Deceit, Desire and the Novel by René Girard – Book Discussion Part 2: Privilege, Politics and How to Be Happy

Introduction and Review of Part 1

The point of studying mimetic theory is to learn to tell the difference between my desires and desires I have borrowed or imitated from others. The point is to attain true freedom because in the latter stages of internal mediation we become blindly enslaved to our mediators. This journey from enslavement to freedom which reveals the role of the mediator in desire comprises what René Girard (RG) calls “novelistic unity”.

In the first class, we discussed the “mystery” of human relationships: mimetic or triangular desire. This desire is first of all metaphysical; objects of desires are simply a means to an end, that of obtaining the qualities, personality or identity of the mediator. We also discussed the two types or stages of mediation, external and internal.

External mediation (Cervantes) is characterized by open imitation, discipleship, worship, and unity of personality. Life has clearly defined purpose and meaning. It relies on inequality or difference between the model and the mediator, differences of time, place or social class.

Internal mediation (Stendahl, Proust) results when the role of the mediator is concealed. It is characterized by pride/ vanity, the pursuit of originality and autonomy, and a rise in resentment, hatred and self-righteousness. Rivalry results because the differences of time, space and social class have been reduced so that model and mediator come into direct contact with each other.

In the extreme stage of internal mediation we lose the connection to and trust in our own experiences. RG identifies a phenomenon he calls “deviated transcendency” in which we become gods for one another. With the ascendency of internal mediation, “The imitation of Christ becomes the imitation of one’s neighbor.” (59)

“Deviated transcendency is a caricature of vertical transcendency… The false prophets proclaim that in tomorrow’s world men will be gods for one another.” (61)

In this class, we are going to unpack the reason why the word “deceit” gets top billing in the title of this book. And because we are not all familiar with the novels that RG refers to, we will use more contemporary and accessible illustrations to present the big ideas from the last two thirds of Deceit, Desire and the Novel. 

Lord of the Manor – Another Look at External Mediation, the Upside

Why do Americans enjoy Downton Abbey so much? After all, we are a nation founded in rebellion against the tyranny of kings and yet we love all things about the British nobility, from our fascination with the royal family to our love of BBC dramas about manor life.

When the series opens, Lord Grantham, the head of Downton Abbey, rules over his household with unquestioned authority. This is the realm of external mediation. Everyone, staff, wife and children, obey his commands; his desires are their desires. He reigns with an aloof confidence. Children may rebel, servants may misbehave, but his calm assurance in his lordship remains unshaken.

The BBC series, however, chronicles the last years of the noble class in England in the early 20th century, as seen through the trials and tribulations of the Grantham family. No longer will the rule of nobles over commoners be seen as divinely sanctioned and therefore unassailable. The middle class is on the rise and the value of equality is overtaking England and the world with the force of a tsunami. Going “into service” is no longer esteemed as an honorable profession. Few want to serve a lord anymore, even one as benevolent as Lord Grantham.

Such changes herald good news for the working class, for women’s rights, for a rising standard of living that does much to alleviate poverty and hunger. It seems that tyranny is being defeated once and for all. But we are now entering the world of internal mediation. Though much is gained, something is lost, and that something is what motivates our love of BBC dramas like Downton Abbey.

The thing that attracts us about the Grantham manor is its shared sense of purpose, supplied by devotion to the lordship of Lord Grantham. Staff and family know to whom they owe their allegiance. Much of Lord Grantham’s confidence is reflected in the bearing of his staff, especially those who are held in Lord Grantham’s high esteem. Once he has been unseated from his throne, however, that unity has lost its mooring. What takes its place is a belief in the autonomy of each individual and sense of disdain towards those who cling to the old ways. Few want to be followers anymore; the goal now is to be a leader. Independence reigns supreme and pride in oneself replaces pride in the household one serves.

As RG explains in DDN, democratic revolutions destroyed monarchies and the nobility. It was an attempt to destroy privilege but pride in oneself “spread like a virulent cancer”. This was a problem because though the revolutions eliminated the scourge of tyrants, they could not do away with the human need for models of desire. If Lord Grantham is no longer our model for desire, who will take his place? The answer: anyone, anywhere at any time can become our model.

“Who is there left to imitate after the ‘tyrant’? Henceforth men shall copy each other; idolatry of one person is replaced by hatred of a hundred thousand rivals… there is no other god but envy for the modern crowd whose greed is no longer stemmed and held within acceptable limits by the monarch. Men will become gods for each other… Democracy is one vast middle-class court where the courtiers are everywhere and the king is nowhere.” (119)

Equally Unhappy

The question that occupied Stendahl was the question everyone was asking: Why are men not happy in the modern world? Answer: Because we are vain. (115-116) In other words, we are unhappy because we are ashamed of our need for a model.

RG uses the term nobility in two ways: in a spiritual and in a social sense. The spiritual sense refers to the individual, a person like Lord Grantham “whose desires come from within himself and who exerts every ounce of his energy to satisfy them. Nobility in the spiritual sense… is… synonymous with passion.” (116)

Lord Grantham provides an example of healthy desires not contaminated by the envy and rivalries of internal mediation. He is not indifferent but is genuinely uninterested in the whirling rivalries around him. This is authentic renunciation. (164-165)

Santa Claus is another good example of nobility in the spiritual sense. He is constantly being surrounded by other peoples’ desires but he is never contaminated by them. Santa’s desires are authentically his own – to fulfill everyone else’s desires, and he does so with incredible humility! He does not want to be seen or heard, but goes about his business and sneaks away before we can even thank him.

Nobility in the social sense refers to the noble classes which are exemplified by the court of Louis XIV in France: vain, silly, fashion obsessed and trivial. They are the very opposite of the passionate person whose desires come from within himself. The nobility or noble class has descended into the worst excesses of internal mediation. How did this happen?

RG explains that when the noble person makes the inevitable comparison to others, his nobility slips a bit. “He begins the reflection that will gradually cut him off from his own nobility and transform it into a mere possession mediated by the look of the commoner. The nobleman as an individual is thus the passionate being par excellence, but nobility as a class is devoted to vanity.” (116-117)

As RG points out, since the rise of the pursuit of equality, “no one can be privileged without knowing it.” (128) Yet many continue to pursue privilege even as we resent those who have it! This is the current relationship to the 1% — we resent them and also want to be them. “To realize that the privilege is arbitrary and to still desire it is obviously the height of vanity.” (121-122)

A good example of desires being “mediated by the look of the commoner” or middle classes is the informal dress of the mega-rich like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. They project a pretense of not caring what others think about them but they do so by copying the dress style of the middle class. The mega-rich cling to their privilege, yet their style of dress reveals the double mediation at play. In double mediation, both parties are acting as model and imitator for one another. Both the privileged and the middle classes are copying each other – and vehemently denying it! The evidence is the resentment that infiltrates both classes.

We see this double-mediation dramatized as the story of Downton Abbey unfolds. The Grantham family adopts the values of the bourgeoisie such as economizing, working, having careers and jobs. The family attempts to maintain its hold on its wealth and privilege in direct competition with rising middle class.

What does it mean to “check your privilege”? It is a legitimate call for equality but the problem remains: what happens when we are all equal and no anchoring center for our desires is to be found? Can an authentic nobility, one free from the tyranny of the desires of others, be constructed in our time? Stendahl’s analysis suggests that the key to happiness is to overcome our pride and learn to get over our shame at having models.

Tocqueville observed “the paradox of an aristocracy that by its opposition to the middle class begins to resemble it, and that adopts all the virtues of which the middle class is trying to rid itself.” (124)

“Truly noble reflection resigns itself to [the death of privilege], just as the truly noble warrior is prepared to die on the battlefield. The nobility cannot reflect on itself and remain noble without destroying itself as a caste; and since the revolution forced the nobility to think about itself, its own extinction is the only choice left to it.” (126-127)

Politics and The Pursuit of Happiness

After the democratic revolutions that toppled the noble classes, models will be present but undetectable, like background radiation after an atomic blast. To deny their presence is to get into a heap of trouble! And desires, unmoored from a stable source, will multiply and spread by contact, much like a viral contagion spreads. In place of one Lord Grantham, each person we encounter could assume his place as our desires search for a stable direction.

This is the realm of internal mediation, as we discussed in the first class, where the models are so close as to cause conflict and, importantly, we deny their existence. Our desires are proudly our own and we insist on their fulfillment – the pursuit of happiness, as we call it.

But sharing desires can lead to conflict. The mass production brought about by capitalism is one solution to the plague of shared desires – if there are enough coveted items to go around, we can all possess one for ourselves.

But if the object cannot or will not be shared, such as a lover, a job, or a political office, then the loss of the awareness of our models causes problems. We believe in the priority and originality of our desires and see our models only as obstacles refusing to allow us free access to the objects we must have with increasing passion. Each one’s desire enflames the desire of the other until both parties believe in the indisputable value of the object and the absolute necessity of possessing the object for themselves.

As internal mediation grows more and more dominant, the chase becomes more and more intense. Everyone is borrowing desires from one another and simultaneously blocking access to the shared objects of desire. As rivalry escalates, the supposed object of desire actually diminishes in importance and disappears from view. Its value is, after all, an illusion of the rivalry as it the belief that we must possess it to be happy. At this stage, all that is left is the rivalry itself. And the only goal that remains is the defeat of the rival.

What does this have to do with politics? The current state of affairs is exemplary of the worst extreme of mimetic rivalries. Political parties have no other goal than to defeat one another. Governing, working on behalf of the people, being “in service” as the staff of Downton Abbey, are no longer the aim of the parties. Simply to win and so to deny the rival his victory is all that is left. Winning, however, loses its ability to make us happy. We experience a letdown because the object we so desired is revealed to be meaningless after all. Example: winning political office means endless campaigning and fundraising with little time left for governing.

“The party struggle is the only stable element in contemporary instability. Principles no longer cause rivalry; it is a metaphysical rivalry.” (131)

Love Games – Desire and Deceit

In the upside-down world of internal mediation, lovers must resist open displays of desire such as writing letters or sending someone to intercede or expressions of despair in the face of the loss of the beloved. Why? Because open displays invite others to imitate your desires, creating rivals. In model-model structure, each is copying the other’s desire so any overt expression of desire will lead to a copying and an escalation.

And to make matters worse, your “neediness” is very undesirable! No one wants to be seen as “trying too hard”. Remember that the most attractive thing of all is the satisfied desire of a Lord Grantham. Admitting your lack of fulfillment is very unattractive! Lovers learn to conceal their desires, to lie about it. Indifference arouses desire and open desire arouses disdain.

The movie Good Will Hunting provides a good example. Near the beginning of the movie, there’s a scene in a bar with Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. Affleck’s character points out some “Harvard Hotties” and tries to flirt with the students. His obvious interest in them tells Damon’s character he should be interested in these women, too. But Affleck’s overt interest in them and failed attempt at an intellectual conversation leaves the women unimpressed. A male Harvard student arrives and mocks Affleck’s character in front of the women. Matt Damon’s character comes to the rescue by mocking the man who mocked his friend. The rivalry ends and Matt Damon walks away. He spends the rest of the evening feigning indifference toward the women. At the end of the night, Minnie Driver’s character walks to Matt Damon and complains that she’s been waiting for him to make a move all night, and now they just have to wait for another time. She gives him her phone number. Which leads to the great question in this movie, “How do you like them apples?!

Romantic comedies, comedy of errors, the imitation and obstacles are all accidental. In the great novels, the role of the mediator is revealed, the source of the obstacle is the pride of the subject.

The coquette (or dandy, “master of indifference”) (162) provokes admiration in others so that she can be reassured of her own desirability. Her apparent indifference is the other side of desire of oneself, or we might call this desire an egotistical love. She is not indifferent to the attention she is receiving, but on the contrary, she is fascinated by it. Her lovers are fascinated by her indifference, interpreting it as evidence of the “divine autonomy” he longs to acquire. Double mediation: desire is stimulated by coquetry and also fuels it. (105-106)

RG compares this self-discipline for the sake of desire to religious asceticism, askesis or self-denial. “Askesis for the sake of desire discourages imitation; thus it alone can open the road to the object.” (155)

“The secret of success, in business as well as in love, is dissimulation. One must hide the desire one feels and pretend a desire one does not feel. One must lie…” (107)

“Double mediation transforms amorous relationships into a struggle which proceeds according to set rules. Victory belongs to the lover who can best maintain his lie. Revealing one’s desire is an error which is only the more inexcusable for the fact that one is no longer tempted to make it once one’s partner has revealed his desire.” (109)

“Every desire that is revealed can arouse or increase a rival’s desire, thus it is necessary to conceal the desire in order to gain possession of the object. Stendahl calls this concealment hypocrisy. The hypocrite suppresses everything in his desire which can be seen, in other words, every impulse toward the object.” (153)

“Desire misses its object at the very moment when it seems to attain it, for by becoming visible it arouses rival desires that stand between the hero and his object… Every startling success in the universe of double mediation results from real or feigned indifference.” (167)

Novelistic Conversion

We all dream of a world in which our desires are fulfilled and we settle down with relish to enjoy them, “a world possessed and still desirable.” A world in which we are all as content as Lord Grantham. But our experiences do not support that; most of the time desire withers upon possession yet we maintain denial.

The character of Ebenezer Scrooge is a good example of the failure of possession to bring happiness. Though Scrooge possesses everything he needs in material terms, his unhappiness is visible to everyone but himself. He portrays himself as indifferent to the opinions of others, perfectly self-satisfied with no desires left unfulfilled. He is very self-righteous and sits in judgment of everyone else, condemning his nephew, philanthropy, the poor and working classes. No one quite measures up to his standards – except himself!

In chapter VI, RG explains that the mistake of romantic interpretations is that they search for a stable hero and bad guy. In other words, just like Scrooge, the hero of novels that conceal the role of the mediator believes that his desires are good and those who stand in his way (his models) are the bad guys. These heroes never learn to acknowledge their models. They are self-righteous and judgmental, condemning others while letting themselves off the hook.

By contrast, A Christmas Carol is a story of conversion and it is a good representation of the novelistic conversion RG says all the great writers undergo. This process is the plot of the new movie about Charles Dickens, The Man Who Invented Christmas. In the movie, Dickens is haunted by his characters, particularly Scrooge, who refuse to cooperate with his idea of how the novel should end. Dickens’ has no conversion for Scrooge. Tiny Tim dies and Scrooge is not redeemed. What we learn is that Dickens’ is unable to forgive his own father for abandoning him as a child and being irresponsible. Until he can forgive his father, he cannot forgive Scrooge. Scrooge’s conversion and his own are linked.

The novelist shifts who plays what role – all are susceptible. Even and especially the novelist himself. He discovers that in the so-called bad guy of his stories a person very much like himself.

As RG says, “The novelist is a man who has overcome desire and who, remembering it, can make a comparison… The novelist is a hero cured of metaphysical desire.” (232-233)

“The novelist goes beyond romantic justifications… he crosses the barrier between Self and Other. This memorable crossing, as we shall see in the last chapter, is recorded in the novel itself in the form of a reconciliation between the hero and the world at the moment of death… he discovers a man like himself in the mediator who fascinates him. Novelistic reconciliation allows a synthesis of Other and Self, of observation and introspection, which is impossible in the romantic revolt. It enables the novelist to view his characters from different perspectives and, with the third dimension, give them true freedom and motion.” (146)

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