René Girard (1923-2015) was one of the leading thinkers of our eraa provocative sage who bypassed prevailing orthodoxies to offer a bold, sweeping vision of human nature, human history, and human destiny. His oeuvre, offering a “mimetic theory” of cultural origins and human behavior, inspired such writers as Milan Kundera and J. M. Coetzee, and earned him a place among the forty “immortals” of the Académie Française. Too often, however, his work is considered only within various academic specializations. This first-ever biographical study takes a wider view. Cynthia L. Haven traces the evolution of Girard’s thought in parallel with his life and times. She recounts his formative years in France and his arrival in a country torn by racial division, and reveals his insights into the collective delusions of our technological world and the changing nature of warfare. Drawing on interviews with Girard and his colleagues, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard provides an essential introduction to one of the twentieth century’s most controversial and original minds.
About the Author
CYNTHIA L. HAVEN writes regularly for The Times Literary Supplement, and has also contributed to The Nation, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and many others. She is also the author of several books, including volumes on Nobel poets Czesław Miłosz and Joseph Brodsky.
Read an Excerpt
Armed with a copy of the Iliad and a shovel, Heinrich Schliemann set out to find Troy in 1871. Two years later, he hit gold.
He was vilified as an amateur, an adventurer, and a con man. As archaeologists refined their methods of excavation in the subsequent decades, Schliemann would also be deplored for destroying much of what he was trying to find.
Nevertheless, he found the lost city. He is credited with the modern discovery of prehistoric Greek civilization. He ignited the field of Homeric studies at the end of the century. Most importantly, for our purposes, he broke new ground in a figurative, as well as literal, sense: he scrutinized the words of the text, and believed that they held the truth.
"I've said this for years: in the global sense, the best analogy for what René Girard represents in anthropology and sociology is Schliemann," said the French theorist's Stanford colleague, Robert Pogue Harrison. "Like him, his major discovery was excoriated for using the wrong methods. The others never would have found Troy by looking at the literature — it was beyond their imagination." Girard's writings hold revelations that are even more important, however: they describe the roots of the violence that destroyed Troy and other empires throughout time.
Like Schliemann, the French academician trusted literature as the repository of truth, and as an accurate reflection of what actually happened. Harrison told me that Girard's loyalty was not to a narrow academic discipline, but rather to a continuing human truth: "Academic disciplines are more committed to methodology than truth. René, like Schliemann, had no training in anthropology. From the discipline's point of view, that is ruthlessly undisciplined. He's still not forgiven."
I have appreciated Harrison's analogy, though some of Girard's other friends will no doubt rush to his defense, given Schliemann's scandalous character — but Girard scandalized people, too: many academics grind their teeth at some of Girard's more ex cathedra pronouncements (though surely a few other modern French thinkers were just as apodictic). He never received the recognition he merited on this side of the Atlantic, even though he is one of America's very few immortels of the Académie Française.
For Girard, however, literature is more than a record of historical truth, it is the archive of self-knowledge. Girard's public life began in literary theory and criticism, with the study of authors whose protagonists embraced self-renunciation and self-transcendence. Eventually, his scholarship crossed into the fields of anthropology, sociology, history, philosophy, psychology, theology. Girard's thinking, including his textual analysis, offers a sweeping reading of human nature, human history, and human destiny. Let us review some of his more important conclusions.
He overturned three widespread assumptions about the nature of desire and violence: first, that our desire is authentic and our own; second, that we fight from our differences, rather than our sameness; and third, that religion is the cause of violence, rather than an archaic solution for controlling violence within a society, as he would assert.
He was fascinated by what he calls "metaphysical desire" — that is, the desire we have when creature needs for food, water, sleep, and shelter are met. In that regard, he is perhaps best known for his notion of mediated desire, based on the observation that people adopt the desires of other people. In short, we want what others want. We want it because they want it.
Human behavior is driven by imitation. We are, after all, social creatures. Imitation is the way we learn: it's how we begin to speak, and why we don't eat with our hands. It's why advertising works, why a whole generation may decide at once to pierce their tongues or tear their jeans, why pop songs top the charts and the stock markets rise and fall.
The idea of mimesis is hardly foreign to the social sciences today, but no one had made it a linchpin in a theory of human competition and violence, as Girard did, beginning in the 1950s. Freud and Marx were in error: one supposed sex to be the building block of human behavior, the other saw economics as fundamental. But the true key was "mimetic desire," which precedes and drives both. Imitation steers our sexual longings and Wall Street trends. When a Coca-Cola advertisement beckons you to join the glamorous people at a beach by drinking its beverage, mimetic desire poses no immediate privations — there is enough Coca-Cola for all. Problems arise where scarcity imposes limits, or when envy eyes an object that cannot be shared, or one that the possessor has no wish to share — a spouse, an inheritance, the top-floor corner office.
Hence, Girard claimed that mimetic desire is not only the way we love, it's the reason we fight. Two hands that reach toward the same object will ultimately clench into fists. Think of A Midsummer Night's Dream, where couples dissolve and reassemble, tearing friendships asunder as the two men suddenly want the same woman. Whatever two or three people want, soon everyone will want. Mimetic desire spreads contagiously, as people converge on the same person, position, or possession as the answer to a prayer or the solution to a problem. Even conflict is imitated and reciprocated.
Eventually, one individual or group is seen as responsible for the social contagion — generally, someone who is an outsider, who cannot or will not retaliate, and so is positioned to end the escalating cycles of tit-for-tat. The chosen culprit is therefore a foreigner, a cripple, a woman, or, in some cases, a king so far above the crowd that he stands alone. The victim is killed, exiled, pilloried, or otherwise eliminated. This act unites the warring factions and releases enormous social tension, restoring harmony among individuals and within the community. First the scapegoat is a criminal, then a god — more importantly, the scapegoat is both, since the single-handed power to bring either peace and harmony or war and violence to a society is seen as supernatural. Oedipus is deified at Colonus, Helen of Troy ascends Mount Olympus, and even as Joan of Arc is burned at the stake, the mob begins to murmur, "We have killed a saint!" Archaic religious sacrifice, Girard argued, is no more than the ritual reenactment of the scapegoat's killing, invoking the magical powers that preempted a societal catastrophe previously. He offered a complete deconstruction of religion, just as he had deconstructed desire.
He not only replaced Freudian desire with a more streamlined notion of mimesis, he also reconsidered Freud's Totem and Taboo, the psychoanalyst's ventures into archaeology and anthropology, at a time when the book was largely rejected. Girard took its notions of collective murder, and its insight that the foundation of culture is murder, one step further. He reaffirmed the book's importance, but ultimately refuted it with his daring, erudite argument.
His next step was to prove the most provocative of all: he describes how the Judeo-Christian texts are unique in revealing the innocence of the scapegoat, thus destabilizing the mechanism that allowed the victim to be both criminal and redeemer, the violent solution to social violence. We can no longer have clean consciences as we murder. Individuals and groups even compete for the cachet of being a victim in the Oppression Olympics, as the power-holders play defense. Wars continue, but end with no clear resolutions. International rivalries still escalate toward uncertain ends. The stakes are higher than ever today: we teeter on the nuclear brink.
For the reader meeting René Girard for the first time in these pages, the obvious question is why, in a world flooded with new information daily, we should care about the books, interviews, articles, and life of a man who died quietly in his early nineties in late 2015. I would begin by noting that he is a champion of the long thought, in a world that favors increasingly short and trivial ones. He is one of the few real thinkers we have had in our times.
Many have attempted to compartmentalize him according to his various interests (literature, anthropology, religions) or according to the distinct phases of his work (mimesis, scapegoating, sacrifice). However, Girard cannot be parsed into segments because the phases of his work are not diverse moments in one person's episodic life. They show the substance of his intellectual, emotional, and spiritual involvement with twentieth-century history, and his personal effort to come to grips with it. More often, journalists and others marshal one piece of his thought to support the discussion at hand, while failing to consider the context of the whole. But attempts to put him in a box reveal something about our own need to comfort ourselves.
Compartmentalizing his ideas is a mistake, obviously. It cannot and should not be done, for the simple reason that if you do so you won't be changed. That, in the end, is the real core of Girard's thought: change of being.
"All desire is a desire for being," he wrote, and the formulation, stunning in its implications, is an arrow that points the way out of our metaphysical plight. We want what others want because we believe the "other" possesses an inner perfection that we do not. We become consumed by the wish to be the godlike others. We hope that by acquiring their trappings (their cars, their couturiers, their circle of friends), we will acquire their metaphysical goods — authority, wisdom, autonomy, self-fulfillment — which are largely imagined, anyway.
The imitation puts us in direct competition with the person we adore, the rival we ultimately come to hate and worship, who responds by defending his or her turf. As competition intensifies, the rivals copy each other more and more, even if they're only copying the reflected image of themselves. Eventually, the objet du désir becomes secondary or irrelevant. The rivals are obsessed with each other and their fight. Bystanders are drawn into "taking sides," and so the conflict can envelop a society, with cycles of retaliatory (and therefore imitative) violence and one-upsmanship.
That's why Girard's theories must explode inward rather than outward. If you use these tools to castigate the defective "other," you miss the point. Desire is not individual but social. The other has colonized your desire, long before you knew you had it. And the phantom being that you covet recedes as you pursue it. Girard asks you to ask yourself: who do I worship?
The flashpoint of his oeuvre is not ancient Mesopotamia, Greek texts, or a handful of writers he favored. His work invites you to set fire to the chair you are sitting on. It is a process he went through himself. One of Girard's most beloved authors, Marcel Proust, wrote in his own magnum opus:
I had a more modest view of my book and it would be incorrect to say even that I was thinking of those who might read it as 'my readers.' For, to my mind, they would not be my readers but the very readers of themselves, my book serving only as a sort of magnifying glass, such as the optician of Combray used to offer to a customer; my book might supply the means by which they could read themselves. So that I would not ask them to praise me or to speak ill of me, but only to tell me that it is as I say, if the words which they read within themselves are, indeed, those which I have written.
Clearly, Girard is tenaciously loyal to a heritage that has been abandoned in the last century and a half: the grand récit — that is, a meta-narrative that offers a sweeping, teleological worldview. He is working against a Western philosophical tradition that has increasingly limited what philosophers can describe. With an intellect and ambition to challenge the major thinkers of our time, Girard is among the last of this breed, giving elegant expression to vast swaths of human reality with a kind of exposition and style not commonly found in the social sciences.
Today we are talking about war, rivalry, violence, and conflict while once-trendy preoccupations with sign and signifier are passé, and may soon be largely forgotten. In fact, one could argue that the prominence of the words "scapegoat," "sacrifice," "social contagion," and certainly "mimesis" in our culture comes from Girard. He did not coin these terms, of course, but their widespread usage may owe something to their repeated emphasis in his work. Our sensitivity to the phenomenon of scapegoating itself may pay homage to his thought. Girard is, by any measure, a giant of twentieth-century thought.
All that sounds very grand, but my perspective differs from most of Girard's admirers. I encountered René Girard not through theory or books, but through the man himself. Unlike many who have written about him, I came to his work through his kindness, generosity, and his personal friendship, not the other way around. I have tried to keep in mind that not all readers will delve deeply into his works, but will still find the ideas he promulgated to be important ones.
This book is above all a presentation of the man, in the context of his life and times, with the intention that his ideas will not only be thought but felt, as a working dynamic in human society, rather than a scientific formula to be rigorously imposed. In doing so, I hope to create a larger tent — not of true believers, but of educated nonspecialists who are likely to find themselves drawn to the questions Girard asked, and wish to become familiar with the contours of his thought, whether they ultimately agree with his answers or not.
These readers will not approach his work as a theory to be confirmed or repudiated but as a heuristic framework to describe more effectively what we see around us. For myself, I am convinced of the applicability of Girard's ideas to a wide range of situations and its importance to a general audience. Their explanatory power roams from international politics to the memes on the daily Twitter feed. I do not think, however, that his theories are the only lens that resolves these issues — nor did he. A telescope is a very useful instrument for gazing at the stars, but it cannot detect microbes — a microscope would be far handier. Nor can we use a microscope to admire a landscape rather than binoculars. We use whichever tool helps us see better.
The discursive and conversational nature of much of his oeuvre (his major work is a book-length Q&A, for example) discourages a dogmatic approach. "I make it as systematic as possible for you to be able to prove it wrong," he admonished his critics, yet I think he was as intuitive as he was rational. Though he prided himself in his role as a French intellectual, he was also a visionary, malgré lui.
As he once indicated in a characteristically roundabout way: "This irreducible personal involvement of the questioner as well as, at the other end, the all-embracing nature of the question, gives to my research a 'philosophical' and even a 'religious' twist that may forever prevent it from becoming 'scientific' in the eyes of the scientist. Does it mean that our scientific culture can ignore this question? Can it really afford to?"
Throughout this book, I have indulged a personal prejudice of my own, and one shared by one of Girard's favorite authors. A professor from my University of Michigan days, the Slavic scholar and publisher Carl Proffer of Ardis Books, put it this way: "Dostoevsky insisted that life teaches you things, not theories, not ideas. Look at the way people end up in life — that teaches you the truth." Girard himself is the best endorsement of his oeuvre. He pretty much practiced what he preached, and got better as he practiced. I observed his immense personal dignity, his remarkably serene and devoted marriage of six decades, his industriousness, his lifelong loyalties and friendships, his unfailing courtesy to newcomers, such as this one. Some have claimed that the gentleness and affection were the by-product of advanced age, but one could have argued equally that old age brings stagnation, crotchetiness, and rigidity. At least for this visitor, he maintained his cheerfulness, curiosity, and good humor to the end. He was a great man, and a wise one — I have known others, but none with his personal qualities, which recommended themselves before I even encountered his work.
He wasn't anxious to be a hero, however, and went to some pains to downplay his personal story. "I left France for the United States at twenty-three. I taught in various universities, I married, I had children. With my family, I went to France and Europe for many summer holidays as well as several years of sabbaticals," he wrote. "In sum, a banal enough existence for the second half of the twentieth century."
I found that that wasn't entirely the case, as I suspected it wasn't from the outset. Although his life was outwardly placid, he had his share of perturbations and suffering. In his remarks to me and others, Girard showed a stoic consistency in minimizing events, or his reaction to them, even when eyewitnesses to events remembered otherwise. Those who have chided his hubris might take note of his modesty: "I'm not concealing my biography, but I don't want to fall victim to the narcissism to which we're all inclined."
It is commonly said that to write of a life is to become disillusioned with one's subject. I am happy to say that was not so. In his study of the greatest literature, Girard always maintained that the story of the novel was the story of the author as well. We could say the same about Girard and his oeuvre.
But Girard expressed himself in the human sciences rather than fiction. His language is eloquent, lively, and persuasive. Until now, however, the experiences behind his theories remained in shadow. We have his books; here are the outlines of the life.
Excerpted from "Evolution of Desire"
Copyright © 2018 Cynthia L. Haven.
Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Introduction 1
Chapter 2 Magnetic North 9
Chapter 3 Dark Times in the City of Light 27
Chapter 4 Everything Is Possible 47
Chapter 5 Mankind Is Not so Kind 63
Chapter 6 The Pleasure of His Company 81
Chapter 7 Everything Came to Me at Once 109
Chapter 8 The French Invasion 121
Chapter 9 Le Système-Girard 147
Chapter 10 The Zero Hour of Culture 175
Chapter 11 Lotus Land 191
Chapter 12 The New Darwin of the Human Sciences 211
Chapter 13 Who Asks about the Souls of These Men? 231
Chapter 14 Terra Incognita 255
Postscript: Hand in Hand 271