Rorty, Girard, and the novel.
I at least have so much to do in unravelling certain human lots, and seeing how they were woven and interwoven, that all the light I can command must be concentrated on this particular web, and not dispersed over that tempting range of relevancies called the universe. (George Eliot, Middlemarch)
THE widespread attention that has accrued to Richard Rorty, described in a recent book on his work as "one of the most original and important philosophers writing today" (Rorty and His Critics x), is somewhat paradoxical, for he advertises a pragmatism, that "delights in throwing out as much of the philosophical tradition as possible" (Truth 130). Self described as an "enfant terrible" in philosophical circles, he dismisses truth as a goal of inquiry, insisting that we do better to forget epistemology rather than attempt to perfect it (Truth 298). The goal of all inquiry is simply to "make life better" (Philosophy and Social Hope xxv), which he specifies as "devising ways of diminishing human suffering and increasing human equality, increasing the ability of all human children to start life with an equal chance of happiness" (Philosophy xxix). Everything else he says is mere wordplay (xxv). For an unattainable objectivity he urges that we substitute a vision of intersubjectivity as warranted by a panrelationalism, according to which "There are so to speak relations all the way down, all the way up, and all the way out in every direction: you never reach something which is not just one more nexus of relations" (Philosophy 53). We know nothing that is unmediated by language, and we are ever only dealing with the descriptions, not an essential, objective, or irreducible reality, which he breezily regards as a placeholder for religious belief, for unascertainable foundations.
Because Rorty's devastatingly critical stance towards his own intellectual community's activity is balanced by a warrant for literary studies as an alternative to futile theorizing, his work is open to a dialogue with Rene Girard's mimetic theory of human relations, as first developed in his ground-breaking work of literary criticism, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, and subsequently deployed as a full-blown anthropology (See Things Hidden). For Girard, too, intersubjectivity is the basis for all interpretation (Theater 67, 340), though for reasons to be discussed later, he prefers his own neologism, "interdividuality." By this he means a decentered self, our "self/other-centeredness" (Theater 133) which results from the way we copy one another's desires in pursuit of our aims. It is a discovery he owes primarily to literary fiction.
From an empirical point of view, Girard has very different reasons for dispensing with philosophical tradition than Rorty (See Bandera and Bailie), and I am not going to argue that their ideas are everywhere compatible. They interest us here for the confidence they advertise in literary masterpieces, but just as much for the way they differ on this subject. Girard, for his part, is prepared to argue for the truth, for the anthropological and human scientific veracity, of his claims about human interaction and its moral implications that certain works uncover, and he traces the source of these claims to Judeo-Christian revelation. Rorty, on the other hand, is notoriously hostile to religion, which he mostly regards as a hindrance to broad-based humanitarian goals that we can best pursue without it. We need, with Dewey and Habermas, to "get rid of the idea that humans beings are responsible to something nonhuman" (Philosophy 238). We have progressed "from worshiping Gods to worshiping sages to worshiping empirical scientific inquirers," and "with luck, this process will end by leaving us unable to worship anything" (Essays 132). This sets the two thinkers apart from each other in a way that is worth interrogating further, as it concerns on the one hand the limits of philosophy to which Rorty is deftly attuned, and, on the other hand, the interest of literature, for which he writes a strong brief against philosophy--though all the while overlooking, as I shall argue, its ramifications for an epistemology that, while resonating with Western religious tradition, is grounded in widely observed experience.
Rorty's "panrelationalism" issues not only from his acute sense of linguistic mediation, but also from the capaciously researched observation, in philosophy and the natural and social sciences, that "there is nothing to be known about anything save its relations to other things" (Philosophy 54). What holds for things holds no less for people, which is doubtless why he views the self, after Freud, Quine and Davidson, as a "centerless web of beliefs and desires" (Essays 1), as "a centerless bundle of contingencies, of the sort which both Foucault and Dewey shared with Nietzsche" (Essays 197). Following Girard, we need to conceive of these bundles and webs interactionally and mimetically; our beliefs and desires must come from somewhere, and if not from some egologically centered self or the Mind of God, then from others, and from those around us more likely than from those in our remoter past, from our parents and neighbors rather than from Plato or Pascal. What contingency means, in human relations at least, is proximity, involving us inextricably with the doings of other human subjects who happen to be within reach of our attention, acts and utterances--intersubjectivity in a word.
It is in just this sense that, in Je vois Satan, Girard states that we need to substitute "mimetism itself" for the "human subject, which "does not grasp the circular process in which it is caught up" (112). In our "self/other-centeredness," we are inextricably in-between self and other; our mode of being, or non-being, our non-entity, in sum, our essential eccentricity or relationality, is constituted by mimetic desire which binds our identity to desires, beliefs, and actions that others model for us.
This is the paradox of the human self, the mysterious unity of self-centeredness and other-centeredness in all human beings. Even though the two drives go in opposite directions and can never become complementary, they are always combined and their combination binds people inextricably to one another, even as it tears them apart internally and externally. It becomes an endless source of conflicts among entire societies as well as inside each individual. The more divinely self-sufficient we want to be, the more we turn ourselves into our own idol, the more totally we surrender to others the modest degree of autonomy that could be ours, the more we deliver ourselves into the hands of innumerable tyrants. (Theater 147)
Idolatry and tyranny, the myriad submissions and abjections we unwittingly participate in, are the consequences of our dissensions, which themselves issue from misconstruing our relations with others as we mistake their desires for ours and fail to recognize our interdependence as rivals and models for one another. Because of Rorty's stated aversion to worship of any kind, I will have more to say about idolatry later. Suffice it for the moment to observe that for Girard, too, there is no such thing as an essential human nature and that we do well to dispense with the "illusion of depth" (Truth 125) which Rorty ranks among essentialist "nuisances" that distract thinkers from practicable goals. For what is proper to desire, being mimetic, is that nothing is proper to it (Je vois Satan 34); it is not the property of any single object or individual subject, but must be conceived interdividually. This, he argues, is what our greatest playwrights and novelists, rather than our philosophers, regularly seem to do.
So when, in his essay on "Heidegger, Kundera and Dickens," Rorty makes an eloquent case for literature, the novel especially, it is one to which the mimetic hypothesis gives more concrete and precise resonance. In this essay, Rorty states his preference for novelists over theorists, for narratives over abstractions, for "detail, diversity, and accident" over the temptations to essentialism nurtured by the ascetic priest--a Nietzschean term he drolly applies to Heidegger--in his attempt to "escape from time and chance" (Essays 77). To the simplicity of the theorists, Rorty prefers the complexity and particularity of the novelist, which, deploying "a diversity of viewpoints" and "a plurality of descriptions" (78, 79), favors the toleration of differences and chances for fuller human potential.
A distinctive feature of the novel that Rorty curiously does not even mention, much less focus on, is intersubjectivity, more precisely the narrative of human interaction, though he insists on this as a better name for objectivity. It is Girard's argument in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel and other works that our greatest story tellers uncover a pattern of mediated desire, which is the "inter-" of our intersubjectivity. As a consequence, we do better to see the novel as a more or less explicit theory of human relations (Deceit 3) than to oppose theory and narrative, which is how Rorty conceives the issue. True enough, it's relations all the way around, but where humans are concerned the name for these relations is mimesis.
While praising Dickens, and Orwell's praise of him, as exemplary of the novel of social protest which succeeded in contributing to much needed social reforms, Rorty's appreciation here is focused on "the unsubsumable, uncategorizable idiosyncrasy of the characters ... who resist being subsumed under moral typologies" (Essays 78). Instead he holds up Dickens as an exemplar for his pragmatic goals:
[T]he names of Dickens's characters take the place of moral principles and of lists of virtues and vices. They do so by permitting us to describe each other as "a Skimpole," "a Mr. Pickwick," "a Gradgrind," "a Mrs. Jellyby," "a Florence Dombey." In a moral world based on what Kundera calls "the wisdom of the novel," moral comparisons and judgments would be made with the help of proper names rather than general terms or general principles. A society which took its moral vocabulary from novels rather than from ontotheological or ontico-moral treatises would not ask itself questions about human nature, the point of human existence, or the meaning of human life. Rather, it would ask itself what we can do so as to get along with each other, how we can arrange things so as to be comfortable with one another, how institutions can be changed so that everyone's right to be understood has a better chance of being gratified. (78)
Now I don't see how replacing essences with proper names escapes categorization once we apply those names to others as labels for their identity or behavior. And we could wish that Rorty had gone on to read Kundera's Testaments Betrayed, where in a footnote, the only one in the book, he cites Mensonge romantique et verite romanesque as "the best I have ever read on the art of the novel" (184). But my principal objection is elsewhere, in Rorty's inattention to these people's stories, to their interaction over time.
Rorty rightly perceives the novel as "the characteristic genre of democracy, the genre most closely associated with the struggle for freedom and equality" (68). In this, he confirms the thesis of Georg Lukacs and his student Lucien Goldmann about the maturing of the genre in nineteenth-century Europe and America as it proceeds apace with the post-revolutionary emergence of modern individualism. But what Rorty does not see, as Girard does, is the novel's thorough-going critique of modern individualism, which democracy promotes on the one hand and thwarts on the other. This is by reason of the fact, as de Tocqueville saw (Democracy in America, Vol. II, II, xiii), that equality nourished forms of competition that erase differences among individuals.
This is not the case for all novels, especially not those labeled by Girard as romantic, which are a monument to the lie of a true self in contention with social forces opposing it. There is superior merit in certain works that, with Cervantes and Dostoevsky, with Stendhal and Proust, with Flaubert and Mme. de Lafayette, unveil an other-centered self, a centerless web indeed of mediated desires and derivative beliefs. These are the works--and there are still many others, as evidenced in the growing bibliography of Colloquium on Violence and Religion (see Bulletin)--that are thereby rated as host to a "'verite romanesque" Altogether they compose a literary canon whose human scientific importance has to be reckoned with, even by philosophers, or at least by the panrelationalists among them. As Girard states of Shakespearean drama, "everything can and must be explained mimetically, that is, rationally" (Theater 35). Charles Taylor is correct in asserting that "the case against disengaged subjectivity--he means "the punctual self ... as pure independent consciousness" (172)--"always has to be made anew" (514), and that case is best made, on Girard's account, in our best novels and plays: "Only the great masterpieces of Western theater and fiction acknowledge the primacy of mimetic rivalry" (Theater 18).
This is a claim to which Taylor's anthropology, which is plausibly Rorty's as well, is hospitable: "I am a self only in relation to certain interlocutors:.... A self exists only within what I call 'webs of interlocution'" (36). But we need to be willing to acknowledge all the stress and strain, push and pull, fraction and fissure--rivalry, in a word--that weave and inhabit such webs. The novelist typically puts flesh on those bones. As Taylor asserts against Habermasian optimism about "ideal speaking communities," "the fact that the self is constituted through exchange in language ... doesn't in any way guarantee us against loss of meaning, fragmentation, the loss of substance in our human environment and our affiliations" (509-10). On the contrary, the author of Madame Bovary and The Sentimental Education to witness, the self is just as much deconstituted, dispersed, imbecillically and murderously mediated by linguistic and cultural exchange as it is constituted by them. We learn this, too, from the author of Demons (whose most recent translators, Peaver and Volokhonsky, prefer Girard's reading of Dostoevsky to all others), in which such a loss of substance devolves toward cultural self-destruction, a town literally set ablaze by the romantic and nihilistic synergies that befuddle its inhabitants in a way that divides a narrative tone between hilarity and horror.
"A language only exists and is maintained within a language community," writes Taylor, "and this indicates another crucial feature of the self. One is a self only among other selves. A self can never be described without reference to those who surround it" (35). As Rowan Williams states, we need "to think through what it might be to be alive and concrete only 'in' an other, [since] just this thought is what our language and experience of being in time constantly invite us towards" (165). This is the very stuff of novels and plays, which philosophers of intersubjectivity cannot ignore, though they rarely delve into the inter-references and interferences, into the frictions and conflicts that such a view of human reality necessarily implies.
I have no doubt that we can add Dickens to the company I have adumbrated above, for there is a crucial dimension of his novels that Rorty's freeze-dried version of his accomplishment neglects utterly, namely, that in a number of signally important cases his characters undergo a substantial change in their conflictual relations with others, a radical transformation of the kind that Girard likens to a religious conversion. I am thinking for instance of Mr. Gradgrind in Hard Times, whose adhesion to a doctrinaire positivism--"nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!"--is sundered by the havoc it wreaks in the lives of his forlorn children, and who consents to breaking the law to save his wayward son from retribution for which he feels morally responsible. I am thinking, too, of old Dombey, whose smug favoritism of his ailing son over his loving daughter is virtually converted to humble adoration of her amidst the ruins wrought by his family pride when it encounters in his second wife a pride that is as symmetrically blind, unyielding, and self-destructive as his own. I am thinking of Martin Chuzzlewit minor, who is inalterably changed for the better by the ministrations of a servant whom he felt it his birthright to despise. His arrogant vision of conquest and self-advancement, his very nineteenth-century ambition of being a self-made man, gets its just deserts in the new world, the go-getter America that Dickens so cruelly and tellingly mocks, as does our own Mark Twain, as a land of opportunism for hawkers and scoundrels, as fraud's own best frontier. This character is humbled by a veritable "descent into hell" and a near-death experience of the kind that Girard describes as the preface to redemption, to reconciliation among humans, for some of Dostoevsky's characters, like the old Stepan Verkhovensky in Demons, or the young Raskolnikov, the would-be Napoleon, in Crime and Punishment.
I say for some characters, because others remain in a hell of their own construction, like Dostoevsky's underground man, whose comically romantic construct, "I am one and they are all," ensures a zero-sum competition which will always end in self-defeat and self-contempt. I shall have more to say of this character, as definitive of human possibilities, in my conclusion. We find such self-doomed characters in Dickens. Consider, for instance, the hypocritical Pecksniff: his idiosyncrasy, if you will, is to utter gospelized principles of self-effacement as a means of self-aggrandizing manipulation of old Chuzzlewit; he is finally consigned by the novelist to comically repetitious delusions of self-pity. Uriah Heep, in David Copperfield, is of the same stripe, but his line--"I'm so 'umble"--is thrown out as a strategy to ensnare others by manipulating perceptions of value. I take Dostoevsky's Lebedev in Demons, whose mantra is "I'm vile," as a caricatural homage to Dickens here. Old Chuzzlewit's rivalry with his symmetrically headstrong grandson as to the choice of a bride, we need to add, is the chief narrative engine of the novel that strategically bears the single name of rival doubles. Rivalry as contagious and self-destructive is the structuring principle of all the conflicts in Bleak House, whose hilariously endless "Jarndyce and Jarndyce" lawsuit--a conflict of proliferating doubles--precedes and engulfs the lives of all the characters whose pretense is to dominate and resolve it to their own advantage.
I am thinking, too, of the self-sacrificing renunciation of Sydney Carton, in A Tale of Two Cities, which is real because it is fatal, not manipulative. His deed of substituting himself for a guillotine-bound victim is self-described as "a far, far better thing than I've ever done before." It is a thing which Dickens's readers are persuaded to subscribe to as well, to the enduring credit of the scriptural model by which this deed is prescribed, namely "no greater love has any man than to give up his life for a friend."
I am thinking, finally, of Ebeneezer Scrooge, whose perhaps definitive film portrayal by Alistair Sim remains very faithful to the text of A Christmas Carol, which narrates a radical conversion from avarice to altruism via a passage through death that we can describe as imaginary or supernatural, as oneiric or prophetic in the religious sense; it doesn't matter which. What matters is Scrooge's gratitude for being alive, which he is now incapable of not wishing to share, which he cannot dissociate from gratitude for the opportunity to assist others in their lives. I think we can connect his gratitude with Rorty's reflections on Heideggerian Gelassenheit:
The gratitude in question is not the sort which the Christian has when he or she thanks Omnipotence for the stars and the trees. It is rather a matter of being grateful to the stars and trees themselves--to the beings that were disclosed by our linguistic practices. Or, if you prefer, it means being grateful for the existence of ourselves, for our ability to disclose the beings we have disclosed, for the embodied languages we are, but not grateful to anybody or anything. (Essays 48)
Scrooge rejoices in his bed-curtains--"They are here--I am here"--in the same vein. He exults in the winter weather, via the use of free indirect discourse, a narrative strategy that redeploys discursive attribution in such a way as to involve, engage, compromise the reader in his perceptions:
Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his head. No fog, no mist; clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to; golden sunlight; heavenly sky; sweet fresh air, merry bells. Oh, glorious! Glorious!
The cold is jovial, paradoxically piping, the air is sweet, not for being what they are but simply in that they are. We find no reference to an omnipotent creator God here; clergy and church are rarely commended as authorities by the writer whom Orwell calls "'a good tempered antinomian'" (quoted in Essays 79). Scrooge's glee is Dickens's own, as creator and character merge in defining moments of revelation, of reconciliation that Girard describes as the conclusion of A la Recherche du temps perdu. Jubilation here is ontological, not theological, or at least not confessional or credal. It arises as if in response to the philosopher's perennial question, "why is there something rather than nothing?"--though I suspect that the novelist's lightheadedness in Dickens (and Balzac, for that matter) is the more realistic response in its jollity than the Heideggerian solemnity with which that question is so often entertained. Where humor is not exercised at another's expense, as a weapon, it is evidence, it is confidence, of our not being divinities or masters, of the gladness of being at all.
RORTY writes that "Dickens did not want anybody to be transformed, except in one respect: he wanted them to notice and understand the people they passed on the street" (78). But that is a very big, all inclusive exception; it changes everything. Rorty's minimalist, privative phrasing says too little for an author whose hopes for social reform depended so much on a total transformation of one's relations to others, as borne by the devastation of delusional self-esteem or self-aggrandizement. Here is Scrooge's notice of a boy passing in the street, whom he hails to buy a turkey to send to Bob Cratchit: "An intelligent boy! said Scrooge, A remarkable boy! ... What a delightful boy! ... It's a pleasure to talk to him." This giddiness expresses joy for the fact that the boy is--it is not a streetwise IQ test. Scrooge's words express no understanding of the boy, nor gratitude to his presumed creator, merely elation in the fact of his existence, of his being there to answer his call. To will him to be at all is necessarily to wish him well. Ontological wonder, the philosopher's enthusiasm, is not dissociable, as the story moves on, from a healing purpose that will be directed towards the crippled Tiny Tim. Our culture takes this story to its heart because it knows, we know, it tells a truth--not as a hieratic authority, but as a story, a truth story that rejoices as much in the existence of bed curtains as in our being around to grasp them thankfully. For the novelists of our realist tradition, the ontological is confederate with the ethical.
It is significant in this regard that Dickens, along with Dostoevsky whom he influenced so powerfully, were the first novelists to bring children into the thematic center of focus and to allow for a view of the world from their initially blameless perspective. Along with Mark Twain, (1) these writers share with the gospels the intuition that our dealings with children as adults is a decisive gauge of ethical evaluation, indeed the fulcrum in our sense of moral balance. The mistreatment of children is a stumbling block in the biblical sense of scandalon to any and all complacency about the difference between good and evil, between true and false. What the authors of Nicholas Nickleby and David Copperfield and Brothers Karamazov undertake is to offer a view of the world from the perspective of the certifiable victims of its institutionalized practices. "If I forget thee, Jerusalem ...," intones the drunken father in Brothers Karamazov to his dying son, in resonance with the biblical text (Psalm 137) that directs our attention admonishingly to human suffering. Rather than reduce Dickens biographically to resentment about his own neglect as a child, we need to see, with Eric Gans in The End of Culture, that resentment as the cultural generator of insights, of revelations, from a perspective that is epistemically generalizable and humanly, pragmatically actionable.
The perspective of the victim cannot be relativized to anything else; it is not further reducible, pace Rorty, to other redescriptions or recontextualizations, not at least for our best novelists (and playwrights: I am thinking of the young Hedwig in Ibsen's Wild Duck, the sacrificial victim of her father's self-pitying delusions). It stands out and apart from "a flux of continually changing relations" (Philosophy 47). It is the measure, the standard, the canon, in the original sense of the word, by which we distinguish between what we know to be false and what we know to be true with certainty. It is, so to speak, absolute, and we can find as many statements by Dewey as we can by Rorty himself that confidently underwrite this certainty. Here, for instance, is Rorty quoting Dewey on "the pragmatic theory of truth," of what is "'true in the pragmatic sense of truth: it works, it clears up difficulties, removes obscurities, puts individuals into more experiential, less dogmatic, and less arbitrarily skeptical relations to life'" (Truth 78)--the unexaminable, irreducible, or pragmatic, assumption here being that life is good, that what is true is good for life, as opposed to death-dealing practices.
Rorty comments on the "generous anger" that Orwell hails in Dickens, in preference to the "savage indignation" of the satirist and the ideologue bent on social reform, and he extends this characterization to the work of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Martin Luther King:
The generosity of Dickens's, Stowe's and King's anger comes out in their assumption that people need to turn their eyes toward the people who are getting hurt, notice the details of the pain being suffered, rather than needing to have their entire cognitive apparatus restructured. (Essays 80)
I think Rorty is wrong here in contrasting just what many a novelist brings together within a narrative arc. The attention to details is in a reciprocal cause and effect relation to a drastic restructuring of the character's cognitive apparatus, such that he or she sees the world really for the first time--as "Glorious! Glorious!" to cite Scrooge as an instance. This revolution in perception and feeling is possible once circumstances, which are usually as catastrophic in Dickens as they are in Dostoevsky, allow the character to withdraw from worldly rivalries that produce such childhood victims as we find in these writers.
There is, for our best novelists, an epistemics of interaction here. For within such rivalry, things are only what they seem to others, and only have the value that others in every sense assign to them. To the extent that our attention is directed by models and rivals, mimetic desire to possess the objects that they signal to us shunts the sensory paths to anything like their genuine perception. This is the negative experience of Julien Sorel, whom Stendhal describes at numerous points as insensitive to the real charms of Madame de Renal because of his rivalry with the world she inhabits. This is the positive experience of Proust's narrator, but only after illness causes him to abandon all hope of worldly and literary success, and it issues in an apocalyptic conception of the novel as at once a partner and collaborator in Creation and "as the true Last Judgment." This vision of eternity matches Scrooge's resolution: "I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me." In spite of all that has been written about Dickens's Carlylean transcendentalism, his work does not commit us to illuminism or animism. Dickens does not believe in the actuality of such apparitions or Spirits in any narrowly "objective" sense, but in what they symbolize, which is a kind of panrelationalism as a redemptively lived experience. We critics regularly make the same mistake with Balzac when we subordinate his narratives to a preexistent belief system from which the novels are thought to issue. We must not subordinate the novel to a philosophy, which is ever only a by-product, and a poor one at that (like the cranky positions taken in Dostoevsky's Diary of a Writer), of more fundamental and concrete revelations that emerge from their tales of human interaction. Scrooge's words are not the expression of any sort of mysticism, but of something which for Dickens and Proust is the program for an achieved realism, as it issues from living, in the last words of Proust's work, "dans le temps." It is a way of recounting our experience of the world, which is especially our encounters with others, in which perceptive, affective, and ethical dimensions of our experience are inseparable. The "canonical" novelists' imaginative reconstructions are, as Gans notes, "a discovery procedure" (see Originary Thinking) en route to anthropological universals. (2) In sum, there is a cognitive and redemptive transformation that so many of Dickens's characters "go through hell," so to speak, to achieve, and it is also what, with and by all his attention to detail, he seeks to occasion in his readers.
If Pragmatism is to contribute, as Rorty says, "to a world-historical change in humanity's self-image" (Philosophy 132), it finds its strongest allies in the novelists of our Western literary canon as they articulate, or redescribe, certain foundational intuitions from Judaic and Christian revelation. Rorty wants to distinguish between "people who tell stories and people who construct theories about that which lies beyond our present imagination, because beyond our present language" (Essays 80), but it is Girard's contention that our best story tellers are among our best theorists about what lies just within our grasp, which Proust, in Le Temps retrouve, calls the "impressions" revealed by Literature, and which in other contexts is called the Kingdom of God, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. In sum, and this is largely the point of my essay, the pragmatist who hopes for a culture more favorable to human possibilities will find in the mimetic hypothesis a greater ally than Rorty, in his aversion to any unifying theory, would be disposed to accept.
Both Rorty and Girard deplore a politically correct Western self-hatred that is coursing through our academies--this motif is Girard's point of departure in Je vois Satan--and for the same reason, which is ably expounded by Rorty in conceding to an image of the West as "racist, sexist, and imperialist" (Essays 81). But, he qualifies decisively:
it is of course also a culture which is very worried about being racist, sexist, and imperialist, as well as being Eurocentric, parochial, and intellectually intolerant. It is a culture which has become very conscious of its capacity for murderous intolerance and thereby perhaps more wary of intolerance, more sensitive to the desirability of diversity, than any other of which we have record. I have been suggesting that we Westerners owe this consciousness and this sensitivity more to our novelists than to our philosophers or to our poets.
Rorty's suggestion is in line with Cesareo Bandera's argument, in The Sacred Game, about our literary tradition as well, though Bandera argues further that the peculiar institution of poetic--rather than mythical--fiction issues from an epistemic legacy born of our religious one. He is building on Girard's argument that this increased and ever widening "worry," to use Rorty's term, our disquiet and consequent solicitude about victims, what Girard calls our "universalized compassion" in Je vois Satan (256-7, 261), draws its strength and confidence from religious convictions born of the definitively revealed innocence of the victim of sacrificial practices, such as we find in the psalmists, the prophets, and the passion narratives. Our hermeneutic suspicion of totalizing mendacities is born of a foundational suspicion of scapegoating mechanisms that is authorized in Hebrew and Christian scripture. "We have to take enlightenment where and as we find it," writes Rorty (Rorty and His Critics 149), while routinely ignoring Nietzsche's insistence, in Genealogy of Morals (III, 27), that our truth-seeking rationality is heir to the religious tradition it repudiates.
So I do not want to contradict Rorty's brief for literature or the novel, but, on the contrary, take what he has "been suggesting" seriously, more so than he does, and see in it the elements of a scientific hypothesis, the mimetic one, so that we can locate an anthropological basis for what he describes in another winning essay as "The Inspirational Value of Great Works of Literature." In this essay he deplores the pseudo-scientizing of literature departments, whose deconstructive, new-historical contextualualizing, and debunking methodologies are portrayed as following the downward path of philosophy when it reduced issues to the dryly analytical methods of logical positivism. The result is a smug "knowingness" that he cannot prefer to inspiration. Thus we find him romantically opposing understanding and hope, knowledge and self-transformation (13), intellect and imagination (16), whereas Girard's fundamental anthropology reconciles these polarities. With a bow to Matthew Arnold, Rorty expresses "the hope for a religion of literature, in which works of the secular imagination replace Scripture as the principal source of inspiration and hope for each new generation" (15). It is Girard's argument that our best works succeed Scripture, not replacing it so much as expanding and extending its insights, bringing them, so to speak, up to date and back down to earth. The mimetic hypothesis is, admittedly, a large vision, whose explanatory power is being essayed over a wide variety of academic disciplines. Not every one of its aspects is available to empirical verification according to conventional canons of laboratory investigation. Some of them, perhaps the most important aspects, can only be worked out through an anguished "crucible of doubt," as Dostoevskry styled his own discovery procedure through fall and redemption, by which we are lead to more self-knowledge than ever dreamed of in our philosophies.
RORTY sees a future for anti-essentialism as one in which "we shall stop yearning for depth, and stop trying either to worship heroes or to hunt down criminals. Instead, we shall settle for useful tools, and take them where we can find them" (Philosophy 197). In Rorty's quest for "equipment for living," to use Kenneth Burke's phrase for literature (in The Philosophy of Literary Form), he can do no better than our best novelists, who take up our story where they find it, typically in their own historical setting, and for so many of whom there is no reality that goes deeper than the neighbor, the brother, the parent or friend who fills the role of model, or obstacle, or rival, or all three, for "my" desires. For Girard, we cannot dissociate such insights from Scriptural revelation. In Israel's prophetic tradition, in the gospels and epistles, we are ceaselessly reminded that there is no reality that goes deeper than the victim under our heel or higher, for practical purposes, than the one on the cross. According to Western religious tradition, this is the same person, whose Sermon on the Mount warned us away from rivalries that lynching can no longer resolve or absolve. I cannot think of a logical or, in Rorty's sense, pragmatic, objection to these insights. The business of worshiping heroes and hunting down criminals is party to a sacrificial enterprise of inclusion and exclusion, of stereotyping, as Girard indicts it in The Scapegoat, which Scripture belies as a blindness to the mimetic violence upon whose misconstruction and misrepresentation culture is founded. It is romantic literature in the Girardian sense, which includes all such mythic representations as we find in popular novels and films (see McKenna, "'The Law's Delay'"), that invents heroes to hunt down criminals, so that we as members of the human community may overlook our own mimetic participation in violence.
We find this pattern of fall and redemption in Dickens and others not because it is prescribed by Scripture but because it is observed by the novelist, often in his own personal experience. This is the case regardless of whether, with Mme. de Lafayette and Dostoevsky, the writer is a believing Christian, or whether with Proust, Stendhal, and Camus, for instance, he or she is an agnostic or atheist. This is not theological but anthropological revelation, born of experience we can all understand and that the novelist can, by myriad narrative strategies, make us acknowledge as our own.
Part of our cognitive problem, at least, is, as Rorty rightly apprehends, rhetorical, stylistic, literary in the broadest sense, the problem that he thematizes constantly in terms of final vocabularies and redescriptions. I find this a poor choice of words for someone as focused on language as Rorty is, for it still has something of the statically ontological about it, as if it were a question of finding different, better, i.e., more useful names and adjectives for things and people, for human affairs generally. What will still dominate such language is copulative rather than active verbs, and assertions that are informed by a substantive notion of reason rather than narratives informed by a procedural one. (3) It is a vocabulary to which philosophers are customarily wed, so that we find Rorty intoning against fixed conceptions of "the way the world is," "the way things really are." The novelist is typically interested in the way things happen across time and space among human beings, in what goes on, in "le monde comme il va," as the French Enlightenment writers were still able to formulate it. When we substitute intersubjectivity for objectivity, we need as well to attend to Hannah Arendt's insistence on life being an open narrative (The Human Condition V, esp. Ch. 25) rather than as a mirror in which certain unchanging verities are reflected or as a lens through which they are more or less clearly perceived. I interpret the recent respect garnered by Arendt among philosophers as resulting from the exhaustion of essentialist projects. Another writer overdue for attention is Kenneth Burke, whom Rorty wisely consults from time to time, but not yet for his "dramatistic" conception of reading, in which human interaction, the agonal dynamics of reciprocity, rather than conceptual delimitation, is focal. "God loveth adverbs," as we learn from a writer cited by Taylor (chap. 13.1). We have to think, as novelists do, of our lives in terms of story rather than structure, in which active verbs and adverbs have at least an equal share with nouns, adjectives and copulatives. But we also have to see how this story unfolds within the unchanging structure of mediated desire, the triangle of subjects relating to objects principally via the reciprocally active and passive involvement with other subjects.
Rorty is right to insist that we do not escape from time and chance. Our encounters with others through chance or choice is itself a product of chance to a great degree, for we do not choose the chances, as Pascal rightly insisted, that make certain choices available to us. This is what makes us unique in a way that our being is participial, contingent, incomplete, historical, in a word. No one has exactly the same array of encounters and reactions as another, though on the other hand these encounters and their repercussions form a pattern that is astonishingly consistent in the tales of our best novelists. Our chance encounters with others through time make us the volatile and variable subjects of a unique story, but as these encounters are necessarily mimetically contingent and conditioned, all these stories are variations of the same story. I think this is what Proust meant when, in Le Temps retrouve, he figured all great novels as one novel, one vast, manifold, and luminous structure that he likened to the at once variegated and uniform architecture of the Gothic cathedral.
There is both order and disorder in our lives, and the cognitive quest for the former on the part of thinkers in every field of inquiry, including novelists, is not futile, not delusional. There are freedoms and chances for it that are frustrated by mimetic patterns to which we do not knowingly or willingly succumb. What is delusional is what Rorty indicts as the tendency of thinkers "to hypostatize the central terms of one's newly created vocabulary, to treat his term ('Reason,' 'the movement of History,' 'Language') as the One True Nature of God" (Essays 137). Such terms as those, and still others we can mention (nature, instinct, libido, and more lately, neurobiological networks) are, in Burke's handy vocabulary, "god terms," and the excessive credence we lend to them, and also demand for ourselves as their mouthpieces, is pernicious according to Rorty: "For this strategy helps one see oneself as a prophet, or perhaps even a redeemer. It helps one see one's own inner transfiguration as assuring the transformation of the human world, and in particular of the social arrangements which have left the needs of others unsatisfied" (Essays 137). He is thinking of Marxism here, and the terrors it has wrought. He precedes this criticism with the observation that "the worship of some such hypostatization is the characteristic temptation of intellectuals" (136), and I doubtless appear to be doing just that with the notion of mimesis, which names a ubiquitous dynamic among humans, an anthropological universal.
But it is in just this that the mimetic hypothesis is anti-foundationalist in any ontological or hypostatic sense. The mobility and contagion of desire deprives our species of any stable roots, and the self of any stable identity. Mimesis identifies not a human essence or a nature but a dynamic structure that is fraught with unforeseeable feedback loops; it identifies a complex pattern in human relations whose understanding is indispensable to the effort we make to improve them. This effort is in accord with the minimal expectations prescribed by Paul Watzlawick for properly scientific knowledge when he writes that "the search for pattern is the basis of all scientific investigation: where there is pattern, there is significance" (Pragmatics 36). This is a view to which Rorty's prescription for scientific understanding is hospitable: "On a pragmatist account, scientific inquiry is best viewed as the attempt to find a single, unified, coherent description of the world--the description which makes it easiest to predict the consequences of events and actions, and thus easiest to gratify certain human desires" (Philosophy 149). Mimesis is the term for the uncertainty of human desires, their essentially mediated, derivative, eccentric and temporal or historical dynamic. As an explanatory principle for human agency and interaction, it is not proposed here as an object of worship, but as a means of understanding the delusions that Rorty names with that term.
I welcome Rorty's critique of worship here, for his target is the same as Girard's, and in Western religious tradition it goes by the name of idolatry, which is no less virulent among us for evolving shifts in vocabulary, for the replacement of one idolized concept or historical figure for another. The constant in this essentializing process is a wholesale--I would say: mimetic--capitulation to some aleatory celebrity, to what Pascal called "les prestiges illusoires."
Rorty awards this insight about hypostatization to Nietzsche, of whom he is critical of doing the same thing "in his occasional attempts to proclaim himself superhuman." Nietzsche and Rorty after him extends Judaism's critique of false worship to a host of cultural representations, final vocabularies, but there is no sense on Nietzsche's part of the failed rivalry with Wagner that his parodic title implies and that fuels his demystifying fervor, his apprehension that "there are more idols in the world than there are realities" (Twilight of the Idols 21). A more penetrating account is to be found in Nietzsche's contemporary, John Ruskin, who appends these observations to Volume II of The Stones of Venice, where idolaters are "considered as members of this or that communion, and not as Christians or unbelievers:"
Idolatry is, both literally and verily, not the mere bowing down before sculptures, but the serving or becoming the slave of any images or imaginations which stand between us and God, and it is otherwise expressed in Scripture as "walking after the Imagination of our own hearts." And observe also that while, at least on one occasion, we find in the Bible an indulgence granted to the mere external and literal violation of the second commandment, "When I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, the Lord pardon thy servant in this thing," we find no indulgence in any instant, or in the slightest degree, granted to "covetousness, which is idolatry" (Col. iii.5; no casual association of terms, observe, but again energetically repeated in Ephesians v. 5, "No covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ"); nor any to that denial of God, idolatry in one of its most subtle forms, following so often on the possession of that wealth against which Augur prayed so earnestly, "Give me neither power nor riches, lest I be full and deny thee, and say, 'Who is the Lord?"' (385-86)
Ruskin goes on to observe that one person's "apparent idolatry" is another's "spiritual worship," and vice versa. I see his insight as more useful to us because where Nietzsche and Rorty after him see a strategy of self-glorification, Ruskin, like Girard in Je vois Satan, links the first commandment to the tenth, and idolatry to desire, envy, covetousness. Nietzsche and Rorty are focused on the objects of false worship, Ruskin on the intersubjective dynamic which generates it. His insight is closer to what Dostoevsky thoroughly explored in Demons, where Pyotr Verkhovensky's nihilistic and murderous ideology is predicated on his worship of the sovereignly detached, indifferent and god-like Stavrogin, who is at once his model and rival for supremacy in society. This too is what drives Smerdyakov to murder old Karamazov in hope of becoming the avatar of his alter ego, his nihilistic half-brother Ivan. And it is Ivan's repulsion for his virtual double that induces his nightmarish conversation with the devil, whom Dostoevsky represents as a hackneyed imitator, a burlesque caricaturizer. Rather than the august prince of darkness vaunted by the Romantics, the author reveals the devil as a shady, vulgar mimic.
DOSTOEVSKY is often touted as a novelist of ideas, as if his chief merit were that of an amateur philosopher. Mimetic theory enables us to discover in him a religious anthropologist of the first order. We already find this idolatrous dynamic in Notes from the Underground, whose narrator's own nihilism in Part I is shown in Part II to be a function of his bungled rivalry with absolutely everyone--clients and classmates, peers and prostitutes, servants and Sunday strollers--whom he encounters in his social world. Attention to the needs of others that Rorty cites is a thoroughly admirable concern, but attention to the modeling role of others--rather than of abstract ideas--in the formation of one's own self-conception goes just as unexamined in Rorty's critique of philosophy as it does in the tradition he criticizes. And, I might add, as it does in most readings of Notes, whose first part with its challenges to determinism and paean to desire so fascinates intellectuals that they do not see how the second part deconstructs it, how the narrator's tortuous ruminations, his intellectual quarrel with prevailing ideas of his time is a function, a byproduct, of his thwarted rivalry with others in the outside world from which he has retreated to his "stink hole."
An authorial note at the end of the text tells us that he will never emerge from his underground; he is a hopeless case of what Nietzsche diagnosed as 'Thomme du ressentiment" (On the Genealogy of Morals I, 10; see also III, 15n). But this framing commentary prevents us from confusing Dostoevsky with his nihilist "protagonist" (he is ever only an antagonist, his action always being reaction). The end of the narrative includes a vision of hope that I think Rorty must approve and that is no less positive for being rejected by the narrator.
The decisive moment of his encounters with others is with the prostitute Liza, to whom the narrator confesses his spiteful abjection while expressing his hatred of her for being the occasion of his mortifying self-disclosure. This is a chance for her to react to his vituperations with reciprocal loathing and malice, or with a symmetrically consequent self-abasement, but she does not take the bait; she does not react in kind, or reciprocate as expected when he rudely dismisses her:
"Why don't you get out of here?" But here an extraordinary thing happened. I was so used to imagining everything and to thinking of everything as it happened in books, and to picturing to myself everything in the world as I had previously made it up in my dreams, that at first I could not all at once grasp the meaning of this occurrence. What occurred was this: Liza, humiliated and crushed by me, understood much more than I imagined. She understood from all this what a woman who loves sincerely always understands first of all, namely, that I was unhappy. (II, ix)
The young woman fails the test we most often underwrite when we reciprocate another's enmity. She abstains from the rivalry that determines all the narrator's relations with others, and that will finally determine his ultimate rejection of her compassion and his lasting self-confinement to the underground. (4)
In Liza's (non)reaction, we have a phenomenal and phenomenological instance of what Simone Weil writes about as an attention that "suspends thought, leaving it available, empty and penetrable by its object" (92). It is "not looking for anything but ready to receive in its naked truth the object which is going to penetrate it" (93). Weil states that a sense of our own mediocrity, even obtuseness ("betise"), is favorable to such attention, as can be the travail of peasants and
workers to the extent that their long-suffering condition immunizes them from delusions of social preeminence, of "consideration social" (96). For Weil, this attention brings us closer to God, but only to the extent that love of one's neighbor is of the same stuff, "de la meme substance" (96).
Those who suffer have no other need in this world than of people capable of paying attention to them. The ability to pay attention to another's suffering is a very rare, very difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle.... The fullness of love for your neighbor is simply being able to ask him: what are you going through? It is knowing that the suffering person exists, not as a unit in a collection, not as an exemplar of a social category labeled "unfortunate," but as a human being, exactly like us, who has been stricken and marked inimitably by suffering. For that, it is sufficient, but indispensable, to know how to direct toward him a certain gaze. (96-97)
This is the "miraculous," "extraordinary" attention that Liza pays to her tormentor, and Weil insists that it is available to us "en dehors de toute croyance religieuse" (97). Whether or not such attention brings us closer to God, whether or not there is a God to be closer to, there can be no doubt that Weil has described the essential, irreducible issue that Rorty wants philosophers and every other thinking (inter)subject to attend to. Rorty does not need the mimetic hypothesis to pursue his benevolent goals; the wealth of Western religious tradition as further rationalized by our Enlightenment values is authorization enough. But if he wants to enlist our best novelists as his preferred cognitive allies in this pursuit, the mimetic hypothesis offers the single, unified, coherent description that he says we need. A prescription for attention to others, for weal or woe, is not unavailable to philosophers, to non-fiction writers in general, Ruskin and Weil to witness, but it is the specialty of novelists to whom Rorty rightly directs our thoughtful and sensitive regard.
1) Twain, too, is among the first of our own home-grown mimetic theorists, as we recall from the notorious episode in which Tom Sawyer gets his friends to whitewash Aunt Polly's fence for him, by representing that onerous chore as a privilege and a pleasure, and whose accomplishment he feigns to trade reluctantly for their valuables.
2) For the theological account of this realism as a different experience of temporal causality, see James Alison's phenomenology of Augustinian creation "ex nihilo" in The Joy of Being Wrong (94-102, 235-236), where we find an interpretation of Genesis in which fall and redemption are the premise rather than the aftermath of creation.
3) See Taylor (156) for this helpful distinction: "We could say that rationality is no longer defined substantively, in terms of the order of being, but rather procedurally, in terms of the standards by which we construct orders in science and life."
4) While for Dostoevsky and Dickens, women are often the source of this unusual forgiveness, they are not immune to the self-destructive resentment of underground psychology, as we see in the case of Little Dorrit's Miss Wade. In the chapter on her "History of a self-tormentor," we find an attitude of domination-driven suspicion that she imposes, fairly dictates to Tattycoram, who states: "I used to think, when I got into that state, that people were all against me because of my first beginning; and the kinder they were to me, the worse fault I found with them. I made it out that they triumphed above me, and that they wanted me to envy them, when I know ... that they never thought of such a thing" (II, xxxiii).
Alison, James. The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin through Easter Eyes. New York: Crossroad, 1998.
Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1958.
Bailie, Gil. Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads. New York: Crossroad, 1995.
Bandera, Cesareo. The Sacred Game: The Role of the Sacred in the Genesis of Modern Literary Fiction. University Park: Penn State UP, 1995.
Brandom, Robert B. ed. Rorty and his Critics. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000. Bulletin of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion. Internet: <http://theol.uibk.ac.at/cover>
Gans. Eric. The End of Culture: Toward a Generative Anthropology. Berkeley: U of California P, 1985.
--. Originary Thinking: Elements of Generative Anthropology. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1993.
Girard, Rene. Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure. Trans. Yvonne Freccero. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1965.
--. Je vois Satan tomber comme un eclair. Paris: Grasset, 2000.
--. Shakespeare: A Theater of Envy. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.
--. Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World. Trans. Stephen Bann and Michael Meteer. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1987.
Kundera, Milan. Testaments Betrayed. Trans. Linda Asher. New York: Harper Collins, 1995.
McKenna, Andrew. "'The Law's Delay': Cinema and Sacrifice" Legal Studies Forum 15:3 (1991).
Nietzsche, Friederich. On the Genealogy of Morals. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1967.
--. Twilight of the Idols. Trans. R. J. Hollingdale. Baltimore: Penguin, 1968.
Rorty, Richard. Essays on Heidegger and Others. New York: Cambridge UP, 1991.
--. The Inspirational Value of Great Works of Literature." Raritan. 16:1 (Summer, 1996).
--. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1979.
--. Philosophy and Social Hope. New York: Penguin, 1999.
--. Truth and Progress: Philosophical Papers 3. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.
Ruskin, John. The Stones of Venice. London: G. Allen, 1898.
Taylor, Charles. Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1989.
Watzlawick, Paul. Pragmatics of Human Communication. New York: Norton, 1967.
Weil, Simone. Attente de Dieu. Paris: Fayard, 1966.
Williams, Rowan. Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000.
Andrew J. McKenna, PhD Johns Hopkins, is Professor of French at Loyola University Chicago and a member of the Anthropoetics editorial board. He is the author of Violence and Difference: Girard, Derrida, and Deconstruction (U of Illinois P, 1992), as well as of numerous articles on Moliere, Pascal, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Melville, and critical theory. Since 1996, he has been editor in chief of Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture.
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|Author:||McKenna, Andrew J.|
|Publication:||Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2003|
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