Archive for September 13th, 2018

Is this man the “godfather of like”? The TLS thinks so. Praise for Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard

Thursday, September 13th, 2018
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A screenshot from one of our conversations, now on Youtube.

Nothing like a mid-week surprise to add some luster to the daily routine, and we got one this week with a long, wise, and insightful essay on Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard in the brand-new issue of the Times Literary Supplement. 

The reviewer, Jonathan Benthall, is a former director of the Royal Anthropological Institute (1974-2000) and founding editor of Anthropology Today. So, un très grand merci to the smart anthropologist and the TLS.

He begins:

No drama. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

There were dramatic contexts to the development of René Girard’s ambitious thinking about violence and conflict. Some bleak years as a student in Paris, where he had moved from Avignon, his birthplace, near the end of the German occupation, followed by liberation and the épuration, in the course of which some 20,000 women suspected of collaboration had their heads publicly shaved. A year (1952–3) spent teaching French literature at Duke University, North Carolina, just before the United States Supreme Court ruling that segregated education was unconstitutional. A professorship (1968–76) at the State University of New York, Buffalo, which was a focus of campus  protest against the Vietnam war. But his biographer Cynthia L. Haven notes Girard’s “affectless reaction” to such experiences. He never intervened in politics. He and his wife Martha, an American from the Midwest, were a devoted “no-drama couple” until his death at the age of ninety-four in 2015 in Stanford, California, where they had made their home since 1981. [Actually, he died at 91 – ED.]

Given the apparent serenity of Girard’s personal life, Haven, a colleague at Stanford University and a close family friend, might have confined herself to hagiography. Readership would have been guaranteed among the six or more associations and foundations set up to promote and develop Girard’s work internationally, producing an extensive secondary literature across many academic disciplines: not merely history and literary criticism, his starting points, but also religious studies and all the human sciences. Fortunately Haven’s Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard is exemplary in its sensitivity.

She expresses openly her affection and admiration for her friend, who comes across as more of a teasing humorist than his public persona might suggest. Yet she recognizes the various intellectual arguments against Girard and the girardiens. Her readers are challenged but left free to make up their own minds.

Well, you can read the rest here, but it’s behind a paywall.

You may wonder on the title: “Godfather of Like.” Benthall explains: “One of Girard’s students at Stanford was Peter Thiel, now a billionaire philanthropist, who credits Girard with his decision to make a key initial investment in Facebook: Girard has been called ‘the godfather of the Like button’.” Well then, he has a lot to answer for.

Benthall makes a couple missteps on details. For example, René’s writings didn’t take hold in the Solidarity days and Velvet Revolution of Eastern Europe because “Christianity was under attack,” or at least not only, but primarily because the mechanisms of conflict, violence, and scapegoating were everywhere apparent to the Poles, the Czechs, the Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians as communism rule was overthrown.

He concludes:

In the years since his death, political developments in many countries have resonated increasingly with his scapegoating model. Girard’s seriousness and range assure him of a posthumous following, not necessarily limited to fellow Christians. One admirer, interviewed by Haven, spoke of his work as “like a rock: it will be there and it will last”. But there will be dissenters. In old age, he confessed to “academic narcissism”, a self-diagnosis that hits his own fingernail on the head. Moreover, though in some ways a most perceptive reader (having been trained in historical sciences at the École Nationale des chartes), he treated language as a vehicle for ideas and showed no interest in the craftsmanship of words – as noted by Haven, who herself writes with acuity and wit. Reading Girard’s publications is indeed like climbing a rocky promontory, but only to find at the summit a road and a coach park. Those not yet ready for the climb on foot may take advantage of a stimulating drive to the top in Cynthia Haven’s air-conditioned Californian limousine.

I’d settle for this.

I’d quibble a bit at that, too: René’s writings are enormously polished and droll – but I’d never heard him admire a passage of Proust for the loveliness of his prose, or Hölderlin’s poem for a masterful image, rather than the concepts behind them.  But it’s the closing image tickles me.

Moi. An air-conditioned limousine? I would have settled for a nice little silver Citroën, skirting the circular highway around Avignon’s ramparts.