More praise for “Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard” – was he “the last of the structuralists”? A poet speaks.

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My on-camera interview with René Girard (screenshot from youtube)

 

Somehow in the crush of events and the daily momentums, we haven’t yet mentioned “The Last Structuralist,” poet James Matthew Wilson’s lovely and thoughtful review of Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard over at the Claremont Review of Books. Let us make amends, with appreciation!

He opens the piece this way:

Beginning in the early 1980s Stanford University’s Cynthia Haven would occasionally spy a remarkable man walking across that bright tropical campus. He caught her attention on account of his “large, totemic head, with its dark, deep-set eyes and shock of thick, wavy, salt-and-pepper hair.” Only in 2007 was she introduced to this man and learned that he was René Girard, the legendary French “theorist,” and, by then, emeritus Chair of French language and literature. Within a year, Haven was paying regular visits to Girard at his home. She could not have known then where these visits would lead.

Evolution of Desire is the first biography of Girard to appear, and I would venture to say it will be the last. Girard was a quiet, passive man who repeatedly stated he lived mostly inside his own head. His outward life was placid and uneventful, even though he came of age during the Nazi occupation of France and presided over at least one key episode in the intellectual tumult that overtook universities in the 1960s.

To this scarcity of dramatic detail, Haven brings a sympathetic reading of Girard’s books in all their towering ambition, along with a journalist’s first-person narration as she goes in search of clues to the intellectual origins of her elusive subject. Her candor humanizes a man known for his forbidding and assertive prose, for books that seemed to cast a cold, sometimes naïve, eye on all opposition as he pursued the articulation of what he deemed his one great idea, his one grand theory of human nature and history.

He concludes:

In her account of the last decades of Girard’s life, Haven interviews many who taught alongside him or sought to continue his work. But the real wealth lies in her frequently bemused account of Girard, the laconic theorist of Christian self-renunciation, in the hyper and ambitious tropical paradise of Stanford. It is a place, Haven observes, where everyone “would really rather be robots.” While Thiel and other Silicon Valley magnates sank billions into dodging death, Girard sat at home working on still another book, Achever Clausewitz (in English, Battling to the End, 2010). Its subject is a Prussian general of the Napoleonic age whose reflections on the psychology of war serve as a basis for modern theories of total warfare.

“A rage of mimetic desire…”

Girard’s study comprehended not just the cause and dimensions of the great wars of the twentieth century but also the intricate mimetic dimensions of the new age that opened with 9/11. His seems the right viewpoint, for instance, from which to understand the fact that Mohamed Atta spent the last three days before hijacking American Airlines Flight 11 “drinking vodka and playing video games.” In a rage of mimetic desire, he and his accomplices felt compelled “to destroy the thing that they crave and loathe at once.”

In our contemporary cult of victimhood, we see supposed victims of oppression routinely set out on self-righteous crusades to humiliate and punish their former persecutors. Persecution “is pursued in the name of anti-persecution.” The former persecutors become the new scapegoats who must be sacrificed to eliminate social violence and allow peace to reign. That so many of the causes whose advocates now seek to “punish the wicked” are morally inimical to Christianity is incidental in comparison with Girard’s chief insight about them. Modern scapegoating resuscitates archaic religious sacrifice; the post-Christian world is also a pagan world redivivus, as it refuses to learn the lesson of Christ on the cross fixed at the center of history.

Haven’s story conveys how beloved Girard, a warm but withdrawn man, was to those who knew him; how fruitfully his ideas have influenced others; and how powerful his thought proves in explaining the structures of violence and desire in history. Girard was, in a sense, the last of the structuralists. He shows us the possibility of a post-structuralism that does not reduce the life of the mind to a light, meaningless play of “discourse,” but which digs down into the hidden depths of reality in hopes of understanding the “contagion” of mimetic violence and glimpses the possibility of redemption through a renunciation of our deeply ingrained desire to make a sacrifice.

Read the whole thing here

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Ah yes! It’s also time to mention some of the grateful letters we’ve received from readers recently. Here are two:

From Bill Schaberg at Athena Rare Books in Fairfield, Connecticut: “… A book that could have been a dreadfully dreary read was, instead, lively, well organized (I loved the way you masterfully wove so many narrative threads together) and a literal pleasure to pick up each night.

Both René as the subject and you as the concerned author just jump off the page. (I make my way though about a book a week – half non-fiction – and I can’t tell you how absolutely rare that it.)

So, THANK YOU! It really was an enjoyable, informative and thought-provoking book. 

From Dr. John F. Gilligan of Peoria, Ill.: In my life of 80 years, I have never read as good a biography as you have written.  Over the years I have read many of the bestseller biographies.  I put your book above them.  I say this as a general reader; mostly science and history and a smattering of literature captures my interests.  I did read most of Dostoevsky’s novels while working as a business consultant in Russia for several years, but that was back in the 90s.  And I was a student for 4 years in Europe (France and Italy) after graduating from college.  …  I came across your book and thought it might be a good entrée because French writers and critics are typically quite abstract, at least for me.  But you have made him an engaging albeit a complex person and his insightful thoughts on the human condition quite clear and concise.

When I was in Greece, my wife and I visited Delphi.  We wanted to see where the Delphic Oracle did her work.  Her sage advice: γνῶθι σεαυτόν, has been greatly aided by Girard and your introduction to him.  I thank you for writing that biography.  It has helped me to know myself better.  I guess old dogs can indeed learn new tricks.


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