René Girard’s mimetic-desire philosophy, as found in both life and art, has captured my imagination for some time now. For those who know little about Girard’s conjecture, it’s that the fundamental human story is that of imitation of the desires of others, our frustration which results from this never ending hunt, and the need to release our collective frustrations whereby we pin our hatred onto something arbitrary — in the oldest tradition, either running a poor scapegoat out of town, or even killing it.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because mimetic desire underlies the human experience, says Girard, and also, it’s the fundamental theme in art & literature.
In modern times, this story can be found on TV, stage, and at the movies. Once this pattern is learned, in fact, it can be traced to all kinds of places. Even abstract forms of art, like music.
I’d like to explore these Girardian themes briefly by showing their relevancy in three visual works from TV, ballet, and film.
In the made-for-TV drama, The Firm, Gary Oldman leads as a member of an English football hooligan clan. The rivalry between the various clans spans generations, and over the decades, the vitriol evolves into violence. Scuffles at the pub escalate to premeditated theft, arson & assault; all in the name of football team pride.
What Girard says about our propensity to fuel the frenzy, is that our mimetic desire cannot be quenched; that is the unfortunate nature of wanting what others want. This dissatisfaction leads to an hysteria surrounding our objects of desire. But there is a clumsy solution: by directing our rage upon a scapegoat, the collective can expel its rage for a time.
And so it goes with The Firm: the warring camps end up murdering a scapegoat to expel their frustration. The drama concludes with all previously sworn enemies raising a glass to the slain while they reminisce about the old days.
Comedy of absurd
What Girard has defined could seem so ridiculous as to be found almost comical. And so it is, when observed in a certain light. In the Stravinsky ballet, Pulcinella, the Girardian story plays out in familiar strides, but is casted in a comical tone.
The story is that of a magical clown, Pulcinella, who seems to have it too easy. His way with the ladies is effortless, and this becomes the envy of two boys who desire that which they don’t have. In the first part of this short ballet, the two jealous boys become so enraged, they take it out on poor Pulcinella by stabbing him to death.
The scapegoat, always arbitrary, is in this case, one with super powers. So when he rises from the dead shortly after being killed, and transforms the situation in a manner that he finds entertaining, we are treated to a comedy of the absurd. However, it’s the serious, Girardian themes underpinning this comedy which make it so successful.
If home heating-oil businesses faced competition so brutal that to survive meant larceny & killing, you’d be justified to believe this had the makings for an absurd comedy, as well. But in the movie A Most Violent Year, this is the story behind a serious screen drama.
The film follows a fresh-faced businessman, who’s trying to find a foothold in the fiercely competitive home heating-oil space. As he fights to survive, the race to the bottom turns violent. At first, the violence is scattered. But then, the violence gets focused on one character, a truck driver, who becomes the unwitting scapegoat. The scapegoat is driven out of town and ultimately, through his sacrifice, some peace is achieved among the home heating-oil businesses.
Girard makes the point that in business, emulating others leads to crowding out, which competes all profits away. What remains from this mimetic landscape is not enough to get by on. And this tough reality isn’t just limited to business, Girard assures us: it’s everywhere. Henry Kissinger once commented: ‘The competition in academia is so vicious because the stakes are so small.’ In business, academia & in life, our mimetic desires lead us to the cliff’s edge.
Have the wheel again
There are many ways to tell a gripping story. But none captures the essence of man vs men better than what Girard unearthed in his lifelong analysis of great literature & religious texts.
Girard’s conjectures are so basic, that at a glance, they can feel too simplistic to be valid. However, these themes ring true when expressed in art. Heck, mimetic desire & scapegoating are the bedrock in vast swaths of Shakespeare & Dostoevsky.
But to consider mimetic desire beyond art (since one could argue that art mirrors life) : when the masses get into a mimetic frenzy to the point of violence, it’s impossible to say that mimesis is just an artistic mode. Mimetic desire seems to be the very theme of man, modern times & social living. Remarkably, it’s a theme that is everywhere, and one that is as old as any.