A Triangle of Thoughts: Girard, Freud, Lacan
The Author shows the indebtedness and differences of René Girard’s work with respect to psychoanalysis, in particular the thought of Freud and of Lacan. This essay aims to construct a more effective form of theoretical communication between the principal intuitions of Girard’s work and the contemporary human sciences.
Born in Avignon in 1923, after completing his professional training René Girard began teaching in the USA, where he settled at the end of the ’40s. A professor of French literature-he started teaching at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in 1957–Girard debuted as an author in 1961 with Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque (Deceit, Desire and the Novel)(1). This was followed in 1972 by La violence et le sacré (Violence and the Sacred) which still remains, together with Des Choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde (1978) (Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World), his most celebrated work. From then until the publication of his last book–Celui par qui le scandale arrive (2001)–this “cultural maverick” has been unremittingly committed to revealing the centrality of imitation, rivalry, violence and religion as cornerstones of human culture.
Girard’s work is attractive for both its style as well as its content. From Deceit, Desire and the Novel to A Theater of Envy (1991), dealing with Shakespeare’s theatre, Girard has constantly turned to the great writers of world literature to find the keys to the questions posed by the human sciences, provocatively claiming the superiority of the wisdom contained in Sophocles, Proust or the Book of Job compared to Freud or structuralism. All of Girard’s great texts are also thrillers: there are the traces and clues left by the murderer, the generative event of society; there is the idea of culture as an immense task of hiding the body, and disguising its violent origins(2). The religions and mythology of the world both reflect and camouflage this process:
far from being a gratuitous invention, myth is a text that has been falsified by the belief of the executioners in the guiltiness of their victim (…) myths incorporate the point of view of the community that has been reconciled to itself by the collective murder and is unanimously convinced that this event was a legitimate and sacred action.(3)
Girard is not only the revealer of this extraordinary misapprehension in which men are immersed, the advocate (parakletos in the Gospels(4)) committed to freeing the victims from the false accusations made against them (the most well-known victim certainly being Oedipus). He is at the service of a greater Revelation: half of Girard’s books have a verse from the Gospels as their title. The Jewish-Christian Scripture is at work within history, says Girard, to reveal the innocence of the surrogate victim. Also the great atheistic and rationalistic thought of the XIXth and XXth centuries is, according to Girard, unconsciously located within this progressive and inexorable triumph of the biblical message, which alone possesses the key to fully reveal the violent origins.
Girard’s Christianity is not a private faith: it is rather a gnosis–he has been defined as the “Hegel of Christianity” by Jean-Marie Domenach–which leads to a sort of “Christianization of the human sciences”(5). The Jewish-Christian Scripture is more aware and advanced as regarding deconstruction than our brilliant critical mythologies: so Girard brushes away the difficult “liberal” compromise through which the cognitive pretensions of the biblical text had been neutralized in modernity.
Girard explicitly locates his search within the Christian context, starting from Things Hidden, and he accentuates this reference increasingly, until the point of claiming an apologetic intention regarding Christianity(6) in his most recent work. An Augustinian Christianity was always very important for him, as illustrated in this comment on the Dostoyevskian universe:
Men boast of having discarded their old superstitions, but they are gradually sinking into an underworld ruled by illusions, which become increasingly obvious(7).
In a theoretical scenario which will always remain dual, in his early works Girard was already opposing the truth of the novel to the romantic lie, the former of which the writer arrives at through a sort of religious conversion.
Girard is a party-pooper, a trickster of contemporary thought. The theoretician of the victimage mechanisms has himself played at being the scapegoat of the culture of his own time by choosing to think provocatively what the contemporary sciences exclude from their paradigms. In a cultural context–which is charmed by complexity, theoretical weakness and falsificability–he has come forward as the spokesman of a theory with a strong vocation for “totalization”. To an intellectual world enchanted by differences, Girard proposed that behind the plurality of texts and cultures lies only one generative mechanism(8). He breaks through all the rigorous prohibitions on which the contemporary episteme is founded. His voice is in contrast with the currents of thought that have dominated the last 40 years: hermeneutics, structuralism, deconstructionism.
For these reasons, Girard’s ideas have been received on the one side with silence and almost total ostracism by the dominant disciplines(9), and on the other side with the enthusiastic welcome of a group of “disciples” who, united within the association COV&R (Colloquium on Violence and Religion), have attempted to develop the principal intuitions of Girard(10).
Thirty years since the publication of Violence and the Sacred, Girardian ideas have never gained the influence they hoped for, although there have been some successful attempts to make Girard’s thought work in an open way, while aiming at a sort of theoretical “weakening” of his frame of research(11).
Mimesis. The Triangular Desire
Starting from Deceit, Desire and the Novel, the Girardian theory of desire criticizes the presumed autonomy of the Subject, and of the “romantic lie” which the Moderns would seem not to care about. Imitation, mimesis, is the key to Girardian anthropology:
there is nothing, or next to nothing, in human behavior that is not learned, and all learning is based on imitation. If human beings suddenly ceased imitating, all forms of culture would vanish. Neurologists remind us frequently that the human brain is an enormous imitating machine.(12)
Among the great “novelistic” affirmations from Cervantes to Dostoyevsky(13), Girard throws light on the deep-seated unity around a common fulcrum: the revelation of the mimetic character of desire, of the systematic presence of a Mediator through which it is possible to have access to the object. Desire is a triangle: every straight line which links man to his own objects is a lie which hides the presence of the Other, the Mediator which gives meaning and value to that towards which men turn in order to desire(14).
For Girard, the only true object of the great novels is the history of the manifestations of desire “according to the Other”(15). This history represents the basic temperature of modern society: from the inaccessible celestial model of Don Quixote, which due to its very distance is defined as External Mediator, placed at a safe distance from every conflicting convergence on the desiring subject, to the proliferation of models which are ever more internal to the sphere of the subject, as in the Dostoyevskian underground man.
The closer the mediator is to the subject, the more the conflicting convergence of the two desires towards the same object tends to grow. The desire itself tends to become pathological:
Don Quixote’s mediation is a feudal monarchy which is sometimes more symbolic than real. But the underground man’s mediation is a series of dictatorships as savage as they are temporary. The results of this convulsive state are not limited to any particular area of existence; on the contrary, they are totalitarian.(16)
Beyond a certain threshold of rivalry, the object disappears and becomes pure abstraction. Subject and Model have now become mimetic doubles: the prize they contend for is literally nothingness.(17)
In the proliferation of rivalrous relationships, the element of desire becomes increasingly accentuated. If it was imitation that produced the obstacle in normal desire, now it is the obstacle that produces imitation. Since the object, once it has been possessed, loses the mediator and with it the value, one may just as well seek impossible objects, always hindered by an obstacle.
Girard aims towards the construction of what he defines in DCC as an interdividual psychology. For Girard the presence of the Mediator in the structure of desire, the mimetic see-saw in which the subject is always captured, the proliferation of relationships between doubles, gives rise to an interpretation of psychic facts founded on the primacy of the relationship, which does not consider, as psychiatry tends to do, “the patient as a sort of monad.”(18) Behind the very deliriums, according to Girard, one should start looking for the hidden rival and the conflictual mimesis(19). Where the human sciences tend to see essences, symptoms and distinct characters, Girard sees the unity of the mimetic process which gives structure to diversity and the alternation of positions(20). Analogously to his interpretation of mythology, he deconstructs the false Platonic essences, which tend to differentiate that which in reality belongs to a single structure.
Through the potentially explosive character of desire, Girard unites the two arches of his intellectual undertaking, passing from the mimetic theory to the victimary perspective. Because desire is imitative, the potential convergence of the subject and of the model upon the same object is guaranteed, if structural differentiating factors do not intervene to channel the mimesis differently(21).
For Girard, a mimetic crisis characterizes the origin of cultural systems.
Violence and the Sacred: the Girardian Strategy
A strategy governs Violence and the Sacred: to throw down a gauntlet to the entrenched position of the human sciences of his time. Girard’s ambition, no longer fenced in within the field of literary criticism, is now that of adopting the radicalness of the Freudian and structuralist themes in order to rebuild them in an alternative synthesis to them.
Freud and Lévi-Strauss constitute the “mimetic model” of Girard. Admired and competing rivals, their intellectual projects converge on the same terrain upon which Girard is building his edifice. Lucien Scubla has pointed out the affinities between Girard’s project and that of Lévi-Strauss: both have “the ambition of building a general theory of culture”, one of them starting from the prohibition of incest and the other from the founding murder, but both within a common perspective. In fact they both see nature as “an undifferentiated continuum” and culture as “a system of differences”. But the relation of Girard with Freud is still more complex.
Freud is the thinker who is most present in Girard’s texts, but is also the one who has suffered his most virulent attacks. For example, in an article of 1972 commenting on Anti-Oedipous by Deleuze and Guattari(22), Girard criticizes the two authors because underneath everything they still remain faithful devotees of Freud and are incapable of getting rid of him. They believe they can free themselves of Freud while, however, they give him the monopoly of the group of phenomena–desire, rivalry, triangles–upon which Girard would now like to place his own seal(23). But Girard does not retreat: “It is Freud himself who chose and powerfully occupied his own terrain; contending the possession of it with him clearly means running considerable risks and is even an indication of temerity(24).
Girard challenges Freud in his own house, unlike Deleuze and Guattari, who adopt “guerrilla tactics”.
Violence and the Sacred opens with a full-frontal attack upon the concept of ambivalence:
Because the victim is sacred, it is criminal to kill him – but the victim is sacred only because he is to be killed. Here is a circular line of reasoning that at a somewhat later date would be dignified by the sonorous term ambivalence. Persuasive and authoritative as that term still appears, it has been so extraordinarily abused in our century that perhaps we may now recognize how little light it sheds on the subject of sacrifice. (…) When we speak of ambivalence, we are only pointing out a problem that remains to be solved.
Girard’s work is an attempt to reply to this unresolved problem.
The Two-step: Girard as a Reader of Freud
Girard reads Freud as a precursor of the mimetic theory, who would nevertheless have lost his way upon arriving at the crucial point. Psychoanalysis rejected or neutralized the decisive intuitions of Freud, putting them on the margins of the psychoanalytical construction. Girard thus wishes to revisit and correct Freud: with a sort of two-step enters into the twists and turns of the Freudian text, follow its developments, indicate its dead-ends, and emerge with the prey of the mimetic theory, finally freed from the psychoanalytical castle.
Basically, Girard salvaged two theses from Freud who, according to Girard, is always oscillated between mimetic theory and psychoanalysis: the mimesis which would give a structure to the Oedipus complex and the collective murder. Girard wishes to liberate Freudianism from fathers, incests, childhoods and objects. To keep the triangle but without the Oedipus. To maintain the founding murder but without the parricide.
1. Mimetic Oedipus
Regarding the Oedipus complex, Girard maintains that Freud–well on his way upon the road of mimetic desire and the triangles that give it a structure–in the passage from Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego to The Ego and the Id, fell, “at the cost of a certain incoherence,” into the theory of desire rooted in the object (the maternal object).
The Oedipus complex is what Freud invented to explain triangular rivalries, when he failed to discover the remarkable possibilities of the principle of imitation, precisely in connection with issues of desire and rivalry(25)
In essence, Freud gave birth to psychoanalysis by aborting the mimetic theory:
Although traces of the mimetic conception are scattered throughout Freud’s work, this conception never assumes a dominant role. It runs counter to the Freudian insistence on a desire that is fundamentally directed toward an object, that is, sexual desire for the mother.(26)
Mimesis is in fact sufficient to explain the two tendencies of infancy–attachment to the mother and ambivalence towards the father–which alone, for Freud, “in consequence of the irresistible advance towards a unification of mental life”(27) tend to become united. In the context of the Freudian opus, “the father as a model” and “the mother as an object, according to the attachment (anaclitic) type”, represent two originally independent forces, two movements which at the beginning function in a parallel way, autonomously(28): “at the same time” is Freud’s expression(29). For Girard instead there is only one movement: paternal imitation generates the desire of the object. A force, which is one and the same, the will to substitute for the father in every way, feeds the identification with the model and the desire for the mother.
The mimetic criticism of Girard thus tends to get rid of the libido directly fixed on the mother, of this second side of the Oedipal triangle, which for Freud is intrinsic and not copied. And so Girard adopts Bateson’s double bind to explain “the crucial and potentially catastrophic nature of the first contacts between child and parent or, in other terms, between the disciple’s desire and the model’s desire”. The ambivalence is thus no other than this sudden transformation of the model into an obstacle, a typical evolution of mimetic desire.
In the passage from Group Psychology to The Ego and the Id, according to Girard, Freud further cancels the traces of mimetism:
As we can see, in The Ego and the Id, Freud makes a clean sweep of all mimetic effects, but in so doing he sacrifices some of the most trenchant insights of Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego and some of his coherence as well(30).
In short, Freud attempted initially to develop the Oedipus complex on the basis of a desire that is both object-oriented (cathectic) and yet originates in mimesis (…) The failure of this attempt at compromise compelled Freud to base his complex on a purely cathectic desire and to reserve the mimetic effect for another psychic structure, the superego.(31)
2. Narcissism and Power
The task of interdividual psychology is to dissolve the false Platonic essences of distinct characters and symptoms and show the unity of the mimetic process and of the alternations that it produces. But if desire is “the authentic subject of the structure”(32) which commands the relations between the boxes of the mimetic game, the theme of narcissism falls under its lens. This last theme is the precipitate of every desire, which wishes to be self-sufficient, autonomous and original, i.e. non-mimetic.
In the Freudian narration, there are two great narcissistic and autonomous figures. If the net of mimetism, as Girard says, represents a “garment without seams”(33), these two personages would seem to fall outside it as complete exceptions.
We are talking of
(1) “the type of female most frequently met with, which is probably the purest and truest one”(34), the perfect narcissist of On Narcissism: an Introduction, who, strictly speaking only loves herself, and
(2) the father of the primordial horde, reincarnated in the leader of the group, described in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego: “the ‘superman’ whom Nietzsche only expected from the future” and who instead we find ready-made “at the very beginning of the history of mankind”(35); he too is free, autonomous and without the need to be recognized.
Both are surrounded by a halo of “that last reflection of the sacred” which is here the Difference “par excellence”, according to Girard; the possession of total autonomy in a world of beings engaged in what Alexandre Kojève defined “the mortal fight for recognition”(36). This constitutes the libidinal secret of their attraction, erotic and political, upon others.
Freud, proposing a double psychological register, the narcissistic and the object-oriented–or, in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, the individual and the collective–has thus, in Girards’s opinion, not grasped the strategic character of narcissism. The perfect self-sufficiency of the model is the illusion of which the subject who has fallen in his/her sway or the obedient underling are both victims: it is “the phantasm par excellence of desire”(37).
Thus, Girard concludes, “the coquette knows a lot more about desire than Freud does”(38). Psychoanalysis lacks what is at the center of Dostoyevsky and Proust’s work: the perfect specularity between narcissism and resentment. Freud mistakes the narcissistic strategy for an essence(39), he consecrates himself to resentment and places at the feet of the coquette all of his own libidinal energies, a capital investment with which s/he prospers while making her followers and underlings ever more impoverished. The “perfect narcissist” does not have substance, apart from that which s/he accumulates by getting it from the devotees who throw themselves at her/his feet. Freud thus reifies and immobilizes some positions, which exist only in as much as they depend the ones from the others, within the mimetic seesaw.(40)
This psychology of the perfect narcissist has an important role within the logic of Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. If the groups with their leader, which is what really interests Freud, are the “revival” of the primal horde dominated by the primal father, then in order to comprehend the psychology of the leader of the group, it is necessary to base oneself on the structure of the original father. This surprising element links this work to On Narcissism: An Introduction. In a certain sense, says Freud, the science which studies men in the group or the brothers of the horde is not the same science which studies the leader: “for from the first there were two kinds of psychologies, that of the individual members of the group and that of the father, chief, or leader”.(41)
In what does the substantial difference between these two different genuine types of humanity consist, according to Girard’s reading of Freud?
The members of the group were subject to ties just as we see them to-day, but the father of the primal horde was free. His intellectual acts were strong and independent even in isolation, and his will needed no reinforcement from others.(42)
“The father of the primal horde” possesses a specific difference, the same as that of the perfect narcissist: he does not need others. Upon this perspective is founded the illusion of he who believes in the reality of his power. Believing in the self-sufficiency of the leader, in the perfect narcissist, Girard would say, is a bit like believing in the guilt of Oedipus: it means not being sufficiently advanced on the road towards the demystification of the myth. It ignores the random nature of the process and it stops at the presumed difference of character between the personages, without understanding that anybody could occupy any square of the chessboard.
In the reading of the myth, which according to Girard even Freud would erroneously agree with, between the group and the individual there is a substantial difference, which in Sophocles justified the penalty of exile [since among all the Thebans only one is guilty], and in the myth of the primal father instead founds a natural psychology of power [since the father is really autonomous]. In one sense the incestuous parricide, in another the perfect narcissist.
J.P. Dupuy (1990, 1991, 1992) has attempted to elaborate a social theory inspired by Girard. In Dupuy’s terms, the father of the primal horde or the crowd’s chief is, in the Freudian text, an exogenous fixed point, that is to say both the producer and the orderer of the masses. On the contrary, from the Girardian point of view, he is “produced by the masses, while they imagine that they are produced by him.”(43)
To consider the leader as an endogenous fixed point means affirming that it is not his intrinsic qualities [his illusory narcissism or charisma] which earn him his central position, but the process by which this autonomous system which is the crowd closes around him. Narcissism is nothing but an illusion, there is never anything other than ‘pseudo-narcissism’. The singularity of the leader has nothing to do with his individual characteristics: it is an effect of the system.(44)
Applied to the primal father of Totem and Taboo, this approach, according to Girard, leads directly to the thesis of the surrogate victim, getting rid of the Freudian “mythology” of the parricide.
3. Totem and Taboo: The Fascination of the Origins
In a recent French ethnological journal, Girard was catalogued as a “Freudian”(45). Girard expresses his indebtedness towards Totem and Taboo regarding the thesis of the collective homicide as “the greatest discovery of all the old ethnology”,(46) “the only one of which one can certainly say that it is destined to inscribe the name of Freud in the register of science”, the fact that “he was the first to affirm that every ritual practice, every mythical meaning has its origin in a real killing.”(47)
Girard agrees with Freud’s ethnological search for a sort of year zero in the history of human culture. Freud with parricide, Girard with the surrogate victim, both aim towards reconstructing the genesis of institutions starting from a generative event: both think of the progression of culture in terms of the hiding of the founding corpse. Freud uses the illuminating term Entstellung (distortion) to describe the relationship between culture and founding murder, and Girard radicalizes this perspective. (48)
Anthropologists generally gave a cold reception to Totem and Taboo. Lévi-Strauss radically refuted this reconstruction of the origins as illusory:
Freud successfully accounts, not for the beginning of civilization but for its present state (…) Symbolic gratifications in which the incest urge finds its expressions, according to Freud, do not therefore commemorate an actual event. They are something else, and more, the permanent expression of a desire for disorder, or rather counter-order. (49)
Paul Ricoeur, in De l’interprétation, underlined the contradiction into which Freud falls by adopting, for the explanation of religious events, a mechanism–real trauma–which instead of the etiology of individual neuroses was soon abandoned in the name of a more complex construction(50). In so doing, according to Ricoeur’s commentary, Freud turns his back on the great interpretative line, which goes from hermeneutics to structuralism, connected to the logical-speculative or mythical-poietic function of the myth.
Like Freud, Girard also makes this inversion, and his hypothesis of a victimary expulsion at the origin of mythology was received in the same cold way.(51) Unlike Lévi-Strauss and Ricoeur, he shares with Freud the conclusion of Totem and Taboo: “in the beginning was the Deed”, or even the misdeed of the primordial killing:
We know now to recognize in religious forms, ideas, and institutions in general the warped reflection of violent events that have been exceptionally “successful” in their collective repercussions. We can identify the commemoration in mythology of the same violent acts that are so successful that they force their perpetrators to re-enact them (…) As religion and cultures are formed and perpetuated, the violence is hidden. The discovery of their secret would provide what must be called a scientific solution to man’s greatest enigma, the nature and origins of religion.(52)
Girard does not wish to deprive himself either of the structuralist synchrony or of the murder in Freud, but “to read the founding murder of Freud in the logical perspective of Lévi-Strauss”, to arrive at the hypothesis of a surrogate victim at the origin of all cultural systems.
Of the structuralism Girard keeps the idea of myths as genuine “machines for meaning”: the point is not to render Freud’s intuition vain or invalid, but to add a third dimension of history to the structural analysis, which is concentrated only on the synchronic character of the text. For Girard, interpreting mythology only in its synchronic dimension makes it hard to see the genesis of the mythical texts at work, and the fact of their being rooted in real collective persecutions.(53) We could say that myths for Girard are what dreams are for Freud: “wolves in sheep’s clothing”.
Girard makes Totem and Taboo the source of a double affiliation with Freud: the first current, the official heir, has pushed the Freudian hypothesis of the parricide of the origins back into the fantastic world–psychoanalysis. The second current, Girard himself, has taken Freud’s extravagant incursion into ethnology seriously–although it rectifies and corrects it, since “the mechanism of the surrogate victim is the failed aim of all of Freud’s opus”.(54)
As in his interpretation of the Oedipus complex, Girard in Totem and Taboo observes an oscillation between two theories regarding the origin of incest, one of them connected to the “psychoanalytical burdens”, the other one free from the paternal phantasm and therefore able to lead Freud to the threshold of the mimetic-victimary theory. Once more it is a case of taking certain intuitions left unfinished by Freud to their ultimate consequences and of showing their “solutions” in the context of the mimetic-victimary theory. Girard wishes to lead the reader by the hand among the “wrong turns” of Freud, among the psychoanalytic dogmas on the one side and the mimetic theory on the other.
The first reading, that of posterior obedience–which has a precedent in the analysis of Little Hans (1908)(55)–is the one according to which:
The dead father became stronger than the living one had been – for events took the course we so often see them follow in human affairs to this day. What had up to then been prevented by his actual existence was thenceforward prohibited by the sons themselves, in accordance with the psychological procedure so familiar to us in psycho-analyses under the name of “deferred obedience”(56).
With the following theory-anticipated already in the second of the four essays of Totem and Taboo, in which the prohibitions are a way of preventing the contagion deriving from the transgression of the taboos–Freud puts into the text the centrifugal character of “sexual desires” which “do not unite men but divide them”. We are in the midst of the mimetic crisis, as Girard would say: rivalry enters the picture as soon as the alliance against the father ends and the risk of slipping into reciprocal violence prevails: “the new organization would have collapsed in a struggle of all against all”, comments Freud.(57)
In this second theory, says Girard, the father is far in the background and the sons are de-filialized, much more similar to mimetic doubles immersed in the fight of rivalry. This is the point of maximum proximity to Freud in Violence and the Sacred, but in order to complete the trajectory it is necessary, according to Girard, to abandon the contractualism of this second theory–in which an agreement is made by means of the prohibition of incest and the circulation of women–and recuperate the unifying force of the victim of which the first theory talks. It is, however, not the parricide, but the surrogate victim: a random phenomenon which, thanks to the “all against one”, makes it possible for society to avoid precipitating into the specter of “all against all”.
So, Girard’s work on Totem and Taboo is analogous to the deconstruction of the perfect narcissist: there are no longer substantial differences, double psychological registers, but the undifferentiated qualities of the mimetic crisis(58). When Freud reads the founding murder in the perspective of parricide, for Girard he remains anchored to a literally mythical plane: according to this plane, the leader of the horde, far from being one of the many “enemy brothers”, one of the many doubles which are structured in the absolute reciprocity of the generative violence, is instead truly “the great man” which the following processes of totemization and divinization will account for.
“Umwendung”- the Roots of Sociality
One Freudian text is nearer than any other to the interdividual inspiration of Girard: Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, “a track that from the analysis of the individual leads to the comprehension of society”,(59) as Freud himself defined it. Although Girard does not dedicate particular attention to this text, from it a fecund convergence between the two paradigms emerges. Unlike many other texts of Freud, in Massenpsychologie the presence of the Other “in the individual’s mental life” is particularly emphasized:
someone else is invariably involved, as a model, as an object, as a helper, as an opponent; and so from the very first individual psychology, in this extended but entirely justifiable sense of the words, is at the same time social psychology as well.(60)
From a Girardian viewpoint, in Freud’s text the function of the Group is particularly striking: it is an enormous container for the rivalrous drives which lie below the formation of the group. “For the individual, outside the primitive group, possessed his own continuity (…) and he kept apart from his rivals”.(61) In Group Psychology the group seems to be finalized towards the prevention of the catastrophic potentialities inherent in the dissolution of the social bond: behind it the specter of panic repeatedly emerges; when the group is dissolved, the space of the mimetic crisis, against which it had been erected, opens up again. Commenting on the dissolution of the religious group, Freud says, “ruthless and hostile impulses towards other people make their appearance”(62).
Also the fundamental process of identification, Freud clearly states, originates as a reaction and ends up by hiding the original condition of rivalry. In describing a typical group phenomenon based on mimetic fascination, Freud says:
We have only to think of the troop of women and girls, all of them in love in an enthusiastically sentimental way, who crowd round a singer or pianist after his performance (…) originally rivals, they have succeeded in identifying themselves with one another by means of a similar love for the same object.
The roots of sociality are to be found in this magic which turns hostility into a mutual agreement. The collective sentiment is born as a reactive formation against hatred: “What appears later on in society in the shape of Gemeingeist, esprit de corps, group spirit, etc., does not belie its derivation from what was originally envy.”(63) Freud uses a particular term to describe this sudden turn-around in interdividual relations, the overwhelming way in which discord becomes concord: Umwendung [reversal]-that term signifies that which Girard, half a century later, will call the Sacred.
Thus social feeling is based upon the reversal (Umwendung) of what was first a hostile feeling into a positively-toned tie in the nature of an identification (…) This reversal seems to occur under the influence of a common affectionate tie with a person outside the group.(64)
Here the two viewpoints coincide as nowhere else: the violent resolution against the surrogate victim founds the Girardian society by making the astounding passage from mimetic disorder to sacrificial order. Analogously in Freud, the horizontal relations of tenderness–already the product of the inversion of the original hostility–become cemented into a social bond by means of the identification with the other who is extraneous to the group, with that leader of the group, who is the successor of the murdered father of the horde. We might say that also the leader of the group rises up in the same place as the surrogate victim(65). Talking of the girls around the pianist, Freud tells us that they have now renounced tearing each other’s hair; by means of a genuine sacrificial rite “they act as a united group, do homage to the hero of the occasion with their common actions” and “would probably be glad to have a share of his flowing locks”(66). This is a gesture of supreme ambivalence, bordering on a totemic meal. But beyond a certain threshold of proximity, the distance between the two paradigms reappears: society for Freud repeats the intra-familiar rivalries, while for Girard the family is a crystallized precipitate of society.
Perhaps the author-bridge between these two paradigms-the one who started out by introducing jealousy, rivalry, the seesaw of desire, into the heart of psychoanalysis–is Jacques Lacan.
Between Lacan and Girard
One finds it hard to detect analogies between Jacques Lacan and René Girard. Upon the orderly geographical maps of our thought, their two bastions are set apart at a rigorously safe distance(67).
As far as I am aware, Lacan and his principal epigones never quote Girard. He, however, refers to Lacan in his first works and has shown some partial sympathy towards the Lacanian project of disturbing the ranks of Freudian orthodoxy, while substantially criticizing the vagueness of this undertaking compared to the concreteness of his own research, as he does in the interview published in this issue of JEP.(68)
Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen has pointed out some interesting points of convergence between the Lacanian universe and the research of Girard(69), while underlining the common provenance from Kojève, which however would seem somewhat doubtful.
Whatever the origin of their convergence might be, both Lacan and Girard gravitate around a common center. They are moved by similar preoccupations and are fascinated by and attracted to the same kind of issues: the constituent character of the other in the structure of desire, the role of jealousy and rivalry in the construction of the social bond, the proliferation of triangles within apparently dual relations (as Lacan shows extremely well in the fourth book of the Seminar on La Relation d’objet), doubles and mirrors, imitation and the Imaginary, and the crisis of modern society within which the “rite of Oedipus” is situated.
Let us take for example the central theme of the doctoral dissertation of Lacan, De la psychose paranoiaque dans ses rapports avec la personnalité of 1932. From his analysis of the “Aimée case” that which will be the central theme of the Girardian exploration thirty years later clearly emerges, namely the potentially catastrophic rivalry between Model and Subject, and the sudden reversal of admiration that becomes murder, as Borch-Jacobsen perceptively points out. The Other, who has the function of a Model-Rival in this psychosis, assumes for the paranoiac subject the same phantasmatic characteristics of fullness and self-sufficiency which Girard has analyzed in the context of the nightmares of the Dostoyevskian underground or of the Proustian world.
The Girardian definition of hatred, in the opening of MR, can be considered the best comment on the doctoral thesis of Lacan:
Only someone who prevents us from satisfying a desire, which he himself has inspired in us, is truly an object of hatred. The person who hates hates himself first of all for the secret admiration concealed by his hatred.(70)
It is an example, among many, of the convergence between Girard and the early Lacan. But what is the difference between saying with Lacan that “the object of human desire is the object of the desire of the other”, or that “from the start the subject is nearer to the form of the other than to the arising of his own tendency”, and the Girardian theory of mimetic desire? They are different aspects due to the different frames in which the two reflections are inserted. For Lacan the central theme, in this phase of his research, is the Kojèvian theme of recognition, as is evident in this definition of Fonction et champ de la parole et du langage:
The desire of man finds its meaning in the desire of the other, not so much because the other is the keeper of the keys of the object desired–[which would be more the Girardian theme in the sense of the mimesis of appropriation, author’s note]–so much as because his first object is being recognized by the other.
From Rivalry to the Cure
The theme of rivalry and its links with imitation, the envy of the one who is admired, the Model in the Girardian sense, come together following that stage of the Lacanian elaboration known as “imaginary aggressivity”.(71) Regarding the see-saw of desire in the first book of the Seminar, Lacan links desire to rivalry:
The desire of the subject cannot be confirmed in this relation except for in competition, in absolute rivalry with the other regarding the object towards which it tends. And every time that in a subject we come close to this primordial alienation the most radical aggressivity is generated, the desire for the disappearance of the other in as much as he is the support for the desire of the subject.
Yet more explicitly in the same Seminar, rivalry is placed as the foundation of the relation with the object: “the human object is originally mediated by means of the road of rivalry”(72). Also in its embryonic forms of mirror relation with his own image, or of play, when the child sees manifesting in the other “an activity preceding his own”, the rivalry is the hidden cipher of that dual constitution which is the Imaginary in Lacanian terminology. Image and imitate have moreover the same root. We could say that the Girardian mimesis corresponds to the dual field of Lacanian Imaginary.
Regarding the escape from this rivalry, the parallels between the two authors are interesting. For Lacan the remedy consists of the good medicine of the symbolic order, which guides one out of the imaginary, where the Third element arrives with his law and breaks up the bad fascination of the Two.
This rivalrous base… is precisely that which is overcome in the word in as much as it concerns the third. The word is always a pact, an agreement, and a decision is arrived at – this is yours, this is mine, this is this, this is that.(73)
Borch-Jacobsen himself, commenting on this passage of the Seminar, forcefully underlines the eminently political preoccupation of pharmacologia of the social bond which animates Lacan’s psychoanalysis:
he sees analysis as a therapy of the socius, or as a ‘medicine of civilization’, as one can well comprehend from the article Situation of Psychoanalysis in 1956, in which the thesis is applied to the example of the psychoanalytic community, which can resist the imaginary ‘forces of dissociation’ only thanks to the ‘Word’ of the ‘Master’ and the dead ‘Father’.(74)
In Girardian terms, one could say that psychoanalysis here has the function of fighting the incipient mimetic crisis of which modernity is the bearer. It is the modern Rite, which is committed towards realizing the passage from the imaginary to the symbolic.
The Analytic Rite
The definition of psychoanalysis as a “rite”(75) is particularly evocative from the Girardian point of view. Nothing is so decisive as the rite, Girard would say, in the functioning of cultural orders: its task is to carefully manage violence, in order to avoid a mortal outbreak, to set it aside in a separate space–which at the same time has a metonymic relation with the rest of the social body, so that the members of society can recognize themselves in it. The analytic rite is no different. It springs up, not by chance, in a certain phase of western history: at a certain level of indifferentiation between the model and the subject, something like the Oedipus complex can come to the light. When sons and fathers gravitate too close to each other, when the cultural indifferentiation advances beyond a certain threshold, the complex arises. For Girard desire itself is a historical product of indifferentiation; it is the mimetic crisis propagated and weakened, “that which happens to human relationships when there is no longer victimary resolution”.(76)
Freud springs up together with The Brothers Karamazov: he is the result of the same crisis, which exposes fathers and sons to a previously unheard of rivalry. Critical knowledge itself is the result of the degradation (crisis) of the traditional differences and of the mimetic crisis.
In his own language Lacan also declared this and located the birth of neuroses in a certain anomie of the family, with the decline of the patriarchy and the lack of a capacity for sexual regulation by the Ideal of the Ego. In Les Complexes familiaux dans la formation de l’individu of 1938, Lacan analyzed “the degraded form of the Oedipus” typical of our societies, “an anomie which has favored the discovery of the complex”. Here Lacan states it explicitly:
Perhaps it is to this crisis which one should attribute the origin of psychoanalysis itself. It is perhaps not only due to a fortuitous and sublime chance that precisely in Vienna – at that time the center of a State which was the melting pot of the most diverse family forms, from the most archaic to the most evolved – a son and heir of the Jewish patriarchate was able to imagine the Oedipus complex.(77)
Only in the disintegration of external mediation–in Lacanian terms, with the “social decline of the paternal imago” and the “incomplete repression of the desire for the mother”–can psychoanalysis arise together with something like the Oedipus complex.
The pharmakon, which Freud brings, fits into this long history of sacrificial crisis and ritual remedy. It is not a mere coincidence that among the first words of the Freudian vocabulary there are abreaction and catharsis, two eminently ritualistic and sacrificial terms. Adopting this viewpoint, the way Freud explains the functioning of analytical therapy is very revealing. The analyst must manage the transference; this is the decisive aspect of the Freudian pharmacia:
The decisive part of the works is achieved by creating in the patient’s relation to the doctor – in the “transference” – new editions of the old conflicts (…) Thus the transference becomes the battlefield on which all the mutually struggling forces should meet one another (78).
In the same way that rites mime the original violence, within the four walls of the analytic chamber and in the relationship between the analyst and the patient, that “war without memories or memorial”, to use the words of Althusser(79), which took place in infancy, is celebrated for the second time. Reactivated in manageable forms, it can now perhaps be resolved. It is the principle of every immune mechanism: taking some of the poison (pharmakon) in order to enjoy all of its benefits(80). To find peace again it is necessary, with great care, to bring a bit of the war back to life. Analytical psychotherapy is thus positioned within the long history of the social virtues of sacrifice. It is its sublimated version. Cultural institutions are yet more efficacious–think about the great rite of sport in our disenchanted societies–when they reproduce this way of functioning.
Libido or Mimesis, Libido and Mimesis
It is now time to draw up the balance sheet of the relation of Girard to Freud, although it is bound to be incomplete. Girard has always wished to be judged on the basis of the question “does this theory work?” One could reply that the Girardian ambition of substituting the Freudian paradigm is a less satisfying exploit compared to the premises. Certainly the work of Girard makes it possible to see various things more clearly than the founder of psychoanalysis was able to.(81) But the revolution proposed by Girard leaves us in the end with more problems than it really resolves.
What would substituting mimesis for the Freudian libido involve?
To affirm the mimetic nature of desire [says Girard] means denying it any privileged object: either any single and well determined object- such as the mother in the Oedipus complex – or any class of objects, as limited or as vast as one may suppose. It is necessary moreover to renounce all psychic or biological roots, naturally including the pan-sexuality of psychoanalysis. It is necessary to renounce the roots of need.
Girard maintains that this will also be the road of Nietzsche, who was “the first to detach desire from any object” by means of the elaboration of the concept of “the will to power”, meant as a desire causa sui, even though Nietzsche would have neglected “the mimetic aspect”.
Is it convenient, for the sake of theoretical enrichment, to dedicate oneself entirely to the mimetic perspective? In so doing does one not transform the theory of desire into a sort of empty box, where elements rooted in the instinctual or animal life, such as sexual desire, never intervene? At the end does nothing remain apart from a process–mimetism–and a series of squares of a chessboard captured in this game of the seesaw?
In Girard the objects disappear. Basically for him everything is potentially desirable, as long as a mediator is there to designate it: it is “mimetism which determines sexuality and not the other way round”. “Sexuality in fact is subordinated to rivalry (…) The human subject does not know, in the end, what to desire”(82). So if the father-model desired not the mother but, for example, a trip to Hollywood, the child, according to the mimetic theory, would rush straight to the nearest travel agency. This exaggeration shows that the mimetic theory does not prove to be more satisfactory than many other ways of reading the nature of desire.
In Girard the unconscious disappears, that “fresh stage “–as Freud says when commenting on Dostoyevsky–in which “the relation between the subject and his father-object, while retaining its content, has been transformed into a relation between the ego and the super-ego–a new setting on a fresh stage.” (83) Juan David Nasio has shown the distance between the concept of imitation and the psychoanalytical concept of identification: according to him the latter represents a “subversion” as regards the former, a traditional concept of psycho-sociology connected to the dual relation between two distinct persons A/B. With the Freudian concept, according to Nasio, we leave the interdividual space and enter into the head of only one of the two. Thus identification is a concept absolutely non-reducible to the traditional concept of psychological imitation or animal mimetism. It remains fundamentally unconscious: “the father whom the child imitates is a person; the other father, who is dead, with whom the ego identifies, is an unconscious psychic representation”.
In Girard the specificity of the parental relationship disappears: “Parricide and incest do not have a family origin: the idea is an idea of adults and of the community in crisis, which does not have any relation with the stage of early infancy…” But his objection can be reversed. If, as Girard maintains, the Oedipus complex is a crystallization of mimetic desire in action, one could overturn the theme and reply that those pervasive forms of mimetism which Girard takes as the foundation of the social mechanism–that proliferation of rivals and obstacles–could be the projection into adult life of an intra-familiar conflict which has remained open.
Analogously, infantile sexuality disappears. It is the total inexperience and vulnerability of the child which makes him advance without malice on a road full of mines, says Girard, re-proposing an angelic image of the child. He reinterprets the adult as a menace, within his cultural system: the idea of incest and parricide is the adult’s idea, not that of the child. Infancy, says Girard, should be “left with its toy-cars”!
Above all the differences disappear, all of them reduced to the neutral figure of the doubles, interdividual enemy brothers fighting among themselves. The very possibility of contemplating an escape from the mimetic to and fro–a possibility which would constitute a different but not reactive desire in the sense of Nietzsche-Deleuze-also disappears. Can the Girardian man affirm himself through a real difference, or at the most escape from the bad mimetic reciprocity, as Christ does?(84)
As S. Kofman (1980) suggests in her The Narcissistic Woman: Freud and Girard(85), the Girardian interpretation reduces everything to mimetism, according to which the presumed differences, like that of the perfect feminine type of On Narcissism: An Introduction, are no other than strategies of the lie and coquetry. “Girard, like Jung or at least in an equally speculative manner–says Kofman-does no other than repeat a monistic position”.(86)
In Conclusion: On the Language of Freud and Girard
Freud’s language shares most with that of Girard a certain way of interrogating human texts and behaviors, and thus also a certain philosophical style. On one hand, their languages keep a certain distance from the organicistic reduction of the human being considered “as a container for genes”, as happens in certain contemporary hard sciences,(87) but also, on the other hand, from the pompous philosophy which claims to be a mystical discourse on Being, an etymology of the archaic, a current of thought which is pleased to have nothing to do with a scientific discourse on man and society. But despite the similarities of their style, the differences between Freud and Girard stand out clearly.
Freud always considered theory as a limping way of proceeding towards something(88). The very use of literary texts in Freud would seem to be mostly allusive and metaphorical (this is true also for Oedipus), not ontological, as in Girard. The latter sometimes ends up seeing nothing in the texts he interrogates, other than either the straying away from or the confirmation of that which he himself is searching for: mimesis and the scapegoat mechanism.
L. Scubla maintains that the totalizing way in which Girard proceeds sacrifices upon the altar of a perfect theory the hard reality which is not allowed into his theory, together with its differences. According to Scubla, who nevertheless assumes the research of Girard, there are cultures without sacrifice, there is mimesis of imitation without mimesis of appropriation, there are triangular desires that do not necessarily become mimetic(89), and there are differences which cannot be reduced to those produced by the generative sacrifice [male-female; adult-young]; birth and procreation in many societies play the role of “matrix” which Girard wishes to attribute to the victimage mechanism alone.
In numerous passages of Violence and the Sacred-Scubla affirms-we surprise him in denying not only the importance but also the existence of these differences. Pulled along by the radical logic of his hypothesis, he abandons himself to the undifferentiated violence, the mechanism of which he has described, canceling, in the texts he comments upon, all the differences and, above all, all the inequalities which could impede the outbreak of the mimetic crisis. (90)
Taken up by the vertiginous consequences of his hypothesis and dragged along by the religious dimension, Girard sometimes tends to shut himself off in a theoretical cage, which claims to be able to explain everything. He would have us believe that literature has always had only one object, that the mythology of the world is rooted in only one event, and that everything tends towards this revelation. There are passages in which Girard gives the impression of trying to enter into the consciousness of the author and mime his moves. Girardian interpretative art is a confirmation of the Same in the Other, among the folds of the Other. The Other sometimes becomes an embryonic Girard: as in the case of Freud, he has seen the light of the mimetic theory, or he has smelled its perfume, but he has not had the strength to bear so much of a revelation without being dazzled by it.
The fascination of Girard’s style in various passages prevails over the fragility of the Freudian constructions. But this attraction–similar to that of the objects that are too perfect to be true–is also the fascination of the illusion, which pushes away the fragility and the finiteness of research and, finally, of death. Christ has defeated death. The truth has been revealed to us and now it arrives to affirm itself whole and complete. “Man’s research is destined to come to its conclusion,” says Girard; “this wandering will not last for ever”.(91)
This rigid framework, which dominates the Girardian research, apart from the intuitions which feed it, would seem in the end to be a stone upon which many of his readers stumble. (92)
Translated from the Italian by Tristram Bruce