- Dueling to the End/Ending “The Duel”Girard avec Conrad
Joseph Conrad, “The Duel”, René Girard, Carl Clausewitz, Violence, Theory of War, Imitation, Neuroplasticity, Mimetic Unconscious, Battling to the End
A philosopher who is warlike also challenges problems to a duel.—Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo
There!—there! Don’t be so quick in flourishing the sword. It doesn’t pay in the long run.—The Doctor, quoted in Joseph Conrad, “The Duel”
René Girard’s Achever Clausewitz is his latest, most incisive and penetrating account of the contagious dynamic of mimetic violence.1 It is also a bold attempt to finish Carl von Clausewitz’s classic Vom Kriege in a sense that is at least double.2 On the one hand, Girard sets out to finish Clausewitz’s insights into the dynamic of war understood as a duel by foregrounding mimetic principles the latter had intuited but not fully taken hold of. On the other hand, Girard engages in a theoretical confrontation with the Prussian officer with the aim not only to finish but also to finish off Clausewitz—this being the double-edged meaning of the French verb achever. This duplicity in the title informs the [End Page 153] double investigation that serves as the driving telos of Girard’s latest book. Battling to the End is, in fact, not only a theoretical account of war understood via the past-oriented model of the duel; it is also a theoretical duel on the very nature of future-oriented wars. And what this Janus-faced book reveals is that violence is predicated on a spiraling interplay of mimetic actions and reactions that, more than ever, threaten to escalate to extremes.
In what follows, I would like to follow up on this mimetic hypothesis by returning to a discipline at the origin of Girard’s theory of mimesis (literary studies) to further the Girardian lesson that mimetic theories emerge from the literary texts themselves. In particular, I focus on a modernist writer who shares Girard’s preoccupations with mimetic doubles, sacrificial violence, the escalation of wars, and, more generally, “the horror” of modernity: the British novelist Joseph Conrad. As I have shown in The Phantom of the Ego,3 Conrad’s most well-known tale, Heart of Darkness, is a key text for mimetic theory: it not only confirms the centrality of sacrificial mechanisms in the modern period but also foregrounds apocalyptic destinations made widely popular by Francis Ford Coppola’s cinematic adaptation, Apocalypse Now (1979). In the process, the novella casts new light on the anthropological foundations of what Girard calls “scapegoat” mechanism, while at the same time revealing the “mimetology” responsible for what Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe calls “the horror of the West.”4 Along similar lines, William Johnsen also observed that “if Girard is right about human behavior (and great writers as fellow researchers) we ought to be able to both confirm and refine Girard’s hypothesis about modern society in Conrad’s work.”5 What follows confirms the centrality of Conrad for mimetic theory from a different perspective. I argue that a less-known tale, titled “The Duel,” can help us “continue the work” (BE 2) Girard started in Battling to the End by both confirming and supplementing his mimetic hypothesis about the escalation of violence.
Published in 1908, “The Duel” is a historical fiction concerned with the Napoleonic Wars.6 It deals with a historically documented relation between two officers in the Napoleonic army who fought a series of legendary duels; and these personal duels follow, shadowlike, the Napoleonic Wars that plagued Europe from 1803 to 1815. In this sense, this is a past-oriented story whose partial neglect stems from the reassuring feeling that it deals with historical ideals, revolutions, and conflicts we have long left behind. But Conrad’s fictions, not unlike Girard’s theories, tend to look in two opposed directions, both behind to what is past and ahead to what is yet to come.7 This is equally true of “The Duel,” a text that entails not only a timely [End Page 154] historical reflection on the “universal carnage” produced by past, total wars but also an untimely theoretical...