Ignatiusly Reading

Ignatius_of_Loyola_(militant)[This is a companion post to Quixotic Reading]

Reading in a life-giving way is not primarily a matter of reading but of living; of how we read our lives. Don Quixote idolized Amadis of Gaul, Emma Bovary idolized her lovers and Werther idolized Lotte. The primary reason for the Werther effect is that readers of Goethe’s novel committed the same idolatry through mimetic desire as did Werther. If we are too embroiled in our mimetic desires to have eyes to see what Cervantes and Flaubert see, then we will only see what Goethe seems to have been able to see when he wrote Werther: the despair of desiring a woman desired by another who has made that woman unattainable. That is, the way the readers of Werther were living their lives affected their reading and their reading reinforced the way they were living their lives.

In his incisive study of Don Quixote (The Humble Story of Don Quixote; Reflections on the Birth of the Modern Novel) Cesario Bandera leads us to the heart of the Don’s problem and ours: “God-like Amadis is not God. God transcends empirical reality but does not ignore it or make it irrelevant.” The more we look at the world around us and interact respectfully with it, the less apt we are to be swept away by the fantasies of mimetic desire. God “demands an absolute act of faith beyond empirical reality, but such an act of faith does not obliterate the inherent rationality of the world ‘out there.’ The act of faith is essential only to prevent empirical reality from becoming a god unto itself, an idol.” (p.155) Bandera is alerting us to the problem of allowing our models to distort the world around us, making models like Amadis or Albert (Lotte’s husband) the lens through which we interact with the world instead of God.

Ignatius of Loyola provides an instructive contrast to Don Quixote. According to his Autobiography, Ignatius liked to read the same sorts of chivalrous romances the Don Quixote did and, while he was recovering from his battle injuries, he asked for this sort of literature, but only a life of Christ and a book of the lives of the saints was available, so he read those instead. These books changed not only what Ignatius read, but how he read. Not only did he stop to think about the things he was reading, he also stopped to think “about the things of the world that he used to think of before.” That is, Ignatius was using what he read to connect him to real life, the life God had created rather than what life looks like through the lens of an idol like Amadis. During this time of struggle and repentance, Ignatius then confesses his infatuation with the idea (not reality) of going into the service of a “certain lady,” oblivious to “how impossible it would be.”

But then Ignatius started to think about what it would be like to imitate Saint Francis or Saint Dominic who had imitated Christ? Such thoughts gave him consolation that thoughts of soldiering and chivalry did not give him. Here were models that were challenging but not impossible. Ignatius was spurred on to develop a spirituality based on the imitation of Christ, not an imitation of external actions only but, more important, of cultivating the inner disposition of Christ’s charity for others that was to become the backbone of his Spiritual Exercises. Bandera draws the contrast for us when he says that “unlike Christ, Amadis cannot give his follower what he wants without ceasing to be Amadis.” (P.157) That is, Amadis, if real, would be what Girard calls a model-obstacle whom Quixote would need to best in combat, which would change Amadis for the worse if Amadis was vanquished. Christ, on the other hand is a model without rivalry, who wishes to be imitated without rivalry. Ignatius discovered that Christ creates an abundance of charity that can only become more abundant through imitating him. The idea of imitating Jesus led to a real pilgrimage to Jerusalem and then to a real spiritual pilgrimage of imitating Christ for the rest of his life.

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.