Sie sind auf Seite 1von 7

FORUM:

165

THE NOVEL, DEVIATED TRANSCENDENCY, AND


MODERNITY

Pierpaolo Antonello

Mensonge romantique et vrit romanesque ( 1961 ) is an eloquent book of implicit

statements, a book that is as bold in its theoretical and cridcal ambidon as it


is shy in its ideological premises. Keeping in mind Ren Girard's personal
and intellectual trajectories in the years that follow, however, one can see,
upon closer scrutiny, that it reflects the contextual condidons in which it was
produced and the motivations that inspired its composition. Among these
are not only Girard's own conversion,' which dnts the general ideological
perspective at the core of Deceit, Desire, and theNovel, but also the coeval trends
of literary cridcism, or, in general, the modern reception of modern novels
(against which Girard took a polemical stance), and the interpretation of
desire in the consdtudon of modern subjectivity that was current at the time
of Girard's writing.
Taken together, these may have led Girard to adopt a sort of moralistic
tone in his argument and even a sort of theoredcal "manicheism" in his
early formulation of mimetic theory, which posits an intrinsic polarity
between the "positive" mediadon of desire by God, and the "negative,"
idolatrous mediation wielded by others: "Choice always involves choosing
a model, and true freedom lies in the basic choice between a human or a
divine model. The impulse of the soul toward God is inseparable from a
retreat into the Self Inversely the turning in on itself of pride is inseparable
from a movement of panic toward the Other" {DDN 58). From a cridcal
standpoint, however, we should step back from the moralistic connotation
of terms such as "positive" and "negative," "lie" and "truth," in order to
fully appreciate the historical and theoredcal implications of Girard's theory
A possible critical move to explore some of the issues at the center of
Dect, Desire, and the Novel is to look at its paratext: the polarization between
mensonge (lie) and vrit (truth) in the original French dde is evidendy dnted
by moral overtones and by the polemic character of Girard's book, but also
by the partial elaboration of mimetic theory in its historical dimension. In
fact, if one regards the further development and refinement of the theory
brought forward by subsequent books, from Violence and the Sacred {1977) to
the latest. Battling to the End (2010), the possible polarity which is at the core
of Girard's first book could be rather defined as that between "myth" and

166

Religion & Leiterattire

the "real"; between the mythical "transfiguration of the desired objects"


(which, according to Girard, constitutes the unity of internal and external
mediation), on the one hand, and the "realism" of the novels (which is
the unmasking of the mythical character of "metaphysical desire") on the
other. This distinction also arguably parallels the considerations formulated
in Things Hidden since the Eoundation of the World (1987), in which Girard fully

formulated his theory of the sacrificial origins of culture and the critical role
performed by the Christian revelation in unmasking the mythical character
of natural religions and of the sacred, including mythical texts and literary
worksfor instance, Greek tragedy, which stOl covers the vestiges of the
sacrificial origins of human culture. If we adopt the overarching theoretical
perspective formulated by Girard in his later work, we may have to abandon
the conceptual polarity {mensonge/vrit) in the French titie of Deceit, Desir
and the Novel and think rather in terms of a complex historical process of
progressive revelation. Girard's theory is not a Gnostic theory but it is historically grounded.^
As a matter of fact, Girard may be enlisted into a generation of critics
who were convinced of the possibOity of thematizing literature within a
longu dure, inspired by a Vichian understanding of the human imagination.
I am thinking in particular of two of the greatest twentieth-century literary critics: Eric Auerbach (particularly in Mimesis) and Nor thorp Frye (with
reference to both Anatomy of Criticism and The Great Code). In a less systemati
way, we may say that Girard, in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, sketched a simOa
trajectory: the idea of inscribing the novel within a "progressive" history of
Western imagination, in which what is in question is the deceptive dimension
of "spontaneous" desire, and the unstable boundaries of subjectivity. This
was not his main task, as his structural analysis of the novels became pivotal
in defining the contour of a theory that would then extend way beyond the
scope of literary criticism, but it is part of the fascination and interest this
book StOl wieldsfiftyyears after its publication.
StOl looking for paratextual clues, if we lift the cover of Deceit, Desire, and
the Novel and read the first pages of the English edition, we may also notice
that there is one bit missing with respect to the French originalnamely, the
initial epigraph taken from Max Scheler's Das Ressentiment, which is crucial
for the understanding of Girard's first book: "Man has either a God or an
idol" {L'hommepossde ou un Dieu ou une idole [9]). This polarity is nonethele
thematized in the second chapter of the book, titied "Men Become Gods
in the Eyes of Each Other" {DDN53), which foreshadows and announces
the theoretical kernel of Girard's first opus.
Because of its time frame. Deceit, Desire, and the Novel could be regarded
as a book which explores how "internal mediation" became dominant in

FORUM

167

Western culture and the etiology of what we could caU "secularized transcendence" as it is expressed and thematized by modern novels: from the
external mediation of chivalric epic in Don Quixote, to die underground
interpersonal apocalypticism of Dostoevsky in his various novels. Besides
providing textual examples of deviated transcendence, either tiirough literary or social structures, what is at stake in the implicit trajectory delineated
by Girard is a process of progressive "disenchantment" of the world, a
process of de-idealization, which not only regards the sacred or religion
(particularly Christianity in die Western context) in the first instance, but
aU substitutive forms of immanent religiosity (literature, elitism, snobbism,
glamour, capitalism, romantic love, etc.) that substitute for the overarching
umbreUa of historical religion, as Girard suggests.^
Taken in broader historical terms, the increasing spread of internal
mediation could be seen as the inevitable and, from a political and ethical
standpoint, welcome result of the democratic transformation of the pagan
world which was based on radical social separations, aristocratic elitism,
slavery, tribal identity, etc. Man has always been idolatrous in his history,
and Christianity, in Girardian terms, represents the progressive moving
away from this perspective towards a more realistic, immanent, democratic
understanding of social, cultural, political, and psychological forces, even
at the price of being thrown, in the most patiiological cases, into the abyss
of the internal mediation and deviated transcendence.
Incarnation thus understood is a movement by which the vertical order
of the transcendental God is graduaUy substituted by the social horizontality
of universal Christian brodierhood. If modern individualism is, according
to Girard, a by-product of Christianity, the deviated transcendence may be
also seen as the way tiirough which mankind explores both material and
social reality Thefieldof mankind's existential possibilitiesmany of which
may lead to the "Dostoyevskian Apocalypse"stem from the freedom of
choice which is intrinsic to Christian ethics: "Men who cannot look freedom
in die face are exposed to anguish. They look for a banner on which they
can fix their eyes" [DDN65).
In a way, Girard finds in Stendhal one of the expressions of the modern
individual not affected by metaphysical desire: the egotist.
Stendhal's egotist, unlike the romantic, is not trying to inflate his ego to universal
proportions. Such an attempt is always based on some hidden mediation. The
egotist recognizes his limits and gives up any idea of exceeding them. He says "I"
from modesty and prudence. He is not thrown back on nothing because he has given
up desiring everything. Thus egotism in Stendhal represents an attempt to sketch the
oudines of a modern humanism. {DDN65)

168

Religion & Literature

Girard's final comment, in this regard, provides a demarcation between


remarkable novels of high genius and less successful ones: "Interesting as
this attempt is, it has hardly any repercussions on the business of writing
the novels" (65). The successful novel is either a magnifier of the pitfas
of metaphysical desire or, according to Girard, is ultimately uninteresting.
The history of the novel has also an ambivalent role in this respect. On
the one hand, it is the expression of the need for self-representation of a
particular social class, the bourgeoisie, which, in its radical redefinition of
the class system in Europe, contributed to the exasperation of the dynamics
of internal mediation; on the odier hand, however, being tiie literary form
that "absorbed" the social, cultural, and aesthetic functions performed by the
Bible, assuming the role of secularized scriptures,* it maintains an aesthetic
"energy" that, according to Girard, stems from its revelatory power and its
demystifying force.
In a simar fashion, this revelatory power contains an intrinsic ambivalence that needs to be fleshed out. As Stefano Brugnolo comments on this
score: "to interpret Don Quixote, Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina only as
anti-models, as lustrations of the danger of mimetic desire, prevents us from
grasping that their power and greatness rely also on their very 'innocent'
mimetic meandering, which is common to everybody" (24-25); the process
of recognition (and eventuay of conversion) on the part of the reader is
first of au based on the process of identification, of compassionate identification with novelistic characters. Stefano Giglioli also argues that "in order
to criticize the protagonist, for being under the mesmerizing spe of his/
her mediator, the novelist ought to make him or her an object of interest
and fascination, that is, both a mediator and a scapegoat" (4).
Mimetic theory does not allow for clear-cut distinctions in geometrical and
Cartesian terms, but provides an answer to the ambivalences, antinomies,
and paradoxes of social and cultural phenomena. For example, Girard titled
chapter two of Deceit, Desire, and the Novel "Men become Gods in the Eyes
of Each Other." In that chapter Girard writes: "The imitation of Christ
becomes the imitation of one's neighbor" (59). The sentence, like the tide,
is ambiguous, because it at once condemns idolatry and evokes the Christian caing to find Christ in others (see Matt 25:40). That is to say, it might
be interpreted as a ca not to turn away from internal mediation towards
external mediation but rather to move from negative internal mediation to
"positive internal mediation," or rather the "mdiation intime" ("innermost
mediation"), suggested by Benot Chantre in his conversation with Girard
in their recent Battling to the End (133). This "mdiation intime," or "positive internal mediation," is not only established with our neighbor, but, as
Giuseppe Fornari has argued in his book on Leonardo, with any object of

FORUM

169

art, including die novel (139). However, as Dante has made it quite clear in
Canto V of the Inferno, it is not important what we read but how we read.^ In
the end, Girard's penchant toward double-meaning, even in his declaration
of sharply defined alternatives, reveals him to be more Dantesque than he
himself recognized in the historical movement of his own conversion.
University of Cambridge, St. John's College

NOTES
1. For an account of Girard's own conversion at the time of the composition of Deceit,
Desire, andtheNovet, see Girard, Quand ces choses commenceront 190-95.
2. See ote'on 218-19.
3. One way to look at this problem is to consider some of the issues discussed by Girard
with Gianni Vattimo in their recent Christianity, Truth, and Weakening Faith (2010). Here they
contend with one of the most interesting historical tenets brought forward by Girard's
mimetic theory, which maintains that Christianity, through its desacralizing force became
"the religion of the exit from religion," and democracy, civil rights, individual freedoms,
laicism, have all been, if not precisely invented in the absolute sense, "facilitated" in their
development and expression by the Christian cultures. Secularization in its various cultural
aspects is a Christian by-product, as it were. In particular, see my introduction (1-22) and
the first chapter, "Christianity and Modernity" (23-47).
4. For this, see Iser 132.
5. On this, see Heather Webb's contribution to this forum.

WORKS CITED
Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Trans. Willard R.
Trask. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1953.
Brugnolo, Stefano. "La visione romanzesca e la visione cristiana: una rilettura illuministica
di Menzogna romntica e verit romancesca." Nuova corrente 137 (2006): 13-41.
Fornari, Giuseppe. La bellezza e il nulla: L'antropologia cristiana di Leonardo da Vinci. Milan-Genoa:
Marietti, 2005.
Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1957.
. The Great Code: The Bible and Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982.
Giglioli, Stefano. "Ren Girard e la teoria letteraria: un caso ancora aperto." Identit e desiderio:
La teoria mimetica e la letteratiira italiana. Eds. Pierpaolo Antonello and Giuseppe Fornari.
Massa: Transeuropa, 2009.
Girard, Ren. Battling to the End: Conversations with Benot Chantre. Trans. Mary Baker. East

170

Religion & Literature

Lansing, MI: Michigan State UP, 2010.


. With Gianni Vatdmo. Christianity, Truth, and Weakening Faith: A Dialogue [Verit o Fede
Dtbole, 2006]. Ed. Pierpaolo Antonello. Trans. William McCuiag. New York: Columbia
UP, 2010.
. Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure. Trans. Yvonne Freccero.
1966. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1988.
. With P. Antonello and J. C. de Castro Rocha. Evolution and Conversion: Dialogues on th
Origins of Culture. London: Continuum, 2008.
. Quand ces choses commenceront: Entretiens avec Michel Treguer. Paris: Arla, 1994.
Iser, Wolfgang. Prospecting:from reader response to literary anthropology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins

UP, 1993.

REN GIRARD'S CONCEPT OF CONVERSION


AND THE VIA NEGATIVA: REVISITING
DECEIT, DESIRE, AND THENOVEL

Robert Doran

In the famous conclusion to Dect, Desire, and theNovel, Ren Girard makes
manifest an opposidon that had been suggested but not fully fleshed out
in the body of the work, namely that between "verdcal" and "deviated"
transcendence: thefirstreferring to die properly religious concept of transcendence, the second to what Girard calls "metaphysical desire," the desire
for the Other's being, the desire to be the model of desire. Indeed, "The
Conclusion" develops more explicidy and to a greater extent die religious
implications of Girard's theory of mimedc or mediated desire (based on the
idea that desire is in ter subjective or socially mediated),' and it does so by
exploring the essential ambiguity of religious terminology^ For the reladon
between verdcal and deviated transcendence can also be thought in terms
of the reladon between the literal-religious and figuradve-secular levels of
significadon. Girard exploits the tension between the two levels to buttress
his view that "secularism" is simply a perversion of religious forms, that
the desire to negate or transcend religion results in a parody of the sacred:
"the negadon of God does not eliminate transcendency but diverts it from
the above to the below. The imitadon of Christ becomes the imitadon of
the neighbor" {DDN59, translation modified). Thus it is by a double negationthe negation of religious transcendence in the idolatrous imitation of
the human Other (die neighbor), and the negadon of this negadondiat

Copyright of Religion & Literature is the property of Religion & Literature and its content may not be copied or
emailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder's express written permission.
However, users may print, download, or email articles for individual use.