Dealing with desire

Rene Girard has disrupted the rhythmic foundations of my thought and activity. My first interaction with his theories of mimetic desire, scapegoating, sacrifice and violence—brought about by reading a curated collection of articles designed as an introduction to his work—has me asking awkward questions about myself, the world and others. There are many things I could say about this. But the one I wish to highlight today is obvious, simple, and something which, consequently, remained under my radar. It is the differing approach to desire in Eastern and Western philosophy.

In brief, Girard theorises that desire is triangular. An object is not desired for its desireable-ness, but because someone we admire desires it. Desire is not spontaneous, he says. The three points of this triangular model are “Self”, “Model” and “Object” and it is what gives rise to an escalation of violence. Because we desire what our model also desires we are destined to come into conflict when we both strive to attain the same thing.

An obvious question, then, is what to do with the knowledge of this triangular desire? Eastern philosophies—Buddhism, in particular—advises the dissolution of desire. A sufficient clarity of perception allows a person to burst the balloon of desire, refactoring the objects we lust for as useless and damaging to our quest for serenity. Buddhism says that if we look close enough, for long enough, and with enough candor, desire dissolves. This is the Eastern stance. The Western stance doesn’t seek to dissolve all desire, but to leverage it. It seeks to shift its focus from something “bad” to something “good”. For example, Christianity advises its follower to imitate Jesus Christ, to hold him in mind and to desire to be like him, to live as he lived. The dangerous energy that desire can inspire is thus turned to a good cause.

I don’t think one strategy prevails over the other. Both are valid and effective, so perhaps the best method is to leverage both. Stamp out harmful desire in your personal life using Eastern methods and re-orient desire in your commercial life by deliberately choosing an ideal person as a model, for example.