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Part 1


Chapter 1. Mimetic Binds and Scapegoat Mechanisms.
Introducing Mimetic Theory

The French-American literary critic, religious scholar, anthropologist and philosopher Ren
Girard (b.1923) is known today as one of the most influential and controversial contemporary
thinkers. During the course of forty-five years Girard has developed an interdisciplinary
cultural theory based on research in the field of literary theory, anthropology, the science of
religion, philosophy, psychology and theology.


Girards system is extremely ambitious as he tries to re-think the founding principles of
human culture from basically two structures: mimetic desire and the scapegoat mechanism.
According to Girard himself, his system has been developed at a most inconvenient time.
The great systems, which flourished in the 19
century, appear to have vanished with Freud.
Today there is an immense scepticism surrounding this kind of thought.

Girards system is a scientific hypothesis. On a par with Darwins hypothesis of evolution
Girards aim is to provide a coherent theory on cultural origin and development. He does not
See Per Bjrnar Grande. Syndebukkmekanismer og mimetiske bindinger en presentasjon av Ren Girards
teori, Kirke og Kultur 5 (1991): 451-456.
Saddam Hussein er bde en forbryder og en syndebuk. Interview with Girard in the Danish newspaper
Information, March 15 (1988).
claim to have found the only truth concerning human development, but he postulates a
hypothesis, capable of integrating a number of facts that make historical phenomena

In 1961 Girard published his first book Mensonge romantique et vrit romanesque (Deceit,
Desire and the Novel).

It was an analysis of desire in the novels of mainly Cervantes,
Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust and Dostoevsky. Even if the word mimesis was not yet in use, the
starting point of Girardian theory was a reflection on imitative desire. In Deceit, Desire and
the Novel, the basic understanding of desire is a desire according to the other. The most
common denominator in the European novelistic tradition is, according to Girard, the
revelation of metaphysical desire. Metaphysical desire is contrasted with spontaneous desire
and comes about when the hero desires an object via a mediator.

The mediator plays a central role in Girardian thinking. If desire were not afflicted by a
mediator there could be some possibility of desiring freely. But so long as there is a mediator
present, there cannot be any linear desire. The mediator can receive and hinder desire. He/She
transforms desires into secondary and rivalistic desires. The desire between subject, object
and mediator is labeled triangular desire.

In Deceit, Desire and the Novel Girard concludes that there is no such thing as autonomous or
spontaneous desire. All desires are interdependent and mediated. The nearest you can come to
a free, spontaneous desire is through religious conversion, through imitating Christ. This
freedom and spontaneity, however, is mediated.

The consequences of desiring through a mediator leads to rivalry materialized as jealousy,
hatred and envy. The fact that desires are not original but mediated, creating secondary
desires, means that desires have become metaphysical. During the time-span from Cervantes
to Dostoevsky and to modern-day mentality, the complexity and intensity of metaphysical
desire has been enhanced. Don Quixotes external mediation is neither hidden nor very
Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure (Baltimore, London: Johns Hopkins U.P.,
complex. He proclaims to the whole world that his mediator is the knight Amadis de Gaul.
According to Girard the society surrounding Don Quixote is rather healthy as regards
metaphysical desire. People clearly see the madness in Don Quixotes imitation. But since the
century the effects of metaphysical desire have become more contagious, which has led
in turn to an intensifying of desire in order to hide the role of ones mediator. Stendhal is
important in this context because of the way in which he reveals an intensifying and hidden
way of desiring. In The Red and the Black Stendhal describes the mimetic game of hiding
desire in order to provoke desire. Thus the act of imitation has become much more hidden
than in the days of Don Quixote. Julien Sorel, the hero in The Red and the Black, punishes
himself (by putting his arm in a sling) for revealing his imitation of Napoleon.

Girard claims, from his reading of selected classics, that over the centuries there has been a
development from external to internal mediation, from an external imitation of for example
saints and knights to a more internal imitation of the ordinary person in the street. Thus the
effect of metaphysical desire becomes graver, more intense and more hidden.

In our days its nature is hard to perceive because the most fervent imitation is the most vigorously denied.

(Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, 15.)

People wish to live with the illusion of spontaneous desire and believe that they do. It is this
illusion concerning ones autonomy, which, according to Girard, some novelists have been
able to reveal. The difference between the romantic novelist and the romanesque or realist
novelist is based upon their different approaches towards the mediator. The romantic writer
will show and propagate the mediators presence, often as a rival. But he will not reveal the
mediator's role in mediating desire. The romantic writer believes in the autonomy of the
characters and, according to Girard, is himself governed by a desire for autonomy. The
romantic lie consists in seeing desire as spontaneous and linear. The realist novelist both
presents and reveals the role of the mediator. The mediator is revealed as the decisive factor in
the protagonists desire. The realist novelist is, according to Girard, the most trustworthy
explorer of desire, a desire which Girard labels desire according to the other.
The difference between romantic and realist literature is not a difference according to epoch. The difference is
based on an approach towards desire. There is, however, in Girards work, a preference for novels written in the
realist tradition.

Through a reading of certain selected novels Girard discovered that desire is neither primarily
based on the subject or on the object. If desire were something inherent in the subject, it
would be possible to attain autonomy. Then desire could be something original and
individual. If desire were based on the object, desire would be based on a spontaneous
attraction towards different objects, such as money, houses, cars etc. Contrary to these views
Girard claims that desire is not spontaneous, individual or primarily provoked by objects, but
that desires are mediated through what other people desire. There is no such thing as original
desire, only mediated desire.

In the depiction of the psychology of mimetic desire, Girards reading of Proust has been of
great importance. In In Search of Lost Time, Parisian society, not only the upper classes (the
Faubourg Saint-Germain), but all layers of society are revealed as being ridden with
metaphysical desire. Prousts insights into his characters reveal different forms of hidden
imitation. Especially among the aristocracy and the literary salons, the secrecy, the snobbism,
the role-playing leads to a subtle but brutal hindering of desire. The genius of Proust,
according to Girard, is how he reveals the different layers of desire as a hidden desire towards
the other. Desire for the other is sublimated into arrogance, snobbism, of a coquettish worship
of art and artists. Everyone is frantically trying to convince the others of their autonomy.
Proust, instead of writing in the vein of contemporary thought, reveals the illusion of
autonomous desires and brings in the captivating effect of the mediator, the other. According
to Girard this process of hiding the role of ones mediator is the process of turning men into
Gods in the eyes of each other. Seeing the other as godlike is only possible through the
process of metaphysical desire.

Already in this first major work Girard presents himself as a Christian thinker. Metaphysical
desire is the consequence of our having pulled the gods down from heaven, making the sacred
See Jrgen Jrgensen. P sporet av den tabte oprindelse, Paradigma 4 (1990): 44-45.
See especially chapter IX (The worlds of Proust) in Deceit, Desire and the Novel.
Ibid., Chapter II.
flow over the earth. Simultaneously with the secularization process there is the process of
anthropological resacralisation, of being possessed by the mediator and divinising him. Girard
concludes this tour de force of desire by seeing metaphysical desire as a consequence of
having lost or having resigned from transcendental faith, while true freedom lies in choosing
the divine model.

Girards work can, at first glance, seem rather independent of contemporary theory. But one
must remember that desire was a theme very much la mode in post-war France. The starting
point of metaphysical desire is the discovery of human weakness. The concept of internal
weakness seems initially to be tinged by existentialistic thought, but actually the process is
understood differently since the emphasis is on the other. This inner weakness can very easily
lead to different kinds of possessive reaction towards ones mediator. The mediator becomes
both model and hinderer. What often happens is that the model will begin to desire, especially
in the long term, what the subject itself desires. And inevitably the mediator will transfer his
desires, from the object to the subject. This model, where both the subject and the mediator
desire each others desires is called double mediation. This intensifies the rivalry. In the
process they become more and more alike, while they frantically profess their difference.
(Metaphysical desire makes people profess their uniqueness, their difference, while the
opposite is actually the case.) According to Girard, Dostoevsky, especially in The Eternal
Husband, reveals the mechanism of double mediation. In the process of desiring intensely
the desire is transformed, often to such a radical degree that one loses sight of the original
object. In the end all desires point towards the mediator.

In the same way as Proust, Dostoevsky places the mediator in the foreground and relegates
the object to the background. According to Girard, Dostoevsky pushes the disastrous effects
of the mediator to an apocalyptic level. Dostoevsky is the author who goes furthest in
revealing the ontological sickness of metaphysical desire. By endowing his characters with
Ibid., 62.
Ibid., 58.
Girard. Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World (London: Athlone Press, 1987), 338-347.
Deceit, Desire and the Novel, 45.
the most intense desires and lumping them together in the most unfavourable conditions, he is
able to reveal the culminating effects of metaphysical desire (murder, madness and suicide).
By showing the ultimate consequences of metaphysical desire, Dostoevsky is able to invert
the scene in a convincing manner, by introducing the divine alternative, the Christian model,
the imitation of Christ. The insight that, whilst one is possessed by the other, there is no true
religious life, only the act of becoming one anothers gods and rivals, seems to stem primarily
from Girards reading of The Possessed.

Before presenting the next stage in Girardian theory (the scapegoat mechanism) I will try to
give a short summary of mimetic desire in Deceit, Desire and the Novel. Mimetic desire is, as
I have mentioned, not a term used in this book. But all the ingredients, the basic psychology
based on the concept of the other, is already present. Mimesis in Deceit, Desire and the Novel
is based upon a desire according to the other. There is no hint of any biologically
preconceived mimesis. Instincts tend to limit the desire for acquisition, for example among
animals. Among humans there are no such instinctual dominance patterns that prevent
acquisitive mimesis. Girard criticises Freuds understanding of desire as object-related, and
primarily driven by two separate desires: the Oedipus complex and narcissism. Girard does
not see mimesis as primarily sexual (Freud) or governed by the will to power (Nietzsche).
Neither is mimetic desire primarily understood in moral/ethical terms such as good and evil.
Mimesis is born out of a desire according to the other and controlled by models. In this
respect desire can assume any form depending on the mimetic influences. Lundager Jensens
term borrowed desire seems significant, because desire is seldom dependent on any inherent
drive. The worth of something is dependent upon the desire caused by others. In this respect
desire is an interdividual phenomenon, which works according to its own laws.

In La Violence et le sacr (Violence and the Sacred) from 1972, Girard gives an
anthropological interpretation of the sacred in myths, emphasizing Greek drama. The sacred
Ibid., 59-61, 158, 162-163, 189-190, 249-255.
R.J. Golsan,. Ren Girard and Myth. An Introduction (New York & London: Garland Publishing, 1993), 29-30.
Ibid., 21-24.
See Lundager Jensen. Ren Girard, 10.
in Violence and the Sacred is perceived as ways to control the violence in a society of
scapegoating. According to Finn Frandsen, Girard projects his theory from the psychological
to the cultural. Although he begins, in Violence and the Sacred, by analysing the sacred,
mimesis/mimetic desire is introduced and is seen as a force which leads to scapegoating. In
the mimetic delirium which arises when a society is afflicted or in crisis, a frenetic activity
arises whereby someone has to be found responsible for this terrible situation, someone who,
by being sacrificed, can restore peace. In other words, sacrifice has to come about in order to
prevent a disintegrating society dissolving into violence. The conflicts, caused by mimetic
desire, can reach apocalyptic dimensions where the all-against-all finds a solution in all-
against-one. The choice of scapegoat can be arbitrary, but it tends to be someone marginal,
who differs from the community or has some kind of weakness. This means that it may be a
foreigner, a child, a woman, somebody with a physical or psychological deficiency. But it
could also mean someone of high rank, for example, in some cultures, the sacrifice of a king.
According to Girard, the most primitive and basic sacrifice was probably made spontaneously,
in a raw and unconscious manner. Gradually it became more conscious and ritualistic. Thus
there has been a certain evolution from violent to less violent types of sacrifices.

Not only the rituals but also the myths reflect this violence. From a mimetic reading of myths,
Girard claims that all myths originate in this collective violence. Myths try, in different
ways, to hide the violence, often by a transformation of this same violence. The last thing a
writer of myths will admit is the guilt and wrongdoing of the community's violence. Myths
are written from the community's point of view, meaning the sacrificers point of view. In this
respect myths have a legitimising effect on society. But usually the immolation is transformed
into something fantastic and heroic. The victim is very often divinised, which indicates that
the community cannot bear its own violence.

Finn Frandsen. Begret, volden og offeret, Religionsvidenskabeligt Tidsskrift 6, rhus (1985): 85.
Girard. Violence and the Sacred (5
Ed.) (Maryland Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986),
To get the best systematic presentation of Girards understanding of myth, see Chapter 3 (What is a Myth?) in The
Scapegoat (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1985), 24-44, and Chapter 5 (Mythology) in I See Satan Fall Like
Lightning, (NY: Orbis Books, 2001), 62-70.
Myths try to cover up violence. But, at the same time, myths can, when interpreted rationally,
from an anti-sacrificial and de-mythologized point of view, be read as texts of victimizing.
Myths, usually, in a hidden way, refer to some sort of violent origin. It is from such a
suspicious reading Girard uses mythical texts to discover and uncover collective violence. In
this way myths can be seen as an attempt to hide reality. Myths both displace and refer to
violence in a society. According to Girard, violence is the force which displaces and
mythologizes reality. Seen in this perspective violence is the birth of culture, since expulsion
creates difference and division, an inside and an outside, a them-and-us, a society.

Religion expresses this birth of culture in a logical way. In order to prevent a community from
going under in violence, one establishes a surrogate victim in order to re-establish peace. In
this way religion upholds society. And because the victim is capable of bringing peace, he/
she is often divinised. Sacrificial religion is therefore a force capable of bringing order to a
society, an order which is peace-oriented yet requires violence. In this respect the community
does not worship the killing, but the peace which is a consequence of the killing. One might
say that Girard defines religion as the attempt to prevent violence by the aid of the surrogate
victim. In 1972, when Violence and the Sacred was published, Le Monde wrote that someone
had finally given a coherent, rational and atheistic theory on the nature of religion.

A scandal arose in 1978 when Girards main work was published. In Des Choses cahes
depuis la fondation du monde: Reserches avec Jean-Michel Oughourlian et Guy Lefort
(Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World) the author presented both himself and his
work as something far from atheistic. On the contrary, his work was constructed around the
sacrificial revelation in the Gospels. Girards view on religion as sacrificial was seen from a
non-sacrificial Christian point of view. Things Hidden became something of a sensation,
especially in France. In academic circles, scholars began to use the concept of the Girardian

In Book I of Things Hidden, Girard tries to develop a fundamental anthropology based on the
scapegoat mechanism. The most fundamental difference between human and animal is not,