Outside the Stanford Faculty Club. (Photo: Ewa Domanska)
René Girard‘s biographer – that’s me – chats with blogger Artur Sebastian Rosman over at Cosmos the in Lost. We did the interview about the important French theorist and immortel of the Académie Française shortly after his death on November 4. I was pleased Artur decided to run it yesterday, on the day of René’s memorial service. Read the whole thing here. Excerpts below:
Artur Rosman: Were you familiar with Professor Girard’s theories before you met him? What did you think of them?
Cynthia Haven: His name was familiar to me as an important French theorist, but that was about all.
The more I learned and read, the more I was surprised that more hadn’t been written about him in the American mainstream media. After all, he’d made his home in the U.S. since 1947.
Many felt his ideas were abstruse and difficult. On the contrary, I found the ideas to be pretty straightforward, and not hard to explain – although some of the applications of his ideas, and the research he uses to support them from the fields of, say, anthropology, can be challenging. I began writing a series of articles about him. He told me afterwards that this was the first time ordinary people understood what he was doing, although I think he was being overly generous. He signed my copy of Mimesis and Theory, “To Cynthia, with all my thanks for her splendid contribution to my scholarly reputation.”
I find his ideas have enormous explanatory power not only for the world we see around us – but the world we find within us. People may question his reading of archaic societies or historical events, but the place to verify his theories is within oneself. We imitate each other. We are driven by competition and rivalry with the real or imagined “other.” We struggle to acquire status symbols, which we fantasize will make us more like the one we idolize . We join in Twitter mobs, or Facebook mobs, that castigate and vilify the person or group we think is responsible for all our ills, and whose elimination will bring peace at last. The Democrats. The Republicans. Donald Trump. …
I recently ran across this quote from René’s The Scapegoat: “Each person must ask what his relationship is to the scapegoat. I am not aware of my own, and I am persuaded that the same holds true for my readers. We only have legitimate enmities. And yet the entire universe swarms with scapegoats.” True for us all, still.
AR: What were the most formative experiences in Girard’s life? How did they shape his thought?
CH: I once asked René what the most pivotal experience of his life was, and he replied that the major events were in his head. That’s what everyone else said about him, too. However, events in our heads are put there by the things we see around us. Events in our head tend not to stay with us unless they explain what we see around us. Otherwise they’d be no use.
Another important decision in his life: with his wife Martha outside his Stanford home.
I pressed harder, and he responded emphatically, “Coming to America.” That event in 1947, he said, made everything else possible. René is an American phenomenon, as much as a French one. Without America and the bigger vision it offered after the war, there would have been no books, no theories, and no academic career.
He had been trained as an archiviste-paléographe at one of France’s grandes écoles, the École des Chartes in Paris. It was the same school his father had attended. It was a training ground for archivists, librarians, paleographers. The suit didn’t exactly fit him. In the rigid French professional hierarchies at the time, the opportunities it provided were narrow.
And of course America led to other things. An exceptionally happy marriage, for example. Martha McCullough was in one of his first classes at Indiana University. The name stumped him midway through roll call. “I’ll never be able to pronounce this name,” he said. They met again a year or so later, when she was no longer his student. And he fixed the name problem for her in 1951, when they married. The stability and contentment of that 64-year marriage cannot be underestimated in supporting his very long, very fruitful career.
Let me add two more. Another formative experience was the “strange defeat” of France in 1940. Franco-German relations fascinated him throughout his life. It’s a straight line from the toy soldiers he played with as a child, reenacting the Battles of Austerlitz and Waterloo, to his final book, Battling to the End. Certainly the topic frequently recurred in my own talks with him. Clearly he was pondering the real nature of the struggle for much of his life. It would be the centerpiece in Battling to the End.
And finally, of course, his conversion experience. “Conversion experience” is a mysterious, much-misunderstood term. He didn’t say much about it – he said the subject was difficult to explain, and counterproductive to his work in advancing his mimetic theory. But one time he discussed it was in the book I mentioned earlier,When These Things Begin. Here’s what he said about that period in autumn 1958, when he was working on his first book, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, which discusses Cervantes, Proust, Stendhal, Flaubert, and Dostoevsky: “on the twelfth and last chapter that’s entitled ‘Conclusion.’ I was thinking about the analogies between religious experience and the experience of a novelist who discovers that he’s been consistently lying, lying for the benefit of his Ego, which in fact is made up of nothing but a thousand lies that have accumulated over a long period, sometimes built up over an entire lifetime.”
“I ended up understanding that I was going through an experience of the kind that I was describing. The religious symbolism was present in the novelists in embryonic form, but in my case it started to work all by itself and caught fire spontaneously. I could no longer have any illusions about what was happening to me, and I was thrown for a loop, because I was proud of being a skeptic. It was very hard for me to imagine myself going to church, praying, and so on. I was all puffed up, full of what the old catechisms used to call ‘human respect.’”
Read the whole thing here.
Update on 1/23: Some nice pick-up over at the World Literature Today blog here. We’ve been longstanding friends with the eminent WLT – even before our profile of leading Polish poet Julia Hartwig. “Invisible, you reign over the visible: Julia Hartwig’s reality mysticism” was republished by the Milena Jesenská Blog here.