Rene Girard's Mimetic Theory

Rene Girard's Mimetic Theory

by Wolfgang Palaver


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A systematic introduction into the mimetic theory of the French-American literary theorist and philosophical anthropologist René Girard, this essential text explains its three main pillars (mimetic desire, the scapegoat mechanism, and the Biblical “difference”) with the help of examples from literature and philosophy. This book also offers an overview of René Girard’s life and work, showing how much mimetic theory results from existential and spiritual insights into one’s own mimetic entanglements. Furthermore it examines the broader implications of Girard’s theories, from the mimetic aspect of sovereignty and wars to the relationship between the scapegoat mechanism and the question of capital punishment. Mimetic theory is placed within the context of current cultural and political debates like the relationship between religion and modernity, terrorism, the death penalty, and gender issues. Drawing textual examples from European literature (Cervantes, Shakespeare, Goethe, Kleist, Stendhal, Storm, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Proust) and philosophy (Plato, Camus, Sartre, Lévi-Strauss, Derrida, Vattimo), Palaver uses mimetic theory to explore the themes they present. A highly accessible book, this text is complemented by bibliographical references to Girard’s widespread work and secondary literature on mimetic theory and its applications, comprising a valuable bibliographical archive that provides the reader with an overview of the development and discussion of mimetic theory until the present day.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781611860771
Publisher: Michigan State University Press
Publication date: 01/01/2013
Series: Studies in Violence, Mimesis and Culture Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 424
Sales rank: 486,313
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Wolfgang Palaver is Professor of Catholic Social Thought and Chair of the Institute for Systematic Theology at the University of Innsbruck. He is a member of the advisory board of Imitatio, a nonprofit organization dedicated to René Girard’s mimetic theory.

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René Girard's Mimetic Theory

By Wolfgang Palaver

Michigan State University Press

Copyright © 2013 Michigan State University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61186-077-1

Chapter One

Life and Work of René Girard

Girard is a phenomenon. Many in the world see him as one of the greatest thinkers of our time—of the stature of a Freud or Marx, with, what's more, truth. —Jean-Pierre Dupuy, "Le Christ et le Chaos: Entretiens avec René Girard"

René Girard refers time and again in his analysis of literature to the correspondence between the lives of authors and their work. From the perspective of the mimetic theory, the existential connections between biography and work are not to be overlooked. In his first book, Deceit, Desire and the Novel, Girard bases his central thesis on the observation that Cervantes, Flaubert, Stendhal, Proust, and Dostoyevsky arrived at their insights into human nature by going through a personal conversion themselves. Only after seeing through their own romantic search for autonomy and authenticity were these authors able to perceive the truth about human life. In the case of Proust and Dostoyevsky, Girard underlines the connections between biography and work most distinctly, as can be seen in the introduction to a collection of essays on Proust (Mimesis and Theory), as well as in his book on Dostoyevsky, Resurrection from the Underground. As he traces Dostoyevsky's descent into hell through the psychology and metaphysics of the underground to resurrection, he describes not only the personal path of the Russian novelist, but also the development of his novelistic creation. Distinct parallels can be seen here to Dante's Divine Comedy. According to Girard, Dante's trilogy already contains—similar to Augustine's Confessions—the literary structure of conversion that likewise characterizes the works of the great modern novelists. This same insight regarding the connection between biography and work can be found in Girard's essay on Camus, "Camus's Stranger Retried." The Fall, Girard stresses, must be understood as Camus's attempt at self-criticism.

Girard is of course aware that his emphasis on the connection between the life and work of these authors makes him vulnerable to being accused of naive biographism. For this reason, he frequently points out that he posits no direct identification of the authors with their literary figures, but rather that he is merely interested in their insight into the "existential" or "spiritual" form of autobiography that reveals a deeper connection between author and literary work, one that transcends any merely superficial correlations between the two.

In his book on Shakespeare, A Theater of Envy, Girard addresses the relationship of biography and literary creation most extensively. In no way, especially in this case, does Girard fall victim to the temptations of approaching Shakespeare's work via purely biographical speculations. However, this does not imply that Girard gives in to the reverse danger of advocating a complete separation of life and work. He argues, rather, for an existential connection between the great works of literature and the lives of the authors that created them. In both, one finds insights into the mimetic relationships that constitute human life: We are not autonomous, self-sufficient individuals, but rather beings that are formed through the imitation of models, especially with regard to desire. In reference to Shakespeare, Girard shares James Joyce's insights into the mimetic nature of the English playwright. It was precisely because Shakespeare's own life was so formed by mimesis, Girard and Joyce argue, that he was able to create works that depict the mimetic dimensions of humanity—above all, envy, jealousy, and rivalry—in such detail. Joyce expresses this in Ulysses through his character Stephen Dedalus, who presents a biographical approach to Shakespeare in a literary circle in Dublin. Dedalus's audience reacts with coarse confusion. For them, such a biographical approach represents mere "speculation of schoolboys for schoolboys." This "peeping and prying into the family life of a great man," this "living," is "interesting only to the parish clerk" and can be done by the "servants." According to Girard, the inability to comprehend the connection between an author's life and work is typical for many scholars of literature, which he argues is due to their repression of the complex problem of mimesis. In contrast, Girard praises Joyce's allusion to the interconnectedness of biography and work, for in the end this is itself a reference to the mimetic lives of these authors. Even if Dedalus's presentation is not historically accurate, Girard argues that he has completely understood the mimetic core of Shakespeare's life. This comprehension, of course, has its deeper roots in Joyce's life; Dedalus bears several of Joyce's traits, and the propensity to imitate others is central among these. These biographical elements appear most distinctly in Ulysses, where Joyce's compulsive jealousy—a mimetic phenomenon, par excellence, which can be found throughout the letters to his wife, Nora11—becomes visible.

That which Girard observes systematically in the great works of literature also takes on meaning for his own work. Just as the great novelistic authors based their works on insight—obtained in a kind of conversion—into their own mimetic desire, Girard's mimetic theory, too, is also formed by such an experience of conversion. The following biographical sketch will therefore place particular emphasis on Girard's own conversion.

A Biographical Sketch

René Girard was born in Avignon on December 25, 1923.12 Aft er graduating from high school, he studied medieval handwriting—paleography—at the École des Chartes in Paris from 1943 to 1947. Under the influence of his parents during World War Two, he supported the Résistance, the French movement against the German occupation of France. In 1947, he earned his PhD with a dissertation entitled "Private Life in Avignon in the Second Half of the 15th Century" ("La vie privée à Avignon dans la seconde moitié du XVe siècle"). Faced with the decision of becoming an archivist like his father or taking a completely diff erent path, he decided in 1947—at the age of twenty-four years—to pursue a teaching career in the United States. He accepted an offer to teach French at Indiana University in Bloomington, where he simultaneously started work on a dissertation project on the subject of contemporary history. In 1950, he earned his second doctorate with a work entitled "The American Opinion of France in the Years 1940–1943."

The experience of greater intellectual freedom at American universities eventually led him to emigrate completely from France and establish his career in the United States. Girard was denied tenure at Indiana for insufficient publication; he moved on to Duke University in 1952. Seven articles—among them studies of Saint-John Perse, Malraux, and Kafka—which he published in 1953, were enough to gain him a position as assistant professor at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. Four years later, he was appointed professor of French literature at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore (1957: associate professor; 1961: full professor). Gradually, his first works began to receive attention in the academic world. In October 1966, toward the end of his first professorship in Baltimore, Girard organized an important international symposium, "The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man," in which leading thinkers such as Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Lucien Goldmann, Jean Hyppolite, Jan Kott, Jacques Lacan, Georges Poulet, Tzvetan Todorov, and Jean-Pierre Vernant took part. Derrida's lecture at the conference, "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," is regarded today as one of the classical texts of deconstruction.

From 1968 to 1976, Girard was a professor of literature at the State University of New York in Buffalo, before returning to Johns Hopkins for another four years as professor of French literature and the humanities. From 1980 until his retirement in 1995, he was the Andrew B. Hammond Professor of French Language, Literature, and Civilization at Stanford University in California. In March 2005, he was elected into the Académie française. He has been married to Martha McCullough since 1951 and is the father of three children. He currently lives in Palo Alto, California. As a literary scholar, one could say that Girard "lacks the professional training required in his field" [tr. Quereinsteiger]. Many scholars also accused him of deserting the realm of literature when he later expanded his mimetic theory in the direction of anthropological and biblical analysis. Such criticism led to the observation that, as a trained historian, he was just as unqualified in the field of comparative literature as he was in the disciplines that he later pursued (anthropology and New Testament exegesis). It was precisely this unconventional approach to literary analysis, however, that enabled him to develop a theory that went far beyond the field's narrow realm. With that being said, Girard claims he never consciously intended to develop any interdisciplinary theory, admitting rather that his research simply led him to pursue analyses in diverse areas. The mimetic theory, in turn, has become a topic of discussion in several academic disciplines today. The international and interdisciplinary "Colloquium on Violence and Religion" founded in 1990 publishes an annual journal, Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture, aimed at exploration, criticism, and development of the mimetic theory.

The connection between Girard's personal development and his conception of the mimetic theory is particularly interesting. As a French teacher at Indiana University, he received an offer to also teach literature. At the time, Girard was familiar with Cervantes (whom he had read in an abridged French edition for children) and Proust (whom he had been reading since he was 18 years old), but he was forced to read the works of Stendhal, Flaubert, and Dostoyevsky for the first time during his preparations. He gradually discovered similarities between these authors and came to the realization that their great works were based on a personal conversion. The discovery of conversion among the great novelists of European literature went along with Girard's own experience of conversion. He began to turn away from his own pride and to see himself as a puppet of his own mimetic desire. Just as with Dostoyevsky, this reversal was accompanied by a turning towards Christianity, as his intellectual work led him to a new understanding of the Gospels. From the age of ten to thirty-eight years, Girard was an agnostic. As a child, he went to church with his mother, a devout Catholic; however, his interest in the Christian religion declined, and he appeared to follow in his father's footsteps, an anticlerical person and opponent of the Church. Girard saw himself in his young years as a left -leaning atheist. He sympathized with the intellectual, revolutionary avant-garde and the surrealists. Girard's intense study of the novelistic authors eventually led him back, after decades of distance, to the Christian faith and the Catholic Church. At first, this applied merely to his intellectual stance, but Girard eventually returned to the Catholic Church and began once again to practice his faith. He described the decisive moments of his conversion in an interview in the mid-1990s; given the vital importance of this conversion for Girard's life and the development of the mimetic theory, I have decided to reprint major parts of this interview here:

In the autumn of 1958, I was working on my book on the novel, on the twelfth and final chapter, "The Conclusion." I was reflecting on the analogies between the religious experience and that of the novelist, who discovers in himself a systematic liar, a liar for the benefit of his ego, which in the end is composed of a thousand lies that have amassed over a long period of time and perhaps been carried around for an entire life.

I finally understood that I was going through an experience of the exact type I was attempting to describe. The religious symbolism embryonic to these novelists began in my case to function on its own and caught fire inside me spontaneously. I was no longer able to give in to illusions about what was happening within me, and I was completely discountenanced, for I took pride in my skepticism. I could not see myself going into the church, genuflecting, et cetera. I was akin to a windbag, full of that which the old catechisms call the "fear of man" [respect humain].

Intellectually, I had converted, but I remained incapable of bringing my life in accord with my thoughts. Over a period of a few months, faith became for me a delicate enjoyment that also heightened my other pleasures, a type of candy in a life that had nothing criminal about it, but consisted merely of self-indulgence....

During the winter of '59, I was already teaching at Johns Hopkins but still giving lectures at Bryn Mawr College where I had spent four years, and every week I rode back and forth between Baltimore and Philadelphia in the old squeaking and rocking cars of the Pennsylvania Railroad. A landscape passed before my eyes that consisted mostly of scrap iron plants and vacated terrain—typical of the old industrial regions of Delaware and to the south of Philadelphia—but my mental state transfigured everything, such that even the smallest rays of the setting sun aroused veritable ecstasy within me. It was in this train one morning that I discovered a small pimple in the middle of my forehead that didn't want to go away—one of those forms of skin cancer which, in reality, are not very dangerous. My doctor, however, whom I consulted and who listened to my inquietude, forgot to inform me of this, perhaps because he was worried that I could cross the Atlantic at any time and escape paying my fees. Thankfully, I had medical insurance, and everything possible was done to remove my little pimple forever....

[But then], shortly thereafter, abnormal aftereffects appeared in the exact place where the miniscule operation had been performed. This seemed to trouble the serenity of my doctor, and my peace of mind was now completely shattered. It was clear to me that the cancer had begun to grow anew and that this time it could be fatal....

My period of anguish lasted a rather long time. It began in the week after Septuagesima. Prior to the liturgical reforms of the last Council, the two weeks following Septuagesima Sunday functioned as a preparation for the forty days of Lent, during which the disciples, in imitation of Jesus and his forty-day fast in the desert, do penitence in cinere et cilicio, "in ash and in penitential robe."

My preparation for this Lent was excellent, of that I can assure you, and the ensuing fast was also exemplary, for I was so full of worry that I endured sleepless nights until the day these worries, as suddenly as they began, disappeared from the world during a final visit to my medical oracle. After all the necessary tests had been carried out, the good man declared me healed, precisely on the Wednesday of Holy Week, which precedes the Passion—properly speaking—and Easter, the official conclusion of penitence.

Never before had I experienced a celebration that could be compared with this deliverance. I saw myself as already dead, and, all of a sudden, I was resurrected. The most miraculous part for me was that my intellectual and spiritual conviction, my true conversion, had occurred before this great fear during Lent. If it had come thereafter, I would have never truly believed. My natural skepticism would have persuaded me that my faith was the result of fear. This fear, however, could never have been the result of faith. The duration of my dark night coincided exactly with the period prescribed by the Church for the penitence of sinners, with three days of grace left over—the most important of all—perhaps to allow me to reconcile with the Church in peace before Easter.

God had called me back to my senses with a bit of humor, which, given the mediocrity of my case, was well merited. In the days following Easter, I had my two sons baptized, and I married my wife in the Catholic Church. I am convinced that God sends people many signs, which for the wise and learned may not objectively exist. Those for whom they are not intended see them as imaginary, but those for whom they are destined cannot deceive themselves, for they experience them from inside. I understood immediately that the memory of this experience—should I ever venture away—would off er me support my whole life long, and that is exactly how it has been (Quand ces choses commenceront, 190–194).


Excerpted from René Girard's Mimetic Theory by Wolfgang Palaver Copyright © 2013 by Michigan State University. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface vii

Preface to the English Edition xiii

Chapter 1 Life and Work of Rene Girard 1

Chapter 2 Religion and Modernity 15

Chapter 3 Mimetic Desire 33

Chapter 4 The Scapegoat Mechanism as Origin of Culture 135

Chapter 5 Biblical Revelation and Christianity 195

Chapter 6 Political Implications of the Mimetic Theory 275

Chapter 7 Mimetic Theory and Gender 297

Chronology 309

Notes 313

Bibliography 367

Index of Terms 397

Index of Names 399

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