The Genesis of Desire: Chapter One

“There are only two tragedies in life: One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” — Oscar Wilde (quoted in this chapter)


Chapter One is titled “Psychological Movement.” It’s divided into two sections, “Mimetic Desire” and “Interdividual Psychology.” The topic headings below are mine.

Desire and its Psychological Role

Basically, desire creates the self.

“Desire is psychological movement. In psychology, there is no movement that is not desire, and there is no desire that is not movement.”

Desire is a force, an energy, that, “like any other, can manifest or exert itself only in the presence of some resistance. This resistance does not necessarily need to be real; it can also be imaginary. … Every obstacle, even if only dreamed, feeds desire.”

Desire gets its energy from relationships, from the reciprocal movement back and forth between model and subject, as one suggests a desire and the other imitates, and then the other suggests and the first one imitates, and so on.

In fact, the self that we think of as so intact, continuous, whole and originating in us, is actually only created in relation with others:

The memory that ties together our successive states, “along with the forgetfulness that conceals from us the origin of our desires, apparently permits us to believe in the underlying continuity of a permanent identity. These factors organize in reality an ex post facto reconstruction that is completely illusory; the present self is always different from what it had been.It never ceases to create itself and recreate itself in the bosom of each relationship. … Our desire, and thus our self, forms in that ‘between,’ in that relation; the self is not something hidden away, sheltered, and fortified within itself, but the product of a continuous process of creation taking place at the crossroads of our encounters, within our abiding symmetrical exchanges with those around us. It cannot be born except from these exchanges.”

Desires Are Born in Relationships

“Every desire is born from a relationship; it emerges from within it.”

Our desires don’t belong to us; we learn them through a series of cultural models presented to us over the years, tutoring us in whom and what to desire. Desire is drawn by the desire of others:

“It is not so much love that is blind but the desire that carries it, because that desire is always drawn by the desire of others rather than by the object it pursues. The same is true of fashions in clothing, of fashionable ideas, or of what is ‘politically correct’ — all are examples of mimetic desire at work.”

And, sometimes our desire is awakened more directly, by someone we know who reveals an attraction for something or someone.

And, we may desire something because it seems to be forbidden; it’s common to strongly desire something that we can’t have and that someone else seems to possess:

“This is what every successful seducer soon learns; he knows that to achieve his goal, he must mask his own desire and pretend indifference, set up false obstacles before the one he desires, make himself seem distant and unattainable; in brief, he must forbid himself to her.”

Difference between Desire, Need and Instinct

Need: Biological. Pre-exists the object that satisfies it.   Can be satisfied by a number of things or in a number of ways.  Examples: hunger, thirst, sex.

Instinct: The means through which need is satisfied, “a sequence of genetically determined behaviors.”

Desire: Psychological. Is suggested by an object. Can only be satisfied (at first, at least) by one object, because it’s been specifically designated for me by another. And in fact, it can’t actually be entirely satisfied at all, even in the moment, as a need can.


I find the ‘one object’ distinction between need and des relationire misleading for two reasons. First: it’s true, in the case Oughourlian gives as an example, that if I fall in love with my friend’s spouse, it’s only that friend’s spouse that I want and I won’t be easily redirected to another object of desire; but in other situations, there might be a range of things that would satisfy a desire. For example, I might want a particular red wine because all the cool people are drinking or talking about it, but they might also be drinking or talking about fresh-squeezed lime juice, so I could drink that as well and meet my desire to feel ‘cool’. Second: The specific object matters to start with, as in the case of the friends spouse, but as mimetic rivalry escalates, the object almost drops out of the equation as the rivals seek to gain power over each other and seek to appropriate the other’s being. At that point, as Girard and others (see War of the Roses, above!) have pointed out, almost any object will do as a pretext for the conflict; objects become interchangeable because they were never the point anyway.


Desire can modify instinct

“and can even pervert it, for example, by modifying it so as to turn away from nutrition — as when an anorexic, fixed on an ideal and impossible model, is no longer able to adequately nourish herself. All the various forms of sexual perversion (fetishism, voyeurism, sadomasochism, and so on) illustrate the myriad ways in which mimetic desire can modify the underlying sexual instinct.”

We can choose among the things that we desire:

“Our desire, by its very nature, imitates all the desires around it. Now among all the desires we are susceptible to imitating, some contradict others, inviting us to follow very different paths. … We will therefore be led to reject one or the other of these desires, since we cannot welcome them all simultaneously.”

What Do We Really Desire?

Mimetic desire, or unconscious imitation (though sometimes it’s quite conscious as well), leads us to imitate by four means:

1. the other’s appearance or other obvious characteristics, such as looks, voice, walk, attitudes (I used to copy some of my friends’ handwriting) 

2. the other’s belongings (cars, clothes, style, etc.), which are “sought out as carrying a surplus of ‘being'”

3. the other’s being – whether by benign identification with someone far away from us geographically, socially, etc. (e.g., a celebrity or politician) or through mimetic rivalry with someone in our social circle or whom we see as an equal.

4. the other’s totality, i.e., all 3 aspects above

But at any level, the mimetic nature of desire means that

“it is always ready to follow after any other that crosses its path. What other? Every other — all those around us whom we take as models, whether they are intimates or strangers, … anyone we compare ourselves to. … In this sense, mimetic desire is always a desire ‘to be,’ to exist in greater measure, a desire for an achievement or a dreamed-of-completeness that one might feel stands before one but is being held onto by the other. “


For me, this is a key insight of mimetic theory, that all mimetic desire is metaphysical desire; we want what we want because we think it will give us more worth, more value, more being. Advertisers know this and apply it when marketing items that, if we buy them (and in fact, even if we merely desire them), will make us cool, bring us inner peace, give us beauty, cause people to admire and envy us, and so on.

How Does Mimetic Desire Lead to Rivalry and Violence?

“From the very fact that I imitate the desire of another, that I want to take for myself either what belongs to him or what he seeks to acquire, the other person appears to me as an obstacle. The other intrudes himself between me and the object.”

If the model, the one whose desire I imitate, lives in a different world from mine, then I can try to resemble him without actually competing with him. I can simply identify with him. But, the more accessible to me the model is, the more likely that “it will arouse covetousness and rivalry in me.”

Sometimes, when it becomes known to the model that I desire something s/he has or wants, the model will take proactive steps to deflect and defuse the rivalry before it can blossom. For example, if I admire a piece of clothing on my friend, she might give that piece of clothing to me (“here, you take it!”) or give me a present of a very similar item “to undercut at the very moment of its birth any feeling of envy.” As Oughourlain notes, this requires a certain amount of vigilance and asceticism to accomplish on a regular basis.

When rivalry is not defused, it enters into rivalrous reciprocity, “a rivalry that has a constant tendency to intensify” and each becomes the model-rival for the other. And, “in copying one another while drawing ever closer to each other, the rivals progressively become identical,” though they would heartily deny this.

Each person, “in order to distinguish himself from the other, tries to denigrate his adversary, to triumph over him, to assert the anteriority of his own desire and his exclusive ownership of it.” As rivalry mounts, exasperation with the other leads to a mimetic crisis, and in romantic relationships and even friendships, into pathological rivalry. I was reminded reading this of the movie that best epitomises the endlessly destructive nature of this sort of rivalry, The War of the Roses (1989); neither party will disengage from the escalation, until they both resemble each other completely in their desires and actions.

When we reach the mimetic crisis, the original object of desire doesn’t matter anymore; we want to dispossess the other entirely, and “acquiring the object is now only a means to acquiring the being of the [model], which the subject has endowed with an imaginary prestige that one might even call a ‘hallucinatory sacrality.’


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