Posts Tagged ‘René Girard’

Praise for “Evolution of Desire”: “this is an ambitious and thought-provoking life portrait.”

Wednesday, May 9th, 2018
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Stanford Magazine has spoken on Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, and pronounced it good: “While the relationship between biographer and subject can be risky — producing hagiography at one extreme, disparagement at the other — Haven balances her frank admiration with critical commentary … this is an ambitious and thought-provoking life portrait.”

Let us return a few words of praise for writer Ginny McCormick’s own prose: One reader said it is “attentive and careful” – and beyond that, as another observed, “remarkably lovely.”

I won’t recap her summary of René Girard‘s theories in the article, “Truth and Testament” (you can read the whole piece here), but instead excerpt some passages that will recount less familiar episodes of the French thinker’s life:

Girard by all accounts cared little about his reputation and relished argument. He tells Haven, “Theories are expendable. They should be criticized. When people tell me my work is too systematic, I say, ‘I make it as systematic as possible for you to be able to prove it wrong.’” Inducted into the celestial Académie française as one of its immortels in 2005, Girard certainly commanded the attention of European intelligentsia, if not universal accord.

***

Picasso in ’53

Beyond Girard’s theories, Haven scrutinizes aspects of his life that arguably foretold his work. She finds mimetic elements in the ancient history of his hometown, Avignon, seat of papal rivalry 500 years ago. (Girard’s father was an archivist who became the curator of the city’s Palais des Papes.) Girard’s interest in scapegoating echoes his own family history. A female forbear was a victim in the Reign of Terror. Members of his extended family, whose social position caused envy among fellow citizens, were accused of collaboration under the Vichy regime in World War II.

Moreau in ’58

Anecdotes about Girard’s youth in Avignon and student days in Paris during and after the war afford a lighter view. As an adolescent, the contrarian theorist was a prankster who disliked school; at times home study was the solution. A little-known venture was his role in the founding of Avignon’s arts festival in 1947. He and a friend did much of the legwork, coordinating with Picasso, Marc Chagall, Paul Klee, Georges Braque, Max Ernst, Wassily Kandinsky and others. One gasps at the informality: two twentysomethings transporting by the small truckload a dozen Picassos and the other pieces from Paris studios to Avignon. Girard recalls “mishandling” one of Henri Matisse’s Blouses Roumaines and then quickly repairing the small hole inflicted on itHe fondly recounts hobnobbing with visiting festival actors, including a young Jeanne Moreau.

Read the whole thing here.

A book is born! A party launches Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard – and the French consul was there, too!

Sunday, April 8th, 2018
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Above, the tweet from the French consul Emmanuel Lebrun-Damiens today at my book launch party at the gorgeous home of Marilyn and Irvin Yalom. The event was celebrated with plenty of champagne – the French, not Californian, kind. As Emmanuel noted above, René Girard‘s wife, Martha, and daughter Mary, attended. So did others who have featured on these pages: Ewa Domanska, Marie-Pierre Ulloa, Inge Pierson, Robert Pogue Harrison, Elena Danielson, Aleta Hayes, Elaine Ray, Trevor Cribben-Merrill, and others – that’s three chevaliers in the group altogether, by my count. Pas mal. Jean-Pierre Dupuy was in Paris, but made his presence felt via an email to the gathering, and addressed to René himself, who died in November 2015.

Here are the words of Jean-Pierre:

A voice from Paris…

Mon cher René,

En ce jour où nous te célébrons, je ne peux m’empêcher de penser ceci. Si le Dieu d’amour existe, quelles que soient la ou les religions qu’Il a inspirées, alors tu l’as rejoint, car mieux que tout autre prophète, tu nous as donné une idée de son essence.

Ni le temps ni l’espace que nous connaissons ne peuvent situer ta rencontre avec Dieu. Elle n’est ni dans le passé ni dans l’avenir, car le temps est probablement une illusion liée à notre finitude. Elle n’est ni dans l’infiniment petit ni dans l’infiniment grand, car l’espace est comme Dieu selon Pascal, « une sphère dont le centre est partout et la circonférence nulle part. »

La superstition consisterait à penser que de là où tu es, tu peux nous voir et nous adresser des messages. Ton esprit est en dehors de l’espace et du temps. Il est dans la conscience de chacun d’entre nous, vivants promis à la mort, nous qui t’avons lu, t’avons entendu et t’avons aimé.

Fortunately for many of you, my words were in English, and brief:

“René’s first book in 1961 made his reputation as a literary theorist; his final book took him to the end of the world: terrorism, the tit-for-tat arms race, and nuclear proliferation. And it was all rooted in human imitation and desire – not fashionable when René began his career. Yet within decades research from many fields would put it at the forefront, especially now, with cyberbullying, the mob behavior of our politics, our social media.

Signing books…

His critics sometimes say that his observations are “obvious.” Certainly René agreed. He said, “There’s nothing Mallarméan about the interpretive sequence that dominates my work: it is terribly commonsensical and down-to-earth… It rests on the obvious, and it seeks the obvious. Not everything obvious interests me, to be sure, only those observations that should have been made long ago and yet never were.” Obvious, perhaps, but hard to practice. Anyone who has tried to do so – by refusing to echo one’s enemies, not even in a gesture or sneer – knows how hard that can be.

From the beginning, I felt he needed a bigger audience. So when Bill Johnsen invited me to develop a book proposal for Michigan State University Press, I suggested I weave together the life and the work in a narrative targeted for the educated non-specialist – the New York Times reader, for example.

I have had 280 pages to do precisely that. Now I happily and gratefully yield the floor to others…”

Solidarity…

And so I did. Marilyn Yalom delivered the words from Paris, and spoke as René’s first graduate student (she received her doctorate in 1963). Martha Girard spoke warmly about my humble efforts to portray her beloved husband. Trevor read my Kirkus Review (we discussed that here). Bill Johnsen’s words about my book were generous and what any author would have been deliriously happy to hear. Ewa Domanska spoke of reading René in Poland during the Solidarity years, and of meeting him at Stanford. And one person spoke passionately, eloquently, brilliantly. But more of that talk later.

Meanwhile, my first Amazon review is one sentence, five stars. We’d like to keep that proportion. Thank you, reviewer, whoever you are. And some more tweets below:

 

“When rivalry becomes obsession”: René Girard, plus a few tweets, and a kind of anniversary

Monday, March 26th, 2018
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On Sunday, The Los Angeles Review of Books ran an excerpt from Chapter 6 of Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard. It’s also been generating some nice buzz on Twitter since then (see a couple of the tweets below), and one comment from James Winchell: “Cynthia Haven’s new biography focuses so clearly on the stakes implied by Girard’s work, instead of the ‘critical’ distractions generated by so many of his detractors – and his acolytes. She reminds us that his books constitute a primary source in twentieth-century philosophical, anthropological and spiritual history, one still unsurpassed in its burgeoning promise.”

Here’s an excerpt of the excerpt, “The Genius to Glue Them Together”: On René Girard and His Ideas”:

The “Romantic lie” Girard attempts to dismantle is the myth of personal autonomy, the “authentic self” so dear to thinkers from Rousseau onward. The hero wants something, and it is really “he” who wants it — unaffected by others, as if he were not also a slave to public opinion and the approbation of friends and family. Girard saw an inevitable third in these transactions — the one who modeled the desire, who taught us to have it.

Central to the novels he examined is the protagonist who aspires to freedom but is not free at all, since he (or she) worships the “mediator,” living or dead, whose desires the heroes adopts as their own. “The object is to the mediator what the relic is to a saint,” Girard wrote. Julien Sorel adores Napoleon, and keeps the emperor’s memoirs hidden under his mattress; Emma Bovary worships the fashionable ladies in Paris, and takes lovers in imitation of them.

“Even the most passionate among us never feel they truly are the persons they want to be,” he explained later in a Stanford essay. “To them, the most wonderful being, the only semi-god, always is someone else whom they emulate and from whom they borrow their desires, thus ensuring for themselves lives of perpetual strife and rivalry with those whom they simultaneously hate and admire.” We want the object because we believe it will make us akin to the admired rival, a false god we come to fear and hate as well as revere and emulate. Rivalry becomes obsession, enduring even after the objet du désir has been knocked out of the tennis court.

Wagner’s Ring Cycle provides one example: “The gold is nothing, clearly, since it’s the ray of sunshine that alights on it and transfigures it. And yet the gold is everything, since it’s what everyone is fighting over; it’s the fact of fighting over it that gives it its value, and its terror,” Girard explained in an interview.

Read the whole excerpt here. (And previous excerpts here and here.) Meanwhile, a kind of anniversary. I was reading a chapter from one of René Girard‘s books on the British Airways flight back from London, and I noticed he had inscribed the book to me – ten years ago to the day! It wasn’t on the occasion of the first meeting, but one of the early occasions of our working together, about the time we made the film used in the book-launch video here. The promised tweets below that, and the title page of the book below that.

 

 

Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard – The Movie!

Friday, March 16th, 2018
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You’ve heard of Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard the book. Here’s the movie! Ever so tiny a bit of it, anyway – a full feature film with famous stars in the lead roles is forthcoming … Ian McKellen to play René… well, not really. Film rights for my book will have to be sold first. That will be after translation rights in Swahili, and the Braille edition, and the audio book, and…

Launch videos are all the rage now, though I’m new to the genre, I’ve had an immersion experience  with the first. It includes the footage is from my 2008 interview with René, shortly after I returned to beautiful Palo Alto and met the genial sage. That’s when I wrote my Stanford News Service profile, “René Girard: Stanford’s provocative immortel is a one-man institution” here, and my Stanford Magazine article, “History is a test. Mankind is failing it” here. In fact, the latter article has the marvelous Michael Sugrue photo I’m thrilled to feature on the cover. To my mind, it is the best portrait of René in old age.

Anyway, it’s short (and sharp as a knife, not blurry, like the image on the cover below suggests). Three minutes long (with a snippet of Bach’s Prelude from my friend, one of the Bay Area’s preeminent cellists, Burke Schuchmann). Enjoy.

Golden thoughts for a nuclear age: from the introduction of Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard

Sunday, March 4th, 2018
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My colleague and friend, Artur Sebastian Rosman at the University of Notre Dame (we met via Czesław Miłosz) has been eager to run an excerpt from my forthcoming Evolution of Desire: A Life of René GirardHe finally did so at his Notre Dame magazine last week. It begins at the beginning, the very first page of my book:

Armed with a copy of the Iliad and a shovel, Heinrich Schliemann set out to find Troy in 1871. Two years later, he hit gold.

He was vilified as an amateur, an adventurer, and a con man. As archaeologists refined their methods of excavation in the subsequent decades, Schliemann would also be deplored for destroying much of what he was trying to find.

Nevertheless, he found the lost city. He is credited with the modern discovery of prehistoric Greek civilization. He ignited the field of Homeric studies at the end of the century. Most importantly, for our purposes, he broke new ground in a figurative, as well as literal, sense: he scrutinized the words of the text, and believed that they held the truth.

“I’ve said this for years: in the global sense, the best analogy for what René Girard represents in anthropology and sociology is Schliemann,” said the French theorist’s Stanford colleague, Robert Pogue Harrison. “Like him, his major discovery was excoriated for using the wrong methods. The others never would have found Troy by looking at the literature—it was beyond their imagination.” Girard’s writings hold revelations that are even more important, however: they describe the roots of the violence that destroyed Troy and other empires throughout time.

Like Schliemann, the French academician trusted literature as the repository of truth, and as an accurate reflection of what actually happened. Harrison told me that Girard’s loyalty was not to a narrow academic discipline, but rather to a continuing human truth: “Academic disciplines are more committed to methodology than truth. René, like Schliemann, had no training in anthropology. From the discipline’s point of view, that is ruthlessly undisciplined. He’s still not forgiven.”

I have appreciated Harrison’s analogy, though some of Girard’s other friends will no doubt rush to his defense, given Schliemann’s scandalous character—but Girard scandalized people, too: many academics grind their teeth at some of Girard’s more ex cathedra pronouncements (though surely a few other modern French thinkers were just as apodictic). He never received the recognition he merited on this side of the Atlantic, even though he is one of America’s very few immortels of the Académie Française.

For Girard, however, literature is more than a record of historical truth, it is the archive of self-knowledge. Girard’s public life began in literary theory and criticism, with the study of authors whose protagonists embraced self-renunciation and self-transcendence. Eventually, his scholarship crossed into the fields of anthropology, sociology, history, philosophy, psychology, theology. Girard’s thinking, including his textual analysis, offers a sweeping reading of human nature, human history, and human destiny. Let us review some of his more important conclusions.

He overturned three widespread assumptions about the nature of desire and violence: first, that our desire is authentic and our own; second, that we fight from our differences, rather than our sameness; and third, that religion is the cause of violence, rather than an archaic solution for controlling violence within a society, as he would assert.

He was fascinated by what he calls “metaphysical desire”—that is, the desire we have when creature needs for food, water, sleep, and shelter are met. In that regard, he is perhaps best known for his notion of mediated desire, based on the observation that people adopt the desires of other people. In short, we want what others want. We want it because they want it.

Read more here.

“Vengeance in Reverse”: exchanging pleasantries instead of punches

Thursday, March 1st, 2018
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I met anthropologist Mark Anspach on the internet a few years ago, when I was looking for someone to offer some online insight into the mind and motives of Anders Behring Breivik, the man who murdered nearly eighty young people in Norway in 2011. I posted about it in “Anders Behring Breivik: The Victim of Nobody” here

Mark and I have been penpals ever since, and have even met on a few occasions, for he has been a visiting scholar at Stanford, and still retains connections here – one of them our mutual regard for René Girard, who has been influential on Mark’s  thinking. He is now affiliated with the Institut Marcel Mauss at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. 

His new book intrigued me: Vengeance in Reverse plays on René’s theories about the inevitability of reciprocity. Although violent mimetic behavior (e.g., I hit you, you hit me) gets a bad name, René points out it is still essentially rooted in an impulse that is positive, because it pulls us out of ourselves and towards others: “It is everything. It can be rivalrous; but it is also the basis of heroism, others, and everything,” he has said, in a quote I include in my imminent Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard“But whether you exchange compliments, niceties, greetings, or insinuations, indifference, meanness, bullets, atom bombs, it’s always an exchange. You always give to the other guy what he’s giving to you, or you try to do so.”

Mark is considered “one of today’s most important figures in French social theory and cultural anthropology,” according to Mark Cladis of Brown University. So, a few questions to Mark about his new book:

Vengeance in reverse.” Provocative title – can you tell us what it means?

The urge to strike back is very basic, but vengeance is only the negative form of a more general phenomenon: reciprocity. In a blood feud, one side takes a life, then the other side takes a life in return. In positive reciprocity, one side gives something of value, then the other side gives in return. Reciprocal giving is the cornerstone of human interaction.

Mark in action.

As Marcel Mauss showed in The Gift, social life in premodern cultures revolves around gift exchange. I argue that gift exchange is like vengeance in reverse. It’s not just that one is the opposite of the other. There is an actual reversal in orientation. When people trade blows, each looks back to a previous event: you hit me because I hit you before that. With giving, each can look forward to what comes next.

That is, if I give you a gift, I can look forward to receiving a return gift. Right?

Right, whereas nobody looks forward to receiving a return blow! In vengeance, people are not looking to get a return – each side views its action as final, conclusive. Yet each action does provoke a return, so that everyone hurtles on in the wrong direction. Making a gift is a way to reverse course. This is a case where seeing into the future is not so difficult. It doesn’t take a crystal ball.

We know there is a tendency for any act, good or bad, to be reciprocated, so why not take advantage of that? Initiating a sequence of positive reciprocity gives everyone something to look forward to.

Revenge: it didn’t do much for Romeo and Juliet.

Who goes first, though? Someone is sending you anthrax — you reply with chocolates? Isn’t it dangerous to go first?

Whoever struck the last blow has to go first. In a blood feud, the murderer must make an offering to the victim’s group. The same principle holds in everyday life. If someone offends you, they’re the ones who need to send chocolates! People can get caught up in petty feuds over trifles. Often a small gesture will turn things around, and there is usually little to lose by showing oneself to be generous. But you are absolutely right that in a violent conflict, taking the initiative to seek peace can be dangerous. Let me tell you a true story from contemporary Albania.

A young man tried to rape a girl. Her brothers saved her just in time, but the family wanted to take revenge — and I don’t mean by shaming the offender with a nasty tweet! They were going to come after him. But he let a friend tie him up and stand him in a field in front of the girl’s assembled relatives. The friend said, “If you want to kill him, kill him. But then his family will come and kill one of you.” The man whose life was on the line had to be nervous, but in this instance going first worked. Both sides knew that once blood is spilled, the ensuing feud can last indefinitely. Post-communist Albania has seen a resurgence of the kind of vendetta described by Ismail Kadare in his historical novel Broken April.

He figured it out.

I’ve just written a review in the New York Times Book Review about Kadare, so naturally I’m pleased that you use Gjorg from Broken April in your first chapter.

Kadare’s novel was a key source of inspiration for me. Gjorg is a tragic figure. He has no taste for killing, but when his brother is murdered, he must avenge the family honor and become a killer himself. The ancient code of the Albanian blood feud leaves him no choice. Yet killing the killer does not bring closure; it merely triggers a new cycle of revenge. Gjorg’s fate is to be killed by his victim’s kin. When, as custom demands, he attends the funeral meal for the man he killed, he cannot stop looking ahead to the next funeral meal — the one that will be held for him. Gjorg knows very well what will happen next, but he is helpless to change course. Kadare’s protagonists cannot escape the framework of negative reciprocity. Moving from violence to peaceful exchange is extremely tricky.

Like Kadare, you also find precedents in the ancient Greeks, for example, in Homer’s Iliad.

Don’t forget!

Homer offers an example where the framework of the interaction changes. Two enemy warriors, Diomedes and Glaukos, meet in the thick of battle to engage in single combat. When they discover that their forebears had exchanged gifts long ago, a new context is born. Not only do the two warriors decide not to fight, they seal their own friendship by trading coats of armor right there on the battlefield!

The role of gift exchange in peacemaking could not be clearer. The speech Diomedes makes is just as interesting. He doesn’t merely invoke the past; he conjures up a peaceful vision of the future by announcing that he and Glaukos will take turns extending hospitality to each other in years to come. In effect, he says they’re going to be exchange partners tomorrow, so they can’t kill each other today! It’s a gambit that works through impeccably circular reasoning.

It’s a tangled loop, then.

Exactly! Negative and positive reciprocity are equally loopy phenomena. Violence is a vicious circle; peaceful exchange is a virtuous one. There’s no getting away from circularity, but we can do our best to shape the circles in which we find ourselves.

Postscript: On the other hand, given human nature, sometimes even positive reciprocity can backfire.

Early praise for Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard: “A penetrating account of an important thinker—and as agile, profound, and affecting as its subject.”

Sunday, February 25th, 2018
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A review of my Evolution of Desire: A Life of Rene Girard was just published in Kirkus ReviewsThe first paragraph, as is customary with Kirkus, describes the book. Then comes this:

Haven was a close friend of Girard’s, and that privileged perch allows her to consider his life both personally and intellectually. Many aspects of his history would be hard to adequately comprehend without this dual perspective. For example, she offers an impressively incisive account of his conversion from atheism to Christianity in 1958 (“It was something no one could have anticipated, least of all himself. ‘Conversion is a form of intelligence, of understanding,’ he said; it’s also a process…and as such would absorb him for the rest of his days”). In addition, her rendering is as panoramic as his thought—she considers a vertiginous array of diverse subjects insightfully, including Girard’s trenchant criticisms of Camus’ The Stranger, the ways in which the French and Americans view each other, and desire’s metaphysical aspects. Furthermore, Haven ably, even elegantly synopsizes the central tenets of Girard’s beliefs, in particular his pioneering views on mimesis—a kind of updated version of Rousseau’s amour propre—the notion that the desires and violent conflicts that often spring from people have their root cause in the gregarious mimicking of others. In this intimate but philosophically searching book, the author’s writing is marvelously clear. She expertly unpacks Girard’s ideas, making them unusually accessible, even to readers with limited familiarity.

A penetrating account of an important thinker—and as agile, profound, and affecting as its subject.

Read the whole thing here. Better yet, you can pre-order the book on Amazon here

Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard – in Russia’s high-traffic Colta just in time for New Year’s!

Friday, December 29th, 2017
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Another excerpt from Everything Came to Me at Once: A Life of René Girard – this time from the chapter called “Mankind Is Not So Kind” (Человечество не очень человечно). The excerpt appears in Colta,  Russia’s online equivalent of the New York Review of Books. Many thanks to editor, publisher, poet and journalist Maria Stepanova (we’ve written about her here and here). And thanks to the skillful translation of Svetlana Panich.

René Girard (1923-2015) began as a literary theorist was fascinated by everything. History, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, religion, psychology and theology all figured in his oeuvre. As I wrote in his obituary here:

International leaders read him, the French media quoted him. Girard influenced such writers as Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee and Czech writer Milan Kundera – yet he never had the fashionable (and often fleeting) cachet enjoyed by his peers among the structuralists, poststructuralists, deconstructionists and other camps. His concerns were not trendy, but they were always timeless.

In particular, Girard was interested in the causes of conflict and violence and the role of imitation in human behavior. Our desires, he wrote, are not our own; we want what others want. These duplicated desires lead to rivalry and violence. He argued that human conflict was not caused by our differences, but rather by our sameness. Individuals and societies offload blame and culpability onto an outsider, a scapegoat, whose elimination reconciles antagonists and restores unity.

Non-Russian speakers will have to wait for the Englishh edition, which will be out in April (but available for pre-orders here). Meanwhile, for all my Russian friends…

«Линчевание узнается по запаху», — сказал как-то Жирар, походя упомянув в разговоре роман Фолкнера. Эту непривычно жесткую фразу он произнес с несвойственным ему отвращением. Что имелось в виду, не уточнил, но друзья рассказали, что 1952—1953 годы, которые он провел на сегрегированном американском Юге, были для него сущей мукой. Кое-кто полагает, что именно там родилась его идея «козла отпущения», но это явная натяжка, к тому же недооценивающая его гениальную интуицию, которая сплетается со множеством наблюдений и научных находок в мощную теорию, описывающую положение человека и дающую ключ к нашему прошлому, настоящему и будущему. Эти идеи Жирар окончательно сформулировал уже после того, как книга «Обман, желание, роман» заявила о себе в литературном мире. «Я прожил год в Северной Каролине. — вспоминал он позднее. — Это было не худший штат на Юге, но полностью сегрегированный и довольно консервативный». Говорил об этом Жирар без сожаления: его завораживало буйство зелени, однако можно предположить, что роскошная краса этих мест только усиливала когнитивный диссонанс.

Жирар — не «певец природы», поэтому его описания Юга довольно резки. Он честно признавался, что новое место — «окруженная соснами глиноземная местность в центре огромного табачного региона, утыканного просторными сараями, в которых складывали на просушку огромные светлые листья» — доставило ему больше удовольствия, чем Индиана, но удовольствие, по его словам, оказалось сугубо чувственным:

«У меня остались очень яркие воспоминания о первом пребывании на юге Соединенных Штатов: ошеломляющее буйство цветов по весне, райские картинки пригородов, разбросанные пестрыми букетами и окруженные вековой листвой крошечные дома, похожие на новые игрушки, роскошные сады за домами; огромный эркер в гостиной, откуда открывался вид на синевато-зеленое мелколесье… Казалось, что меня, словно в научно-фантастическом рассказе, выбросили в капсуле в сияющий мир, где есть все знакомые нам соблазны, но они гораздо сильнее и лучше упорядочены».

О расовых отношениях он говорит, скорее, иносказательно и обтекаемо:

«Но как только наступало лето, на вас проклятием обрушивалась невыносимая жара. Мучились от нее не только физически; для меня эти страдания были неотделимы от того расового недуга, который всегда терзал эту землю и не стал слабее с тех пор, как о нем рассказали великие писатели Юга, прежде всего, Фолкнер. Я не разделяю склонность некоторых критиков сводить все к чисто литературным конструкциям: достоинство литературы в том, что она улавливает смыслы, которые уже разлиты в мире и не дают покоя именно потому, что большинство людей отказываются над ними думать. Помню, какой скандал разразился в Конгрессе, так и не сумевшем ратифицировать по умолчанию обязывающий на федеральном уровне закон, какой гарантировал бы полную справедливость во всем, что касалось судов Линча».

Read the rest here.

Be still my heart! France takes note of “The French Invasion”

Monday, December 18th, 2017
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A belated postscript to last week’s Quarterly Conversation publication of a single chapter from Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, which will be out in April (you can find the essay here; and our post about it here). It describes the 1966 Baltimore conference that René Girard organized, with Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato, that brought French thought to America – and with it Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida.

A few days ago, a friend from Paris sent us a Tweet we might otherwise have overlooked. Pierre Assouline is one of France’s most visible critics, and he’s on the Goncourt jury, which awards France’s most prestigious literary award. Moreover, he has more than 32,000 Twitter followers, so that tweet was retweeted more in the days after this screenshot. We lost track of the other French posts after that. But our hard little heart fluttered a bit to see France taking note.

We were also pleased to hear that “The French Invasion” is one of the tony Quarterly Conversation‘s top hitters, with 10,000 readers in the first few days. Give it a click if you haven’t. As one reader said a few days ago, “Haven’t read anything on the internet in a while that’s given me so much pleasure.”

Postscript on 12/20: There’s more: The popular economist Tyler Cowen has featured Evolution of Desire as the lead news item on his website here.  Wikipedia tells me he is #72 among the “Top Global Thinkers” in 2011, by Foreign Policy Magazine.

Evolution of Desire – the excerpt: “Haven’t read anything on the internet in a while that has given me so much pleasure.”

Monday, December 11th, 2017
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Up at Quarterly Conversation, an excerpt from my Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard – to serve as appertifThe book will be officially out in April, and our kindly friends over at QC wanted to run an excerpt. Instead it became a whole chapter! “The French Invasion” describes a few wild days at Johns Hopkins University in 1966:

The conference has been called “epochal,” “a watershed,” “a major reorientation in literary studies,” “the French invasion of America,” the “96-gun French dispute,” the equivalent of the Big Bang in American thought.

To hear the superlatives, one would have thought that “The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man” symposium held at Johns Hopkins for a few frantic days from 18 to 21 October 1966 was the first gathering of its kind ever held. It wasn’t, but it did accomplish a feat that changed the intellectual landscape of the nation: it brought avant-garde French theory to America. In the years that followed, René Girard would champion a system of thought that was both a child of this new era and an orphan within it. He was at once proud of his role in launching the symposium, and troubled by some of its consequences.

René Girard was one corner of the triumvirate that instigated the conference, and the senior member of the trio. The others were his Johns Hopkins colleagues Richard Macksey  (well, he will be familiar to Book Haven readers. We’ve written about him here) and Eugenio Donato. Donato was one of those rare birds in academia who “had a nose,” according to a French expression Dick Macksey borrowed. “He knew where the cooking was taking place.”