Posts Tagged ‘René Girard’

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

***

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.
 .

René Girard: “Today envy is the emotion which plays the greatest role in our society.”

Tuesday, December 18th, 2018
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Robert Harrison with René Girard outside the Stanford Faculty Club (Photo: Ewa Domańska)

Here’s some good news for the holidays! My Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard has been named one of the San Francisco Chronicle‘s top books of 2018! You can read about it here. We can’t think of a better Christmas present. But there’s more good news.

We wrote about Robert Pogue Harrison’s New York Review of Books essay, “Prophet of Envy,” on French theorist René Girard. We’ve also written about his Entitled Opinions radio show and podcasts. The year-end double issue of the U.K.’s  Standpoint has published a transcript of one of his 2005 Entitled Opinions interviews with his Stanford colleague – and with a line on the cover, too! (See right.) Excerpt below:

Robert Pogue Harrison: The founding adage of western philosophy is “know thyself.” That’s not an easy proposition. To know yourself means, above all, to know your desire. Desires lurk at the heart of our behavior, determine our motivations, organise our social relations, and inform our politics, religions, ideologies, and conflicts. Yet nothing is more mysterious, elusive, or perverse than human desire.

Our government invests billions of dollars in scientific research every year so we might better understand the world of nature, so that we might continue our pursuit of knowledge, yet commits only a tiny fraction of that to advancing the cause of self-knowledge. Most of our major problems today are as old as the world itself. The problem of reciprocal violence, for example. You would think we would want to understand its mechanisms, its psychology, and its tendencies to spiral out of control. Instead, we keep on perpetuating its cycles much the way our ancestors have done for centuries, and even millennia. Nor are we any closer to knowing the deeper layers of our conflicting and conflict-generating desires than they were.

René, your work has an enormous reach. It branches out into various areas and disciplines — literary criticism, anthropology, religious studies, and so forth. Today, I’d like to focus on what I take to be the foundational concept of all your thinking, namely mimetic desire. Can you tell our listeners exactly what you mean by that term?

René Girard: Mimetic desire is when our choice is not determined by the object itself, as we normally believe, but by another person. We imitate the other person, and this is what “mimetic” means. For example: why have all the girls been baring their navels for the last five years? Obviously, they didn’t all decide by themselves that it would be nice to show one’s navel — or that maybe that one’s navel is too warm, and one must do something about it.

One of San Francisco Chronicle’s top books for 2018

We’ll see the mimetic nature of that desire the day that fashion collapses. Suddenly, it will be a very old-fashioned to show one’s navel and no one will show it any more. And it will all happen because of other people — just as now, it is because of other people that they show it.

RPH: But how far do you want to go in saying that desire — by its very nature, and in human beings — is fundamentally mimetic?

RG: Maybe one can start from this question: what is the difference between need, appetite, and desire? Need is an appetite all animals have. We know very well that if we are alone in the Sahara Desert and we are thirsty, we don’t need a model to want to drink. It’s a need that we have to satisfy. But most of our desires in a civilised society are not like that.

Think of vanity, or snobbery. What is snobbery? In snobbery, you desire something not because you really had an appetite for it, but because you think you look smarter, you look more fashionable, if you imitate the man who desires that object, or who also pretends to desire it.

 And later in the interview…

RPH:  I asked in my opening remarks about why can’t we have an institution devoted strictly to the study of vengeance, for example, and work out its logic — reciprocal violence, these kinds of things. We are far from overcoming the behaviour that has characterised human history throughout the centuries.

But let’s move on to another emotion, which is closely linked, obviously, to hatred, vengeance, and jealousy, namely envy. I think envy is a highly underestimated emotion in the human relations. How do you see the role of envy?

RG:
 I see it the same way. Today envy is the emotion which plays the greatest role in our society, where everything is directed towards money. Therefore you envy the people who have more than you have. You cannot talk about your envy. I think the reason we talk so much about sex is that we don’t dare talk about envy. The real repression is the repression of envy.

And of course, envy is mimetic. You cannot help imitating your model. If you want money very badly, you’re going to enter the same business as the man who is your model. More likely than not, you will be destroyed by strength. So when people talk about masochism and so forth, they are still talking about mimetic desire. They are talking about how we move always to the greatest strength in the direction of the desire we envy most. We do so because that power is greater than ours — and it’s probably going to defeat us again. So there will be what Freud calls repetition in psychological life, which is linked to the fact that we’re obsessed with what has defeated us the first time. Our victorious rival in lovemaking becomes a permanent model. So novelists like Dostoevsky and Cervantes will show you characters who literally asked their rival to choose for them the girl they should love.

Read the whole thing here

Postscript on 12/18: The actual, physical copies of Standpoint arrived in my Stanford p.o. box today. It’s beauuu-ti-ful! (See photo at left.) Moreover, “Love and Envy in Shakespeare: A Dialogue with René Girard on Mimesis and Desire” leads the “Civilisation” section of the magazine. Thanks to Daniel Johnson and the London staff of Standpoint magazine. What fine work you do! And what a splendid Christmas present – not just for me, but for all of us!

Praise for Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard in the New York Review of Books!

Wednesday, December 5th, 2018
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The New York Review of Books has a three-page spread on our favorite French theorist, René Girard, in its Dec. 20 holiday issue – and Evolution of the Desire: A Life of René Girard is at the top of it. The article, “Prophet of Envy” by Robert Pogue Harrison, a friend and colleague of the Académie Française immortel, is a bold and brilliant, incisive and insightful consideration of René Girard’s theories and works. I hope it is cited, picked up, and republished everywhere. It begins:

A friend of Harrison’s and a friend of mine…

René Girard (1923–2015) was one of the last of that race of Titans who dominated the human sciences in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with their grand, synthetic theories about history, society, psychology, and aesthetics. That race has since given way to a more cautious breed of “researchers” who prefer to look at things up close, to see their fine grain rather than their larger patterns. Yet the times certainly seem to attest to the enduring relevance of Girard’s thought to our social and political realities. Not only are his ideas about mimetic desire and human violence as far-reaching as Marx’s theories of political economy or Freud’s claims about the Oedipus complex, but the explosion of social media, the resurgence of populism, and the increasing virulence of reciprocal violence all suggest that the contemporary world is becoming more and more recognizably “Girardian” in its behavior.

In Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, Cynthia Haven—a literary journalist and the author of books on Joseph Brodsky and Czesław Miłosz—offers a lively, well-documented, highly readable account of how Girard built up his grand “mimetic theory,” as it’s sometimes called, over time. Her decision to introduce his thought to a broader public by way of an intellectual biography was a good one. Girard was not a man of action—the most important events of his life took place inside his head—so for the most part she follows the winding path of his academic career, from its beginnings in France, where he studied medieval history at the École des Chartes, to his migration to the United States in 1947, to the various American universities at which he taught over the years: Indiana, Duke, Bryn Mawr, Johns Hopkins, SUNY Buffalo, and finally Stanford, where he retired in 1997.

Of the seven books on the list, Evolution of Desire is the only one not authored by René himself. The  final book is one of my favorites, and I discuss it a good deal in Evolution of Desire: it’s his  Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoît Chantre:

A frequent essayist in NYRB

It is in many ways one of his most interesting, for here he leaves behind speculations about archaic origins and turns his attention to modern history. The book’s conversations with Benoît Chantre, an eminent French Girardian, feature a major discussion of the war theorist Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831), whose ideas about the “escalation to extremes” in modern warfare converge uncannily with Girard’s ideas about the acceleration of mimetic violence.

Toward the end of his life, Girard did not harbor much hope for history in the short term. In the past, politics was able to restrain mass violence and prevent its tendency to escalate to extremes, but in our time, he believed, politics had lost its power of containment. “Violence is a terrible adversary,” he wrote in Battling to the End, “especially since it always wins.” Yet it is necessary to battle violence with a new “heroic attitude,” for “it alone can link violence and reconciliation…[and] make tangible both the possibility of the end of the world and reconciliation among all members of humanity.” To that statement he felt compelled to add: “More than ever, I am convinced that history has meaning, and that its meaning is terrifying.” That meaning has to do with the primacy of violence in human relations. And to that statement, in turn, he added some verses of Friedrich Hölderlin: “But where danger threatens/that which saves from it also grows.”

Here’s the good news! “Prophet of Envy” is online here! And the holidays are coming up – time to buy some books for family and friends.

Why We Want What We Want: René Girard and Robert Harrison in conversation

Friday, November 30th, 2018
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“I THINK THE REASON WE TALK SO MUCH ABOUT SEX IS THAT WE DON’T DARE TALK ABOUT ENVY. THE REAL REPRESSION IS THE REPRESSION OF ENVY.” –RENÉ GIRARD

“Know thyself.” It’s not an easy proposition. As Entitled Opinions host Robert Harrison says, “To know yourself means, above all, to know your desire. Desires are what lurk at the heart of our behavior. It’s what determines our motivations. It’s what organizes our social relations. It’s what informs our politics, religions, ideologies, and above all, our conflicts.”

René in a video interview…

In this conversation and podcast, over at the Los Angeles Review of Books here, Harrison talks with Stanford’s expert on human desire, René Girard, whose work on the subject was rooted in literary criticism, but eventually reached across disciplines to embrace anthropology, sociology, history, religions, and even the hard sciences.

Girard began his work in the 1960s with a new concept of human desire: our desires are not our own, he said, we are social creatures, and we learn what to want from each other. He has been called “the new Darwin of the human sciences” and was one of the immortels of the prestigious Académie Française.

… Robert Harrison as radio host

Their 2005 interview discusses envy and desire in literature — in Canto V of the Inferno, in Cervantes, Balzac, and Flaubert, but most of all in the plays of Shakespeare. They also discuss the role of vengeance as an act of mimetic rivalry, “snobbery” as a form of imitation, and the “sacramental” nature of advertising today. “If you consume Coca-Cola, maybe if you consume a lot of it, you will become a little bit like these people you would like to be. It’s a kind of Eucharist that will turn you into the person you really admire.”

Ultimately, they talk about the mimetic escalation of warfare, Girard’s late-life fascination with the war theoretician Clausewitz, and the need to renounce violence.

This is Part 1 of a two-part discussion – you can listen to it over at the Los Angeles Review of Books “Entitled Opinions” channel here. Meanwhile, Robert Harrison writes about René Girard in the Dec. 20, 2018, issue of the New York Review of Books here.

Potent quotes:

From RENÉ GIRARD

Envy is the emotion which plays the greatest role in our society.”

Mimetic desire is an absolute monarch.”

If you have a rivalry, your vanity is involved and you want to win at all cost.”

The institution that is most mimetic of all is the greatest capitalist institution – the stock market.”

Clausewitz constantly shows you the mimetic nature of war.”

From ROBERT HARRISON

Nothing is more mysterious, evasive, or perverse than human desire.”

We are far from overcoming the behavior that has characterized human history.”

Why is it that human behavior is so resistant to adapting itself to what the mind knows?”

To know yourself means, above all, to know your desire.”

It’s amazing that our governments invests billions of dollars in scientific research every year in order to better understand the world of nature, yet commits only a tiny fraction of that to advance the cause of self-knowledge in order to better understand ourselves.”

And speaking of Proust … another wonderful quotation on the anniversary of his death

Monday, November 19th, 2018
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Luftmensch Paul Holdengräber is on a roll with Marcel Proust, and we posted his quote on the anniversary of the French author’s 1922 death yesterday. He followed up with this one today, and we couldn’t resist reposting it (see below). The reason: we use the same citation from Proust at the tail-end of the introduction to Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard:

Why? Why? Why?

I had a more modest view of my book and it would be incorrect to say even that I was thinking of those who might read it as ‘my readers.’ For, to my mind, they would not be my readers but the very readers of themselves, my book serving only as a sort of magnifying glass, such as the optician of Combray used to off er to a customer; my book might supply the means by which they could read themselves. So that I would not ask them to praise me or to speak ill of me, but only to tell me that it is as I say,if the words which they read within themselves are, indeed, those which I have written.

The translation I used was by the matchless Richard Macksey, a colleague of René Girard’s at Johns Hopkins University.

Incidentally, the whole introduction to Evolution of Desire was published in America Magazine over the weekend here. Notre Dame published it earlier, and it was linked in Hacker News, here. (Several people wondered why Artur Sebastian Rosman picked a golden image for the article, entitled “Golden Thoughts for a Nuclear Age” – you might note that it’s the “Mask of Agamemnon,” one of the findings of Heinrich Schliemann at the Troy excavation, an archaeological adventure described in the first paragraph of my intro.)

René Girard, meet the techies: Evolution of Desire climbs the charts at Hacker News.

Saturday, November 10th, 2018
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Even though the Book Haven lives in the heart of Silicon Valley, we generally avoid the sphere of computer nerds and techies, except when we need our Macbook Pro repaired or have to figure out why we are getting spammed. But every so often, we get something that sends us into this brave new world.  So it was with yesterday’s news on Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard.

Artur gave me the heads-up.

It began when I received a Facebook message from Artur Rosman at 6 a.m.: “Happy news, a techie link picked up your book excerpt that we ran earlier this year. It has 1,700 hits today so far. You’re going to crash our site!”

He was referring to the introduction to Evolution of Desire, which was excerpted on a Notre Dame University journal as “Golden Thoughts from a Nuclear Age” here. The techie link was an unknown website to both of us, but that’s what Wikipedia is for. I looked up Hacker News there:

Hacker News is a social news website focusing on computer science and entrepreneurship. It is run by Paul Graham‘s investment fund and startup incubator, Y Combinator. In general, content that can be submitted is defined as “anything that gratifies one’s intellectual curiosity”.

The site was created by Paul Graham in February 2007. Initially it was called Startup News or occasionally News.YC. On August 14, 2007, it became known by its current name. It developed as a project of his company Y Combinator, functioning as a real-world application of the Arc programming language which Graham co-developed.

Paul Graham turns out to be kind of a big deal. Computer scientist, entrepreneur, venture capitalist, author and essayist.

But meanwhile, back in Indiana, Artur was beginning to panic. The numbers kept climbing minute by minute. He was pondering whether he should take the page down quickly so the server wouldn’t go boom. It didn’t, but meanwhile it quickly racked up 2,700 visits in a few short hours.

Paul gave us the lift-off.

Faithful Book Haven reader George Jansen, who runs a terrific blog 20011 (we’ve added it to our blogroll), also saw us on Hacker News. “I was going to post about this on my own blog, but then figured that you should get first dibs.” We let him go first.

From his blogpost: “I often check the Hacker News to see what topics interest the tech world. Perhaps 60% of the linked items have to do with computing, science, or mathematics, another 20% to do with politics or economics, and the remainder can be curiously assorted. Over the last couple of days a link to an article about whether Nero killed Agrippina has been in the first few pages.

“Though I do now and then see them, I don’t go to Hacker News looking for links to pieces about the humanities. I was surprised, then, today to see what was evidently an item by Cynthia Haven about René Girard on the first page… A sometime co-worker has made it to the first page of Hacker News a few times. However, his blog mostly has to do with old computer hardware, which suits what I take to be the interests of most of the Hacker News readership. I am interested to see that the techies find mimetic desire so well worth reading and arguing about.”

In the Hacker News comment section, Oliver Jones urged people to read the article over at Notre Dame: “Our trade is strongly influenced by René Girard’s understanding of competitive mimetic desire and its violence. Why? The people who organize the ad-driven internet know all about Girard. Peter Thiel invested in Facebook because he saw its potential for harnessing mimetic desire to drive engagement. (reference: https://www.lrb.co.uk/v39/n16/john-lanchester/you-are-the-pr…)

“Facebook-style social media is addictive precisely because of the fear of not being as good as ‘friends.’ Mimetic desire is the the human yearning behind the Fear of Missing Out. Driving engagement is most effective when it exploits that fear. It works very well indeed. Other attempts at building social media networks (Stack Overflow, Linked In, Slack, for example) try to avoid that exploitation. They try to use other motivators than FOMO [“Fear of Missing Out” to the rest of us. – CH] to drive engagement. Can they be successful without overusing mimetic desire? It’s the key question they must answer to be successful. The obligatory panel of customer logos just below the fold on SaaS landing pages engages mimetic desire in IT buyers. ‘Wow! Schwab uses this! I want to be like Schwab!’ It’s benign in these cases.

“Girard offers a good unifying framework for understanding the human nature behind all sorts of marketing work. Convincing people their hair is ablaze and offering them ways to put it out is the heart of building new businesses. Getting people to set each others’ hair on fire, then putting it out, is the holy grail of new businesses.

“It’s no accident that Silicon Valley employs that framework in lots of ways: he was a scholar at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. [He wasn’t – CH.] It can be a hard slog to learn about him. But it’s worth your trouble.”

I hope I’ve made the job a little easier for Oliver and the others with Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard. Meanwhile, read the whole discussion here. It includes the best quote ever from Peter Thiel, who studied with René at Stanford: “To believe yourself invested with divine self-sufficiency is not the mark of a strong individual, but of a person who has mistaken the crowd’s worship – or jeering – for the truth. The single greatest danger for a founder is to become so certain of his own myth that he loses his mind. But an equally insidious danger for every business is to lose all sense of myth and mistake disenchantment for wisdom.”

The excerpted introduction to Evolution of Desire, “Golden Thoughts for a Nuclear Age” is here.

Postscript: Speaking of signal honors, I received this Facebook comment, from another gentle reader, Marianne Bacon: “Cynthia, we are re-reading your book. Aloud. I am absorbing much more deeply and we are both loving it!”

A wise and timely note from Gandhi on election day…

Monday, November 5th, 2018
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A note from my friend George Dunn, via Facebook, writing all the way from Ningbo, China:

Here’s a new New Yorker essay from Age of Anger author Pankaj Mishra, in which he argues for the contemporary relevance of Mahatma Gandhi. His importance, according to Mishra, lies not just in his elevation of non-violence as political tactic, but also in his critique of modern liberalism. He saw self-restraint and the imposition of ethical limits, rather than the celebration of individual liberty and the emancipation of human desire, as the foundations of a healthy political community. He clearly saw that a society predicated on self-exaltation and the perpetual manufacturing of new desires was courting disaster.

“At every point,” writes Mishra, “Gandhi still upends modern assumptions, insisting on the primacy of self-sacrifice over self-interest, individual obligations over individual rights, renunciation over consumption, and dying over killing.”

Like René Girard, he believed that the alternative to self-sacrifice was sacrificing others. And, like Girard, his principle teachers were the Western religious tradition and contemporary thinkers who had been deeply shaped by it.

But what makes Gandhi’s thought especially timely is the understanding of truth and dialogue contained in his doctrine of Satyagraha. In addition to encouraging humility and obliging us always to remain open to the possibility that we may be wrong and our adversaries right, it entails the recognition that “we shall always see truth in fragments and from different angles of vision.” Understood in this way, Satyagraha leaves no room whatsoever for moral or political dogmatism. Can we imagine a world where our progressive activists and devoted conservatives take that lesson to heart?

Read the article here.

“The book is alive!”: more plaudits for Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard

Monday, October 22nd, 2018
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René Girard in my 2008 interview with him. (Youtube)

 

Zink

It’s not every day that we make an appearance at the Académie Française. In fact, this is probably the closest opportunity we’re going to have in this lifetime. So let us make the most of it.

Last week, the medieval scholar Michel Zink was formally received into the Académie, founded in 1635 by Richelieu. He will occupy Chair No. 37, vacant since the death of his predecessor, René Girard in November 2015. As I wrote, it is customary to offer a tribute to his predecessor. I wrote about René’s Girard’s own éloge for Father Ambrose-Marie Carré, in Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard. Zink’s tribte for Stanford’s Girard was highly praised – you can read it here.

But we were startled to hear that Evolution of Desire made an appearance in the talk, and so did your humble servant:

See? It’s there. Meanwhile, the good news kept pouring in last week:

James Winchell‘s article in the Jewish magazine Tablet could have been entitled, “How René Girard converted me to Judaism,” but instead it’s called, “The Brilliant French Literary Critic Who Revealed my Judaism.” It begins:

The publication of Cynthia Haven’s full-dress biography of René Girard, a major figure in the “French invasion” that  stormed the beaches of American academe across the final decades of the last millennium, marks a notable event on many fronts: academic, professional, literary, philosophical; and for some individuals among generations of students world-wide, deeply personal. In my case, that means religious.

Winchell

Thanks to a series of synchronicities that I will never fully grasp, I served for five years as Girard’s junior colleague, having earned my first tenure-track post as assistant professor of French at Stanford University (1988-93), where the brilliant Catholic thinker occupied a Distinguished Chair in the department of French and Italian, and influenced, among many other students, Peter Thiel. My subsequent decision—seven years and another university later—to become a Jew-by-choice was significantly informed by Girard, whose writings, colleagueship, and friendship informed the ongoing, gradual uncovering of the pre-existing Judaism that I had already intuited within myself.

During my five years at Stanford, having my office directly across the hall from René Girard’s and being able to hang out, have meals with him, and to sit in on his classes, I learned more about the Torah and Tanakh from him than I had from any other source.

He concludes: “Cynthia Haven’s mind-altering biography of this towering figure in 20th-century thought brings so much new information, and so many interpretive insights, that it’s hard to imagine any full-service public library, not to mention any academic collection, without a copy. The book is alive.” From your lips to God’s ears, James!

Winchell’s piece is smart and quirky and fun. Read the whole thing for yourself here.

***

Aeschliman

Meanwhile, M.D. Aeschliman in The National Review also ran a long review of my book – the alpha and the omega, taking us through Dante, Derrida, Dostoevsky, Tom Wolfe, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Here’s the alpha: “Cynthia L. Haven’s outstanding new biographical and critical study, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, is a brilliant survey of his life and thought.”

Here’s the Omega: “Cynthia Haven’s fine book on Girard is both brilliant cultural criticism and exquisite intellectual history, and an edifying biographical and ethical tale, providing a philosophical vision of a world beyond monkey-like mimicries and manias that demoralize, dispirit, and dehumanize the contemporary human person. It deserves wide notice and careful reading in a time of massive and pervasive attention-deficit disorder.”

And somewhere from beta to psi: “Girard in Mensonge romantique [i.e., Deceit, Desire, and the Novel – CH] grants that competitive envy is the very social-psychological motor that drives “enlightened,” atheistic modern personal and social life. ‘At the heart of the book,’ Cynthia Haven writes, ‘is our endless imitation of each other. Imitation is inescapable.’ And she continues: ‘When it comes to metaphysical desire — which Girard describes as desires beyond simple needs and appetites — what we imitate is vital, and why.’ We are inevitably afflicted with ‘mimetic desires,’ first of parents and siblings, then of peers, rivals, and chosen role models, and these desires endlessly drive and agitate us, consciously and unconsciously, causing anxiety and ‘ontological sickness.’”

Read the whole thing here.

Meanwhile, from Twitter:

Buffalo’s “French Connection” with René Girard

Tuesday, October 16th, 2018
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Albert Cook and René Girard at a party at Arts & Sciences Provost John Sullivan’s home, 1974. (Photo: Bruce Jackson)

René Girard makes an appearance at Buffalo – and so does my Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard.  Jeff Klein’s article in the current issue of  the university’s newspaper, Mixed Media, recounts  “when Girard, Foucault and a coterie of intellectuals revolutionized the American academy” at the State University of New York at Buffalo. That was where René wrote Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World with Jean-Michel Oughourlian. (The short piece is linked to this Thursday’s conference on “Transatlantic Crossroads of a Critical Insurrection.” Read about it here.)

An excerpt:

A generation ago, an intellectual revolution challenged traditional assumptions about Western culture, transforming academia. That revolution was sparked by a vanguard of deep-thinking French scholars— and UB was on the front lines.

A new book, “Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard,” recounts the career of one of those thinkers, a historian, critic and philosopher of social science who taught at UB from 1968 to 1976. Girard wrote exclusively in French [he later wrote Theater of Envy and some of his essays in English – CH], producing more than two dozen works delineating his theories on the origins of violence and ritual in human behavior. One of his most influential, written largely while at UB, is “Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World.” It has the odd distinction of resulting from a series of profound philosophical dialogues conducted at a hotel in Cheektowaga.

Buffalo Prof. Bruce Jackson documented the era with a number of terrific photos. Something not to be taken lightly. I find that René looked uncomfortable in most of his pictures – academics often do. They’re not fashion models, after all. In many of his photos, he looks like he’s following the photographer’s instructions – “You want me to stand a little to the left?” Bruce caught him “at ease” among his colleagues, as in the photo above with Al Cook. Bruce generously allowed me to use a few of his images in my book. It’s a valuable record, and so are his articles, which I quote in Evolution of Desire:

“For at least a decade, the UB English department was the most interesting English department in the country,” recalled Bruce Jackson, who joined the faculty in 1967. “Other universities had the best English departments for history or criticism or philology or whatever. But UB was the only place where it all went on at once: hot-center and cutting-edge scholarship and creative writing, literary and film criticism, poem and play and novel writing, deep history and magazine journalism.” A constant flow of visitors guaranteed intellectual circulation and fresh air, whether the guests stayed for a day or a year. The department had seventy-five full-time faculty teaching everything from literature and philosophy to film and art and folklore. “Looking back on it from the end of the century, knowing what I now know about other English departments in other universities in those years, I can say there was not a better place to be.”

The legendary architect behind the effort was Prof. Albert Cook, who was determined to create a department of leading stars and critics. Jackson described him as “a man in constant motion, forever talking or reading or writing. . . . He was a presence . . . He never seemed to change. Other people got older, paunchier, balder, slower, but Al Cook was always Al Cook. He transcended the physical. He was medium height, big in the chest, always scheming. Al was my idea of what Odysseus looked like.” By the time he recruited Girard, he had already finished his three-year term as department chair but was still a guiding hand and go-between in recruiting academic luminaries. Few places could have been as ideal for Girard.

Thank you, Bruce.