Imitative Desire: The best and the worst in us!
By Fr Anthony Ekpunobi, CM.
Desire is the sole factor responsible for the best and the worst in human beings. Desire makes human relation possible through imitation, hence the term imitative desire. Imitative desire is a desire to be another! According to the French philosopher and literary critic Rene Girard, the content of desire is difficult to determine, but it is always a desire to be another (Girard 1976, 63). Human desire bears on the being of another. We desire according to the desires of others around us.
We should not expect a linear approach to the objects of our desire. Imitative desire is triangular. Human desire is mediated by a model. Originality of desire is an illusion! The triangular nature of desire involves a desiring subject, the model of the desire, and an object of desire. God created us to depend on each other always through our desires. As such, we desire according to the desire of another who is close to us—the best friend, the neighbour, the colleague etc. According to Wolfgang Palaver, “in television commercials, the advertised object only rarely appears directly on the screen; most often what is shown are the people in possession of the object—or those who desire it—in order to activate the viewer’s imitation. This a clear illustration of the triangular structure of mimetic(imitative) desire.” (Palaver 2013, 68). This is God’s way of keeping us connected, first with Him and then with others. It is a design that is humanly unique. The role of modeling desire is a human reality.
Imitative desire unconsciously aims at the very being of the other. Appropriation is the blind motive of mimetic desire. In borrowing the desires of the other, imitative desire bears on the being as well. Not guided by any instinct, presuppose a blindness that yearns for sight. An emptiness that yearns for content through another’s desire, hence the acquisitive nature of mimetic desire. The fragility of human relations is based on imitative desire (Girard 2001, 10). It is the desire of the model that communicates to us the desirability of the object. It is equally our imitating desire that reminds the model of his or her ownership of the object in question. The model of our desires simultaneously communicates the desirability of the object and prevents us from having it. This dilemma is what leads to interpersonal conflict. In his first book, Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure, Rene Girard mentioned that ‘only someone who prevents us from satisfying a desire which he himself has inspired in us, is truly an object of hatred’ (Girard 1976, 10). One factor connects and divides people!
At each moment of our lives, we are either modeling desires or desiring the desires of others. Life is often seen as a web exchange of desires. Positive disposition towards imitative desire requires the acknowledgement of the model as the mediator of our desire. This is not a degrading of our being, rather it is the fulfilment of God’s design to keep us connected. The disciple is not above his master, nor the servant above his lord. It is enough for the disciple that he be as his master, and the servant as his lord. (Matthew 10, 24 – 25) Imitative desire is God’s design in us of a self-giving other. The model of our desire is giving himself or herself to the good of the other. There is a continuous receiving and giving that nullifies the idea of the superiority of the model over us. James Alison describes the exchange of desires as, “a self-giving other that can be received only as constantly and perpetually self-giving, as gratuitous, and therefore never grasped, never appropriated, but only received and shared” (Alison 1998, 45). Whatever we have is given to us by God. Imitative desire enables us to give and receive from others. It is a reciprocal system of giving that builds a kingdom of love and respect.
The self donation of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary is the model of all imitative desires. He commands us to imitate Him just as He imitates His Father in heaven. Girard is convinced that what Jesus Christ invites us to imitate is his own desire. His goal is to become the perfect image of God. In inviting us to imitate Him, He invites us to imitate His own imitation. (Girard 2001, 13) Jesus Christ is conscious of His imitation of His Father and is never an obstacle to the imitation of His own desires by us. Imitative desire is a gratuitous self-giving that is realized in a continuous giving and receiving.
Alison, J. 1998. The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through the Easter Eyes. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company.
Girard, R. 2001. I See Satan Fall Like Lightening. Trans. James G. Williams. New York: Orbis Books.
Girard, R.1976. Deceit, Desire and The Novel: Self and Other Literary Structure. Trans. Yvonne Freccero. London: The John Hopkins University Press.
Palaver, W. 2013. Rene Girard’s Mimetic Theory. Trans. Gabriel Borrud. Michigan: Michigan State University Press.