In the 2018 Holiday issue of the New York Review of Books, Robert Pogue Harrison calls René Girard (1923–2015) “one of the last of that race of Titans who dominated the human sciences in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.” It’s easy to indulge a knee jerk reaction against such flowery admiration. Titans being decidedly out of intellectual fashion, we tend to nurse skepticism (if not a concealed resentment) against twentieth century shadows too overbearingly cast. But in our rush to escape the authority of our intellectual predecessors, it’s important not to overlook the ideas themselves. We shouldn’t forget to ask what made Girard a Titan. The answer is deceptively simple: he explored the foundations of what it means to be human. We carry around Girard’s continued relevance within us.
His name might only be known to a relatively small coterie of intellectuals, journalists, and writers, but everyone is in some way familiar with Girard’s subjects just by virtue of living. In his first major work, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, Girard explored a revolutionary way of reading the characters of fiction as responding to mimetic, or imitated desires, undercutting in many ways the Romantic myth of personal autonomy. As literary journalist and author Cynthia L. Haven, who personally knew Girard, writes in her in book Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, “At the heart of the book is our endless imitation of each other. Imitation is inescapable – it’s how we learn, it’s why we don’t eat with our hands, it’s why we communicate beyond grunts. When it comes to metaphysical desire – which Girard describes as desires beyond simple needs and appetites – what we imitate is vital, and why, and can be a symptom of our ontological sickness.”
Exploring such an insight, including the various ways we hide the emptiness of our desires from ourselves, it seems only appropriate that Girard’s work should have burst the seams of literary analysis to delve into anthropology, philosophy, and religious studies. His subsequent works, magisterial books like Violence and the Sacred, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, and I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightning blur the boundaries of academic fields in order to more fully create a fundamental vision of human life. The results, such as using the concept of the scapegoat to explore the origins of language and religion, put Girard in the same echelon as Marx and Freud. He is a thinker whose sharp perceptions pierce the granularity of our day to day lives while at the same time providing a working theory of the larger patterns we move within.
Making the case for his continued relevance perhaps beyond even that of past Titans, Robert Harrison writes that “the explosion of social media, the resurgence of populism, and the increasing virulence of reciprocal violence all suggest that the contemporary world is becoming more and more recognizably ‘Girardian’ in its behavior.” That being so, Cynthia L. Haven’s book couldn’t have come at a better time. Transgressing boundaries by amalgamating biography, literary criticism, social history, and memoir into a moving synthesis, Haven has created more than just a thought-provoking account of one of the most under-appreciated figures of twentieth century thought. She’s also created a unique and approachable nonfiction work powerful enough to be praised on its own merits.
Cynthia L. Haven, a 2018/19 National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar, was kind enough to answer a few questions about her book Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard via email.
Scott Beauchamp: You’ve written about other inimitable cultural figures and writers in the past, most notably Czesław Miłosz and Joseph Brodsky, but Girard is different because you knew him personally. In fact, judging from The Evolution of Desire, you knew René and his wife Martha quite well. How does this sort of intimacy with the subject change the writing process?
Evolution of Desire was born in affection. However, the biography business is ruthless. When writing a book like this, you have to be prepared for friendships to break, even with the people you care about so very much. You have to take risks, and do what’s best for the book. If I had been trying to please René or Martha, or any of the other cast of characters, I knew I wouldn’t write anything worth reading.
While you’re writing, your friends have to be your future readers, who are largely imagined. So I’ve been gratified that there have been so many of them. The reviews have been uniformly positive, some incandescent – from The Wall Street Journal to The Times Literary Supplement. We went into a second printing within weeks of publication and are now in our fourth. I still get letters and emails from people telling me how much the book has changed their lives. One couple wrote me that they were reading the book a second time – to each other, aloud. James Winchell in the Jewish magazine Tablet explained how René converted him to Judaism, concluding, “The book is alive.” And then, over the holidays, the New York Review of Books praised the book in a major feature spread. The San Francisco Chronicle named it one of the top books of 2018. Evolution of Desire was even mentioned on the floor of the Académie Française. Not bad for a French theorist many people have never heard of.
I should add, however, that I knew the Nobel poets personally, too! I was the last person to interview Czesław Miłosz in America, for hours at his Berkeley home. And I studied with Joseph Brodsky at the University of Michigan.
It’s wonderful that I have been able to spend so much time with the three greatest minds I have known in my life. All of them were life-changing. It’s a privilege to create even a little luster to their legacies.
Did writing this book at all change how you feel about your friend? Were any of your own assumptions challenged?
The first thing it challenged was every notion I had about writing a biography. I couldn’t begin with what a biography should be, I couldn’t begin with an outline of what the contents were going to be. I had to go where the material led me, and sometimes it led me into strange places, and then I had to find a way to express them. I had to let the material teach me how to write the book. The material had to shape the form, and not the other way around. It was a remarkable creative process for me, and the biggest challenge of my professional life.
I resisted some suggestions that would have affected how I felt about him, however. An early reader objected to my calling him “René” throughout the book. I went back and changed all the references to “Girard.” But I didn’t want him to become “Girard” to me, rather than someone I cared about – I had to fight to keep him “René” in my mind, at least.
Girard was born and raised in Avignon, a bit off the beaten path of French avant-garde culture (particularly then). Why was this significant for Girard and his thought? In what ways would a Girard born in Paris have been different from the thinker that you write about?
Avignon made him less vulnerable to intellectual fashions. It gave him a bedrock of values and common sense. I describe Avignon as the “magnetic north” of his psychology – even though it was geographically south, of course!
You write in the introduction that the “real core” of Girard’s thought is “change of being”. How does this distinguish him from his peers?
I wouldn’t presume to speak for his peers – there are so many of them! – but it’s rare for people to walk the talk, and practice what they preach. And that’s what “change of being” is about, after all. That’s what transforms you from a guy delivering a crackerjack paper at an academic conference to someone who has actually paid a human price for all of this.
I only knew René for the last eight years of his life, but I sensed the decades had brought a sort of refashioning or retooling of himself. Girard 2.0, or 3.0. I used to wonder at his withdrawal, his non-responsiveness in so many situations. Looking back, I think he was attempting to bypass mimetic imbroglios, stop the blame cycle of retaliatory words, gestures, actions. As he said in a 2005 interview, “The inability to act in our world is an awareness of the stupidity of mimetic desire and how equivalent things are to each other. The more you act, the more you get into these mimetic situations, which are circular.”
You also mention your own bias in favor of the position that life, not literature, teaches us things as one that you share with Girard. Can you elaborate on that? How did you see that play out in Girard’s life?
You are referring to the words of Slavic scholar Carl Proffer from my days at the University of Michigan: “Dostoevsky insisted that life teaches you things, not theories, not ideas.” But you forgot the second half: “Look at the way people end up in life—that teaches you the truth.” Again, René practiced what he preached, and got better as he practiced. His family life was a model of concord and mutual affection.
Girard was basically trained as an archivist before coming to America after the Second World War. In a life of profound, if slow moving, conversion experiences, would Girard’s move to America count as a conversion?
Let me quote another of his colleagues, Benoît Chantre, explaining why René could never have had his career in France. In Evolution of Desire, he discusses why France’s institutions would never have supported his early research and writing: “That is why Girard is, like Tocqueville, a great French thinker—and a great French moralist—who could yet nowhere exist but in the United States. René ‘discovered America’ in every sense of the word: he made the United States his second country, he made there fundamental discoveries, he is a pure ‘product’ of the Franco-American relationship, he finally revealed the face of a universal—and not an imperial—America.”
A “conversion”? If you use the term too loosely, it loses any meaning. Coming to America was a powerful turning-point, certainly, and enormously freeing after the wartime and postwar privations. However, it didn’t have a metaphysical dimension.
You write that Girard, during what was the high-water mark of New Criticism, made the bold statement that “What is going on in the soul of the writer is the business of literature,” as you put it. Why is it important to say “soul” here instead of “mind” or “imagination”?
Because the soul is greater than the mind or imagination, it is the entire human person, the body as well as its innermost aspects. Something deeper has to happen to revolutionize a life. Changing your mind or dreaming doesn’t have the power to do it.
It’s difficult to imagine a contemporary thinker so openly influenced by a spiritual conversion experience, such as Girard experienced in his life. Why is that? And how are these experiences central to Girard’s own thought?
It depends on how narrowly you define “contemporary.” Simone Weil was certainly influenced by hers, and that’s less than a century ago. I think these direct, personal experiences of one world penetrating another this way are more common than we allow. I’m not talking about crystals or covens or seances.
It also depends on how narrowly you describe “conversions.” Many people have these experiences, which they don’t know how to categorize, and it’s rarely angels going up and down on ladders. You mentioned Joseph Brodsky earlier. Well here’s his experience from the 1960s, which I almost included in this chapter. In this passage from a Threepenny Review article, he sounds every bit the embarrassed atheist fumbling for a vocabulary: “… affirmation comes from so far away, it’s almost like – how shall I put it? – it’s simply that somebody cares to instruct you from the bowels of the universe. You sense that somebody bothered about you out there in that great infinity. … You can’t really deny it. You try to be as rational as you can be, but, well, it doesn’t work.”
These experiences may be more varied and frequent than we normally credit. In this case, Joseph Brodsky was a citizen in a vast atheistic empire, and Soviet Union’s KGB didn’t look kindly on experiences it couldn’t control.
Obviously, then, not all conversion “experiences” result in a change of religion, just as not all changes of religion are rooted in a conversion experience.
Girard’s organization of the infamous 1966 Baltimore Conference, often referred to as “The French Invasion” for introducing Lacan and Derrida, among others, to the United States, seems like such an uncharacteristic project for an iconoclast. And yet it echoes his role in founding and organizing the 1947 Avignon Festival. What does it mean that this thinker who seems so unique, isolated almost, was such a prescient and fantastic organizer of cultural events?
He was an inventive and adventurous young man, fresh from the École des Chartes, along with his sidekick from the lycée, Jacques Charpier. But I’m not sure he was not a mover and shaker. As René himself expressed it with his characteristic sense of proportion, “We were not good enough to be real operators — we were also operated on.” The older generation provided the oomph and financial backing – the art impresario Christian Zervos was the powerhouse, but the fathers of both young men were civic leaders. And of course the actor Jean Vilar brought in the theater component – which is the part of the festival that continues today.
For the 1966 conference, he was one of a triumvirate, with Johns Hopkins’ famous polymath Richard Macksey, who was still a young man then. And then of course the third, who really was a mover and shaker: Eugenio Donato, the one who “knew where the cooking was taking place,” according to Dick Macksey.
A third event was 1981 “Disorder and Order” symposium that marked his debut at Stanford. He organized that with Jean-Pierre Dupuy. But for the most part he was indeed a solitaire.
Despite his role in bringing both the culmination and death-knell of Structuralism to America, Girard was a bit skeptical of “theory” as such. In fact, he even referred to his own Baltimore conference as “the beginning of the great merry-go-round that Americans call ‘theory.’” What was the nature of his attitude towards other post-structuralist thinkers? Did Girard consider himself a ‘realist’?
He had respect for his colleagues, as well as dismay for the deconstructive turmoil they left in their wake. For example, he wrote and spoke admiringly of Derrida’s early essay, “Plato’s Pharmacy,” which anticipated his own insights in some respects.
However, he was on a different wavelength altogether, so much so that he would say at the end of his life, “More than ever, I am convinced that history has meaning, and that its meaning is terrifying.” Is that a “realist”? Time will tell.
The basic idea animating Girard’s breakout book, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, is, as you write, that “[w]e live derivative lives. We envy and imitate others obsessively, unendingly, often ridiculously…We wish to conceal our metaphysical emptiness from others, in any case, and from ourselves most of all.” As Girard himself explained, “All desire is a desire for being.” I think most people who have heard of Girard are familiar with this basic, simple, and profound insight.
It pegs the true source of desire. In a panel discussion of Evolution of Desire at the American Academy of Religion last fall in Denver, one panelist described it as Girard’s koan. And it rather is.
Some have taken issue with it, since “being” has so much baggage in philosophical circles, but I think it has a valuable role in taking us away from those triangles of desire – instead of searching for objects and mediators, we must take a step back and ask instead “who do I worship?”
“All desire is a desire for being” is a single line mentioned in passing during the long conversation that is When These Things Begin, a book-length Q&A with Michel Treguer. Far from being overly familiar, in fact I plucked it out of the book and now it seems to be contagious – in a good way! I expect to see it on tote bags and t-shirts soon.
But something that you take pains to explain in your book is that Girard didn’t consider all mimetic desire a necessarily bad thing, right?
Of course it isn’t. Imitation is not only inevitable, it’s how we learn language, or how to tell a joke, or how to run a business, or anything else. It’s how we learn to navigate human exchanges, how to give and receive affection, how to nurture friendships.
Ultimately, imitation has another dimension altogether. Virgil speaks of it in Purgatorio, and it’s worth repeating: “And the more souls there are who love on high, the more there is to love, the more of loving, for like a mirror each returns it to the other.” That is the evolution of desire, its final destination.
Girard built on the notion of mimetic desire in his subsequent books. Violence and the Sacred, which was in many ways a more radical book than its predecessor, explores the meaning of sacrifice and the scapegoat – the complicated ways in which we assign guilt and perpetuate violence. I was struck by the refreshingly pre- or even para-political reasoning at work. It seems to elevate itself above the Manichean moral dead ends of an “us vs. them” mentality and instead implicates everyone. Where do you most sense the need for this sort of analysis in contemporary American society?
Everywhere. Increasingly our public discourse is descending into two warring tribes, who resemble each other more and more the longer they fight. Are you a Democrat or Republican? Did you vote for Trump or Clinton? Left-left, or center-left, or left behind. Independent thinkers are hectored and threatened into falling in line. The mob requires unanimity. If you are not part of it they turn against you, and you are, if you are lucky, driven from the flock. We’ve seen reputations destroyed, jobs lost, fortunes demolished, but that’s not the worst. Look at what the murderous mob tried to do to Asia Bibi in Pakistan. Now she and her family must live in under a new name at an undisclosed location in faraway Canada.
It’s serious stuff, and is dangerous. If you don’t howl with the wolves, the wolves will howl for you. As René wrote: “…we must see that there is no possible compromise between killing and being killed. … For all violence to be destroyed, it would be sufficient for all mankind to decide to abide by this rule. If all mankind offered the other cheek, no cheek would be struck. … If all men loved their enemies, there would be no more enemies. But if they drop away at the decisive moment, what is going to happen to the one person who does not drop away? For him the word of life will be changed into the word of death.”
“It is absolute fidelity to the principle defined in his own preaching that condemns Jesus. There is no other cause for his death than the love of one’s neighbour lived to the very end, with an infinitely intelligent grasp of the constraints it imposes.”
In Violence and the Sacred Girard wrote, “By means of rites the community manages to cajole and somewhat subdue the forces of destruction. But the true nature and real function of these forces will always elude its grasp, precisely because the source of evil is the community itself.” This strikes me as quite a radical statement — perhaps too radical even for the contemporary Left, in many ways. It also strikes me as an early gesture towards a Christian (if unorthodox) understanding of reality. How do you read Girard’s thoughts about the evil nature of community itself? Is he speaking of original sin here?
In that passage, he is referring to the community’s use of a scapegoat – the exile, murder, elimination of a vulnerable outsider – to quell social disorder among warring factions. It works, for awhile. But the urge for violence and violent solutions to social ills remains within the community. The rivalrous urges within a society are unabated, and arise again. I don’t know what the Left has to do with it. Anything René said applies across the political spectrum.
The seeds of these murders lie deep within each of us. Our ego is composed of ten thousand self-protecting lies, and we must each realize that we have been the “puppet of our own devil,” as René said. Original sin? I’m hardly a theologian, but here’s What René said: “Yet I like to think that if you take this notion as far as you possibly can, you go through the ceiling, as it were, and discover what amounts to original sin.”
Girard’s next book, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, explicitly deals with Christianity. You write that it wouldn’t have been so controversial a book if he had instead written about “the Koran or the Vedas or the Diamond Sutra.” Can you elaborate on that?
The outpouring of hatred and ridicule towards Christianity and Christians I see on the social social media every single day tells its own story. It is a thoroughly acceptable prejudice from the people who preach inclusion and diversity in our society. It goes beyond prejudice, however. The indifference towards the multiple atrocities, even genocides, ongoing everyday in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia is a moral outrage. This month alone, both the Guardian and the BBC reported that Christian genocide is at “near genocidal” levels. They needn’t have qualified with “near.” Google it.
And can you say what about Girard’s notion of sin and sacrifice set him apart from atheists and other Christians alike?
It’s a complicated question, and I’m not sure atheists have a notion of “sin,” since it’s a theological term that needs some objective grounding, beyond a subjective condemnation of people enjoying what you disapprove of.
Sacrifice is a term that has become so commonplace and flexible … yet it provides an interesting example. René pointed out that in archaic societies, the word “sacrifice” always referred to the victimage mechanism – rituals of human or animal sacrifice. With the advent of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the word acquired a different meaning, the sacrifice comes from within oneself, to remedy a situation.
You write that Girard had quite an underground reputation in Warsaw Pact countries. Can you explain his particular appeal to those living behind the Iron Curtain?
The realities that unfolded for them in the last decades of Soviet rule provide unavoidable examples of victimage, scapegoating, and violence.
Ewa Domańska, a leading Polish intellectual, told me that Girard was a mythical figure to them and very important in revealing how power worked within their society. His work offered a concept of power and violence in the framework of totalitarianism. Others have written about this – for example, James Krapfl in Revolution with a Human Face: Politics, Culture, and Community in Czechoslovakia, 1989-1992.
Girard maintained a close friendship with the psychiatrist Jean-Michel Oughourlian, which seemed to provide a basis for real world application of Girard’s ideas. To your mind, what were some of the more successful examples of applied Girardean thought?
The application we can make every day in our lives. It’s not that people scapegoat, it’s that I do. Not only other people are rivalrous, I am. We are the ones that have to turn off the hate – our hatred of them. It’s not only Trump who is aggressive on his Twitter feed – many of us can’t dial back the snark, and unfortunately sometimes I’m one of them. With this difference: I should know better.
We can take a step away from the herd. You don’t need a dissertation or triangles on chalkboard to recognize a mob in action. A mob has a smell to it. We can learn to mistrust social momentums.
René called for a complete renunciation of all forms of retaliation, which mask the desire to win. As I write in Evolution of Desire: “It’s the craving that must be relinquished, along with the desire for the last word, the caustic rejoinder, and other passive sorts of revenge, such as calumny or gossip, which extend the desire to be right, and to be acknowledged as right. But what philosophy embodies such a total nonretaliation?
“In a blamethirsty world, where our plight is the fault of the Muslims or the Christians; the left-wingers or the right-wingers; the rich or the poor; the black or the white—who will say, ‘I take it upon me. It’s my fault. I’ll take the rap and try to make things right’?”
Where was Girard’s thought at the time of his death? Was he still working and thinking towards the end of his life?
He was felled by a series of small strokes, and could not speak, so anything I say would be purely speculative. Although he had lost the intellectual power and acuity to articulate his thoughts, as I say in Evolution of Desire, I sensed that he brought a great interiority through to the last days. He was turning his back on his body – but it was more than that.
I saw great meaning in those final days – a self-renunciation. However, many others did not see this. What can I say?
He left behind two unfinished book projects, although “projects” may be overstating how far he had developed them: one on ecology, and the other on Saint Paul. I wish he could have seen them through, but perhaps that is rather greedy. Hasn’t he given us enough already? It’s a lifetime of work just to catch up on what he left behind.
As someone intimately familiar with both the man and his ideas, what do you see as Girard’s legacy? How do you predict his work will be received, applied, and criticized in the future?
I’m no prophet, but I think René speaks profoundly to our times. His last book discussed the mimetic tit-for-tat of our arms proliferation and warfare. What Clausewitz called the “escalation to extremes.” So his work encompassed everything from the baby’s first imitative gestures to the ending of the world. That’s his legacy.
I would like to see more dissemination among general educated public, here and around the world. I have said I would like to see his ideas as widely recognized as those of Marx and Freud – many people have not read Freud, yet know about the Oedipus complex, many people cite the economic and social analyses of Marx without having read him.
I hope Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard has a small role in that. Well… maybe not so small.
Scott Beauchamp is an editor at The Scofield. His work has appeared in the Paris Review Daily, Bookforum, and The Dublin Review of Books, among other places. His book Did You Kill Anyone? is forthcoming from Zero Books.