Archive for November, 2022

Martin Girard narrates his father René’s “I See Satan Fall Like Lightning” – and now you can hear it, too!

Monday, November 28th, 2022

A guest post from author Trevor Cribben Merrill:

Trevor Cribben Merrill in Pasadena (Photo: Sam Sorich)

I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (1999) is perhaps the most complete and compact statement of René Girards sweeping theory of scapegoating violence and the shattering revelation it brings. Now it’s been released as an audiobook, thanks to the late French theorist’s son Martin Girard, a businessman who devoted many hours of his time to narrating the work. Though he had no prior experience as a voice actor or reader, early reviews have been glowing. The audiobook is available on Amazon here.

Girard’s work is more relevant than ever today. Surely no other thinker can supply such a convincing explanation for the existence of the Twitter retweet button. But beyond the theory’s obvious ability to shed light on our online vices, it resonates because of the central place that Girard gives to competition and rivalry in his thought. Whether you’re working to get funding for your start-up, attract readers to a Substack post, or snag a house in a hot real estate market, competition is a daily reality in our world, yet one that we often prefer not to think or speak about too openly, even as we furtively check the ranking of a colleague’s newest release. Speaking of rankings: the audiobook of I See Satan has been selling briskly. I hope it can continue to bring new readers to René’s work, and introduce them to his compelling account of Christian truth. 

Earlier this month, Martin Girard and his wife Dee flew in from their home in Phoenix for a book launch and Q&A in Pasadena, CA to celebrate the I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (Thiel Foundation) release.

First published in France in 1999 as Je vois satan tomber comme l’éclair (Grasset), and then translated into English by James G. Williams and published by Orbis Books in 2001, the new audiobook was published last month on October 20.

The event was held at the Pasadena home of Nicole and Ray Tittmann, who have hosted a number of book launch events in the last few years (including a launch of my novel Minor Indignities). A sumptuous spread of hors d’oeuvres greeted a crowd that included incoming Cornerstone Forum director Alex Lessard and documentary filmmaker Sam Sorich, who was in town from Chicago and photographed the event.  

Martin Girard was born in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, the oldest of the three Girard children, while his father was teaching at Bryn Mawr College. He graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder with a degree in political science. He then became an entrepreneur, working between Paris and the US, and eventually founded a start-up that he later sold to a Fortune 500 company. He and his wife Dee are avid skiers, and in recent years Martin has been delving deeply into his father’s work.

I interviewed him at the event, in a conversation that included Martin’s youth and early adulthood, and touched on key milestones in René’s career. Martin recalled the buzz of excitement at the time of the 1966 Johns Hopkins conference, and visits from Jean-Michel Oughourlian and Guy Lefort to the family’s home near Buffalo, New York, after his father took a professorship there and began writing the book that would eventually be published as Things Hidden since the Founding of the World. When Things Hidden was released in France to great critical and popular acclaim, Martin was in his early 20s and was working in France. Business associates were surprised to discover that Martin was, in fact, the son of the same René Girard they had heard interviewed on the radio or TV. 

Martin described a childhood of French immersion, with frequent trips to and long stays in Avignon, and dinner table conversation conducted in French, even when the family was in the U.S. He and his younger brother sometimes chafed against their dad’s determination to immerse them in French culture and the French language, but later discovered that their bilingual and bicultural upbringing was a gift that opened up many opportunities and instilled a lifelong love of France. 

Martin emphasized the key role his mother, Martha Girard, played in supporting his father’s work and career, as well as her role in teaching her children by example to avoid the drama and rivalries that René described in his works of literary theory.  “Martha Girard came from a family with traditional Scotch-Irish, midwestern American values,” he said. “These values were an important part of the family’s dynamic and the children’s upbringing. René’s career and the exoticism of the French connection tend unjustly to overshadow the importance of the other side of the family, including the impact on René.”

Postscript: The Book Haven made a difference today! I See Satan Fall Like Lightning is the #1 new release in Religion & Philosophy.

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Trevor Cribben Merrill in conversation with Martin Girard in Pasadena (Photo: Sam Sorich)
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Martin and Dee Girard (at right) talk with guests. (Photo: Sam Sorich)
An elegant Pasadena smorgasbord (Photo: Sam Sorich)

Saroyan prizewinners Claire Oshetsky and Wayétu Moore celebrate at Stanford Libraries on Dec. 1! Join them!

Sunday, November 27th, 2022

Claire Oshetsky and Wayétu Moore were selected as winners for their ability to write imaginatively about harsh realities and challenge myths about motherhood and immigration, respectively.

The Saroyan International Prize for Writing will hold its biennial celebration of the 2022 winners on Thursday, December 1, 2022, from 4:30 to 6:00 pm, in person, Green Library, 5th floor, Bender Room. The authors will read from their books and copies will be available for purchase and signing.


Please register here if you would like to attend

Chouette (Ecco, 2021) a novel by Claire Oshetsky, and The Dragons, the Giant, the Women (Graywolf Press, 2020), a memoir by Wayétu Moore, have received the 2022 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing administered by Stanford Libraries and the William Saroyan Foundation. The biennial prize honors the life and legacy of novelist, playwright, and short-story author William Saroyan by encouraging and recognizing new and emerging writers.

Michael A. Keller, the Ida M. Green University Librarian at Stanford, announced awards of $5,000 to each winner and said, “These two books are fascinating and so obviously the results of serious and sustained creative effort by their authors that we are enormously pleased to continue the tradition of recognizing such new authors, hopefully to help them propel their literary careers.”

Claire Oshetsky, winner in the fiction category, lives in California and has published works in SalonWired, and the New York Times. Her debut novel, Chouette, which was also longlisted for the 2022 Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction, deftly blends a dream of an owl, introduced in the very first sentence, with the reality of mothering a child with a congenital disorder.

The San Francisco Chronicle praised Chouette as “surrealism at its best” and as a book that “forces parents to consider their relationship with their children,” while the Saroyan Prize fiction judges summarized it as “a surreal and rollicking feminist tour de force about motherhood, marriage, and family.”

The finalists in fiction were A Sense of the Whole (Orison Books, 2020), stories by Siamak Vossoughi and The Office of Historical Corrections (Riverhead Books, 2020), a novella and stories by Danielle Evans. In the spirit of Saroyan’s depictions of Armenian Americans, their stories abound with Iranian American, Black, and multiracial characters whose encounters and experiences resonate universally.

Wayétu Moore, winner in the nonfiction category, published her first book, She Would Be King, in 2018. It was named a best book of 2018 by Publishers WeeklyBooklistEntertainment Weekly, and BuzzFeed. Her writing can be found in the Paris ReviewGuernica, and the Atlantic, among other publications. Moore is a graduate of Howard University, Columbia University, and the University of Southern California.

Wayétu Moore

The New York Times Book Review wrote of Moore’s The Dragons, the Giant, the Women: “This memoir adds an essential voice to the genre of migrant literature, challenging false popular narratives that migration is optional, permanent and always results in a better life.” 

The Saroyan Prize nonfiction judges said, “This memoir intricately weaves Moore’s stories of her family’s escape from the first Liberian war, their reunion in Sierra Leone, their eventual immigration to the United States, Moore’s complicated life as a black woman and an immigrant in (of all places) Texas, and finally her return to Liberia—all while trying to find her own place in the world. This is a crazy-quilt, heart-wrenching, fist-clenching, heart-expanding story of one woman’s quest to find something real in a reckless, violent, cruel but still beautiful world.”

The finalist in nonfiction was Kin (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021) by Shawna Kay Rodenberg, described by its publisher as “a heart stopping memoir of a wrenching Appalachian girlhood and a multilayered portrait of a misrepresented people.”

This year’s panel of distinguished Saroyan Prize judges included Sumbul Ali-Karamali, John Bender, Richard Holeton, Elizabeth McKenzie, Scott Setrakian, and former Saroyan Prize winner Lori Jakiela (2016). Over 220 volunteers, primarily members of the Stanford Alumni Association, read the entries and provided initial evaluations to the judging committee.

“We are especially grateful to our judges and readers, both new and returning, who make the Saroyan Prize possible,” Keller said. “The noticeable presence of Saroyanesque topics and themes in so many of the nearly 300 entries is testimony to the perseverance of the works of one of California’s and our nation’s greatest writers, William Saroyan, who just happened to be an immigrant from Armenia.”

Once again, please register here if you would like to attend!

What lasts forever? Carl Sagan’s letter to Chuck Berry is out of this world.

Saturday, November 19th, 2022

Aliens may be listening to rock and roll singer/songwriter/guitarist Chuck Berry millions of years after our solar system is gone. Think about that.

Robert Harrison speaks on creation at the University of Notre Dame: it may be “the single best, and most deliciously surprising, conference talk” you’ve ever heard!

Thursday, November 17th, 2022

Last week, the University of Notre Dame’s de Nicola Center held a three-day conference on creation, brought together more than a hundred leading thinkers to discuss ethics, culture, and public policy from the points of view of a range of disciplines: theology, philosophy, political theory, law, history, economics, and the social sciences, as well as the natural sciences, literature, and the arts.

The keynote address that launched the conference was Stanford’s Robert Pogue Harrison, of Entitled Opinions fame, and his talk was entitled, “The Thin Blue Line.” About a thousand people attended in-house, with hundreds more virtually – a big turnout by just about any standards. Artur Rosman, editor of Notre Dame’s online Church-Life Journal (we’ve written about that effort here and here) was glowing about the Stanford professor’s talk afterwards: “‘The Thin Blue Line,’ on what he calls sacramental geocentrism, was perhaps the single best, and most deliciously surprising, conference talk I’ve ever heard. I mean, the whole thing rocks. The whole notion of a sacramental geocentrism blew everyone’s minds. It’s a great provocation.” You’ll hear all about “sacramental geocentrism” during the last ten minutes of the Youtube video here.

For this year’s conference, the De Nicola Center partnered with Stanford University’s “Boundaries of Humanity” project, which seeks to advance dialogue on “human place and purpose in the cosmos, particularly with respect to conceptions of human uniqueness and choices around biotechnological enhancement.”

A surprising guy.

But back to the talk. Here’s how Robert Harrison began:

“One month after NASA’s Lunar Orbiter 1 took the first photos of Earth from the moon’s orbit on August 23, 1966, Martin Heidegger sat down with two journalists from the German magazine Der Spiegel to answer some pointed questions about his thought and his involvement with the Nazi regime in the 1930s.  Late in the interview, which was published after his death in 1976, Heidegger decried modern technology’s deracinating effects on humanity, claiming that technology is not a tool and that humankind ‘has not yet found a way to respond to the essence of technicity.’  That essence, as Heidegger understood it, consists in an unmastered will to master nature by rendering all things orderable, fungible, and reproducible through objectification and manipulation.  Somewhat perplexed, the interviewers declared: ‘But someone might object very naively: what must be mastered? Everything is functioning.  More and more electric power companies are being built.  Production is up.  In highly technologized parts of the earth, people are well cared for.  We are living in a state of prosperity.  What really is lacking to us?’ A perfectly reasonable query, to which Heidegger responded as follows:

Everything is functioning.  That is precisely what is uncanny, that everything functions, that the functioning propels everything more and more toward further functioning, and that technicity increasingly dislodges man and uproots him from the earth.  I don’t know if you were shocked, but [certainly] I was shocked when a short time ago I saw the pictures of the earth taken from the moon.  We do not need atomic bombs at all [to uproot us]—the uprooting of man is already here.  All our relationships have become merely technical ones.  It is no longer upon an earth that man lives today. (Heidegger: The Man and the Thinker, 1981).

“Whereas the popular imagination at the time saw in those photos a wondrous revelation of our mother planet and cosmic home, Heidegger saw in them stark evidence of modern technology’s deterrestrialization of the human species – its increasing alienation from, and loss of essential relations with, the earth.”

You can watch the whole talk on Youtube, here.

Robert Harrison at the podium, on technology and the future of Mother Earth.

Gigante’s “Book Madness” is celebrated at – where else? – Stanford Libraries!

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2022

Last month’s celebration for Denise Gigante‘s brand new Book Madness: A Story of Book Collectors in America (Yale University Press, 2022) was the first fête at Stanford University’s Green Library since COVID began, long ago in 2019. What a better way to rejoice than with a book about books? We’ve written about Denise’s earlier book, The Keats Brothers: The Life of John and George, here and here. We haven’t had a chance to dive into her latest yet, but it looks like a great read about reading.

Book Madness is the fascinating history of American bookishness as told through the sale of Charles Lamb’s library in 1848. From the publisher: “The library was a heap of sixty scruffy old books singed with smoke, soaked with gin, sprinkled with crumbs, stripped of illustrations, and bescribbled by the essayist and his literary friends. Yet it caused a sensation.”

“The transatlantic book world watched as the relics of a man revered as the patron saint of book collectors were dispersed. Following those books through the stories of the bibliophiles who shaped intellectual life in America—booksellers, publishers, journalists, editors, bibliographers, librarians, actors, antiquarians, philanthropists, politicians, poets, clergymen—Denise Gigante brings to life a lost world of letters at a time when Americans were busy assembling the country’s major public, university, and society libraries. A human tale of loss, obsession, and spiritual survival, this book reveals the magical power books can have to bring people together and will be an absorbing read for anyone interested in what makes a book special.”

Profs. Gavin Jones and Peter Stansky spoke at the celebration as well – and so did Stanford University librarian Mike Keller, of course. Prof. Elaine Treharne, Benjamin Albritton, Gabrielle Karampelas, and somewhere Roberto G. Trujillo made an appearance, too.

Colleague and friend Gavin Jones
(Photo: Stephen Gladfelter)

Gavin Jones (we’ve written about him here), made some insightful remarks about “sentimentalism” in America. An excerpt:

Book Madness took me back to my time in graduate school in early 1990s, and my growing awareness of power of Sentimentalism in mid-19th-century American culture. The fraught debate over the sentimental was still in the air – the strong, compassionate outpouring of feeling, usually toward subjects or objects thought to be in distress.

For scholars like Ann Douglas, Sentimentalism was “bad” – impotent, conservative – a mask for middle-class ideologies, rationalization of laissez-faire economics. For scholars like Jane Tompkins, Sentimentalism was “good” – a realm of social power, of salvation through motherly love, an agent of radical transformation toward higher values as religious feeling becomes secular.

Gigante: breaking down easy binaries
(Photo: Gabrielle Karampelas)

I always found Tompkins’s argument more interesting and attractive – and Denise’s book has proven me right through this account of bibliomania, which is also a kind of spin on the complex and powerful role of sentimentalism in the culture of the time, helping us see its significance in new ways.

American bibliomania, as Denise describes it, is an affective relationship with books, based in a texture of sensory and material associations left in a book by each new reading. It becomes another kind of association – one of communal belonging and affective relations in which human lives are lived in books and through the networks they create. Denise’s idea of the book as “relic” becomes shorthand for this transference of religious feeling into the secular domain. Like the promise that Tompkins found in the sentimental, this affective relationship with books becomes the condition for sociality and the potential for transformation into higher orders of being.

Book Madness may perhaps land on one side of this debate over sentimentalism, though what’s more remarkable is how the book breaks down so many categorical distinctions and easy binaries.

Peter Stansky is a great book collector himself.
(Photo: Gabrielle Karampelas)

Take the idea of “America” itself – that thing I’m meant to be an expert in.

We learn much in Book Madness about the rise of “Americana” at mid-century, the desire for a deep, sedimented, accumulated relationship with national history formed through material associations with books and other artifacts. But here we realize how the fervent nationalism in Young America is enabled by a much broader, transatlantic commerce in books. It’s fascinating to watch a kind of “American” Charles Lamb take shape through his reception in the U.S. For publisher and biographer Evert Duyckinck, one of the key players in this story, Lamb’s books come to possess that most American of powers, a Manifest Destiny to bind the nation together.

I wrote about Denise a decade ago here. As Gavin said then, as chair of the Stanford English Department: “Denise is the rare scholar with the power to tell a story that’s also the biography of an age and an intellectual culture.”

More binary-busting happens at the level of the book’s methodology. Early on, Denise makes a distinction in literary studies between book history, on the one hand, and textual interpretation on the other, only to show how intertwined they really are. Through a kind of “associative literary history” that weaves the content of books into the very fabric of their receptivity to the effects of reading, Book Madness shows how material becomes text for interpretation and how the textual becomes material to be handled and cherished.

Or think of that distinction between History and Antiquarianism – the former invested in a more abstract narrative of events, the latter more interested in moments of material culture found in artifacts, archives, and manuscripts.

This study dynamically questions that distinction by giving us the story of antiquarianism as these books – like relics – dramatically provoke the stuff of narrative. Books create relationships that demand storytelling – and it’s a story that’s part romance, part adventure – be prepared for murders and marriages, hauntings and shipwrecks along the way…. Indeed, there’s so much speed in this book – fast connections, and sudden moments of action as the study moves vertically down into the covers of books, down into those sedimental layers of readings, and then horizontally across time and space to bring books and people into enlightening associations.

I wrote about Denise Gigante a decade ago here. As Gavin Jones, then chair of the Stanford English Department, said then: “Denise is the rare scholar with the power to tell a story that’s also the biography of an age and an intellectual culture.”