René Girard: “The economic, biological, or racial criterion that is responsible for discrimination will never be found, because it’s actually spiritual”


I had planned to share an excerpt from my new volume, Conversations with René Girard, just out with Bloomsbury with my Book Haven readers. I have so many favorite bits in the volume, the first-ever collection of his media interviews. What to choose?

I can do no better than give you a potpourri of his thought – though the whole volume is a potpourri, really – from the chapter called, “Revelation Is Dangerous. It’s the Spiritual Equivalent of Nuclear Power.”

The interviewer is French journalist Michel Treguer, whose wide-ranging Q&As with the French thinker are lively and punchy and capture René in conversation. As Treguer explains in the introduction: “I got into some lively arguments with him over the airwaves of France Culture. But there was something very strange about even these debates—the tit-for-tat and the aggressive verbal sparring that would have led any other thinker to sever ties with me once and for all left René Girard as serenely benevolent, interested, curious, amicable, and affectionate as ever. Not at all like the others, that one.”

Here goes:


MT: We’ve already spoken a little about this, there are no doubt similarities in form if not in content between Marxist and Christian eschatology: the idea of a paradise to come.

RG: Unlike Nazism, Marxism wants of course to save victims, but it thinks that the process that makes victims is fundamentally economic. Marxism says: “Let’s give up the consolations of religion, let’s get down to serious business, let’s talk about caloric intake and standards of living, and so on.”

Once the Soviet state is created, the Marxists see first of all that the wealth is drying up and then that economic equality doesn’t stop the various kinds of discrimination, which are much more deeply ingrained. Then, because they’re utopians, they say: “There are traitors who are keeping the system from functioning properly”; and they look for scapegoats. In other words,
the principle of discrimination is stronger than economics. It’s not enough to put people on the same social level because they’ll always find new ways of excluding one another. In the final analysis, the economic, biological, or racial criterion that is responsible for discrimination will never be found, because it’s actually spiritual. Denying the spiritual dimension of Evil is as
wrong as denying the spiritual dimension of Good.

Sartre (and Virginia Woolf)

RG: What makes Sartre seem a little ridiculous today, though it’s also touching and even worthy of admiration, is his desire to have a philosophical “system.” Like Descartes. I myself have been accused of building a system, but it isn’t true. I’m not just saying that to seem up-to-date, I’m too old for that sort of thing.

I find the analyses of the other’s role in what Sartre calls “the project” – the café waiter in Being and Nothingness—the analyses of bad faith, and of coquetry, to be marvelous. It’s all very close to mimetic desire. He even invented a metaphysical category that he calls “for the other,” “for others.”

But, strangely, for him, desire belongs solely to the category of the “poursoi,” “for itself.” He doesn’t see that the subject is torn between the Self and the Other. And yet he admires Virginia Woolf, who shows this agonizing struggle in admirable fashion, notably in The Waves. This is another example of the superiority of the novel over philosophy. Deep down, Sartre
was very comfortably petit bourgeois, a lover of tourism, and too even-keeled to become a true genius.

The Structuralists

RG: Modern structuralism is floating in a void because it doesn’t have a reality principle. It’s a kind of idealism of culture. You’re not supposed to speak of things, but of “referents”: the real is conceived in linguistic terms, instead of
bringing language back down to reality, as was done back when the real was real. This way of thinking knows nothing but difference. It cannot comprehend that the same, the insistently identical, correspond to something real.

From the structuralist point of view, there is no difference between a class of real objects and a class of monstrous objects, which in my opinion are a trace left by the disorder of mimetic crisis, without which the genesis of myth cannot occur. Structuralism studies sequences with real women and real jaguars, on the one hand, and, on the other, sequences with jaguar-women, and it puts them all on the same level.

Durkheim, at least, was able to say: “How curious, there are real differences in mythical thinking – human intelligence is beginning to function – but there are also false categories. Primitive thought is sometimes based on divisions that are similar to our own, and sometimes on totally meaningless categories.” Structuralism does an admirable job of highlighting differences.

But if you study the development of human thought, you have to come right out and admit that modern rationalism isn’t the equivalent of myth, because it has done away with the jaguar-women. If there were dragons in the user’s manuals of Toyotas and Nissans, it’s unlikely that the Japanese auto industry would have succeeded in spreading its products all over the world.

After Darwin

MT: What do you think of the “creationists” who take the Bible literally?

RG: They’re wrong, of course, but I don’t want to speak ill of them because today they are the scapegoats of American culture. The media distorts everything they say and treats them like the lowest of the low.

MT: But if they’re wrong, why not? You speak of scapegoats, but, as far as I know, nobody’s putting the creationists to death, are they?

RG: They’re ostracized from society. It’s said that Americans can’t resist peer pressure, and it’s generally true. Just look at academia, that vast herd of sheep-like individualists: they think they’re persecuted, but they’re not. The creationists are. They’re resisting peer pressure. I take my hat off to them.

MT: But what if they’re absolutely wrong? For someone who places such emphasis on the truth, whatever the cost, I suddenly find you very indulgent.

RG: And what do you do with freedom of religion? In America, as elsewhere, fundamentalism results from the breakdown of an age-old compromise between religion and anti-religious humanism. And it’s anti-religious humanism that is responsible for the breakdown. It espouses doctrines that start with abortion, that continue with genetic manipulation, and that tomorrow will undoubtedly lead to hyperefficient forms of euthanasia. In at most a few decades we’ll have transformed man into a repugnant little pleasure-machine, forever liberated from pain and even from death, which is to say from everything that, paradoxically, encourages us to pursue any sort of noble human aim, and not only religious transcendence.

MT: So there’s nothing worse than trying to avert real dangers by means of false beliefs?

RG: Mankind has never done anything else.

MT: That’s no reason to continue.

RG: The fundamentalists often defend ideas that I deplore, but a remnant of spiritual health makes them foresee the horror of the warm and fuzzy concentration camp that our benevolent bureaucracies are preparing for us, and their revolt looks more respectable to me than our somnolence. In an era where everyone boasts of being a marginal dissident even as they display
a stupefying mimetic docility, the fundamentalists are authentic dissidents.

I recently refused to participate in a supposedly scientific study that treats them like guinea pigs, without the researchers ever asking themselves about the role of their own academic ideology in a phenomenon that they think they’re studying objectively, with complete and utter detachment.

Want a copy of the book for your very own? Go here