13 June 2016 by Jessica Palmer
On War: Apocalypse and Conversion Review Article on René Girard’s Achever Clausewitz and Jean-Michel Oughourlian’s Genèse du désir
Jean Michel Oughourlian, Genèse du désir, Paris: Carnets Nord, 2007.
René Girard, Benoît Chantre, Achever Clausewitz, Paris: Carnets Nord, 2007.
I. The Resurgence of Mimetic Theory
In October 2007, the newly formed publishing house Carnets Nord released two books by key figures in the world of mimetic theory—Achever Clausewitz, by René Girard, and Genèse du désir by Jean-Michel Oughourlian. It might be said that both pose the same fundamental question, although Girard’s book deals primarily with events unfolding on the grand stage of history, and Oughourlian’s with more personal dramas: once war has been declared (between nations, ethnicities, religions, or even the members of a couple), is there any turning back? In Girard’s view, the modern departure of the gods exposes us to the perils of a perpetual and intensifying combat. “C’est une étrange et longue guerre que celle où la violence essaie d’opprimer la vérité » reads the first line of the book’s epigraph, from Pascal’s Les Provinciales. In dialogue with his French publisher Benoît Chantre, and drawing on the most powerful passages of Carl von Clausewitz’s posthumous treatise On War, Girard explores modern history as an escalation to extremes, inscribing his own anthropological project in the wake of Hölderlin, Germaine de Stael, Baudelaire, and Péguy. Today, affirms Girard, the acceleration of history has attained apocalyptic proportions.
Oughourlian, for his part, sees the combat unfolding on a smaller scale, between the members of couples drawn together by passion and pushed apart by jealousy. The war of the sexes testifies indirectly to the human need for limits and taboos that protect relationships from the vicissitudes of desire. Genèse du désir takes the Biblical account of the fall as an archetypal depiction of the danger facing couples tempted by transgression. Teasing out the implications of recent discoveries in neuroscience, the book proposes strategies intended to protect love from the ravages of mimetic desire. In the end, Oughourlian offers a hopeful message: we need not think of divorce and separation as inevitable.
To understand fully the implications of both books, it is important to examine them within the context of recent developments in what has come to be known as mimetic theory. The basic tenets of the mimetic hypothesis have already been explained many times. Indeed, the growing number of books introducing Girard to the general reader sometimes makes mimetic theory look like another intellectual fashion. To some, the “Girardians” even form a kind of cult. Yet Girard is today among the most talked-about and influential of modern thinkers, and if his turn toward religion has scandalized many in the academy, his theory is far from being the exclusive purview of theologians and pastors. With Girard’s election to the French Academy in 2005, recent discoveries in neuroscience corroborating mimetic theory’s claims about desire, and an explosion of interest in the link between terrorist violence and religion, mimetic theory has of late enjoyed a definite resurgence. The founding of the Association Recherches Mimétiques in Paris two years ago, recent conferences highlighting the convergence between mimetic theory and science, and the forthcoming release of a Cahier de l’Herne on Girard all testify to the theory’s vitality, as well as to its fecundity as an explanation for human cultural origins.
Indeed, “origins” is perhaps the word that best defines what mimetic theory has primarily aimed to elucidate. It is above all a narrative about the alpha point of human culture, the immemorial transition from the pre-human world of animal dominance hierarchies to the violent genesis of the first taboos. Since La Violence et le sacré (1972), Girard’s books have focused on the distant past of myth and ritual, deciphered with the help of Biblical texts that illuminate the mechanism of violence from within, defending accused victims against their deluded persecutors. It is for this reason that Eric Gans, one of Girard’s early graduate students and currently a professor at UCLA, has often argued that while mimetic theory offers an account of religion and ritual, it lacks an in-depth reading of the modern period, a way of thinking about the collapse of royalty and the rise of the bourgeois market system. Of course, Girard has not left modernity completely untheorized. The two principal works of literary criticism—Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque and the later A Theater of Envy: William Shakespeare—as well as the theoretical magnum opus, Des Choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde, examine the modern period from the Renaissance to the present as a slow transition from sacrosanct “external mediation” to liberal democratic destructuration or “internal mediation.” More recently, Girard has published a polemical essay against cultural relativism in Celui par qui le scandale arrive and conducted an interview on terrorism with Le Monde’s Henri Tincq. On the whole, however, the mimetic theory has been primarily an explanation of archaic myth and religion, not a means of understanding the present. Not until the publication of Achever Clausewitz could we speak of a mimetic theory of modern history.
II. An Apocalyptic Book
If much of Girard’s oeuvre addresses the alpha point of human origins, the present book considers the frightening possibility that humanity may be evolving toward an omega point. Having entered a post-Cold War era of terrorism, genocide, and climate change, our species now finds itself confronted with potential self-annihilation. The best summary of the book probably comes in the first lines of Girard’s introduction:
Le livre que voici est un livre bizarre. Il se présente comme une excursion du côté de l’Allemagne et des rapports franco-allemands depuis les deux derniers siècles. Il avance en même temps des choses jamais dites avec la violence et la clarté qu’elles exigent. La possibilité d’une fin de l’Europe, du monde occidental et du monde dans son ensemble. Ce possible est aujourd’hui devenu réel. C’est dire s’il s’agit d’un livre apocalyptique. (p. 9)
It is the heavy weight of this possible end that Girard wants his readers to feel hanging over Europe and indeed the entire world. His book seeks to make this weight tangible by plunging into the heart of European romanticism—a movement that his past books have tended to hold at arm’s length (cf. the “romantic lie”).Achever Clausewitz thus reveals another side of René Girard—the chartiste and the historian, and even the repressed romantic (“J’entre dans Clausewitz par Chopin,” he writes on page 193). Having once looked upon Christianity as a panoramic vantage point from which to survey the errors of both archaic religion and modern rationalist utopian projects, Girard has revised his point of view. He no longer seeks to establish a conceptual distinction between “non-violent” Biblical texts and violent “historical” Christianity. He now appears to see the errors of historical Christianity, from the Crusades to the papacy’s sins of omission during World War II, as forming an indissoluble part of Christianity as a whole, impossible to elide by means of a theoretical “third way”. He had already begun this self-revision in an essay on mimetic theory and theology published inCelui par qui le scandale arrive. But in this book he voices his conviction with renewed force, presenting us with a humanity trapped in history, faced with the difficult choice between violence and renunciation:
J’ai longtemps essayé de penser le christianisme comme une position de surplomb, et j’ai dû y renoncer. J’ai maintenant la conviction que c’est de l’intérieur même du mimétisme qu’il faut penser. (p. 153)
These words offer the key to Achever Clausewitz, and it is in their light that we must understand Girard’s use of the word “apocalypse.” The apocalypse is not God’s final act of vengeance against a sinful humanity but the historical circumstances under which the failure of Christian revelation finally becomes clear. Apocalyptic violence seeks an end in sacrifice but never finds it; it is war with neither cathartic virtue nor foundational potential. The death of Christ on the cross exposed the lie of the scapegoat mechanism from within and offered humanity the chance to establish a new and more mature relationship to the divine. Instead of seizing this opportunity, however, humanity ultimately turned away from what the Passion—the word made flesh—had to say about violence. This was the beginning of the first stirrings of modern history, of that “strange war” waged by violence against truth. Each refusal to accept the truth about violence only put off what Girard calls our inevitable “rendezvous with the real.” Today, the rise of the suicide bomber and the blurring of distinctions between the natural and anthropological realms suggest that we are entering a critical period. The more we do away with traditional institutions, with borders and barriers of all kinds, the more de-institutionalized violence comes back to haunt us, suggesting that politics and technology are now powerless to save us from ourselves.
The book takes the form of a long conversation between Girard and his French publisher, Benoît Chantre, who assembled the manuscript and wrote the final draft with Girard. Though Chantre seems to have done the lion’s share of the writing, readers will recognize Girard’s stylistic tics, his irony, and his favorite rhetorical strategies (a tendency for summarizing complex ideas in a single, elegant line, for example, or his easy, almost personal tone of familiarity with the greatest thinkers of the Western tradition, from Pascal to Nietzsche). And unlike the earlier Des Choses cachées, in which co-authors Guy Lefort and Jean-Michel Oughourlian sometimes sounded like eager Glaucons meekly playing the student’s role to Girard’s Socrates, this book manages to be a real conversation between interviewer and interviewee.
The discussion begins with an examination of some striking passages from the first book of Clausewitz’s On War in which war is examined as a “reciprocal action,” a “duel” that escalates to the utmost extremes. Far from a simple extension of political calculation (“politics continued by other means”), war quickly outstrips the guiding intentions of politics and becomes an end in itself, a massive build-up of troops and armaments theoretically without limits: “En un mot,” writes Clausewitz, “même les nations les plus civilisées peuvent être emportées par une haine féroce. […] Nous répétons donc notre déclaration: la guerre est un acte de violence et il n’y a pas de limite à la manifestation de cette violence. Chacun des adversaires fait la loi de l’autre, d’où résulte une action réciproque qui, en tant que concept, doit aller aux extrêmes » (p. 32). Girard writes that it was this passage that literally grabbed him and wouldn’t let him go : « J’ai soudain eu le sentiment qu’il fallait passer par lui pour comprendre le drame du monde moderne…Je vous avoue que cette définition du duel me fascine et m’effraie à la fois, tant elle recoupe mes analyses et les faire mordre sur l’histoire avec une force que je n’imaginais pas » (p. 32). With the French Revolution came the end of « la guerre en dentelles ». By Clausewitz’s era, war was no longer a sacred institution. It began to break away from its ritualistic roots and to be explicitly subject to the law of reciprocal action.
No sooner has Clausewitz expressed these terrible intuitions, however, than he seems to hesitate. He reminds his reader that the escalation to extremes defines a conceptual limit that real war may approach but never attains. He backs off from his initial, “apocalyptic” position and implies that when it comes to real war, politics can get the better of the passions after all ; that the statesmen’s intentions can reign in the hostile feelings of the populace. It is this side of Clausewitz that most thinkers have highlighted. The rationalism of Raymond Aron, writes Girard, failed to transcend the Cold War period in which it was written. In the end, Aron placed too much faith in the logic of nuclear deterrence. He couldn’t foresee the post-deterrence world of extremes ushered in by the fall of Communism and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. For Girard, the first Clausewitz, who theorizes war as a duel in the first chapter of On War, is the most profound. He alone senses the course of events to come. Achever Clausewitz thus means not only completing and extending the insights of the first chapter of On War, but also finishing off the rationalist Clausewitz manufactured (not entirely without justification) by Aron and other interpreters. The escalation to extremes is not « just » a concept, writes Girard : « Clausewitz ne dit pas en effet que le réel est séparé de son concept, mais que les guerres réelles tendent vers ce point » (p. 33).
Many other figures emerge from Girard’s reading of Clausewitz—Hegel, Nietzsche, Baudelaire, Molière, Carl Schmitt. And Napoleon, Clausewitz’s mimetic idol and most hated adversary. The passages on Clausewitz’s fraught relationship with Napoleon contain some particularly fascinating insights. Once more, Girard picks up the thread that runs throughout Achever Clausewitz : we must think about mimetic desire from within, which means accepting that only saints and geniuses manage to move beyond it. Trying to establish an observation point at a safe distance from the field of observation amounts to an exercise in futility. It is better to acknowledge our hatred than to pretend it doesn’t exist. As for Clausewitz, his hatred for Napoleon never lets up, writes Girard. And he adds : « Je ne suis même pas loin de penser que c’est cette haine qui le fait écrire, qui le fait « théoriser ». Laissons-la lui ! Sans elle, il n’aurait pas eu ces intuitions mysterieuses qui courent sous le texte » (p. 153). Resentment can become the motor of genius, provided we don’t shrink from talking about it openly. This is an experience that many great writers have had. But if Clausewitz, like Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, is one of the supreme « écrivains du ressentiment », one writer stands out from this communion of saints as the anti-Clausewitz, among the few to have escaped the labyrinth of hatred. Of all the Romantic geniuses, it was Hölderlin who, having withdrawn from the world of mimetic oscillations into his tower at Tübingen, managed to grasp the essential conflict between Greek violence and Christian revelation and to choose the latter not as the pure and simple negation of the former, but as its mysterious transformation. The fifth chapter of Achever Clausewitz is entitled « Tristesse de Hölderlin ». Here Girard cites the famous lines from one of the poet’s greatest works, « Patmos » :
Hard to grasp is the god.
But where the danger is,
There also grows our saving grace.
These lines reflect the ambiguity of the apocalyptic message that Girard is trying to convey. Though this book appears to make unprecedented concessions to the power of violence and offers few words of reassurance, Girard stakes his hopes on the idea that meaning is ultimately more rewarding than nihilism. By reading history mimetically he restores meaning not only to the last two hundred years but also to our current historical and geopolitical landscape. In the final chapter, he writes that the Islamists’ theologization of mimetic desire marks a new stage in the Clausewitzian escalation to extremes:
Clausewitz témoigne, de façon plus réaliste que Hegel, de l’impuissance foncière du politique à contenir la montée aux extrêmes. Les guerres idéologiques, justifications monstrueuses de la violence, ont en effet mené l’humanité à cet au-delà de la guerre où nous sommes aujourd’hui entrés. L’Occident va s’épuiser dans ce conflit contre le terrorisme islamiste, que l’arrogance occidentale a incontestablement attisé. Clausewitz voyait encore surgir la violence au sein des conflits interétatiques du XIXe siècle. Les nations étaient là pour contenir la contagion révolutionnaire. La campagne de France s’est encore terminée par le Congrès de Vienne, en 1815. Cette ère est aujourd’hui achevée, à l’heure où la violence ne connaît plus le moindre frein. On peut dire, de ce point de vue, que l’apocalypse a commencé.” (p. 353)
III. Toward a Mimetic Psychotherapy
Jean-Michel Oughourlian’s Genèse du désir is also an apocalyptic book in that it addresses the problem of desire in an era in which the ancient institution of marriage has been weakened considerably and traditional taboos—such as that prescribing conjugal fidelity—have lost much of their power. The result? We are freer than ever before to desire as we will, though we don’t always use this freedom wisely. Oughourlian is a neuropsychiatrist who lives and practices in Paris. He was for many years the director of the psychiatry ward at the American Hospital in Neuilly. He came to the United States as a young man to meet René Girard and ended up collaborating with him on Des Choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde. He later wrote Un mime nommé désir, a theoretical study about demonic possession, hypnotism, and hysteria. The present book continues his investigations into the clinical uses of the mimetic theory, but instead of adopting the technical, theoretical language of his earlier work, Genèse du désiruses accessible case studies and offers concrete advice suitable for both professional psychotherapists and the general reader.
There is much in this book that will seem familiar to anyone who has already readDes Choses cachées. The first two chapters restate the theory of “interdividual psychology” already spelled out in the earlier work. Oughourlian deserves credit, however, for making these summaries particularly engaging and interesting, even for the scholar familiar with mimetic theory. It is what we read in the introduction, however, that whets the reader’s appetite and keeps him going through the densest of the theoretical passages: a series of case studies in which couples experiencing relationship issues spell out their problems for Oughourlian. Instead of explaining his mimetic approach to these situations, most of which involve cases of jealousy or rivalry between spouses, the author builds the suspense, promising to reveal the outcome of the stories at the conclusion of the book. It is a successful technique, especially because this is one of the first books to attempt to apply the mimetic theory as a healing tool, and anyone with an interest in the subject is bound to be curious about whether the hypothesis can work on more than a theoretical level. Oughourlian, for one, believes that bringing the mimetic theory into his psychotherapeutic practice can help people overcome their mimetic obsessions and recover their peace of mind when infidelity, jealous suspicions, and envy are ruining a relationship. The book thus takes the form of a long theoretical detour before returning to the initial case studies. This structure gives it the feel of an intellectual initiation, which is exactly what Oughourlian seems to have intended. For instance, he writes in his introduction that
Le moment est venu de parler du désir et de nous engager dans un long cheminement que l’on pourrait appeler initiatique, en ce sens que j’en suis moi-même sorti transformé et que le lecteur qui fera l’effort de me suivre pourrait vivre la même expérience. (p. 23)
This « path of initiation » has another name: conversion. It is none other than the “conversion romanesque” that came at the conclusion of Girard’s Mensonge Romantique et Vérité Romanesque. The idea of conversion is an intriguing one: by breaking with the world of mimetic desire, the subject manages to find a measure of inner peace while at the same time achieving enough detachment to recognize the lie he was living. The experience may take the form of a sudden fall from grace that shatters the person’s ingrained ways of thinking. If the person who undergoes a conversion is a writer, this means that he can finally describe his own mimetic desire, and in doing so stop worrying about erecting fetishistic barriers between the characters who represent his own desire and those who stand for a Manichean, “other” desire. At a level that transcends political affiliations, tastes, and lifestyle, mimetic desire unites us all and makes it possible for us to identify with people with whom we have little in common on a superficial level. For those who aren’t writers, conversion often means getting over some stubborn obstacle. It means realizing that the obstacle in question, rather than an objective part of the natural world, was actually a self-created epiphenomenon. Once we stop fixating on a given model we stop desiring the same things he or she does and we cease competing with that person. In a world of internal mediation, this may enable us to start desiring again and to get on with our lives, since internal mediation generates relationships of self-denial that paralyze people. Like a miniature potlatch, the askesis produced by internal mediation causes one-upmanship in the wrong direction: I can renounce more desires than you can. This is the phenomenon—known colloquially as being “cool”—behind much postmodern irony, affect-less slacking, and procrastination.
Oughourlian points out the health benefits to be derived from giving up absurd spiritual competitions of this sort. He suggests that the first step toward building healthier relationships is achieving a better understanding of how problems arise. This means recognizing that we are all trapped in reciprocal processes of give and take that push our relationships in directions we can only partially control. If we allow ourselves to be swept up in these mimetic patterns, they are bound to grow worse. To de-escalate once war has been declared, at least one and ideally both members of a couple must be prepared to make some sacrifices. To examine how desire works in general, how it manifests itself in a couple when things start to go wrong, Oughourlian embarks on a reading of Genesis and the story of the fall. This is the second part of the book, and it is by far the richest and most interesting. With the help of fictional vignettes, diagrams, and inventive yet persuasive Biblical exegesis, Oughourlian puts us at the scene of the fall, and enables us to feel what it must have been like for Eve and Adam to feel their relationship falling apart: “Un jour, Ève revient d’une cueillette avec un air distrait qu’Adam ne lui avait jamais vu. Il s’inquiète aussitôt. “Mon amour, que t’arrive-t-il As-tu un souci? —Non, tout va bien, laisse-moi tranquille… Devant cette réponse, sans précédent dans sa vie, il demeure muet. Un sentiment de vide l’envahit. Il se sent brusquement exclu de la pensée de sa campagne, de son monde… » (p. 97). If anyone has interpreted the Book of Genesis quite like this before, I’m not aware of it. By modernizing the Old Testament, Oughourlian makes it immediate and relevant to his readers’ lives. And while his fictional vignettes occasionally read more like a soap opera than like high literature, to condemn them for being clichéd would be to miss the point. What is important is the finesse with which they highlight basic psychological patterns. As explanatory tools, these little scenes are quite effective.
As for the theoretical point Oughourlian makes in this chapter, it pertains to the nature of taboo. The serpent entices Eve to eat the forbidden fruit by making her believe that God’s taboo reflects His greedy desire for the fruit. He wants to keep it all to himself, and therefore has proscribed its consumption by human beings. The truth, in Oughourlian’s view, is that taboo exists not to keep desirable objects circulating among the privileged elite (this would be a Marxist variant on the serpent’s argument) but rather to protect us from the conflicts that would inevitably ensue were we to make every object everyone’s potential possession. This chapter is thus a particularly interesting exploration of the way in which taboo both forestalls and arouses temptation, and why in the long run it cannot be relied upon as the sole means of warding off mimetic conflicts.
Part III of Genèse du désir deals with the history of mimetic theory, beginning with the emergence of the study of magnetism at the end of the eighteenth century and the pioneering efforts of Mesmer and the Marquis de Puységur. The most illuminating chapter concerns recent discoveries in neuroscience that offer scientific verification of the mimetic thesis. In the 1990s, Italian researchers discovered brain cells in macaque monkeys that fire both when the monkey reaches for an object and when the monkey observes a subject—either a monkey or a human—performing the same action. They christened these cells “mirror neurons” and today many scientists believe they have the potential to trigger far-reaching advances in the cognitive sciences, just as DNA was responsible for transforming biology. Last spring, Vittorio Gallese, a member of the Italian team that discovered mirror neurons, René Girard and Jean-Michel Oughourlian, and other researchers, convened at Stanford University to ponder the interdisciplinary implications of the discovery of mirror neurons. Also present was developmental psychologist Andrew Meltzoff of the University of Washington, an authority on infant imitation. The future of mimetic theory may well lie in this direction, and Oughourlian’s book is among the first publications to discuss the link between mimetic desire and mirror neurons. One important aspect of mirror neurons that Oughourlian points out in Genèse du désir is their propensity for increasing in activity in competitive situations. When two subjects are rivals, their imitation becomes more and more frantic and more and more powerful. These findings, which have yet to be published, corroborate what René Girard has been saying in his books since the 1960s. The prestige of science makes this proof more convincing, however, than the evidence afforded by literature and anthropology. In late October, Oughourlian organized a conference at the American Hospital in Paris on the subject of mirror neurons. One of the speakers was high-profile author and psychologist Boris Cyrulnik, who spoke about mirror neurons and empathy. René Girard came next, giving a lecture on mirror neurons and the mimetic desire of Paolo and Francesca from Dante’s Divine Comedy. This conference is further indication that mimetic theory, which for several years has been a marginal area of research, is making a comeback and is entering the mainstream as a means of bringing together disciplines in new and illuminating ways.
What is next for mimetic theory? Oughourlian’s book suggests that practical applications may be possible. In the last chapter of his book, “Clinique de la rivalité,” he explores the case studies that he first presented in his introduction and lays out his mimetic method as a psychotherapist. He sees two main problems arising in couples. The first he calls “la balançoire infernale”, the see-sawing of power relations between two members of a couple. Each seems to be sitting on one side of a see-saw; when one is up, the other is, necessarily, down. When one feels powerful and secure the other feels undervalued, excluded, or inadequate. This causes a dynamic of rivalry between the two, as the undervalued member of the couple attempts to compensate through passive aggressive behavior. In one example, a woman resorts to public drunkenness in an effort to humiliate a more successful spouse in front of colleagues. The “balançoire” is an excellent metaphor for the oscillations of mimetic desire, and it is especially effective because it allows us to imagine what happens when the up-and-down movement of the see-saw increases and the couples switch positions with ever greater rapidity. This is the moment at which what Girard calls the “monstrous doubles” emerge. Spouses claim they “no longer recognize” the person they married. Wives describe their husbands as “monsters.” At this stage, there is total incomprehension; couples are on the brink of hallucination.
The other possible pitfall facing couples is jealousy of a third party. In one case study, a woman torn between two men—a powerful and wealthy womanizer and a sensitive and successful potential spouse—comes to see Oughourlian, who gradually uncovers the interlocking triangles governing her relationship with both men:
Dans mon bureau, je récapitule la situation: en révélant le médiateur cache, nous découvrons ce qui nous fait transfigurer l’objet, pourquoi nous lui redonnons une valeur qu’il avait perdue. On peut dès lors relativiser les sentiments que l’on porte à l’objet du désir, et voir qu’ils ne sont qu’une coloration du mécanisme mimétique. Les sentiments ne disparaissent pas, mais trouvent une explication qui nous échappait. C’est ainsi le médiateur qu’il faut faire apparaître, on ne peut jamais agir sur le sentiment directement. (p. 242)
Does the mimetic psychotherapy produce results? In some cases it seems to, though they are never as conclusive as one might have hoped. The woman mentioned above remained unable fully to resolve her relationship difficulties. Her former lover’s mistress remained an impassable psychological roadblock, a mimetic rival that kept her thinking about him. And her new suitor’s submissiveness made it difficult for her to feel passionate about him. “Relativizing” her sentiments about these men wasn’t enough to enable her to sort out her problems once and for all. But what form of psychotherapy has ever been a miracle cure? While mimetic theory offers powerful ways of reading texts and relationships, putting its lessons into action is another story. The power that the mediator exerts over us is generally too strong to be overcome just like that, if at all. Philosophy might be able to elaborate a recipe for escaping from mimetic desire, but we humans would be incapable of following it. The best we can hope for is a better understanding of the dynamics that plunge us into unhealthy rivalries. Once we recognize the dangers of mimetic desire, perhaps we can begin to rethink our relationships and come to an understanding of how to achieve a good balance between distance and closeness, freedom from and concern for the other. Mimetic desire tempts us into thinking we can leave the Clausewitzian “friction” of reality behind. But we are stuck in history, forced to respond to what others give us. Conversion is primarily an existential and not an intellectual or philosophical problem. Meditating on the problem of desire may change us, but there are no guarantees.