Borrowed Desire: Introducing Mimetic Theory (Part One of Three)

My previous post introduced René Girard’s thinking in very broad terms. I have a lot of things I want to talk about in light of his thought, but I also want to get the basics right. Because discovering Girard’s thought has been like a key that unlocks forgotten doors, or perhaps an ultraviolet light at a crime scene, revealing things that were there all along, yet hidden.

Girard’s thought is typically described as evolving through his first three major works, beginning with Deceit, Desire, and the Novel. Girard was trained as a historian, but as a Frenchman teaching in the USA, he was assigned to teach French literature. Immersed in great works of literature and untrained in the literary studies orthodoxy that each work should be considered only for its individual aesthetic genius, Girard began to notice a common theme running through all of these great works. At the heart of the all of the conflicts that drove the plots of these novels, there was a recognition that our desires are not really our own.

Girard describes human desire as imitative, but preferred to use the Greek word mimesis, largely because we tend to use imitation as a conscious process of simple mimicry. But for Girard, mimesis is a much more fundamental, unconscious mechanism. Humans are the creatures whose desire is always reaching for objects that are suggested to them by the models around them. We do not know what we want fundamentally within ourselves. We come to learn what we want by borrowing the desires of the models of desire around us.

Put two small children in a room with ten identical toys, and before long, there will only be one toy. One child looks at one of the toys, and the second child copies the first child’s perceived desire for the toy. To use Girard’s language, the first child has served as a model of desire for the object of the toy. The second child is the subject who imitates the desire of the model’s desire for the toy. Girard also names this triangular desire, because the model, object, and subject form a dynamic triangular relationship with each other. And dynamic it is: soon enough, the model (the first child) will desire the toy all the more, now seeing how the subject (the second child) also serves as a model of desire in the other direction. They each come to desire the toy all the more as they see it being modelled as desirable by the other. And since the object can only be possessed by one, they will almost inevitably come into conflict with each over it.

Perhaps the picture of triangular desire makes you think about the love triangle, a story that has been repeated millions of times but always amounts to the same thing. A man notices a woman, but is unsure of her allure. He tests out her desirability on his friend, telling the friend how wonderful she is. And the friend agrees, seeing upon it being pointed out that yes, she is indeed the loveliest of all women, a passion welling up within him for this woman he had not noticed until his good friend brought her to his attention. And the desirability of the woman becomes intensified as the two men become rivals for her affection, each mirroring first the other’s desire for her, then turning to rivalry and escalating to an almost certain violence as only one can possess her. The object of their shared desire fades into the background or disappears altogether. All they can see is their rival, who is their double, their twin in desire, but now in rivalry and enmity. This story seldom has a happy ending.

This object can be anything from property to status to honour to the affection of another. Even when the object is a concrete material thing, there is always something metaphysical to it, something beyond the object itself that promises a fullness, a more-ness, a plenitude of being. And this is because the model of our desire appears to us as someone who has comparatively more, or at least comparatively less of the lack that we feel in ourselves. Girard dubs this metaphysical desire: we ultimately do not so much desire the object of our model’s desire as much as we desire the model’s very being, which seems so much more than our own. We want what the other wants because they seem so much more than us.

The implications of these dynamics are endless. Fashion, taste, social media, political elections. “Where should we go for dinner?” usually answered with, “I don’t know, where do you want to go?” Ultimately what Girard saw in the great novels was always a conversion in the protagonist that he believed must mirror a prior conversion in the author’s own life: that our desires are not our own, and that we can find a kind of freedom from the rivalries that drive and define us once we recognize this. I never wanted her in the first place, I only wanted to be like you.

And this is opposed to the modern notion of desire as something that originates purely within ourselves. The French title of Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque) is more aptly translated as Romantic Lies and Novelistic Truths. For Girard, the romantic lie is that our desires are our own, but we can undergo a conversion like that a character in a novel who recognizes that their conflicts are all bound up in the way we want what somebody else wants because they want it: the novelistic truth.

This deep insight set the groundwork for the next two phases of Girard’s insight, which would be released first in Violence and the Sacred, and then in Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. Girard’s restless intellect drew him outside of literary theory, a discipline he was already entering as an outsider. But he did so to follow this single insight, that our desires are copied from each other, and this is the foundation of all human culture. It is the basis of language, and of all of the collective learning that marks out homo sapiens as unique, and especially uniquely violent. That is where we will turn next.

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