I am not a student of René Girard, though some notable Orthodox thinkers have been. I ran across an article recently that provoked some reflection for me – particularly on a central theme in Girard’s work: mimesis. He observed that human beings are drawn towards “copying” others (mimesis). A passage from the article I was reading:
Human beings are expert imitators (mimetic comes from a Greek word meaning “to imitate”). Science has shown that we are the most imitative creatures on the planet, and we imitate in a far more complex, symbolic way than any known animal. While we are good at imitating the speech and fashions of others, Girard’s discovery was that humans imitate the very desires of other people.
“Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind,” Girard wrote. We have instinctual responses to help us choose the objects that meet our most basic needs—when we’re hungry, we seek food; when we’re cold, we want warmth. But there is an entire universe of desires for which we have no instinctual basis for choosing one object or another. For these objects of desire, Girard saw that the most important factor in determining what we want are the desires of other people, or what he calls our “models of desire.”
Taken from Why Everyone Wants the Same Thing – Luke Burgis
Girard is correct in his observation – we have a deep desire and proclivity for imitation. There is, however, an underlying mechanism that explains it. Not surprisingly, I believe that the mechanism is that of shame. Mimesis provides a wonderful hiding place, protecting us from the manifold emotional dangers of shame. Shame is our painful response to feelings of exposure and isolation. When we “fit in,” we are less noticeable, less vulnerable, less likely to be singled out for unwanted and dangerous attention. Shame, and the avoidance of shame, provide the explanation for why imitation feels so good. Imitation feels like a safe place (on some level).
I do not think that shame is the only basis for mimesis. There is, on a very positive level, a desire for communion. Communion itself carries within it a desire to be “like” the other, to experience union in as complete a manner as possible. However, healthy communion does not entail the loss of identity or being swallowed by (or swallowing) the other. The ultimate model for communion is found in the Holy Trinity. We are able to confess that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one God, but we continue to confess that the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Father, etc. Perfect communion can say, “If you have seen me you have seen the Father,” and, “I only do those things that I see the Father doing.” And yet, the Son is not the Father.
Nothing is easy about this, despite how deeply we desire it. The mere avoidance of shame is insufficient for communion. Indeed, the mere avoidance of shame is a sure ticket to a shame-bound existence. The mimetic culture of modernity (complete with scape-goating, so well discussed by Girard) is a shame-bound existence in which people are constantly manipulated by forces as dark as demons and as voracious as any predator. CS Lewis’ imaginative conversations between demons in the Screwtape Letters, had an underlying theme of the desire for one demon to devour the other, and for all of them to devour us. And so we find in the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete:
The time of my life is short, filled with trouble and evil. But accept me in repentance and call me back to knowledge. Let me not become the possession and food of the enemy; but do Thou, O Savior, take pity on me.
Interestingly, mimesis is a theme in the writings of St. Maximus the Confessor (the same can be said of St. Dionysius the Areopagite). We desire (eros) and long for that according to which we were (are) created. We long to be like God, conformed to the image of Christ. This longing for conformity is not the same as longing for a place to hide from shame. Indeed, in Christ, we not only see Him for who He is, we also see ourselves for who we are (cf. 1John 3:2).
What we find in our life, as presently constituted, is that our sins are often a poor imitation of righteousness. The passions, for example, are not inherently sinful, but are distortions of their proper purpose. We are supposed to get hungry – but at the right time, in the right measure, for the right things. Instead, our hunger runs out of control and becomes gluttony. The same can be said of all of our desires.
Even shame itself, which, in its proper form, is nothing more than a signal for a boundary – and actually necessary for us to experience awe and wonder – becomes an all-comsuming passion that creates false personalities and the irrational desire to hide, to wrongly belong, to become what we were never meant to be.
The desire of mimesis, to be like someone, properly belongs with our desire to be “like” God, according to the image of Christ. This is a cruciform desire in which we practice self-emptying as a means of self-fulfillment. In purely human terms, there is another example.
We probably do not think of marriage as a desire to be “like” someone, but that is only a distortion of our definition of likeness. Men and women were made to “fit” one another – not as copies (in which the “parts” would be incompatible). Our “fitness” complements one another in a manner that rightly makes us complete. The “likeness” of marriage is a desire to become “one flesh,” and, when rightly understood, simply “one.” The “plumbing” is an obvious part of this, but is actually the easiest and simplest part. If the rest of the complementarity is lacking (which is a great matter of eros, kenosis, and love) then the physical “fit” becomes more of a weapon than a union.
Anyone who has been married for a period of years (successfully or unsuccessfully) knows that all of this is a difficult thing, just as it is a wonderful thing. I think that modern marriage is often problematic in that people are trying to do something other than “fit.” There is a fear that traditional marriage entails the loss of self or a subservience, or something worse (a lot of ink has been spilled since the 1960s criticizing marriage while magnifying the sexual revolution). At present, there’s more than a little chaos surrounding the whole thing.
What has not disappeared, however, is the place of mimesis. The crowd (pick a crowd, any crowd) is a terrible substitute for God. We desire God (and the desire for God is innate because we are created in His image). We discover the false god of the crowd, however, as we seek to protect ourselves from the ravages of shame. Who wants to be lonely, isolated, despised, and ridiculed? The crowd, like the demons, only seeks to devour us. Look at our heroes. Today’s hero makes a wrong move and is tomorrow’s pariah.
“I want to be like you,” is a proper prayer if spoken to Christ. “I want to be like you,” can even be a proper prayer if spoken to a saint (who is in the image of Christ). “I want to be like you,” is a consent to a deathwish if spoken to the crowd and the culture of our time.
We are created for God and the true goodness which comes only from Him.