The Fourth Wall
On breaking through the theatrics and living in Expectation.
The time has come for this newsletter to be both re-branded and re-oriented.
Anti-Mimetic started as an outlet for me to share a few thoughts on a lazy Saturday afternoon in late 2020 while Claire and I were visiting upstate New York. I stole some time away at an old desk in our AirBNB to try to figure out how to use this thing called Substack, which I had mimetically-adopted as a platform because I had been enjoying a few newsletters on it. I named my publication after one of the chapters in my (then) upcoming book.
Initially I thought I’d be publishing ideas related to mimetic theory—the ones that didn’t make it into Wanting due to space constraints—and that I’d use the newsletter to go deeper into some of its core ideas. I still plan to do all of that here, and Anti-Mimetic is going to continue to be one of this newsletter’s major themes; however, I have realized that it’s a bit too restrictive. I needed (wanted!) a more expansive idea that could help this project escape its confines: in short, my desire has transcended them.
Now this newsletter has thousands of subscribers, paid and free, and I feel enormous responsibility to you all. Over the past 15 months, I’ve tried to gauge what is most important here and what direction we’re headed in. If anything has become clear to me this past year, it’s what the real hunger is for: cutting through the lies to discover and embrace the thick desires that help us to be fully human, while trying to make sense of the changing world by attending to reality in the most truthful and faithful way possible.
Mimetic theory (including the idea of an anti-mimetic life) is a powerful mental model, but it’s not the only one. One of the key points of Wanting is that life is a dynamic series of ever-changing models which help us with the refinement of our desires—and the most important model of all is the model of love we choose to adopt.
I’m not crazy about the term ‘mental model’, even though I realize that we need them to make our way through life. Here’s why: mental models are subordinate to the process of transformation that allows us to shed old mental models and gives us new ones, like a snake constantly shedding its skin. We can’t continue to pour new wine into old wineskins, or they’ll eventually break.
The Apostle Paul says “Do not conform!” (to this world) by using the Greek phrase “Me syschematizesthe”! You can easily recognize the word ‘scheme’ in that word. “In a nutshell, all schemes, all exterior models, are empty,” writes Julián Carrón.
Paul is opposing schema or morphe—which you could think of as a permanent form—to metamorphe, or change in the creature. External models are inferior to the interior life and the spirit.
Mental models are merely schemas; the mysterious transformation that one undergoes when, for example, he falls in love and is loved in return—that is the real rub.
No one will die for a mental model; but upon a great love many have sacrificed everything. And the hope of this kind of transformation—the hope of that kind of great love—is always on the horizon, even for those who are already in love. There is always a layer deeper to go, a deepening of that original desire. Following that desire to the end.
This is what it means to live as one who is constantly Expectant: ready for something new to break through at any moment. Living as an Expectant Mother, Expectant Father, Expectant Creator, Expectant Friend. It’s a life filled with wonder and awe and adventure. An examined life, a life worth living.
So: the material that you’ve come to expect from me here will not change drastically, but it will begin to cover a broader array of things. As part of the transition of the newsletter to The Fourth Wall, I’m also in the process of hiring a proofreader and editor (so these should be completely typo/error-free in the future). I’m also still on the hunt for a research assistant and admin help as I set out on the process of outlining and writing my next book, which I’ll be sharing more about with premium subscribers. If you or anyone you know if interested in that role, please reach out.
Okay, now for a bit of Fourth Wall Thinking.
Fourth Wall Philosophy
Most people are beginning to recognize some of the theatrics on which the world runs. Covid theatrics (the host at a restaurant giving a half-second non-glance at my vaccine passport on my way into a restaurant here in DC), workplace theater (the recognition of which has led to the Great Resignation), news media theater, education theater, and social media theater (the ritualistic cancellation —> apology cycle, the latter of which even follows a fairly strict literary form, like an epistle)—even the stock market, as meme stocks have embarrassed some of the world’s most seasoned investors. Fourth walls are being broken everywhere.
Before I get to the philosophy of the Fourth Wall, though, a brief background on what this phrase means and where it comes from.
The “fourth wall” in theater in film is the invisible wall separating the actors from the audience. In a traditional three-walled theater, the fourth wall was literally the side of the theater without a wall, from which the audience “looked into” the scene playing out on stage.
The audience can see through this invisible fourth wall, while the actors on stage normally behave as if they can’t. This preserves the illusion that what is happening on the stage is a self-contained world and that the actors really believe in everything that they’re doing.
The phrase “breaking the fourth wall”, then, refers to the times when an actor makes a direct address to the audience, or looks directly at the camera, or any action whatsoever that reminds the audience that the actor is aware of them.
When I was 10, my parents took me to watch the play “Blood Brothers”, a play about two fraternal twins separated at birth (very Girardian). At one point in the performance, the famous David Cassidy, who was a notorious hothead—and who was playing the character Mickey—stopped mid-line, turned to a talkative person in the first few rows, and said “Would you please shut the fuck up? We’re acting here! Have some respect!” And then went straight back to playing his part as if it had never happened. He broke the fourth wall, and I have never forgotten it. It shook me out of whatever complacent slumber I had fallen into it.
Of course, breaking the Fourth Wall also happens in film. It accounts for some of the most memorable moments in cinematic history:
Now there are plenty of times when I don’t want to smash a fourth wall—when I prefer to suspend my disbelief and enjoy a performance, or lean into the lore of Santa Clause excitement for the kids on Christmas morning, or fully immerse myself in a song and dance ritual in a small village while I’m traveling through Italy. Breaking the fourth wall in life doesn’t mean going through it with a hermeneutic of suspicion. Those people are incapable of ever dancing.
But it is critical to be able to place some spiritual distance between us and the world around us so as not to lose ourselves—to preserve our self-possession, to not get caught up in the mimetic processes that are turning Twitter into a hellscape, and to maintain the agency to desire what is true, good, and beautiful and not what is mimetically expedient.
In my view, the power of René Girard’s work is that he broke the fourth wall of violence—he cut through the lies we tell ourselves about why human beings fight. He also broke the fourth wall of our desires. We weren’t aware of the extent that our desires were generated and shaped by others; he stepped onto the stage in Shakespeare’s plays (in his fantastic book, Theater of Envy, for instance) and spoke directly to us, revealing the hidden forces that were driving the characters to do what they were doing. I can never read Shakespeare the same way again. Girard did the same thing with the bible.
In epistemic terms, humanity has always been trapped in a hermetically-sealed cloud of incomprehension—and that’s why Girard’s work stands somewhere on the edge between reason and revelation. The broken Fourth Wall that showed us the ‘things hidden since the foundation of the world’ could not have been broken by any human. So there is inherently a religious dimension to the idea of revelation in general.
I’m also deeply concerned with breaking the fourth wall from a humanistic standpoint: it’s good to break down the fourth walls that prevent us from ever truly getting to know another person because of 1) the wall they’ve constructed around themself; 2) the wall we’ve put between us; 3) or the walls that our society has built around people to prevent them from touching one another and truly knowing and being known.
The inability to know and be known is, in my opinion, the number one social ill effecting our society. Covid has made it worse. Technology has both helped us and hurt us in this effort. It is a terrible thing to be a prisoner of one’s self and the crowd:
I agree with Scott Alexander on the mimetic formation that happens socially, though I wouldn’t describe in materialist terms. There’s something deeply spiritual going on.
But it has made me very sad to see people become caricatures of themselves, like they’re playing a character in a scripted film about their own life. They’re unable to break the fourth wall because they’re imprisoned in the self—which, in Girardian terms, has been constructed by hypermimetic relationships. It’s a form of tragic unfreedom to play a role because you wrote the book on X or took a stand on Y and that issue begins to shape your entire identity (yes, I’m thinking of some political actors now).
To grow and evolve is to be human. To serve a function or to become a meme is not based; it’s debased.
Cultural Fourth Walls
“Breaking the fourth wall”, in the broader context of culture, is a phrase I use to refer to the passionate pursuit of the truth in a world gone mad.
Cultural lies are compounding over and over again, like a person with a serious problem who tries to solve that problem by heaping lie on top of lie, like William H. Macy in Fargo.
We’re doing that in everything from education to politics, and it’s preventing any real progress from being made. ‘Decadence’, as some like to say, is rooted in easy contentment—people who are far-too-easily pleased, who would rather continue play-acting rather than attend to reality seriously and find the rope that might pull them out of the quicksand.
That rope is a transcendent desire, and it can only come from off-stage.
So this newsletter is meant to be about first principles: the things we find when we strip the thin and shame desires away and begin to focus on what truly matters. It should feel like a movement away from complexity and toward simplicity.
The world is ‘growing more complex’ only in the top soil, or the most visible and superficial layers of reality—technology, financial systems, geo-political alliances, etc. Underneath, human nature endures. Perennial desires endure. There is simplicity. What is needed is perhaps a Great Re-Thickening—on both a personal and cultural level.
On a cultural level, I don’t believe that can ever happen until we’re men and women with chests. Until we have thick desires. Until we have faces.
In C.S. Lewis’s book by that title (Until We Have Faces), one of the characters says: “The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing — to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from — my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing?”
Surely all of our longing, all of our desires—even the basest or most insignificant ones—mean something. They are leading us somewhere. This deeper wanting—this desire to not settle for what is being peddled to us—is the Way.
For me, writing about ‘thick desires’ is another way of talking about one’s unique, unrepeatable, personal vocation—the thing that you and I have a greater desire to do, and more accurately to be, than anyone else on the planet.
That is why this year and next, I’m going to be introducing more opportunities to come together, discover, and learn from one another. The seminar on core motivational drive later this month will be the first of many such opportunities, and I hope to be able to invite you to an in-person retreat later this year or next.
It’s time to begin the thickening.