Posts Tagged ‘René Girard’

Celebrating “Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard” in NYC

Tuesday, September 25th, 2018
Share

Gathered for a discussion of books, poetry, literature, and culture…

The Book Haven has lapsed into an unaccustomed silence. That’s because we’ve been on the road. We’ve reconnected with friends and allies in New York, based at the hospitable Westchester home of Izabella Barry, who hosted a celebration for Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard on Sunday. Old friends were in attendance – the Polish poet and professor Anna Frajlich and the Russian poet and screenwriter Helga Landauer, and the photographer Zygmunt Malinowski who has guest posted on the Book Haven. New friends were there, too: the poet Kathryn Levy.

With poet Anna Frajlich…

Irena Grudzińska Gross was the moderator for my interview– I lucky on that on that score, the author of Czeslaw Milosz and Joseph Brodsky: Fellowship of Poets is a matchless scholar and human being. We ended the interview with a discussion of my forthcoming ‘The Spirit of the Place’: Czesław Miłosz in CaliforniaAs Sunday afternoon crawled into evening, we flicked on the lights, poured more wine, and continued to discuss literature, poetry, culture.

Now I’m hunkered in Yale’s Beinecke Library. I’m finding some gems among the archives, like this one, from Czesław Miłosz, which seems appropriate for the times: “Textbooks of history tell us about crusades, about burning heretics and religious wars. All that pales in comparison with what the twentieth century demonstrated. Uncounted millions of human beings were killed not in the name of religion but in the name of lay fanaticisms and politics, that is, in a struggle for power. By the same token a belief in the moral progress of humanity was undermined, that belief so dear to our ancestors of the nineteenth century when it strangely, against logic, coexisted with the theory of evolution advanced by biologists. Technological progress did not make man a better being, on the contrary; and now we must admit that we know nothing as to where our species drifts, for goodness and purity of heart are as proper to it as the worst monstrosity.”

Is this man the “godfather of like”? The TLS thinks so. Praise for Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard

Thursday, September 13th, 2018
Share

A screenshot from one of our conversations, now on Youtube.

Nothing like a mid-week surprise to add some luster to the daily routine, and we got one this week with a long, wise, and insightful essay on Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard in the brand-new issue of the Times Literary Supplement. 

The reviewer, Jonathan Benthall, is a former director of the Royal Anthropological Institute (1974-2000) and founding editor of Anthropology Today. So, un très grand merci to the smart anthropologist and the TLS.

He begins:

No drama. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

There were dramatic contexts to the development of René Girard’s ambitious thinking about violence and conflict. Some bleak years as a student in Paris, where he had moved from Avignon, his birthplace, near the end of the German occupation, followed by liberation and the épuration, in the course of which some 20,000 women suspected of collaboration had their heads publicly shaved. A year (1952–3) spent teaching French literature at Duke University, North Carolina, just before the United States Supreme Court ruling that segregated education was unconstitutional. A professorship (1968–76) at the State University of New York, Buffalo, which was a focus of campus  protest against the Vietnam war. But his biographer Cynthia L. Haven notes Girard’s “affectless reaction” to such experiences. He never intervened in politics. He and his wife Martha, an American from the Midwest, were a devoted “no-drama couple” until his death at the age of ninety-four in 2015 in Stanford, California, where they had made their home since 1981. [Actually, he died at 91 – ED.]

Given the apparent serenity of Girard’s personal life, Haven, a colleague at Stanford University and a close family friend, might have confined herself to hagiography. Readership would have been guaranteed among the six or more associations and foundations set up to promote and develop Girard’s work internationally, producing an extensive secondary literature across many academic disciplines: not merely history and literary criticism, his starting points, but also religious studies and all the human sciences. Fortunately Haven’s Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard is exemplary in its sensitivity.

She expresses openly her affection and admiration for her friend, who comes across as more of a teasing humorist than his public persona might suggest. Yet she recognizes the various intellectual arguments against Girard and the girardiens. Her readers are challenged but left free to make up their own minds.

Well, you can read the rest here, but it’s behind a paywall.

You may wonder on the title: “Godfather of Like.” Benthall explains: “One of Girard’s students at Stanford was Peter Thiel, now a billionaire philanthropist, who credits Girard with his decision to make a key initial investment in Facebook: Girard has been called ‘the godfather of the Like button’.” Well then, he has a lot to answer for.

Benthall makes a couple missteps on details. For example, René’s writings didn’t take hold in the Solidarity days and Velvet Revolution of Eastern Europe because “Christianity was under attack,” or at least not only, but primarily because the mechanisms of conflict, violence, and scapegoating were everywhere apparent to the Poles, the Czechs, the Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians as communism rule was overthrown.

He concludes:

In the years since his death, political developments in many countries have resonated increasingly with his scapegoating model. Girard’s seriousness and range assure him of a posthumous following, not necessarily limited to fellow Christians. One admirer, interviewed by Haven, spoke of his work as “like a rock: it will be there and it will last”. But there will be dissenters. In old age, he confessed to “academic narcissism”, a self-diagnosis that hits his own fingernail on the head. Moreover, though in some ways a most perceptive reader (having been trained in historical sciences at the École Nationale des chartes), he treated language as a vehicle for ideas and showed no interest in the craftsmanship of words – as noted by Haven, who herself writes with acuity and wit. Reading Girard’s publications is indeed like climbing a rocky promontory, but only to find at the summit a road and a coach park. Those not yet ready for the climb on foot may take advantage of a stimulating drive to the top in Cynthia Haven’s air-conditioned Californian limousine.

I’d settle for this.

I’d quibble a bit at that, too: René’s writings are enormously polished and droll – but I’d never heard him admire a passage of Proust for the loveliness of his prose, or Hölderlin’s poem for a masterful image, rather than the concepts behind them.  But it’s the closing image tickles me.

Moi. An air-conditioned limousine? I would have settled for a nice little silver Citroën, skirting the circular highway around Avignon’s ramparts.

Was Hölderlin nuts? The jury is out. Maybe.

Tuesday, September 11th, 2018
Share

He preoccupied interesting men.

One statement had been repeatedly spray-painted onto a turret in Tübingen, beginning way back in 1981, as an unusually bitter winter warmed into spring. Over the years, the words, in Swabian dialect and usually written in the old Sütterlin script, became a part of the tourist attraction, so no one scrubs off the paint anymore. “Der Hölderlin isch et verrückt gwae” translates roughly into “Hölderlin wasn’t nuts.”

The insanity of Friedrich Hölderlin (1770–1843), who died in obscurity but who has since become a towering presence in German poetry, had long been accepted—so the idea that he was in his right mind was still a minority opinion. But the cause found an unlikely champion in René Girard. He had never taken much of an interest in poetry, except for a short-lived interest in Saint-John Perse at the beginning of his career. He would finish his life with Hölderlin.

So begins the fourteenth chapter of Evolution of Desire: A Life of René GirardAnd my point was, well, René Girard really thought Hölderlin wasn’t nuts. But he wasn’t the only man to round out his life with the German poet. A fellow poet, Wilhelm Waiblinger, was another.

Waiblinger visited the older poet and wrote a record of his visits. Friedrich Hölderlin’s Life, Poetry and Madness has just been republished by Hesperus Press (translated by Will Stone) – the the third time the Waiblinger biography has been translated in recent years.

Elizabeth Powers writes about him in “When Winter Comes: A Poet’s Descent into a ‘Twilight Existence,'” in the August 21 Time Literary Supplement, where it shares a smashing double-page spread with Hans Christian Andersen and Sigrid Unset.

René Girard’s life story was long and unusually serene. The Waiblinger story, however, didn’t have a happy ending. Waiblinger’s misfortune and mishaps ended the life of “a man of considerable native refinement, unworldly sensibility, and an absolute lack of self-parody,” according to Powers.

She writes:

Like many German writers, Waiblinger was the son of a parson. By 1822, when he was eighteen, he too displayed considerable gifts in the Greek and Latin classics and began to study philosophy and theology at the same Tübingen seminary where Hölderlin had studied alongside Hegel and Schelling. Waiblinger was ambitious and not lacking in self-belief, but it was the age of Metternich, a quiet time for geniuses. He began to visit Hölderlin regularly, perhaps drawn by a perceived relationship between the genius and madness. (Hesse’s “In Pressel’s Garden House” of 1914 charmingly recreates one of their outings.) The visits ceased when Waiblinger was expelled from the seminary in 1826 for apparently reprehensible conduct. He departed for Rome where he wrote accounts of Italian sites and a novella called “The British in Rome”, as well as transcribing the notes he had made of his visits to Hölderlin. Having climbed Etna and contracted malaria in the Pontine marshes, he suffered a lung infection. Eight haemorrhages and fourteen bloodlettings later, Waiblinger died in Rome in 1830 at the age of twenty-six and was buried near Keats and Shelley in the Protestant Cemetery. Friedrich Hölderlins Leben, Dichtung und Wahnsinn was published a year later.

The link is here, but it’s behind a paywall. Enjoy the first one-and-a-half paragraphs, then look for the August 21 Times Literary Supplement, with Andersen and Unset thrown in for good measure.

René Girard and the Three Stooges

Monday, August 20th, 2018
Share

It’s an honor when a highly esteemed writer takes on your book. I’ve had several to date, and yesterday brought another: Patrick Kurp of the matchless Anecdotal Evidence blog reviews Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard. It’s the lead story over at the University Bookman here.

He begins with the Three Stooges:

Merci, Monsieur Kurp.

In their 1941 short feature In the Sweet Pie and Pie, Larry, Curly, and Moe are ex-cons hoping to marry three wealthy debutantes. The girls have other ideas. They throw a high-society party and bribe the butler to dump a cake on Moe’s head, expecting the Stooges to disgrace themselves. Moe responds with a cream pie to the butler’s face. A matron, recipient of collateral damage, prepares to retaliate when the butler points at Moe and says: “He did it.” The matron replies, “Thank you, but you started it,” and beans him with a pie. Soon the Stooges and guests in gowns and tuxedoes are enthusiastically heaving pies, and René Girard would have laughed and understood the scene perfectly. Once encountered, Girard’s theory of mimetic desire, his essential contribution to making sense of human nature, is irresistible, and helps to explain everything from slapstick, to social media, to the threat of thermonuclear cataclysm. …

He continues with some kind words for the reviewer and her subject:

Haven is a seasoned literary journalist who has devoted books to Czesław Miłosz and Joseph Brodsky. She is attracted to the theme of civilization embattled, the persistence of culture, and its defenders in the face of barbarism and indifference. Her study of Girard is neither clinical nor drily academic. It welcomes readers previously unfamiliar with Girard and his work, as well as specialists. It also serves as an hommage. Haven befriended Girard and his family in his later years at Stanford University, an intimacy that provides glimpses of the husband, father, colleague, and friend not immediately available to readers familiar with his thought strictly through his books. Haven draws an attractive portrait of a thoughtful man who, until his death in 2015, was never too self-important to treat others with dignity and respect.

He concludes:

Summarizing Girard’s insights, Haven writes: “We live derivative lives. We envy and imitate others obsessively, unendingly, often ridiculously.… We find it easy to critique the mimetic desires of others, but our own snobbishness and sensitivity to public opinion usually escape our notice. We wish to conceal our metaphysical emptiness from others, in any case, and from ourselves most of all.” As the pies are flying in the Sweet Pie and Pie, Moe pauses and sententiously declaims, “Stop, stop. This has gone far enough. Love thy neighbor.” On cue, five guests, including a pompous U.S. Senator, push cream pies into his face.  

Read the whole thing here. And just for you, Gentle Reader, we include the film clip below:

“Gelassenheit”: what the world needs now

Sunday, August 12th, 2018
Share

Brazil’s João Cezar de Castro Rocha: an interpreter of “Gelassenheit”

I know what you’re thinking. Back at at the “Sepp Fest” last February for Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht (a.k.a. Sepp), I promised a third installment after “Public intellectuals, private intellectuals, and a professor of football” and  “’My weight is my love’: on Augustine, Calvino, and Sepp Gumbrecht”.  But what did you get from me? Silence.

Until now.

Sepp: More intense ’cause he’s more serene? (Photo: Reto Klar)

Here is the third post on the celebration from two-day retirement party for Sepp, and it comes all the way from Brazil. João Cezar de Castro Rocha of the State University of Rio de Janeiro gave a talk in February on “Gelassenheit.” The term became an important analytic tool for Sepp as he studied the life of Erich Auerbach, the author of Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western LiteratureBut the term has a long history, not only in Martin Heidegger but going all the way back to Meister Eckhart. When I interviewed Sepp, he used the term to describe René Girard, and defined it as a “Let-It-Be-ness,” or as I eventually described in Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, “accepting things in their uncertainty and their mystery.” But it isn’t that simple.

João notes that Sepp’s initial translation of the world was composure:

On the one hand, it signals Sepp’s initial engagement with Martin Heidegger’s philosophy. To put it more precisely: with an intense reading of Sein und Zeit; as a matter of fact and above all with Heidegger’s phenomenological descriptions of everyday life. Sepp’s 1998 book In 1926. Living on the Edge of Time is a first and robust outcome of this specific concern, which is related to lived experience as such, attributing to it, let us say, an intellectual dignity, which resembles Auerbach’s reconstruction of Western literary experience, and its serious and potentially tragic understanding of ordinary, everyday life.

On the other hand, it should be highlighted that from the very beginning of his engagement with the concept, and even in its translation as composure, Gelassenheit never meant to Sepp acceptance, resignation, in one word: quietude. Rather, I propose the following rendering of Sepp’s translation: composure implies a particularly active relationship with current events, in which the present is projected into a much wider chain of events, and going back and forth different historical periods is the trademark of Gelassenheit understood as composure – a trademark also of Erich Auerbach’s masterpiece, Mimesis.

Auerbach’s Mimesis, he pointed out, is “an impressive narrative of a failure” of Western culture, and can even be read as a powerful anti-Nazi statement.  “You see my point: composure has nothing to do with acceptance of a present filled with tragic happenings, but rather it entails an active withdrawal from the, let us say, tyranny of the present; withdrawal which enlightens the relativity of any given historical time.”

Then João cut to the chase: “I’ll now propose that from 1995 onwards Sepp’s understanding of Gelassenheit started to change slowly but steadily, and as time went by the change became so radical that it opened up a new path in Sepp’s work.”

Then he told a story:

In 1995 Sepp Gumbrecht, along with Jeffrey Schnapp, Ted Leland, Bill Egginton and Rich Schavone, organized what, with hindsight, can be seen as a breakthrough event, bringing together athletes and academics. I’m referring to the conference “The Athletes’s Body.”

In the Q&A session, the three-time Olympic gold-medal swimmer Pablo Morales was asked what he missed the most of his life as a top athlete. Morales’s answer was in itself eventful. He did not exactly miss the exhaustive training routine, although the discipline required by it can be fully appreciated. Indeed, almost all top athletes have impose on their bodies such stress throughout their careers that the most common outcome is a series of injuries they have to endure their entire lives. Nor even gold medals and world records were what Morales missed the most; after all a top athlete is obsessed with improving her performance, therefore, any victory may be clouded by the seemingly inescapable question: could I have done it any better?

So what was it that Morales really missed from his athlete’s life?

Pablo Morales told us that above all he longed for the moment immediately before jumping into the swimming pool in a day of an important competition just like the Olympic Games. Then, Morales felt the world to be a blank page, an untouched canvas, where everything is possible, and the best performance ever is at hand. In his own words, in this very moment he felt “lost in focused intensity”.

Being lost in focused intensity, I propose, has triggered Sepp’s new understanding of Gelassenheit, and it is not a coincidence that at the same time Sepp was engaging ever more intensely with a highly personal reading of Heidegger’s philosophy. The process was not without hindrances, and in 2003 Sepp published Production of Presence. What Meaning Cannot Convey, providing the basis for a theoretical framework of his own, which enabled him to turn intensity, that is, his new translation of Gelassenheit into a form of thinking. Intensity as a special form of Gelassenheit has become not only Sepp’s own Gedankenexperiment but also an everyday aesthetics – as you already know, no ethics should be attached to Sepp’s works.

After all, what is a seminar taught by Sepp if not an immersion in Gelassenheit? It is not the case with Sepp’s wrap-up of a panel – be it surprisingly good or merely mediocre? In both cases, while rendering more complex the ideas espoused by the speakers, Sepp is creating an environment where it becomes possible, almost at hand, to find themselves lost in focused intensity.

João concluded that Sepp’s most recent work redefines Gelassenheit, and perhaps we should, too. “I suggest that we move from composure to serenity.” He continued:

However, as we did with the notion of composure, we have to enrich our understanding of serenity. It should not be seen either as calmness or as quietude. I propose we equate serenity with stillness, but only insofar as the absence of motion, implied in the meaning of stillness, resonates Pablo Morales’s experience of being lost in focused intensity. In other words, in Sepp’s work, stillness means to be in absolute concentration immediately before jumping into the swimming pool in an Olympic Game or, for that matter, immediately before delivering a thought-provoking lecture. After all, academics also perform their intellect, even if they are not aware of it.

Then, to conclude I believe that we can pinpoint two or three definitions of Gelassenheit that may enlighten Sepp’s current work.

First: Gelassenheit demands a Messianic time, in the sense put forward by Walter Benjamin, but as long as the Messiah is not expected to come, so time remains open to the openness of time.

Second: Gelassenheit as serenity is the form of emergence, in the sense developed by Umberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, notion that along with autopoiesis were important in the unfolding of the theoretical framework of the materialities of communication paradigm.

Finally, as serenity, Gelassenheit is the emergence of form; form, in the sense developed by George Spencer Brown, as the difference between in and out, interior and exterior, propitiating what could be called the aesthetics of Sepp’s thought experiments.

If the ideas I proposed here are good to think with – as the myths are for Claude Lévi-Strauss – I may now conclude by suggesting that, as time goes by, Sepp becomes ever more intense because at last he has learned to be a bit more serene.

Well, I lost whatever small measure of Gelassenheit I have when João told me the eminent house É Realizações Editora in São Paulo would be translating and publishing Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard in Portuguese for a Brazilian translation. Wheee! Uncork the champagne!

Johns Hopkins interviews me on “René Girard and the Mysterious Nature of Desire.”

Friday, August 10th, 2018
Share

A little mysterious himself.

Bret McCabe makes a brief appearance in the pages of Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard. The humanities writer for Johns Hopkins University, where René Girard spent some of the most important years of his life, was interviewing JHU legendary Prof. Richard Macksey a few years ago. They had been discussing the renowned 1966 Baltimore conference, organized by Girard, Macksey, and Eugenio Donato, which brought French thought to America. Then Bret McCabe finds a Davidoff matchbox nestled among Macksey’s papers. As a madeleine famously recalls Proust to his past, so the matchbox stirs distant memories in Dick Macksey: “I haven’t had Davidoff since Jacques Derrida was here.”

Last spring, Bret did a Q&A with me for Johns Hopkins University about “René Girard and the Mysterious Nature of Desire.” It went up on the Johns Hopkins website this week. An excerpt:

While Evolution of Desire is written for a general reader, I imagine that general reader is probably going to have some interest in and familiarity with literary criticism. How would you describe Girard’s theory of mimetic desire for a layperson, and why it has such lasting significance?

I’d start this way: We want what others want. We want it because they want it. These desires are shaped by our restless imitation of others. When the coveted goods are scarce, these desires pit us against one another—on an individual level, on a community level, and on a global scale as well. It causes divorces and it causes international wars. It causes children to fight over a five-buck toy in the sandbox.

Legendary Dick Macksey at JHU

René Girard wrote: “All desire is a desire for being.” It’s a phrase I use often because this imitated desire is powered by the wish to be the person who models our desire for us. We think that this person possesses metaphysical qualities we do not. We imagine the idolized individual has the power, charisma, cool, wisdom, equanimity. So we want that person’s job, shirt, car, spouse. The relationship, as he wrote, is that of the relic to the saint.

The nature of desire is mysterious. René said: “Desire is not of this world. That is what Proust shows us at his best: it is in order to penetrate into another world that one desires, it is in order to be initiated into a radically foreign existence.” No wonder he was such a devotee of Proust!

Follow him on Twitter: @BretMcBret

That passage succinctly answers the second part of your question as well. Our most fundamental longings—throughout the centuries—are addressed in his corpus. That is why it is important, and always will be important.

The final question from Bret: 

Finally, I know it’s a bit of folly to ask such things, but as you point out in both your introduction and postscript, Girard is actually somebody who might have something to tell us about right now. He died in 2015, prior to the elections in 2016 and 2017 in Europe and the U.S. What do you think Girard has to tell us about our current time and the highly polarized world in which we currently live?

Want to know what I answered? Check it out here.

Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard: “an important biography … beautifully felt and written”

Monday, July 30th, 2018
Share

Arielle Emmett and friend Lu Ze in Harbin, China

We’re having a bumper crop of reviews and articles for Evolution of Desire: A Life of René GirardThis one appeared as a LinkedIn essay, “Mob violence and the roots of martyrdom: Cynthia Haven’s exploration of the philosopher René Girard.” It’s provenance is impeccable: journalist Arielle Emmett, a 2018-19 Fulbright Fellow headed for Africa. She has written for Smithsonian Magazine, Newsweek, The Boston Globe, and others. The LinkedIn piece is here and below:

This book about French anthropologist René Girard should put Cynthia Haven in the ranks of top literary biographers. Her exploration of Girard, a philosopher who developed a stunning theory of mob violence, scapegoats, and martyrs, is beautifully felt and written – illuminating for those who care about the origins of violence and religion, the schisms between Continental and Analytic philosophy, and the impact that mimetic desire and Greek tragedy has had on the evolving story of civilization.

Haven’s meticulous research displays deep historical knowledge and passion for the machicolated fortresses of Avignon, Girard’s birthplace, along with the American campuses – Indiana University, Johns Hopkins, University of New York Buffalo, among others – he frequented and taught in post WWII until his death in 2015. The author’s greatest strength is placing Girard’s ideas about “mimetic desire” and copycat scapegoatism within the context of 20th and 21st century war and mob violence. Haven’s resurrection of Girard is an important reminder of why wars still happen – and why strict adherence to religious ideologies are just as likely to tear societies apart than heal them.

Girard took on virtually every school of modern philosophy, replacing French structuralism, deconstructionism, American pragmatism and Freudian thinking with a more streamlined theory of collective desire. Clans, tribes, and whole societies are ruled, in the main, by competitive jealousy beyond envy, a universal need to have or be what the “Other” is having or being. Accounting for Homeric myth and even the modern mob story (read Shirley Jackson‘s “The Lottery”), Girard began his lectures on a seminal book, Violence and the Sacred (1972), with this observation: “Human beings fight not because they’re different, but because they are the same, and in their accusations and reciprocal violence have made each other enemy twins.”

The desire to find scapegoats and to invest individuals – whether women, ethnic minorities, Nazi collaborators or modern power figures – with the murderous guilt of an entire tribe or civilization also produces an “opposite” phenomenon: the sacred anointing of martyrs. “Human society begins from the moment symbolic institutions are created around the victim, that is to say when the victim becomes sacred,” Girard explained. Think Iphegenia and Helen of Troy, Joan of Arc, Emmett Till, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, to name a few. “With Violence and the Sacred, René Girard would present all human history as a crime thriller, in which the murderer escapes undetected, and the private investigator – in this case, Girard himself – is left only with hints and clues,” Haven writes. “Girard,” she continues, “was a theorist, but one with a complicated relationship to the very notion of theories…He wished his own work not to be taken as a foolproof formula, but as a working dynamic of human society.”

Haven attacks the Girard story with a combination of biography, “you are there” journalistic observation, and direct, often witty interviews with the philosopher himself. She knew Girard for eight years. As part of the story – and some readers may find her descriptions of academic politics somewhat daunting – Haven describes the rude ego battles between French structuralists and the “new wave” of post-structural thinkers, among them Jacques Derrida and the neo-Freudian Jacques Lacan, a psychoanalyst who emphasized the importance of language in subjective constitution. René Girard stood apart from them both, assigning greater weight to the realities of human inheritance and social behaviors.

Though he was ultimately elected to the prestigious L’Académie Française, Girard was certainly never as celebrated or as controversial as many of his French contemporaries. Haven therefore deserves much credit for choosing to explore Girard’s life and work. The philosopher drew from a careful study of anthropology, history, and literature to illuminate, even presage the repeat cycles of horror and violence in 20h and 21st century life. And Haven draws important connections between Girard’s work and the salient examples of mob violence and martyrdom creation in America – for example, the murders of blacks during the Civil Rights Era, the attacks of September 11, 2001, the shootings and riots in Baltimore, and lately, the mass beheadings of Americans – on video – by ISIS.

Toward the end of his life, Girard increasingly focused on the contributions of forgiveness in breaking cycles of vengeance among competitive clans and tribes. His ability to draw connections between religiosity and war, forgiveness and healing are instructive as we face a world where ethnic violence and scapegoating not only continue, but frequently escalate.

For the totality and relevance of this analysis – and the care for which she devotes herself to Girard’s biography and foundational ideas – Haven has delivered an important biography that readers of philosophy and desire will thoroughly enjoy.

“Restless digging for the deepest human truths”: playwright Christopher Shinn on “Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard”

Friday, July 20th, 2018
Share

“The world that literary critic René Girard described and explored — one of runaway desire, obsession with taboo and scandal, and an overwhelming instinct to blame outsiders for our problems — is remarkably like the world we live in today. That Girard, who died in 2015, seems to be writing about our current moment is all the more notable given that his theoretical speculations were an attempt to explain the founding of functional human societies thousands of years ago.”

So begins Christopher Shinn‘s “An Intensity Leavened by Gentleness” in today’s Los Angeles Review of Books. Playwright Shinn is an Obie winner, a Pulitzer finalist, and a former Guggenheim Fellow – he writes and teaches playwriting at the New School. (His 2006 play Dying City will be revived at Second Stage next year.) It’s an honor to have his take on Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard.

He takes issue with some of my choices – well, choices. Some of them were necessities. In particular, he questions my inability, perhaps reluctance, to overcome that peculiar combination of discretion and dignity, the antithesis of the self-proclaiming, tell-all celebrities today, that René always maintained. As Shinn writes: “his inner world remains mostly opaque.” True.

He concludes with one playwright’s reflection on another:

Perhaps Girard’s reticence about his life derived from a conviction that his ideas were too important to get contaminated by a cult of personality, and silence protected him from such temptations. While Haven sees in Girard’s last years an identification with his favorite poet Hölderlin, her biography’s dramatic arc puts one in mind of The Winter’s Tale, a play Girard analyzed in his remarkable book on Shakespeare, A Theatre of Envy (1991). According to Girard, the playwright was profoundly driven by imitative desire before a late overcoming of it — most clearly dramatized in his penultimate play, where Leontes’s envious reaction to a friend’s innocent conversation with his wife brings about a kind of personal apocalypse, followed by a long period of mourning and atonement, and finally a miraculous resurrection. An anecdote Haven memorably recounts suggests that Girard’s inner journey was not unlike Leontes’s: when a roomful of despairing theologians asks Girard what is to be done about our apocalyptic moment, he says, “We might begin with personal sanctity.”

The reply is pure Girard — at once modest and grandly challenging. The most important thing we can do in the face of catastrophe is to look at ourselves, try to understand our own violence, and become better. Could anything be simpler, or more difficult? While Girard’s thought opens up endless questions about — and possibilities for — the future of our civilization, it’s no surprise he answered the theologians as he did. In its tender closing chapters, Cynthia Haven’s moving portrait inspires readers to look inward and scrutinize themselves, unsparingly yet forgivingly — just as Girard would have wanted.

Read the whole thing here.

Postscript on July 22: And Evolution of Desire and Christopher Shinn got some pickup from the Prufrock column in The Weekly Standard here.

 

Philly Inquirer praises “Evolution of Desire”: “an extraordinarily vivid portrait of a man … an ingenious travelogue of his life and thought.”

Saturday, July 7th, 2018
Share

René Girard in conversation in 2008. A screenshot from our Youtube book trailer.

Kisses and billets-doux from the City of Brotherly Love! More warm words for Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girardthis time from the Philadelphia Inquirer. The reviewer is Frank Wilson, the esteemed paper’s retired book editor and notable blogger. He begins the piece, Evolution of Desire: René Girard, a man in full,” this way:

The Wikipedia entry for René Girard describes him as a historian, literary critic, and philosopher. It’s a good start. Girard, who died in 2015 at 91, ventured into many disciplines. And Cynthia Haven’s Evolution of Desire is an ingenious travelogue of his life and thought.

It’s a short review (under 800 words), so I won’t excerpt too much. You can read the whole thing, after all, right here. He concludes (spoiler alert!): 

Haven’s book, in fact, is something of a marvel. She knew Girard and got to know his friends and colleagues. She guides the reader along the trail of evidence, sketching deftly those she talked with and showing how she arrived at her conclusions. The result is an an extraordinarily vivid portrait of a man admired not just for his intelligence and erudition, but also for his character, wisdom, and humor. Let us give him the last word on what he referred to as “the so-called système-Girard”:

“What should be taken seriously … is the mimetic theory itself — its analytical power and versatility — rather than this or that particular conclusion or position, which critics tend to turn into some creed which I am supposedly trying to force down their throats. I am much less dogmatic than a certain reading of my work suggests.”

Order at Amazon here. Please.

San Francisco Chronicle reviews “Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard.” We’re in the pink!

Saturday, June 30th, 2018
Share

We’re in the pink! I biked down to the landmark Mac’s Smoke Shop on Emerson Street shortly after dawn this morning, to get my copy of the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle. And here it is: “A Life of the Mind,” a review of Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard by esteemed blogger, author, and critic Rhys Tranter. This is the first time René Girard’s work has appeared in The Chronicle since … oh, well, since I reviewed Battling to the End a decade ago. And there I am, on page 32 in the pink pages of the Chronicle‘s “Datebook” section, jostling for space right next to Bruce Lee (and, curiously, tucked away in a corner next to the review, Édouard Louis’s History of Violence). We’ll post a link when it’s up (POSTSCRIPT – link is here), meanwhile a few excerpts:

Cynthia L. Haven’s Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard is the first full-length biography of the acclaimed French thinker. Girard’s “mimetic theory” saw imitation at the heart of individual desire and motivation, accounting for the competition and violence that galvanize cultures and societies. “Girard claimed that mimetic desire is not only the way we love, it’s the reason we fight. Two hands that reach towards the same object will ultimately clench into fists.” … But it is the author’s closeness to the man once described as “the new Darwin of the human sciences” that brings this fascinating biography to life.

***

Haven was a friend of Girard’s until his death in 2015, and met with family members, friends and colleagues closest to him to prepare for the book. She recalls a calm and patient man who was generous with his time. “I came to his work through his kindness, generosity, and his personal friendship, not the other way around.”

He lived with his wife, Martha, on the Stanford University campus, and followed a strict working routine: “Certainly his schedule would have made him at home in one of the more austere orders of monks. His working hours were systematic and adamantly maintained.” He began his day at his desk at roughly 3:30 in the morning, broke for a walk and relaxation sometime around noon, and spent his afternoons either continuing what he had begun that day or meeting his responsibilities to students.

At home with Martha. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

One of the abiding questions that drives the book is how a man who appeared to lead such a quiet and ordered life was animated by some of the most troubling these in human history.

Adopting the lively and accessible style of an investigative reporter, Haven looks to Girard’s formative experiences for an answer. The reader is along for the ride as she drives a rented Citroën through southern France, or pores over archival images and family photographs. Her research is rich in important and surprising details, and there are entertaining tidbits of juicy academic gossip along the way.

In conclusion: 

Evolution of Desire is the portrait of a provocative and engaging figure who was not afraid of pursuing his own line of inquiry. His legacy is not so much a grand theory as it is a flexible interpretive framework with useful social, cultural and historical applications. At a time when religious fundamentalism, violent extremism and societal division dominates the headlines, Haven’s book is a call to revisit and reclaim one of the 20th century’s most important thinkers.

Read about Evolution of Desire in the Wall Street Journal here.  Or better yet, order a copy of the book itself here. Now in its second printing.

Postscript: the full link has been added here.