He made you look desirable! – Haymitch, The Hunger Games, 135
We must understand that desire itself is … directed toward an object desired by the model. – René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 146.
The Hunger Games presents us with a post-apocalyptic world living with a fragile peace. (For a summary of The Hunger Games, click here.) Violence is front and center with the annual ritual called The Hunger Games in which two young people from each District are entered into a bloody contest to the death that reminds us of the Roman Coliseum. (See Julie Clawson’s wonderful book The Gospel and the Hunger Games.) But all that bloodletting is meant to prevent a bigger outbreak of violence, like the one more than 74 years ago that nearly destroyed all life on the planet. We are not told much about that old conflict. We don’t know what it was about or what started it, but in this article I’d like to reflect with you on conflict and what we know about how it gets started.
Most theories of conflict focus on the differences between the two adversaries, because that’s all the adversaries can talk about. When we are in a conflict with someone, we claim to be as different from each other as night is from day, as good is from evil. Yet, conflict is not due to our differences, but due to our similarities. Indeed, there are extreme differences in The Hunger Games between the Capitol and the Districts. They are divided into the power elite and the oppressed workers, the well-fed and the starving, the rich and the poor and so on. But the differences, while they may exist in a very real way, are insignificant as triggers for conflict. Think about it this way, if there is an apple on the table (I mean the kind you can actually bite into) and you want it but I don’t, well, there’s no problem at all. But here’s where the conflict begins – as soon as I see that you want the apple, I get a little craving for it. In fact, the more I hear you talking about how good that apple is going to taste, the more I want it. And if I reach for it, trying to head you off at the pass, your desire will be both frustrated and intensified by the display of my desire. You see, we come into conflict with one another because we share desires, desires we learn from one another. Now there’s an easy way out of the conflict – I can admit that your desire preceded mine. I can even thank you for reminding me how good apples are and then I can pick some up on the way home from work. But we rarely take the easy way! I am most likely to forget that I borrowed my desire from you and see you only as a big ole meanie who won’t let me have my apple. Instead of a model for desire, I see only an obstacle to the fulfillment of my desire and that is the recipe for conflict.
So if we want to understand conflict in the Hunger Games we can’t let ourselves get distracted by the differences. We have to look for shared desires. We have no information about the old conflict, but we can look at the potential for conflict that exists in the present of the first novel. The thing that the Capitol wants more than anything is prevent open rebellion. Stated positively, we can say that the Capitol wants peace and it goes to great lengths to get it, most notably forcing 24 teenagers to murder each other on nationwide television each year as a form of entertainment. I’ll discuss how the Hunger Games work to keep the peace in the next article. But what is interesting is that the Capitol sees the Districts as a threat to peace and, you guessed it, the Districts think the same thing about the Capitol. Both want peace and both see the other as the obstacle to its fulfillment. It is seeing the other as obstacle that allows each side to justify their hatred and violence against each other. I don’t owe obstacles anything, except their destruction. As the story progresses through the second and third novels, we will see all manner of violence committed in the name of peace. If, on the other hand, I recognize that we share the same desire for peace, I recognize myself in the other and that might be enough to at least slow my hate to a simmer. Unfortunately, what usually happens is an escalation to all out warfare as the Hunger Games will show us.
There is another example in the Hunger Games of shared desire, but one that does not lead to conflict but instead to love. It is the desire of Peeta for Katniss, which he openly displays in front of the entire country during his interview. The audience is sympathetic to Peeta, “For unrequited love they can relate to” (130). In other words, they openly allow Peeta to be their model of desire. At the end of his interview, the audience roars in approval of Peeta’s expression of love. Katniss blushes in embarrassment and after the show she confronts Peeta and yells, “You had no right! No right to go saying those things about me!” (134) Haymitch, their mentor, sees this happening and responds to Katniss by saying:
You are a fool … Do you think he hurt you? That boy just gave you something you could never achieve on your own … He made you look desirable! And let’s face it, you can use all the help you can get in that department. You were about as romantic as dirt until he said he wanted you. Now they all do. You’re all they’re talking about. (135)
The audience’s desire for Katniss is openly borrowed from Peeta’s desire – he reached for the apple and they want it, too! Peeta’s love for Katniss is actually contagious because like all good fans, the Capitol audience is not ashamed of their open admiration for these two celebrities from District 12. Peeta’s desire for Katniss is also explained by this contagious aspect of desire, as Peeta openly claims that “a lot of boys like her” back at District 12. (130)
The Hunger Games reveals how shared desire can lead to conflict and to love. This is of great importance if we desire a better world. When we find ourselves locked in rivalry with some wicked other who only seems to want to deny us the very thing we want, we may be caught in the trap of denying how that very rival has taught us what to desire. Learning what to desire from others is nothing to be ashamed of, it’s just how humans work. The danger comes when we think our desires are our own. That is, we run the risk of feeling justified in knocking others to the ground on our way to the apple. When Jesus talks about forgiveness in the Gospels, I think he means that we need to remember that the one who seems deserving of our hate may be the one we have the most in common with. The enemy that seems so different from me, may be my mirror image and want the same things I want precisely because I want them. It’s weird to think about conflict that way, but the next time you crave an apple (or an Apple) look around and see who else is thinking the same thing.
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