Posts Tagged ‘René Girard’

“For most of history, music was a kind of cloud storage for societies”: Ted Gioia talks music with Tyler Cowen

Wednesday, November 6th, 2019
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“Most people in my generation had better sound systems as teenagers than they do now.”  (Photo: Brenda Ladd)

Jazz scholar Ted Gioia listens to three hours of new music per day and over 1,000 newly released recordings in a year. (We’ve written about him here and here and here.) His latest book, Music: A Subversive History covers the evolution of music from its origins in hunter-gatherer societies, to ancient Greece, to jazz, to its role in modern-day political protests such as those in Hong Kong. Over at Medium, he joined the popular economist Tyler Cowen to discuss music in a wide-ranging interview (the podcast is here) that also takes on the music industry, technology, and the reason for loud restaurant music (hint: René Girard).

The news is not all good: “In fact, I would say that music is the only form of entertainment in which the technology has gotten worse during my lifetime. I go to movies now, and it’s this big screen and surround sound. Video games put the Pong that I used to play to shame. TV is so good, it’s being called a golden age of television. But in music, most of us listen to songs on these lousy handheld devices. Most people in my generation had better sound systems as teenagers than they do now. That worries me more than the whole idea of how songs are written. I’m really concerned about the technology lessening the whole listening experience.”

Ted’s first copies of his new book. (Via Twitter)

An excerpt:

COWEN: … Do you think our collective memory from music is decaying more rapidly because communications technologies move so much faster and preserve things so much better?

GIOIA: What people don’t understand is that, for most of history, music was a kind of cloud storage for societies. I like to tell people that music is a technology for societies that don’t have semiconductors or spaceships. If you go to any traditional community, and you try to find the historian, generally it’s a singer. Music would preserve culture; it would preserve folklore.

Well, nowadays, we rely on cloud storage to be the preserver of these same things. And I think there’s a strange shift. Both we rely on the cloud to preserve our music, but also, we no longer rely on music to preserve our culture. This is potentially a dangerous thing because it could create a situation where our musical lives grow more and more distant from our actual social lives with the people around us in our larger community.

Here’s another excerpt:

COWEN: But what really embarrasses you? What admission can I squeeze out of you?

GIOIA: When I was a teenager, I listened to Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.

COWEN: Now that’s embarrassing.

GIOIA: Right before I discovered jazz, I was listening to Keith Emerson. This was the quandary I was in.

Economist Tyler Cowen asks an embarrassing question

COWEN: It was jazz, in a way.

GIOIA: It prepared me for jazz. It really did. When I was a teenager, I was playing piano, and this was the problem I faced. I liked rock because of its emotional immediacy, but it didn’t have the sophistication I wanted. Then I loved classical music like Bach for the sophistication, but it didn’t have the emotional immediacy. And I said, “I need something that brings together both.”

Then I walked into a jazz club. Literally, I walked into the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, California. I was a high school student. I sat down, the music started, and within 10 seconds, I said to myself, “This is what I’ve been waiting for.” Really, it was this epiphanal moment. But before that, it was Keith Emerson.

And a third, about one of my own pet peeves – loud restaurants:

COWEN: Why are restaurants so much noisier today? And they’re still getting noisier.

GIOIA: In fact, I’ve got to say I prefer the quiet restaurant, but I understand everybody else wants the noisy restaurant. And I do think we’re going back to René Girard territory, where everything’s imitation, where you choose the restaurant not on what’s the best food, but what other people are doing that I can imitate. There are two restaurants in town. You go in the one with the most people. I think that imitative behavior patterns explain much more in society than we care to admit.

Merci, René Girard.

COWEN: But there’s much more noise pollution more generally. Restaurants are noisier. It seems that music, in general, is louder. And in terms of dynamic compression, the range is much narrower. So why is there this general tendency toward more noise? Why are markets undersupplying peace and quiet?

GIOIA: Because they want to stand out. It’s interesting, in my book I talk about the very first musicians, who were hunter-gatherers. What they did was fascinating because back then there were no loud sounds. You could live your whole life in prehistoric times and maybe never hear a loud sound unless you went near a waterfall or maybe during a thunderstorm. But for the most part everything was quiet.

So that’s why there’s a plausible theory that the early hunter-gatherers invented choral singing to hunt. They were scavengers, and they didn’t try to kill the lion themselves. They let the lion kill the prey. Then they would sing together to scare away the lion, and they would get the food. That tells you that back then, loud sounds were so rare that they were an amazing expression of power.

The thing to remember is, even today, loud sounds are an expression of power, notoriety. So you have competition in terms of sound, and the restaurants believe — and maybe rightly — that they’re going to stand out with the noisier environment. Now, once again, I will avoid those restaurants. I’ll go to the quiet one, but I really think the same way there was an arms race in the 1960s, there’s a noise race in society right now.

There’s lots more. Read the whole thing here

“The undulating quality of his thought”: Robert Pogue Harrison remembers Michel Serres

Saturday, October 26th, 2019
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“Michel Serres is indeed Stanford’s ego ideal, even if the institution itself is largely unaware of it.” Remembering the academician at the Stanford Humanities Center on Oct. 21.

Michel Serres, a Stanford professor, a member of the Académie Française, and one of France’s leading thinkers, died on June 1 at age 88. Earlier this week, we published French Consul General Emmanuel Lebrun-Damiens‘s remarks at the memorial conference for him on Monday, Oct. 21. (Read it here.) Below, Robert Pogue Harrison‘s words on that occasion:

When I joined Stanford’s Department of French & Italian as a young assistant professor in the 1980s, I became close friends with Michel Serres. It was he who encouraged me to break out of the straightjacket of narrow academic specialization and to enlarge my conception of what it means to be a humanist. My first book offered an intensive textual analysis of Dante’s Vita Nuova. It was thanks to Michel that that I subsequently went on to write a history of forests in the western imagination, from the Epic of Gilgamesh to our own day. That book, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, published in 1992, is dedicated to Michel Serres, yet he managed to beat me to the punch. Just before Forests came out, I received a copy of The Natural Contract, which, to my great surprise, Michel had dedicated to me. That dedication, with a quote from Livy (casu quodam in silvis natus), was for me a far bigger deal than the appearance of my book a month or two later.

“Michel had a way of enchanting and entrancing his audience.”

In the late 80s and 90s, Michel’s seminars at Stanford were attended by a number of junior and senior faculty members. He was the only one I can remember who regularly drew other faculty to his classes. We went not only to learn but to experience the unique aesthetic flourish of his teaching. There was an Orphic quality to his seminars. Michel had a way of enchanting and entrancing his audience. His lectures were musical, operatic performances, with preludes, movements, arias, and crescendos. He created this musical effect by the lyricism of his voice; by the cadences of his sentences; by his measured use of assonance and alliteration; by the poetic imagery of his prose; and by what I would call the undulating quality of his thought. There was a distinct rhythm to his seminars that put their beginning, middle, and end in musical, rather than merely logical, relation to one another. A Michel Serres seminar was a highly stylized affair, both in content and rhetorical delivery – and the audience could not help but break into applause when he concluded with the words “je vous remercie.”

With Serres, the classroom became not only an intellectual space of illumination but also the site of revelations. In addition to what I’ve called the Orphic quality of his teaching, it also had a Pentecostal aspect. (I borrow the term from our onetime Stanford colleague Pierre Saint-Amand, who attended many of Michel’s seminars in the early years.) Michel himself speaks of that particular type of communication in his book, Le Parasite. With Michel, one had the impression at times that something was speaking through him, that he was bringing to the surface deep, long-buried sources of knowledge and wisdom. It was very close to what Hannah Arendt, with reference to Heidegger’s teaching in the 1920s, called “passionate thinking.”

“An Orphic quality”: Sharing a glass of wine in 2010

Whether he was teaching literary works or the origins of geometry, you could be sure that Michel would bring together religion and ancient history, anthropology and mathematics, law and literature. He had a wholly new way of reading philosophy, literature, and the tradition in general. Those of us who were drawn to his thought and his seminars developed a taste for complexity. In the heyday of deconstruction, Serres taught us that textualization led to inanition. The surest way to zombify philosophy, literature, or science was to textualize them. He taught by counter-example how to bring into play a heterogeneous plurality of perspectives. Texts were not folded in upon themselves but contained different strata of historical knowledge, of cultural instantiations and practices.

Serres’s model of reading is not easily duplicated. He would bring any number of scientific, religious, and historical deliberations to bear on his reading of authors like Pascal, Balzac, or La Fontaine like Serres was able to do. Serres provided us with a model of complexity for which the word “interdisciplinarity” does not do justice. One could call it a “new encyclopedianism,” but why not call it by a term that he himself coined in his book Genese – “diversalism.”

The concept of diversalism is not opposed to universalism but represents a very different declension of it than the German metaphysical one – a declension that finds universality in multiplicity rather than unity, contingency rather than necessity, and singularity rather than generality. The confluence of different streams of knowledge, diversalism is the very lifeblood of complexity, that is to say the lifeblood of life itself, not to mention of human culture in general.

Harrison interviewed Serres on “Entitled Opinions” in 2008.

I would like to think that diversalism – as Michel understood it – defines what Stanford University stands for among institutions of higher learning. In that sense Michel Serres is the local unsung hero of Stanford’s greater ambition to bring all fields of knowledge and research into productive conversation with one another. I would go so far as to say that Serres is – without Stanford even knowing it – this institution’s ego ideal. Let me go even further and say that, in his diversalism, Serres was a very representative member of the Department of French & Italian, which by any measure has been the department of diversalism par excellence. Our colleague Elisabeth Boyi, who is here today, reminds us that diversalism also includes what her friend and fellow traveler Eduard Glissant called “diversality,” namely the admixture of languages, cultural legacies, and ethnic origins in an “archipelago” of diversity, where archipelago means interrelated associations that are not organized hierarchically but laterally.

When you think of colleagues like René Girard, Jean-Marie Apostolides, Sepp Gumbrecht, Brigitte Cazelles, Elisabeth Boyi, Jean-Pierre Dupuy, as well as the younger generation of scholars in French & Italian, many of whom are present here today, you start to wonder whether there is another universe or timeline in which Donald Trump did not win the 2016 presidential election and that the Department of French & Italian figures as the fully acknowledged, rather than discrete, crown jewel of Stanford University. I mean Stanford in its commitment to a genuine diversalistic pursuit of knowledge. But as they say, nemo profeta in patria sua.

If Michel Serres is indeed Stanford’s ego ideal, the institution itself is largely unaware of it. Stanford and Serres always had a courteous but altogether perfunctory relationship. Neither was the explicit champion of the other. That is not unusual. Stanford has a history of accommodating but not exalting some of its most creative endeavors and ventures. Maybe it’s better that way. Be that as it may, Serres was always grateful to Stanford for allowing him to visit twice a year for some three decades. He did much of his best thinking here, interacting with colleagues and walking to the Dish daily. He used to say that he had no complaints about Stanford whatsoever. “Je vie comme un moine et je suis payé come une putain.” Wherever he is now, I’m sure he’s looking on Stanford fondly. Those of us he left behind here in California miss him dearly, and it is fair to say there will never be another one like him in our midst.

Stanford’s resident Socrates takes a break on his daily walk to “the Dish.”  (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

“An elegant homage”: weekend praise from Amherst for “Evolution of Desire” – and a few other books, too

Saturday, October 19th, 2019
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It’s been a full year-and-a-half since Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard was published. And I’m chuffed it’s still getting reviews and attention.

The latest is from the weekend “Friday Reads” section of The Commona tony journal put out by Amherst College. According to its website: “The Common is an award-winning print and digital literary journal published biannually, in the fall and spring. Issues of The Common include short stories, essays, poems, and images that embody a strong sense of place.”

I’m honored that Evolution of Desire is the lead item. The review (they’re all designed to be brief) is by Susan Troccolo, a non-fiction contributor to the journal.

It begins:

“Cynthia L. Haven’s book, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard is a compelling study of her mentor’s life’s work and an elegant homage to a man whose extraordinary intellectual force and drive for understanding necessarily probed Psychology, Philosophy, Theology, and Anthropology.”

It ends: “Evolution of Desire is a memorably written biography of a distinguished thinker for our time.”

You can read what’s in the middle here.

But there are four other books to consider. Here’s Loves You: Poems by Sarah Gambito, recommended by poetry contributor Chloe Martinez:

“’Invite at least 15 people. It’s okay if your apartment is small.’ These are some of the instructions Sarah Gambito gives the reader at the start of Loves You, a collection of poems that are also recipes, that are also love songs, that are also prayers, and that are often centos, “patchwork poems” made up entirely of quotations. It’s okay to include all this, Gambito tells us, it’s okay to use everything around you in poems …”

A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa, in which fiction contributor Katherine Vaz discusses a novel that was short-listed for the Man Booker and won the International Dublin Literary Award in 2017:

“Based on the true story of a woman who stayed closed-off in her apartment in Luanda during the struggle for independence, it’s an uncanny mix of true-magic and suspense and the onslaught of history. The plot is clear and strong. The language, the story itself—breathtaking. The confines of Ludo’s apartment end up containing the universe, in the way that the lines of a sonnet contain, due to the restriction of form, an explosion of richness.”

Read the full text for all four here. I’ll give you a hint on the last two:  The Farm by Joanne Ramos and recommended by Danielle Batalion Ola (nonfiction contributor); and Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors and recommended by Katherine Hill (fiction contributor).

Farewell Richard Macksey, legendary polymath and “the jewel in the Hopkins crown” (1931-2019)

Monday, July 22nd, 2019
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Approaching Richard Macksey with a question was like going to a fire hydrant for a glass of water. That was a comment made by Milton Eisenhower, brother of President Dwight Eisenhower and a former president of Johns Hopkins University. It is the best summation of the legendary polymath, polyglot, and bibliophile Dick Macksey that I know. I got to know the Johns Hopkins professor while doing research for Evolution of Desire: A Life of René GirardHe was one of the more difficult interviews I’ve ever done. Usually “difficult” interview means that the subject isn’t forthcoming. In Dick Macksey’s case, it was the opposite: I was losing control of the interview at every moment, as digression piled on digression, anecdote led to more anecdotes, until I couldn’t remember what I had asked.

Chez Macksey: a personal library of 70,000 books, many of them rare.

Dick Macksey died this morning, after several months of ill health. He was three days shy of his 88th birthday. I have written about him in several blogposts, notably: “Western Civilization Cannot Do Without Him” here, “An Autographed Copy of Canterbury Tales? I Believe Him”  here , and “He Lived on Three Hours of Sleep and Pipe Smoke” here. He is at the heart of my Evolution of Desire chapter about the renowned 1966 Baltimore conference that brought Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and French thought to America – it’s included in its entirety in Quarterly Conversation here. Writer Kate Dwyer wrote  “Meet the Man Who Introduced Derrida to America: On the Remarkable Legacy of Richard Macksey,” a profile of him earlier this year over at LitHub. I’m personally convinced Western civilization cannot do without him. Now it will have to.

The Eisenhower remark is “a funny quote, but it doesn’t include the generosity,” according to former student Robert Friedman in the short  film below. Another, Betty Sweren said, “Dick really is the jewel in the Hopkins crown.” She added, “We all think of him as the great guru.”  The Hopkins community praised his optimistic, enthusiasm, humility: “He makes you feel like he’s learning from you as well.”

“There was always this rumor that when he was up for his PhD and doing his orals, they couldn’t stump him on anything,” the Oscar-nominated cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, another former student, said. “Finally, exasperated, one of his interviewers decided to ask him about 16th-century French cooking or something and he goes, ‘well that’s great that you should ask that question, because it happens to be one of my hobbies.’”

His lifestyle was his teaching, too.

His legacy will live on in his unimaginably comprehensive personal library of 70,000 volumes. His capacious campus home was turned over to them. Among the many treasures: a signed copy of Proust‘s Swann’s Way, first editions of Faulkner, Hemingway, Wharton. Dick Macksey’s library was featured in Robaroundbooks’s “Bookshelf of the Week” here. In the combox, one former student, Bill Benzon, chimed in with a memory of his own: “I was a student of Macksey’s back in the 1960s and was in that library shortly after it was constructed (out of a garage). It wasn’t so cluttered then, but the shelves were full. Macksey was a film buff and would have people over to his place regularly to discuss films. He lived a couple blocks away from campus so it was easy to see a film on campus and then go over to Macksey’s for the discussion.”

‘His whole lifestyle became part of his teaching,” said one former student, and his door was always open to students, generations of them, with informal seminars that lasted till midnight.”There’s no topic that bores Dick. He can regale you with stories till three in the morning,” said another. His writing  was “a way of not limiting yourself to one particular way of thinking.” Well, isn’t that exactly what  the role of the humanities is supposed to be? Isn’t the absence of that precisely what’s poisoning with our thinking, our politics, our education, our public discourse?

“I don’t think there will ever be another person like Richard Macksey,” Prof. Frank Moorer. For that reason, and many others, he will be missed. Is missed already.

Postscript: On Twitter, a few posts by Sonoma State’s Dean Hollis Robbins, a former student. (We have corrected an error above, he actually died three days shy of his 88th birthday. It’s nice to know I share a birthday with him.)

My interview on René Girard and Evolution of Desire: “If you don’t howl with the wolves, the wolves will howl for you.”

Wednesday, May 15th, 2019
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“…no possible compromise between killing and being killed.”

My interview with author Scott Beauchamp is up at Full-Stop, a tony literary venue Full-Stop, which focuses on debuts, works in translation, small press works, and the broader landscape of arts and ideas that need a champion more than ever. Scott’s writing has appeared in The Paris Review, Rolling Stone, and the Washington Post, among other places. The subject, as always, is Evolution of Desire: A Life of René GirardYou can read the whole interview here.

Meanwhile, an excerpt:

The basic idea animating Girard’s breakout book, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, is, as you write, that “[w]e live derivative lives. We envy and imitate others obsessively, unendingly, often ridiculously…We wish to conceal our metaphysical emptiness from others, in any case, and from ourselves most of all.” As Girard himself explained, “All desire is a desire for being.” I think most people who have heard of Girard are familiar with this basic, simple, and profound insight.

It pegs the true source of desire. In a panel discussion of Evolution of Desire at the American Academy of Religion earlier last fall in Denver, one panelist described it as Girard’s koan. And it rather is.

Some have taken issue with it, since “being” has so much baggage in philosophical circles, but I think it has a valuable role in taking us away from those triangles of desire – instead of searching for objects and mediators, we must take a step back and ask instead “who do I worship?”

Interviewer Scott Beauchamp

“All desire is a desire for being” is a single line mentioned in passing during the long conversation that is When These Things Begin, a book-length Q&A with Michel Treguer. Far from being overly familiar, in fact I plucked it out of the book and now it seems to be contagious – in a good way! I expect to see it on tote bags and t-shirts soon.

But something that you take pains to explain in your book is that Girard didn’t consider all mimetic desire a necessarily bad thing, right?

Of course it isn’t. Imitation is not only inevitable, it’s how we learn language, or how to tell a joke, or how to run a business, or anything else. It’s how we learn to navigate human exchanges, how to give and receive affection, how to nurture friendships.

Ultimately, imitation has another dimension altogether. Virgil speaks of it in Purgatorio, and it’s worth repeating: “And the more souls there are who love on high, the more there is to love, the more of loving, for like a mirror each returns it to the other.” That is the evolution of desire, its final destination.

Girard built on the notion of mimetic desire in his subsequent books. Violence and the Sacred, which was in many ways a more radical book than its predecessor, explores the meaning of sacrifice and the scapegoat – the complicated ways in which we assign guilt and perpetuate violence. I was struck by the refreshingly pre- or even para-political reasoning at work. It seems to elevate itself above the Manichean moral dead ends of an “us vs. them” mentality and instead implicates everyone. Where do you most sense the need for this sort of analysis in contemporary American society?

Everywhere. Increasingly our public discourse is descending into two warring tribes, who resemble each other more and more the longer they fight. Are you a Democrat or Republican? Did you vote for Trump or Clinton? Left-left, or center-left, or left behind. Independent thinkers are hectored and threatened into falling in line. The mob requires unanimity. If you are not part of it they turn against you, and you are, if you are lucky, driven from the flock. We’ve seen reputations destroyed, jobs lost, fortunes demolished, but that’s not the worst. Look at what the murderous mob tried to do to Asia Bibi in Pakistan. Now she and her family must live in under a new name at an undisclosed location in faraway Canada.

It’s serious stuff, and is dangerous. If you don’t howl with the wolves, the wolves will howl for you. As René wrote: “…we must see that there is no possible compromise between killing and being killed. … For all violence to be destroyed, it would be sufficient for all mankind to decide to abide by this rule. If all mankind offered the other cheek, no cheek would be struck. … If all men loved their enemies, there would be no more enemies. But if they drop away at the decisive moment, what is going to happen to the one person who does not drop away? For him the word of life will be changed into the word of death.”

“It is absolute fidelity to the principle defined in his own preaching that condemns Jesus. There is no other cause for his death than the love of one’s neighbour lived to the very end, with an infinitely intelligent grasp of the constraints it imposes.”

Read the rest here.

Yet more praise for Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard: “gorgeously written … a scintillating and atmospheric read.”

Monday, May 6th, 2019
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You may have noticed we have been unusually silent in recent weeks about Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard and its progress through the world. Let us make amends. We received an lovely email from someone more familiar to us in our Twitter incarnation: Aashish Kaul, assistant professor in English at SUNY, Albany.

He wrote: “With an incredibly busy semester winding down, I have allowed myself the luxury of reading your marvel of a book on Girard. I am halfway through Evolution of Desire, and it is gorgeously written. The conjoining of balance, poise, and erudition makes this a scintillating and atmospheric read. Loving every moment of it. My congratulations!”

A second letter arrived the following day. 

Andrew Thompson of New York wrote us:  “I’m about halfway through your biography and am thoroughly enjoying it as an accessible introduction to Girard’s thought. I’ve just finished your chapter on the symposium with Derrida et al. and found it to be both the most lucid overviews of how post-structuralism found its way into the minds and tongues of American academics that I’ve found, and also one of the most succinct critiques of how those ideas filter down into memes that spread as intellectual vogue.”

Grateful thanks to both! And look what appeared last month in the New York Review of Books:

Western civilization cannot do without him: Baltimore’s legendary polymath Richard Macksey at 87

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2019
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It was a privilege to spend hours talking with Johns Hopkins Prof. Richard Macksey for Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard. Now that I’ve read Kate Dwyer’s “Meet the Man Who Introduced Derrida to America: On the Remarkable Legacy of Richard Macksey,” a new profile of the 87-year-old polymath in LitHub, I’m convinced Western civilization cannot do without him. 

I’ve written about him on the Book Haven here and here – with a film clip here. (A quick note, however: The 1966 Baltimore conference that brought Derrida to America was the work of a triumvirate: René Girard, Macksey, and Eugenio Donato. That story was told in the chapter published as “The French Invasion” in Quarterly Conversation, December 2017.) 

What I wrote about Dick Macksey in Evolution of Desire:

He shared his memories from his home stuffed with seventy thousand books and manuscripts in English, Russian, French, German, Italian, Spanish, even Babylonian cuneiform (he can read and write in six languages, and laconically noted that his collection includes an autographed copy of The Canterbury Tales and a presentation copy of the Ten Commandments). A generous and legendary teacher, he still holds seminars in this spacious landmark home, even though the house is so crowded that a visitor can’t walk more than a few feet in any direction without running into a bookshelf. He lives, according to a colleague, on “three hours of sleep and pipe smoke.” He writes as prolifically as he reads, publishing fiction and poetry as well as scholarly works. No topic bores him, and his memory is astonishing. Milton Eisenhower, brother of the president and Johns Hopkins’s president at the time of the conference, commented that going to Dick Macksey with a question was like going to a fire hydrant for a glass of water.

Kate Dwyer was a student of Macksey’s three years ago, which warms the narrative like  hands curled around a snifter warm cognac. Here’s what she says about the professor and the legendary home known as “Chez Macksey”:

The lore around Macksey and his library has an air of myth—some alumni describe knocking over a sheet of paper to discover original correspondence with D.H. Lawrence (who died the year before Macksey was born), while others swear there was an original Picasso sketch in his bathroom at one time. Four-foot Chinese scrolls, tiny model skeletons, antique theater binoculars. The valuable pieces are no longer in the house; they have been locked up in Special Collections on campus. One time during class, I myself picked up the nearest book and discovered it was an inscribed advance copy of his friend Oliver Sacks’ book, Seeing Voices. The objects in his house speak to his interests, which is to say he is interested in everything.

Chez Macksey

That is not an exaggeration.

“When you listen to him talk, he begins in one place, and then it’s as though he’s crossed the room and gone to a different section of the library and pulled out a book on a different topic,” the author Jessie Chaffee (Florence in Ecstasy) noted. “He’ll take you down a path that is surprising, and then another, and another . . . until you realize that they’re all connected.”

***

“There was always this rumor that when he was up for his PhD and doing his orals, they couldn’t stump him on anything,” the Oscar-nominated cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, a former student, said. “Finally, exasperated, one of his interviewers decided to ask him about 16th-century French cooking or something and he goes, ‘well that’s great that you should ask that question, because it happens to be one of my hobbies.’”

Deschanel studied with Macksey during the 1960s. “I’ve always felt that, when you read a script, your first ideas tend to be really cliché,” he said. “What you want to do is get away from that and apply some of the ideas from all the things you’ve learned over the years and try doing something totally against that first idea.” He credits this strategy to time in Macksey’s library. “He would relate some imagery in Turgenev to some paintings that were done in Germany in the 1920s.”

***

“The future and the past are bound together,” Dr. Macksey said. “One thing I like to point to is Chekhov’s little story, ‘Student.’ It’s only about four pages or so, and it’s about somebody who discovers the power of narrative to bind, not just people, but whole eras together. It sounds very pretentious, but it’s an unpretentious story, and it can change one’s life.”

Read the whole profile here. You must.

Evolution of Desire: “as absorbing as a very good novel – I could not put it down.”

Sunday, February 10th, 2019
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Bill Cain at Wellesley

A lovely letter from William Cain, Mary Jewett Gaiser Professor of English at Wellesley College, who has just finished reading Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard: “I am writing to congratulate you, and to thank you, for your brilliant and beautiful biography of René Girard. It is so interesting and enlightening about his life and career. You did a wonderful piece of work from start to finish: it was as absorbing to me as a very good novel – I could not put it down.

“You did a great job on this book … Thank you again for this superb biography.”

He had some firsthand experience with the subject: he knew René Girard when he was a grad student in the English department at Johns Hopkins University, 1974-1978. “I especially remember his great enthusiasm about Shakespeare,” he writes.

Below, that’s one of my tribe of bros, posting on Facebook from Barnes & Noble in Rochester Hills: “Look what’s on the shelves in southeastern Michigan!” There’s Aristotle, and there’s me … or rather there’s René Girard and Evolution of Desire.

Postscript on February 18Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard in Ann Arbor, too!

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

Saturday, January 19th, 2019
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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.

“Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard” goes into its third printing – and sparks some reflections in Zürich’s “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”

Thursday, January 17th, 2019
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Some good news! Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard is going into its third printing in its first year! Here’s some more good news: an article in Zürich’s Neue Zürich Zeitungone of Europe’s most highly regarded newspapers. The piece is by one of the continent’s leading intellectuals, Stanford’s own Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht

The first few paragraphs in a rough, off-the-cuff translation by a German-speaking friend of ours. An excerpt from: “Equality, Desire, Violence and the Restrained Presence of René Girard”:

A few weeks ago the French magazine Le Point invited Peter Sloterdijk to a conversation about the protest movement of the yellow jackets and their relationship to President Macron. With his learned and yet very decisive point of view, the philosopher activated an unconventional line of intellectual positions: in addition to  Mikhail Bakhtin‘s thesis on the transformation of Carnival moments into violence, and to Alain Peyrefitte‘s identification of social immobility as the heritage of absolutism, and to Elias Canetti’s theory on the dynamics of people in masses, he also referenced–most of all–the vision of the French-American anthropologist René Girard, who is rarely cited in his own homeland, a vision of working out  collective tensions through the attack and murder of a “scape goat.” Sloterkijk’s interlocutor could only with difficulty hide his outrage over this application of an analysis of the present situation.

Sepp Gumbrecht (Photo: Reto Klar)

With his left-liberal aligned reaction, the news would have no doubt fit well, to hear that the Silicon Valley billionaire and original Facebook investor Peter Thiel offered, for the coming Winter quarter at Stanford, a seminar on the conflict between “Statehood and Global Technology,” a course that was supposed to be derived from Girard’s theory and a course with such unusual resonance among the students that the university had to implement conditions for acceptance into the class.  Around 1990 Thiel had in fact taken several Girard Seminars, and to this day Thiel likes to amaze his interlocutors with the comment that he owes his life-changing engagement with  Facebook to these Girard seminars. In view of Sloterdijk, Thiel and their antagonists, it is  increasingly evident that there is a  pattern of tension between the way eccentric thinkers trust Girard’s intuitions and a mostly unfounded refusal to even acknowledge them. Against this blockade, in a new biography which is widely celebrated in many websites in Silicon Valley, Cynthia Haven has described how Girard distanced himself from all political positions, and described his shock at his own insights, a shock he shared with his most vehement opponents.

Haven’s conclusions and the peculiar ambivalence that she references confirm my memories from the 1990s, when I met with René Girard as a colleague at Stanford almost daily. Despite the warning brought from Germany by an eminent literary scholar that Girard’s dark theory corresponds to a powerful sense of character engraved in his face, I learned to know a professor who fascinated the youngest students in particular, and who consistently avoided competitive situations. Not from a feeling of uncertainty or self-doubt at all, but rather because as a prophet he was convinced of the truth of his insights. He in fact felt called to point out these insights repeatedly, and yet expected no personal admiration, never courted agreement, and never held it against me for instance, when I reacted with skeptical commentary. Already in 2005, when he was accepted into the forty “Immortals” of the Académie Française, Girard heard from afar the powerful encomium of his friend Michel Serres and reacted to our congratulations with a rumpled brow. Nonetheless, he seemed to want to say, no one could avoid the evidence of what he had to say.

The articles goes on to discuss Robert Pogue Harrison’s “Prophet of Envy” in the New York Review of Books (“the central organ of the American East Coast intellectuals”), the intensification of internet envy with FaceBook, and more. Read it here.

Not enough good news for you? The Claremont Review of Books article is up. Did we mention we’re getting lovely letters? Enough! We’ll share more tomorrow.
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