Archive for July 20th, 2018

“Restless digging for the deepest human truths”: playwright Christopher Shinn on “Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard”

Friday, July 20th, 2018

“The world that literary critic René Girard described and explored — one of runaway desire, obsession with taboo and scandal, and an overwhelming instinct to blame outsiders for our problems — is remarkably like the world we live in today. That Girard, who died in 2015, seems to be writing about our current moment is all the more notable given that his theoretical speculations were an attempt to explain the founding of functional human societies thousands of years ago.”

So begins Christopher Shinn‘s “An Intensity Leavened by Gentleness” in today’s Los Angeles Review of Books. Playwright Shinn is an Obie winner, a Pulitzer finalist, and a former Guggenheim Fellow – he writes and teaches playwriting at the New School. (His 2006 play Dying City will be revived at Second Stage next year.) It’s an honor to have his take on Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard.

He takes issue with some of my choices – well, choices. Some of them were necessities. In particular, he questions my inability, perhaps reluctance, to overcome that peculiar combination of discretion and dignity, the antithesis of the self-proclaiming, tell-all celebrities today, that René always maintained. As Shinn writes: “his inner world remains mostly opaque.” True.

He concludes with one playwright’s reflection on another:

Perhaps Girard’s reticence about his life derived from a conviction that his ideas were too important to get contaminated by a cult of personality, and silence protected him from such temptations. While Haven sees in Girard’s last years an identification with his favorite poet Hölderlin, her biography’s dramatic arc puts one in mind of The Winter’s Tale, a play Girard analyzed in his remarkable book on Shakespeare, A Theatre of Envy (1991). According to Girard, the playwright was profoundly driven by imitative desire before a late overcoming of it — most clearly dramatized in his penultimate play, where Leontes’s envious reaction to a friend’s innocent conversation with his wife brings about a kind of personal apocalypse, followed by a long period of mourning and atonement, and finally a miraculous resurrection. An anecdote Haven memorably recounts suggests that Girard’s inner journey was not unlike Leontes’s: when a roomful of despairing theologians asks Girard what is to be done about our apocalyptic moment, he says, “We might begin with personal sanctity.”

The reply is pure Girard — at once modest and grandly challenging. The most important thing we can do in the face of catastrophe is to look at ourselves, try to understand our own violence, and become better. Could anything be simpler, or more difficult? While Girard’s thought opens up endless questions about — and possibilities for — the future of our civilization, it’s no surprise he answered the theologians as he did. In its tender closing chapters, Cynthia Haven’s moving portrait inspires readers to look inward and scrutinize themselves, unsparingly yet forgivingly — just as Girard would have wanted.

Read the whole thing here.

Postscript on July 22: And Evolution of Desire and Christopher Shinn got some pickup from the Prufrock column in The Weekly Standard here.