René Girard: Great Literature and Mimetic Desire

As a group, the texts that reveal mimetic desire share none of the characteristics emphasized by the various schools of literary criticism. They do not share the same rhetorical practices; they do not belong to the same literary genres; they were written at different times, in different languages; they cannot be referred to a single intellectual or religious tradition. Most, if not all of them, however, belong to a group of universally acknowledged world masterpieces. Being unable to find any common ground among all the works that compose that group, literary critics now tend to regard its unity as somewhat mythical. The only notion that was ever invoked to justify the alleged superiority of these works—mimesis, once again—is no longer acknowledged as a valid basis for esthetics, and its discredit has reinforced the tendency to regard the presumed superiority of these works as imaginary.

…The enormous emphasis on mimesis throughout the entire history of Western literature cannot be a mere mistake; there must be some deep-seated reason for it that has never been explained.

…If the absence of a convincing answer, even year after year and century after century, sufficed to disprove the validity of the question, the hard sciences would never have seen the light of day.

—René Girard, To Double Business Bound: Essays on Literature, Mimesis, and Anthropology

It has been René Girard‘s business to look for an explanation for this emphasis on mimesis, rather than throw up his hands and fall in with those who say literature cannot explain the real world, or is merely beautiful entertainment, or is just a matter of taste traditionally dominated by “dead white males.” As he suggests with the last quote above, just because we don’t know why great literature is great doesn’t mean that it isn’t.

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2 comments on “René Girard: Great Literature and Mimetic Desire

  1. amcorrea says:

    Love seeing Girard discussed! I've only read The Scapegoat, but I would say that this is one of the books that tries to get at the whys and wherefores of mimesis. It's fascinating.

  2. Stefanie says:

    Very interesting and the more I think about it, all of the books considered great do have a certain mimesis to them. I've not heard of Girard before. Must look for him at the library.

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