Mimetic Monday: January 18, 2021

Martin Luther King Jr

Hi everyone,

Here is this week’s Mimetic Monday: the art, people, and news that inspire imitation—for better or for worse.

  • ⬆️ What I’m reading. I’m fascinated by stories of radical and unexpected personal transformation—when a person changes their mind about something critical, undergoes a genuine religious conversion, or walks away from an ideology, party, person, place, or group which their very identity had been bound up with. In my view, part of the American malaise right now is that we’ve stopped believing in the possibility of this kind of transformation. People are the way they are—so find your “tribe” and fortify your position. We lack hope in emergent possibilities. Things get particularly interesting when an elected leader turns out to be very different from what anyone expected. This is why I like The Young Pope (anything by director Paolo Sorrentino, really— he also directed The Great Beauty). When a leader undergoes an ex-post transformation, it is often the case that the very qualities that got them elected are the very things they need to change in order to transcend the existing paradigm. And this finally brings me to what I’m reading: Gorbachev: His Life and Times, by William Taubman. “When people finally get around to studying the possible influence of individuals on history, they should devote a chapter to Gorbachev,” mused the social theorist René Girard. Gorbachev was profoundly affected by the Chernobyl disaster (among other things ) and underwent a transformation after having been appointed General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. I normally prefer autobiographies to biographies because they can communicate the interior life of a person in a way that a biographer never can, but this biography is excellent. You glimpse the soul of the man.
  • ⬆️ Who’s inspiring me. Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the U.S. I’ll spare you a traditional “in these difficult times” bromide or remarks on racism. MLK was a great leader, and racism is a serious problem. Every year on this date, I re-read Letter from a Birmingham Jail, and I always find something new in it that strikes me and haunts me for the rest of the week. What’s inspiring me today, though, is the long-lasting friendship between Cornel West, a progressive public intellectual who fights for racial justice “through the traditions of the black Church” (his words), and Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, a conservative-minded Catholic. They model the desire for civil dialogue between people with very different perspectives—and more than the desire for it, the actual practice of it. On January 21, 2021 (this Thursday), they’re holding a free webinar titled “Is Civil Discourse Dead?” hosted by the University of Colorado at Boulder.
  • 👯 In the news. These Mimetic Monday emails are, well, intended to be mimetic (so please consider sharing them if they spark a thought or inspiration). But what does “mimetic” really mean? Ahead of the release of my (90,000-word 😮) book on this topic this June, I did my best to write a condensed introduction to mimetic desire here. People often ask me: okay, so what do I actually do about mimetic desire? Good question. I hope to begin offering some suggestions both here and in the Anti-Mimetic newsletter over the coming weeks and months. Here’s one. When I read opinion pieces in publications or in the news (and the news increasingly feels like opinion pieces), I always try to ask myself: Who or what is the hidden model that the writer is writing for? In other words, what is the motivating desire for them to write this piece in the first place? It’s likely that they don’t even know. But if you can glean even a vague idea, you’re going to be able to engage the piece with greater realism and avoid becoming complicit in the Romantic Lie (that there are no models). There is not always an objective, but there is always a model. If you can begin to identify them—especially your own—you’ve taken the first step toward developing some anti-mimetic machinery in your gut that will save you from becoming too much of a product of the place or the age or the social milieu you live in. Because that, too, is a fairly degrading form of slavery.

Comments or questions? You can send me a tweet @lukeburgis (adding #mimeticmonday helps me find it). You can also text me at (+1) 202-918-3743 to be added to my text group (Note: I can only respond to short and very specific questions via text, but so far this experiment is going well. If you just say “Hey, it’s [me]”, you’ll get around one text/month from me with updates/special events/invites, no fluff.)

Have a wonderful week, everyone—
Here’s to us all wanting more by Sunday,



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