Plato’s analysis of Eros as a force that deprives one of one’s faculties of distinction and judgement, thus allowing a potentially overwhelming capacity for imitative receptivity to take hold and to drive attempts to possess qualities and constitute identities, but that can at the same time shake up, turn around and elevate.
(Horvath and Szakolczai, 2014, p.69).


Vulnerable campers returning from a short experience in Barretstown, a holiday camp for children with life threatening disorders, appeared changed for the better. The camp staff saw the change; the parents on reunion hardly recognised their children’s demeanour and hospital carers were surprised. Social transformations in one to two weeks are remarkable. Popular accounts portray Serious Fun camps as magical places, but magic disguises a theoretical conundrum that needs elucidation through recognition of concepts that help understand the magic. Serious Fun camps may be like rites of passage which facilitate healing in halls of mimesis that are the special circumstances enabling subconscious imitation of revered counsellors1. The opening quotation from Horvath and Szakolczai describes very well the force of mimetic eros (“imitative receptivity”) that may transit children to wellbeing. The paper suggests that the outcome of camp is salutogenesis – whereby vulnerability has been transformed into joie de vivre. These concepts, elaborated below, may facilitate an understanding of how this can happen.This theoretical paper provides a framework for empirical research described elsewhere (Kearney, 2009; 2011), but briefly summarised, consisted of a mixture of clinical observations (as a paediatrician) in a leukaemia unit, participant observation at fun camps in different settings and jurisdictions, as well as interviews and focus groups with camp staff, participants and alumni, conducted over thirteen years.

Rites of Passage

Serious Fun camps have a tripartite rite of passage structure (Kearney, 2009) of separation, transition and reintegration (Van Gennep, 1960) with experiences of liminality and communitas in the transitional phase (Turner, 1969). The campers completely separate from hospital routines and limiting medical conventions. They abandon prior lifestyles and sick roles to a sense of fellowship (an equality of common illness experiences). Liminality describes an in-between state or a borderland, where risks and opportunities of new possibilities (liberty) encourage communal fellow feeling of communitas (fraternity). Liberty, equality and fraternity hint of change in the air and even revolution. Rites of passage were tribal means of transforming social status from commoner to king or child to adulthood. These rites first dismantle social status and dispense with prevailing conventions. Levelling of ritual novices is a necessary precursor to progress into a more exalted status in society. When campers return home they do not have the benefit of a socially recognised change in status, but they convey a sense of being healed. In medical terms the children were still ‘in status quo’ – their burden of illness had not changed. Status change does not capture what was happening to these children. Nonetheless they had changed and interviews, several years later when the campers were adults, pinpointed the camping experience as a pivotal episode in their lives; but the nature of the children’s social transformation was unresolved. Initial findings suggested that the ritual passage design of camp was an important context for facilitating transformation. Later interviews as adults focused on vivid memories of their Caras - Serious Fun camps are supervised by Counsellors and a constant presence for the children during camp. In Ireland, the counsellors are called Caras. The transformation seemed to depend on Cara–Camper mimetic relationships that opened new possibilities.

Halls of Mimesis

Mimesis is a Greek term for imitation. According to Merlin Donald (2005) there are overlapping levels of imitation ranging from mimicry, through imitation to mimesis. Mimicry, the simplest term is speaking like a parrot – a thoughtless copy; whereas imitation copies the purpose of action as well. Mimesis, the most complex form of reduplication, communicates action with creative representations as happens in pretend play. Donald suggested that early hominids communicated in mimetic cultures long before Homo Sapiens had language. The idea that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny or that child development replays evolution is regarded as an old fable (Ernest Haeckel, 1866, cited in Wikipedia, 2016). The notion fell into disrepute but has resurfaced through human genome research that traces our genetic heritage back into animal and plant kingdoms. Paediatricians are aware that human infants are able to communicate by overlapping levels of imitation in early childhood. Facial expressions, body language, gestures and pointing anticipate the development of speech that reprises Donald’s suggestion of mimetic cultures preceding language acquisition in a symbolic culture.

Rene Girard (1996) suggested that socialisation and enculturation cannot proceed without mimesis of apprenticeship. Learning a mother tongue is a covert process, but can be made overt as word birth can be heard and recorded (Roy, 2009). Plato appreciated mimetic learning, but Girard’s study of great literary works suggested a more fundamental operation: human desires are acquired by mimesis of appropriation. Longings are not our own, but are transmitted in halls of mimesis where we subconsciously absorb fashionable lifestyles, dress, cuisine and ambitions. Desires are constituted subconsciously from others as an unfathomable yearning that shapes our perception and behaviour. Mimetic desires may override appetites and free humanity from instinctive behaviours; but desires also generate envy that can easily get out of hand. Mimetic violence triggered by envious greed and rivalry was dangerous. Innate mechanisms of dominance confined primate aggression to individual confrontations. Burgeoning mimetic skills in human evolution may have co-evolved with release from genetic constraints. The retreat of natural constraints permitted contagious mimetic violence in Homo Sapiens which became a threat to survival of the species.

For Girard the scapegoat mechanism stayed the violence in a way that founded religion and culture. Scapegoats are random victims whose innocence generates a sacred peace. Children with cancer and leukaemia are likewise innocent victims – and they too have the power to still profanity and change their caretakers. The Caras say Barretstown was like a barracks square during training as they were cursing like troopers, but their language refined spontaneously with the arrival of children to camp. Little did the Caras realise that they were about to be placed on a pedestal as models for campers’ brief liminal experiences of healthy possibility.

Mimetic Eros: Dia agus Diabhal

There is a startling difference between the attractive goodness and beauty that gathers people together, one by one, in saintly discipleship and the evil that spreads division through the masses (Paul Ricoeur, 1998, cited in Astell, 2004, p. 116).

Mimetic human desire can be either a source of greed, envy and violence or inspiration for “attractive goodness and beauty”. God and the devil are two sides of the same mimetic coin acknowledged as Gaeilge by the close pronunciations of Dia and Diabhal. Eros is a wild card in liminal situations and has the power to propel participants towards either pole of the mimetic coin. According to Hamerton-Kelly (1992) Eros and Agape are extremes of mimetic human desire – Eros reflecting a disposition towards acquisition and conflict whereas the desire of Agape is gracious and generous; in other words, two forms of the same basic human propensity, one alienated and the other integrated. This paper takes Eros as the generic form of human desire that when undisciplined can be a source of greed, envy and violence or a disciplined inspiration for ‘attractive goodness and beauty’ when converted to Agape. Eros is desire deformed by acquisitive and conflictual mimesis; Agape is desire reformed by gracious and generous mimetic behaviour. Somehow a desire for health or a longing for a wholeness of being was not part of Girard’s theory, but has been rectified by Antonovsky’s theory of salutogenesis (Antonovsky, 1987).


Antonovsky (1987) introduced the term salutogenesis to suggest questing for the good life that is achieved by experiencing life as coherent. He wanted to redirect health research away from emphasis on risk, ill health and disease, towards a focus on people’s resources and their capacity to create health (Lindsröm and Eriksson, 2005). Antonovsky (1922-1994) a medical sociologist, born in America spent most of his academic life in Israel. He first introduced the concept of salutogenesis, because his research found some female survivors of the holocaust who enjoyed life to the full. They had somehow been instilled with a salutogenic joie de vivre in early childhood that was able to overcome the unspeakable experience of the holocaust. Counsellors in camp inspired children with salutogenesis – a longing for a wholeness of being – and unwittingly transmitted possibilities of health and wellbeing. Mimetic processes can be traced from infancy through childhood as intermittent social and cultural conditions of liminality that stamp a person’s character for better or worse. The mimetic capacity in humanity seems inexhaustible. It has an immense subconscious power to coordinate beliefs, intentions and desires. The control of mimetic apertures is one of the keys to understanding transformations. We are very open to mimesis in fraternal situations such as the liminal phase in a rite of passage. These conditions in Serious Fun camps facilitate an intense one to one relationship between campers and counsellors. For the campers, the relationship is effectively a discipleship as they are separated from their counsellors by seniority and fullness of being. Counsellors exist in a separate social space that makes mimetic relationships with sick children impervious to rivalry but permeable to a discipleship of health and wellbeing.

It’s because of things my counsellors instilled on me the desire to act on my dreams, and if I didn’t have camp I don’t think I would have heard all those worldly stories. I don’t think I would have that inner energy and desire to go for what I want. (Serious Fun Camper, California).