The Genesis of Desire

In my effort to devour everything the library has related to Girard, I switched gears to psychology and picked up The Genesis of Desire by Frenchman Jean-Michel Oughourlian.

As I mentioned earlier, the book is equal parts awesome and ridiculous.

He begins by giving desire a broad definition: desire is psychological movement. Every movement requires energy, a driving force. The stuff going on inside our head (at least a lot of it anyway) is driven by desire.

At the heart of the book is a long and rather fascinating reading of the Genesis creation narrative.

I was going to say I don’t have time summarize it all here but the truth is I don’t want to put forth the effort! I’m tired and relaxing with a beer after the kids are in bed.

On the downside, his reading is too friendly to evolution to my liking (but that’s not really important) and his treatment of Satan is probably one of the weaker parts. Does Satan stir up mimetic rivalry in man? Absolutely. Does he start off by driving the man and woman apart? Definitely. Is there a model here for marriage and relationship problems? Yes and yes and to the degree that he follows these paths, he makes a lot of sense. I still reject the idea that Satan IS, ontologically, mimetic rivalry. Just as I reject the Satan that is from Milton and not the Bible, I also reject the Satan that is an imaginary devil that suddenly ceases to exist at all after a bit of philosophical hand-waving.

I like his conclusion about the topic that titles the book. You think desire is evil and comes from Satan? Nope. He is not the “unmoved mover” of our thoughts, good and evil. No, it’s God. God desires and we are made in his image. He gives us the breath of life. He gave our minds that first PUSH that makes us different from all the other creatures. I can make this sync with Sayer’s The Mind of the Maker and also Tolkien’s theology of sub-creation. Awesome.

He spends another chapter (there are only 5 chapters, all of them rather long) discussing the discovery of what some neuroscientists are calling “mirror neurons”. These apparently can be observed firing when we desire and even when we perceive another person desiring (the important part). This part might make a good hour on the Discovery channel if it had some good visuals, but just talking about it and summarizing the data is not particularly convincing. I don’t care about this part much though I’m assuming this stuff is mostly true.

His section on how marriage relationships both gather their romantic momentum AND derive their conflict from mimetic rivalry between the couple is really quite good. It describes in different language what Larry Crabb describes in his “I Love You –> I Need You –> I Hate You” explanation of close relationship problems. Some time I really want to synthesize these two explanations. I think they can both benefit from each other. It gives Crabb’s work a more solid footing to stand on. Oughourlian could use a bit less abstraction.

Along these lines he throws out a funny quote by Groucho Marx:

“Never trust couples who hold hands: if they won’t let go of each other, it’s because they’re afraid they might kill each other.”

Going back to the Genesis narrative for a second, I was struck by this passage on the tree of knowledge of good and evil. I am often delighted when I find an old traditional theology that I’ve held on to from childhood replaced by something that makes WAY more sense. What is amazing is that you will often find it backed up by the church father’s too. Check this out:

What IS the “knowledge of good and evil”? It is not a form of objective knowledge or knowledge of how to do something: Adam knows his way around his world perfectly; the garden is his domain, and it is he who, in verses 19 and 20, gives names to all the animals that God parades before him. Nor is that knowledge a form of moral discernment or a capacity for judgment: Adam already has that, otherwise God’s counsel or warning would convey no meaning to him.

You got that? It’s not moral discernment. “Oh my gosh! This over here is good and that over there is evil. Holy crud! I never knew!” Adam already understands that. God gave him the command earlier to not eat the fruit. Eve knows this too and knows to resist the temptation even, at first. So what is the knowledge of good and evil?

According to the tradition of Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas, the “knowledge of good and evil” has to do with a claim to moral autonomy: to eat of the fruit of this tree is to appropriate the knowing of good and evil to oneself, to set oneself up as the judge of what is good and what is evil. It is therefore an attempt to overturn the divine order.

That is one interesting way to read it. Even more interesting from my point of view is that suggested in the commentary of Josy Eisenberg:

“This tree is the place where Good and Evil are confused together. To speak of fusion is to speak also of confusion…this is the new situation with which Adam is confronted: there exists a tree – a world – where Good and Evil are in a mixed state.”

And further on, Eisenberg adds:

The mixture of God and Evil in all things is itself, according to Jewish mysticism, the dominant characteristic of the human story.”

Developing this idea, I propose to show that if the forbidden tree gives rise to desire, it is mimetic desire that makes good and evil spring from ths prohibition and, with the, all the relative, subjective, and generative differences of rivalry.


Later he goes on to explain how all relationships are mimetic. We imitate each other. The one exception being our relationship with God, who does not change. We imitate Christ, but Christ remains unstained by rivalry. In him alone can we find peace.

At the beginning and end of the book he uses some specific stories or case studies involving his own clients. I wish he had done this more. As Mary Dupree (one of my best professors) always said, “Be specific. Use examples!”.

I must say, I found his stories of torrid romances and affairs really rather out of control. My initial thought was that, marriage, if nothing else, puts a damper on the kind of crazy emotional trouble some of his subjects have put themselves through. Strengthening just the institution of marriage alone, even if it does not deal with the underlying problems of mimetic rivalry, will still go a LONG way toward softening the damage people do to their friends, family, and especially children. But we live in a world where our lovers may come and go relatively easily and rapidly. Are we the happier for it? Quite the contrary.

On a side note, another example of stuff in the book that I didn’t find helpful was his regular discussion of hypnosis. I guess I don’t know very much about it, but I find it impossible to take seriously.

All in all, good stuff lurking in here and it definitely props up some of the Girard-based ideas I’ve been working out lately.

Why so few posts of late?

1. My laptop broke and was in the shop getting the motherboard replaced. Apparently 2007 Mac Books have a defect in the video card.

2. The kids have been as crazy busy as ever. Crazier and busier as evererer.

3. I read the collection of essays, For Rene Girard. Lots of interesting stuff in there, but not much that makes for good blog posts. I will be posting a few notes from this soon though.

4. I read Jean-Michel Oughourlian’s The Genesis of Desire. It was about equal parts awesome and ridiculous. It definitely gives me some paths to explore for combining the work of Girard and Larry Crabb though.

5. I read Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative. (See how much reading I get done when I don’t have my computer!) I finally understand where Peter Leithart is coming from now with some of his analysis. Much of it is in the same vein as this. I was previously pretty unfamiliar with this form of Bible scholarship.

6. I’m beginning to realize that my note-taking method isn’t working anymore. All the thoughts and ideas I want to get down on paper are increasingly becoming to long to describe in a paragraph. Most of the supporting material I’ve been digging up on Girard requires too much context to communicate. I think I need to move to some sort of running commentary/outline method of notetaking instead of just marking and jotting down interesting quotes.

7. And finally, I purchased a video game for the first time in many years. Yes, what a terrible and irresponsible thing to do, right?

John Henry Newman quotes

Gil Bailie, in his recent contribution to a collection of essay’s honoring Rene Girard, throws out some great quotes by early 17th century Anglican (and later RC theologian) John Henry Newman. They all come from a set of sermons titled “Chiefly on the Theory of Religious Belief”.

This is the best:

Nothing is so easy as to be religious on paper

And here we find him intuitively citing the mechanics of mimetic rivalry:

The warfare between Error and Truth is necessarily advantageous to the former.

So fighting about something is rigged, from the beginning to at least favor error! How about a much more powerful alternative to reasoned argument?

Men persuade themselves, with little difficulty, to scoff at principles, to ridicule books, to make sport of the names of good men; but they cannot bear their presence: it is holiness embodied in personal form, which they cannot steadily confront and bear down: so that the silent conduct of a conscientious man secures for him from beholders a feeling different in kind from any which is created by the mere versatile and garrulous Reason.

Good stuff.