One of the greatest Catholic thinkers of our time, Professor René Girard, has died. He left this world at 91 years of age, on November 4, in Stanford, California.
One of the things Girard wrote about was how novelists can produce great art. It happens, he said, when they recognize the patterns of rivalry that have been operating in their own lives.
Novelists turn away from those patterns, by exposing them in their artwork. According to Girard, this exposure is a genuine conversion. The artist’s act of creation constitutes a turning away from patterns of rivalry.
Rivalry and competition are frequent themes in literature. Take the cliché of the romantic triangle, for example.
Girard, an insightful literary critic, says such commonplace themes don’t have to turn into clichés. An artwork can be fresh and insightful when it more rigorously reflects the actual destructive patterns present in human life.
For example, Girard finds triangles of desire to be the most common human theme. Two people have a shared object of desire, and they enter into a destructive rivalry over it.
The best literature doesn’t flinch from unflattering portrayals of this. It sounds like it would be easy to write, but in fact it is very hard to do. The usual result is a repetition of literary clichés.
This happens because people shrink back from seeing themselves as they really are. Therefore, they don’t escape from exposing the clichés that they are. Moreover, their denial about this then becomes the ultimate cliché.
I once had an academic friend who, every week, liked to show off that he was in possession of a new transcript of a rare lecture by a famous scholar. I would go to visit my friend, and he would brandish each new lecture with much fanfare.
This ritual would end with him “generously” loaning it to me to photocopy. But, weirdly, he would never tell me where these rare transcripts came from.
It reminded me of when you get, say, four guitar players in a room. They may have a common object of desire—playing cool-sounding rock guitar—but this shared interest actually introduces a strange kind of rivalry between them.
One of them will inevitably need to make it known that he is the best guitar player in the room. To prove this, he will display how he possesses some dazzling musical skill that the others do not possess.
You might expect such musicians could always be the best of friends, given their common desire. But instead they will become bizarre rivals.
Maybe one guitar player won’t reveal to the others how to play a certain difficult song. Or maybe he will do so, but only very slowly, bit by bit, over a long period of many weeks.
I suspected that my academic friend actually possessed a complete series of transcribed lectures. He wasn’t really discovering a new one each week, as he pretended. But he kept up the charade, making a show of his special possession, savoring the exclusive ability to bestow “generously” a new lecture on me every week.
Long story short, when the truth finally came out about his secret hoarding of the lecture series, it was the end of the friendship. This incident disturbed me so much that it set me on a path of philosophical research into human nature and human desire.
Fortunately, I soon discovered René Girard. Thanks to Girard, I have now come to understand better where grudges come from. When I began to read Girard, I started to learn why all human beings tend to behave in a conflictual way.
Girard had learned the symptoms of incipient conflict from great literature, and he called the situation “mimetic rivalry.” But we could simply call it “desire wars.”
What I experienced was that if something, like the end of a friendship, shocks our conscience into gaining perspective, then we have an opportunity to discover, as I did from Girard, what truly motivates our own “desire wars.”
Usually we don’t have words to describe the self-deception involved in our “desire wars,” because the experience is so primal. But let me try and put it into words.
The myth that propels our “desire wars” is the subterranean conviction: “Because I desire this more than my friend/rival does, obviously I deserve it more.”
Thanks to Girard, I can now understand how this flattering thought is a pure myth. True, this mythical thought was the source of my friend begrudging me the transcripts. But it was also the source of my grudge against him for his sharing with me in such a begrudging way.
“Because I desire it more!” This is the reciprocal cliché we secretly tell ourselves when we are in any mimetic rivalry with another person.
Girard’s insightful writings help us understand where grudges really come from: Grudges are trophies of inflated desire that we award to ourselves.
We pile up these mythical awards, and we do so in order to prove: “Because I desire this more than my friend/rival does, obviously I deserve it more.”
So, how can we escape from grudges and conflict? Those who seek peace realize that true conversion happens when we turn away from all the world’s destructive myths and angry illusions.
I am grateful to René Girard for being a true teacher about the peace of the Gospel. He taught us how to purify our desires, and as he did so he was a gentle example of personal sanctity.