Justin Smith on René Girard

Justin Smith wrote a fairly critical blog post on René Girard to which I feel moved to reply. A lot of it attacks Girard’s appeal in Silicon Valley, which I don’t know much about. But the post also criticises Girard’s theory itself. The conclusion states that “René Girard, in sum, is not a particularly great theorist”.

We don’t all have to like the same things, but I think Girard deserves a better reading than Smith is willing to give him.

First, Smith gives a gratuitously unattractive representation of Girard’s method:

That’s very unflattering. But I’m not sure what reason Smith has to think it. It should be obvious that Girard never thought that he was the one to ‘get things right’. His entire career consisted of presenting ideas he found in the writings of others. His first book, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, located the idea of “mimetic desire” in the novels of Cervantes, Stendhal, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, and Proust. It’s a work of pure exegesis. The title of his book, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, is also a giveaway. It’s a reference to Jesus’s words in Matthew (13:35), and the book is accordingly about things revealed by Jesus of Nazareth, not René Girard of Avignon. In truth I can’t think of a theorist who made more effort to avoid claiming personal responsibility for the ideas he presented. This is hardly surprising since it was a fundamental belief for Girard that, as he once put it, “individualism is a formidable lie” [1].

Smith’s suggestion that Girard spends “none of his time on skeptical doubts or objections” is belied by the very form in which Girard presented his ideas. Most of his books are records of dialogues. Long sections of books like When These Things Begin and Evolution and Conversion consist of Girard responding to objections formulated by his interviewers or brought by them from other sources. With most authors we can debate about whether “the nagging call of humility” is sufficiently active inside them. But Girard brings in external voices. His preference for this dialogue format is another expression of his strong anti-individualism. Why would somebody who wanted to spend “none of his time on skeptical doubts or objections” write his books by answering people who doubt and object to him?

Smith then turns from method to theory, first attacking Girard’s theory that humans desire mimetically — that is, we copy or borrow our desires from others. Smith writes: “For Girard, there is at least some desire that falls outside of the logic of mimesis, but only because it is a sort of proto-desire, a merely biological drive”. Smith goes on to criticise this point. But where does Girard make it? Smith doesn’t cite any text. Girard is quite explicit that he has no intention of reducing all of human psychology to mimesis [2]:

Nor does he say anything to imply that these non-mimetic phenomena are “merely biological drives”. Smith declares himself to be “wary of human-scientists who seek to contain the biological with modifiers such as ‘merely’”, but where does Girard do this? There is no citation.

Perhaps more interestingly, one of Smith’s counterexamples to this claim (which Girard doesn’t seem to have made) is the possibility of a “post-mimetic” love:

I don’t know what sort of crass theory Smith is trying to wish onto Girard and then refute here — I guess he thinks that Girard believes we only want things or love people for the sake of “social status”? In any case, for a profound example of ‘post-mimetic love’, I would encourage you to look up Girard’s beautiful discussion of the statue scene in The Winter’s Tale. When Hermione is resurrected, Leontes is too; he is freed from mimetic desire and its metaphysical illusions. The resurrection of Hermione is, Girard writes, “Leontes’ reward for purging his bad desire” [3].

Far from being a refutation of Girard’s theory, the existence of this post-mimetic love is an illustration of it — of the whole theory, I mean, and not the distorted travesty of some amputated part of it. Girard’s full theory is that mimetic desire — toxic, dangerous, and hopeless — begins with the (non-mimetic) desire for being. “Mimetic desire”, Girard writes, “makes us believe we are always on the verge of becoming self-sufficient through our own transformation into someone else” [4]. If we overcome this, we give up on the hope of self-sufficiency and the desire to be transformed into someone else. We cease to desire the being of another and simply possess the being we have. We achieve what Spinoza calls acquiescentia animi— acquiescence in our own soul. Being in this state is the result of what Girard calls “conversion” (the sentence just quoted is from an essay entitled “Conversion in Literature and Christianity”). The resurrection of Hermione is a symbol of Leontes’ conversion: from mimetic desire into a state of acquiescence, when he can simply love Hermione free of the bad desire that drove him to envy and then destruction.

Conversion is present in Girard’s theory from the very beginning. It is the subject of the final chapter of Deceit, Desire, and the Novel. In his essay on Proust [5], Girard points out that the whole of In Search of Lost Time is a story of conversion: the narrator undergoes a conversion and is resurrected into a new life which was lost the first time around to mimetic desire. He even uses a term that Smith uses — “post-mimetic desire”. The Annunciation of this new life is the madeleine: “an image of a reality that is past from the viewpoint of the author, a promise of a reality that is yet to come from the viewpoint of the narrator” [6]. The author is the achieved being of the narrator, who lives in the pursuit of being that is the condition of mimetic desire. Conversion is, then, the final message of Girard’s gospel — or rather the gospel Girard finds repeated in the great works of literature. It is the crown of the theory; for Smith to take it as a refutation of the theory is a profound misunderstanding.

Smith also attacks the other main part of Girard’s theory — the “scapegoat mechanism” to which he argues that mimetic desire naturally leads. As he explains in one interview [7]:

Smith writes:

I would guess that here Smith is supposing Girard to claim that imitation — mimesis — can only lead to social cohesion through the scapegoat mechanism. But Girard explicitly denied this. Calling the sort of mimesis that leads to scapegoating “bad mimesis”, he explained that while he wanted to emphasise it, he never took it to be exclusive [8]:

Smith also proposes another criticism:

In bringing this up, it seems only fair to discuss Girard’s reply to Burkert, which Smith fails to mention. Questioned about Burkert, Girard replied [9]:

And Girard discussed this ‘hunting hypothesis’ in Things Hidden [10]:

Girard, in other words, gave arguments for his own position in contrast to Burkert’s — for seeing the practice of hunting as deriving from ritual sacrifice rather than the other way around. You can watch a video of him discussing the evidence for this in cave paintings. My point is not that he is necessarily right, but that he has arguments on precisely this point, to which Smith gives no consideration. Smith fails to acknowledge that Girard rejects the “necessary for human life” part of the Burkertian story he favours, in a principled way.

Smith concludes that “it is easy on even a casual study of [Girard’s] work to spot the weaknesses and lacunae”. But his criticisms of Girard don’t seem based on even a casual study. They attack what he seems to guess that Girard believed, on the basis of not very much evidence. Nor are there any quotations provided to support the interpretation. René Girard may or may not be, as Smith suggests, “the theorist our era deserves”. But surely he, along with our era, deserves a fairer standard of critique than this.

[1] Girard, René. Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoit Chantre (Michigan State University Press, 2009), ch.1, §3.

[2] Girard, René. When These Things Begin: Conversations with Michel Treguer (Michigan State University Press, 2009), p.11.

[3] Girard, René. A Theatre of Envy (Gracewing, 2000), p.337.

[4] Girard, René. Mimesis and Theory (Stanford University Press, 2008), p.265.

[5] Girard, René. Mimesis and Theory, pp.56–70.

[6] Girard, René. Mimesis and Theory, p.68.

[7] Girard, René. When These Things Begin, p.19.

[8] Girard, René. Evolution and Conversion (Bloomsbury, 2008), p.56.

[9] Girard, René. Evolution and Conversion, pp.101–2.

[10] Girard, René. Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (Bloomsbury, 2016), pp.68–9.

Lecturer in Philosophy, University of St. Andrews — personal website: https://axdouglas.com/

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