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René Girard, Poetic Scandal and the Question of Interpretation: From a Theory of Culture and Religion to the Readings of Mimesis

The purpose of this doctoral dissertation is to develop a framework of reading and interpretation based on René Girard’s mimetic theory. According to mimetic theory, as abstracted both from Girard’s early novelistic studies and from his later works on religious anthropology, human beings imitate each other’s desires, entering thereby into mimetic relations that literature has the ability to unfold. In addition to the theoretical and methodological developments, the study focuses on lyric poetry, a genre to which Girard gave only passing analysis, by analysing the poetry of late 19th and early 20th century Finnish romantic poet Eino Leino and contemporary Finnish poet Panu Tuomi.

In literary studies, mimetic theory has been almost exclusively applied to the study of novelistic and dramatic literature, whereas in religious anthropology it is predominantly used as a means of interpreting mythical and biblical texts. Responding to the criticism that mimetic theory approaches its objects in a selective and tendentious fashion, the study argues that, in order to be methodologically more rigorous, mimetic theory needs a conceptual framework that outlines the possible ways in which a text is able to mediate mimetic relations. Thus, three different functions are elaborated and evaluated: 1) texts can affect readers by establishing themselves as mimetic models; 2) texts can protect readers against the threats of mimesis; 3) texts can help readers to unfold mimetic relations. Since the same text may, depending on the context, affect readers mimetically, guide readers to refrain from the dangers of mimesis, or help to reveal mimetic relations, these functions will often be found to overlap. This tripartite model is finally presented as a historical continuum in which texts even from unexpected sources may turn out to convey mimetic knowledge.

Using lyric poetry as a touchstone for Girardian interpretation, the study proposes that there is an intimate link between scandals, which Girard has examined as part of his concept of mimetic desire, and certain characteristically poetic uses of language. In mimetic theory, scandals are intense human relations or addictions under which the object of desire appears as both attractive and repulsive at the same time. The more this kind of object forms an obstacle, the more it fascinates, to the point that it may begin to appear sacred. Analogously, in certain evocative and poetic uses of language, as noted by theorists of lyric poetry such as Hazard Adams, the reader runs the risk of entering into a double bind in which a poem violates some norm or convention in order to arouse interest, or in which a promised access to some privileged experience ends up being an empty gesture, provoking desire without fulfilment.

While the study builds theoretically and methodologically on Girard’s mimetic theory, it also situates the Girardian approach in various theoretical and methodological contexts. After introducing Girard’s interdisciplinary methodology, the practice of Girardian interpretation is examined in the following contexts: in relation to the division between “aesthetic” and “efferent” reading as defined by Louise M. Rosenblatt; related to the question of openness or closedness of Girardian interpretative framework as discussed with the example of Girard’s reading of Friedrich Hölderlin; and the potential of literature to unfold human relations as discussed in relation to contemporary ways of conceiving the ethical, cognitive and affective values of literature.

The study consists of three articles, published in 2014, 2016 and 2019, and a framing part consisting of an introduction and a summary. The poetry of Panu Tuomi, interpreted as an intertextual mixture of mythology, Christian imagery and secular phenomena, is seen as demonstrating the ability of lyric poetry to make readers aware of mimetic tensions in a desacralizing modern world, while Eino Leino’s poem “Hyvä on hiihtäjän hiihdellä” has a tendency to entrap readers and incite individualistic desires.
By developing this Girardian framework of reading mimesis, the study shows that human beings need aesthetic and affective models that are mimetically provoking, while they are also able to distance themselves from mimetic impulses, even though this latter tendency, which they share with religious traditions and cultural institutions, is often overlooked in our modern secular age. The general conclusion is that Girardian interpretation is not merely a search for historical origins but must also be seen as participating in an ongoing historical education of humankind. No literary genre is a privileged vehicle of mimetic knowledge, but texts from any genre may turn out to be useful in search of cultural self-knowledge.

The doctoral dissertation of MA Tuomas Kervinen, entitled René Girard, Poetic Scandal and the Question of Interpretation: From a Theory of Culture and Religion to the Readings of Mimesis will be examined at the Philosophical Faculty. The opponent in the public examination will be Docent Mika Hallila (University of Jyväskylä) and the Custos will be Professor Risto Turunen (University of Eastern Finland). The public examination will be held online in Finnish on 14th of May 2021.

Link to online event

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