Archive for June 1st, 2018

Who was René Girard? Wall Street Journal tries to answer the question.

Friday, June 1st, 2018
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Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard is in the Wall Street Journal weekend edition. The newspaper asks its readers “Who Was René Girard?”  And Marilyn Yalom, a French scholar and officier de l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques, tries to answer. She was the French theorist’s first graduate student at Johns Hopkins University in 1957, and was already at Stanford to greet him when he arrived here in the early 1980s. So she was the perfect person to review Evolution of Desire for the eminent WSJ.  

We couldn’t be more pleased and honored. The Wall Street Journal is the largest newspaper in the nation, with 2.3 million subscribers internationally. You don’t get a bigger audience that that. 

She writes: “Her carefully researched biography is a fitting tribute to her late friend and one that will enlighten both specialists and non-specialists alike.” Well, that’s what I had intended when I wrote the book.

The review is behind a paywall, alas, but here’s an excerpt:

René Girard (1923- 2015) was inducted into the French Academy in 2005. Many of us felt this honor was long overdue, given his international prominence as a French intellectual whose works had crossed the boundaries of literature, history, psychology, sociology, anthropology and religion. Today his theories continue to be debated among “Girardians” on both sides of the Atlantic. He is now the subject of a comprehensive biography by Cynthia Haven called “Evolution of Desire.”

A officier and a gentlewoman…

The title is apt. A key concept in Girard’s philosophy is what he called “mimetic desire.” All desire, he argued, is imitation of another person’s desire. Mimetic desire gives rise to rivalries and violence and eventually to the scapegoating of individuals and groups—a process that unites the community against an outsider and temporarily restores peace. Girard believes that the scapegoat mechanism has been intrinsic to civilization from its beginning to our own time.

My personal acquaintance with René Girard began in 1957, when I entered Johns Hopkins as a graduate student in comparative literature at the same time that he arrived as a professor in the department of Romance languages. With his thick dark hair and leonine head, he was an imposing figure whose brilliance intimidated us all. Yet he proved to be generous and tolerant, even when I announced that I was to have another child—my third in five years of marriage. …

Ms. Haven’s ability to interweave Girard’s life with his publications keeps her narrative flowing at a lively pace. For a man who woke every day at 3:30 a.m. and wrote until his professorial duties took over, it would be enough for any biographer to focus on his intellectual life, without linking his thoughts to a person ambulating in the world. Fortunately, Ms. Haven portrays Girard as he interacted with colleagues, students, friends and family.
 
Read the whole thing here, if you’re able.