The title of this post is suitably absurd for an absurd tale of a humble nobleman who is driven mad by books of chivalry and decides to become a knight errant. But is it an absurd tale? Eight chapters into it and I’m certain that this amusing story has a thoroughly serious undercurrent below the surface (and marvellous) slapstick and satire. Don Quixote’s indefatigable imitation of fictional knights has set of all my René Girard alarms ringing: If this isn’t an exposé of mimetic desire, I don’t know what is!

René Girard’s theory of mimetic desire states that our desires are not our own but are imitated in an effort to acquire the sense of identity we perceive in the model(s) for our desire. Don Quixote imitates the actions of those whom he perceives as valiant and virtuous in hopes of feeling the way he supposes they must feel, that is, like a valiant and virtuous man. The fact that these men are fictitious is irrelevant because if everyone is imitating other people’s desires, there is no authentic identity to imitate in anyone anyway. We might as well imitate characters in a book or (for us) actors on the screen.

Mimetic desire is spoken of as a contagion, spreading from person to person, which is evident in chapter 6, when Don Quixote’s library is subjected to an inquisition by his associates. They subtly influence and parrot each other (“His niece said the same” “‘That’s what I say too'”) in blaming the books for Don Quixote’s madness, even though it is evident that the barber and priest, at least, have read them all, without apparent harm.

That chapter also beautifully illustrates the arbitrary nature of scapegoating. When mimetic desire leads to competition for the thing desired, it can cause either the chaotic violence of all-against-all, or it can coalesce into the scapegoating violence of all-against-one. The byproduct of scapegoating violence is a profound sense of solidarity, and humans quickly learn to resort to scapegoating whenever some crisis threatens the social order. In this case, it is Don Quixote’s books, which no sensible person would think are the cause of his madness, that are chosen as convenient culprits and subjected to an imitation Inquisition. Here is also another case of mad mimesis, as the priest mimics his superiors in trying and sentencing books to immolation, imprisonment, or even purging with herbs, as if they were human beings. Again, it doesn’t matter that the books are not people because scapegoating is not about the victim but about the social cohesion brought about by the victim’s “death,” whether ritual or actual.

I think we must be careful not to sit back and laugh at these characters. We are by no means exempt from mimetic desire and scapegoating violence, and this book, like all great art, is a mirror showing us ourselves, not a telescope showing us some far away place that doesn’t concern us. Don Quixote is us, and we are mad insofar as we live our lives by imitating imitators.

What impresses me about this book so far is that it works on so many levels. Yes there is a deep level of anthropological insight, but also scathing satire on various subjects (about which much could be said), and a wonderfully written humorous story to move things along. I’ve been told that this is what makes a work truly great. If you want a ripping yarn, its there, if you want philosophizing on the human condition, it’s there too, along with a few juicy jabs at king, country, and fellow writers too. It’s early days yet but I think it’s safe to say that Don Quixote is a crowd-pleaser.

For more on mimetic desire see Wikipedia (brief), Search.com (long), or the first chapter [pdf, very long, bring a dictionary] of Chris Fleming’s René Girard: Violence and Mimesis.

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