“Deceit, Desire and the Novel” by René Girard: Discussion of Chapters 1-3: The Mystery of Human Relationships


Deceit, Desire and the Novel was René Girard’s first book, published in French in 1961. The English edition was published in 1965. It contains all the big ideas that came to be known as Girard’s mimetic theory. Though it can be a difficult book to read for non-academics, it is worth the effort because it provides a basic primer on mimetic desire and its implications for personal and social life. Girard’s analysis of what he calls the “pathologies of desire” is surprisingly resonant with our own time and place. You can watch the video of this conversation that introduces the book below, or listen to the mp3 by clicking the link above.

A good entry point into mimetic theory is to think about the role of advertising in arousing and directing our desires. Often we think we desperately need to acquire some object, such as a new pair of shoes, but once we own them we experience disappointment. This is quite common. We all experience it at one time or another; it’s known as “buyer’s remorse”.

This experience raises the question that intrigued René Girard – why does achieving my heart’s desire so often result in unhappiness? Maybe it’s because it wasn’t really my heart’s desire to begin with. Or maybe I was mistaken about how to achieve my heart’s desires. Mimetic theory is the study of desire and its practical application is this: how to tell if what I think I want is really my heart’s desire.

Deceit, Desire and the Novel (DDN)

In his first book, René Girard (RG) makes a provocative claim: great novelists are all writing about triangular desire, something which involves a mediator – like the ads that provoke our desire. That idea is what we are going to unpack in this discussion. While ordinary novels reflect the effects of mediation, great novelists reveal the presence of the mediator. Therefore, Girard claims that there is a unity to novelistic conclusions that involves the hero’s journey of discovery of – and through – his captivity to his mediator.

Part 1: Anatomy of Desire

The Triangle

First things first – to understand how desire works we need to understand something which is usually hidden, which is the role of the mediator. RG begins DDN by taking our usual way of understanding desire to task. He says that we normally think of desire as a simple straight line connecting the desiring subject and the object of desire. Which implies that our desires arise spontaneously from within ourselves or the object we desire has some intrinsic value that is obvious to everyone. So, some combination of my spontaneous desire directed or drawn toward some object. A straight line.

This mistake is common, even when the error is easily seen. Think of the ads we watch – Where does the ad belong in the two-dimensional geometry we’ve sketched out? To incorporate their presence, we need to add a third point in our geometry of desire. We need to move from a straight-line model to a triangle. Now in addition to ourselves, the desiring subject, and the object, we have a spot for the ad at the top of the triangle. This third point in the geometry of desire is for what RG calls the mediator, because it directs or orients our desire toward a goal.


The triangle points us toward the “mystery” of human relationships – that what makes us human is the unique structure of our desire. It is not linear, as in instinctual animals, for example. Our desire is not attached to specific objects but toward the being of Another. Desire is a draw, or pull towards someone we admire or who captures our attention. Very often, the objects that we want are simply stand-ins for the being of the other.

We want to become just like the person we admire, and desire often makes the mistake of thinking that if we have the same stuff we will be the same person! It doesn’t work that way!

The truth is that we are not born being someone. We become someone by growing up, by learning how to be an adult in our culture. This way of becoming an adult is again, not instinctual, which allows for the variety of culture, languages, music, art and architecture in the human experience.

We cannot become someone on our own. The social group and cultural values we are born into gradual become part of who we are. We become like them and all of childhood desire is about openly, shamelessly imitating the adults around us. We call it play, but it is the work of all human children.

Rather than being the independent, autonomous agents we think of ourselves to be, we are inter-dependent at our core. Rather than being individuals, RG calls humans inter-dividuals.

The difference between children and adults is that children are born into a given set of models of desire – their parents, community, culture, religions and so on – but as adults we get to choose our models. The trick is to become conscious of this choice and then to choose wisely!

To Celebrate or Deny

Our desires are indeed an expression of our uniqueness, but we need a caring, benevolent model to help us shape and then access them. RG identifies two ways of reacting to this information: Like children, we can openly turn to models whose desires we can borrow or imitate. Or we can succumb to pride and deny our dependence on our models. The two ways of reacting have a lot to do with our historical circumstances, the time, place and culture in which we find ourselves. Some cultures are okay with interdependence. Others, like the contemporary US culture, pride autonomy and are disgusted by open imitation. The two ways of reacting lead to very different outcomes, some of which lead us closer to our authentic desires and some make our own desires almost impossible to find.

Part 2: External Mediation


Now that you have the image of the triangle in your head, think of it as a dynamic structure, the sides constantly expanding and shrinking, bringing our models closer or farther away. And of course, none of us is living with just one triangle of desire – our lives are made up of many overlapping and intersecting triangles with a diversity of models and objects of desire competing for our attention and influencing us, often without our conscious awareness.

But to make our analysis easier, we are going to talk about just one triangle at a time and the first one we will start with is one in which the model of desire is very far away from us. The distance can be measured in actual physical distance, social distance, or in time. RG begins DDN with a model who is far, far away from the subject in social distance and in time – Don Quixote and his model, the great knight errant, Amadis of Gaul. In this passage from Cervantes’ novel, RG calls our attention to two things – the role of imitation in desire and the open, shameless choice of a model.

“I want you to know, Sancho, that the famous Amadis of Gaul was one of the most perfect knight errants. But what am I saying, one of the most perfect? I should say the only, the first, the unique, the master and lord of all those who existed in the world… I think… that, when a painter wants to become famous for his art he tries to imitate the originals of the best masters he knows; the same rule applies to most important jobs or exercises which contribute to the embellishment of republics; thus the man who wishes to be known as careful and patient should and does imitate Ulysses, in whose person and works Homer paints for us a vivid portrait of carefulness and patience, just as Virgil shows us in the person of Aeneas the valor of a pious son and the wisdom of a valiant captain; and it is understood that they depict them not as they are but as they should be, to provide an example of virtue for centuries to come. In the same way Amadis was the pole, the star, the sun for brave and amorous knights, and we others who fight under the banner of love and chivalry should imitate him. Thus, my friend Sancho, I reckon that whoever imitates him best will come closest to perfect chivalry.”

Note that Don Quixote open declares the identity of his model and his desire to imitate him perfectly. He does not hide who is model is nor is he ashamed of being an imitator. He does not want to be original, as is the fashion in our day, but a perfect copy of his hero, Amadis of Gaul.

RG calls this structure in which the model is far away external mediation. In external mediation, the distance is so great that the model and subject do not come into physical or spiritual contact so that they never actually compete for objects of shared desire. This is the realm of discipleship and worship. “The Hero of external mediation proclaims aloud the true nature of his desire. He worships his model openly and declares himself his disciple.” (10; page numbers refer to DDN)

Don Quixote has surrendered his will to Amadis – from now on Amadis will choose his objects of desire for him. This is not altogether terrible, because as RG points out, “In Cervantes the mediator is enthroned in an inaccessible heaven and transmits to his faithful follower a little of his serenity.” But Don Quixote’s desire to be a knight errant leads him to all sorts of comical errors – such as mistaking the barber’s basin for Mambrino’s helmet, a mythic knight. He wants so much to be like Amadis that objects become transfigured. RG says, “Desire projects a dream universe around the hero.”

“From the mediator, a veritable artificial sun, descends a mysterious ray which makes the object shine with a false brilliance. There would be no illusion if Don Quixote were not imitating Amadis.” (18) Or here: “The mediator’s prestige is imparted to the object of desire and confers upon it an illusory value.” (17) Advertisers attempt to make their products glow with a similar brilliance – when we succumb to their effect we experience the disappointment that Don Quixote experienced at the end of the novel.

The novel Don Quixote was published in 1615, a very different time than our own. There was a lot of vertical stratification in society, with rigid class structures. No dreams of equality! It was also a more religious society. God was not yet dead! What makes Don Quixote unique, a caricature, is not that he has a distant model or that he imitates openly, but that Cervantes exaggerates the effects of taking the desires of another as our own so we can see them more clearly.

Don Quixote’s Conversion

Don Quixote devoted his life to becoming as great a knight as the hero of novels of chivarly, Amadis of Gaul. At the end of his life, he realizes it has all been a terrible mistake. He experiences a conversion in which he turns away from his obsession with Amadis of Gaul.

“At this time my judgment is free and clear and no longer covered with a thick blanket of ignorance woven by my sad and constant reading of detestable books of chivalry. I recognize their extravagance and trickery. My only regret is that my disillusionment has come too late and that I do not have time to make up for my mistake by reading other books which would help to enlighten my soul…I am the enemy of Amadis of Gaul.” (291-292, 294)

Following Amadis of Gaul did not bring Don Quixote glory or heroism or whatever it was he was seeking. It did not even make him happy. This realization at the end of a long captivity to the slavish imitation of human models is found at the end of all great novels. RG notes that great novels are all about the same thing – the role of the mediator – and end the same way – the hero’s conversion. RG calls this “novelistic unity”.

Part 3: Internal Mediation


RG next explores the work of Stendahl (1783-1842) was a 19th century writer. His novel, The Red and the Black, was published in 1830, 200 years after Don Quixote. Times have changed! We have witnessed the industrial revolution, democratic revolutions, the rise of capitalism and a growing middle class. Equality is emerging as the supreme value and God is dead or nearly dead. Nietzsche will proclaim as much in fifty years. Stendahl observes that desire has changed its shape dramatically from the more stable, open imitation of external mediation to something so different that we often mistake it for a new phenomenon. But it is just the same triangular desire morphed into a different dimension. We are now in the realm of internal mediation. Let’s look at a scene from The Red and The Black.

Vanity and Rivalry

A scene from Red and Black (described on page 6 DDN)

Mayor de Renal has a rival in town, the richest and most influential man next to himself, Valenod. Rivals are in what Girard calls a model-model relationship. They are close in social, physical or temporal proximity so that they can compete over shared objects of desire. This is the realm of internal mediation where each is copying desires from the other and in the process, intensifying the desire. Passion increases and the more passionate their desires, the more original they are believed to be.

The Mayor wants to make a certain Julien Sorel his tutor because he imagines that Valenod wants to hire Sorel to tutor his children. Rivals become so fixated on one another that even a suggestion of a desire is enough to arouse desire in the rival. Because they can compete for the object, if the object cannot be shared or they refuse to share it, they will become enemies, what Girard calls model-obstacles. Resentment, hatred and envy – the mimetic emotions – are born of this close proximity of models who can become obstacles to one another.

Oddly, in model-model relationships the object itself recedes from view and becomes irrelevant. We see that the Mayor’s goal is the defeat of his rival. The Mayor has no real desire for a tutor; his goal is to prevent Valenod from having the tutor. All that remains is the rivalry. The triangle has collapsed into a straight line once again, but the two points are not subject and object, but subject and model, who switch places with each other at quantum speeds.

Julien’s father listens to the Mayor’s proposal to hire his son and cleverly says, “We have a better offer”. Invoking the specter of the Mayor’s rival only intensifies his desire and his offer goes up! Of course, the Mayor will deny that his desire came from imitating Valenod. He will see Valenod’s attempts to hire Julien as spiteful and mean, deliberate attempts to sabotage the Mayor out of pure wickedness. He refuses to see that he owes his desire and it’s intensity to Valenod!

The Mayor is a victim of what Stendahl calls vanity, a term he uses to indicate copying or imitating. “A vaniteux [the vain person] cannot draw his desires from his own resources; he must borrow them from others.” (6) The vain person “will desire any object so long as he is convinced that it is already desired by another person whom he admires.” (7) But without much consciousness about what he’s doing.


Story from Remembrance of Things Past (p 29-33)

Proust’s great novel from the beginning of the 20th century explores what happens when the domain of internal mediation moves from the public sphere, as with the Mayor and Valenod, into our private worlds. Proust reveals that when we become the slave of our models, we privilege their perspective over our own concrete experiences. It is becoming quite obvious that the object is meaningless; what the subject truly wants is to acquire is the being of the model, his charm or sophistication, his popularity or admiration. Girard calls this metaphysical desire.

The snob, Proust’s term, is an imitator, a caricature of Stendahlian vanity. “The snob does not dare trust his own judgment, he desires only objects desired by others. That is why he is the slave of fashion.” (24) The term snob does not conceal the truth of triangular desire – that it is metaphysical desire for the being of the model.

In this scene from Proust, Marcel wants to see Berma, the famous actress, perform. Why?

Because someone he greatly admires, Bergotte, admires Berma. Marcel reads a booklet of Bergotte’s on the actress and the printed words have a “magical power of suggestion”, so Girard notes.

Girard tells us that “the spiritual benefits” Marcel “hopes to gain from the performance are of a truly sacramental type.” Proust understands the truth about human desire, that it is a longing for an end to longing, a contentment or satisfaction that constantly eludes it. Rather than face this emptiness, we, like Marcel, will choose models who don’t seem to be suffering as we are, who seem to possess a divinity that eludes us. Girard calls this deviated transcendency, the worship of a false, human divinity.

“It is because the vaniteux feels the emptiness mentioned in Ecclesiastes growing inside him that he takes refuge in shallow behavior and imitation. Because he cannot face his nothingness he throws himself on Another who seems to be spared by the curse.” (66)

Such is the way in which the actress has been presented to him. She has been transfigured, just as the barber’s basin was transfigured for Don Quixote by the light emanating from the model.

To emphasize the power of Bergotte to transfigure objects, Proust describes Marcel’s boring walk along the Champs-Elysees. Marcel says, “If only Bergotte had described the place in one of his books, I should, no doubt, have longed to see and to know it.” (31)

But when Marcel finally sees Berma, he is disappointed and says so. But his companions pay great homage to the actress and finally Marcel accepts their perspective as his own. His faith in Berma is renewed. Marcel’s faith in his models could have been shaken instead, but that would require him to admit he had chosen his model poorly, and that he was no nearer a solution to the emptiness that haunts him. Rather than face the truth, he falls back into the convenient but false solution of slavery to his model.

Girard concludes, “Not only does the Other and only the Other set desire in motion, but his testimony easily overcomes actual experience when the latter contradicts it… Proustian desire is the triumph of suggestion over impression.” (33)

Infected with Pride

Notes from Underground

Girard saves his greatest praise for Dostoevsky who chronicles the terrible descent into self-deceipt and self-destruction to which internal mediation can lead. We must emphasize that it is not imitation itself that is at fault, but our failure to accept the truth that our desires are learned, borrowed, imitated from others. This is the sin of pride.

“The hero of internal mediation, far from boasting of his efforts to imitate, carefully hides them.” (10) He is ashamed of the emptiness his feels, of his desperate need for his model’s admiration and approval. Only he knows of course, that if someone actually did admire him, they would be sorely mistaken and so unworthy of the underground man’s admiration. It is a terrible paradox leading to self-loathing and masochism, identifying suffering with nearness to divinity.

The hero of internal mediation has come to confuse the obstacle with divinity. This is why the underground man becomes obsessed with the officer who treats him with indifference then contempt, jostling him in a pool hall. (54) He becomes obsessed with the officer because in the extreme cases of internal mediation, the obstacle itself becomes the sign of the divine object. Someone who won’t admire me must be the very one whose admiration I must win!

“The subject is torn between two opposite feelings toward his model – the most submissive reverence and the most intense malice. This is the passion we call hatred.” (10) “You only hate the ones you love” is more true than we knew!

As the underground man plots his revenge, he composes a letter that reveals the depth of his metaphysical desire:

“The letter was so composed that if the officer had had the least understanding of the good and the beautiful he would certainly have flung himself on my neck and have offered me his friendship. And how fine that would have been been!” (54)

“The underground man represents the final stage in this evolution toward abstract desire. The object has disappeared completely. (87) What we witness is a “progressive elimination of reality”. (87) “haunted by a fear of ridicule” (69)

What has caused this type of ontological illness (or soul sickness) to emerge? Girard, agreeing with Dostoevsky, believes that it is the rise of equality and freedom with all its promises of happiness and dreams being fulfilled. The promise of freedom is a difficult one to live with. We are told that our happiness is within reach, that we are completely free to pursue and achieve our own desires. Yet our lived experiences are different. The promise is not fulfilled. “It is harder to live life as a free man than as a slave.” (64) Those “who cannot look freedom in the face are exposed to anguish. They look for a banner on which to fix their eyes. There is no longer God, king, or lord to link them to the universal. To escape the feeling of particularity them imitate another’s desire; they choose substitute gods because they are not able to give up infinity.” (65)

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 Dostoevsky’s eyes the false promise is essentially a promise of metaphysical autonomy. For two or three centuries, this has been the underlying principle of every ‘new’ Western doctrine: God is dead, man must take his place. Pride has always been a temptation but in modern times it has become irresistible… The more deeply [the modern promise] is engraved in our hearts the more violent is the contrast between this marvelous promise and the brutal disappointment inflicted by experience.” (56)

Part 4: Conclusion

The novels share a conclusion, which is the renunciation of metaphysical desire. Proust gives us a path to follow to free ourselves from the worst aspects of internal mediation, that of recovering our own experiences, of reclaiming the memories of our past before or without the transfiguring haze of the mediator. “To see the truth of desire is to see the double role, evil and sacred, of the mediator.” (81)

It is possible to recognize the obstacle over which we stumbled – the mediator who both aroused and blocked our desire. We can recover a clear view of reality as the object, the physical world and our affective experiences, come back to our consciousness.

“Choice always involves choosing a model and true freedom lies in the basic choice between a human or a divine model.” (58)

The novelist of mimetic desire recognizes himself in his characters. He is complicit in the pride, resentment and hatred he is describing – “he has experienced it himself and overcome it”. (231)

“The novelist is a person who has overcome desire and who, remembering it, can make   a comparison [between his old self and new self].” (232)

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