Archive for April 27th, 2011

50th anniversary of René Girard’s Deceit, Desire, and the Novel gets kisses and punches

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011
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Josh Landy’s practical application of Girard’s “mimetic theory”

2011 marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of René Girard‘s Deceit, Desire, and the Novel – and if you don’t think that’s a big deal, try looking at the website here for scheduled celebrations at Stanford, Berlin, São Paulo, Cambridge, and Yale.  Berkeley symposium is described  here.

I can’t say I sampled many of the events, but I did drop by for a few of the Stanford talks, notably Robert Harrison‘s opening and closing remarks, and Josh Landys anti-Girard talk, “Valentine’s Day,” especially since Josh said he had written his remarks with me in mind (we had quarreled somewhat over at Arcade months ago, which is how we met).

Robert noted that René is a leading Christian thinker – “to what degree is that a stumblingblock?” he asked.  He said “René is one of the titans of the 20th century – of whom there are few.”

Yet “Girard’s standing is in doubt,” he said. “Precisely the Christian framework within which people understand Deceit, Desire, and the Novel can turn people off.”

The conference, to circumvent the perceived problem, limited its scope to the 50-year-old book  they were celebrating, considering René’s mimetic theory and “the invidious nature of human desire,” but banishing his theories about the scapegoat mechanisms and civilizations from the event.  Robert wanted to explore “to what extent one doesn’t have to buy into the whole theory,” since modern people don’t want “to submit to a totalizing theory.”

“Girard does not believe the truth of literature is confined to the text,” said Robert.  “He believes that the truth has to be wrestled from concealment.”

Hence, he is “pressing to uncover the structure of certain psychological laws … the primary site of revelation.”  He is trying to learn “the truth that applies to human religions in general.”

Noting that “very, very few anthropologists give any credence” to René’s thoughts on the anthropology of religion” because “he comes to anthropology as an amateur” (René called it “poaching” when he spoke to me), Robert compared him to  Heinrich Schliemann, the German businessman who was right about Troy, but whose successful amateur attempts to excavate destroyed important archaeological layers of the real Troy.

“Even if it’s true, they will not take him seriously.”

I did, also, attend a few of the events in Berkeley.  The two gatherings – one at Berkeley; one at Stanford – were like night and day.  The Berkeley gathering focused on the theological aspects of René’s work, as well as the literary, with presentations on Girardian connections with Simone Weil, Molière, Rousseau, and others.  The Berkeley crowd was older, and predominantly male; the Stanford crowd was younger, trendier, with more women.  But there was an more profound split in orientation, which has interesting presentiments for the thinker’s legacy.

At Berkeley, I scribbled a few of René’s sayings in my notebook, as they were related by others.  “Philosophers never include themselves in their philosophy.” “Laughter means a denial of reciprocity.” “Escaping from mimesis is something only geniuses and saints can do.” “I am really a positivist, but I’m too ashamed to admit that – it is such a peasant thing to be.” “All art is incarnation.”

Robert Hamerton Kelly, at Berkeley, trumped all with his quote, when René said of his work, “I really shouldn’t have called it a theory – but every French intellectual has to have a theory.  It’s just a few observations of human behavior.”

“That took the wind out of my sails,” he said.