Archive for May 12th, 2012

René Girard and the verboten four-letter word

Saturday, May 12th, 2012

What is the forbidden, unspeakable four-letter word in the English language?  René Girard has the answer:

“We often brag that no one can scandalize us anymore, but what about ‘envy’? Our supposedly insatiable appetite for the forbidden stops short of envy. Primitive cultures fear and repress envy so much that they have no word for it; we hardly use the one we have, and this fact must be significant.  We no longer prohibit many actions that generate envy, but silently ostracize whatever can remind us of its presence in our midst. Psychic phenomena, we are told, are important in proportion to the resistance they generate toward revelation.  If we apply this yardstick to envy as well as to what psychoanalysis designates as repressed, which of the two will make the more plausible candidate for the role of best-defended secret?”

The words are from his 1991 book A Theater of Envy: William Shakespeare – the only book he has written in English (fittingly, about William Shakespeare, who has been a lifelong passion for this devotee of French literature).  My copy of the book arrived a few days ago, and just in time.

He has a lot to answer for.

Coincidentally, I checked out Arcade a few days later and found that João Cezar de Castro Rocha of Rio de Janeiro is extending René’s argument about “mimetic envy” to include  colonialism and the notion of “Shakespearean countries”:

Perhaps the best way of outlining a brief definition of what I propose to call Shakespearean countries is resorting to V. S. Naipaul’s The Mimic Men, whose title already suggests a Girardian reading of the work of the Nobel Prize [writer]. Reflecting upon his life, the protagonist and narrator of the novel, Ralph Singh, identifies a common feature between him and a “young English student”: “He was like me: he needed the guidance of other men’s eyes”. A little further, the narrator acknowledges the mimetic nature of his desire: “We became what we see of ourselves in the eyes of others”.

Whoever experiences this cultural circumstance lives a sort of “half a life”, always dependent upon someone else’s eyes and opinions – very much like Shakespearean characters, according to René Girard’s study William Shakespeare: A Theater of Envy. Indeed, Half a life is precisely the title-metaphor of another novel by the same writer. In it, Naipaul deals with the same fundamental issue expressed by a character [a Brahmin] who has casually met the English writer W. Somerset Maugham. Due to a series of revealing cultural misunderstandings, the writer considered the Brahmin a sacred and wise man, and wrote about him as a holy man in one of his novels. Then, the Brahmin immediately became “famous for having been written about by a foreigner”, as J. M. Coetzee aptly summarized the plot in an important review of Naipaul’s novel. However, to the Brahmin this fame did not come without its pitfalls: “It became hard for me to step out of the role”. The role created by someone else’s eyes, and as the character has to accept:  “I recognized that breaking out had become impossible, and I settled down to live the strange life that fate had bestowed on me”. In this case, fate has a proper name and refers to the foreigner’s gaze. And since the foreigner is seen as an undisputed model, he has the authority of defining what he looks at.

Naturally, the Brazilian scholar focuses more on Latin American literary and cultural history.  He’s made several posts already: “Mimetic Theory and Latin America” is here, “Mimetic Theory and Cannibalism” is here, and “Shakespearean Countries?” (cited above) is here.

Incidentally, W. Somerset Maugham inspired some mimesis of his own.  Leonard Nimoy has said that when he was creating a voice for Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, he listened to hours of recordings of the English writer reading his works.


Postscript on 5/13:  I thought the name João Cezar de Castro Rocha sounded familiar – he’s one of René Girard’s interlocutors for the book Evolution and Conversion: Dialogues on the Origins of Culture.

By the way, René’s theories are getting some new traction not only from a mini-revival of Shirley Jackson, whose landmark short story, “The Lottery,” describes the “scapegoat mechanism,” but also from The Hunger Games, another exploration of societal scapegoating.

A priest’s explanation of The Hunger Games in light of René’s theories (below) has been making the rounds … but there’s a curious omission. He describes the need for scapegoating when tensions arise within societies, but he skips a huge chunk of René’s thinking when he overlooks the cause of that tension – that nasty four-letter word taboo again.