Girard and Buddhism
Girard’s comments on Buddhism have been, through his long career, quite sparse. This is understandable: even though particular readers have sensed a possible connection between Mimetic Theory and Buddhism, the topic was probably not one of his main interests. Besides, he minimised this tradition by describing it as a rather morbid soteriological system, which allegedly consists, in his own words, in a “renunciation” led by an intent to get “out of the world altogether”. 1 The reduction of Buddhism to this very ascetic principle, one that is at the edge of self-mortification, is an unjust and incorrect claim, and it is, to say the least, poorly formulated. Doing so is just like reducing the whole Christianity to the very rigorous and rather depressing lifestyle of a few silent monks in the Alps. By presenting Buddhism in these terms, one gets rid of the profound joy at the centre of the life of the Buddhist practitioner, and, more interestingly for our research, one also misses, among many other things, a refined metaphysical understanding that gives rise to a very powerful and responsible conception of ethics.
In an article entitled Mimesis, Violence and Socially Engaged Buddhism: Overture to a Dialogue, 2 Leo D. Lefebure has offered perhaps the most advanced comparative study of Buddhism and Mimetic Theory, to date. Lefebure notices a number of interesting and important points.
- First, that desire, violence and their possible solutions are the concern of both Girard and the Buddhists.
- Second, that both traditions question the autonomy of the self.
- Third, that for both Girard and the Buddhists, there cannot be “good violence”; the rejection of sacrificial violence being one implication, in both traditions.
Lefebure also notices stronger incompatibilities, mentioning in particular the fact that there is no God in Buddhism, unlike in Girard’s view (and in the greater Christian perspective he adopts). He also mentions that Buddhism lacks an explicit understanding of mimesis as a source for violence and suffering. Lefebure’s greater claim concerns a contemporary movement known as Socially Engaged Buddhism, which consists in famous Buddhist monks who have a strong intention to play a substantial social role, unlike their forest-dwelling elders. On this topic, Lefebure is right to recognise Girard’s concept of the interdividual as being very close to the notion of Inter-Being coined by the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, the founding figure of Socially Engaged Buddhism.
Lefebure closes his analysis by presenting the practice of meditation as the personal Buddhist response to the issues and possible rivalries of life. This link is very valuable as Girard remains quite silent on the practical implications that his reflections could lead to for every-day life. Lefebure briefly presents the concept of Anattā, and he does so only to emphasise the concept’s main implication: the Buddhist view of reality as a set of interrelated phenomena. In this context, desire, too, would be interconnected and therefore socially constructed; which joins Girard’s view. Lefebure’s work leaves space, and invites a more systematic study of the technicalities of Anattā, towards a proper and generalised meeting of the Buddhist concept with Girard’s theory of Mimetic Desire.
Is Anattā behind the Mimetic Desire ?
René Girard, through his oeuvre, and in particular Deceit, Desire and the Novel, quotes hundreds of passages from the great novelists, to comment on how desire is mimetic. But why must desire be mimetic? To my knowledge, Girard did not really dig into the metaphysical implications of this question. But the very words of Girard suggest that he would agree that the subject and the model of desire are void of a self. And through a simple demonstration, borrowing from both the Mimetic Theory and Buddhist Metaphysics, we will be able to suggest that, in Girard’s system, there may be no self behind the object of desire either, even when this “object” desired is a human person. In other words, we may be able to find Anattā behind each of the three poles of the Mimetic Desire. This, in turn, will lead us to find an answer to our question, to explain why desire can only be mimetic, why it cannot be otherwise. The Buddhist worldview will also invite us to modify Girard’s terminology slightly, as well as connecting it to newly compatible notions.
Anattā, Behind Both Subject and Model of Desire
On several occasions, Girard referred to the impression of inner nothingness that the subject of desire aims to change: “Because [the vaniteux] cannot face his nothingness he throws himself on Another who seems to be spared by the curse.” 3 In contrast, the model of desire appears as being full of essence, an attribute that gives him almost superhuman forces:
Proust and Dostoyevsky describe in the same way the mediator’s arrogant bearing as he forces his way through the crowd, his disdainful indifference to the insects swarming at his feet, the impression of irresistible strength which he makes on the fascinated spectator. Everything in this mediator reveals a calm and serene superiority of essence which the miserable victim, crushed and trembling with hatred and adoration, tries in vain to steal. 4
Elsewhere, the fundamentally metaphysical differentiation is expressed by Girard with a entirely philosophical terminology:
Once he has entered this vicious circle, the subject rapidly begins to credit himself with a radical inadequacy that the model has brought to light, which justifies the model’s attitude towards him. The model, being closely identified with the object he jealously keeps for himself, possesses—so it would seem—a self-sufficiency and omniscience that the subject can only dream of acquiring. The object is now more desired than ever. Since the model obstinately bars access to it, the possession of this object must make all the difference between the self-sufficiency of the model and the imitator’s lack of sufficiency, the model’s fullness of being and the imitator’s nothingness. 5 [In French: Puisque le modèle en barre obstinément l’accès, c’est la possession de cet objet qui doit faire la différence entre la plénitude de l’Autre et son vide à lui, entre l’insuffisance et l’autosuffisance. 6]
The belittlement of the subject of desire, his quest, which becomes, in Girard’s words, the ontological desire, 7 is only the other face of the coin of the model’s belief in his own fullness, in his own self. Of course, Girard’s criticism of this structure is that the model’s fullness is only an allegation, more, an illusion. All these alleged forms of superiority of being are only the byproducts of mimetic desire, and do not represent an actual metaphysical truth:
Proust pushes the demystification of the Faubourg Saint-Germain much further than his democratic critics. The latter, in fact, believe in the objective existence of the magic object. Proust constantly repeats that the object does not exist. “Society is the kingdom of nothingness.” We must take this affirmation literally. The novelist constantly emphasizes the contrast between the objective nothingness of the Faubourg and the enormous reality it acquires in the eyes of the snob.” 8
In the conclusion, the hero and his author realise that the model/rival does not possess the independence and the fullness of his supposed, legitimate self. Does this mean that Girard would argue, with Buddhism, that human beings are void of a self? … We must notice that the Buddhist view of the absence of a self – behind the subject and behind the model – is an appropriate solution to this question.
Girard’s analysis goes further. The metaphysical deception, the realization that the belief in the model’s ontological superiority is a lie, constitutes a very particular event, of tremendous importance: the conversion.
It is easy to understand the hostility of the romantic critics. All the heroes, in the conclusion, utter words which clearly contradict their former ideas, and those ideas are always shared by the romantic critics. Don Quixote renounces his knights, Julien Sorel his revolt, and Raskolnikov his superhumanity. Each time the hero denies the fantasy inspired by his pride. 9
In the conclusion, the hero and his author realise that the model/rival does not possess the independence and the fullness of his supposed, legitimate self. Does this mean that Girard would argue, with Buddhism, that human beings are void of a self? Not necessarily: it could also be that the model is not metaphysically superior to the subject, but that they still, each have a self, with none superior to the other. But we must also notice that the Buddhist view of the absence of a self – behind the subject and behind the model – is an equally appropriate solution to this question. In other words, the Girardian ontological tension between subject and model can be read in the sense of the Buddhist Anattā.
Anattā, Behind the Object of Desire ?
It is when we get to the object of desire that it is trickier to show the closeness of Girard’s thought and Buddhist Metaphysics. Girard explains that it is the mediation of a model that makes us desire a particular object, and not the alleged intrinsic value of this object. There is a tiny gap here to reach the Buddhist conception, but a gap of tremendous importance: we can’t desire an object for its intrinsic value, because, Buddhism would add, the object does not possess any intrinsic value, in and of itself. For Buddhism, the attachment of characteristics, or values – or anything unchanging – to any object is an illusion, a mental curtain hiding from us the ever-changing reality of worldly phenomena.
This small gap is of importance: Girard simply says that our desire is not determined by the intrinsic values of an object, but he does not add that it is so because the object actually does not have any such value. We do not know whether Girard’s intuition contains this element. However, we should notice, at least, that here again, Buddhist Metaphysics and the Mimetic Theory are highly compatible. 10
Mimetic, Because Through the Model
Desire is not produced by the subject, the object or the model of desire. And with good reason: desire does not start, it is an energy that goes from one triangular relation to the other, spreading over cultures, each time in its specific, new ways.
The view that Buddhism defends, and which is compatible with Girard’s theory, is that there is no substance behind the subject, behind the model and behind the object of desire. Without substance, these poles cannot be seen as existing as such, and therefore cannot be at the origin of desire. Desire is not produced by the subject, the object or the model of desire. And with good reason: desire does not start, it is an energy that goes from one triangular relation to the other, spreading over cultures, each time in its specific, new ways. The child sees his parents and imitates them. And before involving values or intellectually mediated choices, this transfer of desire takes place, first, through the body: we learn habits, we imitate gestures, sounds, we acquire tastes, we learn what to enjoy.
Certainly, we do not all desire the same objects, and we do not all desire via the same models, but we all desire for the same reasons: we see in the object what the model saw in his object, when he was subjugated to his own model, who too saw the same thing in his own original object of desire… Therefore, I would argue for a small modification of Girard’s terminology in his theory of the dynamics of desire: we do not desire from the model but through the model. This new term allows for a consideration of desire as something fluid, a movement, a human feeling that we borrow from others and that will be borrowed from us later. A desire is never singular, specific to one individual who possesses it. We only continue the desires of others before us: our desires are only the adaptations, the copies of older desires, metamorphoses adjusted to a new setting. There are no new desires, there are only borrowed ones: desire can only be mimetic.
Not Only Mimetic: Interrelated
It is through the sum of our mediated relations that we learn how and what to desire. But this sum of our mediated relations is nothing but our society, our surrounding culture. Then, desire must indeed be mimetic, in the sense that we need others, and others’ desires, to tell us how to manage our desire. Desire is never just our own; it is something about which we have no choice except to learn to share, hence the rivalry so extensively theorised by Girard. But here again, a slight reformulation can be offered: desire is not only mimetic; it is also interrelated. Qualifying desire as mimetic, it is still seeing the phenomenon of a particular instance of desire as separate and distinct from others; it is repeating the illusion of separate individuals who have each a seemingly unique and independent desire. It is hiding the forest behind the tree. Mimetic is the appropriate qualifier for desire, but only in the narrow sense. In the larger sense, speaking of interrelated desires may be more correct. Qualifying desire as interrelated is to see it as the personal and particular form taken by one instance of desire stemming from within a vast number of desires, just like a sheet of paper and a beam are two possible ways in which the same tree can evolve. These networks of interconnected desires are what constitute a particular society. Alain Delaye completes this reflection and opens Girard’s triangle to what has sometimes been coined as cultural mediation:
From this perspective, the model is no more an individual considered to be illusory and ultra-powerful, a rival to be eliminated and imitated, but a diffuse social consensus that sets itself through arts, fashions, the media… A normative consensus, since all seem to agree to accept it, but one that is no less illusory, different and changing according to the places and times. 11
Originally presented at
the COV&R Conference, July 2012, in Tokyo, Japan.
Later published in
Contagion, Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture, Volume 20 (2013).