I need to write about Rene Girard and the concept of mimetic desire. I am going to fail to adequately explain this concept as I am just learning about it. But it is so important and groundbreaking for me that I need to take a stab at explaining the concept so that I know I get it well enough to use it.
Rene Girard and Mimetic Desire
This concept is so large that it absolutely deserves multiple essays. I am absolutely going to fail to do this concept justice as I am only recently becoming familiar with it. But it is such an important idea that I can confidently call my Shakespeare challenge a life changing success simply by becoming formally acquainted with this idea of mimetic desire.
The theory of mimetic desire suggests that human beings don't really know what they want in life. Because we do not know what we want we attempt to figure it out by seeing what other people want. In other words most of our stated desires are predominately based on what we see around us. In other words our desires are mostly reflections of the models we have used to develop our lives.
Man is the creature who does not know what to desire
We desire what others desire because it is easier to emulate than it is to think about what we truly want.
The most interesting man in the world - why this concept is important
The most interesting man in the world campaign was so incredibly successful - a commercial that became a decade long advertising campaign. The reason the campaign was so incredibly successful was because the advertisers figured out a desire that many men have. We desire to be interesting to other people. We want to be respected by others and considered a cut above the rest.
The campaign resonated so well because it understood this concept of mimetic desire - by connecting their product (Dos Equis) to the person we seek to emulate (the most interesting man in the world) we become attracted to the brand because on a subconscious level it is connected with our deeper desire.
Brand loyalty is really a kind of sublimated mimetic desire. People are loyal to brands precisely to the extent that they represent an ideal that we wish to achieve. Harley Davidson is popular among men who aspire to being tough and rugged. Rolex is popular among men who desire to be seen as sophisticated and worldly. Apple is popular among people who aspire to be savvy and sophisticated.
How this applies to Shakespeare
Girard argues that Shakespeare understood this concept of mimetic desire centuries before modern day psychologists articulated the concept.
Shakespeare attempted to make two plays in each story - the entertaining play that would appeal to the masses and the deeper play that would express his thoughts about mankind and how we play out our journey of mimetic desire.
In Midsummer Night's Dream that mimetic desire plays out in the struggle of the young couples. The people that they claim to love has more to do with mimetic rivalry than actual love. So Helena doesn't really want Demetrius, she wants to be like Hermia. We see this in Helena's monologues of how she wishes she could be like Hermia. Helena spends nearly no time articulating what she loves about Demetrius but all of her time talking about how she wishes she were more like Hermia.
This makes sense - Helena and Hermia grew up together. They were together all the time so in figuring out what she wants, Helena naturally used Hermia as the model for what she should want.
In Two Noble Kinsmen the concept of mimetic rivalry plays to its fullest. Arcite doesn't really want Emilia, he wants to be like Palamon. The entire play is fundamentally a matter of two men using a woman as a proxy for their desire to one up each other. If Palamon wants Emilia then Arcite should want her because they have served as each other's mimetic models and mimetic rivals.
Troilus and Cressida is likely Shakespeare's masterpiece of displaying the concept of mimetic desire. All of the contests in this play are essentially displays of mimetic desire. The Greeks want Helen back because the Trojans have taken her. The Trojans are willing to fight and die to keep her because the Greeks want her back.
Paris takes Helen not so much because he is desperately in love with Helen but because he wants to be king. As the 50th in line for the throne he will never be the King of Troy, but he can take the symbol of king by taking the wife of a king.
Why this concept is a game changer
We tend to credit Sigmund Freud as the founder of the discipline of psychology. But these ideas of the hidden reasons for our actions has been understood by the great artists of humanity. Shakespeare was teasing out the idea of the hidden motivations centuries before Freud and Jung discussed these ideas.
On a personal level it does have me asking myself why I want certain things. Why do I enjoy watching shows about people buying a beach house? Is it because I want to own property that I only spend two weeks a year enjoying or is it because I have adopted that as a goal after seeing other people striving for that?
I began this goal of reading all of Shakespeare's plays because I had gotten so much personal satisfaction out of the plays I had read. But I knew on some subconscious level that there was going to be substantial personal dividends that I would reap in the process.
Learning about this concept of mimetic desire is proof that I was correct. These ideas have enriched my reading and will continue to enrich my understanding of this and other great works I read.
I don't think it is necessary to read Girard to get the concept but he does such a masterful job of articulating and providing evidence to support his ideas that anyone who loves to read deeply would profit from reading a Theater of Envy.
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