Book review: All Desire is a Desire for Being by René Girard
Essential Writings Selected by Cynthia L. Haven
What if I told you that there is a key to understanding human desire? It is a key that applies across cultures and periods, that has been used to earn billions of dollars, and that was revealed to one man in an epiphany1 in 1959, who then spent the rest of his life teasing out its implications. That man was René Girard. The idea is mimetic desire.
For René Girard, we have no authentic desires of our own. Instead, we imitate those around us who have a quality we find compelling. As the title of a new collection of Girard's essays has it, all desire is a desire for being. Almost all mimetic models are unconscious and, if brought to awareness, will immediately be disavowed, making it difficult to pin down direct influences. Occasionally, though, you get glimpses.
For instance, last winter I took to wearing a T-shirt under my normal shirt, leaving the shirt open. I don't know why I started doing this. I didn't have a look in mind. It felt practical and I liked the style. One afternoon, I had a Zoom meeting with Tom Hodgkinson, editor of Idler magazine and someone who has carved out a career as a unique voice in the media. He is cool. As the call began, I was mortified to see that we were wearing exactly the same thing. My decision to wear a T-shirt and an open shirt was entirely due to unconscious imitation. We rarely get such a direct revelation of mimetic desire.2 Usually, we enjoy the "romantic lie" that our desires are authentically our own, but Girard tells us this is never the case.
Ironically, it was from Tom that I first heard about mimetic desire. In 2008, he wrote a diatribe against Facebook which mentioned that its first investor was Peter Thiel, whose mentor at Stanford was René Girard.3 The story goes that Thiel invested in Facebook because it was the perfect vehicle to monetise mimetic desire.4 Facebook was the first website that made it easy and free to upload images. Previously you had to use awful third-party hosting sites like Photobucket. It was also the first website entirely focused on real-world relationships rather than anonymous communities. This stream of images from friends and acquaintances led us to compare our lives with theirs, to see how they lived, what holidays they went on, what food they consumed, and how all this seemed to make them feel.
When I heard that Penguin was publishing an edition of essential writings, I was excited. If you’ve ever tried reading one of Girard's main books, you'll know that they are dense and require an extensive knowledge of canonical literature and anthropology. I assumed it would be like Walter Kaufmann’s The Portable Nietzsche, featuring those parts of his books that were of contemporary interest. This is not that book.5 Indeed, far from being the essential writings of Girard, these would be better described as a miscellany. However, they are not scraping the bottom of the barrel.
What we get in this book is a collection of pieces including casual interviews, a speech about a Catholic mystic, some random maxims, a review of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, Biblical analysis, and essays on literary figures like Shakespeare and Camus. To call this essential is perhaps correct when we remember that everything he writes connects back to his epiphany.
René Girard is often called the last hedgehog, someone with one big idea that they spend a lifetime explicating. He is sometimes compared to figures like Freud, Marx, and Darwin and just as there are Freudians, Marxists and Darwinians, there are an increasing number of Girardians.
A Girard cult has been forming in recent years: Luke Burgis has written a self-help book about mimetic desire called Wanting, Jonathan Bi offers business strategies, and Geoff Shullenberger focuses on the scapegoat mechanism to understand culture war hysteria. While Girard's idea is simple, it is not easily digestible by the culture.
For Girard, mimetic desire is like gravity. It is a force in the universe. Indeed, neuroscientists have identified mirror neurons in the brain so it is possibly even physiological as well as psychological. It certainly feels true to me when I look at people's behaviours. When I see septum piercings, Zoomer curls, or the rise and fall of yoga, I see that all you have to do is to identify people's mimetic models and you can see them play out the script. With mimetic desire, we are opaque to ourselves and transparent to the world.
But is Girard worth your time? It might be true, but is it useful? In her introduction, Cynthia Haven writes: "Girard's corpus is not just an erudite self-help manual [...] his intellectual landscape is not intended to be therapeutic, and yet it is." Mimetic desire is humbling. Man is not a master in his own house. Our lives are shaped by forces outside our control and produce rivalries that often end in violence.
The closest thing we come to escaping from the negative consequences of mimetic desire is to focus on models that transcend rivalry. For Girard and many of his followers, this figure is Jesus. Turn the other cheek, love your enemies, and let he who is without sin cast the first stone, all of these are specifically anti-mimetic, anti-scapegoating ideas. Even if you don't turn to Jesus, an awareness of mimetic theory can help you avoid crippling envy and pointless fads.
As Girard says in an interview with Michel Treguer: "Everything came to me at once in 1959. I felt that there was a sort of mass that I've penetrated into little by little. Everything was there at the beginning, all together. That's why I don't have any doubts. There's no 'Girardian system. I'm teasing out a single, extremely dense insight."
Another person I know who is a fan of Tom started wearing Hawaiian shirts in the same way. For some, Tom represents a level of professional fulfilment and bonhomie they can't find elsewhere.
From Tom Hodgkinson’s article: "Thiel's philosophical mentor is one René Girard of Stanford University, proponent of a theory of human behaviour called mimetic desire. Girard reckons that people are essentially sheep-like and will copy one another without much reflection. The theory would also seem to be proved correct in the case of Thiel's virtual worlds: the desired object is irrelevant; all you need to know is that human beings will tend to move in flocks. Hence financial bubbles. Hence the enormous popularity of Facebook. Girard is a regular at Thiel's intellectual soirees. What you don't hear about in Thiel's philosophy, by the way, are old-fashioned real-world concepts such as art, beauty, love, pleasure and truth."
Thiel also helped establish the Imatio Foundation, dedicated to Girard's ideas. This organisation also helped fund this collection.