Following up on last week’s brief exposition of the theories and writings of René Girard, I had the great privilege of speaking with Dr. Grant Kaplan, author of the book René Girard, Unlikely Apologist: Mimetic Theory and Fundamental Theology. Given that Girard’s theories and analysis are immensely useful in helping people see and understand sin, grace, conversion, and revelation, the book is essential reading for catechists.  

Robert Mixa: I have used the work of Girard in the classroom and found that it resonated with many students. Why do you think that is the case?  

Dr. Grant Kaplan: I remember talking to a student, after I taught a class on Girard, who said, “Oh yeah, that mimetic desire thing totally works.” She immediately applied it to her dating life or something. It is like she got it, how universally applicable it can be, before I did. 

[With Girard,] you have many different aspects to his thought. You have mimetic desire, the scapegoat mechanism, the Christianity part. To tie that together without letting it sink in is almost like drinking from a fire hose. I am still not totally sure of the right way to teach Girard. But I have figured a few things out, I think.

There is a kind of resistance, sometimes an immediate resistance, to his thought. People wonder, “Does this mean that we are not individuals or we do not have choice?” When people think about it, there is this resistance going on. I think of it as sort of a theory of conversion. It is a great social analysis tool.  It is about realizing that you—we—are like this. You are part of it, part of the problem. You have these tendencies. It is something like that great Rilke poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” which ends, “You must change your life.”

It is hard because if this is true it does mean we must change our lives. And all of us are resistant to that for reasons that have to do with the fall and those sort of things.

RM: Indeed. For those readers who are unacquainted with Girard, his main theory, as you’ve mentioned, is on mimetic desire. Please describe that for us and how the scapegoating mechanism fits into it. 

GK: We have, on a natural level, instinctual or appetitive qualities like hunger and thirst, things like this that we share in common with other nonhuman animals. But humans are not just natural; they are born in cultures. We learn languages, we learn symbols, these sorts of things.

And so, on a cultural level, the human being, according to Girard, learns to desire. Desire is learned and we desire according to the desire of another. One way to think of it is that our intersecting cultures donate to us the sense of who we are and that we do not simply autonomously decide that “this” is who I am.

On certain levels, this is just obvious. We are given a name—often, we are given three names. These names already kind of define us. Then, too, we learn what is attractive, what is repulsive. We shape our desires according to the desires of others, and specifically the people that Girard calls “models.”

People stumble on this when they say, “Well, so someone just decides that this is his or her model, over there, and then just says, ‘I want to be like that person.’” If that is the way you think of it, you are immediately starting off on the wrong foot, because then the world is divided between people who are models and people who model themselves after them. It is almost like a Randian distinction between two levels of people. That gets it all wrong. Our parents and siblings already have this formative function on us. We learn things, we pick up accents based on the way they model, and then we have friends and teachers. There are these natural kinds of models and cultural models. If you see your parents admiring someone, you may come to admire them. If you lose respect for your parents or you dislike them for some reason, then you are going to dislike what they like.

All of this means that we are just in a matrix of social meanings and cues, and that there we learn, we discover who we are. But other people also donate to us a lot of our desires, or, all of our desires, in different ways. 

So there is something to us choosing models. But in a lot of ways they are chosen for us in factors we cannot quite foresee.

Before we started recording, we were talking about our wives and how we met them and what drew us to them. For Girard, the wrong kind of desire was called romantic desire. He called this “romantic deceit” in his first book. The romantic deceit is that there are all these fish in the sea and somehow my spouse and I looked about and we decided “who is the fairest of them all” and we picked it out. This was an expression of our individualism: we picked this other person out. We think we decided—all on our own—that “this is the fairest of them all,” because we saw in them the qualities that we ourselves valued. 

But the fact is, there are standards of beauty, or attractiveness, that we learn, that are donated to us. Not just physical but other kinds of qualities that depend on what sort of desires and interests were donated to you. One’s education level, for instance, may be something that is important, or an artistic capacity. Or just think of it in terms of the marks of attraction. If you read a nineteenth-century novel, what made a woman beautiful? Well, she is plump and pale with a high forehead. These could all be marks. If you have in mind the woman that Anna Karenina was in reality, in Tolstoy’s mind, that would never get made into a movie now. If you were tan and thin, it probably meant you were poor and had to work outside. All of a sudden, Hollywood comes along and it offers us a model that is different.

When we gaze and say, “This is beautiful,” we think we are just naturally attracted to this person. But that standard, or whatever, is donated to us through modeling. That does not mean that you were just slavishly following all these things, but it does mean that we need to undergo what Girard calls a conversion.

We contrast what he calls novelistic deceit with the idea that the true hero sets herself or himself apart and is free from the crowd. We need to get past that and accept a humility about ourselves: that we are caught up in it like everyone else. This is what he calls “novelistic conversion.”

RM: It is hard not to think of ourselves as products of our culture, then. It seems like we are all stuck in this cycle of unhealthy desire. 

GK: We will go back a little bit. I would say that mimetic desire is not fundamentally wrong or sinful. For Girard, there is this mimetic capacity and that is what distinguishes human beings from other higher mammals.

You get dominant societies where two rams, for instance, will fight; they bash heads, and then one is determined to be dominant and the other just slinks away. A kind of peace emerges. You do not find animals killing other animals in these rituals. Occasionally, you will with chimps, but it is really rare.

Then the question is how we went from a similarly dominant society to a different kind of order. The human being will just never forget. We will lick our wounds, and we will come back for more. The mimetic capacity allows for the possibility of an escalation of violence on a higher scale. You will just get a back and forth that goes on.

Jared Diamond wrote this book called Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed in which he talks about societies that have collapsed. How did early human hominid societies learn to go from dominance models to something different? Diamond focuses too much on geographical, environmental things because he wants to preach an environmentalist message, but this question of how human beings survived and got to the other side is important. It has to do with the mimetic capacity of human beings. That part of us that is imitative is what allows us to learn languages and it allows all kinds of cooperation. It really distinguishes us.

If you take a small child and a small primate, all the problem-solving skills—take blocks and stuff like that—match pretty evenly. The one part where the human just really takes off, though, is language—language capacities and also social cues.

If you are trying to do something over in the corner and you cannot do it—say putting something together or trying to stack three blocks on top of each other that keep falling over—humans can distinguish the intention. They can see that you are trying to do something, even if it is not happening. They are not just imitating a result but imitating the intention. They can read that much better [than primates]. They read social cues. You can work for a long time with porpoises, dolphins, and chimps in language acquisition, but there is a cap on it, whereas with small children, once they get to a certain point, there is an explosion of linguistic learning ability.

These are all things that distinguish us as humans from nonhuman animals, and they allow for collaboration and cooperation on an unprecedented scale. If we can explain complex ideas to one another, there is team activity—team hunts, for instance—that run much more effectively.

But then the question is, can it also lead to escalation? Then what happens? What is the thing that prevents escalation? Girard looked at this in his 1961 book on the theory of the novel called Deceit, Desire, and the Novel. He wondered, how did early human cultures deal with this? He looked at the literature on ethnology and anthropology and archeology and what they were saying, and found it all dissatisfying. He wanted a big theory.

There are certain things that you do not observe. For instance, you do not observe gravity. You just observe things falling, and then you need a theory of gravity to explain why things fall in the way they do and how they move. You do not observe natural selection. You need a theory of natural selection to make sense of all the observable data. When Girard talks about the scapegoat mechanism, it is not a thing observed. It is basically a theory about what would have happened to best explain the things that one observes. The most important thing is that it explains religion and it explains culture.

RM: How does his theory do that? 

GK: No nonhuman animals have religion, but every single observable data we have about early human cultures is that they all had religion. They all have this thing in common, religion, and nothing had it before. How do you explain that? And then how do you explain these different cultural things that seem odd, that seem weird, like the domestication of animals, kingship rituals, and all kinds of taboos and rites that you have in religions. Girard identifies the scapegoat mechanism theory as the way groups dealt with problems of escalating violence, so that they would not just simply collapse under the weight of an eye for an eye—or an eye for two eyes and then an eye for a head and then one family for another family and then a whole tribe for another family.

RM: Sounds like humans are tending towards complete annihilation.

GK: Yes. To avoid that power of escalation, human beings stumbled into some form of scapegoating, where one individual or group would represent, for everyone, the problems. And then [the scapegoats would become] both the problem and the solution at the same time. But for this to work, humans almost have to be unconscious that this is happening. 

Girard thought that the scapegoat mechanism had this tremendous explanatory function. Humanity is the child of religion and that religion is extremely vital for human beings to get out of that late dominance culture and come into a human culture.

Part II of Robert Mixa’s interview with Dr. Grant Kaplan will appear on the blog next Monday.