Monday, September 18, 2006

Rene Girard on the Goal of Literary Criticism and Its Relation to the Logos

Rene Girard, a tremendous and eclectic intellect, was not a Christian when working on his first book as a lecturer at John Hopkins, but it was through his literary studies that he came to a faith in Christ. The following is an excerpt from this first book, Deceit, Desire and the Novel, with a few of my comments interspersed.

"All types of structural thinking assume that human reality is intelligeible; it is a logos and, as such, it is an incipient logic, or it degrades itself into a logic."

[Girard is saying this in the context of a discussion of triangular desire, which is basically envy. It is different than the less complex desire between an subject and object. The envier surrenders the individual's "fundamental prerogative", the choice of the object of his own desire. Instead the desire for an object is mediated by another who's desire for the object they imitate. Thus the desire has become triangular and "structural."]

"It can thus be systematized, at least up to a point, however unsystematic, irrational, and chaotic it may aoppear even to those who operate the system. A basic contention of this essay is that the great writers apprehend intuitively and concretely, through the medium of their art, if not formally, the system in which they were first imprisoned together with their contemporaries."

[This reminds me of Plato's account of Socrates testing the wisdom of the poets and finding that they apprehended intuitively things that they were not able to explain but only represent in their verse, but they thought they knew more than they did about the things they intuitively felt through their verse. Socrates came to the conclusion that he would rather be ignorant of what they knew and know that he didn't know than to know what they knew and think that he knew more than that when he did not.
But also Girard's point about the artists' imprisonment with contemporaries and an implied degree of transcendance from this imprisonment by the artists in their intuitive correspondence and apprehension of logos, the feeding on logos, the Lord's supper of knowledge, is more of a positive affirmation than Socrates seems to give].

Now here it is, Girard's bold statement of the goal of literary criticism, having laid some preliminary explanation:

"Literary interpretation must be systematic because it is the continuation of literature. It should formalize implicit or already half-explicit systems. To maintain that criticism will never be systematic is to maintain that it will never be real knowledge. The value of critical thought depends not on how cleverly it manages to diguise its own systematic nature or on how much fundamental issues it manages to shirk or to dissolve but on how much literary substance it really embraces, comprehends, and makes articulate. The goal may be too ambitious but it is not outside the scope of literary cristicism. It is the very essence of literary criticism. Failure to reach it should be condemned, but not the attempt. Everything else has already been done."

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