Time to blow my own horn — or rather, I have another opportunity to toot René Girard’s. My review of the French author’s Battling to the End, encapsulating Girard’s thinking of the history of human conflict and our current predicament, appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle today — it’s here.
Introducing René Girard — for he is so little known on this side of the Atlantic that any article has to double as a general introduction — is no mean task. Trying to encapsulate decades of his work, as well as discuss his current book, in about 700 words (a standard review length in the mainstream media nowadays) is downright formidable. But René is worth the effort — few today have the courage to take on the grand récit, and his thinking is always provocative. From my review:
“If we had been told 30 years ago that Islamism would replace the Cold War, we would have laughed … or that the apocalypse began at Verdun, people would have taken us for Jehovah’s Witnesses,” writes the Avignon-born octogenarian.
Fundamentalists, preoccupied with apocalypse, nevertheless grab the wrong end of the stick: “They cannot do without a cruel God. Strangely, they do not see that the violence we ourselves are in the process of amassing and that is looming over our own heads is entirely sufficient to trigger the worst. They have no sense of humor.”
After my article was in an editor’s hands, I sent the book to a friend, former NEA chairman Dana Gioia — rather surprisingly, his thoughts echoed mine, and he, too, was intrigued by the Girard’s chapter discussing poet Friedrich Hölderlin (as a Stanford sophomore, Gioia had studied German in Vienna).
My review is included in Sunday’s “Insight + Books” section — but the online version appeared just in time for the author’s 86th birthday on Christmas Day. It was also just in time also for the Christmas present I received from a family member: Michael Hamburger‘s translation of Hölderlin’s Selected Poems and Fragments. Here’s hoping the winter break allows time to make my own explorations of Hölderlin’s extraordinary poetry, which Germans assure me is untranslatable.