Deceit, Desire and the Novel  

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Deceit, Desire and the Novel (1961, French: Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque) is a book by René Girard.

Background

After almost a decade of teaching French literature in the United States, Girard began to develop a new way of speaking about literary texts. Beyond the "uniqueness" of individual works, he looked for their common structural properties, having observed that characters in great fiction evolved in a system of relationships otherwise common to the wider generality of novels. But there was a distinction to be made:

"Only the great writers succeed in painting these mechanisms faithfully, without falsifying them: we have here a system of relationships that paradoxically, or rather not paradoxically at all, has less variability the greater a writer is."

So there did indeed exist "psychological laws" as Proust calls them. For example in Time Regained: "It is the feeling for the general in the potential writer, which selects material suitable to a work of art because of its generality. He only pays attention to others, however dull and tiresome, because in repeating what their kind say like parrots, they are for that very reason prophetic birds, spokesmen of a psychological law." In French: "... c’est le sentiment du général qui dans l’écrivain futur choisit lui-même ce qui est général et pourra entrer dans l’œuvre d’art. Car il n'a écouté les autres que quand, si bêtes ou si fous qu’ils fussent, répétant comme des perroquets ce que disent les gens de caractère semblable, ils s'étaient faits par là même les oiseaux prophètes, les porte-paroles d'une loi psychologique."

These laws and this system are the consequences of a fundamental reality grasped by the novelists, which Girard called the mimetic character of desire. This is the content of his first book, Deceit, Desire and the Novel (1961). We borrow our desires from others. Far from being autonomous, our desire for a certain object is always provoked by the desire of another person — the model — for this same object. This means that the relationship between the subject and the object is not direct: there is always a triangular relationship of subject, model, and object. Through the object, one is drawn to the model, whom Girard calls the mediator: it is in fact the model who is sought. Girard calls desire "metaphysical" in the measure that, as soon as a desire is something more than a simple need or appetite, "all desire is a desire to be", it is an aspiration, the dream of a fullness attributed to the mediator.




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