Quixotic Reading

Don_Quijote_and_Sancho_PanzaIt is both interesting and significant that the mimetic desire revealed in two of the novels discussed by René Girard in Deceit, Desire & the Novel are derived, not from other people, but from characters in literature.

Don Quixote famously went mad with a desire to imitate Amadis of Gaul in the medieval romances of this knight errant, while Madame Bovary’s desires were fueled by the sentimental novels she read. The literature consumed by both characters gives them distorted visions of reality. Don Quixote mistakes windmills for evil giants and a barber’s basin for a knight’s helmet. Madame Bovary sees the lovers of her life through the lens of the romance novels and fails to see them as they really are until it is too late.

Of the two, Don Quixote is much more removed from “reality” than Madame Bovary. Yet, although the novels Madame Bovary has read seem to mirror “real life” and are thus “realistic,” it is she who seems to be even more confused about “reality” than Don Quixote, to the point of being smothered by fantasy so that what self she has disappears. C.S. Lewis offers us a key insight here when he says : “Children are not deceived by fairy tales; they are often and gravely confused by school stories. Adults are not deceived by science fiction; they can be deceived by the stories in the women’s magazines.” Lewis seems a bit sexist here but the underlying point is clear enough. “Realistic” stories present models and stir up desires that seem realistic but are traps that catch the unwary reader.

Curiously, Don Quixote’s fantasies have a contagion of their own. An unnamed man accuses Don Quixote of having a “talent for making anyone who has anything to do with you mad and senseless.” It is curious that Don Quixote is blamed for the insanity of others, as the other people are arguably making themselves insane by staying on Quixote’s case to the point of obsession. In the second part of the novel, a duke and duchess spend huge amounts of time and expense to mirror Don Quixote’s desires in theatrical fakery. They themselves seem to be caught up in Quixote’s madness as much as their victim.

In both cases, there is something of a collective violence around a victim. In the case of Don Quixote, his singularity provokes a spontaneous, improvised conspiracy to bring him to his senses. In the case of Madame Bovary, the social system of mimetic desire is fully developed to the extent that both Madame Bovary and her irresponsible husband and lovers all act like puppets of the ambient fantasy fueled by the novels and the culture industry.

Novelists such as Cervantes and Flaubert are faced with the enormous challenge of revealing the truth of mimetic desire in a medium that is normally used to reflect and fuel mimetic desire. After all, it is the latter tendency that makes huge profits for the producers of this and other media. In the second part of Don Quixote Cervantes does not disguise his indignation over copycat offshoots of his work and other ersatz imitators. Perhaps the main thrust of the second part was to mirror the misunderstandings of his readers in the Duke and the Duchess.

It isn’t enough to write novels revealing mimetic desire. Also needed are readers who can truly see what these novels reveal. If Cervantes was exasperated by the readers of his time, imagine his apoplexy over a musical featuring an inspirational song about following impossible dreams. For Cervantes was showing us in his novels that successfully imitating fictional characters is truly impossible. Don Quixote could not live Amadis of Gaul’s life any more than Emma Bovary could live the lives of heroines in the novels she read. They could only live their own lives, which they failed to do.

Werther is another fictional person who was widely imitated for a time. Heartsick and overwhelmed by his mimetic desire for a woman already promised to another man, Werther kills himself. The publication of Goethe’s novella was followed by an epidemic of suicides throughout Europe. This phenomenon is still called the Werther effect. Drowning in the mimetic desire of fictional characters can be deadly.

So how do we read in a way that is life giving? The short answer is to seek life where it can be found, where Don Quixote found it at the end, in repentance. I will give a slightly longer answer in my next blog post.

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Uncovering the Secrets of the Secret Zoo

deer1The set of five novels comprising The Secret Zoo by Bryan Chick have achieved a good deal of popularity, and for good reason. The loving relationships between Noah, his sister Megan, and their two friends Ella and Richie are touching and inspiring. In the first book, when Megan has been kidnapped by Sasquatches who are aligned with Man of Shadows, her brother and friends risk themselves to rescue her.

The love between them extends to a group of gifted animals they meet, a polar bear, a kingfisher, a rhinoceros and a prairie dog being prominent among them. These gifted animals belong to a secret zoo, a zoo and a word hidden by the “normal” Clarksville Zoo next to the neighborhood where these children live. The world of the secret zoo appears to be an enchanted utopia when the children are introduced to it by Mr. Darby. Humans and gifted animals live in a unified culture where both are equal and creativity bursts out in the architecture of the buildings, especially the library that is overwhelming in its awesomeness.

Usually there are some serpents in paradise and this proves to be the case here. The Secret Zoo is haunted by De Graaf, the Man of Shadows, a man who has lost almost all substance except from what he can steal from the shadows of others. (A good illustration of the parasitical nature of evil.) When it turns out that De Graaf is responsible for finding the magician brothers who created the Secret Zoo, the whole world becomes problematic.

Unfortunately, there is more that is disturbing. A group of four teenagers, called Descenders, who turn out to have powers connected with animal powers, are assigned the job of training the scouts as crossers (people who cross between the normal world & the Secret Zoo). The Descenders treat the scouts badly with heavy doses of condescension, but when three of the Descenders are captured in Book IV, it is the Scouts who help to rescue them, thus returning good for their ill will.

More disturbing is the growing awareness of how revenge motivates the Descenders, a group of girls called Specters because they have trained chameleons to cover them and render them invisible and Mr. Darby himself. Revenge for what? An earlier war that expelled the sasquatches doesn’t seem to explain it. At the end of the series, we do not yet know what the revenge is for. Perhaps this is a way of reminding us that revenge is, in the end, always empty. Most disturbing is the growing realization among the scouts that Mr. Darby, for all the benevolence he has shown, is looking more and more like a mirror image of De Graaf, the Man of Shadows. In all of this, we have four children whose loyalty to each other and other friends create a nexus of good mimesis (shared desire centered on the good of the other)

So it is that the series does not end on as triumphant a note as one might like, thus leaving the door open for at least one more series, which the author is indeed working on already.

Beyond Oblivion

crucifix1Anthony Horowitz’s five volume series called variously The Power of Five or The Gatekeepers is a far deeper and interesting read than his many volumes about a teen spy doing impossible stunts without benefit of superpowers. The cosmology is roughly is one where there is apparently no religious reality, such as a creator and/or redeemer god, but there are powerful beings who wish only to destroy and they wish to destroy our world. They are, however, dependent on humans evil enough to help them, such as members of a witch’s coven, embittered apostate monks, and rapacious financial magnates. Meanwhile, in a vaguely defined transcendent “dream” world there are beings or some beneficent force that sends five young saviors to our planet and works out a plan for defeating the “old ones” definitively.  It turns out that these five teens have counterparts (alternate selves?) who lived ten thousand years earlier and each is interchangeable with his or her counterpart in the event of the death of one of them. Such a substitution allowed for a victory in the past. I am going to focus on the ending of the series in the final book Oblivion which is a powerful read, even as it raises some serious questions.  I hereby issue a SPOILER ALERT for those who prefer to read the book before reading my comments. By the beginning of the last book, the “old ones” have broken through and destroyed the world. The five teens have to stop and reverse the destruction. At the end, Matt Freeman, the leader of the group, reads his life story in a library in the dream world which tells him the plan, horrifying as it is. What it boils down to is putting himself into the hands of the enemies in their fortress in Antarctica so they can exact their revenge on him by torturing him for several millennia, all the while depending on a journalist who has befriended him from the beginning to sneak him and kill him swiftly. Matt’s death brings in Matt’s counterpart while another boy, who had betrayed the cause, gives his life to open a time warp to bring the group together to defeat the “old ones” for good. Although Christianity is not shown to have any reality in the series, a Christian can certainly see a Christ-like act of renunciation in the self-sacrificing death of Matt and for the betrayer as well. There is a sense of providence, if not divine, in the plan. By hindsight, it is the only plan that could have worked. The “old ones” were so blinded by a lust for revenge that they left themselves open to being defeated by teens with dedication they can never understand. It is a powerful illustration of how love, not power, is the only way to defeat such evil. The ending is disturbing in that the surviving teens celebrate and return to the dream world while the ones who made sacrifices are just plain gone, unless the dead boys live in their counterparts in some way. Of course, if the world really is a world where such acts of renunciation give only the satisfaction of making this act of sacrifice, than that is the best one can do. Emmanuel Kant based his ethics on this level of disinterestedness where one sought no reward for doing the right thing. There is something noble about this, but if the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the loving God embodied by Jesus, than there is a far greater good and glory that sustains such a disinterested sacrifice.

A City Consumed with Buying and Selling

guesthouse1“If there was just one person who could show everyone there is another way. . . . If someone stood up in the middle of the city, with everyone watching, and did something that brought them nothing in return, and happiness to others . . . it might start something that couldn’t be stopped.”

These words are spoken by a 13-year-old girl in The Midnight Charter, the first volume of the Agora Trilogy by David Whitley. These words are a powerful statement of a positive use of mimetic desire (see Human See, Human Want). Lilly says these words in a city called Agora (Greek for market), a city where everything and everybody is bought and sold and all receipts are stored in the city bureaucracy. Even emotions can be bought and sold thanks to a strange technology developed for the purpose. A sort of capitalism gone mad. This shows how deep competitive mimetic desire can be, as René Girard demonstrates. (See Violence and the Kingdom of God.)

While Lilly starts to put her idea into practice by starting an almshouse, something unprecedented in the city, her friend Mark is consumed by a mimetic process that puts him at the pinnacle of the society while too young (thirteen) to realize how delusionary it was until it was too late. (See Ignominious Glory, Glorious Ignominy.)

The fortunes of these two protagonists and the powerful social forces that surround them are explored with ever-increasing depth in the second and third books of the trilogy. In Children of the Lost, Lilly and Mark, suddenly thrust out of Agora, enter a wilderness where the subconscious (the “Nightmare”) engulfs the villagers who live there. Well, the emotions bought and sold in Agora have to go somewhere. The nightmare shows itself most strongly in an act of collective violence, the end result of the denial of mimetic desire. In the midst of all this, Mark begins to really learn how to be a caring human being.

The final volume Canticle of Whispers brings the trilogy to a stunning conclusion. Here, we meet another society, this one living underground, that turns out to be a collective puppet for the fragmented desires of those who live above them until they are freed by Lilly and Mark. The mimetic process started by Lilly in Agora continues in her absence because other people have imitated her desire to help others. One of the greatest strengths of the series is that many characters who seem fairly insignificant emerge in unexpected ways to have great significance, sometimes for ill, sometimes for good.

This trilogy shows us that here are Y/A novels out there that can instruct young readers and older seasoned readers as well, into the depths of mimetic desire. I strongly urge anyone working with youth to take notice.

New Story about a Strange Plague that Hits a Town

???????????????????????????????????????????I have just posted a new story called “The Gray Plague.” It tells the story of Jimmy Peppersap and the other people in his town where a plague strikes without any explanation. The first version of this story was written years before I was aware of René Girard’s thought but even back then it showed some intuition of the social dynamics Girard has analyzed so well. To read this story and reflect on what it has to tell us, click Here.

How my Story “The Rainbow Butterfly” Came to Be

creatures coverThe writing of my story “The Rainbow Butterfly” has a complicated history. My first inspiration came from a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne called “The Artist of the Beautiful.” In it, a craftsman creates a very delicate and beautiful butterfly that has a numinous quality. In Hawthorne’s grim imagination, this fragile work falls victim to insensitive people.

In my imagination, this image got hooked into an idea of a story about a town at war with another town to the extent that the war defined the town’s life at every level.  An underground group, devoted to finding an alternative to war, was engaged in a project of constructing a rainbow butterfly that would take on a transcendent life of its own. The project succeeded and the rainbow received a mixed reception depending on the dispositions of each person.

A few years later, at the time of the civil wars in the Balkan Peninsula, I got the idea of writing a story about a city in the state of civil war where occupation of the city was roughly divided between each side. The children too young for combat (starting at age twelve) spent their time getting a piecemeal education with the result they learned of a possible to stop the war, but one requiring self-sacrifice. (I used the Welsh legend of the black cauldron that turns dead bodies into zombies until a live person jumps into the cauldron voluntarily which breaks the cauldron. As you can guess, it was a pretty dark story.

Over time, I continued to feel there was a lot to like in both stories but at the same time some fundamental problems that kept either of them from working. After puzzling about this for some time, I got an inspiration to take elements of each story and create a whole new story using the same themes about war. The result was “The Rainbow Butterfly.” Basically, it combines the inter-city civil war scenario with that of an underground resistance group seeking peace. This time, there was no attempt to create the rainbow butterfly; finding a cup that had the butterfly’s life in it was enough.

I created a whole new character as the protagonist who tells the story, twelve-year-old Darren Forty-Third. His vocabulary is limited because linguistic skills are limited to the pragmatics of perpetual war. That already tells the reader a lot about what a culture is like when it is so totally focused on war.

Want to see how Darren and his friends and the Rainbow Butterfly fare? Read the story in Creatures We Dream of Knowing.

Kirkus Review for From Beyond to Here

9781475934588_COVER.inddI have just received an affirming review of From Beyond to Here from Kirkus. It starts out: “Marr’s collection comprises six short stories aimed at young readers interested in aliens and ghosts (which in turn comprises just about all young readers, one would imagine).” It goes on to say that I have “done a good job depicting the troubles and traumas that preteens and teenagers face and showing how they might be able to deal with life’s challenges.” At the end, it says that I “feel for kids who suffer the death of a sibling or the abandonment of divorce or just the general confusion of trying to grow up or of being afraid to grow up. There are morals to these stories, but they don’t hit the reader over the head. Marr is that wise and often witty uncle that every young person needs.” 

I would add for those of you interesting in mimetic theory that the story “Buyer of Hearts” is filled with mimetic issues in the junior high and the town beyond.  You can read this review in its entirety on the From Beyond to Here page. You can also read “The Ghost of Swiss Castle” as a sample of my writing. I hope this review encourages more readers to give my stories a try. For some comments on ghost stories in general see Chills and Salvation.