It is both interesting and significant that the mimetic desire revealed in two of the novels discussed by René Girard in Deceit, Desire & the Novel are derived, not from other people, but from characters in literature.
Don Quixote famously went mad with a desire to imitate Amadis of Gaul in the medieval romances of this knight errant, while Madame Bovary’s desires were fueled by the sentimental novels she read. The literature consumed by both characters gives them distorted visions of reality. Don Quixote mistakes windmills for evil giants and a barber’s basin for a knight’s helmet. Madame Bovary sees the lovers of her life through the lens of the romance novels and fails to see them as they really are until it is too late.
Of the two, Don Quixote is much more removed from “reality” than Madame Bovary. Yet, although the novels Madame Bovary has read seem to mirror “real life” and are thus “realistic,” it is she who seems to be even more confused about “reality” than Don Quixote, to the point of being smothered by fantasy so that what self she has disappears. C.S. Lewis offers us a key insight here when he says : “Children are not deceived by fairy tales; they are often and gravely confused by school stories. Adults are not deceived by science fiction; they can be deceived by the stories in the women’s magazines.” Lewis seems a bit sexist here but the underlying point is clear enough. “Realistic” stories present models and stir up desires that seem realistic but are traps that catch the unwary reader.
Curiously, Don Quixote’s fantasies have a contagion of their own. An unnamed man accuses Don Quixote of having a “talent for making anyone who has anything to do with you mad and senseless.” It is curious that Don Quixote is blamed for the insanity of others, as the other people are arguably making themselves insane by staying on Quixote’s case to the point of obsession. In the second part of the novel, a duke and duchess spend huge amounts of time and expense to mirror Don Quixote’s desires in theatrical fakery. They themselves seem to be caught up in Quixote’s madness as much as their victim.
In both cases, there is something of a collective violence around a victim. In the case of Don Quixote, his singularity provokes a spontaneous, improvised conspiracy to bring him to his senses. In the case of Madame Bovary, the social system of mimetic desire is fully developed to the extent that both Madame Bovary and her irresponsible husband and lovers all act like puppets of the ambient fantasy fueled by the novels and the culture industry.
Novelists such as Cervantes and Flaubert are faced with the enormous challenge of revealing the truth of mimetic desire in a medium that is normally used to reflect and fuel mimetic desire. After all, it is the latter tendency that makes huge profits for the producers of this and other media. In the second part of Don Quixote Cervantes does not disguise his indignation over copycat offshoots of his work and other ersatz imitators. Perhaps the main thrust of the second part was to mirror the misunderstandings of his readers in the Duke and the Duchess.
It isn’t enough to write novels revealing mimetic desire. Also needed are readers who can truly see what these novels reveal. If Cervantes was exasperated by the readers of his time, imagine his apoplexy over a musical featuring an inspirational song about following impossible dreams. For Cervantes was showing us in his novels that successfully imitating fictional characters is truly impossible. Don Quixote could not live Amadis of Gaul’s life any more than Emma Bovary could live the lives of heroines in the novels she read. They could only live their own lives, which they failed to do.
Werther is another fictional person who was widely imitated for a time. Heartsick and overwhelmed by his mimetic desire for a woman already promised to another man, Werther kills himself. The publication of Goethe’s novella was followed by an epidemic of suicides throughout Europe. This phenomenon is still called the Werther effect. Drowning in the mimetic desire of fictional characters can be deadly.
So how do we read in a way that is life giving? The short answer is to seek life where it can be found, where Don Quixote found it at the end, in repentance. I will give a slightly longer answer in my next blog post.