Friday, April 15, 2005

The stuff of Mr. Ripley's "talent"

There's a genuinely funny piece by Steve Almond here, courtesy of the excellent 3am Magazine:
I only trust the ugly writers, anyway. Deep down, those are the ones who have earned their wrath. All the rest of them, the pretty boy and girl authors, screw them. Or, better yet, don't screw them. Get them all hot and bothered. Tell them you know Terry Gross, you once dated her former personal assistant, and then leave them there, lathered up, grinning, in a hot cloud of their own fabulous bone structure.
Some measures that will help:

1. Watch a lot of television - Television is the place where you will realize that beauty makes people stupid. If you keep watching for long enough, it will dawn on you that the opposite is just as true.

Might the strange, vain competition that conditions so many things--academia, the book publishing industry and the blogosphere, just to name a few--best be understood in light of Rene Girard's theory of mimetic rivalry?

I should confess that I've only seen the film version of "The Talented Mr. Ripley." Still, I'd like to propose an alternative to what might be called a popularized, somewhat crude and formulaic Girardianism. Recall the exemplary relationship between Ripley and Greenleaf. In what sense is it exemplary? Consider the position of Marge, without whom this relation between Tom and Dickie would lose much of its unspoken competitive and homosocial charge. Is it true that her presence functions, in a sense, much like the child's toy in Girard's famous scenario? She is the covetted object or the "third," for whom one reaches only to have the other instinctively reach in turn, mechanically and without hesitation*, his desire but a copy of desire.

Or maybe there is a more fitting way to set this triangle. Rotated again, it is Dickie who clearly belongs on top. It is Dickie for whose luxurious and seductively elusive attention the others vie, all the moreso with each rebuff. It is a sort of addiction to charisma, to seeing a version of oneself reflected back, always in flickers, in an extraordinary light. This is the spiraling, vertiginous dynamic, indeed the deadly serious game, that Tom exploits at first, and then becomes, in a way, beholden to, and indeed perhaps inseperable from. At the loss of himself, he becomes pure imitation or full contagion; a sort of guilt-free simulacrum.

No, no. That might be what Baudrillard would say, and too quickly. Of course he has not become "pure" anything. Neither is there anything glorifiable or admirable (other than Matt Damon's decent acting) about this transformation. But there is certainly a sense in which Tom's existence has been released from all moral considerations, and the medium for this transgression, perversion and sublimation, is the overlapping realms of language and of image. He is become, perhaps, not unlike Nabokov's Humbert Humbert, for whom the projected reader/juror functions as a sort of mirror.

And what if the clinical reading of this story seems to fall short, precisely there where it appears content to simply diagnose Ripley, not least of all in neglecting to examine Greenleaf? Is it not a feature of Ripley's pathology also to perform the services (at first merely obsequious) of a spoiling mirror? He is parasitical in that he reflects back a pathology already present, in some crucial sense, in Greanleaf himself (as the vain idol, ultimately only interested in others to the extent that they may reflect back a worshipping image of him, and so perpetuate his delusions of grandeur.) At the heart of Ripley's transformation lies the crucial mistake of inhabiting another's (predatory) desire as his own; Ripley's desire is itself a copy of a copy, and on some level he recognizes it as such. But his is a pathology impossible to conceive without that of Greenleaf endlessly seeking validation to begin with; Greenleaf who indulges him, who must indulge him at all costs, for without such parasites he is truly lost.

* In the film version, one wonders whether Ripley isn't reduced at times to something of a cliché of 'the closet homosexual.' It certainly adds another dynamic, but one that may risk being read too quickly as a complete explanation. Surely there is more that is 'sinister' at work here (!–that being the likely popular Other's default, lazy reading) as his mimetic desire for the other (that is, for the other's desire) manifests itself in fantasy with exponentially increasing levels of deception and desperation. No doubt someone or other thought it played in nicely with the Chet Baker imitation, for which Matt Damon was rather perfectly cast, if a bit too perfect, perhaps.

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