The Genesis of Desire
Jean-Michel Oughourlian. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2010. 174 pages.
Dr. Oughourlian, an experienced psychoanalyst in Paris, has collaborated with René Girard for many years in developing mimetic theory. This book presents mimetic theory with a focused application to the work of psychological therapists as they seek to assist couples that are struggling with relational issues. Readers not familiar with Girard will find this to be a worthy introduction to Girard’s theory of human psychology, particularly if they have an interest in marriage counseling. Readers who are familiar with Girard will find this to be a substantial addition to the secondary literature. The question: “How does mimetic theory apply to . . . [the Arab-Israeli conflict, pastoral work, the interpretation of a literary text, advertizing, etc.]” is a live question among Girardians. This book provides a perspective on that type of query with regard to the psychiatrist’s couch and the anthropological reflections that arise out of that setting.
Theologically inclined readers will take an interest in Oughourlian’s comments on the Adam and Eve story in Genesis, which inspires the title. He interprets Adam and Eve as symbols of human beings in general; the Serpent is the symbol of mimetic desire. The Serpent introduces discontent, a feeling of lack and of deprivation. Out of these flow envy, conflict, and violence. The vertical relationship with God, which signifies the original goodness of creation, is broken down and replaced with horizontal relationships of mistrust, deception, and jealousy. In the wake of the fall into sin, human beings claim to know good and evil, meaning that “my desire will be presumptuously identified with the good, and the other’s rival desire will mendaciously be identified with evil” (68). Some of the author’s more memorable positive comments point to the reality of continuing creation, through which God seeks to bring humans forward into maturity in spite of the pervasiveness of sin. Rivalry is a “closed cycle of time” always repeating the victim/victimizer loop. The time of grace and redemption is “openness to the future” (157).
The book mentions the concept of “mirror neurons,” though it is not an extensive theoretical treatise on that topic. Mirror neurons are an aspect of the brain, which enables humans and other animals to mimic behaviors they observe. This ties mimetic theory to naturalistic roots. The author includes diagrams illustrating psychological concepts that are at times helpful and at times hard to follow.
A fair number of pages are devoted to describing the entangled relationships of Dr. Oughourlian’s patients. X is married to Y, but X is having an affair with Q because Y drinks, and so on and so forth. The doctor seeks to show the patients how they are involved in various triangular relationships that are energized by jealousy. This is interesting, in a tawdry sort of way, but I can imagine many theological readers finding this aspect of the book to reveal more about the soap opera that is contemporary France than it does the gospel message. A doctor using the treasure that is mimetic theory to assist wealthy hedonistic westerners to manage their lives is a limited horizon. There is a great need for Christian catechesis that will apply the insights of Girard and others in a transformative way in our world, from interpersonal relationships on up to international politics. This book leaves the reader feeling that need very acutely; it does not fill the need.