I was visiting with René and Martha Girard last night at their Stanford home. He was a bit under the weather with an oncoming cold, and Martha brewed a Chinese tea for all three of us. In the domestic setting, they didn’t whisper a word of the latest international news. But here it is this morning:
Professor Emeritus René Girard will be granted the Order of Isabella the Catholic, Commander by Number, by the Spanish head of state, H.M. King Juan Carlos. Girard is receiving the decoration “for his outstanding work, during the past decades, in the fields of philosophy and anthropology.” … The Order of Isabella the Catholic is a Spanish civil order bestowed upon both Spanish citizens and foreigners in recognition of services that benefit the country.
What service has he rendered Spain? Recall the role of Don Quixote in his landmark Deceit, Desire and the Novel.
A statement from the cultural advisors to King Juan Carlos points to Girard’s “profound attachment” to “Spanish culture as a whole” as reason for the award. Girard has repeatedly said that the works of Miguel de Cervantes, one of Spain’s greatest writers, have been crucial to him when it came to elaborating his theories.
The article notes that the mimetic theory is “arguably” his most famous theory. Okay, I’ll argue. At least a little. Having spent hours poring over the clippings in the Girard archives at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the biggest file of news clippings is easily Violence and the Sacred. When I speak to Europeans – such as Mario Biagini, or Tomas Venclova – they say that Violence and the Sacred is the book that had a powerful impact on their thinking and their lives.
That’s the book that made an apparent (but only apparent) U-turn from literary theory to anthropology, sociology, and the social sciences. He began to theorize about the origins of violence, and the role of the scapegoat in unifying societies. He lost a few fans, no doubt, who wanted the shoemaker to stick to his last – but that’s the book that moved him into another sphere, making him one of the greatest thinkers of the last century.
The Consul General of Spain in San Francisco, Jorge Montealegre Buire, delivered the award to the immortel of the Académie Française in a private ceremony with his family today. I hope it went well.
There is always a takeaway when I visit Girard. This time I took away … his cold. It may be a quieter weekend than I’d planned.