Posts Tagged ‘René Girard’

René Girard: our desires are less personal than we think

Thursday, October 5th, 2017
Share

Praise for the opuscule! An adapted chapter of my forthcoming Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard has been published separately by the fine-press publisher Wiseblood as Everything Came to Me at Once: The Intellectual Vision of René GirardWell, we wrote about that already here. Here’s the news: Trevor Cribben Merrill has some kind words about it in Education & Culture, the new website launched by John Wilson, formerly the mastermind behind the now defunct Books & Culture.

An excerpt:

If I took one thing away from Haven’s little book, it was the likeness between Girard’s own creative conversion and that of the novelists he studied in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, which despite his later shift to religious anthropology may still be his most compelling and characteristic work. Deceit is at once a brilliant take on five classic writers—Cervantes, Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust, and Dostoevsky—and a history of desire in the modern west, tracing how pathological competition sprang up on the ruins of the Old Regime’s feudal hierarchies. But it is also, if more discreetly, a book about artistic creation. Great writers, Girard argues, come to grasp that our desires are less personal than we like to believe, and that others often wield a decisive influence over us just when we think we are free. Don Quixote is aware of imitating. Much as the Christian asks “What would Jesus do?”, at every moment Quixote wonders: “What would Amadis of Gaul do?” But Dostoevsky, writing as rapidly urbanizing Russia played catch up with the West, portrays an alienated self-love that feeds on others yet can only survive by denying this. Anticipating Seinfeld by more than a century, his “underground men” get worked up over tiny slights, and rush out to give their enemies the cold shoulder.

Unconscious “triangular desire” (the metaphor accounts for the way our desires draw strength from a model or “mediator” instead of going straight from subject to object) lives or dies on our tendency to buy the “romantic lies” we feed others. We tell ourselves—and our friends—that we are going to the beach to soak up the sunshine and feel the soft caress of a sea breeze. Or that we take an interest in literature out of a detached scholarly curiosity. But it may be that the beach is so tempting because an ex-girlfriend often goes windsurfing there, and that our heavily-footnoted study of Chinua Achebe masks a craving to write prize-winning novels. Our friends see right through us, of course—but they have their own obsessions, which we treat with a condescending indulgence to equal theirs toward us.

In short, triangular desire is something one complacently or indignantly observes in others, but it must be discovered in one’s own life. This is obvious on one level, but on another it can be difficult to grasp. Maybe that’s why a persistent misunderstanding surrounds Girard’s reading of literature. Some take the mere presence of triangular desire in a work as sufficient reason to declare its author a world-class genius, on par with Proust or Dostoevsky. Articles and dissertations trumpet the triangularity of this or that writer’s fiction, as if the ability to spot envy and jealousy in the modern world, which often encourages those vices, were especially noteworthy in itself.

Read the rest here.

Postscript on Oct. 5: Looks like we got pickup from The Weekly Standard here.

René Girard wrote words – his Avignon kin perform music.

Sunday, September 10th, 2017
Share

A few years ago, I drove from Paris to Provence in a little silver Citroën to explore Avignon, the birthplace of a French theorist who is the subject of my forthcoming book, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard (spring 2018 with Michigan State University Press). One facet of Avignon I didn’t experience, however, was the Quatuor Girard, an eminent string quartet formed by members of the Girard family, René’s great-nieces and great-nephews. My interest was not entirely research, however, but largely aesthetics. Listen to the short recording below.

That’s Hugues Girard and Agathe Girard on violins, Odon Girard on viola, and Lucie Girard on the cello performing Ludwig Van Beethoven‘s
String Quartet no. 16 in F major, opus 135 – one of the astonishing late string quartets.

Perhaps a postponed pleasure for my next visit to unforgettable Provence…

 

See? Almost everybody is reading Everything Came to Me at Once: The Intellectual Vision of René Girard

Wednesday, August 9th, 2017
Share

From Dwight Green on Facebook, with his son Nate:

Nate: “So according to René Girard, a great work of art is possible through an author’s existential downfall. How does that work again?”

Me: “I think Cynthia Haven at The Book Haven goes into more detail. Let’s see what she says…”

You, too, can find out about the author’s existential downfall, and how it comes about. Get your own copy of Everything Came to Me at Once: The Intellectual Vision of René GirardOrder it here. And stay tuned for my magnum opus, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, out next spring with Michigan State University Press.

.

“Everything Came to Me at Once”: my new opuscule on René Girard!

Friday, July 28th, 2017
Share

The première of my opuscule at University of Notre Dame. It’s the one with the bright blue cover.

I was finishing Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard (out next spring with Michigan State University Press), when Joshua Hren, founder of a fine-press publishing house called Wiseblood, approached me to see if we could adapt and republish one of the chapters as a stand-alone. Dana Gioia had suggested the project to them, so … how could I say no?  Voila! This week’s publication of Everything Came to Me at Once: The Intellectual Vision of René Girard.

From the jacket:

French theorist René Girard promulgates a sweeping vision of human nature, human history, and human destiny, but few understand the mysterious experience that gave birth to his theories: “Everything came to me at once in 1959. I felt that there was a sort of mass that I’ve penetrated into little by little,” he said. “Everything was there at the beginning, all together. That’s why I don’t have any doubts . . . I’m teasing out a single, extremely dense insight.”

The tough question was: what color for the cover? Blue. It had to be blue. But Dana had already made a clear and dignified blue statement with his covers. Blue was “taken.” Red was simply out of the question. Yellow, Joshua suggested. How about yellow? But René was not a yellow kind of guy. So I picked a bright sky blue. But I nervously awaited the final to see if the white letters would “pop” enough. I think they do.

Artur Rosman, literary scholar, translator, and blogger at Cosmos the in Lost, (we’ve written about him here and here) generously served as a blurber: “René Girard devoted his career to tracking down the twists and turns of mimetic desire in literature, philosophy, and anthropology. Cynthia Haven’s primer makes an invaluable contribution to Girard studies by tracking down the places where Girard discussed how his theories emerged from a personal process of intellectual and spiritual conversion—and its public consequences. What emerges is a compelling picture of Girard as a post-secular thinker who tears down artificial boundaries, such as the ones between the religious and the secular, between the private and public. Haven invites would-be Girard readers to see themselves as participating in a common struggle rather than scapegoating each other. This is a must-read book for a time when mimetic competition, shorn of scapegoating safeguards, rends the fabric of civil society.”

Trevor Cribben Merrill congratulated me on the final essay – an “opuscule,” he called it. That was a new word for me, and I liked it. Now I use it all the time. I roll it around my tongue. I find ways of working it into the conversation. “Have you seen my little opuscule?” Well… I guess “little” is redundant.

Any, the opuscule (see? I did it again) begins this way:

“Midway in the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost.” – Dante Alighieri, Inferno, Canto 1, trans. Charles Singleton

René Girard had reached the traditional midway point of life—35 years old—when he had a major course correction in his journey, rather like Dante. The event occurred as the young professor was finishing Deceit, Desire, and the Novel at Johns Hopkins University, the book that would establish his reputation as an innovative literary theorist. His first book was hardly the only attempt to study the nature of desire, but Girard was the first to insist that the desires we think of as autonomous and original, or that we think arise from a need in the world around us are borrowed from others; they are, in fact, “mimetic.” Dante’s “dark wood” is a state of spiritual confusion associated with the wild, dangerous forests. Three beasts block his path; the leopard, the lion, and the wolf represent disordered passions and desires. Dante’s conversion begins when he recognizes he cannot pass the beasts unharmed. Girard experienced his “dark wood” amidst his own study of the disordered desires that populate the modern novel. His conversion began as he traveled along the clattering old railway cars of the Pennsylvania Railroad, en route from Baltimore to Bryn Mawr for the class he taught every week. …

Buy it here.

Postscript on July 31: Kind words from Frank Wilson over at Books Inq.: “Perhaps the most interesting thing I’ve read this year is a mere 20 pages long and takes less than half an hour to read.” Read it here.

 

Long after the Cold War, have we become our opponents? Václav Havel weighs in.

Saturday, February 25th, 2017
Share

I have long observed how people become the thing they hate most, so when René Girard described how locked rivals come to resemble each other more and more, it was no surprise to me. Czech writer, dissident, and president Václav Havel apparently felt much the same way. This recent New Yorker article – Pankaj Mishra’s “Václav Havel’s Lessons on How to Create a ‘Parallel Polis” – has been an open tab in my Google Chrome window for at least a week. Don’t you wait that long to read it. Despite Mishra’s Manichaean cast of mind (it’s not a case of the pure and the monstrous, we could all use a little self-examination), it is essential reading that expresses some important thoughts for this particular historical moment:

Václav_Havel

Have we become “statistical choruses of voters”?

The problems before humankind, as Havel saw it, were far deeper than the opposition between socialism and capitalism, which were both “thoroughly ideological and often semantically confused categories [that] have long since been beside the point.” The Western system, though materially more successful, also crushed the human individual, inducing feelings of powerlessness, which—as Trump’s victory has shown—can turn politically toxic. In Havel’s analysis, politics in general had become too “machine-like” and unresponsive, degrading flesh-and-blood human beings into “statistical choruses of voters.”

According to Havel, “the sole method of politics is quantifiable success,” which meant that “good and evil” were losing “all absolute meaning.” Long before the George W. Bush Administration went to war in Iraq on a false pretext, Havel identified, in the free as well as the unfree world, “a power grounded in an omnipresent ideological fiction which can rationalize anything without ever having to brush against the truth.” In his view, “ideologies, systems, apparat, bureaucracy, artificial languages and political slogans” had amassed a uniquely maligned power in the modern world, which pressed upon individuals everywhere, depriving “humans—rulers as well as the ruled—of their conscience, of their common sense and natural speech, and thereby, of their actual humanity.”

havel-michnik

With Polish dissident editor Adam Michnik

Since Western democracies as well as Communist dictatorships had suffered a devastating loss of the human scale, it mattered little that free markets were more efficient than Communist economies. For, Havel believed, “as long as our humanity remains defenseless, we will not be saved by any technical or organizational trick designed to produce better economic functioning.” Individual freedom and social cohesion were no less under threat in the depoliticized capitalist democracies of the West. “A person who has been seduced by the consumer value system,” he wrote, and who has “no sense of responsibility for anything higher than his own personal survival, is a demoralized person. The system depends on this demoralization, deepens it, is in fact a projection of it into society.”

After he became President of his country, Havel attacked, in 1997, its “post-communist morass”: an iniquitous capitalist economy that convinced many that “it pays off to lie and to steal; that many politicians and civil servants are corruptible; that political parties—though they all declare honest intentions in lofty words—are covertly manipulated by suspicious financial groupings.” But Havel had long before noticed some manifestly deep similarities between the two rival ideologies and systems of the Cold War; they had provoked him to describe the Cold Warriors who wanted to eradicate Communism as “smashing” the mirror that reminded them of their own moral ugliness. Indeed, Havel predicted in the mid-nineteen-eighties, even as Communism began to totter, that the kind of regime described in Orwell’s “1984” was certain to appear in the West. He warned “the victors” of the Cold War that they would inevitably resemble “their defeated opponents far more than anyone today is willing to admit or able to imagine.”

Read the whole thing here.

The year is already off to a great start for Ewa Domanska

Tuesday, January 17th, 2017
Share

domanska

2017 got off to a great start for one of our favorite people – the Poznan-based Stanford scholar Ewa Domanska. (We’ve written about her here.) She just got a big promotion from the President of Poland – with a big celebration at the Polish equivalent of the “White House” in Warsaw. The chic scholar is now a full professor of the human sciences. She teaches most of the year at the Department of History in the Adam Mickiewicz University at Poznan. Her teaching and research interests include comparative theory of the human and social sciences, history and theory of historiography, posthumanities and ecological humanities. She’s into “posthumanism,” too.

We met over our mutual interest in a mutual friend, the late French theorist René Girard. She’s told me of his influence in Poland during the Solidarity years, when his theories about violence were daily realities for the Poles, who were reading The Scapegoat in their classrooms.

From her letter:

Ewa Domanska 2011Just before Christmas I received an official letter from the Chancellery of the President of the Republic of Poland that he granted me the title of full professor (so-called “Belweder”) of the human sciences. In Poland, the procedure is long and takes two to three years. You have five independent reviewers who evaluate your academic achievements and the book that is presented as your main “opus,” and one super-reviewer who evaluates the work of reviewers (formal procedure) and also summarizes all what was said about the achievements. Last Wednesday, there was a big celebration in Warsaw in the Presidential Palace, where I received an official document. It was a very nice event, where fifty-nine new professor got their promotion from hands of the President, Wojciech Duda. We came with families and friends.”

And one of them snapped the photo above.

Ewa teaches at Stanford every spring. It looks like we’ll celebrate with a little champagne when she comes back to California in March.

A “crisis of degree”: an opportunity to binge on Shakespeare this holiday weekend – and it’s free!

Friday, December 30th, 2016
Share
WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 01/05/2016 - Programme Name: The Hollow Crown: The Wars Of The Roses - TX: n/a - Episode: The Hollow Crown: The Wars Of The Roses (No. Henry VI Part 1) - Picture Shows: *STRICTLY NOT FOR PUBLICATION UNTIL 00:01HRS, SUNDAY 1ST MAY, 2016* Gloucester (HUGH BONNEVILLE), Talbot (PHILIP GLENISTER), Plantagenet (ADRIAN DUNBAR), Warwick (STANLEY TOWNSEND) - (C) Carnival Film & Television Ltd - Photographer: Robert Viglasky

Hugh Bonneville as Gloucester, Philip Glenister as Talbot, Adrian Dunbar as Plantagenet, Stanley Townsend as Warwick. (Photo: Robert Viglasky)

The heavens themselves, the planets and this earth 
Observe degree, priority and place …
Office and custom, in all line of order …
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows!

So begins the newest round in Hollow Crown series, encompassing William Shakespeare‘s Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3, and Richard III (last season presented Richard II, Henry V, and Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2). But don’t go looking for a prologue in any of these plays that will include the words I’ve just cited. The lines are, in fact, a truncated version of Ulysses’s speech in Troilus and Cressida, Act I, Scene 3, as the Greek leaders discuss the morale of their army.

sophie

One tough cookie.

The late great French theorist René Girard cites Ulysses’s address in his Theater of Envy as “a meditation on the violent breakdown of human society in general, the undoing of the cultural order” – yet he didn’t find much to suit his purposes in the history plays. For me, however, these plays resound with his “mimetic crisis,” as kings fall and usurpers grab power, all in quest the “hollow crown” as a mimetic objet du désir – the “hollow crown” is a recurrent image in these BBC performances; at one point, it is tossed into a swamp, at other points, it’s an object of mesmerized fascination. Shakespeare was keenly aware of the “the canker vice,” “that monster envy” that causes ambition, selfishness, and conflict. The Bard’s “sacred kings,” victims readied for sacrifice, underscore the messages of Violence and the Sacred.

Yet the French theorist who was 100% non-Anglo could be forgiven for his relative (but only relative) disinterest in the “Hollow Crown” plays, which were principally designed to buttress the Tudor regime’s claims to the English throne. When the boy Earl of Richmond is briefly and reverently introduced in Henry VI, all Shakespeare’s audience knew why: he would become the grandfather-usurper of the Great Queen, Elizabeth I, and the future Henry VII needed all the prettifying he could get.

Hurry hurry and hurry and watch the new season – the link is here. The first of the plays will no longer be available after Jan. 3, and the others expire in the weeks following. It’s a great opportunity. Henry VI isn’t often performed, for good reason – it’s three parts, and doesn’t really wrap up until Richard III. Moreover, the weak and vasillating Henry VI is an unsatisfying focal point for so much dramatic emphasis. (I find the same for Richard II, who at least is given some grand and memorable speeches). The performance of Tom Sturridge doesn’t persuade me otherwise – but Sophie Okonedo‘s ambitious and vengeful Margaret of Anjou is great compensation (she was the wife in Hotel Rwanda). So are a range of other top-notch performances –Ben Miles as the wily and ambiguous Somerset (fans of The Crown will remember him as Princess Margaret‘s boyfriend, Peter Townsend), and Hugh Bonneville‘s Gloucester come to mind. (A small note: as far back as we can go in history, we seem to find haircombs. Could none of these characters, especially King Henry, have found one?)

I’ll finish with Richard III sometime this weekend. Meanwhile, here’s a video highlight (Sophie O. takes the term “bitch-slap” to a whole new level):

 

Did Dante go mad in his hell?

Saturday, October 15th, 2016
Share
Virgil says don't listen

Did Dante lose it altogether? Hmmmm…

The Book Haven always enjoys Robert Harrison‘s reflections on Dantehere and here and here. There’s more of them this week over at the New York Review of Books website. Some will find it a controversial p.o.v. – I’ve studied Dante with Robert, as well as John Freccero (and Jeffrey Schnapp), so it’s less unfamiliar territory for me.

Robert has a slightly Girardian take on the Inferno – that is, adopting some of the perspective of the late, great French theorist René Girard – with his emphasis on reciprocal and escalating violence. You hit me, I hit you back, only harder. It’s the ruling principle of the Inferno. 

In a nutshell: Girard argued that we copy our desires from each other, and hence we long for the same object, honor, recognition, friendships as others do. Envy is one of our most underestimated vices. This “mimetic desire” leads to rivalry and competition, and sometimes violence and war. However, Robert brings genocide into the mix, with his eloquent and passionate argument.

Here’s a provocative excerpt from Robert’s essay, “Dante: He Went Mad in His Hell”:

If revenge and reciprocal violence are the essence of God’s justice, Dante’s Inferno despairs of God. It is impossible, at least for this reviewer, to read the cantos that bring Inferno to a close and not come to the conclusion that “Dieu n’est pas là,” as a French nun said of Bosnia-Herzegovina when it tore itself apart with civil war in the 1990s. The extravagance of the punishments in lower Hell suggests that in those cantos, if not in the canticle as a whole, an infernal rather than divine justice is on display.

When violence enters its cycles of reciprocity, when it spreads like a contagion out of all proportion, it turns into a form of mimetic insanity, drawing everyone, including God, into its vortex. Because Dante scholars operate on the assumption that their author is always in full control of his poem, they tend to blind themselves to all the indications that Dante—the author as well as his character—is starting to lose his mind at the end of Inferno.

rene-girard

We miss you, René.

In Inferno 28 the mimetic contagion is such that the pilgrim abuses a sinner with the words, “And death to your clan!” In canto 33, after Ugolino recounts how he cannibalized his children in the Tower of Hunger, Dante the author succumbs to wild murderous impulses. In his animus against the city of Pisa he bids the Arno River to overflow “so that it may drown every person in you!” Later in the same canto, Dante turns his rage against the city of Genoa: “Ah, men of Genoa, foreign to every decent usage, full of every vice, why have you not been driven from the world?” This is not the character but the author speaking. It is astounding, but true, that even the most acute commentators of The Divine Comedy pass over in silence these genocidal fantasies at the end of Inferno.

Read the whole thing here.

Noam Chomsky thinks the U.S. is “one of the most fundamentalist countries in the world.” René Girard replies.

Friday, February 12th, 2016
Share
Chomsky

Curmudgeonly? (Photo: Duncan Rawlinson/Creative Commons)

The Académie Française memorial service for René Girard in Saint-Germain-des-Prés will take place this weekend. The Book Haven has written much about the French theorist, who died on November 4 (see here). I will not be in Paris, alas, except in spirit. So René was much in my mind when I read the latest headline from Noam Chomsky. According to The Wirethe controversial public intellectual thinks America is “one of the most fundamentalist countries in the world.” Really? He’s including Pakistan, Libya, Saudi Arabia in the competition? I wondered.

In fairness, his comment is much is much more nuanced than that … well, not much more. According to the article: “There are not too many countries in the world where two-thirds of the population awaits The Second Coming, Chomsky said, adding that half of them think it is going to be in their lifetimes. ‘And maybe a third of the population believes the world was created 10,000 years ago, exactly the way it is now. Things like that are pretty weird, but that is true in the United States and has been for a long time.’” Guess I haven’t been hanging out in the right circles. How quick we are, however, to distance ourselves from those people. That should be a tip-off.

I returned to what René had to say on the subject in a short (about 100 page), very readable Q&A book, When These Things Begin: Conversations with Michel Treguertranslated by Trevor Cribben-Merrill and published by Michigan State University Press in 2014. An excerpt:

MT: What do you think of the “creationists” who take the Bible literally?

RG: They’re wrong, of course, but I don’t want to speak ill of them because today they are the scapegoats of American culture. The media distorts everything they say and treats them like the lowest of the low.

MT: But if they’re wrong, why not? You speak of scapegoats, but, as far as I know, nobody’s putting the creationists to death, are they?

girard4

I’m with René. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

RG: They’re ostracized from society. It’s said that Americans can’t resist peer pressure, and it’s generally true. Just look at academia, that vast herd of sheep-like individualists: they think they’re persecuted, but they’re not. The creationists are. They’re resisting peer pressure. I take my hat off to them.

MT: But what if they’re absolutely wrong? For someone who places such emphasis on the truth, whatever the cost, I suddenly find you very indulgent.

RG: And what do you do with freedom of religion? In America, as elsewhere, fundamentalism results from the breakdown of an age-old compromise between religion and anti-religious humanism. And it’s anti-religious humanism that is responsible for the breakdown. It espouses doctrines that start with abortion, that continue with genetic manipulation, and that tomorrow will undoubtedly lead to hyperefficient forms of euthanasia. In at most a few decades we’ll have transformed man into a repugnant little pleasure-machine, forever liberated from pain and even from death, which is to say from everything that, paradoxically, encourages us to pursue any sort of noble human aim, and not only religious transcendence.

treguerMT: So there’s nothing worse than trying to avert real dangers by means of false beliefs?

RG: Mankind has never done anything else.

MT: That’s no reason to continue.

RG: The fundamentalists often defend ideas that I deplore, but a remnant of spiritual health makes them foresee the horror of the warm and fuzzy concentration camp that our benevolent bureaucracies are preparing for us, and their revolt looks more respectable to me than our somnolence. In an era where everyone boasts of being a marginal dissident even as they display a stupefying mimetic docility, the fundamentalists are authentic dissidents. I recently refused to participate in a supposedly scientific study that treats them like guinea pigs, without the researchers ever asking themselves about the role of their own academic ideology in a phenomenon that they think they’re studying objectively, with complete and utter detachment.

What can I say? He will be missed. No one like him. And I wish I were in Paris this weekend.

What was the most important moment in René Girard’s life? “Coming to America,” he said.

Wednesday, January 20th, 2016
Share
Rene Girard (1)

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.

girard_two

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.”

rene-girard

Au revoir.

“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.

bookUpdate on 1/23: Some nice pick-up over at the World Literature Today blog hereWe’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.