“The book is alive!”: more plaudits for Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard


René Girard in my 2008 interview with him. (Youtube)



It’s not every day that we make an appearance at the Académie Française. In fact, this is probably the closest opportunity we’re going to have in this lifetime. So let us make the most of it.

Last week, the medieval scholar Michel Zink was formally received into the Académie, founded in 1635 by Richelieu. He will occupy Chair No. 37, vacant since the death of his predecessor, René Girard in November 2015. As I wrote, it is customary to offer a tribute to his predecessor. I wrote about René’s Girard’s own éloge for Father Ambrose-Marie Carré, in Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard. Zink’s tribte for Stanford’s Girard was highly praised – you can read it here.

But we were startled to hear that Evolution of Desire made an appearance in the talk, and so did your humble servant:

See? It’s there. Meanwhile, the good news kept pouring in last week:

James Winchell‘s article in the Jewish magazine Tablet could have been entitled, “How René Girard converted me to Judaism,” but instead it’s called, “The Brilliant French Literary Critic Who Revealed my Judaism.” It begins:

The publication of Cynthia Haven’s full-dress biography of René Girard, a major figure in the “French invasion” that  stormed the beaches of American academe across the final decades of the last millennium, marks a notable event on many fronts: academic, professional, literary, philosophical; and for some individuals among generations of students world-wide, deeply personal. In my case, that means religious.


Thanks to a series of synchronicities that I will never fully grasp, I served for five years as Girard’s junior colleague, having earned my first tenure-track post as assistant professor of French at Stanford University (1988-93), where the brilliant Catholic thinker occupied a Distinguished Chair in the department of French and Italian, and influenced, among many other students, Peter Thiel. My subsequent decision—seven years and another university later—to become a Jew-by-choice was significantly informed by Girard, whose writings, colleagueship, and friendship informed the ongoing, gradual uncovering of the pre-existing Judaism that I had already intuited within myself.

During my five years at Stanford, having my office directly across the hall from René Girard’s and being able to hang out, have meals with him, and to sit in on his classes, I learned more about the Torah and Tanakh from him than I had from any other source.

He concludes: “Cynthia Haven’s mind-altering biography of this towering figure in 20th-century thought brings so much new information, and so many interpretive insights, that it’s hard to imagine any full-service public library, not to mention any academic collection, without a copy. The book is alive.” From your lips to God’s ears, James!

Winchell’s piece is smart and quirky and fun. Read the whole thing for yourself here.



Meanwhile, M.D. Aeschliman in The National Review also ran a long review of my book – the alpha and the omega, taking us through Dante, Derrida, Dostoevsky, Tom Wolfe, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Here’s the alpha: “Cynthia L. Haven’s outstanding new biographical and critical study, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, is a brilliant survey of his life and thought.”

Here’s the Omega: “Cynthia Haven’s fine book on Girard is both brilliant cultural criticism and exquisite intellectual history, and an edifying biographical and ethical tale, providing a philosophical vision of a world beyond monkey-like mimicries and manias that demoralize, dispirit, and dehumanize the contemporary human person. It deserves wide notice and careful reading in a time of massive and pervasive attention-deficit disorder.”

And somewhere from beta to psi: “Girard in Mensonge romantique [i.e., Deceit, Desire, and the Novel – CH] grants that competitive envy is the very social-psychological motor that drives “enlightened,” atheistic modern personal and social life. ‘At the heart of the book,’ Cynthia Haven writes, ‘is our endless imitation of each other. Imitation is inescapable.’ And she continues: ‘When it comes to metaphysical desire — which Girard describes as desires beyond simple needs and appetites — what we imitate is vital, and why.’ We are inevitably afflicted with ‘mimetic desires,’ first of parents and siblings, then of peers, rivals, and chosen role models, and these desires endlessly drive and agitate us, consciously and unconsciously, causing anxiety and ‘ontological sickness.’”

Read the whole thing here.

Meanwhile, from Twitter:

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One Response to ““The book is alive!”: more plaudits for Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard

  1. Diana Senechal Says:

    Congratulations, Cynthia! This is wonderful.

    I am reading the book with absorption.