Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life
By Luke Burgis
St Martin’s Press, US
French thinker Rene Girard has hovered on the margins of celebrity 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 moment now seems to have arrived. His intriguing ideas, long buried in academic tomes, are finally being excavated and, in the glaring light of day, his theories take on a dire sense of prophecy.
One recent effort building on Girard’s theories is American entrepreneur and author Luke Burgis’s new book, Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life. Burgis breaks down Girard’s insights into easily digestible bites and the result is a simplified introduction to some of the most compelling and original thinking of our times, which makes for a highly recommended read.
Sixty years ago, Girard came up with a startling new theory of human desire, linking the domains of literature, sociology and psychology. In the decades that followed, he explicated this theory in greater detail, uncovering 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 human sciences’, the ‘Einstein of the social sciences’ and his work could hold the key to deciphering our troubled age.
An American author provides a simplified introduction to French thinker Rene Girard’s compelling insights into 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 would often end up sitting awake late at night, reading the great books of Western literature that he was supposed to be teaching the next day.
As he laboured through the masterworks — Miguel de Cervantes, Stendhal, Gustave Flaubert, Marcel Proust, Fyodor Dostoevsky, etc — he began to notice repetitive patterns buried in the texts: the protagonist or hero typically desires or quests for something — usually riches, glory or love. However, this desire tends to filter through a third party, a mediating figure, in a strange and tantalising geometry.
Girard’s stock example is Don Quixote, the eponymous protagonist of Cervantes’s epic Spanish-language novel.
Don Quixote is a senile old man who resolves to become a wandering knight after reading medieval romances starring the chivalric 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 simply chivalry? Or does Don Quixote subconsciously wish to become Amadis, to supplant him? To himself be admired by others?
For a real-life example, Burgis asks us to consider an advertisement. Look carefully at the featured models and celebrities. If we search deeply within ourselves, we discover a surreptitious and active dialogue: we are being sold an implicit promise, that we too can be exalted into the circles of the beautiful, rich and famous. The advertised product is secondary. The endgame is that people will look up to us. We too will become objects of desire for others.
Girard began to notice this paradox mirrored in his own life. Having concluded a romantic relationship with a woman, he found his feelings for her unexpectedly rekindled when she became involved with another man. The more she pushed him away for the other, the more it inflamed his own longing.
This forced Girard to question the authenticity of his own desire. And, in consequence, all desire.
After extensive research, he concluded that this dynamic — which he named “mimetic desire” — is fundamental, that it is, in fact, the deep structure of social interactions. “When we describe human relations, we lie,” Girard says. “We describe them as normally good, peaceful and so forth, whereas in reality they are competitive, in a war-like fashion.”
Desire requires models — people who endow things with value for us merely because they want the things …. The Bible contains a story about the Romantic Lie at the dawn of humanity. Eve originally had no desire to eat the fruit from the forbidden tree — until the serpent modeled it. The serpent suggested a desire. That’s what models do. Suddenly, a fruit that had not aroused any particular desire became the most desirable fruit in the universe. Instantaneously. The fruit appeared irresistible because — and only after — it was modeled as a forbidden good. — Excerpt from the book
Underneath the complacent facade of modern life, there is seething competition and violence, an endless and futile quest for authenticity. We mostly want things only because others want them. People are rivals beneath the surface. Siblings, friends, colleagues, neighbours, spouses, lovers, entire societies are locked in contests of constant one-upmanship, imitation games which ultimately come to a head in angry and violent acts of catharsis.
English Roman Catholic priest and theologian James Alison comments that mimetic desire “is to psychology what gravity is to physics.” To quote Burgis: “I’m now convinced that understanding mimetic desire is the key to understanding, at a deeply human level, business, politics, economics, sports, art, even love.”
Proponents of this theory use it to explain almost everything, from the collapse of liberalism to trends on the stock exchange, the toxic currents of social media, the killing fields of sectarian violence, fads in the fashion industry and the roots of the climate crisis.
Burgis effectively demystifies Girard’s theories and shares vivid personal anecdotes from Silicon Valley — a hotbed of ego and mimesis — which highlight the nuances of mimetic desire and suggest ways how to deal with it.
Burgis’s book, though, is merely the tip of the iceberg. For a more substantive picture, readers should next pick up American literary critic Cynthia Haven’s Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard (Studies in Violence, Mimesis and Culture). This articulate labour of love dives into the nitty-gritty of Girardian thought. Insights abound, the plot thickens.
Mimetic theory is revolutionary; it refutes a core axiom of liberalism, the notion of the autonomous individual with authentic 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, our personal depths — but if it did, it would not be desire. Desire is always for something we feel we lack.”
This is also a rebuttal to 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, homogenous cogs in a global village, a relentless cycle of rivalry ensues, a “deviated transcendency.”
In secular egalitarian society, as per Girard, “the negation of God does not eliminate transcendence, but diverts it from the above to the below. The Imitation of Christ becomes the imitation of the neighbour.” And here, the “sickest persons are always the most worried by the sickness of Others. After cursing Others, Oedipus finds he himself is guilty.”
Ultimately though, mimetic theory is not depressing. For Girard, an avowed agnostic, interrogating his deepest desires was a personal revelation, a transformative experience. He soon joined the Roman Catholic Church and his later work explored how Christianity defeats the mimetic cycle by emphasising the dimension of love and identifying with scapegoats.
Once we dive into Girard’s thought, we soon realise 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, from the Bible.
Girard’s contribution is that he brings all of this out into the open. Much like Sigmund Freud did for the psyche, or Marx with capital, Girard intellectualises an intuition, which has long been the preserve of religion. He gives us an accessible framework within which we can see how our own desires evolve, and how they deceive us and entrap us. And most important of all, he shows us how we may be saved.
The reviewer teaches at the NUST School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 25th, 2022