To want: the power of mimetic desire in everyday life
By Luke Burgis
St. Martin’s Press, USA
French thinker René Girard has been on the fringes of fame for several decades now. An intellectual giant, he never achieved the superstar status of compatriots such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and Jacques Lacan. But his time now seems to have come. His intriguing ideas, long buried in academic tomes, are finally being delved into, and in the light of day his theories take on a terrible sense of prophecy.
A recent effort building on Girard’s theories is American entrepreneur and author Luke Burgis’ new book, Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life. Burgis breaks down Girard’s ideas into easy-to-digest bites and the result is a streamlined introduction to some of the most compelling and original thought of our time, making it highly recommended reading.
Sixty years ago, Girard proposed a surprising new theory of human desire, linking the fields of literature, sociology and psychology. In the decades that followed, he explained this theory in greater detail, discovering surprising connections in fields as diverse as anthropology, theology, economics, media and more.
For changing the way we see the world, he has been dubbed the “Darwin of the humanities”, the “Einstein of the social sciences” and his work may hold the key to deciphering our troubled times.
An American Author Offers a Simplified Introduction to French Thinker René Girard’s Fascinating Ideas About Human Desire
As Burgis tells us, the story goes that in the 1950s, Girard – a historian by training – had to teach French literature to make ends meet. He often ended up staying up late at night, reading the great books of Western literature he was supposed to teach the next day.
As he browsed through the masterpieces – Miguel de Cervantes, Stendhal, Gustave Flaubert, Marcel Proust, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, etc. – he began to notice repetitive patterns buried in the texts: the protagonist or hero usually desires or seeks something – usually wealth, fame. or love. However, this desire tends to filter through a third, mediating figure, in a strange and enticing geometry.
Girard’s prime example is Don Quixote, the eponymous protagonist of Cervantes’ Spanish-language epic novel.
Don Quixote is a senile old man who decides to become a knight-errant after reading medieval novels featuring the chivalrous hero Amadis of Gaul. If we dig deeper here, a new dimension opens up: what is the real object of Don Quixote’s desire? Is it just chivalry? Or does Don Quixote unconsciously wish to become Amadis, to supplant him? To be admired by others?
For a concrete example, Burgis asks us to consider an advertisement. Take a close look at featured models and celebrities. If we search deep within ourselves, we discover a surreptitious and active dialogue: we are sold an implicit promise, that we too can be exalted in the circles of the beautiful, the rich and the famous. The advertised product is secondary. The endgame is that people look up to us. We too will become objects of desire for others.
Girard began to notice this paradox reflected in his own life. After entering into a romantic relationship with a woman, he unexpectedly regained his feelings for her when she became involved with another man. The more she pushed him away for the other, the more it ignited her own desire.
This forced Girard to question the authenticity of his own desire. And, therefore, all desire.
After extensive research, he concludes that this dynamic—which he calls “mimetic desire”—is fundamental, that it is, in fact, the deep structure of social interactions. “When we describe human relationships, we are lying,” says Girard. “We portray them as normally good, peaceful and so on, when in reality they are competitive, in a warlike way.”
Desire requires role models – people who value things for us simply because they want the things…. The Bible contains a story about the Romantic Lie at the dawn of mankind. Eve originally had no desire to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree – until the serpent modeled her. The serpent suggested a desire. That’s what models do. Suddenly, a fruit that had aroused no particular desire became the most desirable fruit in the universe. Instantly. The fruit appeared irresistible because – and only after – it was modeled as forbidden good. – Book’s extract
Beneath the complacent façade of modern life there is seething competition and violence, an endless and vain quest for authenticity. We mostly want things only because other people want them. People are rivals below the surface. Brothers and sisters, friends, colleagues, neighbors, spouses, lovers, entire societies are locked in constant one-upmanship contests, imitation games that end up culminating in angry and violent acts of catharsis.
The English Catholic priest and theologian James Alison comments that mimetic desire “is to psychology what gravity is to physics”. To quote Burgis: “I am now convinced that understanding mimetic desire is the key to understanding, on a deeply human level, business, politics, economics, sports, art, and even love.”
Proponents of this theory use it to explain almost everything from the collapse of liberalism to stock market trends, the toxic undercurrents of social media, battlegrounds of sectarian violence, fashion industry fads and roots of the climate crisis.
Burgis effectively debunks Girard’s theories and shares vivid personal anecdotes from Silicon Valley – a hotbed of ego and mimesis – that highlight the nuances of mimetic desire and suggest ways to deal with it.
Burgis’ book, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. For a more substantial picture, readers should next read Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard (Studies in Violence, Mimesis and Culture) by American literary critic Cynthia Haven. This articulated labor of love plunges into the heart of the subject of Girardian thought. Insights abound, the plot thickens.
The mimetic theory is revolutionary; it refutes a central axiom of liberalism, the notion of the autonomous individual with genuine desires. Girard calls this the “romantic lie”: “We don’t even know what our desire is. We ask other people to tell us our desires. We would like our desires to come from our deepest selves, from our personal depths – but if that were the case, it wouldn’t be desire. Desire is always for something we feel we lack.
It is also a refutation of the prophets of materialism, Georg Hegel and Karl Marx, as Girard’s work adds an entirely new metaphysical dimension to human and social conflict. We end up with a grand theory of modernity: as we become more and more alike, cohesive cogs in a global village, there ensues an incessant cycle of rivalry, a “deviated transcendence”.
In the secular egalitarian society, according to Girard, “the negation of God does not eliminate transcendence, but diverts it from above downwards. The imitation of Christ becomes the imitation of our neighbour. And here, “the sickest people are always the most concerned about the sickness of others. After cursing the Others, Oedipus finds himself guilty.
Ultimately though, the mimetic theory is not depressing. For Girard, an avowed agnostic, questioning his deepest desires was a personal revelation, a transformative experience. He soon joined the Roman Catholic Church and his later work explored how Christianity overcomes the mimetic cycle by emphasizing the dimension of love and identifying with scapegoats.
Once we delve into Girard’s thinking, we quickly realize that none of this is really new. The central role of ego and desire has been well known for millennia. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”, to quote Solomon, king of Israel, in the Bible.
Girard’s contribution is that he brings all this to light. Just as Sigmund Freud did for the psyche, or Marx with capital, Girard intellectualizes an intuition, which has long been the prerogative of religion. It gives us an accessible framework in which we can see how our own desires evolve, and how they deceive and trap us. And most important of all, he shows us how we can be saved.
The Examiner teaches at the NUST School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. He can be reached at [email protected]
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 25, 2022