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A Summary of Girard's Triangular Desire & The Novelistic Revelation


Triangular desire, aka mimetic desire, the precursor to mimetic theory, is a model of understanding human desire. It is fundamentally simple, and states that a subject copies the desires of his model.

In the literary terms of Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (DDATN), it refers to the “self” copying the desire of the “other.”

With the model of triangular desire it is possible to form an analysis of human behavior through literature and other forms. While triangular desire is reductive in application, it’s power as a model comes from it’s simplicity.

Girard refers to these copied, or imitated desires, as metaphysical desires. He is not referring definitively to all “desire,” but rather to desires which do not originate from the Self, desires which originate from an Other and cannot be fulfilled by the Self. Fundamentally, the subject’s (mimetic) desire is aimed at appropriating the being of the Other. The object which appears to be desired is only a means of reaching the mediator (Other).

The base example Girard uses in DDATN is Don Quixote, whose case is most obvious. Don Quixote imitates his model of chivalry, Amadis of Gaul, in his effort to practice the essence of knight-errantry. Further works exposing the operations of metaphysical desire are less obvious. Not every hero declares his model, or character his role-model.

Girard separates the operation of the mediation of desire primarily into the categories of internal and external mediation. The two categories refer to the distance of the mediator from the subject in a “spiritual sense.” Don Quixote’s imitation of Amadis of Gaul, or a Christian’s imitation of Christ, are examples of external mediation. His other examples (works I haven’t read) are more examples of internal mediation: The Red and the Black, Notes From the Underground, The Past Recaptured, and so on. The mediator in these works is more close than far.

Through triangular desire and the characteristic double mediation of internal mediation it is possible to represent complex forms of behavior and emotion from a base analysis of desire. The deceptive complexity of behavior becomes simple with the exposition of metaphysical desire in literature.

Inherent in triangular desire is the transfiguration of the object. The object increases or decreases in “metaphysical value” based upon the mediator. Complicating the analysis at times is the vague notion of what the “object” can be. Don Quixote is a comedy through his tormentor’s enchantments, and a barber’s basin becomes Mambrino’s helmet. More real examples, found in internal mediation, manifest differently despite the same base operation. In internal mediation, the object loses its importance in the analysis as the mediator draws near.

Girard explores vanity, snobbism, masochism, sadism, and individuality, through the lens of triangular desire, revealing the (ironic) equivalence of Quixote’s transfigured barber’s basin as helmet to the common snob’s behavior. The mechanism is the same, but the distance to the mediator results in the difference of perception and ultimately behavior.

While I would think that most people would not assert the fundamental equivalence of passion and vanity, that is what Girard’s model does. All is dependent upon the distance from the mediator. Perception, behavior, and reality (which springs from illusion) in Girard’s model arise from metaphysical desire. Modeling reality from literature (in the beginning was the Word…) and claiming it springs from illusion requires some nuance, as there is a *physical* reality obviously. But it would be foolish to think that that the metaphysical does not impact the physical in many ways.

With an understanding of the mediation of desire, and double mediation, it appears to be possible to understand a modeling of the roots of emotions and behaviors prevalent within contemporary life.

The operations of double mediation (A copies the desire of B, B in turn copies the desire of A) conceal the nature of the model through the subjects denial of their admiration and imitation. The hated rival is in fact in some ways an admired model and double mediation plunges its victims into the abyss of rivalry. As the distance to the mediator decreases, the potential for rivalry increases, the deceit and duplicity grows, and the results of double mediation grow worse.

Double mediation, and internal mediation, result in a perpetual copying of desire. Each desire begets a duplicate desire, and through this a rivalry can emerge.

Don Quixote and Amadis of Gaul are not rivals due to their “distance.” Sancho’s desire to govern an island is suggested by Quixote, but they still are not rivals – they operate in separate lanes of metaphysical reality. Their mediation is external and doesn’t result in rivalry.

Contrast the same mediation of desire under the internal modeling, such as in The Tale of the Inappropriate Curiosity, included within Don Quixote by Cervantes, and the same mediation, operating between “friends” in the context of “love,” has a vastly different appearance and outcome: the death of Anselmo, instead of the comedy of the windmills.

Deviated transcendency, the inversion of vertical transcendency, the imitation of the false idol instead of the divine, has diabolical consequences.

Anselmo schemes to have his “friend” Lotario seduce his wife in a vain effort to validate her virtue in the “expected” case of her denying Lotario’s advances. The outcome is different however, and Anselmo’s offering to Lotario, instead of frustrating his rival, validating his desire, and affirming his wife’s virtue, results in a “successful seduction” and Anselmo’s downfall.

Double mediation, in operation between the “friends,” rears it’s ugly head in this case. Anselmo’s desires become Lotario’s desires and vice versa, and the originally hidden rivalry becomes apparent and it’s conclusion tragic instead of comic.

The inclusion of the tale within Don Quixote according to Girard shows the operation of internal mediation. Girard’s take is that Cervantes included it to show the universal nature of metaphysical desire. Girard states that the hero of internal mediation offers his “sacrifice” to the god in order that the god might not enjoy it. Here, Anselmo pushes his beloved into his mediator’s arms in order to arouse his desire and triumph over the rival mimetic (imitated) desire. Anselmo’s plan fails however and leads to his downfall.

The imitative nature of the working of desire has been expanded upon by others. In a later work of Girard’s, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, one of the interviewers, a psychiatrist, Jean-Michel Oughourlain, analyzes mimetic theory with Girard. This doctor goes on to incorporate this model of desire into his practice of psychiatry and medicine, offering credence to the concept of imitative desire and its operation in internal and double mediation. In his book, The Mimetic Brian, he goes so far as to “tweak” desire to the benefits of his patients.

The realm of internal mediation as explored by Girard is brutal and total. Don Quixote’s comic chivalric exploits make us laugh. But the works of Dostoevsky and Proust (apparently, I have yet to read them, but I found nothing that obviously contradicts Girard’s model in Don Quixote) display the tyranny of internal mediation. The model can be anybody and spring up at any time. The reign of each short but awful. The tragic becomes the comic, and the comic the tragic, and the operations of desire make deceit and hypocrisy the rule of the day.

Double mediation seems to make the same invent difference, while paradoxically eliminating it (Violence and the Sacred speaks more on “difference”). The very notions of consciousness and individuality, and the tenets of Western thought, are exposed and laid bare. As Buddhism says, suffering is rooted in desire and ignorance. Girard’s model, and the display through literature of its veracity, appears to confirm this truth within a context of Western literature.

Metaphysical desire is contagious and Girard terms it’s spread as the ontological disease. In DDATN Girard explores the progression of the disease through contemporary time with an exploration of literature.

Girard claims that literature is reflective of the stages of the ontological disease and the novelists’ awareness of this reality. According to Girard, despite the apparent gulf between Don Quixote, Notes From the Underground, and other works he discusses, the novels all perform the same act ultimately: they reveal the existence of metaphysical desire. Girard calls this the novelistic revelation.

In Don Quixote, this operation is fairly obvious. Don Quixote’s imitation of Amadis of Gaul and his chivalric exploits in practicing knight-errantry are absurd and comic. Through the mediation Don Quixote participates in, the “common” reality shared by the priest, various innkeepers, Dukes, and others, is contrasted with the absurd enchantments Don Quixote experiences.

The novelistic revelation is performed by contrasting metaphysical realities. In the case of Don Quixote, this is pretty easy to see. The contrast between the books of chivalry which form the basis for Don Quixote’s reality, and the reality of the priest, for example, is a relatively straight forward.

Through a contrast of the realities of the characters within the novel, a process suggested implicitly, not explicitly, the malleable nature of metaphysical reality and desire becomes apparent. Coupled with the model of triangular desire, many apparent “complexities,” “archetypes,” and other notions become reducible within the literature itself to the same fundamental operation: the mediation of desire.

The absurdity of Don Quixote’s enchantments become comic not out of some fixed “true reality” of which he alone is excluded and truly insane within in an absolute sense. They are absurd and comic because of the incompatible realities shared by the characters (and readers) and the conflicting transfiguration of reality.

By exploring a number of novels, Girard reveals that the ultimate result of metaphysical desire is enslavement, shame, and suffering. Don Quixote’s desires are not his own, and while his exploits are hilarious, nobody would wish them upon themself. The tyranny under which the underground man toils is driven by the same mediation, only his mediator(s) are closer than Quixote’s Amadis of Gaul. While the underground man’s “reality” may be more “real” to us than Quixote’s, the path to each is the same.

Despite the tyranny of metaphysical desire, there is a freedom achieved through what Girard calls the novelistic conclusion. This occurs when the hero renounces his old self. The hero renounces metaphysical desire, realizes the nature of his desire, and is able to rejoin the world with a new relation to others and reality. This conclusion may manifest differently but is fundamentally the same.

Don Quixote abandons knight-errantry and the folly of his ways in the end. Don Quixote’s freedom comes ironically at the point of his death in the novel.

Freedom, seen through the Girardian lens, is in the renunciation of metaphysical desire, and the selection of a divine model instead of a human model.

The study of metaphysical desire as undertaken in DDATN is important due to the outcome of its mediation. The mediation of desire, and the ontological sickness (the increasing proximity of the mediator), ultimately lead to shame, slavery, and suffering.

The novelistic revelation, and the exposure of the existence of metaphysical desire seems to validate certain “spiritual lessons,” such as in Buddhism. It also validates the Christian’s imitation of Christ, and undoubtedly other religious teachings.

The model of triangular desire allows the analyst to examine novelistic works and relate the structure and results of the metaphysical desire in a systematic fashion. Girard does this and structures his analysis by exploring the spread of the ontological sickness through a review of literature termed “novels of mediated desire.”

The necessity of this revelation in the novelistic universe is important. Since the object is not the actual aim of desire, it’s acquisition ultimately results in disappointment. The fruits of metaphysical desire are bitter in general. The expected transformation doesn’t take place when the object is acquired.

Girard’s analysis rests on the idea we all operate under the guise of a model. In Girard’s reasoning true freedom lies in the choice between a human or divine model.

As Girard puts it in the first chapter: The aesthetic emotion is not desire, but the ending of all desire, a return to calm and joy.