Love in the Western World: Girard’s Imitation of De Rougemont’s Concept of Love


Few scholars have been preoccupied by mimesis, and they who have taken an interest in mimesis, have mainly regarded it as representation. In that respect Girard's theory looks astonishingly new and innovative. There have been remarkably few theologians, religious scholars, philosophers, literary critics and psychologists indulged in mimesis and desire. From such a background Girard’s theory was understandably engendered through a reading of certain novelists preoccupied by mimesis and desire. In an academic context, therefore, Girardian theory seems relatively autonomous. The paradox is, however, that Girard by and large dismisses originality and autonomy, while his theory is profoundly original.

Especially when viewing mimesis, not only as representation, but also as a desire, there are aspects in Girard's use of the concept, which must be regarded as truly new. But it is, however, important to have in mind that mimetic processes have always been taken into consideration, not only in art, religion and literature, but also in politics and military tactics. The mimetic principle materialised as influence and power, has, most certainly been a part of man’s culture in all ages. But the remarkable fact remains that no one or next to none have seen this fundamental principle as a governing principle in the areas of human relations.

In this paper I wish to present a thinker, a scholar who has had a fundamental impact on Girardian theory. Denis de Rougemont is very seldom mentioned when considering Girardian theory. But he has, in my view, been very important in the process of developing a theory on mimetic desire.

De Rougemont’s love-theory

In Denis De Rougemont’s Love in the Western World there is a historic and chronological analysis of the Western concept of love, from the Tristan and Iseult myth and up until today. According to De Rougemont the Tristan-myth expresses a love for love, not a love for the other person involved in lovemaking. It is a narcissistic love where the lover’s self-magnification is emphasized more than the relationship towards the beloved. The love which is developed in Romance literature is a love through obstacles, even of obstacles. If there were no obstacles, there would be no love. So in reality there is no love, only love for obstacles. Within the masochistic realm of love for obstacles there is a pathological fear of falling in love in a simple, straightforward manner. According to De Rougemont this myth was bound to change the attitude towards adultery in the West, which he sees as materialised as contempt towards marriage. This myth which De Rougemont calls the passion-myth magnifies and divinises unhappy, nonsensual love and is actually a love for nothingness, for death.

De Rougemont considers the development of the passion-myth as the source of decay in the realm of love.  He mentions the eternal triangle in desire as the usual configuration of loveless love. The sources to this loveless, self-inflicting love is located back to dualist religion: from Gnostic and Manichean religion, to the Celtic and Cathar religion, and spreading through Romance-literature and gradually becoming a part of Western man’s everyday concept of erotic love.  In chapter 16  (‘The Myth Withdraws into the Human Breast’) De Rougemont develops the idea that internal, private desires have grown out from the influence of external desires depicted in literature.

The dualism regarding Eros as both divine and, at the same time, a frenzy, is, according to De Rougemont, a Platonic legacy. This dualism in love became common in the 12th century France as France, at the time, was invaded by dualistic religion. This sparked a powerful rise of the cult of love. It was in this century marriage became an object of contempt. Instead passion was glorified. According to the Cathars, yielding to a purely physical sensuality, was the supreme and original sin, and to love with pure passion was the pure virtue.

Literature and Desire

In a highly daring sequence of the book De Rougemont claims that it is especially literature which has affected the European concept of passion, while he dismisses philosophy as a force which has changed European mentality. De Rougemont  moderates this view a little later on in his book by claiming that passionate love is an imitation inherited from European culture and in particular from literature. This means that the passion myth must be seen in a broader context of culture. Because of the influence these myths and religions have had, both European literature and our passions ignorantly and perversely employ a terminology of passion. Although literature is very much to blame for this perverted understanding of love, it still emanates from religion.

Our language of passion comes down to us from the rhetoric of the troubadours. It was supremely ambiguous rhetoric. Its symbols of sexual attraction were the product of Manichean dogmatics. Little by little, as it was gradually separated from the religion in which it originated, it passed into  manners, and became part of the common language.

Nationalism and Desire

De Rougemont claims that the passion myth generates violence, and he interprets the slaughter of the colonial wars and the world wars as consequences of this myth. In a world where love has been perverted into self-love and desire for obstacles, there are no limits for such industries, created in order to avoid real love. Nationalism is, according to De Rougemont, caught up in the same projection, where one’s private passions are projected into a sterile and loveless concept of a nation.

Comparing Girard’s and De Rougemont’s love-theory

In Deceit, Desire and the Novel De Rougemont’s theme of obstacles is highly praised.  De Rougemont is commented upon as one of the few thinkers reaching Novelistic insight. He has not only seen the significance of the obstacle, but he has also seen the double structure of desire: the same movement which makes us worship life, but actually hurls us into negation and (inner) death. This revelation of desire, where negation of life is depicted as vitality is, in Deceit, Desire and the Novel, praised as De Rougemont’s masterful insight.

Girard picks up this understanding of desires produced through obstacles and borrows Levinas’ term metaphysical desire to describe deviated desire. He also elaborates a more technical device to illustrate the way it works by introducing the triangular structure of subject, object and mediator. Girard gently criticizes De Rougemont for not seeing the interdividual element in the desire for obstacles. De Rougemont has, according to Girard, revealed the fundamental content of desire, but his analysis is lacking in structure. Desire for obstacles is for De Rougemont a subject-object relationship. The obstacle is something inside the subject (hero). The object is hindered by the subject’s own mind, by the deceitful ideas of love brought forth by myths and heretic religion. As the obstacles are the result of heretic ideas, and not something concrete and contemporary, De Rougemont will not have brought to the day the mechanism which links myth to mind.

Psychology or Ideology?

Girard does not emphasize the ideological representations of desire. He focuses on the other as obstacle. The other is the obstacle hindering fulfilment of desires. But the hindrance is mainly brought about by the subject’s fascination or weakness towards the mediator. Therefore, the problem is not rivalry in the most banal, linear way. By claiming that it is not a straightforward desire for the object, an uncomplicated rivalry for the object, Girard will also inevitably claim that the problem is mental. The subject and mediator gradually become obsessed by each other, and desires shift, from the object to each other. If there was a direct fight for the object, the reason could be explained in biological terms.

The Lack of Mediator

Girard’s introduction of the mediator is the basic difference between De Rougemont and Girard concerning desire. It is also their parting point as regards to an anthropology: De Rougemont regards the cultural changes as a result of different ideas, while Girard gives mimesis the prerogative to be the dynamic force behind ideology. In this respect De Rougemont is Platonic (despite his anti-Platonism). On the other hand, De Rougemont’s theory on the spreading of the myth indicates imitation. From the 12th century and onwards the myth is spread through  literature until it becomes the common (unconscious) erotic ideal. This development of the passion-myth and the gradual decay of marriage, can be seen as engendered by mimesis. Desire, according to  De Rougemont, must be defined as the ideas which have an influence on the individual. The interdividual and biological aspects of desire are not taken into consideration. Therefore, the human drama, in the case of De Rougemont, becomes a drama of ideas.

Girard’s Imitation of De Rougemont

Girard imitates De Rougemont’s idea of a gradual decline in love through history depicted in literature. This development of a gradual intensification of desire is the process which Girard calls the internalisation of metaphysical desire. Both Girard and De Rougemont regard this concept as a gradual decline and intensification. Historically Girard starts off from the 17th century with Cervantes and ends up in contemporary society. De Rougemont goes further back in history to locate its roots in Iranian religion, Platonism, Orpheism and Manicheism. De Rougemont's description of the process of internalisation and intensification of desire, dwells more and more on the generalising effects of desire, when approaching the modern age. But for De Rougemont it is especially heretic religion and Romance literature, which is to blame for this perverted concept of love, taking place in everyone’s minds.

Different Views on Literature

Even if both Girard and De Rougemont’s operate with a process of intensification and contamination of desire, they view literature and myth in a very different way. While De Rougemont regards passion-literature to be the source to the phenomenon, Girard regards literature more as a mirroring of these phenomena. Rougemont emphasizes more the influence of literature, while Girard, contrary to De Rougemont, emphasizes literature's ability to reveal the processes of desire. In this respect Girard regards literature in a much more positive manner as it is not the source to contamination, but the revelation of the contamination. This is, however, only true as regards to the great realistic writers. The Romantic writer is, according to Girard, caught up in the mire of metaphysical desire and can only depict or propagate desire, not reveal its structure. Therefore, one can say that Girard's critique of romantic literature is similar to De Rougemont critique of Romance literature: both are woven into the lies which enhance the desires for loveless love.

Eros and Agape

Instead of localising this cul de sac of desire in heretic religion, Girard localises it more generally as deviated transcendency. Even if De Rougemount and Girard have Orthodox Christianity as the norm for love, Girard interprets the love-relationships based on obstacles as a degradation from agape. Rougemont goes further when claiming that carnal love has no aspect of deification. Rougemont claims that carnal love has no aspect of deification. Passion is not a deviation of agape, it is a by-product of Manicheism. The God of Eros is, according to De Rougemont, an antagonism against the God of love. This dualism between Eros and agape, is also confirmed in Things Hidden by referring to Anders Nygren's Eros and Agape in a very positive manner. De Rougemont claims in the end of Love in the Western World that Eros is saved by Agape, meaning that the selfishness in erotic life can be atoned by agape.

Naturalistic Sensuality

Girard starts off from a broad perspective of deviated transcendency. His analysis scarcely mentions historical heresies as the source to metaphysical desire, neither does his analysis afflict the Naturalistic ideas of love. De Rougemont claims that Naturalistic sensuality is of the same nature as Romance-desires, only sublimated to fit into an animalistic ideal. He regards them just as illusory as the Romantic and idealistic tradition.  It’s the same aspiration for the sublime, but viewed from the animal side. These animalistic ideals have according to De Rougemont been internalised in modern ideologies, in the mind of men and become a glorification of instinct of the here below.

In this context, from De Rougemonts anti-naturalism Girard's theory is lacking as it neglects commenting on the cynicism of Naturalism, of an animalistic tendency in love. Girard’s revelation of the Romantic lie actually seems somewhat one-sided, as there is no critique of the more Naturalistic kinds of desire. It could  be that this Naturalism is regarded as sensuality acted out according to nature and therefore sanctioned as a healthy realism. But naturalistic ideology operates, as romanticism, with the idea of a straightforward access to nature, not as something mediated. Thus, this naturalistic approach is manifested as a belief in desire without a mediator, for example illustrated in Madame Bovary, in the figure of Rodolphe when seducing Emma Bovary.

It would, however, be unfair if one characterises Girard`s lack of critique of naturalistic ideology as a passive support of naturalistic ideology. Firstly, his theory is not based on a biological axiom. Secondly, Girard’s critique of Nietzcheanism indicates that the naturalistic world-view is conflictual to the extreme. Thirdly there is a critique of Freud's biological explanation that desire stems basically from the sexual. There is, clearly, an anti-naturalism in Girard’s attempt to dislocate desire from any biological presupposition. On the other hand, Girard is one-sided in his critique of the romantic, even if it is not defined as a certain group or époque, but as the tendency to hide or proclaim the mediator.

Girard’s Debt to De Rougemont

De Rougemount's concept of obstacles gives Girard the tools to analyse triangular desire. De Rougemont's understanding of a loveless love is the starting point in Girard's theory of desire. Girard introduces the mediator without the help of De Rougemont, and he elaborates that which De Rougemont only mentions as the eternal triangle, in a more scientific and structural way. In Deceit, Desire and the Novel Girard imitates De Rougemont's historical scheme of a gradual intensification and declination of love. Girard's debt to De Rougemont clearly is mentioned, but when considering that the historic schema, the theory of obstacles, the internalisation of desire, the analysis of the love/hate, of deviated transcendency, even the triangular structure, can be located back to De Rougemont, one can claim that De Rougemont's influence on Girard's concept of desire, especially erotic love, can hardly be exaggerated.