The Story of the West: VI – Mastering Contagious Desire

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Mar 2007

Why did a second-generation Irish nationalist leader set out to mimic in the late 1900s the lifestyle of nineteenth-century Irish ascendancy landlords, with disastrous and tragic consequences for his own reputation and his family? Why is the baseball cap worn around the world – even in cold weather? Why are people so fascinated by celebrity? Why do the youngest children so quickly learn to recognise corporate logos, and to desire what they decorate?

All of these questions were summed up in just one simple question that was asked in the Chinese spiritual classic, the Tao Te Ching, centuries before Christ:

“Why do we desire what others desire?”

To put it another way, why is desire so often contagious? A full answer to this question would give the human family a chance of overcoming, or at least containing, the crises of over-consumption and violence that now threaten the survival of our planet and our species. It is over-consumption that makes resources scarce, and it will be desire for the same scarce resources (e.g. oil) that is likely to fuel the worst violence of the near future.

No one has explored this question of contagious desire with greater energy or brilliance than the French Catholic academic, René Girard.

Beginning as a literary critic in the 1970s Girard noted that some of the West’s greatest modern writers, from Cervantes and Shakespeare to Dostoevsky, Stendhal and Gide were fascinated by our tendency to ‘catch’ desire from one another. He then noticed that the Bible had begun this western fascination (e.g. in the story of Solomon and the child claimed by two women). From there Girard branched out into anthropology and philosophy, developing a theory of religion that is now influencing academics throughout the world.*

Insisting that in the biblical warning not to covet ‘anything our neighbour owns’ there is a naming of this dangerous human tendency, Girard calls it by a more descriptive name – mimetic desire: a tendency to mimic, often unconsciously, the desire of someone else. Noting that a group of children presented with a choice of toys will almost inevitably begin squabbling over the possession of just one of them, Girard also locates our problem of violence in this tendency.

He also argues, however, that our tendency towards mimicry or imitation is also a gift that allows every new generation to ‘pick up’ everything learned by the preceding generation. The tendency of males to imitate older males, and of females to imitate older females, is an essential attribute that allows us to learn how to become self-supporting adults, mastering a huge range of complex tasks and bodies of knowledge.

But the huge danger of our habit of mimicry becomes obvious as soon as we enter the realm of appropriation – taking hold of something as our own. If the appropriated object is scarce or unique, in grasping it we will tend to confront one another – and violence can then follow. And when just one blow is struck to assert ownership of such an object, our gift for mimicry takes on an entirely different character – one that can destroy an entire community. This is the origin, Girard believes, of, for example, the blood feud that can still be found in many cultures.

This insight alone – that in speaking against covetousness the Bible is warning the human family against a pervasive tendency that now threatens our survival – is hugely important for Christianity – as well as for Judaism and Islam, which share the same text. The tendency for so many religious teachers in all three traditions to focus heavily upon sexual morality has helped the enemies of all religious faith to argue that religion is largely irrelevant to the problems of the moment – and even that the biblical injunctions to ‘increase and multiply’ and to dominate the earth are a source of the global environmental crisis.

On the other hand, if ‘covetousness’ identifies the human habit that betrays us into not only over-consumption but violence, the phrase ‘Judeo-Christian morality’ encompasses the only lifestyle that can take us past the problems of the moment – a lifestyle that is virtually forced upon us by our present crisis anyway.

But Girard’s understanding of covetousness does far more than this. It gives us a means of explaining, in terms that secularism can understand, the whole relevance of the orthodox Christian belief system that is summarised in the Nicene and ‘Apostles’ Creeds.

The Creeds, finally formulated by the fourth century, are centred on the story of Jesus, placing it in a cosmic salvational context. Because the ‘vertical’ picture of the universe depicted in the Creeds has been exploded by modern science, there has been a tendency in much recent theology to find those Creeds absurd and embarrassing.

But if Girard is right, the Creeds can be understood in an entirely different way: as relating a story intended to save us from ourselves – from this habit of manic and foolish imitation of lifestyles that now threaten to destroy us.

Almost all the ‘great men’ of history aspired to be ‘great’ – i.e. to acquire ‘renown’ by climbing to positions of dominance or influence, as Alexander did. Their life story begins with this ascent. Almost always, however, this rise is followed by a fall – through what the Greeks called hubris or arrogance.

Ireland has been riveted by just such a story over the past decade – the tragic story of Charles J Haughey. But in historical terms that story is mundane rather than sensational. From Alexander and Julius Caesar through Napoleon I to George W Bush and Tony Blair, the desire for ‘greatness’ has betrayed us humans into violence and excess. This has led in our own time to what The Economist now calls ‘an authority crisis’ – a growth of cynicism and disillusionment in relation to leaders and institutions in the West generally.

The story told in the creeds follows an entirely different arc – an inverted arc. It is, incredibly, a story of worldly failure rather than success – of someone who sought the company of the poor and the excluded rather than of the wealthy and powerful – and was crucified as a consequence. It defies logic that this story should ever have been told at all – especially as a story of eventual triumph.

The stories of good Christians throughout history explain why. Instead of setting out to win the favour of social elites they have done what Jesus did – they have sought out and served the poor. St Francis of Assisi is a typical example: so are Jean Vanier and Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Ireland’s Michael McGoldrick in our own time.

The story of the Creed is a story of both humility and triumph – and its message is that God loves and rewards humility.

That is exactly what the West needs to hear – because it has brought the world to a great crisis through its own vanity.

Vanity can be defined as a presumption of entitlement to superiority, priority or admiration. It is the attitude that then leads us into covetousness – a desire to possess whatever is possessed by those who dominate the ‘the world’. In our era it is TV that tells us who these people are, and what they possess – and so our world becomes a pyramid of desire also.

Those who can see those TV pictures, but are shut out of western prosperity – for example, educated young men in the impoverished parts of the Arab world – acquire other problematic attitudes: jealousy and envy – a feeling of resentment against those who possess what they cannot. Nothing else is needed to explain the anger that fuels the ‘War on Terror’.

Vanity, covetousness, jealousy, envy, anger – we still need these terms to explain human behaviour and to place the responsibility for dealing with these problems squarely where it belongs – upon ourselves. After almost three centuries of failure to build a perfect world without reference to sin, the most perceptive secular writers are rediscovering the attributes that are the opposite of sin: humility, frugality, mutual respect, simplicity, co-operation, peace. These are the characteristics of the Kingdom of God – preached most eloquently by the one who best exemplified them: Jesus of Nazareth.

The world is in crisis because the West above all has still to realise the full gift it received in the Christian tradition – a gift the whole world is now ready for. It is for western Christians of all traditions to realise the full scope of this gift, and to become adept at explaining the problems they see around them in terms of a truly holistic Christian morality.

This does not mean that we need to abandon our perception of the dangers of Christianity’s most consistent target: sexual indiscipline and infidelity. It means simply that we need to add to this perception an equally discerning analysis of vanity and covetousness. To be persuasive we will need to begin ourselves to see the dangers of imitating models of ostentatious consumption – and then to imitate in these matters also the one we say we love.

And when we read in Genesis that the temptation to Eve was to envy God himself, we will learn to associate Original Sin with vanity and covetousness rather than with the gift of sexuality.

As the global crisis deepens, so will the suffering of humanity – but so also will our perception of salvation. We will see that it is in one kind of imitation only that real global salvation will lie: not the imitation of the wealthy but the imitation of the one who was uniquely humble – the imitation of Christ.

* For a good introduction to Girard, as well as a good bibliography, read:Discovering Girard, Michael Kirwan; Darton, Longman and Todd 2004; ISBN 0-232-52526-9.

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