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  • The View from Pȏle NordSartre, Beauvoir, and Girard on Mimesis, Embodiment, and Desire
  • Martha J. Reineke (bio)

Simone Beauvoir's novel She Came to Stay immerses readers in a 1930s Parisian social scene, thanks in part to the character Françoise. Eavesdropping with Françoise on a man and woman seated at a table in the Pȏle Nord café, readers of the novel hear the woman confide, "I've never been able to follow the rules of flirting. I have a morbid horror of being touched."1 As Françoise invites us to turn our gaze toward another couple seated nearby, we observe a possible instance of the very discomfort to which the first woman has attested. A hapless female looks "uncertainly at a man's huge (grosse) hand that has just pounced on hers (s'abattre sur)."2 Of these two scenes from She Came to Stay, Jean-Paul Sartre memorializes only the second.3 As described by Sartre in Being and Nothingness, a man and a woman on their first date are seated at a table. The man "takes" (prend) the hand of a woman and holds it between "his warm hands" (les mains chaudes) while the woman makes her hand inert, even as she "permits herself to enjoy his desire."4 Thanks to the pervasive influence of Being and Nothingness on the philosophical canon, the disquieting scene Françoise describes in She Came to Stay largely has been forgotten. Sartre sets the [End Page 1] terms for the unfortunate woman's ongoing life: She is a paradigm of "bad faith." Two decades later, her immortality is secured by René Girard: The woman is a prime exemplar of coquetry, a "fundamental" concept in the development of Girard's theory of mimetic desire.5

In the wake of today's #metoo headlines, we may find ourselves eager to weigh in anew on the scene at Pȏle Nord. Are we witnesses to flirtation? Seduction? Unwanted sexual attention? Debates about coercion and guile, predators and prey, are unlikely to be productive; after all, Girard has advised that participants in such debates flounder in a problematic victimology.6 Nevertheless, Sartre and Girard's fascination with the mise en scène at Pȏle Nord warrants reexamination on other grounds. Sartre's discussion of the young woman beset by bad faith in Being and Nothingness is one of several instances in which Sartre is shown exerting a significant influence on Girard. Focusing closely on these occurrences, we can identify features of Sartrian existentialism that contribute constructively to the development of Girard's thought. So also can we uncover a problematic view of the body in mimetic theory. Girard shares with Sartre a profound ambivalence toward embodiment. An alternative perspective visible in Beauvoir's writing could enhance the treatment of the body and eroticism in mimetic theory.

Girard's early work attests to Sartre's influence. Writing in Evolution of Desire, Cynthia Haven introduces the topic of Sartre's impact on Girard by recounting Parisian intellectuals' responses to tensions between Camus and Sartre: "Everyone took one side or the other." Girard's friends reported that Girard "was on the Sartre side."7 In an interview with Rebecca Adams, Girard states that "I was influenced by Sartre and Camus, like other people of my generation, especially by Sartre."8 Girard acknowledges Sartre's influence in several other contexts. In a 2007 interview with Pierpaolo Antonello, Girard recalls his early philosophical interests: "… From Sartre I went to Merleau-Ponty and all the authors related to phenomenology, which fascinated me and for a while I wanted to write in the phenomenological style."9 Commenting in the 2008 preface to La Conversion de l'art, Girard states that he is struck by the Sartrian "tone" of his own writing.10 Scholarly explorations of the specifics of the influence of Sartre on Girard have cataloged the most important Sartrian concepts: a lack of being, the in-itself/for-itself (en-soi/pour-soi); the "projet"; patterns of desire (e.g., masochism and sadism), and bad faith.11 These themes are discussed in what follows, with special attention to Girard and Sartre's perspectives on human...