Posts Tagged ‘René Girard’

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.

 

A “warm and magnanimous” biography: “Anybody interested in René Girard will want to read this work.”

Saturday, June 23rd, 2018
Share

Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard has earned fans in some unexpected places, including the influential economist Tyler Cowen in his blog Marginal Revolution, which featured my biography of the French theorist. Tyler is a columnist for the New York Times and considered a “top global thinker.” I’ve gotten letters and emails from many others – and a nice tweet from the National Book Critics Circle this morning! (See below.)

But I always knew my toughest critics would be the “Girardians” of academia.  Of course, they are not my target audience. Rather it is you, Gentle Reader, and all the others who have resisted getting to know this extraordinary 20th century thinker who wrote about desire, envy, competition and violence, because you thought taking on his ideas would be abstruse and theoretical and “hard.” Nonetheless, among the academics are many friends, so I crave their applause as well!

Two Girardians weighed in this month, one in the newsletter of the Colloquium on Violence & Religion, which called Evolution of Desire a “wonderful and moving biography.”

Andrew McKenna, professor emeritus of Loyola University in Chicago, has known René since his days as a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins University. He had this to say:

René Girard describes to his biographer his own life as “a banal enough existence for the second half of the twentieth century,” and in an earlier interview with Jim Williams, he states “I am an ordinary Christian.” Remarks such as these pose a formidable challenge to any biographer. Haven meets that challenge with ample evidence of the man’s wit, erudition, and beguiling sense of humor, which galvanized the enthusiasm of his students and colleagues when he taught at Johns Hopkins; nearly everyone in the Department of Romance Languages wanted him to direct their dissertation, whether in French or Spanish or Italian literature. After brief stints at Indiana, where he got his doctorate in history and where he was denied tenure in our “publish or perish” gristmill, and at Duke, where this virtual refugee from previously occupied France could not help to be struck by the Jim Crow culture, Hopkins became the launching pad for the dazzling achievement of his intellectual and spiritual excursion through literature, anthropology, and biblical revelation, in that order. 

A longtime colleague

Haven likens him, rightly I think, to Tocqueville, whose travels through vast swaths of our younger country, under the pretense of studying our prison system, shed enduring light on American attitudes and institutions in a way that explains modern world tensions altogether, and especially our benighted individualism, a word of his genial coinage. Girard cited him tellingly a number of times. But Girard’s research exceeded his compatriot’s purview by several orders of magnitude, resulting in a hypothesis on the violent origins and sacrificial organization of human culture as such …

This is a life story, beginning with Girard’s Avignonais roots.  Among Girard’s papers some gestures toward an autobiography have been found. But Haven rightly avers that we already have such a work in the form of his groundbreaking writings. In Deceit, Desire, and the Novel Girard argues that a literary masterpiece is the spiritual autobiography of its author, who undergoes a humbling conversion from a view of his or her compact righteousness over against what’s wrong with everybody else. To use Trevor Merrill’s resonant formula in his book on Kundera (who has acknowledged his debt to Girard), a great novel is a “satire gone wrong.” We already get an inkling of this autobiographical feature from the apocalyptic and prophetic conclusion of his very first book. We get it in thematic statements he makes to his interlocutor, Benoît Chantre, in his last book, Battling to the End, a fulsome incursion into mimetic history. But it is significant that he makes them here as elsewhere (Evolution and Conversion, When these Things Begin) in conversation. For Girard, it’s relations all the way down and every which way, and it’s not about him, it’s about truth …

Grant Kaplan of St. Louis University wrote “those invested in carrying on Girard’s legacy should welcome a book that traces Girard’s appeal so broadly.” The publication is the journal Pro Ecclesia. But perhaps the best thing is that he wrote me later that “it passed the mom test.” His mother read and loved the book.  An excerpt from his review:

He teaches prison inmates, too.

It would be hard to exaggerate the accessibility of Evolution of Desire. Anyone who writes or talks about Girard has to do the three-step dance: first, explaining how mimetic desire works for good and for ill; second, positing the invention of the scapegoat mechanism as the foundation for society; third, the emergence of biblical religion as the unveiling of the mythic cover up. Haven does this dance with remarkable deftness. In addition, her brief accounts of post-structuralism and other intellectual movements display almost Platonic distillation. It is also a personal book. Haven talks about herself, at times frankly, and it sometimes reads as “Girard As I Knew Him.” These features do not detract in any way. As Haven portrays him, Girard was a man of decency and humility, who loved his wife and displayed almost none of the unattractive qualities that mark so many academics.

Anybody interested in Girard will want to read this work. The book is so readable, meant in the most complimentary sense, that one might even hope that it renews interest in Girard. The man claimed on more than one occasion that his theory sought to give Christianity and Christian theologians the anthropology that it deserved. Haven has provided a warm and magnanimous biography that Girard most certainly deserves.

I make one qualifier, about “one might even hope that it renews interest in Girard.” It was more than my hope: it was my intention.

 

Can’t get a copy of Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard? Here’s why.

Wednesday, June 13th, 2018
Share

Can’t get a copy of Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard? Here’s why: they’re gone. No copies at the publishing house. Or the warehouse. And certainly not at Amazon. We’re sold out. Completely.

Second printing should be here next week. Stay tuned, or pre-order on Amazon, or check your local bookstores.

(Update: There appear to be a few copies available on European Amazon sites. You could fly to Warsaw and pick up a copy. But honestly, it might be better to wait till next week.)

The company we keep: “Evolution of Desire” climbs the charts

Wednesday, June 6th, 2018
Share

The Book Haven and other duties keep me pretty busy, but even overworked writers need to catch a break. What better opportunity than a new vice? Ladbrokes has nothing on Amazon when it comes to the addictive power of chasing the ratings.

We’ve been hooked for days and weeks now, watching Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard climb and fall in the ratings.  In particular, it’s fun to chase Amazon’s featured rankings in the realms of “social philosophy” and “memoirs.” We climbed to the top ten in “social philosophy” books over the weekend, and we’re still chuffed about that. But we haven’t dug deeper and checked out the competition.

A colleague sent me the screenshot below yesterday, however, and it gave me pause.  Jordan Peterson? Steven Pinker? Michel FoucaultEvolution of Desire has hit the big-time, at last.

Stay tuned.

Postscript: From Ted Gioia: “I am not surprised. From the start, this book was destined for success—it’s the right time, the right subject, the right author, the right stuff. I expect to sell well for years to come.” From your lips to God’s ears, Ted!

Postscript on June 7: Whoops! We’re out of books! The first printing is sold out! Numbers drift downwards until new books arrive!

Who was René Girard? Wall Street Journal tries to answer the question.

Friday, June 1st, 2018
Share

Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard is in the Wall Street Journal weekend edition. The newspaper asks its readers “Who Was René Girard?”  And Marilyn Yalom, a French scholar and officier de l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques, tries to answer. She was the French theorist’s first graduate student at Johns Hopkins University in 1957, and was already at Stanford to greet him when he arrived here in the early 1980s. So she was the perfect person to review Evolution of Desire for the eminent WSJ.  

We couldn’t be more pleased and honored. The Wall Street Journal is the largest newspaper in the nation, with 2.3 million subscribers internationally. You don’t get a bigger audience that that. 

She writes: “Her carefully researched biography is a fitting tribute to her late friend and one that will enlighten both specialists and non-specialists alike.” Well, that’s what I had intended when I wrote the book.

The review is behind a paywall, alas, but here’s an excerpt:

René Girard (1923- 2015) was inducted into the French Academy in 2005. Many of us felt this honor was long overdue, given his international prominence as a French intellectual whose works had crossed the boundaries of literature, history, psychology, sociology, anthropology and religion. Today his theories continue to be debated among “Girardians” on both sides of the Atlantic. He is now the subject of a comprehensive biography by Cynthia Haven called “Evolution of Desire.”

A officier and a gentlewoman…

The title is apt. A key concept in Girard’s philosophy is what he called “mimetic desire.” All desire, he argued, is imitation of another person’s desire. Mimetic desire gives rise to rivalries and violence and eventually to the scapegoating of individuals and groups—a process that unites the community against an outsider and temporarily restores peace. Girard believes that the scapegoat mechanism has been intrinsic to civilization from its beginning to our own time.

My personal acquaintance with René Girard began in 1957, when I entered Johns Hopkins as a graduate student in comparative literature at the same time that he arrived as a professor in the department of Romance languages. With his thick dark hair and leonine head, he was an imposing figure whose brilliance intimidated us all. Yet he proved to be generous and tolerant, even when I announced that I was to have another child—my third in five years of marriage. …

Ms. Haven’s ability to interweave Girard’s life with his publications keeps her narrative flowing at a lively pace. For a man who woke every day at 3:30 a.m. and wrote until his professorial duties took over, it would be enough for any biographer to focus on his intellectual life, without linking his thoughts to a person ambulating in the world. Fortunately, Ms. Haven portrays Girard as he interacted with colleagues, students, friends and family.
 
Read the whole thing here, if you’re able.

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

Wednesday, May 9th, 2018
Share

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

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

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

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

***

Picasso in ’53

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

Moreau in ’58

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

Read the whole thing here.

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

Sunday, April 8th, 2018
Share

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

Here are the words of Jean-Pierre:

A voice from Paris…

Mon cher René,

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

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

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

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

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

Signing books…

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

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

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

Solidarity…

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

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

 

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

Monday, March 26th, 2018
Share

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Friday, March 16th, 2018
Share

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

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

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