How men became Gods to one another
Or how a french philosopher demystified love and desire
I am a big fan of René Girard, a french philosopher from the 20th century. He is not one of the most famous philosopher, especially outside of philosophy circles, but he is definitely my favourite one. He changed my life and my understanding of the world (yeah, nothing less haha). Especially on this such important concept of love.
He wrote a lot about religions, the sacred, and the scapegoat phenomenons. But to be honest, I don’t really care about those subjects (not that much I mean). For me, his most important works are about love and desire. For me, he is THE philosopher who really understands how love and desire work. Far from the very naive, romantic, or even sexist and uninformed views that a lot of his colleagues often have about those subjects.
He wrote one book particularly, that really changed my understanding of love and life generally. That book is titled in english “DECEIT, DESIRE AND THE NOVEL”. It’s a bad traduction of the original title. A more “literal” traduction of the french title would be something like: “Romantic Lie and Novelistic Truth”.
Basically, his (great) idea in this book, is to try to understand desire and love, by analysing a few great works of fiction, by the best novelists in the world. He selected particularly Don Quixote by Cervantes, Proust, Stendhal, Dostoyevsky. But why is this a good idea, to examine desire and love through fiction? Because, as he explains, great novelists often have an intuitive understanding of how human psychology works. For anyone who read some great books, it is obvious that our great writers have some amazing “mind reading” abilities. They not only help us understand how we think, they help us understand how other people think and feel. Reading Dostoyevsky or Proust, is a little bit like taking 4 years of psychology college.
So what exactly will you learn from René Girard book?
I will try to summarize the most important points , for me, from Girard book here. I will not really give you all the explanations needed for each point, because that would literally take me an entire book to write, and it’s better to read it directly from Girard of course. I will just give you a few of his insights, as food for thoughts, to get you interested in the subject.
1-The mimetic desire
This is THE theory of René Girard. The one he is the most famous for. René Girard thinks (it has been supported by some recent studies on children and animals), that desire works by mimicking other people desires. That’s the basis for learning (think mirror neurons), as for driving goals, and conformity and acceptance in society. It is the reason for the seemingly randomness of fashion trends. It is also the reason for the attraction for famous people, and for “popular” kids in high school.
It is also the explanation for the “rival” phenomenon, or the “love triangle”. Such phenomenons are extremely common in novels, make for good storytelling, because they are a very common drive for desire in real life.
Basically (to make it super simple, but it’s more complicated of course), the reason you desire someone, is because that person is desired by other people. To be more specific, you desire that person because they are desired either by a lot of other people, OR because they are desired by a person that you admire (the rival).
Of course, beauty and personality plays a role. In the same sense that gold was probably originally desired for its “beauty” and material qualities. But what reinforces the desire, is the fact that a lot of people also desire it.
In most great books of fiction, the romantic interests are sought after by more than one person. They are considered attractive by “common” standards.
2-Rivalry, or how men became Gods for one another
This leads to the second point, rivalry. In most great books of fiction, love exist because rivalry exist. Not always, we are going to talk about another possibility just after. But rivalry is a central theme in love stories. Why? Because, through the person we think we desire, what we really desire is actually our rival. The person we admire. It’s a hidden desire, but it’s the “real” desire. Without rivalry, the desire is weak. It doesn’t need to be a rivalry with someone we know: it can be with a famous person, like Don Quixote who admires famous knight of the past Amadis de Gaule, who drives his desire to become a knight himself (even though Amadis is dead since a long time). But, as Girard explains, the closest the rival, the strongest the desire.
Your rival, in a sense, is a God to you. But an “evil” God, if I may say. A god who tortures you, making you feel so small in comparison to its “greatness”. A God that you want to overthrown, by getting what they desire the most. This concept of other fellow humans becoming Gods will be addressed again in another point later. Girard explains that since we live in democratic societies, the concept of “outside Gods” have vanished. Before, the King, or the God, was the sacred, the divine to look up to. All of us were simple mortals. But since the relative disappearance of monarchy and religion, everybody became equals, so we had to turn to one another to find “greater than life” personas.
In a very narcissistic sense, what we ultimately desire is ourselves. But a greater version of ourselves. This greater version is often found in the rival. The rival is by definition someone like us, our doppelganger, only a better version of ourselves. He is us, if we had the quality we think we should have. He is the person we desire. The person we desire to be, and more importantly, the person we would like to desire us. We want to elicit in our rival, the same sentiments they elicit in us. That would mean we have surpassed them. And the person we “desire”, our love interest, is a “transitional object”. A means to prove to ourselves that we are better than our rival, by seducing those that our rivals desire.
That’s why love can vanish, when “left alone”. I’m sure you have already felt that. That’s the reason why men seem to bond so strongly around the idea of “chasing women”. It’s not for the women solely, but the place in the group they will get, the respect they will earn from their rivals, by seducing beautiful women. It’s the reason women watch more closely other women, at a party, than the men, comparing themselves.
Thus, Girard explains, jealousy is the fuel of desire. If someone likes you, and you like them back, a tender, sweet love can appear, for a little while. But their desire can dissipate over time. But, if you show them that you love someone else, you just transformed a little crush into a terrible obsession, that can last extremely longer than any “real” love. Sometimes an entire life. Thus, jealousy is the weapon of choice of any machiavellian seducer. It is the fuel of most great love stories, think Proust or even Flaubert’s Emma Bovary. In Proust masterpiece “In Search for Lost Time”, the character Swann is literally obsessed with Odette de Crécy, during almost all 7 books. He is dying of jealousy for her, and she plays with that. Then, he realized at the end of his life, that he almost died for a woman that was not even really his style, that he is not even really sure to have really loved. And Emma Bovary, whose love for Leon is the strongest when she can’t have him, and dissipates afterwards when she gets him. Who, all the time, is looking outside for happiness, and never seems to get it when her desire is resolved.
If your partner lost interest in you, and you talk long enough with someone else at a party, chances are their desire could come back very quickly, like a little demon who awakens after a long nap.
3-Masters and slaves
But sometimes, rivals are not present. At least, not in the sense of another person. Sometimes the God is not a rival, but the actual love interest. This leads to the ever present theme of “Master and slave”, that exist in almost every great love story, as in real life.
Here Girard explains something that we probably all know very intuitively, but in a more profound way: A love relationship is not balanced.
The roles can, and will sometimes change, but there is almost always someone who desire more than the other at any given point. Love, or more precisely desire, can’t be equal. Why? Because we can’t desire what we have.
Look at your wrist. Do you have a watch? If yes, do you desire this exact watch? No, of course. You can enjoy having it, sure. But you can’t desire it (in the burning sense). Because it’s already yours. Now look at the Rolex website online, and there you will see many watches that you can desire (if that’s your taste of course, otherwise look something else haha). By definition, desire is “a strong feeling of wanting to have something”. You can’t want to have something... that you have.
That’s of course the reason why men desire so much during courtship, and way less after having sex. Or why women are so full of desire in the early stages of the relationship, and less after getting married for instance (yeah very cliché sorry).
There are many logical reasons for this. But one insight that Girard gives, very interesting, is that we have generally (most people), a low opinion of ourselves. Without always realizing it, but it’s very common to have insecurities, to not feel “enough”. So we instinctively believe that anyone who loves us is not really… interesting. How could they love us, if we are not desirable? If they do, that means they are even less desirable than ourselves, so we lose interest. That’s the famous quote from Marx: “I refuse to join any club that would have me for a member”.
That’s one of the reasons people desire so much the ones who don’t desire them back, and the things they can’t have. If they are out of reach, outside, that means they must be valuable.
The problem is that as soon as we show too much affection for someone, we automatically fall in the “slave” category of the relationship. And it’s a vicious circle. Because if we fall in that category, our love interest will desire us even less. And what happens if that person desires us less? You guessed it: we desire them even more. Thus reinforcing the circle.
That’s why love often seems like a “war”. A war where concealment and secrets are the main weapons. Almost every teenager learns that intuitively very early on: if you want to seduce someone, conceal your desire. Like in poker, show your hand, and you’ll lose the game. Love is a game won best by tricksters.
The great seducers of the past, like Casanova, always looked with a sorry sympathy, almost pity, at the people who “refused” the rules of the game. The naive ones, the clueless children, who wants to “not play games”, and be loved for themselves “naturally”, without any effort. What they don’t realize, is that there is nothing natural in being loved by those you desire so much. The opposite is actually true. More often than not, it’s precisely your desire for someone that will dissipate theirs, if you’re not careful.
But wait, is there no rival here then? There is actually still a rival in this relationship, but not in the sense that we usually think about rivals. Here the rival is so close, it blends with our love interest.
The rival IS our love interest in this Master/Slave relationship. Or more precisely, our love interest splits in two distincts persons: a subject and an object. A subject, a rival. And an object, the object of desire. And those two rivals actually desire the same person. Yes, you read that correctly. In the master/slave situation, our love interest desire… themselves. And as this self obsessed seducer is so much in love with themselves, they manage to elicit in us this mimetic desire to love them too, exactly like an outside rival could do it. By winning them over, we subconsciously want to prove ourselves that we are “better” than them (again like with the outside rival).
That’s the basis for the fuckboy, seductor, fatal woman, or “coquette” phenomenons (how you like to call it).
The fuckboy, like the “coquette”, or the fatal women, are the most desirable love interests, because they desire no one. But not exactly. They actually desire someone. They desire themselves. They are in love with their own bodies, their own image, their own superiority.
The indifferent, in love, is always the master. So the seducers are always winning, because they are indifferent to others. They are, in a sense, very similar to the people who desire them, because they all desire the same thing: the seducers themselves.
The love triangle, with its mimetic desire, still exist here. But with only two persons. One of them splitting into two different persons. If you love a seducer, you are actually in a rivalry with them, to win them over. But it’s a rivalry you cannot win. And as you cannot win it, their indifferent attitude confirms you that they are indeed “sacred”. They are the indifferent God that you are looking for. They have the key (apparently), to the end of the “metaphysical” desire (the desire outside of yourself). It’s an illusion of course. The metaphysical desire can’t cease. We can only desire what is outside of ourselves. But the illusion is strong.
From the point of view of the seducer, unfortunately, the desire is dead. That’s both the reason of their romantic success, but also the reason of their vital despair. They are desired by other people, but they feel “empty” and bored, because of course they can’t satisfy themselves. That’s the character Stavrogin in Dostoyevsky Demons, who is the love and desire interest of everybody, but ends up by killing himself. Life is unbearable for such a person, at the extreme end of metaphysical desire, for they have nothing left to want, which is of course a definition of depression.
4-No love without obstacles
And what about characters who are equally in love, and equally in desire of each others, like Romeo and Juliet?
Girard explains here, following his reasoning on desire, that if nothing in the relationship itself is an obstacle, the obstacle has to be exterior. For desire needs not to be satisfied to exist and flourish. That’s why every “real romantic couples” in fiction (like Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Yseult, Lancelot and Guenievre), need very strong obstacles to their love, to maintain the “illusion” that they are in love. Death is often the most extreme and “useful” obstacle, to allow the romance to live forever.
There is so much more to learn from Girard great book. I’m barely scratching the surface of his deep mind. But I wanted to share some of his thoughts, as a preamble, for anyone interested in those subjects. At the end of his book, he points toward some “solutions” outside of the metaphysical desire, to feel a more profound and meaningful sense of love, but I’ll let you discover by yourself haha.
Thank you, have a good day!