Origin of Mimetic Desire

The discovery of the phenomenon of “mimetic desire” was made by René Girard around 1959. The French professor, now teaching in America, had been asked to teach classes on European literature. He approached the texts like a good archeologist, looking to uncover some overlooked truth about human nature.

In that respect, René Girard is similar to the archeologist Heinrich Schliemann who set out to find the lost city of Troy in 1871 with nothing but a copy of the Iliad under his arm. Schliemann believed that the text contained truths—if one was able to see them. But even more than see them, one had to actually believe that the texts were reliable roadmaps for finding truth in the first place. Schliemann did, and he was rewarded by finding the lost city of Troy two years after he set out to find it.

In this regard, the French historian and social theorist René Girard is a lot like Schliemann. Giard’s colleague, Robert Pogue Harrison, has pointed out his similarities to the 19th-century archeologist, Schliemann, at least in terms of their method.

“Like him, his major discovery was excoriated for using the wrong methods. The others never would have found Troy by looking at the literature—it was beyond their imagination.”

Cynthia Haven, writing in her book “The Evolution of Desire”, a biography of Girard, states the following (taken here from Notre Dame’s ChurchLife Journal):

Girard’s writings hold revelations that are even more important, however: they describe the roots of the violence that destroyed Troy and other empires throughout time.

Like Schliemann, the French academician trusted literature as the repository of truth, and as an accurate reflection of what actually happened. Harrison told me that Girard’s loyalty was not to a narrow academic discipline, but rather to a continuing human truth: “Academic disciplines are more committed to methodology than truth. René, like Schliemann, had no training in anthropology. From the discipline’s point of view, that is ruthlessly undisciplined. He’s still not forgiven.”

Girard took a completely different approach to literary texts at a time when deconstructionism and post-modern was “in.” He believed that the texts actually held meaning—that they could be used to find some universal truth. And he was rewarded for doing so.

This was the discovery of mimetic desire on the part of René Giard. The origins of mimetic desire are another story. Where did it first arise? Who did it start with? Has mimetic desire always been a part of the human condition?

In Chapter 3 of his Magnum Opus, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, Girard implies that mimetic desires emerges from “The Process of Hominization” (the title of the chapter) or, to put it in simpler terms, the transition from animal to man.