Mimetic Desire

daya dissanayake

"Violence always seems to be mingled with desire", wrote Rene Girard, Professor Emeritus, Stanford University, in 'Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure'. "Desire is the generative force behind violence, the snake that turns friends and lovers into rivals." says Professor Per Bjornar Grande of Bergen University.

Far from being autonomous, our desire for a certain object is always provoked by the desire of another person — the model — for this same object. This means that the relationship between the subject and the object is not direct: there is always a triangular relationship of subject, model, and object. The model is the mediator. Mediation is external when the mediator is beyond the reach of the subject, and is fictitious. It is internal when the mediator is at the same level as the subject, then the mediator transforms into a rival and becomes an obstacle.

Through their characters, our own behaviour is displayed in others. Everyone holds firmly to the illusion of the authenticity of one's own desires; the novelists implacably expose all the diversity of lies, dissimulations, maneuvers, and the snobbery of the Proustian heroes; these are all but "tricks of desire", which prevent one from facing the truth: envy and jealousy. These characters, desiring the being of the mediator, project upon him superhuman virtues while at the same time depreciating themselves, making him a god while making themselves slaves, in the measure that the mediator is an obstacle to them.

In fiction and films, stories thrive on conflict between characters, and Girard believes that people do not fight over differences, but they fight because they all have the same ideas and want the same things, not because they really want the things, but that which will earn other's envy. Because man does not know what to choose, he looks at others, and he wants what the other is having or wants. When many people desire the same things, desire, jealousy and rivalry "provide perfect themes for great novelists".

Rene Girard calls it Mimetic Desires, that "mimesis is an unconscious form of imitation that invariably leads to competition and desire is the most virulent mimetic pathogen". The idea is not new as Thomas Hobbes had already written in Leviathen, "if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies". And long before that Buddha preached that all suffering and conflicts on earth is because of man's craving, desire.

Agganna Sutta is all about mimetic desire, if we are to interpret using Girardian logic.

Rene Girard has been identified by some critics as a modern day Christian philosopher, that he is taking the teachings of Jesus in his literary analysis. "Thou shall not covet the neighbour's ox, ass or wife". Cain murders his brother, because he cannot get what Abel had got.

This behavour is seen from early childhood, when a toy picked up by one child is immediately desired by another, and this is carried on to adulthood, desiring what the neighbour has acquired.

Mimetic desires could also lead to violence. Collective Violence against scapegoats. The example Girard sites is that only one man can be a king, who would be the most envied. But everyone can share the persecution of a victim. "Societies unify themselves by focussing their imitative desires on the destruction of a scapegoat", and this could be the origin of ritual sacrifice. "The victim of a mob is always innocent, and collective violence is unjust" as we see in the crucifixion of Jesus.

Girard says that scapegoat mechanism and sacrificial violence is "the dark secret underpinning all human cultures". It is the basis for many works of fiction and drama. Today it is not just individual human beings, but entire countries that face scapegoat violence led by a group of countries, behaving like a mob. Often as the desire for something goes viral, the desire itself could be forgotten, leaving behind only the rivalry and antagonism.

Sacrificial violence, says Per Bjornar Grande , is a kind of suicide, by killing the other, one also kills something of oneself, projecting one's own desires onto another.

With the Gospels, it is with full clarity that are unveiled these "things hidden since the foundation of the world" (Matthew 13:35), the foundation of social order on murder, described in all its repulsive ugliness in the account of the Passion. "This revelation is even clearer because the text is a work on desire and violence, from the serpent setting alight the desire of Eve in paradise to the prodigious strength of the mimetism that brings about the denial of Peter during the Passion (Mark 14: 66-72; Luke 22:54-62)." Girard reinterprets certain biblical expressions in light of his theories; for instance, he sees "scandal" (skandalon, literally, a "snare", or an "impediment placed in the way and causing one to stumble or fall", as signifying mimetic rivalry, for example Peter's denial of Jesus. No one escapes responsibility, neither the envious nor the envied: "Woe to the man through whom scandal comes" (Matthew 18:7).

Mimetic desire not only drives most novels and films, but also in recent times facebook and other social media which have gone viral because of this. The advertising medium survives totally on man's desires. That is how international brands exploit man's/or woman's weakness for miming other peoples desires. We are not ashamed, but rather proud to be identified as victims of mimetic desire, as we wear branded clothes or consume branded food and drink in public. That is why business organizations are investing in embedded marketing or brand entertainment. One example is 'The Bulgari Connection' by Fay Weldon. (Artscope, August 24, 2011).

As long as man is a slave to his own craving, mimetic desires will control him, and the society in which he lives. Creators of fiction and films and big business will continue to exploit it.

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