Scattering the Proud – Chapter XI

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Futile Desire

In January 1999, the UK’s Sunday Times revealed that there were two separate projects ongoing to build a supersonic executive jet, ‘the ultimate in executive playthings’. Flying at twice the speed of sound and likely to cost $50 million per unit, this craft was designed to appeal to the fabulously wealthy – film stars, oil billionaires, computing entrepreneurs. A spokesman for one of the firms concerned was reported as saying ‘The next holy grail of business travel is speed. You can always make improvements, but supersonic is the next big leap.

The metaphor ‘holy grail’ reminds us of a time when our civilisation situated its understanding of heroism in a biblical context. King Arthur’s knights supposedly went in search of the ‘Holy Grail’, the chalice that Jesus used at the last supper, offering it to his apostles with the words ‘this is my blood’. No more. Now the summit of human achievement is the acquisition of vastly expensive products of technology. By 2006, we are assured, such planes will routinely fly across the great oceans of the world at speeds of up to 1500 miles per hour.

It is the exclusiveness of this experience which will make this plane the ultimate object of desire. Already there is a supersonic jet, Concorde, now thirty years old, but it is open to fare-paying passengers. And it does not have on board a sauna which, we are told, exists on the executive jet belonging to Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. The notion of exclusiveness is essential for ultimate objects of desire.

The reason for this is that once we humans satisfy our basic needs for food, shelter and security, our desires are heavily influenced by our need to possess at least those things that others possess; and particularly by our need to own what is possessed by those people we see as particularly successful or important. possessions become symbols of status. The pyramid of esteem becomes a pyramid of ownership, with those at the summit owning objects which must be exclusive, because otherwise their status will be in doubt.

It follows that, since our economies are now based upon mass production, we become endlessly acquisitive. The shopping mall, the sales catalogue and the Internet offer us a multitude of desirable objects, and we succumb globally.

‘Stuff’

And so our homes tend to become deposits of a myriad of possessions, and we should be happy — as happy as those who possess nothing suppose we must be. Not so. What we possess almost instantly becomes ‘stuff’, and we regard it with ennui. In the United States there are people who make a living as consultants on the problem of accumulating ‘stuff’. They will visit your home and tell you how to organise it. If necessary they will advise on storage facilities outside the home — space you can rent to store the ‘stuff’ you can presently find no use for.

Why this ennui? Because the semi-magical aura of the desired object disappears as soon as it has been bought and admired. Our peers are acquiring the same objects, so our status in the pyramid has not changed. Why not give them away, then? Because their loss will diminish our status. Soon it will be time for another bout of acquisition, another ‘fix’.

But endless desire is futile also, because the upward journeys of those climbing the pyramid of esteem are constantly ratcheting upwards the cost of what is most exclusive. If supersonic executive jets become anyway plentiful, something more exclusive will be developed. Soon enough, someone will propose the building of personal space shuttles which will ferry people to exclusive space hotels where one can enjoy the exclusive experience of intimate weightlessness. There will always be desires that most of us cannot fulfil, and this will intensify our desire, unless we can recognise and nullify it.

The Power of Mimetic Desire

The advertising industry well understands the power of mimetic desire – the need to have what prestigious people have. On the inside front cover of Time magazine there is typically an advertisement for watches that cost thousands of dollars. The sales pitch is that one of the world’s top sports personalities already has one of these, and would never be without it because of its peerless reliability. Such ads are fixtures, testimony to the power of mimetic desire. They are expensive, and would not be bought if the watches were unsold, even though perfectly reliable watches can be bought for a small fraction of their price. Certain marques of cars too are sold for their associations with people of status – in terms of mechanical superiority their price is entirely unjustified.

The need to be aware of mimetic desire is obvious, for many reasons:

  • An inability to indulge it is often a pointless reason for self-dislike and self-destruction.
  • It offers only the illusion of fulfilment. Deep in the human heart there is a perception that mimetic desire is essentially stupid, a fundamental human flaw.
  • People are valuable to society in terms of their unselfishness, not their ability to indulge their desires.
  • It is the root of envy, and is therefore destructive of human relationships.
  • It can be a serious cause of conflict. The Falklands War, like many others in history, was fought essentially due to the mimetic desire of elites for territory of extremely questionable importance. Political nationalism is essentially mimetic desire for exclusive possession of real estate.
  • It prevents the transfer of sufficient human resources to those in danger of dying of want.
  • It cannot be environmentally sustained. To fulfil the mimetic desires of the world’s present population, in particular the desires of the developing world for the lifestyle of the developed world, the resources of several other planets of the same size would be required, and even then all must become landfill sites in time.

The Argument for Endless Desire

Those for whom the market is sovereign will argue that it is human acquisitiveness that supports the standard of living of the west. Yet the growing ‘voluntary simplicity’ movement argues far more persuasively that the equation of wealth with possessions is the fundamental source of the deterioration of vital relationships, particularly those within the family. More and more people are choosing to earn less, consume less, and spend more time together. Uncontrolled mimetic desire, it seems clear, robs people of their most valuable possession — time — and the wave of the future will be to reclaim it. It used to be argued that mass production would lead to lives of leisure. It was the market, constantly stimulating the appetite for possessions, that nullified this dream. It is time to revive it, but no such attempt will be successful until we can perceive that the desires by which we are manipulated are linked spiritually with the upward journey.

Mimetic Desire and the Downward Journey

In the bible, mimetic desire is called covetousness, and two of the ten commandments are devoted to it: we must covet neither our neighbour’s goods nor his wife. Probably the term fell into disuse because we have become almost blind to its power over us. Mass production is one reason for this — our economies clone many objects of desire in vast quantities, promising desire without conflict. Yet our rediscovery of the concept is crucial to the future of humanity.

It is only in the downward journey that we can identify mimetic desire in our own perceived needs, monitor its power over us, and resist its most destructive effects. This too is a spiritual gift that the Judaeo-Christian tradition can recover for us, if we simply obey the first commandment, which is the love of God above all else. Jesus fought and conquered mimetic desire, and it is in the imitation of Christ that we too will find deliverance from it. This is why the giving away of surplus wealth carries with it more spiritual benefit than the acquisition of it. The life that was simply given away, celebrated every Sunday, should be, for Christians in the developed world, the spur to a fundamental, world-changing generosity.