Study Guide

René Girard Influences

Miguel de Cervantes

This Spanish author's masterpiece Don Quixote helped me get at the finer points of mimetic desire. I mean, Don Quixote's whole life is about imitating the life of Amadis of Gaul, right? He has no original desires. In fact, his desire for Dulcinea exists only through Amadis (what I call Don Quixote's "mediator"). Everything Don Quixote wants, he wants because Amadis wanted it first.

This book pretty much gave me a Eureka! moment when I was working on my theory of triangulation and desire.

Marcel Proust

One of my first literary loves was Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past (a.k.a. In Search of Lost Time), a seven-volume novel about desire, memory, and a young man's coming of age. My book Desire, Deceit, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure pays a good deal of attention to Proust's masterwork.

Proust's protagonist Charles Swann and Swann's snooty French friends really helped me hone my theory of mimetic desire. The characters experience various jealousies and rivalries over money, lovers, and desire. There is some fierce competition in here—and, as I have suggested elsewhere, things inevitably get a little, well, heated. You can have a bunch of people running around wanting the same things and hope everything will go smoothly.

Fyodor Dostoevsky

This 19th-century Russian writer was a real muse for me, if I may use the term loosely. Like Proust, Dostoevsky helped me sharpen my ideas on triangular relations (a.k.a. mimetic desire). My fave work of his is Notes from the Underground.

That sad sack of a guy called the Underground Man just can't get his old schoolmates to pay any attention to him—to like him. As a result, he doesn't like himself. He replicates their feelings toward him in his feelings toward himself.

Look, this is a big kettle of fish, but I think that once people stopped believing in Christ, there was no longer an objective way for people to understand themselves. They just went along with what the crowd thought. And the crowd can be fickle… and mean.

Gustave Flaubert

That 19th century! A veritable labyrinth of mimetic desire, non? Flaubert's Emma Bovary—that would be Madame Bovary, ladies and gentlemen— is not just a drama queen; she's a tragic victim of mimetic desire. I didn't think it was possible, but she read too many novels, and these novels put some dangerous ideas into her head.

Guess what happened? She wanted what the characters in the books wanted. In my lingo, the novels are the "mediators," which means they are basically go-betweens for desire, places where Emma Bovary learns what others want and starts to want those things for herself. It's all part of that vicious desire-envy-imitation triangle.

Kenneth Burke

Okay, I admit it; I didn't coin that clever little phrase "scapegoat mechanism" myself—that super clever literary critic Kenneth Burke got to it first. One way that Kenneth came up with his theory of the "scapegoat mechanism" was by taking a look at how Hitler claimed that Jewish people were responsible for all of the problems in Germany after World War I, thereby turning them all into scapegoats who needed to be purged. I picked it up from there, and ran.

La Rochefoucauld

I love this guy, and he's not even from the 19th century (he's from the 17th). La Rochefoucauld has heaps of great maxims (cute and clever sayings) in his book Reflections, Or Sentences and Moral Maxims about jealousy and passion. But the idea that grabbed me was this one:

Nothing is so infectious as example, and we never do great good or evil without producing the like. We imitate good actions by emulation, and bad ones by the evil of our nature, which shame imprisons until example liberates. (Source)

Also take a look at this gem on love: "There are some who never would have loved if they never had heard it spoken of" (source).

Could there be better explanation of mimetic desires? This dude really understood me. Before I even existed.