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


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.




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