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  • Writer's pictureRJ Smith

Novelistic Conversion

A feature of human nature as obvious as it is ignored is that our desires do not develop ex nihilo; they are defined and mediated by others. Proof of this is that humanities scholars, with their lack of objective standards and tired lines about power and privilege, ignore mimetic theory, while public relations executives, whose job it is to deliver concrete and quantifiable results, embrace it unreservedly.

Watch any advertisement for a useless luxury item. The product—whether a car, a watch or an “experience”—is always secondary, parasitic to a desirable individual. Man’s tendency to imitate—our mimetic nature—is in plain sight for all to see. Yet the closest psychology has come to understanding it is Sigmund Freud’s Oedipus theory.

According Freud’s theory, boys are attracted to their mothers, rendering their fathers rivals. The object comes first, the rivalry second, according to Freud. This view reflects Thomas Hobbes’ obvious but incomplete statement that “if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies.”

Advertising executives implicitly accept desire’s triangular nature. But they understand the model-mediator, not the object, is the true source of desire. Boys do not desire their mothers due to some obscure sexual misdirection. They do so because their mothers are the object most prized by their model-mediators—their fathers.

The father of public relations, as fate would have it, was Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew. In 1929, Bernays gave Lucky Strike cigarettes to suffragettes marching through Times Square. American girls, transfixed by the women and their “torches of freedom,” took up smoking overnight. Bernays’ appeal to feminist maverick pretentions was a stroke of marketing genius, as brilliant as it was cynical.

Advertisers were the first to use mimetic theory for commercial purposes. But mimetism has always pervaded the great literary works.

In his 1961 book Deceit, Desire and the Novel, René Girard draws a distinction between two kinds of novels. The first category—romantic works—are those in which the line between the hero and his desire is direct. There is no model-mediator in these stories, only subject and object. Girard calls this the mensonge romantique, the romantic lie, which he distinguishes from the verité romanesque, novelistic truth.

Romanesque, or novelistic works, have the structure intuited by Edward Bernays. What appears to be a quest for an object is in fact the hero’s quest to become his model-mediator, a truth too affronting to the hero’s sense of individuality to ever face up to.

Girard analyses novelistic works inter alia through the prism of Don Quixote, in which the hero, having filled his head with stories of chivalry, aspires to become Amadis:

The spatial metaphor…is obviously the triangle. The object changes with each adventure but the triangle remains. The barber’s basin or Master Peter’s puppets replace the windmills; but Amadis is always present.

In Madame Bovary, Emma, having also read romantic literature, aspires to be a cultured parisienne. In The Great Gatsby, Gatsby aspires to be a wealthy war hero, and constructs an edifice of lies to project this false reality. In each of these works, the hero covets a model of prestige external to the story, and destroys everything in his or her path to attain it.

In other romanesque works, the model-mediator is present in the story. This structure characterises the foundational myths of our culture, embracing Greek philosophy, Roman law and Christian ethics. Athens was founded following a rivalry between Athena and Poseiden. Romulus killed Remus before founding the city of Rome. In the Old Testament, Cain kills Abel before founding the first human culture. “God the first garden made, and the first city Cain,” so the line from the Abraham Cowley poem goes.

The motif of the warring twins is present in novels such as Dostoyevsky’s The Double and Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley, as well as contemporary works such as American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis and Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk.

In Fight Club, the hero sees non-conformity as a way out of his spiritless and mundane life, but has no model to show him the way. When he invents one, the narrator deludes himself into believing a “new way of life” is what he covets, when it is clearly Tyler Durden. The triangle is obvious. But the critics—who see everything through the Marxist or postmodernist lens—see only straight lines, and parrot the hackneyed anti-capitalist and consumer society angle.

American Psycho is at once the opposite and the same. The book follows a narrator desperate to “fit in.” Bateman is the apotheosis of conformity. He listens to approved music. He has his hair cut in the approved style. He lives in an approved location and eats in approved restaurants. Bateman is reminiscent of Emma Bovary, whom Jules de Gautier says imitates “all that can be imitated, everything exterior: appearance, gestures, intonation and dress.”

He had done so little artificially to change his appearance, but his very expression, Tom thought, was like Dickie’s now.

Literary heroes are ordinary people who take mimetic desire to its natural conclusion. The literary function is to reveal the vanity—in both senses of the word—of our intersubjective obsessions, and how these naturally cultivate violence. Emma Bovary, the narrator in Fight Club and Patrick Bateman are in the throes of a kind of possession, and will destroy everything around them in the course of their quest.

Here we must introduce another obvious but easily overlooked feature of novelistic works: the absence of God. In a sense Nietzsche’s declaration in The Gay Science was prefigured in a thousand novels, a camouflage by which the literary community to this day remains blinded. As an atheist, there is nothing to stop Raskolnikov from murdering the defenceless pawnbroker. Gatsby from living a lie. Ripley from clothing himself in a suit of human skin or Bateman from disposing of Paul Owen. The novelistic world is a materialist world, one in which there is no supervision of the hero’s actions.

The other implication of God’s absence is that the hero must seek transcendence in beings from which he is 99 per cent undifferentiated. The great novelists intuit that sameness, not difference, produces conflict. But the final one per cent is a bridge the hero cannot cross. His quest is bound to fail, a fact he cannot see until it his final conversion, as dreadful as it is sublime:

The hero triumphs in defeat; he triumphs because he is at the end of his resources. For the first time he has to look his despair and nothingness in the face. But this look which he has dreaded, which is the death of pride, is his salvation.

At zenith of the great novelistic works, the hero is forced to face up to the vanity of his quest. To grasp the truth of his or her mimetic desire. This conversion is the author’s conversion too. This is what Flaubert meant when he said: “Mme Bovary, c’est moi.” According to Girard:

Mme Bovary originally was Flaubert's enemy, as Julien Sorel was Stendhal’s enemy and Raskolnikov Dostoyevsky's enemy. But…the hero of the novel gradually merges with the novelist in the course of creation…Great novels always spring from an obsession that has been transcended. The hero sees himself in the rival he loathes; he renounces the “differences” suggested by hatred. He learns, at the expense of his pride, the existence of the psychological circle.

Dostoyevsky converted to Christianity after years as a radical agitator. As did Girard himself after starting his career as an agnostic. But perhaps the most striking novelistic conversion was that of Oscar Wilde.

After a lifetime living as an aesthete, mirroring the hero of his sole (and highly mimetic) novel, Wilde was baptised on his deathbed in Paris. Like Don Quixote finally screaming “I am the enemy of Amadis of Gaul and of all the infinite battalions of his kind!” Wilde renounced the Other he had erstwhile deified and finally embraced vertical transcendence.

In renouncing divinity the hero renounces slavery. Every level of his existence is inverted, all the effects of metaphysical desire are replaced by contrary effects. Deception gives way to truth, anguish to remembrance, agitation to repose, hatred to love, humiliation to humility, mediated desire to autonomy, deviated transcendency to vertical transcendency.

The novelistic conversion is the moment the hero—in reality the writer—renounces the Other to which he has been so blind and so beholden and embraces vertical transcendence. The triangle becomes a circle. The novelistic conversion is complete.

Mimetic theory is to be approached with caution, revealing truths which once seen cannot be unseen. The individual is exposed as a fakes. The authentic as derivative. The new recycled. We see that every great work of literature is a reprise of Genesis 3. That The Fall is the only novel.

Eve was told she would be like God if she ate of the forbidden fruit. Mimetism is man’s original sin, pride the one which prevents him from facing up to the truth. As CS Lewis said: “If I am a proud man, then, as long as there is one man in the whole world more powerful, or richer, or cleverer than I, he is my rival and my enemy.”

An awareness of our mimetic nature allows us to see the truth of ourselves. That we all have models we unconsciously wish to be. Lodestars of desire to whom we are forever drawn. And that we are capable of anything to get a step closer. We are all Cain. We are all Raskolnikov. The only question is: who is the model?


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