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Book Review - Deceit, Desire, and the Novel

2020-01-10

Back in August I stumbled across a summary of Rene Girard’s mimetic theory online (via a link on Hacker News) and immediately became interested in it.

Since then I’ve read a number of books by Girard, the first of which was I See Satan Fall Like Lightening. This book had an impact on me, not so much due to the fact that it has anything to do with Christianity (which it does), but because it offers a new framework for understanding violence.

I was so taken by the theory that I now own a number of Girard’s books, and have read many of them now. His all encompassing mimetic theory is developed throughout all of his work in a rich and fascinating manner. In each work he explores life and the culture using his theory, showing how it functions.

His first book, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (DDATN), which is the subject of this review, takes a look some key novels, and again performs an analysis drawing on mimetic theory. Girard reviews works by a number of the masters of literature: Cervantes, Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust and Dostoevsky. Through the lens of mimetic theory, here termed triangular desire, Girard offers up an analysis of these books which is deeply thought provoking and relevant.

Triangular desire, described in the book as a model of sorts, or, as Girard puts it: “a systematic metaphor, systematically pursued,” offers a simple and powerful tool for analysis.

The triangle of triangular desire is made up of the mediator (or model), the subject, and the object. Girard hypothesizes that humans learn their desires through the imitation of their model. In effect, our desires come from another – a mediator or model. Thus in the triangle of triangular desire, the subject’s desires are mediated via the model, and the object of the subject’s desire is in effect learned through the model.

DDATN explores a number of ideas and themes with regards to triangular desire which are present in varying forms through the novels analyzed, including: vanity, metaphysical desire, politics, and interpersonal relationships. Girard’s explanations and analysis of the texts offers a lot of ground for review and study, and despite being published in 1961 is certainly still relevant. Reading his explanations and reasoning about the texts in question begs for further thought on any number of topics.

Girard is obviously a master at interpreting just about everything through mimetic theory, or in this book triangular desire. One of the criticisms of mimetic theory is that it is in effect a theory of everything. Girard wields it the same way a physicist might discuss the impact of gravity on all things.

The difference of course is that we can prove in a material sense the effects and reality of gravity. Gravity isn’t open to interpretation, the nature of desire, and with it, the essence of individuality and free will, kind of are.

However, in an effort to keep this book review about the book at hand, I’ll simply gloss over the small issue of whether or not triangular desire, or mimetic theory, is actually correct. I will say however that reading Rene Girard’s analysis of literature and culture, and in later works, religion, myth, and psychology, is super fun and interesting.

Besides, if mimetic theory is actually the humanities equivalent of gravity, eventually we’ll have quantum mimetic theory, and then just fuck it.

DDATN is a giant treasure chest of thought and analysis, and reading Girard’s interpretation of these author’s works shows just how powerful a model triangular desire (mimetic theory) can be. If anything it is a tool which is a never ending source of interpretive power, one which can be wielded far and wide across any number of subjects.

Girard’s triangular desire, here used perhaps more humbly than it is in his later works (he explains a lot, but it’s not this book where he deduces the founding mechanism of religion with it), is so strikingly simple and used in such an interesting way by Girard, that something about it makes me want to study it and see how it may apply to other subjects.

Of Girard’s works that I’ve read DDATN is the one that offers the most so far on non-religious aspects of his theory, touching more on character development and the potential psychological aspects of mimetic theory, in addition to cultural topics which are still relevant today. There are other works of his which also cover literary works outside of religion, but I haven’t read them.

That said, it’s not the first book by Girard that I read, and if I wasn’t as moved by the theory as I was by reading I See Satan Fall Like Lightening, I’m not sure DDATN would have grabbed me in the same way. It’s probably not the way to start if you’re interested in mimetic theory and just looking to begin somewhere. If you’re more interested in it for its analysis of the texts covered and less so for how it relates to mimetic theory it would be great.

In reading DDATN Girard will make you want to read the novels and authors he talks about (speaking as a newly proud owner of Don Quixote). It seems like most people agree that the works he looks at are some of the best, and are probably worth reading anyway.

If you are interested in mimetic theory and want to see it used in analysis of issues that are relevant in contemporary times, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel is a great book.