Mimetic Desire and Truth (2)

yellowTulips1We tend to think our likes and dislikes and beliefs and unbeliefs are our own. “I like apple pie.” “I hate pickles.” “I believe that Jesus rose from the dead.” “I don’t believe in a conspiracy of interplanetary lizards to take over the planet earth.” As I admitted in my first post in this series, I reflexively think in these terms in spite of all the reading and reflection on mimetic desire that I’ve done. But if desire is mimetic, then all of our likes and dislikes, beliefs and unbeliefs are connected with those of other people.

There is, of course, a distinction between appetite—our bodily needs and gut reactions to various things—and desire, which is mimetic, but pinpointing the distinction in our ongoing experience is sometimes tricky. We all need to eat, but the specific foods we desire are colored by desires of others for specific foods. What we eat may depend on what is available, but when there is a choice, although individual preferences may be present, the desires of other people tend to make some foods more desirable than others. My parents encouraged a desire for roast beef and shrimp. The former never take that much but the latter sure did. Even so, during an impressionable period of my life when I was just starting to live into my conversion back to Christianity, a couple of my best friends were so strong on the desire for steak that I fooled myself into falling in with their desire when I really would have preferred crab cakes. I wasn’t really put under pressure or anything; it was just the ambient desire trumped what I more naturally liked.

In non-rivalrous situations, this imitation of desire is not a problem and is often a good thing. It was the sharing of a desire for good music in the church choir I sang in as a boy that awoke my own interest in music. One could speak of this as an individual choice in that not all choristers got interested in music to the extent that I did, but following up this interest brought me into the community of music lovers. Books, such as The Victor Book of the Symphony and people I knew introduced me into the “canon” of classical music and instilled in me a desire for the symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms and others. I was dismayed and disappointed when the Symphonie-Fantastique by Berlioz didn’t take and it leaves me cold to this day. In those days, Gustav Mahler’s canonicity was in dispute until Leonard Bernstein put him in the composers’ hall of fame so I had to make a choice. It was a no-brainer as soon as I heard one of his symphonies.  Even so, my growing sense of what I liked and disliked was never unaffected by the mimetic desire floating about in my musical ambience. When a sophisticated friend of mine dismissed some great works, it was difficult for me to see beyond his prejudices and get a sense of what was true about the music.

It is also more possible to see the truth of other people in a non-rivalrous situation than one fraught with rivalry. In such a situation, two young men can appreciate the qualities of the young woman who is currently coupled with his friend, sharing gently in his friend’s desire but not becoming a rival. This is the situation in the beginning of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s TaIe. Polixenes appreciates the qualities of his friend’s wife Hermione without envy, but Leontes projects is own jealousy on his friend with terrible results. That is, with the entry of envy and rivalry, the truth ceases to be expansive and shared; it becomes distorted. I will examine this distortion in my next post in this series.

Continue on to Mimetic Desire and Truth (3)

See also Mimetic Desire and Mimetic Rivalry

A Bit About Me

A Benedictine monk in the Episcopal Church who writes fantasy fiction? How did that happen? The short answer is: God knows. As for myself, all I can say that the fantastical has always fascinated me and matters of faith have always been a consuming interest. The first two books to have my name written in them were that tales of Hans Christian Andersen and Grimm’s fairy tales. I started writing fantasy stories as a child and I haven’t stopped since. My religious journey took many twists and turns during my youth, including detours in Hinduism and Buddhism, although I consistently believed that religion dealt with the most important things in life. This journey led me back to the Episcopal Church in which I was raised and then to St. Gregory’s Abbey in Three Rivers, Michigan.

Another interest that caught me and has never let me go is music. Singing in a high quality church choir as a boy introduced me to great choral masterpieces and music has been woven with my religious interests ever since. These days, I sing plainsong in the monastic church and listen to music of all kinds in my spare time. Along with my religious convictions, music is a major strand in many of my stories.

Another swirl running through all of these major interests is a concern for peace and for alternatives to violence. In my stories and other writings, seeking peace within oneself and, more important, within social relationships, has become one of the major themes I deal with. Tools for Peace engages in a dialogue between the Rule of St. Benedict and the thought inspired by René Girard, a thinker preoccupied with the social dimensions of violence while my stories take the reader through enchanted but sometimes troubling pathways in search of visions of peace.

I suppose I could sum up my outlook in life as: Saint Benedict in Fairyland. In their various ways, St. Benedict and fairy tales combine an earnest moral and spiritual drive with a delight in God’s goodness. For me, monastic discipline and the freedom of the fantastical imagination reinforce each other. Both my religious writings and my stories witness to my conviction that, contrary to the violence humans perpetrate, God has created a friendly universe grounded in God’s love for all of us.