Finding Freedom from the Familiar

July 17, 2020

In 1979, at age 16, Hollis Robbins found herself enrolled at John Hopkins University. Though she was there as part of a program for girls who excelled in math, she signed up for a humanities lecture class. In that day’s class, drawing upon the epic of Gilgamesh, a guest lecturer expounded on the theory of “mimetic desire,” or the idea that we borrow our desires from other people. Unbeknownst to her, the speaker was none other than famed anthropological philosopher René Girard. Yet, Hollis disagreed. In her opinion, culled from reading stories such as those of Herman Melville and Charles Dickens, people actually like “very strange things.” They are drawn to things that are different from themselves.

Today, as a professor of literature, her conviction holds strong, supported by experiences such as teaching Melville’s Moby-Dick. She finds that contrary to present-day despair about their “slow attention spans,” students want to reach across centuries to worlds unfamiliar from their own.


I’m Hollis Robbins and the Delta Delta Delta fellow at the National Humanities Center, 2017–18. I was thinking about how I ended up as a scholar of the humanities and the origin would be in 1979. I had gone to college at age 16 under a math program for girls who were gifted at math. I found myself at Johns Hopkins very young and intending to study math and I signed up for a course in humanities, I think called just “Humanities” with the excellent Richard Maxey.

That fall he had a visiting scholar. I had no idea who it was: it was René Girard, who had just finished writing Things Hidden Since The Foundation of the World, in which he set forth his theory of mimesis and mimetic desire. I remember walking into the seminar room one day, from fairly rural New Hampshire and for me books were just things that you read. I had no intention in studying literature in college and here comes this man with these—what I remember mostly is his humongous eyebrows—talking about the Gilgamesh epic and his theory of mimetic desire. That our desires do not emerge from us, but our desires emerge from imitating others’ desires, that we see somebody desiring something and that we begin to desire that. He went through the Epic of Gilgamesh to play out this theory.

At 16 years old sitting in this classroom, the seminar room listening to him, I thought he was wrong. I thought, now I don’t know anything but what I know from reading books, from reading Moby-Dick, from reading Dickens, from reading anything I could get my hands on, that people like very strange things. People are self-indulgent, self-defeating, there isn’t a character in anything written by Charles Dickens that I would want to mirror or desire. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately in arguments about—or debates about, or sort of current discourse about—slow attention spans in our students. That our students can’t read whole novels. Can’t sit and digest an epic poem. Couldn’t converse for a two-and-a-half-hour seminar without their smart phone devices.

I think that this is, again, quite wrong. My experience in the classroom—let me just reach for Moby-Dick, which I teach every spring—is that students want something different. They want to reach across centuries. They want to reach across continents. They want not to have what they are familiar with spoon-fed to them. When they are given worlds, continents, thousands of individuals characters, situations, their desires will emerge from the experience of reading literature. I’ve had students in my office who want to talk about poor drowned Pip in Moby-Dick or who want to understand Queequeg’s great dive into the water to save a passenger that has just insulted him.

Literature frees young people from the constant barrage of familiarity that social media is giving them so I’m kind of pleased with myself, actually, at so long ago having my own opinion about René Girard.