Quixotic Reading

Don_Quijote_and_Sancho_PanzaIt 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.

Myth Become Fact

crosswButterfliesOne of the more memorable phrases culled from C.S. Lewis is Christ is “myth made fact.” The notion kind of sneaked up on Lewis during the process that lead to his conversion to Christianity.  An offhand remark by his friend T.D. Weldon, a fellow Oxford don and, like Lewis at the time an avowed atheist, made a deep impression on him over the years: “Rum thing, that stuff of Frazer’s about the Dying God. It almost looks as if it really happened once.” Of course, that is precisely the claim of the Gospels.

Lewis’ insight is worth comparing with René Girard’s view of Jesus in relation to mythology. Girard, of course, also studied Frazer’s writings about deities, mainly vegetative deities, dying and rising. Frazer, seems to have absorbed Jesus into the other myths, blurring the distinction between them. Girard, on the other hand, believes that both the myths and the Gospel accounts refer to real events. Here, he also differs from Lewis who seems to have thought of myths as something like cosmic poetry, dealing with timeless truths, such as the vegetative cycle in temperate climates where nature, like Persephone, dies and then rises again. For Girard, all myths, in their origins, are made fact.

Girard’s thesis of sacred violence asserts that social tensions in early societies were resolved, if they were resolved at all, by collective violence that was very real. Mythology then became something of a cover up of this event while still alluding to it. The rising from the dead in such mythology would be the deification of the victim who, in retrospect, was seen as the solution for the problem for which the victim was earlier blamed. Tying such mythology into the vegetative cycle raises suspicions for me that this development, if it did not originate in agricultural societies, was greatly furthered within them. After all, the claiming of land by a tribe would easily inspire other people to desire that land. In such a setting, social tensions leading to the victimage mechanism would happen much quicker than in hunter/gatherer societies. Girard’s thesis also suggests that the real cycle is not in nature but in human activity. That is, an act of collective violence holds a society together for only so long before it needs to happen again. The mythological cycle, then, is a vicious cycle.

For Girard, then, the Gospel narrative of Jesus dying and rising is not the historicization of a timeless truth, but an instantiation of a scenario that had been happening in reality, in time, since the dawn of humanity. What’s new about the Gospels is that the story is told straight out and the victim is claimed to be innocent and was unjustly murdered. For Girard, it isn’t so much a case of myth become fact as the truth behind myth revealed.

As a Christian, Lewis retained sympathy for the myths of dying and rising deities, regarding them as great poetry. Girard, of course, is not so affirming of mythology, as he sees it as obscuring the truth. However, Girard’s point of view does not necessarily mean that myths are bad poetry. Moral goodness and ascetic goodness are not equivalent, after all.

There is a deeper reason though for being open to Lewis’ sympathy. It was the pathos of a deity like Balder who was killed through collective violence that moved Lewis, and it was the same sensitivity that should make the passion of Jesus deeply moving as well. (Interestingly, Lewis went through a period where the dying pagan deities moved him more than the story of Christ; perhaps a residue of his resistance to conversion.) Although a myth such as that of Tiamat, who was blamed for Babylon’s primordial chaos and torn to pieces, does not try to inspire sympathy for a victim the way the Psalms of Lament do, we can see a woman victimized by the people who made a strenuous effort to avoid seeing what they were doing.

There is a deeper reason for sympathy for myth. Deplorable as the countless acts of collective violence were and continue to be, Girard’s thesis also demonstrates how profoundly people were caught up in this mechanism so that they could not escape without intervention from God. It is precisely this intervention from God to free humans in bondage that Paul celebrates time and again in his epistles. If we need this intervention from God in Christ, then we are hardly in a position to be judgmental against the first humans that fell into the same traps we do.

Human See, Human Want

At a children’s party, the house was filled with balloons and the children were all happily playing with them until one child suddenly grabbed one balloon and yelled: “This balloon is mine!” Suddenly, all the children forsook the other balloons and fought over the one balloon. This story, told me by an eye witness, is a classic example of what René Girard calls “mimetic desire.” Just as we imitate each other in actions, dress, etc., at a deeper level, we imitate each other’s desires. That is, once one child voiced a desire for one particular balloon, all the other children instantly desired that one balloon and none other.  Later in life, one youth’s desire for a certain girl triggers a desire for the same girl in another youth who had ignored her up to that point. So deep is mimetic desire that we often do not realize it is there and we claim our desires for ourselves alone.

This conflict, what Girard calls “mimetic rivalry,” might give the impression that mimetic desire is, in itself, a bad thing. That is not the case. Mimetic desire can easily be benign and non-conflictual. For example, my father shared his love of pizza and butterscotch sundaes with me and I desire them to this day. Likewise, a teacher who loves Shakespeare will try to instill the same desire for Shakespeare in his or her students.

In his book The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis suggests that the mark of a friendship is that the two friends are focused on a common interest more than on each other. This is mimetic desire working in a positive way. On the contrary, when two or more people fall into a mimetic conflict, they are focused on each other to the exclusion of anything else, most of all whatever it is they think they are fighting about.

We cannot avoid mimetic desire. We are tied into a sea of mimetic desire as soon as we are born. Mimetic desire connects us with other people whether we like it or not. So much for individualism. The question is whether we will be connected through expansive sharing or connected through constrictive conflict. Most important, we are born into God’s mimetic desire for us and for all other people. We are constantly faced with the choice of which direction we are willing to go with the mimetic desire we share with all others. Do we make war or do we make peace?

See also Two Ways of Gathering & Tools for Peace

Fantasy Literature & Theology

I have just added an article called Baptizing the Imagination that was originally published in the Abbey Letter of St. Gregory’s Abbey. Here, you can read about my reflections on the theological dimensions of fantasy literature with comments on several important writers such as C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling. Helpful background to Creatures We Dream of Knowing & From Beyond to Here.