View from Rue Saint-Georges

We’re All Different in the Same Way

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By Thomas Chatterton Williams

April 12, 2017


 

 

René Girard, the French thinker (he avoided the term “philosopher”), observed:

We usually desire something in imitation of other people, who are cooler than us—more hip, perhaps—but eventually this imitation will lead to rivalries with the models, the very people imitated in the first place. Mimetic desire makes every member of the community resemble each other, and this lack of differentiation generates scrutiny, envy, anxiety, chaos.

The quotation comes from Deceit, Desire and the Novel, in which Girard was writing in the context of literary criticism, but the insight is equally illustrative of the world off the page. It may hold the key to all of my lost friendships (and perhaps some of yours)—an explanation for the ineffable sense of oppression I gradually came to feel while in the company of certain people and that, I suspect, over the years a few of them likewise felt in my presence. Everyone knows it’s the reason we have all become “hipsters,” yet no one dares to claim the term. It’s also the reason that global monoculture—brunch and drinks are the same from Saint Petersburg to St. Pete—brings comfort until it starts to irritate; why Stan Smith tennis shoes became impossible and people are wearing Reeboks again. It’s the narcissism of the smallest differences, petty and absurd, of course, but world historical and all consuming, too. We like to think of our tastes and preferences as our own, but Girard reminds us that our sense of “divine autonomy” can only ever be a myth.


Thomas Chatterton Williams is the author of a memoir, Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd. He lives in Paris with his wife and daughter.

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