Desire, Scapegoating, and the Sacred

René Girard and Theatre

The following is the text of a “one minute lecture” I gave at the New School on May 14. Video of the talk can be found here.

Let’s say I see a shirt and want it. Conventional wisdom says that something in me finds the objective reality of the shirt appealing. I tell myself I like its color, its cut, how it looks on me.

René Girard, the extraordinary French thinker who died in November, would have called this a “romantic lie” — a false belief in the transparency of my felt desire.

He believed that desire was mimetic — that we copy our desires from others, without knowing we do so.

So he might have said that without being aware of it, I actually want the shirt because a famous designer made it. Or perhaps its price designates me as a member of a certain class. Or maybe I saw an ad for it featuring an attractive model.

In short, my desire isn’t truly mine. It is outside of me, in another. And more than the object, what I really desire is the being of this imagined other — their substantiality, which the object is just a symbol of.

This is similar to what Hitchcock called the MacGuffin — the thing in a story everyone is after, not because of what it is, but because other people are after it.

When we pursue this desire for being, we come into conflict with others who desire the same exact thing in the same exact way — and as the shared desires reinforce one another, this can easily escalate into a war of all against all.

In early cultures, Girard believed, such chaos was resolved by the group’s redirecting its aggression onto a scapegoat — usually a weaker member of the community.

Once designated and killed, the scapegoat brought peace to the group. For this reason, it was seen as sacred, and eventually it would be memorialized through ritual.

What does this have to do with dramatic writing?

Traditionally students are taught that a protagonist has an objective — a desire — which they pursue. An antagonist or an inner conflict blocks their way.

But I think what Girard unlocks is that what truly makes for compelling drama is the symmetry of multiple protagonists battling for the elusive object.

Think of Stanley and Blanche in Streetcar Named Desire — warring for control over a small apartment in the French Quarter.

Tensions rise until ultimately Stanley rapes Blanche, who is then exiled to a psychiatric hospital. Order is restored, at the expense of an innocent victim — whom the play memorializes.

By interrogating our Romantic conceptions of desire, Girard showed how complexly intertwined self and other actually are; why desire leads to violence; and how it usually resolves tragically.

This, to me, is a more convincing vision of not only what happens in great drama — but of what goes on in our world.

And that is why I teach my students René Girard.