Archive for October 16th, 2018

Buffalo’s “French Connection” with René Girard

Tuesday, October 16th, 2018
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Albert Cook and René Girard at a party at Arts & Sciences Provost John Sullivan’s home, 1974. (Photo: Bruce Jackson)

René Girard makes an appearance at Buffalo – and so does my Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard.  Jeff Klein’s article in the current issue of  the university’s newspaper, Mixed Media, recounts  “when Girard, Foucault and a coterie of intellectuals revolutionized the American academy” at the State University of New York at Buffalo. That was where René wrote Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World with Jean-Michel Oughourlian. (The short piece is linked to this Thursday’s conference on “Transatlantic Crossroads of a Critical Insurrection.” Read about it here.)

An excerpt:

A generation ago, an intellectual revolution challenged traditional assumptions about Western culture, transforming academia. That revolution was sparked by a vanguard of deep-thinking French scholars— and UB was on the front lines.

A new book, “Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard,” recounts the career of one of those thinkers, a historian, critic and philosopher of social science who taught at UB from 1968 to 1976. Girard wrote exclusively in French [he later wrote Theater of Envy and some of his essays in English – CH], producing more than two dozen works delineating his theories on the origins of violence and ritual in human behavior. One of his most influential, written largely while at UB, is “Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World.” It has the odd distinction of resulting from a series of profound philosophical dialogues conducted at a hotel in Cheektowaga.

Buffalo Prof. Bruce Jackson documented the era with a number of terrific photos. Something not to be taken lightly. I find that René looked uncomfortable in most of his pictures – academics often do. They’re not fashion models, after all. In many of his photos, he looks like he’s following the photographer’s instructions – “You want me to stand a little to the left?” Bruce caught him “at ease” among his colleagues, as in the photo above with Al Cook. Bruce generously allowed me to use a few of his images in my book. It’s a valuable record, and so are his articles, which I quote in Evolution of Desire:

“For at least a decade, the UB English department was the most interesting English department in the country,” recalled Bruce Jackson, who joined the faculty in 1967. “Other universities had the best English departments for history or criticism or philology or whatever. But UB was the only place where it all went on at once: hot-center and cutting-edge scholarship and creative writing, literary and film criticism, poem and play and novel writing, deep history and magazine journalism.” A constant flow of visitors guaranteed intellectual circulation and fresh air, whether the guests stayed for a day or a year. The department had seventy-five full-time faculty teaching everything from literature and philosophy to film and art and folklore. “Looking back on it from the end of the century, knowing what I now know about other English departments in other universities in those years, I can say there was not a better place to be.”

The legendary architect behind the effort was Prof. Albert Cook, who was determined to create a department of leading stars and critics. Jackson described him as “a man in constant motion, forever talking or reading or writing. . . . He was a presence . . . He never seemed to change. Other people got older, paunchier, balder, slower, but Al Cook was always Al Cook. He transcended the physical. He was medium height, big in the chest, always scheming. Al was my idea of what Odysseus looked like.” By the time he recruited Girard, he had already finished his three-year term as department chair but was still a guiding hand and go-between in recruiting academic luminaries. Few places could have been as ideal for Girard.

Thank you, Bruce.