I hadn’t talked to Rebecca since we were in middle school together almost a decade ago. When we incidentally reconnected through a mutual friend this summer, I certainly didn’t expect her to give me any epiphanies about my dating relationship that ended four years ago.
Yet as she told me about the French theorist René Girard, whose work she’d studied for her undergrad thesis, I realized that his account of mimetic desire–the way that one’s desires are shaped by one’s observation of others’ desires–could have really interesting implications for romantic relationships. “Does Girard’s mimetic theory have anything to say about romantic desire and relationship?” “Oh, yes–one of the most obvious instances of mimesis is in the love triangle.”
“Funnily enough,” I said, “my romantic involvement with Jill started with me trying to, um, forge a love triangle. Can I tell you about our romantic involvement and you run a Girardian diagnostic?” “Yes, please!” she replied with academic glee, and we settled in for my rambling recollection.
I met Jill early in our freshman year, both through a group of classes that we shared and through a few clubs in which we both became involved. I would’ve said from day one that she was cute, sure, but I knew from Facebook that she had a boyfriend from high school, and I didn’t need to mess with that. Until, one day–sitting across from Jill at lunch with friends–I realized just how fetching I found her, and I suddenly resolved that maybe I did need to mess with that. Somehow I kicked off an escalating sequence of flirting, and I became convinced that with enough practice room jam-sessions, she’d surely break up with Jack to have me instead.
The triangle connecting the three of us obviously positioned Jack and I in competition, whether or not he knew it: Only one of us could have Jill’s hand in romance, so to speak. Girard would posit that my desire for Jill was partially fueled by Jack’s desire for her–I desired her in part because I knew that Jack already did–and that in such a case, the pursuers’ relationship necessarily tends to involve and even breed antagonism, because only one pursuer can really succeed. Girard’s insight extends far beyond this, but this is the crucial point for my purposes.
I’d heard that many high school couples break up over Thanksgiving or Christmas. My college, which uses trimesters, rolled the two breaks into one, which would give Jill plenty of time to break up with Jack. I went home for Thanksgiving eager to (hopefully) spot the news on Facebook over break and then have Jill for myself come January.
While Jill and Jack didn’t change their minds over break, I encountered online some advice that changed mine: I could either keep my selfishness or practice my Christian faith, but I couldn’t choose both. I resolved toward faithfulness, and I decided that once Jill and I returned to school, I would come clean with her and ask her to figure out with me how to practice respect for each other.
Jill and I talked it out shortly after returning to campus. She soon broke it off with Jack, and after a month of ostensibly developing our just-friendship, she and I decided that we should officially start dating. We knew that in our excitement and infatuation we might be overlooking important things that could harm our relationship, so we arranged to meet with Tim, our campus ministry organization’s director, to tell him about our situation and get his veteran matchmaker’s perspective on whether we were acting wisely. Once he affirmed that we seemed well prepared to date, we further arranged to meet with him weekly so that he could serve as a mentor for us, keeping tabs on our relationship and holding us accountable for important things that we might not take seriously enough on our own.
At this point in my retelling, I turned to Rebecca with a question. Jill, Jack and I had formed a triangle back in the first trimester, and then later, Jill and I were forming a structurally-similar triangle with Tim. What made this second triangle free of antagonism? What difference made the first triangle bad but this second one good?
The difference is in the type of object being mutually pursued. In the first triangle, Jack and I were competing for something–Jill’s hand in romance–that only one of us could really have. In the second triangle, Jill and I were pursuing wisdom, and we turned to Tim to mediate wisdom for us. Where Jill’s hand in romance was only available for sole possession–either Jack could have it or I could–wisdom is beyond sole possession. My gaining wisdom didn’t make Jill any less able to do the same. Further, I think that our mutual pursuit of wisdom was an instance of "positive mimesis." Each of us imitated the other in pursuing wisdom to the ultimate benefit of us both.
To wrap up this post, it’s worth specifically noting that more than three parties can be involved in a mimetic polygon. The difference is not in how many parties are pursuing a common object, but rather in the nature of the object mutually pursued.
This post is the first in a several-part series. Tune in next time to hear about how mimetic polygons relate to cultural coalitions, shibboleths and social media jousting!