Posts Tagged ‘Andrew McKenna’

A “warm and magnanimous” biography: “Anybody interested in René Girard will want to read this work.”

Saturday, June 23rd, 2018
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Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard has earned fans in some unexpected places, including the influential economist Tyler Cowen in his blog Marginal Revolution, which featured my biography of the French theorist. Tyler is a columnist for the New York Times and considered a “top global thinker.” I’ve gotten letters and emails from many others – and a nice tweet from the National Book Critics Circle this morning! (See below.)

But I always knew my toughest critics would be the “Girardians” of academia.  Of course, they are not my target audience. Rather it is you, Gentle Reader, and all the others who have resisted getting to know this extraordinary 20th century thinker who wrote about desire, envy, competition and violence, because you thought taking on his ideas would be abstruse and theoretical and “hard.” Nonetheless, among the academics are many friends, so I crave their applause as well!

Two Girardians weighed in this month, one in the newsletter of the Colloquium on Violence & Religion, which called Evolution of Desire a “wonderful and moving biography.”

Andrew McKenna, professor emeritus of Loyola University in Chicago, has known René since his days as a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins University. He had this to say:

René Girard describes to his biographer his own life as “a banal enough existence for the second half of the twentieth century,” and in an earlier interview with Jim Williams, he states “I am an ordinary Christian.” Remarks such as these pose a formidable challenge to any biographer. Haven meets that challenge with ample evidence of the man’s wit, erudition, and beguiling sense of humor, which galvanized the enthusiasm of his students and colleagues when he taught at Johns Hopkins; nearly everyone in the Department of Romance Languages wanted him to direct their dissertation, whether in French or Spanish or Italian literature. After brief stints at Indiana, where he got his doctorate in history and where he was denied tenure in our “publish or perish” gristmill, and at Duke, where this virtual refugee from previously occupied France could not help to be struck by the Jim Crow culture, Hopkins became the launching pad for the dazzling achievement of his intellectual and spiritual excursion through literature, anthropology, and biblical revelation, in that order. 

A longtime colleague

Haven likens him, rightly I think, to Tocqueville, whose travels through vast swaths of our younger country, under the pretense of studying our prison system, shed enduring light on American attitudes and institutions in a way that explains modern world tensions altogether, and especially our benighted individualism, a word of his genial coinage. Girard cited him tellingly a number of times. But Girard’s research exceeded his compatriot’s purview by several orders of magnitude, resulting in a hypothesis on the violent origins and sacrificial organization of human culture as such …

This is a life story, beginning with Girard’s Avignonais roots.  Among Girard’s papers some gestures toward an autobiography have been found. But Haven rightly avers that we already have such a work in the form of his groundbreaking writings. In Deceit, Desire, and the Novel Girard argues that a literary masterpiece is the spiritual autobiography of its author, who undergoes a humbling conversion from a view of his or her compact righteousness over against what’s wrong with everybody else. To use Trevor Merrill’s resonant formula in his book on Kundera (who has acknowledged his debt to Girard), a great novel is a “satire gone wrong.” We already get an inkling of this autobiographical feature from the apocalyptic and prophetic conclusion of his very first book. We get it in thematic statements he makes to his interlocutor, Benoît Chantre, in his last book, Battling to the End, a fulsome incursion into mimetic history. But it is significant that he makes them here as elsewhere (Evolution and Conversion, When these Things Begin) in conversation. For Girard, it’s relations all the way down and every which way, and it’s not about him, it’s about truth …

Grant Kaplan of St. Louis University wrote “those invested in carrying on Girard’s legacy should welcome a book that traces Girard’s appeal so broadly.” The publication is the journal Pro Ecclesia. But perhaps the best thing is that he wrote me later that “it passed the mom test.” His mother read and loved the book.  An excerpt from his review:

He teaches prison inmates, too.

It would be hard to exaggerate the accessibility of Evolution of Desire. Anyone who writes or talks about Girard has to do the three-step dance: first, explaining how mimetic desire works for good and for ill; second, positing the invention of the scapegoat mechanism as the foundation for society; third, the emergence of biblical religion as the unveiling of the mythic cover up. Haven does this dance with remarkable deftness. In addition, her brief accounts of post-structuralism and other intellectual movements display almost Platonic distillation. It is also a personal book. Haven talks about herself, at times frankly, and it sometimes reads as “Girard As I Knew Him.” These features do not detract in any way. As Haven portrays him, Girard was a man of decency and humility, who loved his wife and displayed almost none of the unattractive qualities that mark so many academics.

Anybody interested in Girard will want to read this work. The book is so readable, meant in the most complimentary sense, that one might even hope that it renews interest in Girard. The man claimed on more than one occasion that his theory sought to give Christianity and Christian theologians the anthropology that it deserved. Haven has provided a warm and magnanimous biography that Girard most certainly deserves.

I make one qualifier, about “one might even hope that it renews interest in Girard.” It was more than my hope: it was my intention.