René Girard gave the intellectual universe a way of seeing old truths in a new way and new truths through an old lens. As a result, his work has already been hugely influential in a range of disciplines, both academic and cultural…
Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard by Cynthia L. Haven (346 pages, Michigan State University Press, 2018)
Around twenty years ago I was an oblate at Downside Abbey in England, and while there on retreat, the theologian Dom Sebastian Moore would knock on my door after Compline with a bottle of contraband whisky. It was supposed to be the great silence, but he was eager to talk theology and wanted especially to discuss a French thinker I had never heard of: René Girard.
Moore was one of the first theologians to interact with Girard’s thought, and only later did I move on with Dom Sebastian’s encouragement to read Girard’s work myself. The interface among literature, theology, and psychology was my cup of tea, and therefore it was with some anticipation that I asked for a review copy of Cynthia Haven’s new biography of Girard.
For those who are unfamiliar with René Girard and his work, a brief overview will set the stage: René Girard, who died three years ago, was a French historian, literary critic, and philosopher of social science. His sprawling oeuvre might be called anthropological philosophy. His books make connections through theology, literary criticism, critical theory, anthropology, psychology, mythology, sociology, cultural studies, and philosophy.
His core theory is that our human motivations are rooted in “mimetic desire”—a form of envy which is not simply desiring what another has, but also desiring to be like them. This competitive drive then sparks all other human conflict on both the micro- and macroscopic levels. He explained how mimetic desire leads us to blame others when our desire is frustrated, which then leads to blaming others and ultimately to the mechanism of scapegoating on the societal level, which forms the basis for ritual sacrifice.
An accomplished academic, journalist, and author, Cynthia Haven was not only a colleague of Girard but also a close friend to him and his wife. Her biography is a warm, personal memoir while also providing an introduction to his thought and the historical context for the development of his ideas.
René Girard’s second name “Noël” signals his birth on Christmas Day in 1923 in Avignon, France. His father was an archivist in the local museum, and his mother from a more upper- class family proud of having a martyr-saint in their ancestry.
In 1947, with a degree in medieval history, he went on a one-year fellowship to study at Indiana University. Although his subject was history, he took a post teaching French literature. He married and settled in the United States, holding posts at Duke, Bryn Mawr, John Hopkins, and New York State at Buffalo before concluding his academic career at Stanford. Girard’s academic breakthrough was with the book Deceit, Desire and the Novel, but his most influential works are Violence and the Sacred and Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World.
Ms. Haven’s biography paints a portrait of a man who, from boyhood, was introspective, intellectual, and somewhat of a mystic. Brought up in a conventional French Catholic home, by the time he was at university he had adopted the fashionable atheism of the day. Witnessing the treatment of the Jews and the scapegoating of French collaborators in the aftermath of the Second World War no doubt had an impact on the development of Girard’s thought.
The academic vigor and enthusiasm in postwar United States provided the perfect setting for a philosopher and historian who was constantly thinking outside the boundaries of strict academic territories. He would come to interact with the avant-garde writers and philosophers of his day—Camus, Sartre, Foucault, Derrida—and yet rise above them and their frequent rivalries and needy egos. In a world of narrowing academia, in which professors knew more and more about less and less, Girard was one who transcended the blinkered biases, the bureaucratic boundaries, and artificially defined territories.
As T.S. Eliot’s entire life’s work must be understood through the lens of his 1927 conversion to Christianity, so I believe Girard is also best understood through his profound reversion to his Catholic faith. In commenting on the interaction between religious awakening and the work of literature, Girard wrote, “So the career of the great novelist is dependent upon a conversion, and even if it is not made completely explicit, there are symbolic allusions to it at the end of the novel. These allusions are at least implicitly religious.”
Girard’s own awakening began in the winter of 1958-59 as he was working on his book about the novel. He recounted later, “I was thinking about the analogies between religious experience and the experience of a novelist who discovers that he’s been consistently lying, lying for the benefit of his Ego, which in fact is made up of nothing but a thousand lies that have accumulated over a long period, sometimes built up over an entire lifetime.”
His intellectual awareness was combined later with a series of profound mystical experiences as he rode on the train from Baltimore to Bryn Mawr. “I remember quasi-mystical experiences on the train as I read, contemplated the scenery… The sights were little more than scrap iron and the vacant lots in an old industrial region, but my mental state transfigured everything, and on the way back, the slightest ray from the setting sun produced veritable ecstasies within me.” A bit later he had a health scare which pushed the intellectual and the subjective mystical experiences into a firm commitment to religion.
Ms. Haven recounts, “It was Lent. He was thirty-five years old. He had never been a practicing Catholic. ‘I will never forget that day. It was Holy Wednesday, the Wednesday before Easter.’ March 25, 1959. Everything was fine, completely benign, no return of the cancer… I felt that God liberated me just in time for me to have a real Easter experience, a death and resurrection experience.’”
For those who like to spot little signs of a providential plan, it might be noted that René Girard (also called Noël) who was born on Christmas Day, dated his conversion to March 25—the feast of the Annunciation—traditionally the date for the beginning of God’s redemptive work in the world, and in medieval times the date for the celebration of the New Year.
Girard’s conversion and subsequent practice of his Catholic faith was an act of great courage. His huge leonine profile with his contemplative gaze grants him a kind of heroic stature that reflects the heroism of his witness. As post-modern academia drifted further and further into Marxist ideologies, fashionable atheism, and nihilistic post-structuralism, Girard was able to put forward an intellectual explication for age-old Christian themes using a fresh vocabulary and perspective.
Ms. Haven’s biography is beautifully and sensitively written. It carries plenty of intellectual heft without being overly weighty and inaccessible. Her enthusiasm for Girard’s thought does leave some areas untouched, however. While his work is hailed in intellectual circles as being revolutionary, for theologians it is more a case of looking at old truths from a new angle.
The critic might point out that the concept of “mimetic desire” is simply good old-fashioned envy, and that theologians have explored the complications of that original sin already in many ways. Likewise, the relationship between sacrifice and the scapegoat is as old as Leviticus. What Girard did was to provide a fresh synthesis and applications of old truths within non-religious disciplines. He also re-vivified the concept of sacrifice, explaining its underlying dynamic rather than simply writing it off as a barbaric superstition.
In an age where atheism is all the rage and all religions (especially Catholicism) are suspect, Girard does a great service in refreshing the language of the tribe and giving the intellectual universe a way of seeing old truths in a new way and new truths through an old lens. As a result, his work has already been hugely influential in a range of disciplines, both academic and cultural.
A reviewer must grumble a little, and my only niggle was the somewhat humid atmosphere of the hoity-toity and the haute academe. Of course, Girard was a thinker—and a French one at that, but at times the lofty airs and intense and dense overthinking become a bit wearing.
Ms. Haven is not much of a name-dropper, but when she describes, for example, The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man symposium held at John Hopkins in 1966, the pomposity of the whole affair is comedic. I sensed a touch of sarcasm as she reports the competing egos of famous French philosophers and the rivalry between intellectuals trying to see whose presentations can be the most incomprehensible, while they are also comparing notes on the luxury of their accommodations and the numbers of young women they are able to lure into philosophical discussions between the sheets.
For those who chuckle at the snooty name-dropping of what Flannery O’Conner called “them innerleckshuls,” here is a passage in which Ms. Haven quotes one of Girard’s colleagues, the Scotsman Lionel Gossman on a visit to John Hopkins:
I remember in particular Sir Nicholas Pevsner’s delight when I showed him the elegant industrial design of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad’s round house and the silence that came over the poet Yves Bonnefoy as we stood before the modest grave of Edgar Allen Poe on which the famous verses of Mallarmé are inscribed.
To be fair, these famous names and “high-falutin’” footnotes provide a nice counterpoint to Girard’s seriousness and modesty. The rest of them may have been egotistical, competitive, and status-hungry, but Ms. Haven portrays Girard as a man whose gravity and intimidating demeanor was undergirded by a genuine modesty that was always ready with a warm welcome, a listening ear, and an engaged and interested mind. While those around him may have been climbing the academic ladder, seeking fame and fortune, Girard comes across as a sincere seeker and a master of wisdom.
Critics will say that his theory is incomplete, that he has not connected all the dots and that there are inconsistencies between his theory and orthodox Catholic theology. Ms. Haven points out that Girard never suggested that his work was “an answer to everything,” but that he was only planting seeds so that others might continue the work and bring more understandings of Truth to the harvest.
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