Friday, 30 December 2011

Girardian Rivalry

[I should be writing a final paper (mimesis in The Two Gentlemen of Verona) right now; the longer I put it off, the more I'll suffer for it. In a move that may seem counterintuitive, I am going to write a blogpost instead. I intend to write on an idea that I will be employing in my paper, which will with any luck bring my brain gently back on topic and help me get something done on this paper...]

René Girard is reasonably well known for his idea of mimetic desire, which states that we all want things because we have learned to want them from someone else. The traditional example for this is romantic or erotic love: A loves B because C loves B. This does not only produce particular relations between A and B; it also produces particular relations between A and C. That is, I have unique relationships with people whose desires I imitate, and with people who imitate my desires.

In Theatre of Envy, on the operation of mimetic desire in Shakespeare's plays (Girard claims that Shakespeare is exceptional because he's one of the few playwrights to understand that desire is mimetic and is therefore one of the few to portray it realistically), Girard spends the introduction and the first chapter discussing this dynamic: "Individuals who desire the same thing are united by something so powerful that, as long as they can share whatever they desire, they remain the best of friends; as soon as they cannot, they become the worst of enemies." Thus mimetic desire becomes mimetic rivalry. But it is not only that we inevitably wind up desiring the same things as our friends, or are friends with those whose desires we imitate: we are active agents in sharing desires. We want our friends to desire the same things that we do. Speaking of the eponymous friends in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Proteus and Valentine, Girard writes: "Whenever they do not see eye to eye, our two friends feel that something is wrong; each one tries to persuade the other that he should reorient his desire in such a way as to make it coincide with his own once again. Friendship is the perpetual coincidence of two desires." The consequence of this effect is as inevitable as the effect itself. On top of friendship's first imperative (Girard sums it up as "imitate me") arises a second imperative, "do not imitate me." He calls this the "double bind" of friendship.

The idea of mimetic desire (and mimetic rivalry) is one we vigourously want to reject, says Girard. As a result, it is masked by assorted claims and ideas and discourses. It very rarely appears in our culture, and when it does it is always disguised. But it cannot be so easily gotten rid of. Short of embracing our mimetic desires and rivalries, we have two options: "total renunciation" of desire, or the production of some kind of monster or perversion. These monsters or perversion have the characteristic of producing new mimetic rivalries later on, or simply recycling the old one in some disguised way.

Girard of course goes on. He talks about learning to desire oneself from a besotted courter (Pheobe and Silvius from As You Like It is his example, and I will parenthetically add that his chapter is the best explanation for the title of that play that I've ever read); he talks about the role of the pander; he talks about alliances forged out of conflicts when the desired object is lost to both parties. But I will rest with this description of his idea for now.


When discussing my paper with the professor, she said, "Be careful with Girard. He has a tendency to take over everything." I don't imagine she's wrong. Reading Theatre of Envy, I started seeing mimetic desire and mimetic rivalry everywhere. I know other people have made much of the idea. Eve Sedgwick's Between Men, one of the most interesting pieces of literary theory that I have never read, is a good example. Dr. Richard Beck from Experimental Theology has also used Girard's ideas (like this post). It also does a wonderful job of explaining how Betty and Veronica remain friends, and how they band together when defending their stakes in Archie against outsiders like Cheryl Blossom (you can see how I spent my childhood). The applications abound.

One of things I like about it is that Girard deliberately sets this up as a competitor to Freud's ideas. This is why I also like Lacan. It is not that I necessarily like the consequences of these any more than I like the consequences of Freudian incest and repression. Rather, I see how Freud's ideas can monopolize discourses and can form an ideological juggernaut which is hard to defeat. Freudian psychoanalysis has the tendency to be able to explain away any objection by describing any counterexample as a transformation of a repressed desire. Girard's ideas (like Lacan's) are nice because they provide competitors with the same insiduous powers of explaining-away. Any one alone is pretty scary, but competing with each other they become managable.

But, as I think you'll have noticed by now, I'm not too worried about this mimetic desire. I have read Theatre of Envy and I have found that it cannot take over everything after all. I see gaps in it. Friendship, for instance, is built out of differences as well as similarities. I generally want my friends to be pursuing different goals than I am, actually; I like being able to watch them do things I don't understand. And quarreling over trivial differences of opinion can be rather fun; one of the major let-downs of Lewis' heaven in The Last Battle is that everyone agreed (an ideal utopia for me would be a place where people could quarrel without taking it personally--I, at least, usually take it personally, and so can never really enjoy it as much as I'd like). And I have difficulty imagining who I am imitating in a number of my desires. I can't think, for instance, of anyone else who likes to eat limes; at the very least, I was eating limes before I met anyone else who did. A prerequisite for mimesis is that there must be an original, even if it is lost. That originary desire could not have been mimetic.

What I like, then, about Girardian mimesis is that it is helpful in understanding some things, and it breaks the hegemonic hold of Freudian psychoanalysis (for instance, by offering another way of explaining Oedipal complexes without making them universal) and certain strains of evolutionary psychology (rather than needing to explain how a particular behaviour--the desire for pale skin, say--emerged in early hominids, you could explain how it arose as a consequence of mimetic forces in this context, and therefore avoid universalizing a contextual trait). I do not think it accurately explains the whole picture, but it helps contribute to a set of alternative explanations which, I think, does a better job of describing the complexity of human psychology and sociology.
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