Shakespeare: Mimesis and desire

"Why do we want what we want? Where do our desires come from? Why do we chase the things that elude us?" A dialogue between René Girard and Robert Pogue Harrison, introduced by Cynthia Haven

Robert Pogue Harrison (left) with René Girard outside the Stanford Faculty Club, California (© Ewa Domańska)

Why do we want what we want? Where do our desires come from? Why do we chase the things that elude us?

René Girard, one of the leading thinkers of our era, dedicated his life to such questions. In the course of his journey, the Stanford professor, who died in 2015 at the age of 91, bypassed prevailing orthodoxies and “isms” to offer a bold, sweeping vision of human nature, human history and human destiny. He has been called “the new Darwin of the human sciences” and was one of the immortels of the Académie Française.

He began his work in the 1960s with a new concept of human desire: our desires are not our own, he said: we are social creatures, and we learn what to want from each other. From that starting point, he went on to write about imitation, envy, competition, violence, scapegoating, rituals, sacrifice, and warfare.

History, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, religion, psychology and theology all figured in his oeuvre. “Girard is one of the titans of 20th-century thought,” says the Stanford Professor Robert Pogue Harrison. “And I believe that the 21st century will vindicate the cogency of his theories in a clamorous way.”

In 2005, Girard met Harrison, author of Juvenescence: A Cultural History of Our Age; Forests: The Shadow of Civilisation; and The Dominion of the Dead, for a two-part interview on Harrison’s celebrated Entitled Opinions radio and podcast series, available on iTunes. Together, they recapped Girard’s long career and thought. This is the first of the two interviews. Both transcripts will be included in the forthcoming Conversations with René Girard (Bloomsbury), edited by Cynthia L. Haven, who is also the author of Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard (2018).                      

Cynthia Haven

Robert Pogue Harrison: The founding adage of western philosophy is “know thyself.” That’s not an easy proposition. To know yourself means, above all, to know your desire. Desires lurk at the heart of our behavior, determine our motivations, organise our social relations, and inform our politics, religions, ideologies, and conflicts. Yet nothing is more mysterious, elusive, or perverse than human desire.

Our government invests billions of dollars in scientific research every year so we might better understand the world of nature, so that we might continue our pursuit of knowledge, yet commits only a tiny fraction of that to advancing the cause of self-knowledge. Most of our major problems today are as old as the world itself. The problem of reciprocal violence, for example. You would think we would want to understand its mechanisms, its psychology, and its tendencies to spiral out of control. Instead, we keep on perpetuating its cycles much the way our ancestors have done for centuries, and even millennia. Nor are we any closer to knowing the deeper layers of our conflicting and conflict-generating desires than they were.

René, your work has an enormous reach. It branches out into various areas and disciplines — literary criticism, anthropology, religious studies, and so forth. Today, I’d like to focus on what I take to be the foundational concept of all your thinking, namely mimetic desire. Can you tell our listeners exactly what you mean by that term?

René Girard: Mimetic desire is when our choice is not determined by the object itself, as we normally believe, but by another person. We imitate the other person, and this is what “mimetic” means. For example: why have all the girls been baring their navels for the last five years? Obviously, they didn’t all decide by themselves that it would be nice to show one’s navel — or that maybe that one’s navel is too warm, and one must do something about it.

We’ll see the mimetic nature of that desire the day that fashion collapses. Suddenly, it will be a very old-fashioned to show one’s navel and no one will show it any more. And it will all happen because of other people — just as now, it is because of other people that they show it.

RPH: But how far do you want to go in saying that desire — by its very nature, and in human beings — is fundamentally mimetic?

Maybe one can start from this question: what is the difference between need, appetite, and desire? Need is an appetite all animals have. We know very well that if we are alone in the Sahara Desert and we are thirsty, we don’t need a model to want to drink. It’s a need that we have to satisfy. But most of our desires in a civilised society are not like that.

Think of vanity, or snobbery. What is snobbery? In snobbery, you desire something not because you really had an appetite for it, but because you think you look smarter, you look more fashionable, if you imitate the man who desires that object, or who also pretends to desire it.

RPH: Well, let me read one quote, a few lines from one of your essays from the volume To Double Business Bound, where you say that mimetic desire “precedes the appearance of its object and survives . . . the disappearance of its object . . . Mimesis cannot spread without becoming reciprocal.” And then, the important sentence for me: “Desires attract, ape, and bind one another, creating antagonistic relationships that both parties seek to define in terms of difference.”

So let’s ask about the young women who are baring their navels: There doesn’t seem to be an element of antagonism in this kind of fashion-based mimetic imitation of others. However, in your theory, it’s very important that you hold to the fact that antagonism is almost the inevitable result of mimetic desire when it becomes rivalrous.

RG: Perhaps the best example would be the plays of Shakespeare in which you have two male friends. They always desire the same thing. They’ve lived together. They have the same dreams, the same meals. And they even say to each other, if you don’t want what I want, you’re not my friend. But suddenly, one of them falls in love with a girl. And as soon as the other one falls in love with a girl — the same girl, because of his friend — antagonism is going to start.

There are two types of objects. The objects we can share, because they are abundant — soft drinks, and so forth. And there are the objects we cannot share or do not want to share, which is the case for the love of a girlfriend. We do not want to share that, especially with our best friend.

These characters are very insecure. As soon as they desire a girl, they are trying to get their friend to desire the same girl.

RPH: This is a crucial point. Because it’s one thing to compete over a scarce object. Two men compete over one woman, or two women over one man. But I take it you are suggesting that it’s much more complex than that?

RG: Much more complex.

It’s not just two men desiring the same object, it’s that their desire is promiscuous, one with the other. Their rivalry sets up a kind of desire for the rival, no?

Yes. It’s very obvious. For instance, in the Two Gentlemen of Verona, as soon as one of the two boys is in love with a girl, his friend is inevitably drawn into the game.

Now why is that?

Because if his friend does not love his girlfriend, he’s not sure he made the right choice. Therefore, he too is mediated. And this type of friendship is something that obsesses Shakespeare and other writers.

Left: “Paolo and Francesca da Rimini”, 1867, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, inspired to kiss after reading about kissing. Right: Don Quixote, driven mad by books, in an 1863 illustration by Gustave Doré — like Francesca, he is inspired by what he reads

In Francesca’s speech in Canto V of Dante’s Inferno, she recounts how she and Paolo were reading the romance of Lancelot one afternoon. When they get to the part where Lancelot kisses Guinevere, Paolo and Francesca put the book down and kiss one another. 

Paolo and Francesca are in-laws. Francesca is married   to the brother of Paolo. They have absolutely no previous idea of making love to each other. No thought of it. But when they read this, they are suddenly inspired by the book to do the same thing. That’s why Dante, obviously, views the book as, in a way, the devil who incites that: “Galeotto fu ‘l libro e chi lo scrisse.” The book was their Galeotto.

RPH: Galehaut was the go-between the adulterous lovers in the Lancelot story.

Galehaut is the traitor, the one who suggested to the boyfriend that he should make love. The theme of the go-between is extremely important in Shakespeare, too. Pandarus, you know. So the go-between is, in a way, a man who plays with the mimetic desire of others. And the men of the theatre set up some kind of story by inciting mimetic desire and watching the results, which are usually drama — a drama of jealousy, of envy, of  conflict.

Literature first led you to see the structure of mimetic desires. Your first book, Deceit, Desire and the Novel, is when you first laid out this theory.

RG: Yes.

RPH: So what role does literature play for you in your thinking about the structures and mechanisms of mimetic desire? You have undertaken a massive probing of European fiction, beginning with Cervantes and going all the way up to Camus. Literature clearly has a revelatory function.

Yes, but it was more the contact between literature and my own experience. I was in my early twenties, then, and of course I was interested in girlfriends. Suddenly I realised that I was just like most heroes of novels — like Proust, you know. One girlfriend wanted me to marry her, and I didn’t want to do that. So I would move away from her when she demanded some commitment on my part. But as soon as I had moved away and she had accepted that and left, I was drawn back to her again by the very fact, in a way, that she denied herself to me.

I realised suddenly that she was both object and mediator for me, some kind of model. You see? She influenced my desire by denying it. All these negative games are always present in desire. Even the people who know least about desire are aware that the denial of the object increases the desire. The denial of the object is very much linked to the presence of the third person who might steal the object from you. Absence is a form of mediation.

So when you turned to the literature, you found, in European fiction, a variety of representations of this very common syndrome.

RG: There are two types of writers. There are what I call romantic writers. The romantic writers believe in the genuineness and spontaneity of desire. They believe that their choice of the object is dictated only by who they are and so on. But the more interesting writers are the ones who realise the role that a third person has in our desires, and play with it in order to obtain their results.

RPH: Who would be these writers in your opinion?

RG: In the European novel, the first great example is Cervantes. Why does Don Quixote want to become a knight errant in a world where there are no more knights errant? He’s exactly like Francesca. He reads novels of chivalry. And it is because he reads novels of chivalry that he wants to become a great hero. He imitates Amadis of Gaul, who is a purely fictional character, of course. The result is that he gets beaten black-and-blue on all the highways of Spain. But he’s very happy because he thinks he’s the great disciple of Amadis, and he’s going to re-establish knight-errantry, which had disappeared for centuries.

RPH: So literature not only reveals these mechanisms of mimetic desire, but it also proposes models of imitation for readers. Of course, this is something we see everywhere, not only in readers of literature but obviously moviegoers, television-watchers. It’s undeniable that we live in a culture where we’re steeped in models of imitation that come to us through the entertainment industry and other media.

RG: That’s right. And of course, the more recent media are more powerful than the old ones. Today, we try to get children to read books and not watch television. But in the old days, books were really fascinating because they played the role of television today. They were a temptation per se. When you try to convince students that they should read them against their mimetic impulse, of course, you more or less tell them that they hold no interest for them. That they are not going to get any incitement for their desire there. That’s probably why it’s so hard to teach literature today.

RPH: So for authors like Stendhal, Flaubert — I mean, obviously, Emma Bovary is like Francesca in . . .

RG: That’s true.

Emma is a modern-day version of Francesca. She was nourished on the cheap romantic fiction of her day. I call it cheap — let’s say it was popular romantic fiction, which provided her with her models of emulation. Of course there’s much more to it than that. In Deceit, Desire and the Novel, you describe a whole typology of emotions, especially what we might call negative emotions: hatred, jealousy, envy, resentment . . .

RG: Which are all linked to pride, of course. Because if you have a mimetic rivalry, your vanity is involved and you want to win at all cost. The main fight, anyway, is between two young men to seduce a woman. They spend quite a bit of time on it, especially in Latin culture. I think one of the reasons Anglo-Saxon culture is — what should I say? — more economically dynamic is because not so much energy is deviated into that sort of mimetic desire, which plays such an enormous role in the Italian little town, or in southern France, or in Spain.

That raises a question that I’ll ask you in a provocative spirit. What you’re describing is correct and accurate when it comes to a culture like France, which has had a long aristocratic tradition, typically highly committed to forms of snobbery, vanity. And also in other Latin cultures, as you were mentioning. But if it doesn’t apply equally well to Anglo-Saxon cultures, let alone non-Western cultures, to what extent can you make a claim of universality?

RG: We can claim universality. Of course, in these novels sexual desire plays a great role. But mimetic desire is very important in the world of “entrepreneurs” — as you say in English, although it’s a French word. The most mimetic institution of all is a capitalistic institution: the stock market. You desire stock not because it is objectively desirable. You know nothing about it, but you desire stuff exclusively because other people desire it. And if other people desire it, its value goes up and up and up. Therefore, in a way, mimetic desire is an absolute monarch.

The analysts of the market have not yet discovered that. When they tell you psychology is getting into the market, they mean that the mimetic wave that makes stocks rise is getting out of bounds. It has no more relationship to reality than that. The stock market is always threatened with a mimetic wave of such importance and such a lack of objectivity.

Inevitably, there will be a collapse, which is also lacking in objectivity. Just as a fashionable woman in Balzac, when she’s abandoned by a lover, may be abandoned by all potential lovers at the same time. It’s a total disaster for her. She becomes like a stock that has lost its value. The error of Marx was to believe that the economic aspect is more fundamental than the other ones. The error of Freud was to believe that the sexual aspect was fundamental. Each one of them limits mimetic desire to one sector, one aspect of human activity, which is regarded as the only important one, the key to everything. But mimetic desire reveals the relationship between Freud and Marx.

Whereas I take it, your theory of mimetic desire is not a psychological theory. It’s not based on psychological premises.

No, because it’s based on human relations.

And on external structures that determine those relations over and above the individual psyche.


Your mimetic theory, from what I understand, is not limited exclusively to human beings. There is a basis for it in the animal world.

RG: Sure. In the animal world, you have what they call dominance patterns. How are they established? The males fighting for the females. And the males are so eager to fight for the females that sometimes, when the females disappear, they continue fighting just because they are mimetically aroused. The fight becomes more important than the object.

But they will never kill each other, whereas human beings invented vengeance. Vengeance is the ultimate form of mimetic rivalry, because each act of vengeance is the exact imitation of the preceding one. If you study vengeance, you’ll realise how mimetic imitation is all over the place in all manifestations of desire. In human beings, it’s pushed to such an extreme that it can result in death. Vengeance cannot be limited.

That’s why I asked in my opening remarks about why can’t we have an institution devoted strictly to the study of vengeance, for example, and work out its logic — reciprocal violence, these kinds of things. We are far from overcoming the behaviour that has characterised human history throughout the centuries.

But let’s move on to another emotion, which is closely linked, obviously, to hatred, vengeance, and jealousy, namely envy. I think envy is a highly underestimated emotion in the human relations. How do you see the role of envy?

I see it the same way. Today envy is the emotion which plays the greatest role in our society, where everything is directed towards money. Therefore you envy the people who have more than you have. You cannot talk about your envy. I think the reason we talk so much about sex is that we don’t dare talk about envy. The real repression is the repression of envy.

And of course, envy is mimetic. You cannot help imitating your model. If you want money very badly, you’re going to enter the same business as the man who is your model. More likely than not, you will be destroyed by strength. So when people talk about masochism and so forth, they are still talking about mimetic desire. They are talking about how we move always to the greatest strength in the direction of the desire we envy most. We do so because that power is greater than ours — and it’s probably going to defeat us again. So there will be what Freud calls repetition in psychological life, which is linked to the fact that we’re obsessed with what has defeated us the first time. Our victorious rival in lovemaking becomes a permanent model. So novelists like Dostoevsky and Cervantes will show you characters who literally asked their rival to choose for them the girl they should love.

RPH: In the Middle Ages, envy was often depicted iconographically as a woman blindfolded. And I think it probably has to do with a false etymology of invidia as not having sight. Do you see a blindness at the heart of envy in this regard —


— or is there a blind spot in  our own failure to recognise envy as one of the most dominant passions of our own society?

RG: Yes, it’s so difficult to acknowledge because it involves your whole being. In a way, envy is a denial of your own being and accepting the fact that you prefer the being of your rival. This is so hateful to you that it awakens a desire for murder, for the murder of that other you envy. You cannot repress that envy.

Sometimes murder, but you could say also, in other cases, admiration.

RG: It’s the same thing. [Laughter.]

We hope they have different outcomes. I wonder if the advertising industry knows what you’re saying. It knows the lesson of envy very, very well.

I think they know it very well. Advertising doesn’t try to demonstrate to you that the object it is selling is the best from an objective point of view. They’re always trying to prove to you that this object is desired and possessed by the people you would like to be. Therefore, Coca-Cola is drunk on a very beautiful beach, in the marvellous sun, with a bunch of suntanned people who are always between the ages of 16 and 22, who are everything you would like to be, who obviously wear very few clothes, but very expensive ones, because they have the most shapely bodies. Everything you might envy.

There is something sacramental about this. Religion is alwaysmixed up in these things. If you consume Coca-Cola, maybe if you consume a lot of it, you will become a little bit like these people you would like to be. It’s a kind of Eucharist that will turn you into the person you really admire.
“Tarquin and Lucretia”, 1571, by Titian: In Shakespeare’s version, Tarquin has been aroused solely by the words of  Lucretia’s husband

RPH: Let’s talk about your book on Shakespeare, A Theatre of Envy. Why this title?

It comes from a very specific text from an early Shakespeare poem, “The Rape of Lucrece”. It is a story of all the male population in Rome, who are in a camp because they are fighting a war. In the evening, they talk about their wives. And one of them, Callatine — Collatinus, in Latin — describes his wife in such glowing ways that Tarquin, the son of the king, leaves on his horse during the night, goes to Rome, and rapes the woman.

In the original story by Livy, he sees the woman first. In other words, he falls in love with her. He realises, sees, or thinks she’s as beautiful as her husband described her. Shakespeare suppressed that part. He rapes the woman sight unseen. He’s aroused only by the words of her husband. So in other words, Shakespeare emphasises the paradoxical aspect of mimetic desire. The role of what I call the mediator, who is the husband. That’s the reason why most critics regard “The Rape of Lucrece” as a mad poem. I think they dislike it because it tries to show to them what’s really important for Shakespeare — “that envy of so rich a thing”. This line is essential.

RPH: But it would seem to lack plausibility unless one understands mimetic desire the way you do. Because the idea of going to rape a woman sight unseen would seem not to follow rules of verisimilitude.

RG: Up to a point, it does not follow the rules verisimilitude. But Shakespeare, in a way, exaggerates in order to show you the truth, in order to make it more visible.

One of the claims of your book — and this has irked some critics, one has to admit — is that Shakespeare understood the truth about mimetic desire. He was the one literary author among the whole canon who really understood it thoroughly and theoretically. He had such mastery with regard to the mimetic phenomenon that he was able to imbue it in all of his plays and to give us a corpus of works which becomes a vast theatre of mimetic desire, present everywhere.

As a commentator on Shakespeare, you claim him as your great predecessor in the discovery of mimetic desire. One has to say that it’s not the first time someone has claimed the authority of Shakespeare on behalf of a theory. We know how Freud used him.


But you really see him primarily as the poet of mimetic desire. Is that correct?

RG: I see him primarily as the poet of mimetic desire. If you take a play like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, you would observe that two men always tend to be in love with the same girl. They suddenly change because of the love-juice which is put into their eyes, and they both fall in love with the other girl. And then they become rivals.

The theme of the fairies, which is greatly emphasised by most people who represent Shakespeare on the stage, should be understood as the way human beings in archaic societies fail to recognise mimetic desire. Myth and stories of that type are always excuses in order to explain through miraculous means the bad consequences of mimetic desire.

RPH: And you think Shakespeare understood that explicitly?

I think so. “O, Hell! To choose love by another’s eyes,” is one of the essential lines of that play. In other words, hell is really when you choose love by another’s eyes, and you are inevitably drawn into a conflict of jealousy and a problem with your friend, which is the story. Midsummer Night’s Dream is nothing else.

You claim in your book that mimetic behaviour is much more present in the comedies than the tragedies, or at least it’s present in such a way that it’s much more obvious.

Much more obvious because you can have all sorts of arrangements. I mentioned before Two Gentlemen of Verona. In the first plays of Shakespeare, you have only one pair of lovers. Two boys were in love with the same girl. After that, you have two pairs, and the two pairs are entangled with each other. It’s like a ballet. If you look at the shape of a ballet, of the movement, you can assume that a form of mimetic rivalry is behind it, too. Ultimately, we are moving towards a type of art in which gestures and words are all in a way symmetrically arranged because of mimetic rivalry.

The more mimetic rivalry you have with someone, the more different you feel from that person. In reality, however, you always do the same thing, you always act in the same way, and in that way the differences collapse. As the differences collapse, the characters become literally doubles of each other. They act in the same way. They speak the same way. And they have a feeling that they are imitated by the other who is making fun of them. But this imitation, in fact, is compulsive. This is Hermia and Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

RPH: Let’s take a test case of Hamlet. In literary criticism, Hamlet is considered to be maybe one of the first modern examples of consciousness that is at odds with itself. It’s an internalised self, which speaks to itself, and seems to be alienated from society. He would seem to be exactly the kind of character who is free from the promiscuous circulation of desire around him. He withdraws within himself. And this is the birth of the romantic sort of inward melancholic —

During much of the play, in fact, he is. And that’s why he cannot do what society requires of him, which is revenge. He sees the similarity between his father and his uncle. They are both murderers. They hate each other, but they are mimetic characters.

“Hamlet and his father’s Ghost”, c.1785, by Henry Fuseli: For René Girard, Hamlet is a victim of mimetic desires

RPH: And he sees the futility —

RG: He sees the futility.

— of the law of revenge.

That’s right.

RPH: And then what happens? In what way can we say that Hamlet ends up becoming a victim of that very phenomenon?

Well, there is another plot inside the plot, which is really the whole story of Polonius killed by Hamlet. And then Laertes, who is the son of Polonius, and in many ways he is the anti-Hamlet. He’s willing and ready to commit the vengeance Hamlet is unable to commit. He’s ready to mourn his sister in a very powerful, emotional way. And when Hamlet sees this, he says, “The bravery of his grief did put me into a towering passion” — a towering rage. This means that out of an imitation of Laertes, he will become able to kill Laertes and start the vengeance process which he could not start before — because Laertes is closer to him. It’s very different, but Laertes becomes a model of the mimetic desire which he feels unconsciously. An imitation finally resolves the tension and the inability to act.

In a way, the inability to act in our world is an awareness of the stupidity of mimetic desire and how equivalent things are to each other. The more you act, the more you get into these mimetic situations, which are circular. 

Would that be the essence of the tragedy?

This is Shakespeare. Most tragic writers are not that modern. Shakespeare, in the way I interpret him at least. I don’t claim total  truth, you know. Shakespeare is  enormously  modern. What he says is that it’s very difficult to keep a revenge tragedy going on for three, four, five hours. To do so, we must have a hero who is unable to get revenge. A hero who does not believe in the situation. He does not believe in the virtue of his mother. He does not believe in the difference between his uncle and his father. He does not believe in anything he should believe.

And he’s surprised when he sees an actor who is capable of shedding real tears for the queen of Troy, Hecuba. The actor should know it’s not true. But for Hecuba, he thinks, that actor can shed tears, and he cannot shed them in his real family life. The theatre scene is very important in that sense.

“What’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba?”

RG: Yes. What’s Hecuba to him? 

RPH: I think what is tragic is that even when one understands the madness of reciprocal violence, in the forms of vengeance and the perpetuation of those cycles, one is still not be able to resist falling into their —

RG: Pattern.

RPH: — their pattern again. That gives a deep level of pessimism to a play like Hamlet. As I was saying at the beginning of the programme, even if we were to create these institutions of self-knowledge that would undertake a study of things such as vengeance, reciprocal violence, and so forth: why is it that human behaviour is so resistant to adapting itself to what the mind knows?

But in many instances, we actually don’t. Many people pull back from mimetic situations, just as Hamlet does. And in a way, is not modern wisdom very much this?  We don’t analyse a mimetic situation completely, but we are aware that we are in a situation that is totally classical, which is present all over the world in thousands of examples of every minute, every second. And we pull back from it because we don’t want to repeat something we know too well is going to end in exactly the same fashion as all previous examples.

RPH: One more case from Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet. That is a play where two lovers seem to have a completely unmediated relationship, one to the other. What do you make of Romeo and Juliet in terms of mimetic desire?

Well, I really believe that in that case Shakespeare wrote a romantic play. In other words, Romeo and Juliet do not play tricks on each other. They are really in love. Their love is completely true. So most people always quote Romeo and Juliet as the play that contradicts my thesis. But at the same time, Shakespeare gives you many clues. The reason Romeo and Juliet fall in love with each other is that they shouldn’t. They are separated by the blood feud. They belong to the two different tribes that are constantly fighting.

So if you look at the language of Romeo and Juliet, what is the language of the love, of mimetic desire in Shakespeare? It’s the oxymoron. I love-hate this girl. Love and hate are always together. And people don’t realise that the reason for the oxymoron is that love and hate are always mixed.

In the case of Romeo and Juliet, they are not mixed. But Romeo and Juliet can use the language of hatred and violence because they are on both sides of the blood feud. “I loved my beloved enemy” is the fundamental expression of love in the 16th, 17th centuries. And in Romeo and Juliet, the word “enemy” really means he’s a Capulet or a Montague. You see, therefore, you can suppress mimetic desire but it is there, underneath in the language, because you have the blood feud that brings you the violence you need in order to have convincing passion.

RPH: Right. I remember Zeffirelli had a film version of Romeo and Juliet where he wanted to end the play with the great romantic myth of love so the two lovers are there on the stage in the final scene alone. In Shakespeare’s version, however, there is a dead body on the stage with them, namely Paris, whom Romeo has slain.

And it’s a hindrance.

RPH: Yes. It’s certainly a reminder of violence . . .

René Girard with his wife, Martha McCullough, in 2008 ( ©L.A. Cicero/Stanford News Service)

RG: When Juliet does not wake up at the right second she’s supposed to wake up, the stupid Romeo kills himself. Then, when finally Juliet wakes up, she can see that he’s dead and she kills herself. Now at just about the same time as Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare wrote a satire of that ending saying, “Look at these fools who believe in their true love there and have a true tragedy, whereas, in fact, these lovers are the victims of a stupid misunderstanding.”

In the story of Pyramus and Thisbe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the same thing happens: they are supposed to be separated by their parents. They give each other an appointment. And when Pyramus shows up in the forest, he finds a lion there, chewing the scarf of Thisbe, and he kills himself. Two minutes later, Thisbe comes back, finding Pyramus dead. She kills herself. And of course, it’s a parody of Romeo and Juliet.

RPH: I have to tell our listeners that I’ve known René a long time. And I can ask him about any text in the history of literature, and I will be thoroughly convinced that mimetic desire is absolutely everywhere. And that the theory is finally unfalsifiable. This is an issue. Now hold on.

As Karl Popper said, in order for a theory to be true, there has to be certain conditions under which it’s falsifiable. So let me ask you: under what conditions do you think your theory of mimetic desire is falsifiable?

RG: In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare himself is showing you that if you do away with mimetic desire, you have to use other props that will create a tragedy. You can write a comedy. Comedy is a more honest genre, I fear, than tragedy. But to have a tragedy, you must underhandedly bring in something like the blood feud, which is ready-made violence. It’s been going on for generations, and so you have the son of one tribe make love to the girl of the other tribe.

Look at the balcony scene between Romeo and Juliet. They are very young people. She’s about thirteen. It’s supposed to be the greatest love scene in Shakespeare. But what do they talk about? They talk about the henchmen of the family who are down there in the bushes trying to kill Romeo. In the balcony scene, there is no language of love. They cannot say much to each other, but they can talk a lot about the henchmen of the two families that are going to kill Romeo. That’s what Juliet is worried about. They don’t have much to say because Juliet has already accepted making love to Romeo, and Romeo is about to do it.

RPH: I promised I wouldn’t do this, but I think I have to ask. We’ve been talking about literature and mimetic desire within individuals, in relations between individuals. But blood feuds, vengeance, reciprocal violence, these are also geopolitical realities in the world we live in. Do you see any sort of pulling back from the endless repetition of the old cycles? Or do you see a danger of falling into a vortex in which we never really get beyond cycles of reciprocal violence, politically speaking?

RG: I think we are free. It’s a question of understanding and of will. Human beings are so passionate that they always get caught in the old traps. We ourselves do, you know. We are committed to what we do. We want to succeed. And we always succeed at the expense of someone. And therefore, I really think we are moving more and more towards more and more violence because of rivalry.

I’ve talked a lot about literature, but recently, I read a book which is very informative for me: Clausewitz’s On War. Clausewitz calls war a chameleon. He says it’s an escalation to the extremes, and he says in order to win, you have to imitate your enemy constantly. And if you start reading Clausewitz carefully, you can see it works exactly like a mimetic novel. It doesn’t matter which side wins. Clausewitz does not teach you how to win, but he constantly shows you the mimetic nature of war.

He was a Prussian, and he said, in order to beat the French, you must have a popular war. You must draft everybody. So here we see the move towards total war. And he sees very well, too, that the technical side of war, the power of the artillery, for instance, is a mimetic game. If you have a big gun, I must have a bigger gun than you have. So in other words, he shows us the move towards total war and total mimetic conflict.

If they were to listen to you, what would you propose to politicians in order to try to avoid falling into this syndrome?

It’s a complicated question because my vision fundamentally is religious. I believe in non-violence, and I believe that the knowledge of violence can teach you to reject violence. It will assure you that we are always getting into a game, which is exactly like the previous ones, which is going to be a constant repetition.

RPH: Yes, but Hamlet already saw that. It didn’t save him.

RG: Ah. But Shakespeare had to bring in Laertes. And if Laertes had been another Hamlet, there would have been no end to the play. It would have been the end of tragedy. But when Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, what he said is, “I’m tired of tragedy.” And he’s really very close to the end of tragedy. After that, he moves to the romances. And in the romances, we have a bunch of characters who repent of their violence, their mimetic desire for vengeance — like Leontes in The Winter’s Tale. Leontes becomes aware that he’s been a wild man, totally mad, by suspecting his wife of being unfaithful with his friend.

RPH: René, we’ve only really scratched the surface. After your first book, Deceit, Desire and the Novel, you extended your thought into an anthropological realm. You went on to write books like Violence and the Sacred and Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, where you come up with essentially what amounts to an anthropogenic theory of human culture based on scapegoat rituals and sacrifice and the violent origins of religion.

There are signs that communities — archaic communities, but even modern communities, all communities — are subject to disturbances which tend to spread to the entire community contagiously, through a form of mimetic desire. If you have two people who desire the same thing, you will soon have three, when you have three, they contaminate the rest of the community faster and faster. The differences that separate them, the barriers to the type of intercourse that mimetic desire produces, collapse. Therefore you go toward what I call a mimetic crisis, the moment when everybody at the same time is fighting over something. Even if that object disappears, they will go on fighting, because they will become obsessed with each other. And as that conflict grows, it threatens to destroy the whole community.

What happens to end that sort of crisis? At some point, one particular victim seems, to more and more people, to be responsible for the whole trouble. The mimetic contagion moves from desire to a specific victim. Of course, as long as the real plague is going on, the scapegoat is not going to solve the problem, but the problem that it will solve is the total disruption of the community, which is caused by the mimetic belief of everybody that everybody else is responsible. 

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