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.

Unwinding the Judgment of Solomon

wreckedTrees1Among writers of Y/A novels, Neal Shusterman has shown some of the most acute insight into social processes. Nowhere is this stronger than in his novel Unwind and its sequel Unwholly. In this dystopian novel, a civil war in the U.S. over reproductive  was suddenly brought to an end with an agreement that abortion would be illegal under all circumstances, but that all young people between the ages of thirteen and eighteen could be handed over by parents or guardians to be unwound, a harvesting of 98% of body tissue for medical transplants to other people.

This scenario is a classic example of a violent society making peace at the expense of victims. In Unwind, a troubled teen boy whose parents found too troublesome when they had such an easy out, a girl raised in a state orphanage where many surplus babies go who wasn’t quite talented enough to be worth keeping when the facility needs space for other surplus children, and a boy who was a tithe, the tenth child in a family in a group that gave the tenth child in a family to be unwound as a gift back to “god” and society.

Although the reader may rightly react to the idea with horror, the dystopian “solution” is not that surprising to anyone who has studied René Girard and his colleagues who have demonstrated that this type of “solution” to conflict is common in almost all societies since the dawn of humanity. This novel and its sequels is as a midrash on the Judgment of Solomon, a story Girard cites as a prime example of the Hebrew Bible’s revelation of sacrificial violence. The two disputing mothers became indistinguishable mirror images of each other until Solomon asked for a sword and ordered that the baby be cut in half. One woman preferred the slaughter of the child to letting the other have it, but the other woman preferred the other woman have the child and so that it could live. The biblical story thus has a happy ending. Shusterman’s novel shows us what the triumph of the sacrificial woman is like for a society. As a mini-parable within the story, one of the boys on the run was signed over for unwinding because his parents were going through a bitter divorce and could only agree that they would rather nobody had their son than that the other had him and he lived.

Shusterman also shows, especially in the second book, how the culture has become highly sacrificial, with unwinding having become a way of life. The political advertising media pushes unwinding by encouraging a sense of entitlement not only to a new hand if the old is cut off, but of better, more athletic and better-looking body parts and a “brain-weave” to make one smarter. In Unwholly, a Frankenstein-like experiment has resulted in the creation of a “new” person out of unwound body parts. Sacrifice has created a sacrificial youth. Sacrifice of others has become an end in itself.

Abortion is a topic that many people have very strong opinions about. Even when one’s opinion is mixed, each part of the mix is powerful. The hazard of navigating such a severe debate is that of being so passionately sensitive to one potential victim as to harden one’s heart to others. The Judgment of Solomon and this series of novels is a solemn warning of the dangers of losing ourselves so deeply in conflict that we do not see the victims we create.  A violent situation such as the sacrificial system depicted here adds the problem of how to break the system without violence that creates more sacrificial victims. This growing problem is something Shusterman will be exploring in the subsequent volumes of the series.

A City Consumed with Buying and Selling

guesthouse1“If there was just one person who could show everyone there is another way. . . . If someone stood up in the middle of the city, with everyone watching, and did something that brought them nothing in return, and happiness to others . . . it might start something that couldn’t be stopped.”

These words are spoken by a 13-year-old girl in The Midnight Charter, the first volume of the Agora Trilogy by David Whitley. These words are a powerful statement of a positive use of mimetic desire (see Human See, Human Want). Lilly says these words in a city called Agora (Greek for market), a city where everything and everybody is bought and sold and all receipts are stored in the city bureaucracy. Even emotions can be bought and sold thanks to a strange technology developed for the purpose. A sort of capitalism gone mad. This shows how deep competitive mimetic desire can be, as René Girard demonstrates. (See Violence and the Kingdom of God.)

While Lilly starts to put her idea into practice by starting an almshouse, something unprecedented in the city, her friend Mark is consumed by a mimetic process that puts him at the pinnacle of the society while too young (thirteen) to realize how delusionary it was until it was too late. (See Ignominious Glory, Glorious Ignominy.)

The fortunes of these two protagonists and the powerful social forces that surround them are explored with ever-increasing depth in the second and third books of the trilogy. In Children of the Lost, Lilly and Mark, suddenly thrust out of Agora, enter a wilderness where the subconscious (the “Nightmare”) engulfs the villagers who live there. Well, the emotions bought and sold in Agora have to go somewhere. The nightmare shows itself most strongly in an act of collective violence, the end result of the denial of mimetic desire. In the midst of all this, Mark begins to really learn how to be a caring human being.

The final volume Canticle of Whispers brings the trilogy to a stunning conclusion. Here, we meet another society, this one living underground, that turns out to be a collective puppet for the fragmented desires of those who live above them until they are freed by Lilly and Mark. The mimetic process started by Lilly in Agora continues in her absence because other people have imitated her desire to help others. One of the greatest strengths of the series is that many characters who seem fairly insignificant emerge in unexpected ways to have great significance, sometimes for ill, sometimes for good.

This trilogy shows us that here are Y/A novels out there that can instruct young readers and older seasoned readers as well, into the depths of mimetic desire. I strongly urge anyone working with youth to take notice.

New Story about a Strange Plague that Hits a Town

???????????????????????????????????????????I have just posted a new story called “The Gray Plague.” It tells the story of Jimmy Peppersap and the other people in his town where a plague strikes without any explanation. The first version of this story was written years before I was aware of René Girard’s thought but even back then it showed some intuition of the social dynamics Girard has analyzed so well. To read this story and reflect on what it has to tell us, click Here.

How my Story “The Rainbow Butterfly” Came to Be

creatures coverThe writing of my story “The Rainbow Butterfly” has a complicated history. My first inspiration came from a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne called “The Artist of the Beautiful.” In it, a craftsman creates a very delicate and beautiful butterfly that has a numinous quality. In Hawthorne’s grim imagination, this fragile work falls victim to insensitive people.

In my imagination, this image got hooked into an idea of a story about a town at war with another town to the extent that the war defined the town’s life at every level.  An underground group, devoted to finding an alternative to war, was engaged in a project of constructing a rainbow butterfly that would take on a transcendent life of its own. The project succeeded and the rainbow received a mixed reception depending on the dispositions of each person.

A few years later, at the time of the civil wars in the Balkan Peninsula, I got the idea of writing a story about a city in the state of civil war where occupation of the city was roughly divided between each side. The children too young for combat (starting at age twelve) spent their time getting a piecemeal education with the result they learned of a possible to stop the war, but one requiring self-sacrifice. (I used the Welsh legend of the black cauldron that turns dead bodies into zombies until a live person jumps into the cauldron voluntarily which breaks the cauldron. As you can guess, it was a pretty dark story.

Over time, I continued to feel there was a lot to like in both stories but at the same time some fundamental problems that kept either of them from working. After puzzling about this for some time, I got an inspiration to take elements of each story and create a whole new story using the same themes about war. The result was “The Rainbow Butterfly.” Basically, it combines the inter-city civil war scenario with that of an underground resistance group seeking peace. This time, there was no attempt to create the rainbow butterfly; finding a cup that had the butterfly’s life in it was enough.

I created a whole new character as the protagonist who tells the story, twelve-year-old Darren Forty-Third. His vocabulary is limited because linguistic skills are limited to the pragmatics of perpetual war. That already tells the reader a lot about what a culture is like when it is so totally focused on war.

Want to see how Darren and his friends and the Rainbow Butterfly fare? Read the story in Creatures We Dream of Knowing.

Arachne, Athena, and a Thousand Princes

Xenia1Imagine a world where competitiveness is that world’s foundation, where it is nothing but mimetic rivalry all the way down. (See my post Human See, Human Want.) Actually many people have, but I am going to focus on a couple of recent fantasy novels I’ve just read which do that.

The Mark of Athena is the latest volume in Richard Riordan’s second series about adolescent demigods, Heroes of Olympus. These books can be a fun way to learn about Greek and Roman mythology, but if ever these gods are real and they really (mis)rule the universe, we’re in trouble. The positions of Zeus and the other Olympians, for example, are the result of earlier conflict. In Riordan’s novels, Cronos and Gaia make comebacks that fuel the divine in-fighting.

This latest book Riordan makes the millennia-old resentments come alive in their tense paralysis. Arachne who offended Athena by weaving a better tapestry than Athena could. Arachne is imprisoned under Rome as a giant spider with a monstrously bad attitude. Beth, a daughter of Athena, has to take from Arachne the Athena Parthenos that was stolen by the Romans and restore it to the Olympians. We see frozen resentments such as Arachne’s in human experience all the time. What if God really were like Athena instead of a God who generously brings us into being and even more generously saves us from follies such as that of Athena and Arachne?

The other books is A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix. Prince Khemri is one of countless youths raised in privileged but inhuman conditions to serve the inter-galactic empire as a prince. Each prince is connected to the imperial mind upon coming of age (if he or she is not assassinated first) and is plunged into a system fueled by rivalry and nothing but rivalry. Material goods and programed courtesans are furnished in abundance so there is nothing to fight over except power and position. Nix does a superb job of showing us what such a system looks like, a system that is totally sacrificial. Khemri is singled out for a unique assignment that forces him to live with normal human beings. He is quite bewildered when he finds himself instinctively defending a woman when all his training taught him to use a human as a shield for himself. Is it a shock to us if ever we discover something in the world that isn’t rivalry all the way down, but is grounded instead in love that reaches out to others?

See Baptizing the Imagination for an essay on religious aspects of fantasy literature. See Violence and the Kingdom of God for more about mimetic rivalry and religion.