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  • Subversive Joy and Positive ReciprocityA Chestertonian-Girardian Dialogue
  • Duncan Reyburn (bio)

In his spiritual autobiography Orthodoxy (1908), the highly prolific post-Victorian journalist, philosopher, and Anglo-Catholic theologian Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874–1936), in a particularly strong argument against one brand of socialism, notes the following:

In the modern ideal conceptions of society there are some desires that are possibly not attainable: but there are some desires that are not desirable. That all men should live in equally beautiful houses is a dream that may or may not be attained. But that all men should live in the same beautiful house is not a dream at all; it is a nightmare.1

This short excerpt does not in any way capture the full trajectory of Chesterton’s larger argument at this point in his book, but I quote it here to highlight one incarnation of his understanding both of the structure of mimetic desire and the violent consequences that may arise out of mimetic desire. To begin with, there is the notion that desires for attaining things involve the desire of another. This follows René Girard’s discovery, after Shakespeare, of the centrality of “borrowed desire” or “desire by another’s eye” to human interactions.2 Moreover, there is Chesterton’s observation [End Page 157] that when this mimetic desire is shared, “nightmare” is inevitable: when many hands covet the same object, the result is bitter rivalry.3

The above excerpt’s demonstration of Chesterton’s own understanding of mimetic desire thus paves the way for the central aim of this article, which is to present an articulation of some of the ways in which Chesterton’s philosophy might counterbalance the Girardian accentuation of reciprocal violence.4 This aim is achieved via an examination of how Chesterton articulates his understanding of mimetic desire, as well as an exploration of how this is performed in a few examples from his fictional work. I argue that the centrality of joy to Chesterton’s work is a helpful means for understanding positive reciprocity, and also introduce a brief discussion of the concept of the “Symbolism of Syntax” that acts as a unique expression of what both Chesterton and Girard are getting at with regard to their conceptions of mimetic desire.5 There is a double illumination in what follows: By interpreting Chesterton through a Girardian lens, one is able to show both how Girard sheds light on Chesterton and how Chesterton sheds light on Girard.

To begin with, it is clear that Chesterton regards mimesis in its simplest sense as being fundamental to human nature. It is a democratic phenomenon that is involved in issues ranging from nations that imitate the policies of other nations,6 to fictional characters and “caricatures” being modeled on actual people,7 to criminals who emulate the wrong sort of people,8 to copying as the means by which such things as clichés, education, fashions, and value judgments spread.9 Even in this small sampling of examples, Chesterton seems to share Aristotle’s basic contention that human beings possess a unique aptitude for imitation. Nevertheless, Chesterton does not regard this mimesis as merely involving surface representation, although such representation remains an important concern. Rather, in his estimation, the core issue with regard to imitation remains the imitation of the desires of others.

Chesterton writes of the imitation of an ideal in a way that is comparable with Girard’s notion of mimetic desire.10 Chesterton’s ideal, which is articulated as a “fixed vision,” “form,” or “shape,” refers to something desired, whether rightly or wrongly, both by individuals and by groups.11 An ideal, which Chesterton often equates with “dogma,” “doctrine,” “intention,” or even “motive,” acts as the point of connection that both unifies and divides.12 It is the axis around which communities form and rotate, as well as the source of conflict among their members. [End Page 158]

This ideal, in Chesterton’s mind, does not have to be an entirely abstract idea, but can in fact be a person. As an example, he offers Marcus Aurelius as one who may be emulated as an archetypal “monarch and sage.”13 Thus, Chesterton makes the...


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pp. 157-173
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