in French in 1961 when he was a professor at Johns Hopkins, treated the novels of Cervantes, Stendhal, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, and Proust as forensic evidence of the essential structures of desire, not just of literary characters but of those who find themselves reflected in them. The prevailing modern belief that my desires are my own, that they arise from my autonomous inner self, is a “Romantic” falsehood that the novelistic tradition, according to Girard, exposes as a delusion (I’m echoing here the French title of the book: Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque, literally “Romantic falsehood and novelistic truth”). Instead, he argues, my desires are mimetic: I want what others seem to want. Whether I am conscious of it or not (mostly not), I imitate their desires to such a degree that the object itself becomes secondary, and in some cases superfluous, to the rivalries that form around it.

Girard postulated that between a desiring subject and its object there is usually a “model” or “mediator,” who can be either “external” or “internal.” External mediators exist outside of my time and place, like Amadís de Gaule’s chivalric heroes, who impel Don Quixote’s desire to become a knight-errant; or Lancelot and Guinevere, whose adulterous kiss is imitated by Paolo and Francesca in Dante’s account in canto 5 of the Inferno; or the celebrities whom advertisers enlist to sell us products. The external mediator often figures as a hero or ego ideal, and there is typically no rivalry involved.

With internal mediators, however, we are in the realm of what Girard calls “interdividuals,” or people who interact with one another in the same social world. The internal mediator is my neighbor, so to speak, and is often a rival who arouses hatred or envy, or both at once. In the novels Girard dealt with, internal mediation often involves “triangulated desire” between three characters, two of whom vie for the other: Mathilde and Mme de Fervacques vying for Julien in Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, for instance, or Julien and Valenod vying for Mme de Rênal. Even when a character views the mediator as an enemy, the former often secretly envies and idolizes the latter, as in the case of Proust’s Mme Verdurin, who loathed the Guermantes family until she married into it.

A crucial concept in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel is that of “metaphysical desire,” a somewhat misleading term for a common sentiment. We tend to attribute to the mediator a “fullness of being” that he or she does not in fact enjoy. For Girard there is no such thing as fullness of being among mortals. All of us—including the rich, the famous, the powerful, and the glamorous—have our mimetic models and suffer from a deficiency of being. That deficiency nourishes our desires, physical or metaphysical.

The English translation of Deceit, Desire, and the Novel came out in 1965, two years before V.S. Naipaul published The Mimic Men, which seems like a ringing endorsement of Girard’s claims about deficiency. (I don’t know if he ever read Girard.) In the novel Naipaul probes the psychology of elite ex-colonial “mimic men” who, after decolonization, model their desires on their former British masters. The mimic man will never enjoy the “fullness of being” he ascribes to his model, who, in Girard’s words, “shows the disciple the gate of paradise and forbids him to enter with one and the same gesture.” Naipaul’s narrator, Ralph Singh, knows this, yet such knowledge does not alleviate his unhappy consciousness. “We become what we see of ourselves in the eyes of others,” he declares. Girard would most likely deny Singh his one consolation, namely his belief that he is different from, and superior to, the mimic men who lack his own heightened self-awareness.

Girard might go even further and ask whether Naipaul’s mimic men in fact imitate one another more than the British models they share. The whole business gets altogether murkier—and more Girardian—when one considers that Naipaul himself was the perfect expression of the mimic man he defined and despised. The writer’s bearing, speech, racism, and invectives betray an ex-colonial subject mimicking the habits of his masters and the class to which he desperately wanted to belong. In this Naipaul falls well short of the novelists Girard dealt with in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, all of whom, Girard claims, ended up forswearing the mimetic mechanisms they so insightfully depicted in their work.

The common currency of mimetic desire is envy. Envy is a form of hostile worship. It turns admiration into resentment. Dante considered it radix malorum, the root of all evil, and Girard agreed. He claimed that envy is the one taboo that is alive and well in contemporary society—the vice that few will ever talk about or confess to:

Our supposedly insatiable appetite for the forbidden stops short of envy. Primitive cultures fear and repress envy so much that they have no word for it; we hardly use the one we have, and this fact must be significant. We no longer prohibit many actions that generate envy, but silently ostracize whatever can remind us of its presence in our midst. Psychic phenomena, we are told, are important in proportion to the resistance they generate toward revelation. If we apply this yardstick to envy as well as to what psychoanalysis designates as repressed, which of the two will make the more plausible candidate for the role of best-defended secret?

These sentences come from the introduction to the only book that Girard wrote in English, A Theater of Envy: William Shakespeare (1991), which is full of insights into the envy and imitative behavior of Shakespeare’s characters. Proceeding as incautiously as Schliemann did in his excavations, Girard bores through Shakespeare’s corpus to arrive at the substrate of mediated desire that he believed lies at its foundation. Girard plays by none of the rules of the tradition of commentary on Shakespeare, so it is not surprising that the book remains largely neglected, yet one day A Theater of Envy will likely be acknowledged as one of the most original, illuminating books on Shakespeare of its time, despite its speculative recklessness and relative ignorance of the vast body of secondary literature on Shakespeare’s works.

Speaking of “a theater of envy,” in Evolution and Conversion (in French, Les origines de la culture, 2004; the English translation was recently republished by Bloomsbury)—his conversations with Pierpaolo Antonello and João Cezar de Castro Rocha, which took place a couple of years before Facebook launched its website in 2004—Girard made some remarks that seem particularly resonant today:

In the affluent West, we live in a world where there is less and less need therefore and more and more desire…. One has today real possibilities of true autonomy, of individual judgments. However, those possibilities are more commonly sold down the river in favour of false individuality, of negative mimesis…. The only way modernity can be defined is the universalization of internal mediation, for one doesn’t have areas of life that would keep people apart from each other, and that would mean that the construction of our beliefs and identity cannot but have strong mimetic components.

Since then social media has brought “the universalization of internal mediation” to a new level, while at the same time dramatically narrowing the “areas of life that would keep people apart from each other.”

Social media is the miasma of mimetic desire. If you post pictures of your summer vacation in Greece, you can expect your “friends” to post pictures from some other desirable destination. The photos of your dinner party will be matched or outmatched by theirs. If you assure me through social media that you love your life, I will find a way to profess how much I love mine. When I post my pleasures, activities, and family news on a Facebook page, I am seeking to arouse my mediators’ desires. In that sense social media provides a hyperbolic platform for the promiscuous circulation of mediator-oriented desire. As it burrows into every aspect of everyday life, Facebook insinuates itself precisely into those areas of life that would keep people apart.

Certainly the enormous market potential of Facebook was not lost on Girard’s student Peter Thiel, the venture capitalist who studied with him at Stanford in the late 1980s and early 1990s. A devoted Girardian who founded and funds an institute called Imitatio, whose goal is to “pursue research and application of mimetic theory across the social sciences and critical areas of human behavior,” Thiel was the first outside investor in Facebook, selling most of his shares in 2012 for over a billion dollars (they cost him $500,000 in 2004). It took a highly intelligent Girardian, well schooled in mimetic theory, to intuit early on that Facebook was about to open a worldwide theater of imitative desire on people’s personal computers.

In 1972, eleven years after Deceit, Desire, and the Novel appeared, Girard published Violence and the Sacred. It came as a shock to those familiar with his previous work. Here the literary critic assumed the mantle of cultural anthropologist, moving from the triangular desire of fictional bourgeois characters to the group behavior of primitive societies. Having immersed himself during the intervening decade in the work of Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, Bronisław Malinowski, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Émile Durkheim, Gabriel Tarde, and Walter Burkert, Girard offered in Violence and the Sacred nothing less than an anthropogenic theory of mimetic violence.

I will not attempt to describe the theory in all its speculative complexity. Suffice it to say that the only thing more contagious than desire is violence. Girard postulates that, prior to the establishment of laws, prohibitions, and taboos, prehistoric societies would periodically succumb to “mimetic crises.” Usually brought on by a destabilizing event—be it drought, pestilence, or some other adversity—mimetic crises amount to mass panics in which communities become unnerved, impassioned, and crazed, as people imitate one another’s violence and hysteria rather than responding directly to the event itself. Distinctions disappear, members of the group become identical to one another in their vehemence, and a mob psychology takes over. In such moments the community’s very survival is threated by internecine strife and a Hobbesian war of all against all.

Girard interpreted archaic rituals, sacrifices, and myth as the symbolic traces or aftermath of prehistoric traumas brought on by mimetic crises. Those societies that saved themselves from self-immolation did so through what he called the scapegoat mechanism. Scapegoating begins with accusation and ends in collective murder. Singling out a random individual or subgroup of individuals as being responsible for the crisis, the community turns against the “guilty” victim (guilty in the eyes of the persecutors, that is, since according to Girard the victim is in fact innocent and chosen quite at random, although is frequently slightly different or distinct in some regard). A unanimous act of violence against the scapegoat miraculously restores peace and social cohesion (unum pro multis, “one for the sake of many,” as the Roman saying puts it).

The scapegoat’s murder has such healing power over the community that the victim retroactively assumes an aura of sacredness, and is sometimes even deified. Behind the practice of sacrifice in ancient societies Girard saw the spasmodic, scapegoat-directed violence of communities in the throes of mimetic crises—a primal murder, as it were, for which there exists no hard evidence but plenty of indirect evidence in ancient sacrificial practices, which he viewed as ritualized reenactments of the scapegoat mechanism that everywhere founded the archaic religions of humanity. (“Every observation suggests that, in human culture, sacrificial rites and the immolation of victims come first.”)

Violence and the Sacred deals almost exclusively with archaic religion. Its argument is more hypothetical and abstract, more remote and less intuitive, than what Girard put forward in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel. The same can be said for the main claims of his next major book, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978; the title comes from Matthew 13:35). There he argued that the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Gospels expose the “scandal” of the violent foundations of archaic religions. By revealing the inherent innocence of the victim—Jesus—as well as the inherent guilt of those who persecute and put him to death, “Christianity truly demystifies religion because it points out the error on which archaic religion is based.”*

Girard’s anthropological interpretation of Christianity in Things Hidden is as original as it is unorthodox. It views the Crucifixion as a revelation in the profane sense, namely a bringing to light of the arbitrary nature of the scapegoat mechanism that underlies sacrificial religions. After publishing Things Hidden, Girard gained a devoted following among various Christian scholars, some of whom lobbied him hard to open his theory to a more traditional theological interpretation of the Cross as the crux of man’s deliverance from sin. Girard eventually (and somewhat reluctantly) made room for a redemptive understanding of the Crucifixion, yet in principle his theory posits only its revelatory, demystifying, and scandalous aspect.

Orthodox Girardians insist that his corpusfrom Deceit, Desire, and the Novel to his last worksforms a coherent, integrated system that must be accepted or rejected as a whole. In my view, that is far from the case. One need not buy into the entire système Girard to recognize that his most fundamental insights can stand on their own.

Some of Girard’s most acute ideas come from his psychology of accusation. He championed legal systems that protect the rights of the accused because he believed that impassioned accusation, especially when it gains momentum by wrapping itself in the mantle of indignation, has a potential for mimetic diffusion that disregards any considered distinction between guilt and innocence. The word “Satan” in Hebrew means “adversary” or “accuser,” and Girard insisted in his later work that there is a distinctly satanic element at work in the zeal for accusation and prosecution.

Girard’s most valuable insight is that rivalry and violence arise from sameness rather than difference. Where conflicts erupt between neighbors or ethnic groups, or even among nations, more often than not it’s because of what they have in common rather than what distinguishes them. In Girard’s words: “The error is always to reason within categories of ‘difference’ when the root of all conflicts is rather ‘competition,’ mimetic rivalry between persons, countries, cultures.” Often we fight or go to war to prove our difference from an enemy who in fact resembles us in ways we are all too eager to deny.

A related insight of equal importance concerns the deadly cycles of revenge and reciprocal violence. Girard taught that retaliation hardly ever limits itself to “an eye for an eye” but almost always escalates the level of violence. Every escalation is imitated in turn by the other party:

Clausewitz sees very clearly that modern wars are as violent as they are only because they are “reciprocal”: mobilization involves more and more people until it is “total,” as Ernst Junger wrote of the 1914 war…. It was because he was “responding” to the humiliations inflicted by the Treaty of Versailles and the occupation of the Rhineland that Hitler was able to mobilize a whole people. Likewise, it was because he was “responding” to the German invasion that Stalin achieved a decisive victory over Hitler. It was because he was “responding” to the United States that Bin Laden planned 9/11…. The one who believes he can control violence by setting up defenses is in fact controlled by violence.

Those remarks come from the last book Girard wrote, Battling to the End (2010). It is in many ways one of his most interesting, for here he leaves behind speculations about archaic origins and turns his attention to modern history. The book’s conversations with Benoît Chantre, an eminent French Girardian, feature a major discussion of the war theorist Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831), whose ideas about the “escalation to extremes” in modern warfare converge uncannily with Girard’s ideas about the acceleration of mimetic violence.

Toward the end of his life, Girard did not harbor much hope for history in the short term. In the past, politics was able to restrain mass violence and prevent its tendency to escalate to extremes, but in our time, he believed, politics had lost its power of containment. “Violence is a terrible adversary,” he wrote in Battling to the End, “especially since it always wins.” Yet it is necessary to battle violence with a new “heroic attitude,” for “it alone can link violence and reconciliation…[and] make tangible both the possibility of the end of the world and reconciliation among all members of humanity.” To that statement he felt compelled to add: “More than ever, I am convinced that history has meaning, and that its meaning is terrifying.” That meaning has to do with the primacy of violence in human relations. And to that statement, in turn, he added some verses of Friedrich Hölderlin: “But where danger threatens/that which saves from it also grows.”

  1. *

    Girard goes so far as to argue that “Christianity is not only one of the destroyed religions but it is the destroyer of all religions. The death of God is a Christian phenomenon. In its modern sense, atheism is a Christian invention.” The Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo was very drawn to Girard’s understanding of Christianity as a secularizing religion, and the two collaborated on a fine book on the topic, Christianity, Truth, and Weakening Faith: A Dialogue (Columbia University Press, 2010).