Ménage à Trois

Haven, Cynthia. “’The Genius to Glue Them Together: On René Girard and His Ideas.” Los Angeles Review of Books, 25 March 2018.

Deceit, Desire, and the Novel already bears Girard’s signature writing style — formal yet engaging and approachable, erudite, incisive, and masterful — it’s the book that would make his reputation. I found the book rather addictive, though Library Journal called it “a highly complex critique of the structure of the novel,” and added a warning: “As may be expected, the interpretations are highly psychological, the argument philosophical, and the intellectual footwork, dazzling; but for the reader, the going is slow, and conviction, grudging.”

For many, however, it was a revelation. “You can always trust a Frenchman to view the world as a ménage à trois,” wrote Andrew Gallix in the Guardian, describing Girard’s theory of mediated desire. “Discovering Deceit, Desire and the Novel is like putting on a pair of glasses and seeing the world come into focus. At its heart is an idea so simple, and yet so fundamental, that it seems incredible that no one had articulated it before.”

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The Booker Steps Away From Being its Own Genre

This appeared in The Guardian (Comment is Free section) on 28 July 2012:

The Booker Steps Away From Being its Own Genre

The inclusion on the Man Booker longlist of four debuts and three novels from excellent indie publishers is a welcome sign

[Science Fiction novelist China Miéville has criticised the Booker Prize for becoming its own genre. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian]

The announcement of this year’s Booker longlist, just a few days before the opening of the Olympics, reminds us that literary jousting originated in ancient Greece. Modern literary competitions appeared shortly after the revival of the Olympic Games at the end of the 19th century. The Nobel prize in literature (1901) was followed by the Prix Goncourt in France (1903), the Pulitzer prizes in the States (1917) and the James Tait Black memorial prizes in Britain (1919). Compared with their Greekish forebears, they are far trickier affairs. Australian author Richard Flanagan is clearly no friend of contemporary book contests: in his view, they are often barometers “of bad taste” that only serve “to give dog shows a good name”.

The aristocratic authors of an earlier period often felt that there was something a little common, even humiliating, about wanting to be read by others, possibly of an inferior station. In Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, René Girard describes some of the excuses they came up with to give the impression that their works had got into print without their knowledge. La Rochefoucauld (to whom I am vaguely related through one of his descendants’ bastard offspring) claimed, for instance, that his manuscript had been stolen by a servant.

Thomas Bernhard had similar issues with literary prizes. My Prizes: An Accounting, published posthumously, is a series of diatribes against the nine eponymous prizes he received up until 1980 and the “assholes” who bestowed them upon him — which brings us back to the Booker.

In François Ozon’s film Swimming Pool, a bestselling author (played by Charlotte Rampling) pays a visit to her publisher, where she bumps into an up-and-coming novelist who has just won a minor literary prize. After the latter’s departure, the publisher tries — and fails — to clear the air by describing the award as “hardly the Booker prize!” Charlotte Rampling’s character reminds him of what he always used to say at the beginning of his career: “Awards are like haemorrhoids: sooner or later, every arsehole gets one”. This scene epitomises the Booker effect: the petty rivalries and insidious corrupting influence.

Launched in 1969, the Booker was always conceived of as a publicity stunt designed to shift units. I think it is fair to say that no other literary prize in the world has ever received so much media attention. By 1990, when Gilbert Adair included a chapter entitled “Le Booker nouveau est arrivé” in his Barthes-inspired Myths and Memories, the prize had already become an institution, thanks to a marketing strategy not dissimilar to that of Beaujolais nouveau.

The Booker has always worn its commercialism on its sleeve: its official name — the Man Booker Prize — derives from its original (Booker-McConnell) and current (the Man Group) sponsors. This, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing. Trying to sell more books is certainly nothing to be ashamed of, and the Booker has two big advantages over the Gallic Goncourt: it is not controlled by the publishing industry and the judging panel changes every year. However, financial considerations do, regrettably, play a part in the selection process: a publisher must “contribute £5,000 towards general publicity if the book reaches the shortlist” and “a further £5,000 if the book wins the prize”. Indies may find it difficult to stump up this sort of money.

The Nobel is awarded to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”. Aimed at “the intelligent general audience,” the Booker never entertained such lofty ambitions. It was always resolutely middlebrow as last year’s controversy over “readable books” that “zip along” amply illustrated.

Since its inception, the prize has championed a type of well-made mainstream novel that reflects the liberal humanist world view of the Home Counties (sometimes with decorative postmodern knobs on). When a thriller found its way on to the longlist, many people thought that the judges had lost the plot, and were no longer able to recognise a Booker novel. This reaction only confirmed China Miéville‘s argument that despite traditionally shunning genre fiction, the Booker had itself become a genre. This, I feel, has been the prize’s most pernicious influence. The novel — which was meant to be the genre to end all genres in which philosophy and poetry would be reunited — has been reduced to innocuous literary fiction narratives written as though modernism had never happened.

This year, there has been no populist talk of jolly good reads or zip-along page-turners. On the contrary, chairman Peter Stothard signalled the judges’ intention to focus on “texts not reputations“: books “that you can make a sustained critical argument about”. The kind that “you don’t leave on the beach” and want to “read again and again”. Hence, perhaps, the presence of four debuts and three novels released by excellent indie publishers (And Other Stories, Myrmidon Books and Salt).

The inclusion of Deborah Levy‘s Swimming Home, one of the finest new novels I have read (and already reread) in a long time, seems like a very good omen indeed. It radiates the sensual languor of sun-drenched afternoons in the south of France and the disquieting, uncanny beauty only perceived by a true daytime insomniac. At times, it reminded me of Ozon’s film. Let us hope this year’s Booker will not be awarded to an arsehole.

****

Here is a longer — uncut and unedited — version of the above text. A draft, if you will:

The announcement of this year’s Booker longlist, just a few days before the opening of the Olympics, reminds us that literary jousting originated in Ancient Greece. These early competitions, however, were more akin to poetry slams or the itinerant Literary Death Match, than to the sedate book prizes we are accustomed to. Dithyrambic contests were collective, all-singing-and-dancing renditions of poetic works. The name of the victorious chorus would often go down in history, while that of the poet himself would be forgotten. It was, above all, the performance that was being assessed.

Modern literary competitions appeared shortly after the revival of the Olympic Games at the end of the nineteenth century. The Nobel Prize in Literature (1901) was followed by the Goncourt in France (1903), the Pulitzer in the States (1917) and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in Britain (1919). Compared with their Greekish forbears, they are far trickier affairs. Australian author Richard Flanagan is clearly no friend of contemporary book contests: in his view, they are often barometers “of bad taste” that only serve “to give dog shows a good name”. Whether or not most prizes “get it mostly wrong,” he clearly has a point when it comes to the Nobel: “No one I know hails Sigrid Undset or Frans Eemil Sillanpaa or Par Lagerkvist — Nobel laureates in 1928 and 1939 and 1951, respectively — as globally significant writers, important as they are to their own national literatures, perhaps because no one I know has ever read them. Yet Tolstoy, Chekhov, Kafka, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Cortazar, Nabokov, Borges, Kundera, Roth and Bolano have all been passed over for the gong of gongs”.

According to Lars Iyer (whose novel Spurious was shortlisted for last year’s Not the Booker), “the prestige of authorship” — producing great works — has given way to “the prestige of an ephemeral kind of literary careerism,” which is sanctioned by book clubs and prizes: “With pomp and circumstance, the award ceremonies vainly bestow medals of greatness on novels that vaguely mime our fading memory of masterpiece. The prestige, the debris, the body of Literature remains even as the spirit has fled”. The aristocratic authors of an earlier period often felt that there was something a little common, even humiliating, about wanting to be read by others, possibly of an inferior station. In Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, René Girard describes some of the excuses they came up with to give the impression that their works had got into print without their knowledge. La Rochefoucauld (to whom I am vaguely related through one of his descendants’ bastard offspring) claimed, for instance, that his manuscript had been stolen by a servant. Thomas Bernhard had similar issues with literary prizes. In the autobiographical Wittgenstein’s Nephew (1982), he describes a cursory acceptance speech as “a few sentences, amounting to a small philosophical digression, the upshot of which was that man was a wretched creature and death a certainty”. My Prizes: An Accounting, published posthumously, is a series of diatribes against the nine eponymous prizes he received up until 1980 and the “assholes” who bestowed them upon him — which brings us back to the Booker.

In François Ozon’s film Swimming Pool (2003), a bestselling author (played by Charlotte Rampling) pays a visit to her publisher, where she bumps into an up-and-coming novelist who has just won a minor literary prize. After the latter’s departure, the publisher tries — and fails — to clear the air by describing the award as “hardly the Booker Prize!” Charlotte Rampling’s character reminds him of what he always used to say at the beginning of his career: “Awards are like haemorrhoids: sooner or later, every arsehole gets one”. This scene epitomises the Booker effect: the petty rivalries and insidious corrupting influence.

Launched in 1969, the Booker was always conceived of as a publicity stunt designed to shift units. I think it is fair to say that no other literary prize in the world has ever received so much media attention. By 1990, when Gilbert Adair included a chapter entitled “Le Booker nouveau est arrivé” in his Barthes-inspired Myths and Memories, the prize had already become an institution, thanks to a marketing strategy not dissimilar to that of Beaujolais nouveau. The Booker has always worn its commercialism on its sleeve: its official name — the Man Booker Prize — derives from its original (Booker-McConnell) and current (the Man Group) sponsors. This, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing. Trying to sell more books is certainly nothing to be ashamed of, and the Booker has two big advantages over the Gallic Goncourt: it is not controlled by the publishing industry and the judging panel changes every year. However, financial considerations do, regrettably, play a part in the selection process: a publisher must “contribute £5,000 towards general publicity if the book reaches the shortlist” and “a further £5,000 if the book wins the prize”. Indies may find it difficult to stump up this sort of money.

The Nobel is awarded to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”. Aimed at “the intelligent general audience,” the Booker never entertained such lofty ambitions. It was always resolutely middlebrow as last year’s controversy over “readable books” that “zip along” amply illustrated. Since its inception, the prize has championed a type of well-made mainstream novel that reflects the liberal humanist world view of the Home Counties (sometimes with decorative postmodern knobs on). When a thriller found its way on to the longlist, many people thought that the judges had lost the plot, and were no longer able to recognise a Booker novel. This reaction only confirmed China Miéville‘s argument that despite traditionally shunning genre fiction, the Booker had itself become a genre. This, I feel, has been the prize’s most pernicious influence. The Novel — which was meant to be the genre to end all genres in which philosophy and poetry would be reunited — has been reduced to innocuous literary fiction narratives written as though Modernism had never happened.

This year, there has been no populist talk of jolly good reads or zipalong page-turners. On the contrary, chairman Peter Stothard signalled the judges’ intention to focus on “texts not reputations“: books “that you can make a sustained critical argument about”. The kind that “you don’t leave on the beach” and want to “read again and again”. Hence, perhaps, the presence of four debuts and three novels released by excellent indie publishers (And Other Stories, Myrmidon Books and Salt). The inclusion of Deborah Levy‘s Swimming Home, one of the finest new novels I have read (and already reread) in a long time, seems like a very good omen indeed. It radiates the sensual languor of sun-drenched afternoons in the south of France and the disquieting, uncanny beauty only perceived by a true daytime insomniac. At times, it reminded me of Ozon’s film. Let us hope this year’s Booker will not be awarded to an arsehole!

In Theory: Mimetic Desire

This appeared in Guardian Books on 8 February 2010:

In Theory: Mimetic Desire

Nearly 50 years on, René Girard’s theory remains a powerfully illuminating insight into both literature and the world


Mediated desire … Amanda Drew as Emma and Simon Thorp as Rodolphe in Oxford Playhouse’s 2003 production of Madame Bovary. Photograph: PR

Many thanks for your insightful comments on “The Death of the Author” and interesting suggestions concerning future discussion topics — please keep them coming. All this feedback confirms the utility of a debate on the purpose of literary theory at a time when critics have all too often retreated into academia or become appendages of publishers’ marketing departments. Talented critics can do so much more than just test-drive the latest products for consumers. They can shape the zeitgeist, renew our perception of great literary works and even help authors make sense of their own worlds — a hat-trick René Girard pulled off with Deceit, Desire and the Novel.

Discovering Deceit, Desire and the Novel is like putting on a pair of glasses and seeing the world come into focus. At its heart is an idea so simple, and yet so fundamental, that it seems incredible that no one had articulated it before. Girard’s premise is the Romantic myth of “divine autonomy”, according to which our desires are freely chosen expressions of our individuality. Don Quixote, for instance, aspires to a chivalric lifestyle. Nothing seems more straightforward but, besides the subject (Don Quixote) and object (chivalry), Girard highlights the vital presence of a model he calls the mediator (Amadis of Gaul in this instance). Don Quixote wants to lead the life of a knight errant because he has read the romances of Amadis of Gaul: far from being spontaneous, his desire stems from, and is mediated through, a third party. Metaphysical desire — as opposed to simple needs or appetites — is triangular, not linear. You can always trust a Frenchman to view the world as a ménage à trois.

Mediation is said to be external when the distance between subject and mediator is so great that never the twain shall meet. This is the case of Don Quixote and Amadis, or Emma Bovary and the fashionable Parisian circles she dreams of. Here, the derivative nature of desire is clearly acknowledged. The hero of external mediation “worships his model openly and declares himself his disciple”. When mediation is internal, however, the distance between subject and mediator is small enough to give rise to rivalry between the two. The mediator, who aroused desire for the object in the first place, comes to be seen as an obstacle to the fulfilment of this very desire: “the model shows his disciple the gate of paradise and forbids him to enter with one and the same gesture”. Although now ostensibly a figure of hatred, the mediator continues to be idolised subterraneously or even subconsciously. In Proust‘s In Search of Lost Time, for instance, the Guermantes remain Mme Verdurin’s sworn enemies until the day when she marries into this family she had in fact secretly admired and envied all along.

Girard’s contention is that the need for transcendence has survived the decline of Christianity, resulting in the ersatz “inverted transcendence” of mimetic desire. The spread of this highly-contagious “ontological disease” gathers momentum in the works of Stendhal before reaching pandemic proportions in Proust and Dostoyevsky. Whereas Don Quixote is an “upside-down hero in a right-side-up world,” Julien Sorel (The Red and the Black) is a “right-side-up hero” in a topsy-turvy world. By the time we reach Dostoyevsky (Notes From the Underground, The Possessed), everything has gone awry. All these novels illustrate how internal mediation “triumphs in a universe where the differences between men are gradually erased”. The more egalitarian a society, the closer the mediator and the greater the rivalry.

In Stendhal’s worldview, there once was a golden age when the nobility’s social status was correlated with its nobility of spirit. Passion and spontaneity, which used to be the hallmarks of the true nobleman, have all but disappeared from The Red and the Black, giving way to abject vanity. After the French Revolution, it is no longer possible for the nobility to simply be: it must now justify its privileges in the eyes of “the Other”. In so doing, it becomes ignoble. The aristocrat mimics the bourgeois who mimics the aristocrat. At the level of individuals, this double mediation is a delicate balancing act in which the loser is the one who can no longer conceal his desire for the other, from the other. This revelation acts as an instant passion killer, since it shatters the illusion of “divine autonomy” that had proved so compelling. Open rejection, in turn, makes the heart of the spurned lover grow ever fonder.

Masochism — which features so prominently in both Proust and Dostoyevsky — is a by-product of the increasing proximity of the mediator; a means of enhancing his supposed divinity. The greater the obstacle he represents, the greater his divinity. Girard explains that we become masochists as soon as “we no longer choose our mediator because of the admiration which he inspires in us but because of the disgust we seem to inspire in him”. As the “ontological sickness” progresses, the desired object is increasingly forgotten — it virtually disappears in Dostoyevsky — to be replaced by the mediator. The masochist desires the obstacle which signals the divine presence of the mediator. In the same way, the Proustian snob puts up purely abstract barriers between himself and an object that is so ineffable it barely exists at all. This disappearance of the object is of no real consequence since it “loses its value in the very act of being possessed” anyway.

Writers themselves are not immune to mimetic desire. The release of a book is an “appeal to the public” which is frequently experienced as an affront to authorial pride. Aristocratic writers used to keep up appearances by claiming that they never intended their works to be printed. La Rochefoucauld even went as far as to claim that his manuscript had been stolen by a servant. The modern writer has no servants, so he makes “an anti-appeal to the public in the shape of anti-poetry, anti-novel, or anti-play. The main thing is to make the Other taste the rare, ineffable, and fresh quality of one’s scorn for him”. Sound familiar?

With Deceit, Desire and the Novel, René Girard wanted to demonstrate that the truly “great novelists reveal the imitative nature of desire” in their works. In the process, he reinterpreted some of the most important novels ever written, launched a devastating broadside against the inheritors of Romantic individualism and spawned a whole new sub-genre — mimetic theory — which has been applied to almost everything, from psychology to economics. Were it not for this brilliant debut, published in France back in 1961, incidentally, Facebook may have remained the plaything of a handful of Harvard geeks.

Peter Thiel — a venture capitalist whose mentor at Stanford was none other than Girard lui-même — soon spotted the commercial potential of a social networking site based on mimetic desire. In fact, the whole concept of viral, word-of-mouth marketing follows Girard’s principle according to which the strongest desires are those influenced by an admired third party. The gods haven’t withdrawn: they have gone online and their name is Legion. What the venerable Académicien makes of this exploitation of an “ontological disease” he has been denouncing for half a century is anyone’s guess.