Violence, Penetration, and the Girardian Geometry of Desire (Part 1)

Thomas Ryba

Ph.D., Professor in History and Literature of Religions, Notre Dame Theologian in Residence @ St. Thomas Aquinas Center, Purdue; Continuing Lecturer, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana, USA.

Address: 535 West State Street, West Lafayette, Indiana 47906, USA.

E-mail: Этот адрес электронной почты защищён от спам-ботов. У вас должен быть включен JavaScript для просмотра. 

Abstract: René Girard’s mimetic theory postulates a triadic “geometry” of desire that is most often discussed as leading to a particular type of violence — scapegoating. However, in his early work, Deceit, Desire and the Novel, Girard suggests other ways the triadic structure of mimesis leads to violence. Taking this alternative into account, and following Lakoff and Johnson, I suggest that violence is connected to a root metaphor of penetrating harm, a transgression of boundaries that is more basic than the scapegoating variety. Extending the structures of Girard’s geometry, I propose an analysis of sadism, masochism, and terrorism based on the root metaphor of penetration, one that, at points, runs contrary to Girard’s analysis yet expands the scope of the Girardian notion of violence according to his own geometry of desire.

Key words: René Girard, mimetic theory, violence, desire, vulnerability, structuralism, sadism, masochism, terrorism, subjectivity.

Received at April 02, 2019.

How to cite: Ryba, Thomas (2019). Violence, Penetration, and the Girardian Geometry of Desire (Part 1). Researcher. European Journal of Humanities & Social Sciences. 2 (2), 57–73.


Copyright © 2019 Authors retain the copyright of this article. This article is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

1. Introduction

In this piece[1], I propose to analyze the relationship between desire, vulnerability, and violence. What I propose is a sketch a phenomenology of vulnerability that has its roots in Girardian, Sartrean, Steinian, and Hegelian analyses of subjectivity[2].

Vulnerability is the complement of violence. Violence cannot be done to a subject unless the subject is vulnerable. Conversely, to be invulnerable is to be immune to the effects of an action. Violence attempted against the invulnerable is action without effect and can hardly be called violence, though it may be called “intended violence”, or some such thing. This implies that for violence to be correctly named it must achieve its effect. But whether or not violence is worthily termed “violence” when enacted against the invulnerable, it is not invulnerability but vulnerability that is my concern in this paper. The kind of violence that achieves its effect by virtue of the characteristics of the subject (against which it is directed) is the subject of my interest.

The English word ‘vulnerability’ is etymologically derived from the Latin word vulnerabilis which literally means to be susceptible to wounding (OED). This would seem to imply that vulnerability is a special species of what the Medievals would have called ‘passio’, passio entailing that another can affect one, or that one is pliant to the effects of the other. ‘Sympathy’ and ‘empathy’ are also words that take the noun ‘pathos’ as a root but with positive connotations. The former denotes the ability to be affected by the feelings of the other or, literally, to have the feelings of the other. The latter denotes the ability to reactivate the thinking of another, to think one’s way into the consciousness of the other, to understand — and in a sense, share — the other’s motives, ideas, stratagems, etc.

Thus, there is a wide constellation of meanings connected to passio as indicating susceptibility to the other, but what specifically distinguishes susceptibility to violence from susceptibility to action by a receptive patient has to do both with intended effect and the patient’s ability to control what is being enacted upon or in him/her. I shall at points in this paper return to controlled (or active) vulnerability, but my foundational concern is with the vulnerability connected with violence.

2. One of the Key Meanings of ‘Vulnerability’ is Expressed in a Metaphor

In their books, Metaphors We Live By, Women, Fire and Other Dangerous Things, and the Philosophy of the Body, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson make the following points about metaphors, which likewise apply to the metaphor of vulnerability.

First, metaphors are far from being mere rhetorical flourishes or literary devices. Rather, they express concepts that “govern our everyday functioning” by structuring “what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people” (Lakoff & Johnson 1980, p. 3). In this, Lakoff and Johnson share Blumenberg’s view that metaphors are rooted in the Lebenswelt (life-world) of humans (Blumenberg 1997 [1979]).

Second, most metaphors are organized around relations of spatialization and possess both internal and external systematicity. This means that the metaphor will possess a core of consistent meaning from application to application and also that there will be consistency with other metaphors that share related notions of spatialization (Lakoff & Johnson 1980, pp. 17–18).

Third, “metaphors are rooted in physical and cultural experience” and can be understood fully only if one understands their experiential basis; the formation of related metaphors usually has consistency with this basis (Lakoff & Johnson 1980, p. 18).

Fourth, sometimes the mode of spatialization is so much an essential constituent of a metaphor that it cannot be fully understood without it (Lakoff & Johnson 1980, p. 19). One may say that spatialization stands to the meaning of the metaphor in an analogous way that the Kantian analogies of experience stand to phenomenal reality[3] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson explain this constitutive connection in the following way: “no metaphor can ever be comprehended or adequately represented independently of its experiential basis” (Lakoff & Johnson 1980, p. 19).

Fifth, all of these properties are consistent with metaphors as being experientially-based mappings of idealized cognitive models (ICMs) in one domain that are mapped to idealized cognitive models in another[4].

It seems to me that the above criteria are useful ones for explaining one of the meanings of ‘vulnerability’. At the heart of the meaning of ‘vulnerability’ is a key or basic metaphor. This metaphor is tantamount to a claim about the meaning of the word ‘vulnerability’ and points us in the direction of one of this word’s experiential bases. This means that what follows is, in part, a brief exercise in metaphorology[5].

3. Examples of Piercing as a Metaphor Related to Vulnerability

The metaphor I have in mind is connected with a particular target domain, that of a literal wounding:

(M1) Vulnerability is to be able to be wounded.

This metaphor may be narrowed according to one of the mechanical causes of wounding:

(M2) Vulnerability is to be pierced or penetrated (in some sense).

The narrower metaphor establishes one of the more important spatio-dynamic meanings of vulnerability. In other words, the kind of violence implicit in vulnerability is, metaphorically, a kind of wounding, a wounding interpreted as the transgressive crossing of a barrier. In saying this, I do not intend to exclude other spatial metaphors, which may be implicit in this noun and associated parts of speech, but merely to explore one of its most salient connotations, a connotation that suggests that to be vulnerable is to be punctured; it is to be susceptible to the mechanical movement of a sharp instrument through a protective barrier, shell, surface, or membrane. The root spatial metaphor implicit, here, is that vulnerability can understood as susceptibility to a transgressive violation of a boundary, the transgression taking the form of a sharp penetration with a painful effect, a painful effect, which may persist or not. But, more broadly, it can also refer to any alteration of an organism resulting in internal injury. We can say that this connotation — as Lakoff and Johnson suggest — is illustrated by a system of cognate metaphors. This can be further illustrated by two examples:

(M3) He drove home his pointed remark.

(M4) My ego was so hurt by her sharp remarks that now I am among the walking wounded.

The semantic field (as well as the etymology) of the English word ‘vulnerability’ suggests that at the core of this word’s meaning is the ability to be wounded or the ability to allow one’s self to be wounded. The meaning of ‘violence’ is structured, in part, by the notion of painful, destructive penetration. Destructive penetration constitutes what may be called one of the analogies of experience constitutive of the notion of violence. Destructive penetration does not exhaust all varieties of analogy constitutive of the notion of violence, even though it represents a very large class of related phenomena. Consider the following two examples. (Let me be clear that in selecting these, I have intentionally chosen relatively obscure instances of the above metaphor in order to demonstrate how truly ubiquitous it is.)

4. Two Examples of the Metaphor of Penetration from Two Disparate Fields

According to the stated description of violence, there is a close connection between violence and trauma, especially when trauma is viewed in terms of involuntary piercing or penetration.

Example 1: Trauma as classically defined in Freudian psychology: In beyond the Pleasure Principle, Sigmund Freud provides a psycho-mechanical description of trauma by way of a spatialization of consciousness. Freud postulates a physical shield between the cortical layer of the brain and its surface. According to Freud’s primitive theory, the cortical layer is the brain’s layer that will develop into the system of consciousness. As such, the cortical layer lies at the interface between the shield and the interior of the brain from which the cortical layer also receives excitations. The cortical layer, “this little fragment of living substance <…> is suspended in the middle of an external world charged with the most powerful energies; and it would be killed by the stimulations emanating from these if it were not provided with a protective shield against stimuli” (Freud 1961 [1920], p. 21).

This protective shield consists of cells that become relatively inorganic and unexcitable, thus filtering the too powerful energies of outside stimulation and allowing only a fraction of these energies to pass on into the cortical layer (Freud 1961 [1920], p. 21). The cortex’s outer surface is relatively shielded from external stimulations because they would do it harm. According to Freud, “protection against stimuli is an almost more important function for the living organism than reception of stimuli” (Freud 1961 [1920], p. 21). But the cortical interior is unshielded and susceptible to excitations of the deeper layers of the brain, excitations intensively and qualitatively “more commensurate with the system’s working” (Freud 1961 [1920], p. 21).

Freud also postulated a differential in electrical potential between the two faces of the cortex that “has a decisive effect on the functioning of the system [of consciousness] and of the whole mental apparatus” (Freud 1961 [1920], p. 23). The electrical potential in the innermost layers is greatest with the result that the interior excitations — those that Freud connects with pleasure and pain as an index of the brain’s interior activity — predominate over exterior excitations coming from the world. When pain is the predominant state of the interior cortical layers, then to lessen the negative stimulation, the brain re-routes the sensations to the filter of the cortical shield so that they are diminished in force. The re-routing results in an illusion of subjective consciousness, namely, that these sensations are experienced as though they are coming from the outside of consciousness. This is the origin of projection, which plays an important role in Freud’s theory of mental pathologies (Freud 1961 [1920], p. 23).

However, there are cases when a breach occurs in the cortical shield, that is, when it is penetrated by strong stimuli from the outside world. This results in a large-scale disturbance that puts the pleasure principle out of service. The incoming energy must be bound, before it does irreparable harm to the psychical system. All of the other regions of the brain marshal their cathectic energies to the breach in order to block the destructive flow of stimuli, but these energies are insufficient to bind the incoming stimuli, immediately (Freud 1961 [1920], p. 24). Moreover, their diversion to the incoming stream impoverishes and paralyzes other parts of the conscious system (Freud 1961 [1920], p. 24). The result is trauma to the brain/consciousness resulting in neuroses (Freud 1961 [1920], p. 25). According to Freud, repetitious anxiety dreams are not connected directly to wish fulfillment but with the brain’s attempt to heal a traumatic breach retroactively (Freud [1920] 1961, p. 26–27). Preparedness for the fright caused by such a penetration probably diminishes the damage.

The audacity (and accompanying crudity) of Freud’s attempt to root trauma in materialist mechanisms obscures the phenomenological intuition that makes it a happy metaphor. Though no brain structures can be found that are isomorphic to the Freudian schema, his description of trauma nevertheless has value when viewed as a metaphor for the experience of trauma. Here, again is the metaphor of vulnerability as a penetration used to describe the disordering of consciousness connected with neurosis.

Example 2: The derangement of epistemes in Lakatošian philosophy of science: In his ground-breaking essay, “The Methodology of Scientific Research Programs”, Imre Lakatoš provides a description of normative science. This description was pitched against irrationalist interpretations of the growth of science and did not rely upon discontinuous mystical leaps of faith[6]. Deviating from Popper and Kuhn, Lakatoš suggested that the units for the analysis of scientific progress were neither paradigms, nor conjectures and refutations, nor theories, but research programs. Scientific rationality is the ability to specify a criterion of choice between competing research programs. According to Lakatoš, a research program has the following features:

  • a hard core of established scientific principles;
  • a belt of auxiliary, protective hypotheses;
  • a negative heuristic associated with the hard core [that it is to be immune to modus tollens by the proliferation of alternative hypotheses closed under disjunction];
  • a positive heuristic associated with the auxiliary belt (which suggests fruitful hypotheses for the auxiliary belt that organize it.

What is important about this rather technical example is that it —like the Freudian theory before it — manifests a barrier-interior structure, so that when the protective hypotheses of the auxiliary belt are overwhelmed by inexplicable observations, it is possible to say that they are penetrated and the hard core is vulnerable to alteration. In other words, violence done to a scientific research program entails a penetration and alteration of its stable and compact core. It means that what was once stable and disordered becomes affected and disordered. The result is that a new research program must be called into service to replace the old. Again, we find the spatio-dynamic metaphor of vulnerability as violence accomplished by penetration.

Although I believe these two disciplinary examples, and the examples of common speech provided earlier, are sufficient to establish that vulnerability is connected with the kinesthetic image of piercing in a wide variety of applications (including the most attenuated), there is still the question of its significance. How does it help us understand the phenomenon of violence as it appears in human relations? Here, the phenomenology of vulnerability undertaken up to this point is insufficient. It is necessary to complicate the picture further, before what we have discovered about vulnerability can be brought into explanatory service. It is necessary to conscript an additional theory in the service of the explanation of human behavior. It is René Girard’s theory of the mediation of desire that provides the key to explaining vulnerability in human relations.

5. The Girardian Theory of the Mediation of Desire

In his review of Cynthia Haven’s recent biography of Girard, The Evolution of Desire, James Matthew Wilson describes René Girard as “the last structuralist”, as a theoretician who took seriously the idea that “there is a discernable and comprehensive governing structure [that lies] beneath human activity” (Haven 2018; James Matthew Wilson 2018). This description is an especially happy one because Girard himself admitted it in suggesting that mediated desire could be expressed in terms of a triangular figure. But the implications of this claim — the geometrical necessities connected to such triangularity —at points, turn Girard’s argument against itself.

The theory of mediated desire is proposed, as Girard puts it, as a phenomenology of the novelistic work that does not observe the divisions between the various novels but seeks the essence of desire as a “dynamic structure extending from one end of novelistic literature to another” (Girard [1965] 1976, pp. 94–95). This phenomenology seeks nothing less than to establish “a ‘topology’ of imitative desire”, that is to establish the essential spatial or geometrical features of desire’s structure wherever that structure may be found (Girard [1965] 1976, p. 95). Though beginning as a theory about Romantic novels, Girard’s theory can be abstracted from literature and applied to human behavior. The salience of this application can be sketched as follows.

The premise upon which Girard develops his topology of desire is that objects of desire are not radically or freely chosen (in most cases) but are chosen imitatively in relation to a model or mediator of that desire (Girard 1976 [1965], pp. 1–2). In other words, “in the birth of desire, the third person is always present” (Girard [1965] 1976, p. 21). All

…subjectivisms and objectivisms, romanticisms and realisms, individualisms and scientisms, idealisms and positivisms appear to be in opposition but are secretly in agreement to conceal the presence of the mediator. All these dogmas are the aesthetic or philosophic translations of worldviews peculiar to internal mediation. They all depend directly or indirectly on the lie of spontaneous desire. They all defend the same illusion of autonomy to which modern man is passionately devoted (Girard [1965] 1976, pp. 15–16).

Humans do not possess the freedom to refrain from choosing a model. The only true freedom, according to Girard, “always involves choosing a model, and true freedom lies in the basic choice between a human or a divine model” (Girard [1965] 1976, p. 58).

Girard thinks that the mediation of desire can be schematized as follows: if the line of desire is depicted as a line connecting subject and object, then there is always a third that stands above this line “radiating [relations] toward both the subject and object” (Girard [1965] 1976, p. 2). The described triangle is “intersubjective” and “cannot be localized anywhere; the triangle has no reality whatever; it is a systematic metaphor, systematically pursued” (Girard [1965] 1976, p. 2). The triangularity of desire models a class of structures that do not operate mechanistically but allude to the mystery of human relations, relations that have a logic and “which may be ‘systematized, [but only] up to a point”’ (Girard [1965] 1976, p. 3).

Girard’s qualification, here — “up to a point” — seems to undermine the claim that the explanatory scope of this triadicity can be worked out systematically. It suggests a failure of nerve at the point where the geometrical structure of his figure conflicts with Girard’s intentions. It is my purpose, here, to extend the Girardian geometry, methodically.

Girard’s triangle of desire can be represented, diagrammatically, as follows:

Girard recognizes a relative distantiation between the mediators of desire and the desiring subject, so that beyond a certain limit the mediator may be considered “beyond the universe” or external (I would say transcendent) or “within the same universe” or internal (I would say immanent) (Girard 1976 [1965], p. 9). Here, the space spanned in the distance that separates subject from mediator is not physical space, but “spiritual” space (Girard 1976 [1965], p. 9).

External (or transcendent) mediation presupposes a social or ontological distance great enough between subject and mediator as to eliminate any contact between the “sphere of possibilities of which the mediator and subject occupy the respective centers”, while internal (or immanent mediation) presupposes the social or ontological distance between subject and mediator “is sufficiently reduced to allow these two spheres to penetrate each other more or less profoundly” (Girard 1976 [1965], p. 9). When the distance from the mediator is great, then no rivalry between subject and mediator is possible, and harmony between the two can be near perfect and the subject unabashedly “proclaims <...> the true [that is derivative of the] nature of his desire” (Girard 1976 [1965], p. 9). This is also frequently accompanied by the veritable worship of the mediator as an idol. When transcendent mediation takes as its appropriate model imitation of God — non-idolatrously understood — then it takes an appropriate model of transcendent mimesis. On the other hand, when this model idolatrously constructs the divine or divinizes the human, then it becomes an example of deviated transcendency.

For internal mediation, on the other hand, “imitation is less strict and literal” just because the model is “close”, but also because the subject of internal mediation tries to hide that imitation (Girard 1976 [1965], p. 10). Though the “impulse toward the object is ultimately an impulse toward the mediator <...>, in internal mediation this impulse is checked by the mediator himself since he desires, or <...> possesses the object” (Girard 1976 [1965], p. 10)[7]. Here, projection determines that the subject will view the mediator with rancor because the subject interprets every action on the part of the mediator as a stratagem or obstacle intentionally put in his path (Girard 1976 [1965], p. 10). The subject is torn between two emotions toward his model: “the most submissive reverence and the most intense malice” (Girard 1976 [1965], p. 10)[8]. This allows the subject to deceive herself. The subject hides secret admiration in her hatred for the model and in her reduction of the model to a depersonalized obstacle. Psychologically, the subject reverses the true chronological and logical order of desire to deceive herself into thinking that her desire was first and the mediator is the one engaged in imitation (Girard 1976 [1965], pp. 10–11).

Girard (1976 [1965], pp. 11–12; 15–20) sees his essential universalization of these phenomena supported both by the Schelerian analysis of ressentiment and by his own analyses of envy, jealousy, vanity, snobbism, etc. Each of these intentionalites distorts its object noematically inasmuch as the qualities of the object of desire are perceived through the intentional lens (noesis) of the emotion, conation, or desire that qualifies internal mediation (Girard 1976 [1965], p. 19)[9].

The idolizing of the mediator or object of desire is an effect of a metaphysical revulsion with one’s own being. In this assumption, Girard is not criticizing the profound wish to commune with the other but the thirst to absorb it or be absorbed in the being of the other. This desire to be consumed by, or to consume, the other issues from self-loathing that is the result of anxiety in the face of the displacement of God. “God is dead; man must take his place” (Girard 1976 [1965], p. 56). Faced with this substitution — but nevertheless taking up the impossible burden of “metaphysical autonomy” — the subject measures its impossibility in the distance between its “marvelous promise” and “the brutal disappointment” of its ever being accomplished (Girard 1976 [1965], p. 56). The impossible attempt to realize this substitution constitutes one of the tragic repetitions of modern humankind: we individually experience the futility of the Sisyphean challenge, but mimetically continue to push the boulder up the gradient. Caught in the maw of the metaphysical abyss opened up by the death of God, contemporary humans seek this radical autonomy in themselves, in their human models, or in their objects. This is what constitutes deviated transcendency.

However, because this deviated transcendency cannot truly be a substitute for the divine, the model quickly shows his clay feet and the subject is off on the search for another mediator. This repeated search and frustration has an accelerating effect that reduces the duration of the cycle and increases the number of alternative mediators. The result is that the personality of subject, which is correlative to the desires of its mediators, becomes fragmented and atomized. The subject now becomes poly-subjective; he is no longer a “unified being” (Girard 1976 [1965], pp. 93–94).

In internal (immanent) mediation, the intensification of desire occurs when the mediator and subject are drawn close together. Girard claims that desire then becomes viral, that it is then possible for one to catch a desire like a contagion (Girard 1976 [1965], p. 99). “In the world of internal mediation, the contagion is so widespread that everyone can become his neighbor’s mediator without ever understanding the role he is playing” (Girard 1976 [1965], p. 99). When this happens, it is as though the two triangles of desire are superimposed. This can be graphically represented as:


Here, “desire circulates between the two rivals more and more quickly, and with every cycle it increases in intensity like the electric current in a battery that is being charged” (Girard 1976 [1965], p. 99). Here, the relationship between disciple and model is symmetric and the competition for the object is intense and empty. The competition takes the foreground in rivalry for the object and the object becomes incidental to it. This is reciprocal mediation. In it, the metamorphosis of the object is fantastic and “common to both partners” (Girard 1976 [1965], pp. 100–101). “In double mediation it is [no longer] <...> that one wants the object [per se] but that one does not want to see it in someone else’s hands” (Girard 1976 [1965], p. 102). As this contagion spreads, and reciprocal mediators multiply, illusions about the objects of desire increase and competition becomes ever-more fierce (Girard 1976 [1965], p. 104).

When it comes to sexual desire, the three-fold structure is still preserved, but it is preserved in two persons. In sexual desire, “[t]he beloved is divided into subject and object”; this bifurcation “produces a triangle whose three corners are occupied by the lover [as subject], the beloved [as model] and the body of the beloved [as object]” (Girard 1976 [1965], p. 105). When the lover models her desire on the model of her lover and his has a single object — her body — then she desires her own body. She only has desire for her lover transitively and thus reflexively. Because she desires what he desires, she desires herself reflexively or at least as splitting herself into the subject and object of her own love. This double mediation is a narcissistic self-love that Girard identifies with the coquette or with (her male counterpart) the heartbreaker (Girard 1976 [1965], p. 105). The indifference with which the coquette views the lover’s desire increases that desire and thus becomes the means for affirming her desirability (Girard 1976 [1965], p. 106).

Two options are open to the lover: (a) to feign indifference and then to get the coquette to seek again to show interest in his desire or (b) to admit his enslavement to the coquette. Neither outcome resolves the competitive reciprocity, however. The first option starts the dialectic of the pursuer and pursued all over again; the second option makes the coquette look for another pursuer who will continue to increase her self-esteem and self-desire (Girard 1976 [1965], p. 106–107). “All communion has disappeared from a sentiment defined by communion itself” (Girard 1976 [1965], p. 108). “[E]ach loves the other from the standpoint of self and not from the other’s standpoint. Their unhappiness thus originates in a false reciprocity which disguises a twin narcissism” (Girard 1976 [1965], p. 108). Neither subject’s desire is characterized by empathy or sympathy for the other.

In light of the foregoing analyses of triangular desire, Girard provides an explanation of masochism and sadism. Reversing the Freudian order which argues that sadistic tendencies and practices often precede their masochistic counterparts, Girard begins with a description of masochism that makes it the foundation for sadistic behavior. Girard also establishes that sexual masochism is grounded in metaphysical masochism and not the reverse. In this grounding, masochism and sadism are “a reflection of the whole of [human] existence” (Girard 1976 [1965], p. 186). He thinks that this has been missed in most of the psychological treatments of this sexual aberration (Girard 1976 [1965], p. 182).

Masochism, according to Girard, is the refuge of the “master”, whose orientation toward deviated transcendency has made him seek refuge in impossible tasks (Girard 1976 [1965], p. 176). Instead of giving up his futile hope at achievement and coming to terms with the disordered values that drive him, the “master” enslaves himself to the impossible task and, in the next moment, embraces his unhappiness as the necessary consequence of the task he has set before himself. “The masochist perceives the necessary relation between unhappiness and metaphysical desire, but he nevertheless does not renounce his desire” (Girard 1976 [1965], p. 177). The desire, here, now becomes “the desire of the obstacle”; “[t]he quest for the mediator has ceased to be immediate, but it is this quest which is being pursued through the intermediary of the obstacle” (Girard 1976 [1965], p. 178). In the next moment of this dialectic, the master becomes the slave; he who sought the impossible task now becomes aware of his own nullity. Thus, the master turned masochist only seeks the company of those who affirm his/her own insignificance, those who recoil in disgust from him (Girard 1976 [1965], p. 178). “The masochist is at once more lucid and more blind than other victims of metaphysical desire [: he] perceives the connection between internal mediation and the obstacle [but] <...> tries paradoxically to satisfy his desire by rushing toward the obstacle” (Girard 1976 [1965], p. 179). The masochist collaborates with the obstacle, the inevitable result being the pursuit of deviated transcendency. He hurls himself into the void hoping to find the final fulfillment of desire.

Masochism forms a spectrum from “resignation to the unpleasant consequences of mediation” to those who seek them out as a “sacrament” (Girard 1976 [1965], p. 181). The reduction of the distance between mediator and subject is the process that gives birth to masochists (Girard 1976 [1965], p. 181). “Unsatisfied with a mediator who is only a figurehead, men choose <...> an active mediator who slashes them to pieces” (Girard 1976 [1965], p. 181). Masochism is always present where a person sees the negative consequences of his actions but refuses to change.

On the basis of the explanation of the metaphysical root of masochism, Girard goes on to characterize sexual masochism and sadism. For Girard, the “sexual masochist tries to reproduce in his erotic life the conditions of an extremely intense metaphysical desire” (Girard 1976 [1965], p. 184). “Sexual masochism [and sadism] [are] <...> mirrors for existential masochism [and sadism] and not the reverse” (Girard 1976 [1965], p. 186). In sexual relations, the masochist tries to enact the imitation of the “impossible ideal” by getting her partner to play the role of mediator, who stands in for a divinity ruthless in his scorn (Girard 1976 [1965], p. 186). This means that sexual masochism is what Girard terms a second-degree imitation: sexual masochism and sadism are imitations of imitations “since metaphysical desire is already an imitation” (Girard 1976 [1965], p. 187). In sado-masochism, we find the values of Christian morality inverted: “Compassion is never a principle but a result. The principle is the hatred of the triumphant wicked. Good is loved [but only] that Evil be hated more” (Girard 1976 [1965], p. 189). Masochism, in the metaphysical sense, does not operate independently but is organized in a “symmetrical and inverse structure” to “a rival masochism” that is viewed as an Evil to its Good (Girard 1976 [1965], p. 189).

The basic desire, in Girard’s view, is for contact with his mediator, “contact with the sacred”; if there is nothing of the mediator in the actions, then there is no erotic value to them (Girard 1976 [1965], p. 189). “Sadism is the dialectical reverse of masochism. Tired of playing the part of martyr, the desiring subject chooses to become a tormentor” (Girard 1976 [1965], p. 184). Sadists and masochists are locked in an imitative clench; each tries to appropriate the other’s being by being the other’s desire: the masochist makes the sadist his divine mediator, and the sadist assumes the role of the divine mediator for the masochist. But neither realizes their relationship perfectly. The ‘strange’ communion between victim and victimizer is the result of the mutual recognition of each other’s imitation of the other’s desire (Girard 1976 [1965], p. 185).

Summary of This Essay’s First Part

In this issue, I have: (1) established that a root metaphor for violence is a penetrating injury and cited examples of this metaphor functions in two diverse fields, (2) discussed the basic structure of Girard’s notion of mediated desire, and (3) used that structure to recount Girard’s explanation of sadism and masochism. In the next issue, in the second part of this essay, I will extend the application of this structure — and the root metaphor of violence — to more complex varieties of mimetic behavior, including sadism, masochism, and terrorism, showing that the logic of this structure challenges some of his explanations.



Blumenberg, H. (1997 [1979]). Shipwreck with Spectator: Paradigm of a Metaphor for Existence. S. Rendell (Trans.). Cambridge: MIT Press.

Blumenberg, H. (2010 [1960]). Paradigms for a Metaphorology. R. Savage (Trans.). Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Freud, S. (1961 [1920]). Beyond the Pleasure Principle. J. Strachey (Trans.) New York: Norton.

Girard, R. (1976 [1965]). Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure. Y. Freccero (Trans.), Baltimore: Johns Hopkins.

Haven, C. (2018). Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.

Hegel, G. W. (1931 [1807]). Phenomenology of Mind. Second Edition. J. B. Baillie (Trans.). London: George Allen & Unwin.

Husserl, E. (1983 [1913]). Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and a Phenomenological Psychology. First Book. F. Kersten (Trans.). The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Kant, I. (1997 [1781]). The Critique of Pure Reason. Unified Edition. W. S. Pluhar (Trans.). Indianapolis: Hackett.

Lakatoš, I. (1988 [1970]). Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge. I. Lakatoš & A. Musgrave (Eds.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wilson, J. M. (2018). “The Last Structuralist”. Claremont Review of Books, 18 (5). Retrieved March 14, 2019 from:


[1] This piece is based on a shorter paper read at the COV&R Conference: «Vulnerability and Tolerance», Free University, Amsterdam, Holland, July 4–8, 2007.

[2] Background to my argument are the following: (1) René Girard’s Deceit, Desire and the Novel, Chapter 8: “Masochism and Sadism”; (2) Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, Part Three: “Being for Others”; (3) Edith Stein’s The Problem of Empathy; and G. F. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit especially, Part B: “Self-Consciousness”, Section IV: “The True Nature of Self-Certainty”.

[3] By using the expression “analogy of experience”, I am broadening the Kantian notion beyond his purpose in creating this expression. For Kant, analogies undergird experience as characteristics which all experience must have for it to be meaningful. In Kantian terms, an analogy of experience is an a priori rule governing the determination appearances’ relations to one another in time. This comprises a group of analogies that he limits to three: permanence, succession, and simultaneity. But when I use the term ‘analogies of experience’ in connection to metaphors, I refer to a much larger class of analogies, which undergird the meaning of various concepts. They are analogies that unite disparate classes of phenomena and collect them under particular kinesthetic ideas without which the meaning of words could not be clearly understood. However, just as the Kantian analogies of experience schematize the categories, so too individual examples of the metaphor of penetration in connection with vulnerability schematize its general form. See: Kant, I. (1997). The Critique of Pure Reason. Unified Edition. Werner S. Pluhar (Trans.). Indianapolis: Hackett, A177-178, B218-221, 247–249.

[4] The source domain of an ICM is the domain in which the metaphor acquires its primary — often kinesthetic sense. In the case of vulnerability, it is a real wounding that is suggested in the primary meaning of the word, thus the other domains that employ the metaphor will find the general analogy of transgression or the penetration of protective boundaries as being the common term of the mapping. It is most common for the source domain of the metaphor to be more basic that the target domain. Thus the more basic meaning is transposed when it is transferred to the target domain. “In other cases, a single idealized cognitive model can be the basis on which a collection of senses form a single natural category expressed by a single lexical term” (Lakoff & Johnson 1980, pp. 416–417).

[5] ‘Metaphorology’, Hans Blumenberg’s term, is the study of the structure of metaphors. The idea of metaphorology, as he developed it over two decades, was to create a science of metaphor — and later all figurative writing and speech —that rejected the Cartesian view that the perfection of language is its expression in prosaic propositions, definitions, and syllogisms. Against this, Blumenberg proposed the idea that metaphors (and more generally tropes) are: (1) as fundamental to science as logic, clarity, and distinctness, (2) possess their own structures and associative logic, (3) change through time in relation to shared life-worlds (Lebenswelten) so that it is (4) possible to study — and write histories about —what changes and remains the same in them (Blumenberg 2010 [1960], pp. 1–2; Blumenberg 1997 [1979], pp. 81–85).

[6] See: Lakatoš, I. (1988 [1970]). The Methodology of Scientific Research Programs. In Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge. I. Lakatoš, & A. Musgrave (Eds.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[7] Girard further distinguishes internal mediation according to whether it is: (a) exogamic [internal] mediation or endogamic [internal] mediation, according to whether the model of desire is outside the family or inside it, but this has no special relevance to my summary. See: Girard, R. (1976). Deceit, Desire and the Novel. Y. Freccero (Trans.). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 42.

[8] As Girard puts it: “Only someone who prevents us from satisfying a desire which he himself has inspired in us is truly an object of hatred”. Girard, R. (1976). Deceit, Desire and the Novel. Y. Freccero (Trans.). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 10–11.

[9] The terms ‘noesis’ and ‘noema’ and ‘noetically’ and ‘noematically’ are borrowed from the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl, where the ‘noesis’, the knowing, signifies the act of thinking or the thematization of the state-of-affairs that is conveyed by that act; the ‘noema’ is the content of that thinking, the state-of-affairs as object in the act of knowing. The way that we thematize an object can contribute to its distortion. The goal of Husserlian phenomenology is to provide a way of reflectively examining the way noema and noesis are interrelated, varying one and then the other to see how each determines the other. From the process of eidetic variation, the truthful features of the object will presumably emerge (Husserl 1983 [1813], 3:87: pp. 211/179 to 235/201). In a similar way, in his own phenomenology of mediation, Girard searches for the invariant features of the triangularity of desire in a number of different textual sites. Both Husserl and Girard are proposing an eidetic viewing of the phenomena designed to reveal their essential structures. In this sense, both Husserl and Girard are phenomenological essentialists or structuralists.

We use cookies to improve our website. By continuing to use this website, you are giving consent to cookies being used. More details…