Several posts have discussed the concept of mimetic desire as discovered by René Girard. Since this concept may not be familiar to some readers of this blog, I have collected posts on the subject more or less in order of publication. Some day I will put this material together in a longer presentation. This collection includes some posts on Y/A literature that I also see as illuminating mimetic desire and rivalry.
Human See, Human Want
At a children’s party, the house was filled with balloons and the children were all happily playing with them until one child suddenly grabbed one balloon and yelled: “This balloon is mine!” Suddenly, all the children forsook the other balloons and fought over the one balloon. This story, told me by an eye witness, is a classic example of what René Girard calls “mimetic desire.” Just as we imitate each other in actions, dress, etc., at a deeper level, we imitate each other’s desires. That is, once one child voiced a desire for one particular balloon, all the other children instantly desired that one balloon and none other. Later in life, one youth’s desire for a certain girl triggers a desire for the same girl in another youth who had ignored her up to that point. So deep is mimetic desire that we often do not realize it is there and we claim our desires for ourselves alone.
This conflict, what Girard calls “mimetic rivalry,” might give the impression that mimetic desire is, in itself, a bad thing. That is not the case. Mimetic desire can easily be benign and non-conflictual. For example, my father shared his love of pizza and butterscotch sundaes with me and I desire them to this day. Likewise, a teacher who loves Shakespeare will try to instill the same desire for Shakespeare in his or her students.
In his book The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis suggests that the mark of a friendship is that the two friends are focused on a common interest more than on each other. This is mimetic desire working in a positive way. On the contrary, when two or more people fall into a mimetic conflict, they are focused on each other to the exclusion of anything else, most of all whatever it is they think they are fighting about.
We cannot avoid mimetic desire. We are tied into a sea of mimetic desire as soon as we are born. Mimetic desire connects us with other people whether we like it or not. So much for individualism. The question is whether we will be connected through expansive sharing or connected through constrictive conflict. Most important, we are born into God’s mimetic desire for us and for all other people. We are constantly faced with the choice of which direction we are willing to go with the mimetic desire we share with all others. Do we make war or do we make peace.
Two Ways of Gathering
A strange gathering of devout Jews from every nation took place a little over two thousand years ago in Jerusalem. These Jews were bewildered to hear a group of Galileans speaking in each of their languages. A new and exciting gift of understanding was unfolding in their midst. In their perplexity some thought the Galileans were drunk.
Peter explains this strange gathering by telling his fellow Israelites about a very different gathering that had taken place just a few weeks earlier where everybody conspired to crucify an innocent man. The Pharisees, Sadducees and the Roman authorities, constantly at loggerheads about just about everything, suddenly and miraculously came to an agreement to put Jesus to death.
Peter goes on to say that this man was “handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” and killed “by the hands of those outside the law.” That Jesus was killed unjustly, by those outside the law, indicates that God’s plan and foreknowledge should not be equated with God’s will. To the contrary, Peter insists that the execution of Jesus was contrary to God’s will. Peter’s next announcement was even more startling: “God raised him up, having freed him from death.” The risen victim, “sitting at the right hand of God” has poured out the Holy Spirit that everybody was seeing and hearing. In declaring that the crucified and risen Jesus was the Messiah, Peter was claiming that a radically new understanding of life was being given through the Holy Spirit.
Quotations from the psalms that accompany the apostolic preaching indicate that the story of people at enmity making peace by agreeing to persecute a person is then blamed for the discord in the community is actually an old story. The opening verses of Psalm two express this old story succinctly: “Why did the Gentiles rage . . . . the rulers have gathered together against the Lord and against his Messiah.” Children do the same thing on the playground every day.
What was truly strange about the gathering by the Holy Spirit was that people were being gathered without creating a victim. Instead, the victim of just a few weeks past has risen from the dead to gather God’s people in a radically new way based on sharing God’s love for every person.
Humanly Created Scarcity
Scarcity is often believed to be part of the natural order, but is it? It is true that material goods in the world are finite and in times of famine they are more finite than usual. But let us revisit the story in “Human See, Human Want” (above). In a house filled with balloons, all of the children suddenly started fighting over one balloon when one child made claim to it and that balloon alone. Suddenly, where there was abundance, there was scarcity. It is as if a magician had waved a magic wand to make all the other balloons in the house disappear. The image of a magician is not so far-fetched. Mimetic desire, the tendency to copy the desires of other people is an enchantment as Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream demonstrates. The four besotted and confused young people were enchanted before Puck engaged in his pranks. When two or more people fight over one lover, then lovers suddenly disappear.
This is to say: rivalrous mimetic desire creates scarcity where there was abundance and increases scarcity in times of famine. Our desires are not linked directly to objects of need and intrinsic desire, but are linked to our rivals. It seems so natural to want to keep up the same standard of living as our peers or, better yet, surpass them. When rivalry rules the day, there will always be victims.
Now that the political campaigns are over, at least for a few days, maybe we can see how the rivalry involved creates scarcity that other people cannot afford. The amount of money donated to the political campaigns was massive. As soon as one side got more money it was imperative for supporters of the other side to give at least as much money. All so that more ads tearing down the opponents could pollute the air waves. Just think of all the infrastructure and educational aid and health care could have been bought for all that money! Not to mention having money for the victims of Hurricane Sandy. It’s interesting that health care has come to be seen as a rare commodity to fight over.
The alternative to mimetic rivalry can be stated quite simply: Pay more attention to what you really need and care for and wish for other people to have what they need and really care for. Why is this so hard? As the example of the children and the balloons shows us, mimetic rivalry seems to be natural. The creation of world narrated in Genesis Chapter One says otherwise. What is natural is God’s abundance and care for all creation. Why is it so hard for all of us to desire that?
Divinely Created Abundance
Here is a little thought experiment in spirituality. Imagine being a child who is carrying five barley loaves and two fishes. A crowd has gathered to listen to a man speak. You stop to listen. Maybe you are intrigued; maybe it goes over your head. After a while, you realize that many people are hungry. You are hungry too but you don’t need all the food you are carrying just then. Maybe it occurs to you that you could make a lot of money by selling a fish and three or four of the loaves to the highest bidder. Before you have a chance to act on this idea, one of the men surrounding the speaker asks you to come meet the speaker. Maybe you are nervous about this, but you want to know why such a man should want to talk to you. To your shock and surprise, the man tells you that the people all around are hungry and would you be willing to let him give the bread and fish to the crowd. Before you can reply, one of the men says “But what is this among so many?” You are asking yourself the same thing, but the speaker shrugs off the question. What do you do?
As we know from John 6, the lad with the loaves and fishes gave them to Jesus and Jesus fed the crowd with an exponential amount of food scraps left over. One fairly well-known theory is that the boy shamed everybody else into sharing their food when he handed over what he had. Maybe that is what happened. That would be a good example of a mimetic process creating abundance instead of scarcity (see Humanly Created Scarcity.) The references to God’s feeding the Israelites in the desert and the amazement in the narrative suggest that Jesus was re-enacting God’s act of creation in the wilderness. The miracle takes on all the more powerful when we realize that Jesus did not create food out of nothing which presumably he could have done, but he created out of a human act of giving. This miracle, recorded six times in the four Gospels show us that God desires abundance in the sense of everybody having enough. (The manna in the desert spoiled if anybody tried to take too much.) But God provides through multiplying our human generosity to others as the boy gave up the five loaves and two fishes to Jesus in the wilderness. Can we imitate this boy as this boy imitated Jesus?
The Marriage of Figaro
I watched Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro while in New York during a visit there, and was impressed with the deep insights into mimetic desire this opera offers. The opera centers on Count Almaviva’s desire for his servant Suzanna who is betrothed to the count’s servant Figaro. For all of his roaming for women, the Count seems not to have desired Suzanna until Figaro desired her and wished to marry her.
Meanwhile, Marcellina, a servant of Dr. Bartolo, wishes to marry Figaro and Dr. Bartolo, wishing revenge for Figaro’s helping the count marry Rosina when he himself had desired her, supports his servant’s claim based on Figaro’s unpayable debt to her. This triangle becomes farcical when it turns out that Figaro is Marcellina’s son begotten by Dr. Bartolo himself, who had done with his servant what the count wants to do with Suzanna.
The adolescent servant Cherubino provides a comical mirror image of the count in that he also desires all women, especially the countess, the only woman the count does not desire. This infatuation does not make him a serious rival to the count, but he becomes entangled with Rosina and Susanna’s plot against the count.
The count only shows any desire for his wife when he believes (mistakenly) that she is desired by another. In Act 2, he believes Cherubino was flirting with his wife and was hiding in the closet (which he was until Susanna helped him escape). When it is Susanna who emerges from the closet, an uneasy forgiveness ensemble ensues that foreshadows the opera’s finale, but then unravels when the gardener complains about somebody (Cherubino) jumping into the flower garden.
The abortive plans of Act 2 to trick the count come to fruition in the last two acts where Rosina and Susanna disguise themselves as the other and so entrap him so that the count has no choice but to drop to his knees and ask his wife’s forgiveness, which se freely gives.
The disguises and mistaken identities throughout the opera dissolve the characters into the indifferentiation of mimetic desire. At a deeper level, Mozart’s music weaves a unity out of the passions of all these characters so as to unite them in the mimetic desires, a unity transcending the class differences of the characters and creating a vision more subversive than the play by Pierre Beaumarchais used by the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte.
The noble forgiveness scene is as fragile as it is beautiful; a fragile fleeting vision that can be blown away by the next breath of mimetic desire.
Ignominious Glory, Glorious Ignominy: a Doxology
Since when is glory ignominious ? Probably since humans first became concerned about what others thought of them. Seeking glory from others is a sure way to get its opposite as celebrities know all too well. In the New Testament the Greek word doxa is sometimes translated as “glory,” sometimes with “shame.” How can one word mean two opposite things. James Alison says that is because the word means “reputation.” What kind of reputation? Any kind of reputation.
The Harry Potter books give some interesting examples of the double-edged meaning of doxa. Harry arrives for his first year at Hogwarts as a celebrity, not for anything he had done but because he had survived Voldemort’s attack when his mother gave her life to save him. In his second year at Hogwarts, Harry is blamed by many for an epidemic of people turning into stone although he had done nothing to earn this ignominy than he had done to earn his celebrity status. In the fourth book, when Harry’s name is entered in the competition in a questionable way but through no fault of his own, there is bad feeling towards him from students of all three schools involved. (Spoiler alert!) His defeat of Voldemort has no external fireworks and he ends up with a quietly respectable position in the wizard world without celebrity status.
Bob Dylan has been praised as one of the greatest poets and songwriters of our time but he has also been the object of much ignominy with every turn in his career. He did not receive it for drugs or sex, but for using electric guitars instead of a simple acoustic guitar like a true folk singer. Then he got it for seeming to relax and live an ordinary life, as if living an ordinary life is a scandal! The worse ignominy was for turning to Christ and doing some Gospel albums.
Speaking of Christ, in his Gospel, John plays with both sides of the meaning of doxa in relation to Christ. Jesus seeks doxa from his Father while the people who put him to death or keep their sympathy for him a secret because they seek doxa from other people. So it is that doxa inevitably falls into sacrificial violence if reputation is sought from people instead of from God. The raising of the cross is Jesus’ doxa. That is why God has such a bad reputation nowadays. Where do we look for our own reputations?
Rivalry and Competition (Or, the World Serious)
The time of the World Serious, as Bullwinkle and others called it, is a good time to reflect on why someone like me who doesn’t like rivalry is a baseball fan. I was raised in the Detroit era when Al Kaline was a star, so maybe that has something to do with it. Obviously, I can’t expect God to favor one team or another. More obviously, we need to keep games in perspective. Winning the World Serious is not as important increasing social justice for economically challenged people
I have come to see a distinction between rivalry and competition. Rivalry is centered on the rival, making the rival an idol, in an attempt to win at the rival’s (and other people’s) expense. Competition can be undergirded by a deeper cooperation. For example, competitors in a game collaborate to create a well-played game that is fun for the participants, such as playing tennis or golf with friends, or playing professional baseball games that give fans pleasure along with some agony when my team blows a big lead in the last inning.
Perhaps this distinction is of some use in economic issues as well. Capitalist theory tends to encourage completion as beneficial to the public good because companies that try to have the best product at the best price will deliver quality to the consumer. It is hard to see how as many useful and fun innovations would have been created without the spur of competition. I am skeptical, though, about Adam Smith’s contention that an “invisible hand” makes selfish motifs contribute to a sound and fair economy. Divine Providence surely is about a benevolent God fostering divine benevolence in humanity.
However, the line between constructive competition and destructive rivalry can be very thin. Baseball games sometimes descend into brawlgames where pitchers throwing at opposing batters tit-for-tat. Likewise, competition can be cutthroat when companies only want to destroy other companies. I could go on with quite a rant about the toxic atmosphere of American politics when politicians should be collaborating to discern how to work for the public good, but aren’t.
If it is all about winning, then it is toxic rivalry. If it’s about having fun with others, then it is healthy competition. When we fall into the middle, we have some spiritual work to do. We need to remember the words of St. Paul that we don’t run for a wreathe that will wither, but for a prize that never fades.
Arachne, Athena, and a Thousand Princes
Imagine a world where competitiveness is that world’s foundation, where it is nothing but mimetic rivalry all the way down. (See my post Human See, Human Want.) Actually many people have, but I am going to focus on a couple of recent fantasy novels I’ve just read which do that.
The Mark of Athena is the latest volume in Richard Riordan’s second series about adolescent demigods, Heroes of Olympus. These books can be a fun way to learn about Greek and Roman mythology, but if ever these gods are real and they really (mis)rule the universe, we’re in trouble. The positions of Zeus and the other Olympians, for example, are the result of earlier conflict. In Riordan’s novels, Cronos and Gaia make comebacks that fuel the divine in-fighting.
This latest book Riordan makes the millennia-old resentments come alive in their tense paralysis. Arachne who offended Athena by weaving a better tapestry than Athena could. Arachne is imprisoned under Rome as a giant spider with a monstrously bad attitude. Beth, a daughter of Athena, has to take from Arachne the Athena Parthenos that was stolen by the Romans and restore it to the Olympians. We see frozen resentments such as Arachne’s in human experience all the time. What if God really were like Athena instead of a God who generously brings us into being and even more generously saves us from follies such as that of Athena and Arachne?
The other books is A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix. Prince Khemri is one of countless youths raised in privileged but inhuman conditions to serve the inter-galactic empire as a prince. Each prince is connected to the imperial mind upon coming of age (if he or she is not assassinated first) and is plunged into a system fueled by rivalry and nothing but rivalry. Material goods and programed courtesans are furnished in abundance so there is nothing to fight over except power and position. Nix does a superb job of showing us what such a system looks like, a system that is totally sacrificial. Khemri is singled out for a unique assignment that forces him to live with normal human beings. He is quite bewildered when he finds himself instinctively defending a woman when all his training taught him to use a human as a shield for himself. Is it a shock to us if ever we discover something in the world that isn’t rivalry all the way down, but is grounded instead in love that reaches out to others?
A Miserable Gospel
Victor Hugo had turned away from the Catholic Church because of its indifference to the poor when he wrote Les Miserables and the book was condemned by the Church when it was published. Yet the novel is deeply imbued with the Gospel and some Church figures are strong witnesses to it. Go figure. Better yet, go see the movie of the musical if you haven’t already.
Jean Valjean, rejected by all as an ex-con, is invited to eat and sleep in the bishop’s house, but still embittered and desperate, he runs off with a silver plate. When brought back by the police, the bishop says the plate was a gift and orders the police to release him. The bishop presents this act of mercy to JV as a challenge to make the most of his second chance at life. The self-sacrifices required of JV to live up to this challenge make it clear that the forgiven life is far from easy or soft. Meanwhile, the police officer Javert, deeply scandalized by the bishop’s forgiveness, makes a career of tracking down the criminal in the name of justice.
A successful factor owner under an assumed name, JV inadvertently fails to protect his employee Fantine from being driven out by her co-workers and corrupt foreman when it is discovered she is an unwed mother. To atone for this, he takes responsibility for Fantine’s daughter while Fantine is dying. This entails bargaining with the venal Thénardiers to take the girl Cosette away to a better life. With JV’s past exposed by Javert, JV and Cosette escape to a convent that gives them sanctuary.
During the 1832 uprising in Parish, two mimetic triangles form around the grownup Cosette when she and Marius, a rich young man turned student revolutionary, fall in love. JV fears losing his daughter and at first hopes the street violence will lead to the young man’s death. But JV quickly realized he must put his daughter’s interests first and he then sees in Marius the son he might have had. More complex is the triangle of the two lovers with Eponine, oldest daughter of the Thenardiers. Having fallen in love with Marius only to be politely turned away, Eponine protects Cosette and JV from a police raid led by Javert and her father but encourages Marius to join his fellow students in the revolt with the hope she and Marius will be killed. When fatally wounded by a bullet intended for Marius, she repents and tells Marius where he can find Cosette. Renouncing mimetic rivalry is shown to be possible, but costly.
Meanwhile, Javert infiltrates the rebels, is exposed by the street urchin Gavroche (a castoff son of the Thenardiers), sentenced to be killed, then handed over to JV who has joined the rebels to save Marius if he can. With the chance to exact his revenge, JV frees Javert, doing for the self-righteous officer what the bishop had done for him so many years ago. When, after the tragic street battle, JV drags the wounded Marius through the sewers of Paris (a Christ-like descent into hell if there ever was one) Javert ambushes him but can’t bring himself to arrest the convict. Totally disoriented by the prodigal forgiveness offered him, the legalist representative of the law throws himself into the Seine, a tragic demonstration that forgiving love is a tough challenge.
The musical strengthens the Gospel theme considerably in comparison with the book. The streamlining of the convoluted plot of the book puts the law/grace and revenge/mercy dichotomies front and center. The vulnerability of women and children to personal (the Thenardiers) and institutionalized (Javert) violence is stressed through Fantine, Cosette, and Gauvrache. Javert sings a song that betrays his warped mirror-imaging of the Gospel: declaring JV to be “fallen from God/fallen from grace” he reveals himself as a man so fallen. Musically, the singing of JV, Marius, and Cosette (especially as a child) is very soft while Javert is loud and assertive and the Thénardiers boisterous. (Strength in weakness.) In the finale, JV dies and is brought by Fantine and the good bishop to a heavenly barricade turned into a heavenly chorus of revolutionaries who sing, in a song filled with biblical allusions: “Somewhere beyond the barricade/is there a world you long to see?”
A miserable, offensive Gospel if there ever was one.
Gathering to Give Life to Victims
Since the dawn of humanity, humans have gathered most quickly and powerfully around a victim. Just think of how quickly we gravitate around whoever is currently seen to be to blame for whatever is going wrong in the world today. This gathering, however, is always at the expense of at least one person or group of people. A similar and yet very different gathering around a victim occurred when the eleven disciples saw the risen Jesus in Galilee and “worshiped him.” (Mt. 28:17) The huge, even infinite difference in this gathering is that the victim is alive and is gathering people around victims, “the least of those who are members of [his] family.” (Mt. 25:40) Ever since, Christians have gathered in worship around Jesus and his fellow victims, primarily in the Divine Office and the Eucharist.
The Divine Office is structured prayer that is uses the Psalter and other biblical canticles as the primary vehicle of prayer. Much can be said of the psalms but the thing that jumps out at anyone who prays them with any frequency is the many outcries of victims. “They surrounded me like bees; they blazed like a fire of thorns; in the name of the Lord I cut them off! I was pushed hard, so that I was falling, but the Lord helped me.” (Ps. 118: 11-13) Verses such as these raise the question of whether we gather “like bees” around another person, or if we are entering the circle of bees in solidarity with the victim. Being a victim tempts us to anger, bitterness and violence. “Cutting off” our assailants in “the name of the Lord” is the reflex reaction, but is the opposite of what Jesus himself did in the same position. These rough verses help us renew our awareness of our own violent reactions to being victimized, even (especially!) petty matters such as being slighted by another. If we focus on Jesus when we are in the place of the victim, we find that the Lord has made the rejected stone the “chief cornerstone” that is “marvelous in our eyes.”
In the Eucharist, we gather around an altar which has been transformed into a table where, instead of laying out a sacrificial victim for slaughter, we place a piece of bread and a cup of wine to share among those present. We do this in memory of Jesus’ Last Supper, suffering, death, and Resurrection. The Greek word anamnesis does not mean a mere memory but to make present. That is, we enter the place of the victim with Jesus when we gather around the table. In so gathering, we feed on Jesus’ forgiveness of us for our own victimization are our challenged by this forgiveness to give this same life to others, both in terms of physical needs and emotional and spiritual sustenance.
In his Rule, St. Benedict says that prayer should be made with “utmost humility and sincere devotion.” Entering the place of the victim with Jesus leads to both humility and devotion, attitudes that allow us to follow Benedict’s admonition that we sing the psalms (and also break bread in the Eucharist) “in such a way that our minds are in harmony with our voices.”
A City Consumed with Buying and Selling
“If there was just one person who could show everyone there is another way. . . . If someone stood up in the middle of the city, with everyone watching, and did something that brought them nothing in return, and happiness to others . . . it might start something that couldn’t be stopped.”
These words are spoken by a 13-year-old girl in The Midnight Charter, the first volume of the Agora Trilogy by David Whitley. These words are a powerful statement of a positive use of mimetic desire. Lilly says these words in a city called Agora (Greek for market), a city where everything and everybody is bought and sold and all receipts are stored in the city bureaucracy. Even emotions can be bought and sold thanks to a strange technology developed for the purpose. A sort of capitalism gone mad. This shows how deep competitive mimetic desire can be, as René Girard demonstrates.
While Lilly starts to put her idea into practice by starting an almshouse, something unprecedented in the city, her friend Mark is consumed by a mimetic process that puts him at the pinnacle of the society while too young (thirteen) to realize how delusionary it was until it was too late.
The fortunes of these two protagonists and the powerful social forces that surround them are explored with ever-increasing depth in the second and third books of the trilogy. In Children of the Lost, Lilly and Mark, suddenly thrust out of Agora, enter a wilderness where the subconscious (the “Nightmare”) engulfs the villagers who live there. Well, the emotions bought and sold in Agora have to go somewhere. The nightmare shows itself most strongly in an act of collective violence, the end result of the denial of mimetic desire. In the midst of all this, Mark begins to really learn how to be a caring human being.
The final volume Canticle of Whispers brings the trilogy to a stunning conclusion. Here, we meet another society, this one living underground, that turns out to be a collective puppet for the fragmented desires of those who live above them until they are freed by Lilly and Mark. The mimetic process started by Lilly in Agora continues in her absence because other people have imitated her desire to help others. One of the greatest strengths of the series is that many characters who seem fairly insignificant emerge in unexpected ways to have great significance, sometimes for ill, sometimes for good.
This trilogy shows us that here are Y/A novels out there that can instruct young readers and older seasoned readers as well, into the depths of mimetic desire. I strongly urge anyone working with youth to take notice.
Knowing the Wild Things Between Us
Just about all of us talk about the subconscious as if it were familiar territory. By definition, the subconscious, assuming there really is such a thing, is precisely what we are not familiar with, what we don’t know about ourselves.
Pop psychologists, and real psychologists for that matter, along with those of us committed to the spiritual journey, think that it is better to know more about ourselves rather than less. Exploring the unknown may be an exciting challenge at times but it is also threatening. Much talk about the subconscious that has floated around since Freud took up his pen gives the impression that the subconscious is full of horrible monsters and some of them are us. In the simple story Where the Wild Things Are Maurice Sendak shows us what great friends the inner monsters can be if we get to know them.
René Girard has given us a whole new dimension to explore in the subconscious by suggesting that it is primarily mimetic desire that we find there. (See Human See, Human Want) Mimetic desire, the desire of others that has infiltrated us since birth, gets under our skin and deep into our hearts. Hence the importance of the desires we present to small children to absorb. What keeps mimetic desire in our subconscious is our defiant pig-headed conviction that our desires belong to each of us alone and to nobody else. The stronger this sort of conviction, the more likely the desire is entangled in serious rivalry with somebody else; maybe a lot of somebodies. Somehow, we feel threatened at the idea that our desires are intertwined with the desires of everybody else and we push them away, only to have them manipulate us at very deep levels.
The “wild things” within may not be so much are own personal monsters but the monsters that grow out of the mimetic desires between us. The monster isn’t me, it’s us. These wild things can also be the source of great opportunities for personal and spiritual growth if we get to know them. The web of mimetic desire is not, in the hands of God, elaborate chains to imprison us but links to connect us. That is, mimetic desire is the gravitational field among persons pulls us into relationship with each other. The more we are aware of this field, the more freedom we have to live in it with friendship and sharing instead of hate and rivalry.
Self-examination is a time-honored practice for spiritual growth in all religious traditions. Unfortunately, when this practice is centered on the self, it inevitably creates some distortion because it keeps mimetic desire in the subconscious. It isn’t so much our selves that need examination as it is our relationships. The individual self can look just fine right when relationships are destroying the web of our interrelated desires.
Girard tends to examine mimetic desire in the present tense, and there is always much going on with our interrelated desires in every moment. However, as Per Grande pointed out in his fine book Mimesis and Desire, we go through life interacting with the desires of others in our past just as much, if not more, than those in the present. So it is that we have to increase our conscious awareness of our past as well as the present.
So much attention has been paid to monstrous wild things in the human subconscious that we don’t realize that deeper in the subconscious that any wild desires flaring up between us and other people both in rivalry and ecstatic love and friendship is God’s desire. No matter how entangled our mimetic desires with other people, God holds all of the links in unconditional love, all the while calling each of us to open our outer and inner eyes to see how wild divine love is.
Will and Desire
There is much emphasis in spiritual writings on obeying God’s will. That is good, but I think we can deepen our relationship with God by shifting the emphasis from trying to do God’s will to sharing God’s desire. The two may seem to amount to the same thing, but differing words and their differing connotations have a big effect on us. The words “obey God’s will” suggest that God’s will is one thing and our own wills are separate things that we should give up to allow God to impose God’s will on us. The phrase “share God’s Desire” has a much gentler connotation. It suggests that God has a certain Desire that God wishes to share. God is not giving us marching orders; God is extending an invitation to us.
Within ourselves, we experience will as a battler against desire in that we often desire one thing but will another. But if we think of desires as our own to govern with the will, the will simply will fail because it will be showing up at the wrong battle. René Girard demonstrates that we the each other’s desire. So strong is mimetic desire that the more we try to assert our desires as our own, the more they are governed by the desires of others. The more we rebel against the desires of others, the more subject we are to them. If we try to control the desires of others by trying to make them imitate us, we are organizing our lives around those very desires all the more. Meanwhile, the people who have us trapped into imitating their desires are just as trapped into imitating ours. What makes mimetic desire so dizzying to think about is the labyrinthine way it worms itself deep within us. The wills of other people don’t get inside us nearly as much. With this being the case, trying to control our own wills is beating the air. (1 Cor. 9:26)
Into this dizzying matrix of mimetic desire comes God’s Desire. I purposely use the singular because the many things God could be said to desire converge into one all-encompassing Desire for the well-being of all creation. It is God’s Desire that gets deeper under our skin than the desires of other people and thus saves us from being run by these desires. The amazing thing about God’s desire is its spaciousness, quite a contrast with the cramped nexus of human mimetic desire. In God’s Desire, there is all the room in the world. Not surprising, since God created all of it. While human mimetic desire creates scarcity through conflict, God’s Desire provides abundance, the abundance Jesus showed us in the feedings of the multitudes in the wilderness. The gentleness of sharing God’s Desire might make it look like an easy option, but I find it highly challenging. Sharing God’s Desire asks of us nothing short of a total transformation of ourselves as we open our hearts to embrace the expansive Desire of God.
Unwinding the Judgment of Solomon
Among writers of Y/A novels, Neal Shusterman has shown some of the most acute insight into social processes. Nowhere is this stronger than in his novel Unwind and its sequel Unwholly. In this dystopian novel, a civil war in the U.S. over reproductive was suddenly brought to an end with an agreement that abortion would be illegal under all circumstances, but that all young people between the ages of thirteen and eighteen could be handed over by parents or guardians to be unwound, a harvesting of 98% of body tissue for medical transplants to other people.
This scenario is a classic example of a violent society making peace at the expense of victims. In Unwind, a troubled teen boy whose parents found too troublesome when they had such an easy out, a girl raised in a state orphanage where many surplus babies go who wasn’t quite talented enough to be worth keeping when the facility needs space for other surplus children, and a boy who was a tithe, the tenth child in a family in a group that gave the tenth child in a family to be unwound as a gift back to “god” and society.
Although the reader may rightly react to the idea with horror, the dystopian “solution” is not that surprising to anyone who has studied René Girard and his colleagues who have demonstrated that this type of “solution” to conflict is common in almost all societies since the dawn of humanity. This novel and its sequels is as a midrash on the Judgment of Solomon, a story Girard cites as a prime example of the Hebrew Bible’s revelation of sacrificial violence. The two disputing mothers became indistinguishable mirror images of each other until Solomon asked for a sword and ordered that the baby be cut in half. One woman preferred the slaughter of the child to letting the other have it, but the other woman preferred the other woman have the child and so that it could live. The biblical story thus has a happy ending. Shusterman’s novel shows us what the triumph of the sacrificial woman is like for a society. As a mini-parable within the story, one of the boys on the run was signed over for unwinding because his parents were going through a bitter divorce and could only agree that they would rather nobody had their son than that the other had him and he lived.
Shusterman also shows, especially in the second book, how the culture has become highly sacrificial, with unwinding having become a way of life. The political advertising media pushes unwinding by encouraging a sense of entitlement not only to a new hand if the old is cut off, but of better, more athletic and better-looking body parts and a “brain-weave” to make one smarter. In Unwholly, a Frankenstein-like experiment has resulted in the creation of a “new” person out of unwound body parts. Sacrifice has created a sacrificial youth. Sacrifice of others has become an end in itself.
Abortion is a topic that many people have very strong opinions about. Even when one’s opinion is mixed, each part of the mix is powerful. The hazard of navigating such a severe debate is that of being so passionately sensitive to one potential victim as to harden one’s heart to others. The Judgment of Solomon and this series of novels is a solemn warning of the dangers of losing ourselves so deeply in conflict that we do not see the victims we create. A violent situation such as the sacrificial system depicted here adds the problem of how to break the system without violence that creates more sacrificial victims. This growing problem is something Shusterman will be exploring in the subsequent volumes of the series.
It’s no surprise to be told that neurons fire inside your brain when you decide to pick up a banana and again when you actually pick up the banana. What might surprise some people is to be told that exactly the same neurons fire when you see somebody else reach for a banana and then pick it up. This was not the kind of thing neuroscientists were looking for or expecting to find. Like many of the most significant scientific discoveries, this one was the result of serendipity. An experimenter who was analyzing the firing of neurons in a macaque monkey left the probes in its brain while taking a short break to have a snack. When he picked up a banana, the monkey’s neurons fired the same neurons that fired when the monkey picked up a banana. So began the following up of an exciting discovery.
The prime importance here is the firing of neurons based on intention. The neurons don’t wait until somebody actually picks up the banana. All it takes is for somebody to reach for the banana in such a way as to convey the intention of picking it up. If a person draws the hand away at the last second or tries to pick it up and drops it, the same neurons have fired. However, show a cartoon of a stick figure reaching for a banana and these neurons do not fire. The action has been portrayed but the live intention has not. Scientists call the neurons that fire under these circumstances “mirror neurons” because the neurons are mirroring the displayed intentional behavior.
This discovery seems to confirm, or at least add credence to, René Girard’s concept of mimetic desire, the notion that we imitate the desires of other people, often at a pre-conscious level. As I think about this exciting discovery, I would have to say that this neuronal mirroring of others’ intention does not, in itself, indicate imitating desire, but it does indicate very strongly that we automatically resonate with the intentions of other people at a deep physiological level, and these intentions are grounded in desire. Far from being individual blocks of personality shooting personal desires out at the world, our desires are wired in our bodies to resonate with the desires of others and vice versa. Our mirror neurons make sure that we live in a web of personal desires surrounding us.
Connecting our Desires
If mimetic desire, grounded in our mirror neurons, holds us all together whether we like it or not, why are we human beings so far apart and alienated from each other? Perhaps the catch is: “whether we like it or not.” If we don’t like being connected with the desires of other people, we will either claim ownership of our desires and dare anybody to challenge this ownership or try to expel the other. Both claiming ownership or expulsion only lock us tightly in rivalry with them so that our desires don’t connect. Instead they crash into each other into a soup boiling over so that nobody gets anything except more rivalry for the sake of rivalry.
In the history of race relations between blacks and whites in the U.S., from the standpoint of while people, we have had ownership through the institution of slavery and expulsion through segregation such as Jim Crow Laws or what one might call “social custom.” Those of us who deplore such attitudes and their results tend to expel racists, convinced that they deserve it. There is a dangerous tendency to believe that rivalry is a good thing in a righteous cause. Unfortunately, righteousness with this attitude is self-righteousness and rivalry in a good cause still makes that cause disappear in through over-involvement with our rivals.
There is an even more insidious problem here, however. It is well-known that the people who most strongly deplore others for certain actions or attitudes are often disturbingly prone to at least the temptations to the same actions and attitudes. Although statistics consistently estimate that roughly six times as many white people than blacks commit drug offenses, ten times as many blacks are sentenced to prison for drug offenses. All the while, there is consistent denial from those involved in the justice system that there is any racial bias affecting this situation. If these denials are as sincere as, to a chilling degree, I fear they are, then there is a lot of preconscious racial bias circulating like a plague. Speaking for myself as I confessed in Recovering Racists, I think that we all have a serious need of becoming more aware of our preconscious attitudes.
This post isn’t just about race relations; it’s about human relations. Our connections to the desires of other people can attract us to some but repel us from others. We tend to find ways to feel righteous about being repelled by some people but we are often rationalizing our preconscious reactions without ever actually thinking about them. One spiritual practice we can do to help us with this is what moral theologians traditionally call a moral examen. This examen needs to be focused on our preconscious reactions to people so as to make them more conscious. This gives us the chance to do something constructive with them. One thing I find helpful is to look a person in the eye. That can easily transform the person before us.
Truth is an important matter but one we often take for granted. We often think we know it or, like Socrates, know that we don’t know it. We often treat truth like the air we breathe. We assume it’s there and we’re taking it in every time we kick a stone in front of us. The question of truth can easily make us as cynical as Pilate.
Mimetic Desire and Truth (1)
Although we might cavalierly think of truth as the air we breathe, we think of truth as an individual matter with each of us, as individuals, kicking a stone. I should talk—or write—I do the same thing myself out of force of habit.
Girard’s teaching on mimetic desire puts the question of truth into a whole new ball park where a new game is played by different rules. More accurately, Girard is pointing out that we have been in the wrong ball park, playing the wrong game with the wrong rules since the dawn of civilization. We could dismiss Girard as a cranky Frenchman and me as a quixotic Benedictine monk, or we could look around at this new ball park and new game to see what riches are there, riches that actually have been gathered for us by many people who have helped Girard and the rest of us see this old game for what it is so that we can play a new game. Sort of like new skins for new wine.
In this new ball game, we realize that desire is not individual, but mimetic. That is, we copy the desires of other people and they copy ours. This simple but subtle truth means that we do not, cannot, see anything in the world as me, myself and I seeing this thing, but we only see things through the desires of other people. Take something simple like shoes. A shoe is a shoe is a shoe. But that’s not the way it works out. Some shoes are fashionable while some are not. A friend of mine told me how the shoes his son wore to school were a social problem because they weren’t the style other kids wore. Not surprisingly, the shoes in style were rather expensive, forcing my friend to choose between added financial hardship and hampering his son’s social life.
The old Negro spiritual says: “all God’s chillin’ got shoes.” But do they? If they did, they wouldn’t be such a big deal in Heaven. The bare feet of black slaves is a result of mimetic desire that lead many white people who had the money and social power to own other people and choose whether or not they would have shoes.
Mimetic Desire and Truth (2)
We tend to think our likes and dislikes and beliefs and unbeliefs are our own. “I like apple pie.” “I hate pickles.” “I believe that Jesus rose from the dead.” “I don’t believe in a conspiracy of interplanetary lizards to take over the planet earth.” As I admitted in my first post in this series, I reflexively think in these terms in spite of all the reading and reflection on mimetic desire that I’ve done. But if desire is mimetic, then all of our likes and dislikes, beliefs and unbeliefs are connected with those of other people.
There is, of course, a distinction between appetite—our bodily needs and gut reactions to various things—and desire, which is mimetic, but pinpointing the distinction in our ongoing experience is sometimes tricky. We all need to eat, but the specific foods we desire are colored by desires of others for specific foods. What we eat may depend on what is available, but when there is a choice, although individual preferences may be present, the desires of other people tend to make some foods more desirable than others. My parents encouraged a desire for roast beef and shrimp. The former never take that much but the latter sure did. Even so, during an impressionable period of my life when I was just starting to live into my conversion back to Christianity, a couple of my best friends were so strong on the desire for steak that I fooled myself into falling in with their desire when I really would have preferred crab cakes. I wasn’t really put under pressure or anything; it was just the ambient desire trumped what I more naturally liked.
In non-rivalrous situations, this imitation of desire is not a problem and is often a good thing. It was the sharing of a desire for good music in the church choir I sang in as a boy that awoke my own interest in music. One could speak of this as an individual choice in that not all choristers got interested in music to the extent that I did, but following up this interest brought me into the community of music lovers. Books, such as The Victor Book of the Symphony and people I knew introduced me into the “canon” of classical music and instilled in me a desire for the symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms and others. I was dismayed and disappointed when the Symphonie-Fantastique by Berlioz didn’t take and it leaves me cold to this day. In those days, Gustav Mahler’s canonicity was in dispute until Leonard Bernstein put him in the composers’ hall of fame so I had to make a choice. It was a no-brainer as soon as I heard one of his symphonies. Even so, my growing sense of what I liked and disliked was never unaffected by the mimetic desire floating about in my musical ambience. When a sophisticated friend of mine dismissed some great works, it was difficult for me to see beyond his prejudices and get a sense of what was true about the music.
It is also more possible to see the truth of other people in a non-rivalrous situation than one fraught with rivalry. In such a situation, two young men can appreciate the qualities of the young woman who is currently coupled with his friend, sharing gently in his friend’s desire but not becoming a rival. This is the situation in the beginning of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s TaIe. Polixenes appreciates the qualities of his friend’s wife Hermione without envy, but Leontes projects is own jealousy on his friend with terrible results. That is, with the entry of envy and rivalry, the truth ceases to be expansive and shared; it becomes distorted. I will examine this distortion in my next post in this series.
Mimetic Desire and Truth (3)
In my last post in this series, I noted the example of Polixenes in The Winter’s Tale who showed a reasonably accurate view of reality by praising the qualities of Hermione, but that the jealous rage of her husband Leontes distorted the reality deeply. It is the same distortion that happens in the nursery when children fight over one toy as if it were the only one when the reality is that there are many toys to play with. Mimetic rivalry over romantic partners will likewise distort the human reality in a school or other social setting. In a non-rivalrous situation, girls can imitate each other in finding various boys desirable and, like Polixenes, can admire the choices their friends make. But if two or more girls are in rivalry with each other, perhaps over something such as the position of captain on the girls’ field hockey team, then they will cease to see the qualities of the boys more or less for what they are. It is often said that love, especially infatuations, is blind, but conflicted mimetic desire is much more blind than that.
It is important to distinguish honest disagreement from rivalry. In both cases, there is mimetic desire but in the former case, it is a shared desire to arrive at truth or discernment of right action. In the latter case, the two people are trying to outdo each other for the sake of outdoing each other. The shared mimetic desire is a victory over the other and truth and right action fall by the wayside.
The movie “Doubt” is an excellent illustration of this kind of situation. With Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius are permanently locked in mimetic rivalry, it is not possible that the truth of whether or not the priest has abused Donald Miller, the Afro-American boy in the parish school, can be known and that is why the movie never resolves the question. Donald Miler, of course, is clearly a victim of this strife regardless of what has or has not really happened.
There is a qualitative difference between honest disagreement and rivalry but it is also a fine line between them. We can easily start with honest disagreement and fall into rivalry if we allow ourselves to become more obsessed with the person we disagree with than with trying to see what is true and what should be done. This matter calls for constant self-examination where we continually ask ourselves as honestly as we can: What side of this line am I on? How far on that side am I? We also have to keep alert to whether we are actually listening to what the other is saying or if we are only thinking about what we want to say. If we neglect this self-examination, we are pretty certain to fall over into the wrong side of this divide and become lost in mimetic entanglements.
A shared mimetic desire for truth does not guarantee that truth will be reached since our viewpoints cannot encompass all relevant realty but it is a sine qua non for reaching some semblance of the truth. On the other hand, when we are locked in mimetic rivalry with others, it is not just some abstract principle of what is true that is a casualty, but real human beings will suffer as victims, like Donald Miller in “Doubt.”
Mimetic Desire and Truth (4)
In my last post in this series, I noted that mimetic rivalry inevitably distorts truth and that it creates victims. The mutual involvement of rivals with each other precludes their seeing each other truly and it makes them oblivious to the people who are affected by their rivalry. René Girard has demonstrated about as well as it is possible when examining the human behavior at the dawn of civilization that social meltdowns were resolved by collective violence that were covered up by myths that obscured the reality of what had happened. When Jesus said that the devil is a murderer and a liar from the beginning (John 8:44) he was not talking about a supernatural figure who was doing the damage; he was making an anthropological statement about human responsibility. That is, the violence of mimetic rivalry inexorably leads to mendacity. Philosophers might quibble with each other about where the limitations of the human intellect are for perceiving truth, but the real problem with perceiving the truth is rooted in the human will. The more involved we are in mimetic rivalry, the less truth we can see.
These considerations lead to the conclusion that truth is found, not in some fancy theory of human knowledge, but in the reality of the victim. It is this reality that is revealed in the numerous psalms of lament where the psalmist is constantly surrounded by enemies who blame him or her for all of the calamities inflicted upon the people. This truth is definitively revealed in the Passion narratives of the Gospels where Jesus is revealed as the innocent and forgiving victim vindicated by God. Andrew McKenna called it “the epistemological privilege of the victim.” Some privilege! James Alison coined the term “the intelligence of the victim.” René Girard consistently deflects postmodernists who insist there is no center of truth anymore by pointing to the reality of the victim as the starting point for perceiving truth.
This sounds simple but mimetic rivalry has twisted this truth in some subtle ways. In a way, the Gospels did the job of revealing the truth of the victim too well. As far as I can tell, nobody, not even Socrates, cared to be in the place of the victim before the Gospels were written. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the most intense mimetic rivalry is precisely over who is the greatest victim. Everybody, every social group wants to be the most victimized victim and to hold that position at the expense of all other victims. CEO’s who rake in millions of dollars in bonuses while they ruin the finances of thousands of people claim to be victims when they become objects of opprobrium. Well, objects of opprobrium are victims, but they don’t know what they are doing. In every conflict between social groups or between individuals, each side, each person is very much aware of the truth of their own victimhood. What none of these people see at all is the truth of the victimhood of their enemies. Least of all do rivals over victimhood see the victims that their rivalry is creating.
The key to truth, then, has become violently distorted in our time. Fortunately, there is more to this key than what we humans have done to it and we will revisit this key in the final post of this series.
Mimetic Desire and Truth (5)
In my last post, I showed how the premiere place for perceiving truth, the place of the victim, has been distorted. The problem is, if a person in in the place of the victim deals with it by making victims of others, as so many abused people have done, then that person is no longer in the place of the victim and has lost “the intelligence of the victim.” Unfortunately, such people are so caught up in feeling entitled to make victims of others and with the mimetic rivalry I mentioned as to who is the greatest victim, that do not know that they do not have the victim’s “intelligence.”
The revelation of the true victim in the Gospels is very different. Jesus was not only the innocent victim; Jesus was the forgiving victim. No wishing for the limbs of his enemies to tremble or shake or that they be swept away, greenwood or dry, as the Psalmist wished for him! It is Jesus’ forgiveness which gives him a true view of humanity so that he saw the potential for Matthew and Zacchaeus and, after his Resurrection, of Paul when nobody else did. The place of the victim, then, is the place of truth when the victim is forgiving.
When the victim is forgiving, as Jesus was, is, and will be forever, then mimetic desire takes a sharp turn away from rivalry and moves again in the expansive direction of sharing. The forgiving victim does not pose as the greatest of victims; the forgiving victim only wants healing for everybody, including and, especially for the victimizers. The desire that the forgiving victim shares is a desire for the well-being of all, a desire that does not allow for rivalry as rivalry would undermine this desire of universal healing.
In a sense, we have come full circle from where I started with expansive mimetic desire that initiates young people into food and games and art and many other things that are good and desirable. This original mimetic desire, if we wish to call it that, is akin to the good of creation. We were created with mimetic desire for precisely this purpose. The universal fall into mimetic rivalry and its ensuing social crises is Original Sin. (Note the mimetic rivalry between Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel and humanity’s rivalry with God by building the Tower of Babel.) The recovery of expansive mimetic desire through Jesus the forgiving victim is restorative and redemptive. St. Paul said repeatedly the Christ’s redemption did not return us to original good creation; it brought us to a whole higher level of well-being that is grounded in forgiveness.
Since truth is grounded in creation, it follows, as Thomas Aquinas demonstrated, that the truth of things resides in the mind of God. That is, God sees what God has made and knows the depths of all that God has made in all truth. Insofar as we humans see things as God sees them, we see them truly. Our growing awareness of mimetic desire, however, shows us that seeing the truth is not a solitary endeavor; it is a corporate matter. Only through the expansive mimetic desire of sharing what is desirable can we, together, have a reasonably accurate apprehension of truth. Since truth is grounded in God, God becomes a partner in this corporate effort. Given the fallenness of humanity through rivalrous mimetic desire, it is through the forgiving victim that we can recover a vision of the world as God sees it in all its profound desirability.
Laughter is one of the more pleasant things in life, but is it just a frill? In his book The Phantom of the Ego,” Nidesh Lawtoo discusses the importance Georges Bataille attached to laughter for the emerging consciousness of a newborn child. Laughter is one of the first things a baby learns in imitation of a mother, father, or other caregiver. So it is that laughter comprises the first bond a newborn child makes. Interactions with babies may seem silly, something to be transcended with intellectual maturity and so we don’t value laughing with babies.
At its best, laughter is spontaneous and infectious. How many times do we laugh without knowing why, just because other people are laughing? When children are laughing helplessly as part of playing, happiness spreads to everyone around them. We don’t want to be left out of the joke, even if we don’t know what it is. Just think of some of our best times when we laughed with family and friends with no other reason than we were together and we got caught up in laughter.
There is a darker side to laughter, however. Actually it is a darker side of us and our mimetic desires, rather than a darker side of laughter. Often laughter is used to wound others, to score points against others, to put others down to lift ourselves up. Almost as soon as they learn how to speak, small children use laughter in this way. School playgrounds are filled with this sort of thing. Children learn all this from their elders, of course. Just as they imitated the spontaneous laughter of those around them as infants, they imitate the cruel humor that surrounds them as they grow older. Unfortunately, children usually learn this mode of laughter through being shamed by adults who think ridicule is a good way to train children for the hard knocks of life. Laughter continues to be a bond between people, but it is a bonding at the expense of someone, a butt of jokes, a victim.
When he discourages laughter as a sign of pride, St. Benedict certainly had this darker side of laughter in mind, although it is possible that he had a blind spot for the value of spontaneous, bonding laughter. Certainly, when laughter is a put-on act to gain attention, it is the opposite of spontaneous and it is a prideful act, an act seeking to dominate by drawing attention to oneself at the expense of others. I discuss this at length in my book Tools for Peace.
We get so habituated to using laughter as a weapon instead of a bond of love that we hardly know what the latter is. One way back is to use the wit we acquire to learn to laugh at ourselves and help others laugh at themselves. At its best, a comedy does just that. In Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” discussed in an earlier post, laughter is used as a means to overcome mimetic triangles and tensions and bring reconciliation. Shakespeare does this sort of thing masterly in comedies such as “Twelfth Night” and “As You like It.” In “The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare sets a trap for the unwary, leading us into joining the persecution of Shylock before unmasking this derisory laughter for what it is.
Life is too serious and awesome a thing to be left to sourpusses who always want to be on top of somebody else. We all need heavy doses of spontaneous, selfless laughter shared with others.
See also Violence and the Kingdom of God for introductory material on mimetic desire.