Archive for July 30th, 2018

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

Monday, July 30th, 2018
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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.