Study Guide

René Girard Quotes

Don Quixote, in Cervantes' novel, is a typical example of the victim of triangular desire, but he is far from being the only one. Next to him the most affected is his squire, Sancho Panza […] Ever since he has been with Don Quixote he has been dreaming of an 'island' of which he would be governor, and he wants the title of duchess for his daughter. These desires do not come spontaneously to a simple man like Sancho. It is Don Quixote who has put them into his head. [From Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure]

So if you haven't read Don Quixote lately, here's the score: Don Quixote is this wandering knight who lives in a La-la Land. He models himself on a fictional knight named Amadis of Gaul: everything that Amadis wanted, Don Quixote now wants. Guess what? He's totally enacting mimetic desire.

But he's not the only one. His famous sidekick, Sancho Panza, has a few desires of his own. Actually, they're not his own desires—he borrowed them from someone else, too. Think mimetic desire isn't a universal phenomenon? Cervantes sure thinks otherwise.

Violence is frequently called irrational. It has its reasons, however, and can marshal some rather convincing ones when the need arises […] When unappeased, violence seeks and always finds a surrogate victim […] chosen only because it is vulnerable and close at hand. [From Violence and the Sacred]

People seem to feel, on some level, that the only solution to violence is another kind of violence.

Once mimetic desire starts to snowball, you can get entire communities full of rivalry and strife. These communities eventually decide—unconsciously—that the madness must stop. The community will focus its wrath on something defenseless—like, say, a chicken; or, if you're in the movie Apocalypse Now, killing a bull or Colonel Kurtz. You might kill off a specially chosen person.

The idea is that once someone or something is scapegoated, order will be restored once that scapegoat is purged.

The biblical and Christian power of understanding phenomena of victimization comes to light in the modern meaning of certain expressions such as "scapegoat." A "scapegoat" is initially the victim in the Israelite ritual that was celebrated during a great ceremony of atonement (Lev. 16:21) [….] The ritual consisted of driving into the wilderness a goat on which all the sins of Israel had been laid. The high priest placed his hands on the head of the goat, and this act was supposed to transfer onto the animal everything likely to poison relations between members of the community. The effectiveness of the ritual was the idea that the sins were expelled with the goat and then the community was rid of them. [From I See Satan Fall Like Lightning]

Let's get back to basics on this scapegoat thing, because it's not like I made it up out of thin air. Much as I'd like to claim it as my own, the idea came from the Bible

As the phrase suggests, an actual goat used to be harmed in the process. The Israelites were looking to please God and atone for their sins. This poor goat, having no clue, became a symbol of every bad thing the Israelites had done, and it was released into the wild in a ritual rejection of sin. 

Never mind that the goat was probably happy to leave. What matters is that his ejection from the community served as a cleansing ritual.

Things get a little hairier when animals are killed, or when people are exiled or killed. Yeah, that totally happens, too.

Mimetic desire aims at the absolute slenderness of the radiant being some other person always is in our eyes but we ourselves never are, at least in our own eyes. To understand desire is to understand that its self-centeredness is undistinguishable from its other-centeredness. [From "Eating Disorders and Mimetic Desire"]

This quote comes from one of my less mainstream pieces, an article in which I write about the sources of anorexia. I'm aware that this is a complex topic, and here I use my theory of mimetic desire to understand its causes.

Look, who doesn't want to be thin and good-looking? We live in a culture of serious competitiveness over appearance, which means that mimetic desire can have a severe impact on body image. To those who suffer from disorders like anorexia, the image of the Other is always superior. We see people in glossy magazines and think that we'd love to look like that, but we never will.

Our mimetic desire means that she—and I do use she, though this can also apply to men—wants to be thin, and therefore I do, too. I adopt and identify with the self-centeredness of someone else. Don't even get me started on fashion magazines—or mimetic desire machines, as I like to call them.