Jorge Freire —— The imitative radiance

The family gets together to celebrate Grandpa’s birthday. A woman overcomes her sister’s apocryphalism and gathers her in a tight embrace. The uncle makes his teenage nephew drink from his glass, arguing that he “knows a lot about this”. Children and grandchildren crowd around the table like chicks in a nest. A cluster of vocal heads intones Happy Birthday half a metre away from Grandpa, spitting out countless droplets of saliva.

This is the announcement made by the Canary Islands Government at the beginning of the summer to prevent contagion. It showed the small constraints of domestic life, unaffordable to any external regulation. To walk in unison with the group, one must submit to the rhythm of its tuning fork. The spot closed with an image of the hospitalized grandfather.

We know from Hobbes that fear is a very useful social regulator. A recent announcement by the Ministry of Health, which overlaps a children’s song with disturbing images, closes with the slogan “this is not a game”. Will it do any good? Remember the campaigns presented a month ago by the Community of Madrid and the Government of Aragon: one showed a crematory oven and the other compared moving around infected with carrying a loaded gun. Fear may be, as the saying goes, a bird of great flight, but there is no spot that serves as a warning to the most distracted citizens.

Who doesn’t have a family member or friend who, being a lord in his domain, refuses to wear a mask or keep his distance? Asking them to do so is like throwing a glove in their face. The private space is a pocket through which the basic rules of civility are poured. Eloy Fernández Porta said in Emociónese that, as the outside becomes more and more crowded with rules, the personal becomes a “space of ritual evacuation”. Hence, the rules of civility only seem to rule outside of it.

It goes without saying that the civic person is not obliged to absolve discourtesy. Smoking others with tobacco or talking loudly on a terrace are clearly rude behaviours; shunning the mask in a meeting, under the pretext of plainness and carelessness, is an unacceptable negligence. It would be idle to brandish contagious figures or complex terms of virology to warn against such behaviour. But, if we are talking about awareness campaigns, there is none as effective as the example.

Javier Gomá maintains that bad example absolves us and good example points the finger at us. As the great theorist of exemplarity states in Imitation and Experience, we move in a network of mutual models: acting in a negligent manner means excusing vulgarity, while responsible behaviour generates discomfort around it. If the majority is inclined to relax, to remain firm in your prophylaxis will risk being called a “killjoy”. However, it is possible that, to the cheetah being silent, the others end up imitating him.

The French sociologist Gabriel Tarde coined the concept of “imitative radiance”. When it shines in a human group, certain behaviours become generalised as if by magic. Both the beginning of wars and the spread of fashion were explained, in his opinion, by this notion. Although he was one of the founders of French sociology, his conflict with Émile Durkheim, who was victorious in the struggle, pushed Tarde to the margins of discipline. It would be good to rescue some of the suggestive intuitions of the forgotten author of Laws of Imitation, for whom it was not possible to explain human behaviour without alluding to imitative flows.

In his novel Fragments of a Future History, published in 1896, the Earth suffered a new glaciation. Captained by a certain Miltiades, a group of people determined to hide in the centre of the planet. An apparently ridiculous idea that, thanks to the charisma of Miltiades, whose name reminds us of the hero of Marathon, was received by everyone “like a brilliant lightning bolt”. Moved by this imitative glow, they advanced at a steady pace towards the bowels of the earth, like Ulysses, like Aeneas and like Dante, and there, against all odds, they founded a new civilisation. Through tunnels, caves and spelunks, the survivors, inspired by the character of their leader, erected sumptuous hypogea reminiscent of the great palaces on the surface.

If we act as prescribed, others will imitate us. You don’t have to be a Miltiades to do that. It will take time to celebrate all the festivals that confinement forced us to abolish. As Machado wrote in the most beautiful of his poems, everyone who waits knows that victory is his. Mimesis, an essential concept of classical Greece, is what the Latins translated as imitatio and what in Spanish we know as emulation. To be worthy of it is not only an ethical imperative, but also a question of public health.

This tribune has been published in El País. You can access it clicking here



Jorge Freire
Philosopher and writer. With his latest book, Agitation. On the Evil of Impatience (Páginas de Espuma), he has won the 11th Malaga Essay Prize. He has published an intellectual biography on the novelist Edith Wharton and an essay on Arthur Koestler and the Spanish Civil War. He writes in El País, Letras Libres and El Mundo and runs a book blog in The Objetive entitled “Geórgicas”.