“In any case, they were hardly prepared for a colloquy with the Lamb of God, the one poised to take away the sin of the world. Not wanting to make complete fools of themselves, perhaps they tried to quickly formulate questions that might at least appear to be worthy of so exalted a figure, serious questions about the Law, for instance, the weightier and more imponderable the better. In our mind’s eye we can imagine them hastily rehearsing the enigmatic puzzles they think commensurate with this man’s stature in John’s eyes. But suddenly something quite shocking happens: Jesus turns to them, and before they can get a word out, he says: “What do you want?” (Jn. 1:38).
There are many ways this question might be verbally inflected, each decisive for assessing its implications for the two men who stood for a moment speechless before Jesus. “What do you want?” “What do you want?” “What do you want?” However inflected and whatever its nuances, in the hands of the most theological evangelist, the question resounds with universal meaning, and we ourselves should ponder it further. What do we want?”
It can hardly be dismissed as merely fortuitous that the first words spoken by Jesus in the most theological and in many respects the most historically reliable of the gospels are: “What do you want?” It would not be too much to say that Jesus came into the world to help humanity come to grips with that question. We spend much or all of our lives wanting, punctuated only momentarily by fleeting moments of satisfaction, rarely pondering the implications of this gigantic fact of our existence or realizing that it is what defines our species. Other creatures don’t want as humans do; they don’t desire. They try to satisfy instinctual appetites: hunger, sexual release, exhaustion, survival.
Wanting is not what defines them as it does us. Even the mimeticism of our pre-human primate ancestors is constrained by appetite and/or limited to the immediately obtainable. We want. But what do we want? A magazine cartoon comes to mind, one depicting a small child surrounded by toys and clearly pampered by parents who are anxious to satisfy every wish of the child, who nevertheless is obviously bored by the resulting largess.
Noticing the child’s sullen dissatisfaction, the exasperated mother asks: “Well, what do you want?” To which the child, somewhat confused by the question, replies: “I want… I want… I want to want!” As Dante among others testifies, we are desire. We are creatures who have inexhaustible and insatiable wants. In truth, man’s discrete wants or desires are but kaleidoscopic refractions of the single desire to which his teeming desiderata of longings must be properly ordered if he is to flourish and find fulfillment.
Writes the Stanford neurobiologist, William Hurlbut: “Desire is essential to having a mental life at all. In California we used to say ‘you are what you eat.’ It is, perhaps, more true to say ‘you are what you want.’ Desires, more than pleasures, define and sum up personal identity.
Widespread and unconvincing assertions to the contrary notwithstanding, desire today is weak and altogether tenuous, the more tenuous the more fickle, the more fickle the less any object is desired and the more necessarily dramatized is the desire for it. Though testimonials to desire are everywhere to be found, they betoken its attenuation, not its vibrancy. The word, like so many others, has been debased as fast as have the moral constraints that once protected it from debasement. Much that passes for desire today is so ephemeral and evanescent that it must be acted upon posthaste before it dissipates or is replaced by yet another mimetic enticement. Such feeble desires are quickly recycled, each giving rise, phoenix-like, to yet another effervescent faux desire.
Girard has shown that as mimetic desire moves from model to model, with each new mediator the subject surrenders some of its psychological coherence and ontological weight. In advanced stages of this mimetic promiscuity, such as we find in Western post-modernity, the halfhearted impulses that pass for desire are likely to grow more fickle, more impatient, and more in need of external stimulants and pharmacological enhancements. All the more must such evanescent desires be flamboyantly exhibited and promptly—if perfunctorily—acted upo