If enthusiasm could substitute for intellect…*

*we could call this a book review…

In July last year I googled a word I didn’t understand, which isn’t something you expect to change your life. The word was ‘mimetic’, which relates to imitation (miming), and somehow, post-google, I ended up in the bowels of Wikipedia, reading about a French philosopher and his ‘mimetic theory’. After 20 minutes of ignoring my assignment I ordered his book from the depository, and when it arrived it sat innocuously on my shelf, waiting for spring break and a chance to read it.

It’s profoundly weird to read something you feel deeply but can’t articulate, and realise that it is a thing, and an important thing, and one that bears exploration. My heavily underlined, dog-eared book is testament to the fact that reading it was such an experience. So what IS mimetic theory and why should anyone care about it? Well it’s possible you don’t, and almost certain I’m not the right person to explain it, but I am excited about it, so let’s call this a book review of sorts and pretend I’m qualified to write it…

The book is ‘Rene Girard’s Mimetic Theory’, by Wolfgang Palaver. It collates Girard’s work on the topic of mimesis, which ranges through desire, envy, imitation, religion, scapegoating, politics and relationships. Essentially, mimetic theory suggests that our desires are born from the desires around us. We imitate what others want, and we give greater currency to things which cant be possessed by multiple people. So:

“…rivalry and interpersonal violence threaten whenever two people direct their respective desires at a single object, which they are unable to both possess.” 1

So far, so duh, right? This isn’t rocket surgery. But then he included this quote:

“If it is dangerous to make a friend acquainted with the perfections of one’s beloved, because he also may find her charming and desirable, no less is the reverse danger, that he may perplex us by his dissent.”2

And as I read it over, and thought about it, it seemed to me to be mean-girls sharp. I have felt the slippery loss-of-lustre when someone doesn’t rate another person as I do, as much as I have felt the stab of jealousy when they do. And is that why? Do I live my life, making calls on other people based on their ‘currency’ with others? The thought is completely horrifying.

It got worse. I have written before about my high expectations, which aren’t a badge of honour, though I wish I could unpin them. I have a brilliant capacity to be – textbook parent cliché – disappointed in people. The following quote is about a romantic relationship, but it works more broadly:

“…she beheld a different man, a phantom put together from her most ardent memories, her favourite books, her most powerful longings; and by the end he became so real, so tangible, that her heart was racing with the wonder of it, though she was unable to imagine him distinctly, for he faded, like a god, into the abundance of his attributes.” 3

As I read it over, and thought about it, it seemed to be cosmo-advice-column pathetic. But I have felt the slippery loss-of-lustre when someone confounds my expectations of them, and I wonder. I wonder where those expectations are from. Do I live my life constructing people based on archetypes instead of nuance? This thought too, horror-inducing.

It isn’t all potential fodder for the self-help aisle, though. Girard links mimetic rivalry to political theory and violence, suggesting our similarities and competition are what pit us against each other. This is echoed by other writers – Sofsky’s ‘proximity and equality’, Freud’s ‘narcisissim of small differences’, so that “human history is the history of desired Desires”. 4

Maybe every else knows this already? Or maybe you are unconvinced. For me, the envy thing stings. I have endless capacities, it seems, to be envious. It isn’t pretty, and it isn’t benign. According to Kant:

“Envy is a propensity to view the well-being of others with distress even though it does not detract from one’s own”. 5

Ugly, to be sure. But then there is this:

“Existential envy, which is directed against the other person’s very nature is the strongest source of resentment. It is as if it whispers continually: ‘I can forgive everything, but not that you are – that you are what you are – that I am not what you are – indeed that I am not you”. 6

As I read it over, and thought about it, it seemed to be biblically astute about the human condition. I have felt the slippery loss-of-lustre of realising someone is kinder\prettier\smarter than me. I have heard those whispers, sporadic and soft as they may be, a half truth. In Goethe’s words:

“Since we are so made that we compare everything with ourselves and ourselves with everything, happiness or misery lies in the objects we associate ourselves with… We feel so often that we are lacking so much, and just what we lack another person often seems to possess, to which we also add everything that we possess, and project a certain ideal contentment on top of it. And thus the other person is made happy, complete, and perfect, a creature of our own making.” 7

Now this is all in danger of sending us down a rabbit hole of navel gazing, if we aren’t careful. I understand that. But, I promise, we aren’t up to the good bit yet. And I am writing this to remember, really, it’s for me – though if you are still reading, and interested, I’m thrilled. I don’t want to finish the book and not be changed by it, because it pressed, sometimes, on things I didn’t want it to. And so the easiest thing to do is forget I ever read it, and the most dangerous. Ultimately, profoundly, this book linked many areas of thought I hadn’t been able to synthesise. Girard writes about worship:

“A man cannot live without worshipping something; without worshipping he cannot bear the burden of himself”. 8

He writes about snobbery:

“The snob does not dare trust his own judgement, he desires only objects desired by others.” 9

He writes about indifference:

“Because we continually experience indifference as being so attractive, we use indifference – consciously or not – as a strategic means to enhance our own attractiveness in the eyes of the other. Insofar as we ourselves appear self-assured, others assume to see in us that which can fill their lack of being.” 10

And finally, the much buried lead, he writes about God. The last third of the book “Biblical Revelation and Christianity” had unfortunate theological errors. But his basic thesis sounds a familiar note…

“To break the power of mimetic unanimity, we must postulate a power superior to violent contagion. If we have learned one thing in this study, it is that none exists on the earth… The Resurrection is not only a miracle, a prodigious transgression of natural laws. It is the spectacular sign of the entrance into the world of a power superior to violent contagion.” 11

Do you hear it? Such great hope. Hope of the gospel, the revelation of Jesus, the Word become Flesh. Something that wasn’t here before. And so he argues, in words that could belong to Paul Tripp, or Tim Keller, that “no worldly good or human being can negate the lack that only God himself can replenish” 12. And I am reminded, once more, of how the gospel has changed everything.

This book which doesn’t have all the answers, points to the one which does. For all of the joint and marrow rawness of envy and desire, rivalry and imitation, it points ultimately to one in whom our longings are satisfied. Longings to be known, and understood. Longings to be loved, and recognised. Longings to attain that after which we need no longer long. And so, none but Christ can satisfy. And here he is, in the pages of a much more readable, much more important book. Christ Jesus, fount of living water, bread of life. I am thankful for anything which reminds me of how profoundly his life and death and life has altered the course of mine. So that I need look nowhere else, which is yet and again my prayer.

“I tried the broken cisterns, Lord \ But, ah, the waters failed!

Even as I stooped to drink they fled, \ And mocked me as I wailed.

The pleasures lost I sadly mourned, \ But never wept for Thee,

Till grace the sightless eyes received, \Thy loveliness to see.”

  1. Girard 38.
  2. Van Goethe in Girard, 33.
  3. Flaubert in Girard, 51.
  4. Kojeve in Girard 114.
  5. Kant in Girard 108.
  6. Scheler in Girard 110.
  7. Goethe in Girard 77.
  8. Dostoyevsky in Girard 22.
  9. Girard 73.
  10. Girard 79.
  11. Girard 230.
  12. Girard 86.
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