Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Rene Girard on Desire

Perhaps we do not need to lose ourselves in the arcana of European idealism to understand the thinking of one Rene Girard. He has been having a moment, so I can at least offer a few comments on someone I knew in passing and for whom I always maintained some respect.

Girard belongs to a group known for their obtuse, barely intelligible prose. If you crack the codes you will feel that you have been initiated into a cult, have become one of the elect.

And yet, is it really all that complicated? How much of it is pure obfuscation? 

Girard’s theory proposes that what really matters in life is desire, a dubious proposition that has been embraced by people who would not recognize a desire if it came up and kissed them on the mouth.

Once the grand idea made its way across the Channel, it became a line in a song by the Spice Girls: Tell me what you want, what you really really want. If you want to make the concept into an ethic, try this: Do what you want.

Girard contributed a curious twist to this theorizing. Your desire, he suggested, is not really your own. You want the fudge Sundae or the beauty queen because you see someone else wanting it. Your desire derives from envy; you want what others want. Thus, you are alienated from your desire. It is not even inalienably your own.

But then, what are we to do with this Girardian dictum. Girard once said that the only desire is the desire for being.

I defy anyone to make that make sense. If you desire being, or even existence, you will need to start out lacking the same. So you do not exist and want to exist. Dare we mention that this has nothing to do with appetite or with libidinous longings. Do you really imagine that you only want to make the beast with two backs with your comely neighbor because you have seen other people doing the same?

Now, Girard was a famous proponent of the story time theory of human existence. We tell stories, to ourselves and to others, and we create the world and ourselves by telling different stories. Sad to say, but nearly everyone believes this

Cynthia Haven presents the theory:

It has been said that the universe is made up not of atoms, but of stories. Whether at a podium or over coffee with a friend, in the privacy of our thoughts or at an international summit, we tell stories pretty much all the time. We create ourselves out of the tales we tell—both individually and as a community, in our myths and in our histories. But who crafts the narrative, and with what motives and vested interests?

We deal in fictions. And yet we never stop asking what really happened.

Haven’s astute coda shoots holes in the theory. Girard might have thought it a great mystery. It was not.

Besides, do you really believe that you can become someone else, that you can change sex or gender, by telling different stories? And besides, how does a community come to adopt one set of stories and not another? And if you are the stories you tell about yourself, how many times do you need to tell each story to different individuals. And what happens when you change your mind?

And besides, the theory contains a nasty error. If all desires imitate other desires, how does the first desirer desire anything?

Girard believed that human beings, each of whom envied the other and coveted what the other had, would naturally be drawn into conflict. That is, before they became completely confused trying to keep all of the stories straight.

Haven summarizes the theory:

He saw that conflict is a constant hum beneath human activity, an inevitable consequence of competing desires. When conflict causes crisis, a pattern of self-justification and cover-up follows. 

It begins with envy: “All desire is a desire for being,” Girard wrote. So we look with covetous eyes at someone we fantasize has it all, who represents our derivative aspirations. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it tends to irritate the original. This metaphysical hunger attracts the resistance of the envied other and provokes heated competition. The enmity itself is the contagion, spreading until the whole community is in a mimetic meltdown. In an ugly attempt to end the escalating tit-for-tat reprisals as tensions rise, someone or some group is singled out as the cause of the mayhem. Although the target is innocent of the blame heaped on him, or her, or them—or at least no more blameworthy than anyone else in the community— people believe a problem has been solved by the elimination of the “guilty.” As the community converges on the culprit, a new unity emerges. Condemnation is unanimous, or nearly so. No one is guilty because everyone is: “It was a monster with one red eye, / A crowd that saw him die, not I” (Auden). In some societies, the condemned faces lynching, exile, imprisonment (a modern version might be “cancelling” the accused). It buys peace and reconciliation . . . for a while.

It would be useful if we could distinguish between lusting after a banana split because you see someone else eating one, and, on the other hand, punishing a criminal or a scapegoat. How did we go from this theory of desire to a theory that based all of human social organization on an expiated or punished crime.

In any event, Girard believed that novels contained the truth. By that he surely meant that the alternative reality produced by a novelist might count as a picture of a desire fulfilled. Shades of Freud’s theory of wish fulfillment. 

If the truth of your desire is the only truth, then perhaps you need constantly to refer yourself to an unreal alternative to reality. Make sure to keep your distance from the real world.

As Girard put it, “The novel is the truth, and the rest is lies.” His close reading showed that what we call “fiction” preserves the social and psychological configurations of a time and place, the contexts that decode the human puzzle. The art of the novel is anthropology, he discovered. 

As noted above, this is all going to reduce to the notion that you should do what you want. At least, that is what psychoanalysts propose.

And yet, consider this. What if the world is not a fiction, but is a game, one in which you need to make a move. When you sit across from your opponent in a chess game you will  not be pondering what you really, really want. You will not become a better chess player by getting in touch with your desire.

Consider this situation. Someone has done you a favor. Whatever it was does not matter. Now, said person asks you for a favor. Let’s imagine that you consider yourself a creature of desire and do not wish to return the favor. Should you blow off the other person or should you do the favor, despite your not really, really wanting to do so.

It’s an ethical dilemma. But, if you have reached the age of adult reason, it is not all that difficult. If you owe someone a favor, you should pay your debt, regardless of whether or not you want to do so. 

This puts you in the world of the most elementary economic transactions. It is based on following rules, not on following your desire.

In truth, you  might ask yourself how much of your behavior, your daily actions and reactions, make manifest your ability to follow rules, not so much your ability to act on your desire. 

If you are playing the game you should follow the rules. If you fail to follow the rule, others will refuse to play with you. If you say that you cannot follow the rules or cannot return favors, you will be writing yourself out of commerce, whether of everyday economic transactions or social exchanges. 

You might be saying to yourself that you follow rules because you want to be a functioning member of society. And yet, you were a functioning member of society, a named individual, a member of a family, a citizen of a nation, before you knew anything about rules or even about desire. And before you could tell stories about any of it.

Your place in the world derives from your role in society, your position in a family-- and different positions entail different responsibilities, duties and obligations. 

Fulfilling those responsibilities makes you a moral individual. You can make up stories that rationalize your failures, but, when it’s your turn to make a move on the chessboard, you should make a move, not concoct a story about why you do not want to do so, or even when you made a bad move.

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370H55V I/me/mine said...

The Spice Girls got it wrong. The Doobie Brothers got it right:


JPL17 said...

It's funny, for a while now I've been reading Rene Girard's book, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. And although it presents some interesting insights (especially on the Old and New Testaments), I have to second Stuart's comment that "Girard belongs to a group known for their obtuse, barely intelligible prose", because after 1-1/2 years of reading this book, I'm only halfway through! And the book is only 193 pages long to begin with! Indeed, the further I get into the book, the slower my reading of it gets, due to Girard's piling up of one dense, incomprehensible thought after another. I therefore compare my progress on this book to the asymptotic curve plotted out by the equation y = 1/x; meaning that, even given an infinite amount of time to read it, I'll never finish!

Forewarned is forearmed, dear reader.