Category Archives: Mimetic Theory

‘The Chain That Binds the Earth’ – Novel now on sale

This project preoccupied me for months:  the experiment of a novel that would test the power of Girardian mimetic theory to explain to young people a wide range of modern ills – from the global threat to the environment to violence of all kinds – including school bullying.

The project arose out of a realisation that were I still in the classroom I would be proposing that we do often unconsciously absorb the desires of others  – as a tool to explain such events as the assassination of Julius Caesar, the burning of Joan of Arc, the World Wars of the 20th century, the Cold War – and the Troubles of Northern Ireland.

Would it have been feasible to do so?  Do young people already notice ‘unconscious copying’ as a dominant feature of human behaviour, and even as a potential source of conflict?

The second crucial factor heading me in the direction of fiction was the simple fact that my classroom days are over.  Now in my seventies I am retired from formal teaching – but very much committed still to what lies behind all teaching:  the task of maintaining a living tradition of insight into so much of what ails us, and especially of passing that insight on to young people concerned for the future of the planet.

So could I write a story that would have eleven-year-olds stumble upon the significance of our human weakness for adopting the desires of others, and then have them argue their case in their own school context?

I have tried to do that, in any case.  It is for young people themselves to tell me if I have succeeded.  My very first young readers of a late draft have been enthusiastic, but I have no way of knowing how representative they are.

As I was obliged to self-publish this story, the initial retail cost of the paperback version on Amazon is too high.    I am setting out to make copies available soon at what they cost me, ordered in quantities at a discount.  I will update this page to log progress in this attempt.

Views: 10

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 Vanier1This article  was written in 2007, thirteen years before the revelation in 2020 that Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche movement, was also an abuser of the trust of some of the able-bodied women who looked to him for spiritual guidance. 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.

Views: 30

The Search for Spiritual Intelligence

Sean O’Conaill  © Spirituality 2003

When I began my teaching career in 1966 human intelligence was still considered to be a single indivisible entity, easily measurable as  ‘IQ’.  Now the convention is to believe that there are at least eight, and possibly nine, different kinds of human intelligence.  The ninth, currently under consideration, is spiritual intelligence, labelled SQ for convenience.  A search of the Internet will discover at least four books on the subject.

A quick reading of these will discover tantalising glimpses of the phenomenon, but no clear delineation.  Other kinds of intelligence will either discover or discern something ( e.g. scientific and mathematical intelligence) or create something (e.g. artistic and musical intelligence.)  What specific work does spiritual intelligence actually do, or what does it create?  The existing literature is unhelpful here.  Richard Wolman* delineates eight ‘dimensions’ of SQ, but these are merely descriptive of the behaviours of those considered spiritually focused – such as religious observance or the reading of sacred texts.  There is a strong element of condescension here, a tendency to equate spiritual intelligence with mere awareness or activity rather than with any clear achievement.

Another peculiarity of this literature is its tendency to draw most of its inspiration either from oriental sources such as Buddhism, or from contemporary science – such as research into the human brain.  The foundational spiritual texts of the west, collectively known as the Bible, receive generally little more than a passing nod.  Does the biblical concept of wisdom relate to SQ, and if so how?  Nowhere so far is this question pursued in any systematic way.

One way of approaching this is through the fascinating story of Isaac Newton’s famous quarrel with the German intellectual Gottfried Leibniz.

By 1684 Newton’s greatest work had been completed, but not yet revealed to the European intelligentsia – including the discovery of the prismatic nature of white light, the universal principle of gravity and the laws of motion.  In that year  Leibniz published a paper on Calculus, a new branch of maths, which Newton had himself already developed, again without publishing.  Unable to believe that Leibniz might independently have made exactly the same discovery, Newton accused him, quite unreasonably, of plagiarism.  He pursued the matter even beyond Leibniz’ death, encouraging his own doctoral students to make overt attacks upon Leibniz in their theses, remaining fixated on the matter for the last twenty-five years of his life.

The point is, of course, that although there is no doubting Newton’s superb scientific and mathematical intelligence, we find him here gripped unknowingly by an overwhelming desire for the renown of primacy in this one discovery, even though it was far less significant than his other work, and even though this quarrel diminished his stature in European intellectual life during his own lifetime.  He was, in a word, unwise.  So are those now notorious scientists who have faked research or altered research data to prove their own already-published conclusions.

All competitive desire for renown is mimetic desire – an imitative desire acquired from the simple cultural fact that others possess the same desire.  The Newton-Leibniz story establishes both that there is a distinctive and important kind of intelligence different from the superb scientific intelligence that Newton undoubtedly possessed, and that its absence in matters of this kind is a serious and self-destructive human flaw.

The reason this story should arrest the attention of SQ theorists is that the Bible may easily be described as a text centred upon the human problem of mimetic desire.  To take an extreme example, the Herod who slaughtered the innocents in Bethlehem could not tolerate the possibility that his own primacy might be challenged in his own lifetime by some upstart.  His problem was that his self-esteem had become indissolubly attached to his conscious possession of renown.  It was essentially the same fixation of another Herod that doomed John the Baptist a generation later.  And Newton’s fixation with Leibniz was the same problem.

Renown is an almost archaic term.  To distinguish it from self-esteem we might call it other-esteem – the esteem of others.  According to the biblical texts, its loss, or the possibility of its loss, can drive people to extremes.  For Saul the loss of the other-esteem of the women of Israel was the source of his vendetta against David.  For Solomon, the other-esteem his wisdom brought was also the source of his apostasy from the God who had answered his prayer for wisdom.

Solomon’s earlier resolution of the problem posed by the two women who claimed the same child is a fascinating example of biblical wisdom.  So familiar is it that we may miss its full significance.  We need to note not so much the innocent mother whose love for her child allowed her to give it up, but the guilty woman who was willing to allow it to be divided.  She had woken first, realising that she had rolled on her own infant in the night, smothering it.  Remembering that in that culture a woman’s status was tightly bound up with fertility, we need to empathise with her predicament:  soon the other woman would wake up, becoming the first to scorn her neighbour’s carelessness.  This day this useless mother would become identified as such – losing all other-esteem among her peers.  But the living infant was all that differentiated her from the successful mother still sleeping close by – hence the substitution.  Her ‘covetousness’ was irresistible, as her final shame was imminent.

Solomon’s wisdom penetrated to the heart of the crime, understanding the difference between love and desire, and understanding also the problem posed to the guilty woman by the threatened loss of other-esteem.   The living child could cover her shame – and so could a half child divided at the command of the king.  The real mother, on the other hand, was willing to accept shame to save the child.

No matter what else may have changed since Old Testament times, the fear of shame is a constant.  It lies at the root of much criminality and addiction – and especially at the root of many instances of outrageous violence in our own time.  David Copeland, the bomber of gay bars in England in 1999, insisted:  ‘If no-one knows who you were, you never existed.’  And Robert Steinhaeuser, who killed sixteen in a school in Bavaria in April 2002, was facing his parents’ imminent discovery that he had been prevented from sitting final exams by the school in question – for forging medical notes to explain his frequent absences.

Given the self-conscious anguish of adolescents over everything from acne to lack of the (media-defined) perfect body, it is a remarkable fact that Catholic education still lacks a proper appreciation of the significance of the spiritual intelligence of the Bible.  As a teacher for thirty years I can attest to its supreme relevance in the rough and tumble of a teenager’s life.

In one instance, two fifteen-year-old girls who had been close friends fell out bitterly over the leading role in a school musical.  Shiela (not her name) was originally chosen for the part, which she acted very proficiently.  Then it was discovered that her singing voice simply hadn’t the range for the music she was required to sing.  She was asked to relinquish the part, which was then given to her friend Patricia (another pseudonym), who had been learning the role while watching Shiela.  The two were irreconcilable, as Shiela insisted that Patricia had betrayed her.  Furthermore, Shiela insisted that she could not remain at the school, and had to be relocated.

Of course there was bad management here on the part of those producing the show – but the story illustrates the power of mimetic desire to cause conflict, and the connection of self-esteem with other-esteem in the minds of even the most intelligent young people these times.

In another case, more recently, a teenager entered a media competition for one of the singing ‘bands’ that now proliferate  – a competition for which she was ineligible as she was younger by two years than the required minimum age.  When she won a much-coveted place through sheer talent, she was interviewed live for a TV ‘profile’ – and inadvertently let slip her real age.  When this was noticed she was caught on camera in a series of increasingly embarrassing attempts to justify her original lie – until her family (very belatedly) decided to end her misery.

In both instances, the mimetic desire for other-esteem had profoundly affected the behaviour and self-esteem of young people whose Catholic education had no explicit relevance to this problem.

The phenomenon of bullying could on its own justify the teaching of spiritual intelligence in school.  Bullies are essentially mini-warlords making a bid for the bank of other esteem in their class or year group.  Very often they are themselves driven by fear of shame – perhaps over lesser academic ability.  By orchestrating contempt against an even more vulnerable member of the group they can deflect shame from themselves, and enjoy the eminence of power, as well as the certitude that they themselves will not suffer shame.  The fear they deploy – of being shamed –  will keep it at bay.

Does a fiercely competitive educational system inevitably deploy fear of shame as means of motivating children?  If so, is it spiritually intelligent?

And how many teachers of RE would be able to point to the treatment of the adulterous woman in St John’s gospel as an archetypal example of bullying?  Jesus’s riposte is far more than a brilliant stratagem.  It identifies the purpose behind all such violence – to relieve everyone’s fear of shame by depositing all shame on this one execrated individual.  Every stone thrown at her would be an unloading of the sin of the one who threw it, a statement of personal inculpability.

And this in turn allows us to see Jesus’ acceptance of crucifixion as a willingness to be the scapegoat for the sake of our enlightenment, our realisation of what lies behind all such scapegoating.  Indeed the entire life and mission of Jesus can be understood as an exposure of the cultural processes through which elites not only acquire power and other-esteem, but deploy shame to maintain their power.

How was Jesus able to plough this extraordinary furrow, facing the extremity of crucifixion – the instrument of ultimate shame – totally alone?  This is the central mystery of our faith, the question that faces us with a wondrous truth:  that he was in his deepest consciousness connected to a source of truth that allowed him to do without the other-esteem of his enveloping human culture.  No other explanation is possible for his unique achievement in ‘overcoming the world’.

Spiritual intelligence depends in the end upon spirituality – upon relationship with this extraordinary source of wisdom that allows love to overcome desire.  We need to see this as the central purpose and theme of biblical revelation – connecting this with the problems of shame as our culture defines them for individuals.  The teenagers who today live in fear of shame, and in constant search of media attention, need to understand that the Bible addresses their predicaments like no other book, and draws them to an alternative and unfailing source of self-esteem.

The West will understand spiritual intelligence fully only when it looks with unbiased interest at the resource that lies under its nose, separating it from the uncomprehending triumphalism of Christian fundamentalism.  For their own survival the mainstream churches need to discover this first – that the Bible is as rich a source for understanding ourselves, and modern culture, as for understanding God.

(*Richard N Wolman, Thinking With Your Soul:  Spiritual Intelligence and Why It Matters, Harmony Books)

Views: 3