René Girard in Penguin Classics – now out! “This is a big deal, so buckle up.”


Finally! All Desire is a Desire for Being, a Penguin Classics anthology of Stanford Prof. René Girard‘s “essential writings,” is officially out this week! To my knowledge, the French theorist is the first Stanford faculty to be celebrated in the eminent series. I was honored that Penguin invited me to create this collection of Girard’s finest essays.

Prof. William Johnsen, who directs the publication of a series of books on René Girard and his mimetic theory at the Michigan State University Press, spoke about All Desire is a Desire for Being at the Paris centenary conference for Girard’s 100th birthday, at the Institut Catholique de Paris last week. Here are Bill Johnsen’s words on that occasion:

Since All Desire is a Desire for Being is 95 percent pure Girard, it would seem that only the editor’s preface, selections and apparatus would be left to discuss. That’s all fine, I love what is in it, I am really happy to see especially the piece on Nietzsche from Paul Dumouchel‘s collection which shows the high-flying, often joyful colloques that Jean-Pierrre Dupuy and Dumouchel organized to integrate Girard with his intellectual peers in the Eighties, but I want to emphasize where Girard now appears (Penguin) and what that means: as my President says, this is a big deal.

In his interviews with Nadine Dormoy in 1988, René Girard attributes the 20,000 dependable French readers of serious books to the Écoles, and the smaller American audience to the silos of academic specialization. I have heard the same figure of 20,000 assured readers from Benoît Chantre so I assume that French readership is steady.

In 2006 I was invited by Girard and Robert Hamerton-Kelly to be Publications Chair of Imitatio, a project funded by The Thiel Foundation. One of the earliest projects was the public launch of Achever Clausewitz and Imitatio in Paris in 2007.

Imitatio had begun supporting production costs for books on mimetic theory at Michigan State University Press to find this readership. (We all should be grateful for their more than ten years of support, the slowest startup in Thiel’s stable). When Lindy Fishburne of The Thiel Foundation later assumed the directorship of Imitatio, she urged us to follow our core mission, to develop Girard’s ideas, to find them a greater recognition and circulation worldwide but also in the English-speaking world to catch up with the breadth of his readership in France and Europe.

I have spent my entire adult life in universities. As the editor of the series, I had some plans for how to spread ideas from the university to that outer world by influencing teachers who would influence their students who leave when they graduate, but I had no idea on how to approach the public directly, or whether America, despite its number of educated readers (my university alone granted 9,500 degrees this last spring), had any number approaching 20,000 dependable readers of serious books.

If Girard was besieged by reporters in Paris after Achever Clausewitz was published in 2007, nothing like that happened in America in 2009 when we published it in English as Battling to the End. In 2011, at a conference on Mimetic Theory and World Religions at Berkeley, I suggested to Cynthia Haven that she write a book about René Girard, something personal and accessible enough to help find him a wider audience in English. Girard had told me in appreciation that Haven had written specifically about the Clausewitz book in The San Francisco Chronicle, as well as other public venues in her one-person publicity campaign.

Evolution of Desire (2018) is informative both about Girard and his ideas, placing him effectively in a historical context by reference to his life and work and interviewing many people who knew him. She is both respectful and warm to her subject. It would be impossible to disentangle the circumstances that have made her book so popular: Girard himself, this century’s recognition of him with honorary degrees and awards, his election to the L’Académie Française, several organisations worldwide devoted to his work. But Haven has played a key role with her book and her reputation – she is a well-known and respected serious author for serious readers who bridges the academic and the public book world. She has her sights always on the dependable core readership of serious books in English.

My field is British Studies, I could go on and on about Penguin so I need to just summarize here. Penguin books has been the most successful venture in gaining a wide audience for serious books in English for the last one hundred years. Nothing else even comes close. So congratulations to Cynthia on publishing All Desire is a Desire for Being at Penguin, and to everyone else working in mimetic theory: this is a big deal, so buckle up.

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