Archive for July 28th, 2017

“Everything Came to Me at Once”: my new opuscule on René Girard!

Friday, July 28th, 2017
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The première of my opuscule at University of Notre Dame. It’s the one with the bright blue cover.

I was finishing Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard (out next spring with Michigan State University Press), when Joshua Hren, founder of a fine-press publishing house called Wiseblood, approached me to see if we could adapt and republish one of the chapters as a stand-alone. Dana Gioia had suggested the project to them, so … how could I say no?  Voila! This week’s publication of Everything Came to Me at Once: The Intellectual Vision of René Girard.

From the jacket:

French theorist René Girard promulgates a sweeping vision of human nature, human history, and human destiny, but few understand the mysterious experience that gave birth to his theories: “Everything came to me at once in 1959. I felt that there was a sort of mass that I’ve penetrated into little by little,” he said. “Everything was there at the beginning, all together. That’s why I don’t have any doubts . . . I’m teasing out a single, extremely dense insight.”

The tough question was: what color for the cover? Blue. It had to be blue. But Dana had already made a clear and dignified blue statement with his covers. Blue was “taken.” Red was simply out of the question. Yellow, Joshua suggested. How about yellow? But René was not a yellow kind of guy. So I picked a bright sky blue. But I nervously awaited the final to see if the white letters would “pop” enough. I think they do.

Artur Rosman, literary scholar, translator, and blogger at Cosmos the in Lost, (we’ve written about him here and here) generously served as a blurber: “René Girard devoted his career to tracking down the twists and turns of mimetic desire in literature, philosophy, and anthropology. Cynthia Haven’s primer makes an invaluable contribution to Girard studies by tracking down the places where Girard discussed how his theories emerged from a personal process of intellectual and spiritual conversion—and its public consequences. What emerges is a compelling picture of Girard as a post-secular thinker who tears down artificial boundaries, such as the ones between the religious and the secular, between the private and public. Haven invites would-be Girard readers to see themselves as participating in a common struggle rather than scapegoating each other. This is a must-read book for a time when mimetic competition, shorn of scapegoating safeguards, rends the fabric of civil society.”

Trevor Cribben Merrill congratulated me on the final essay – an “opuscule,” he called it. That was a new word for me, and I liked it. Now I use it all the time. I roll it around my tongue. I find ways of working it into the conversation. “Have you seen my little opuscule?” Well… I guess “little” is redundant.

Any, the opuscule (see? I did it again) begins this way:

“Midway in the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost.” – Dante Alighieri, Inferno, Canto 1, trans. Charles Singleton

René Girard had reached the traditional midway point of life—35 years old—when he had a major course correction in his journey, rather like Dante. The event occurred as the young professor was finishing Deceit, Desire, and the Novel at Johns Hopkins University, the book that would establish his reputation as an innovative literary theorist. His first book was hardly the only attempt to study the nature of desire, but Girard was the first to insist that the desires we think of as autonomous and original, or that we think arise from a need in the world around us are borrowed from others; they are, in fact, “mimetic.” Dante’s “dark wood” is a state of spiritual confusion associated with the wild, dangerous forests. Three beasts block his path; the leopard, the lion, and the wolf represent disordered passions and desires. Dante’s conversion begins when he recognizes he cannot pass the beasts unharmed. Girard experienced his “dark wood” amidst his own study of the disordered desires that populate the modern novel. His conversion began as he traveled along the clattering old railway cars of the Pennsylvania Railroad, en route from Baltimore to Bryn Mawr for the class he taught every week. …

Buy it here.

Postscript on July 31: Kind words from Frank Wilson over at Books Inq.: “Perhaps the most interesting thing I’ve read this year is a mere 20 pages long and takes less than half an hour to read.” Read it here.