The 2008 publication of Mimesis & Theory, a collection of previously published essays by René Girard on literature and literary theory, confirms the impression that Girard’s career has entered its valedictory stage. Coming hard on the heels of the 2007 publication of De la violence à la divinité, a single-volume collection of his four most important books (Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque; La violence et le sacré; Des choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde; and Le bouc émissaire), and coinciding with an award by the MLA for Lifetime Scholarly Achievement, this collection spans the course of Girard’s career and provides a concise way to gain some perspective on his legacy. The essays, some of which were translated by Robert Doran for this volume, are organized chronologically in the order of their original publication, making it possible to see the evolution of Girard’s thinking on literature and literary theory. (The social, anthropological dimension of his work—focusing on violence and religion—is on display in these essays only to the extent that it overlaps with his literary criticism.)
What then do these essays add to our understanding of the theoretician of mimetic desire, psycho-social rivalry, and the religious logic of the scapegoat that we know from his four major works? First and foremost, they provide confirmation of the absolute centrality of the theory of mimetic desire in his thinking. Girard has remained remarkably, even monomaniacally, faithful to the central insight out of which his early work grew: the fundamentally mimetic nature of desire, and the central role of this socially mediated mode of desire in shaping human relations. For Girard, it is the mimetic nature of desire—the idea that even our most apparently spontaneous desires are in fact modeled on the desires of others—that explains the competitive, conflictual nature of all human relations, including (and especially) those, like love, that we prefer to think of in non-conflictual, object oriented terms. This point is made in various ways in all of these essays, and is most tellingly developed in those that deal with the theme of love and romantic desire in writers ranging from Shakespeare to Racine to Proust to Robbe-Grillet. But even his very first essays, which deal with topics that would seem to be far removed from questions of mimetic desire, explore their subjects in ways that rely on the [End Page 141] logic of mimetic rivalry. From the anxiety of influence in Valéry (“Valéry and Stendhal”), to the classical model of the honnête homme as an antidote to the (unwittingly imitative) individualism of the Romantic and modern eras (“Classicism and Voltaire’s Historiography”), to the magnification and intensification of the logic of mimetic rivalry brought about by the transition from aristocratic to democratic forms of government (“Stendhal and Tocqueville”).
Many of the subsequent essays overlap significantly with the territory covered in Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque, dealing with the same stable of authors (Proust, Dostoyevsky, Stendhal, Cervantes, etc.) and using a similar démarche. There is some danger of redundancy, then, but these essays still make worthwhile reading, especially for those who are new to Girard’s work. His literary sensitivity and insightfulness are undeniable, as is the analytic power of his mimetic theory and the critical tools he has devised for applying it to the study of literature. “Racine, Poet of Glory” (1964), “Bastards and the Antihero in Sartre” (1965), and “Mimetic Desire in the Underground” (1997) are particularly recommended to those seeking an introduction to Girard’s deployment of the concept of mimetic desire. These would make, for example, excellent additions to a syllabus covering these authors, useful for graduate students but also accessible to undergraduates.
Another constant feature of these essays is their polemical verve, which is well served by Robert Doran’s translation, despite a few minor glitches (like the occasional confusion between “preciosity” and “precociousness” in the Racine essay). Witty and urbane, these essays are jargon averse, accessible to the general reader, written...