How does Mendes’ ‘American Beauty’ manifest the representation of mimetic desire in Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’?
The mimetic theory, originated by Rene Girard, is based upon the observational tendency of human individuals to subconsciously imitate others and the extension of this mimesis to the realm of desire. This mimetic theory is portrayed throughout both Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ and Mendes’ ‘American Beauty’ and places emphasis on the roles of the triangular relationship, otherwise known as the mimetic mechanism. The representation of mimetic desire in ‘Lolita’ addresses the desires of an individual by highlighting the distinct qualities of the romantic poet. Whereas, in ‘American Beauty’, the depiction of mimetic desire stems from the protagonist’s self actualization, which is a result of the competing desires in the pluralistic nature of the postmodern city in which he lives. The approach to the portrayal of mimetic desire is notably contrasting, with Humbert depicted as a character who believes his motives in regards to Lolita are authentic. Whereas, Lester’s desire for Angela is a result of him beginning to separate himself from the societal policies within his image-obsessed neighborhood and family. His desire is depicted as more lustful, rather than authentic. However, despite the different aspects of Girard’s theory portrayed throughout ‘American Beauty’ and ‘Lolita’, both texts depict the violent nature of the mimetic desire theorem through murder and death.
The representation of mimetic desire in Lolita is based on Girard’s theory, but with slight differences; especially relating to the intention of ‘desire’ and ‘self-preservation’. The metafiction elements of Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ places further emphasis on this through his depiction of Humbert as an unreliable narrator. Humbert often contradicts himself throughout the novel, openly pleads for the reader’s sympathy and wallows in his disdain of others. His seductive gloominess is a portrayal of the inherently melancholic aspect of the Romantic hero. Humbert cannot help but recognize that a relationship with Lolita is inconceivable, yet proceeds to persevere nonetheless because the Romantic hero believes that salvation is solely possible through the love of a woman. Throughout the novel, Humbert cherishes the belief that only with Lolita will he be able to feel at peace. This is the distinct feature of the Romantic poet, which is the individual who believes in the absolute authenticity of his desires. Throughout ‘Lolita’, it is evident Humbert has a desire to become a poet, or more specifically; the Romantic poet, and attempts to prove this by shining a false light of brilliance on Lolita; the object of desire. In accordance to the mimetic theory, the subject believes the object designed by the mediator is a treasure and envisions fulfillment and bliss when in possession of the object.
Similarly, Humbert is the subject and desires the gratification of Lolita. The Romantic poet acts as a mediator for Humbert, allowing him to continue through with his exploitation of Lolita. Through the proclamation to his readers regarding his admiration of poets, Humbert conveys that he is one of them, not that he is imitating them. He couples literary references throughout the novel alongside the regular reminders that Humbert is the author, as well as the protagonist, of the book. This is evident through the quotes “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style” and “if you can still stand my style of writing”, which presents Humbert as not just the narrator, but also a writer. Nabokov’s use of intertextuality throughout the text further affirms this concept. In Lolita, Humbert refers to Charles Baudelaire, Dante, Goethe, William Blake, Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Rimbaud and several other poets. However, Edgar Allan Poe is a poet which is consistently persistent throughout the text. In fact, Humbert’s desire for Lolita is heavily influenced by Poe’s poetry, in particular; Annabel Lee. Humbert states, “In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child.”, in reference to his first childhood love, Annabel Leigh. Humbert uses various quotes from Poe’s “Annabel Lee” and paraphrases them, thus using them as his own and affirming the theory of him as a poet. Humbert’s inclination to become the romantic poet reinforces the belief that the possession of Lolita will place him in a state of euphoria. The mediator, the Romantic poet, shines a false light of brilliance onto the object of desire, thus explaining the fact that Humbert never achieves the fulfillment he anticipated. Rather than the attainment of the object of desire, it is evident that the search for the unattainable object is what preserves the illusion of the Romantic poet.
Mendes’ ‘American Beauty’ also represents the theory of mimetic desire and the role of self-preservation. However, the focus on the role of imagism to exacerbate the pursuit of objects for self-preservation of identity is how the two texts differentiate. The representation of mimetic desire in ‘American Beauty’ is portrayed through the post modern society where mimetic desire is exacerbated by imagism. The neighborhood in which Lester Burnham, protagonist of ‘American Beauty’, lives in is a conspicuous depiction of an image-driven society. At the beginning of the film, the long shot view of the neighborhood portrays all the houses as virtually identical, with Lester’s voiceover accompanying the shot. Lester quotes “This is my neighbourhood. This is my street. This is my life.” The repetition of “this is my” highlights the drudging and dull lifestyle of Lester Burnham. This mimetic desire continues to influence the lives of several individuals throughout the film, with the major victim to the mimesis being Lester’s wife, Carolyn Burnham. The title, ‘American Beauty’, is a referral to the empty beauty of the American dream, along with the subspecies of the rose; a significant motif in the movie.
Although the rose is present throughout almost all scenes in ‘American Beauty’, it is first associated with Carolyn Burnham. Carolyn is the depiction of the rosy-looking exterior lifestyle of a content American wife when in fact, she is burdened with profuse anxiety and frustration. Carolyn has lost the spontaneity character she once obtained, and has become a terrified woman obsessed with order and maintaining a pruned image of herself. She attempts to live her life like the cut roses in the glass vase in the dinner scene. The first depiction of the family sitting at a dinner table appears to be an average, American family. However, Mendes urges the audience to look closer as the camera continues to zoom in and film increasingly closer to the family as their imperfections are ultimately spotted. The audience subsequently is able to identify the true psychoneurotic nature of the family due to Carolyn being a victim to the mimesis within the neighborhood in ‘American Beauty’. Ultimately, the visual text suggests that the suburban middle class values of image obsession are erroneous and Mendes asks audience to look past the superficial appearance, of the ‘rose’, and avoid being indoctrinated by these values.
As per the mimetic mechanism process, a rival can influence the subject to adopt violence to secure their object of desire. The role of a rival is an essential requirement in the mimetic theory, as it intensifies the desirer’s yearning for the object of desire. Humbert’s desire for Lolita is amplified when Quilty is introduced as a character with similar traits and interests to Humbert himself. Quilty is open in regards to his sexual preferences whilst Humbert feels obligated to hide them due to social protocols. Alongside that, Quilty is also a successful playwright whereas Humbert is a man who merely aspires to become a poet. Despite Quilty possessing the same intellectual and physical qualities as Humbert, he still believes Quilty to be an articulate man, much better than himself and although he does not admit it, he desires to be a man like Quilty. When describing Quilty, he quotes “His allusions were definitely highbrow. He was well-read. He knew French. He was versed in logodaedaly and logomancy”. The repetition of “he” represents Humbert’s explicit obsession with Quilty. In ‘Lolita’, Quilty is thus shown as the rival of Humbert. Interestingly, Humbert’s desire for Lolita is also what constructed Quilty’s desire for her. Due to this portrayal of mimetic rivalry, the mimetic mechanism is clearly evident throughout the text, with Humbert and Quilty both being the mimetic rivals who yearn for Lolita. Quilty is not just Humbert’s double in his desire, but he also physically and mentally resembles him, which adheres to the theory of ‘doubling’ in the mimetic mechanism. The two are thus displayed as two characters both caught in mimetic desire. Lost in his desire to become Quilty, Humbert no longer recognizes the differences between the two and consequently loses his own personal identity. He quotes, “I rolled over him. We rolled over me. They rolled over him. We rolled over us”. The changing of “I” and “him” into “we” and “us” represents Humbert and Quilty conjoining into a single individual, both lost in the mimetic mechanism. Eventually, Humbert cannot bear with the success of Quilty and murders him.
However, whilst ‘Lolita’ has an evident portrayal of a rival, ‘American Beauty’ depicts the theory regarding the existence of mimetic desire without a rival, in the form of another character, with the purpose of amplifying the desire. Mendes’ ‘American Beauty’ focuses on this theory, suggesting that a rival is no longer required. Unlike ‘Lolita’, the fixation is on what individuals do not want. This suggestion is thus, an inversion of the original mimetic theory. Ultimately, the mimetic desire which Lester faces is amplified by these societal pressures regarding an image-obsessed society. A strong animosity for social protocols can lead to individuals pursuing objects for the sake of rebellion, as demonstrated by Lester’s infatuation with Angela Hayes, his daughter’s best friend. Lester is depicted as increasingly careless as the film progresses. His blatant obsession with Angela is exposed in various scenes, as his desire for her overcomes his desire to comply with societal policies. Lester violates the typical social protocols regarding marriage as he is revealed self-pleasuring himself, in his bed by his wife, as he fantasizes about the young Angela Hayes. The long shot of Lester dazing lustfully at Angela laying in the bathtub with roses in his fantasy is a portrayal of the full extent of his implausible desire. However, there are various scenes throughout ‘American Beauty’ which places further emphasis on the unreality. In the cheerleading scene, where Lester first notices Angela, Angela is seen unveiling her jacket, as the rose petals erupt from her exposed chest. However, Mendes’ editing of her repeatedly pursuing this same motion in closer shots creates a disruption in the narrative flow and thus, reminds the audience that what we are watching is a violation of social protocols. As depicted through Lester’s course of action, it is evident that, although the rival is nonexistent throughout ‘American Beauty’, the infringement of social protocols creates a motive for Lester’s unethical desire.
Both ‘Lolita’ and ‘American Beauty’ highlight the violent nature of mimetic desire and its dangerous implications. The conclusion of both texts involve the death of both protagonists, representing the consequences of mimetic desire and rebuking the violent aspect of Girard’s mimetic theory. In ‘Lolita’, the mortality rate is excessively high. Death envelops the entirety of the text, with the death of Humbert’s childhood love, Annabel Leigh, being the root causation of his infatuation with nymphets. Though Humbert would never literally murder Lolita, it is evident that his actions have annihilated her nevertheless. Thus, Lolita is mentally killed long before she is physically killed in childbirth at the end of the text as conveyed through the quote, “Quilty broke my heart. You merely broke my life.”, as she converses with Humbert again, years after she had run away. The unperturbed diction of Lolita, as conveyed through her use of “merely”, depicts her broken mental state as she devalues her own life. Although in ‘Lolita’, all of the relevant characters ultimately descend into death, Lester is the sole character in ‘American Beauty’ who passes away. Although ‘American Beauty’ highlights the violent nature of mimetic desire, the causation differs from Lolita as it focuses on the identity of an individual. Mendes conveys that despite his death, Lester had lived a greater life than majority of the individuals who were victims to the mimetic theorem. Before his death, the constant depiction of Lester as ‘alive’ is represented through the differing camera angles throughout the visual text. Whilst in the beginning of the text, Lester is portrayed as an inferior individual, particularly to his wife and employer, and is constantly victim to low angle shots. However, as the movie progresses, Lester quits his job and begins to yearn for Angela. As the character of Lester begins to grow audaciously and his life establishes change, the high angle shots of Lester depict a far more superior character in contrast to before. Thus, although Lester is ultimately killed in a violent manner due to his growth in character, he is nonetheless considered the only individual who was courageous enough to seek an opening outside of the mimesis influencing the desires of those around him.
To conclude, the representation of mimetic desire in Mendes’ ‘American Beauty’ is manifested in a similar manner to the representation of mimetic desire in Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’. However, the central differentiation between the two texts is the disparate portrayal of the mimetic mechanism within the texts. In ‘Lolita’, the triangular relationship is clearly evident; with Humbert, as the subject of desire, and Quilty, the rival of the subject, both yearning for Lolita, the object of desire. Humbert also portrays himself as a Romantic poet, in order to further convince readers that he is the original, despite him still being a victim to the mimetic mechanism. Whereas, in ‘American Beauty’, although majority of the text adhered to the process of the mimetic mechanism, Mendes made an effort to depict several flaws to Girard’s theory. Unlike in ‘Lolita’, Lester Burnham had no rival, and instead, the social protocols in the post-modern neighborhood was a major influence to Lester’s drastic change in character. The protocols and constant image obsession caused Lester to desire what others did not, thus encouraging defiance against the standard societal policies. Another major difference included the distinct portrayals of the violent nature of mimetic desire. Whilst Nabokov’s text was utilized as a cautionary warning on what is to happen when an individual is caught in mimetic desire, Mendes’ visual text focuses on the representation of the inverse of the original theory as an awakening to reality. Ultimately, both ‘Lolita’ and ‘American Beauty’ are an evident portrayal of Girard’s theory of mimetic desire and represent the distinct qualities of the theorem in both disparate and similar manifestations with differences, such as the role of the rival, and similarities, as they both end with a death.
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