Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

C. S. Lewis and Rene Girard on Desire, Conversion, and Myth: The Case of till We Have Faces

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

C. S. Lewis and Rene Girard on Desire, Conversion, and Myth: The Case of till We Have Faces

Article excerpt

Abstract: The works of Lewis and Girard share several central interests but seem divided by opposite views of myth. Lewis' novelistic retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, however, provides a bridge: it depicts an ancient society organized around sacrifice and myth as understood in Girard's cultural theory and tells a Girardian story of conversion, in which the narrator discovers the imitative and rivalrous nature of her desire. Her rivalry and reconciliation with the story's true god carries the novel beyond Girardian myth to a contrary kind of narrative identified with fairy stories, which can extend Girard's approach to Christian conversion.

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In 1961, Rene Girard published a landmark work of literary criticism, translated four years later as Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, which began one of the great intellectual projects of the second half of the twentieth century: a theory of culture that offers new ways of understanding desire, myth, the historical importance of the biblical revelation, and much else. While working on this book, Girard had experienced a conversion to Christianity and joined the Roman Catholic Church, in which he remains a regular participant (Girard, "Epilogue" 283-86). C. S. Lewis was perhaps the most famous Christian intellectual in the English-speaking world at this time, and the careers and work of the two men show striking parallels. Both were trained as medievalists. Lewis too converted to Christianity at the beginning of his academic career, during the work that went into his own first, landmark book, 7he Allegory of Love (1936). Like Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, it centers on literary representations of love and desire but treats the Middle Ages up through Spenser, stopping just short of Cervantes, with whom Girard begins. Of course Lewis, unlike Girard, went on to write fiction as well. In 1956, he published Till We Have Faces, his last novel and perhaps his most penetrating exploration of themes that had occupied his career as both scholar and novelist, and which would later occupy Girard: love and desire, myth, and Christianity.

Yet despite the parallels between the careers and interests of these two men, who are arguably among the most important literary critics of the twentieth century and certainly among the most important of those who are openly Christian, they seem an odd combination, opposite in style and in views on some of the things that most interested them. One is thoroughly English, the other typically French (though Girard has spent his academic career in the United States). Lewis wrote before the proliferation of literary theory (though with more methodological reflection than most critics of his generation), while Girard was a participant in bringing French theory to America (though he has also been one of its strongest critics). (1) Above all, they seem to take opposite views of myth, which in turn lend differing shades to their views of everything else. For Lewis, many of the greatest myths anticipate and are fulfilled by Christianity, and he commonly uses the term to refer to a kind of story that he greatly valued for its power to communicate truth. (2) For Girard, however, myth is a distortion, a lie that functions precisely to conceal the all-important truth about scapegoating violence that is revealed in the Bible. Lewis' emphasis on continuity between myth and gospel leads him to a Christianity of vivid mysteries, an even mystical sense of the world penetrated by symbols of transcendent divinity. Girard's contrast between myth and gospel, on the other hand, follows from what he calls an anthropological reading of the Bible, that is, the gospel as the key to the truth about humanity that has been obscured by stories of gods. This truth has much to do with Girard's view of desire, which also would seem to differ greatly from Lewis: Girard is known for his theory of mimetic desire as the driving force of human violence. Lewis, however, is more known for a view of desire continuous with love and capable, like myth, of leading to the divine and being taken up within it. …

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