Eminent French theorist René Girard, member of the Académie Française, dies at 91

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At his home in 2008. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

René Girard was one of the leading thinkers of our era – a provocative sage who bypassed prevailing orthodoxies and “isms” to offer a bold, sweeping vision of human nature, human history and human destiny.

French theorist René Girard was one of the leading thinkers of our era, a faculty member at Stanford since 1981 and one of the immortels of the Académie Française.

The renowned Stanford French professor, one of the 40 immortels of the prestigious Académie Française, died at his Stanford home on Nov. 4 at the age of 91, after long illness.

Fellow immortel and Stanford Professor Michel Serres once dubbed him “the new Darwin of the human sciences.” The author who began as a literary theorist was fascinated by everything. History, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, religion, psychology and theology all figured in his oeuvre.

International leaders read him, the French media quoted him. Girard influenced such writers as Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee and Czech writer Milan Kundera – yet he never had the fashionable (and often fleeting) cachet enjoyed by his peers among the structuralists, poststructuralists, deconstructionists and other camps. His concerns were not trendy, but they were always timeless.

hollandeIn particular, Girard was interested in the causes of conflict and violence and the role of imitation in human behavior. Our desires, he wrote, are not our own; we want what others want. These duplicated desires lead to rivalry and violence. He argued that human conflict was not caused by our differences, but rather by our sameness. Individuals and societies offload blame and culpability onto an outsider, a scapegoat, whose elimination reconciles antagonists and restores unity.

According to author Robert Pogue Harrison, the Rosina Pierotti Professor in Italian Literature at Stanford, Girard’s legacy was “not just to his own autonomous field – but to a continuing human truth.”

“I’ve said this for years: The best analogy for what René represents in anthropology and sociology is Heinrich Schliemann, who took Homer under his arm and discovered Troy,” said Harrison, recalling that Girard formed many of his controversial conclusions by a close reading of literary, historical and other texts. “René had the same blind faith that the literary text held the literal truth. Like Schliemann, his major discovery was excoriated for using the wrong methods. Academic disciplines are more committed to methodology than truth.”

Girard was always a striking and immediately recognizable presence on the Stanford campus, with his deep-set eyes, leonine head and shock of silver hair. His effect on others could be galvanizing. William Johnsen, editor of a series of books by and about Girard from Michigan State University Press, once described his first encounter with Girard as “a 110-volt appliance being plugged into a 220-volt outlet.”

An immortel in 2005

An immortel in 2005

Girard’s first book, Deceit, Desire and the Novel (1961 in French; 1965 in English), used Cervantes, Stendhal, Proust and Dostoevsky as case studies to develop his theory of mimesis. The Guardian recently compared the book to “putting on a pair of glasses and seeing the world come into focus. At its heart is an idea so simple, and yet so fundamental, that it seems incredible that no one had articulated it before.”

The work had an even bigger impact on Girard himself: He underwent a conversion, akin to the protagonists in the books he had cited. “People are against my theory, because it is at the same time an avant-garde and a Christian theory,” he said in 2009. “The avant-garde people are anti-Christian, and many of the Christians are anti-avant-garde. Even the Christians have been very distrustful of me.”

Girard took the criticism in stride: “Theories are expendable,” he said in 1981. “They should be criticized. When people tell me my work is too systematic, I say, ‘I make it as systematic as possible for you to be able to prove it wrong.'”

In 1972, he spurred international controversy with Violence and the Sacred (1977 in English), which explored the role of archaic religions in suppressing social violence through scapegoating and sacrifice.

rene-girardThings Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978 in French; 1987 in English), according to its publisher, Stanford University Press, was “the single fullest summation of Girard’s ideas to date, the book by which they will stand or fall.” He offered Christianity as a solution to mimetic rivalry, and challenged Freud’s Totem and Taboo.

He was the author of nearly 30 books, which have been widely translated, including The Scapegoat, I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightning, To Double Business Bound, Oedipus Unbound and A Theater of Envy: William Shakespeare.

Read the rest here. [Incidentally, my biography of René Girard will be published next year by Michigan State University Press. – C.H.]

 


2 Responses to “Eminent French theorist René Girard, member of the Académie Française, dies at 91”

  1. Tiana Says:

    Do you know the date, time, and location of Girard’s memorial in January? Thank you.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    It will take place at 2 p.m., Tuesday, January 19, at Stanford Memorial Church.

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