Posts Tagged ‘René Girard’

“A Happy Contrarian”: Praise for Conversations with René Girard… and Evolution of Desire, too!

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2021
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Conversations with René Girard and Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard are featured in the current edition of Commonweal. An excerpt from the lively article by Costica Bradatan, a Professor of Humanities in the Honors College at Texas Tech University. It’s a great read and making the rounds – in 3quarksdaily and Arts & Letters Daily, among other venues:

René Girard’s best-known books, such as Violence and the Sacred and The Scapegoat, leave the distinct impression of an intellectual project plotted and forged in solitude. Serious strategy seems to be at work here: the books are both dense and lucid, their arguments not only tightly knit but also elegantly presented. One imagines the long hours of hard, lonely labor behind each of these titles. And yet Girard (1923–2015) was a rather social person and a compulsive conversationalist; he needed to be with others as much as he needed his solitude. Someone who knew Girard well observed that he was “doggedly dialogic”; he liked “working with people on things.” There is in fact a whole series of books—above all, the groundbreaking Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1987)—in which he involved other scholars as interlocutors. Girard was aware that much of what he was proposing was too new and too unusual (and sometimes too idiosyncratic) to go unchallenged. Always the strategist, he often invited people to challenge his arguments before he published them. Beyond the sheer human need to be with others, Girard needed the opposition and counterarguments of his conversation partners to test his ideas and push them to their breaking point.

And not only that. Dialogue itself can be a singularly creative process: something new is often born in your mind in the very process of addressing the person in front of you. You didn’t know that thing existed until you opened your mouth. Now that it has come out, you may be as surprised as your dialogue partner. Girard the conversationalist must have known a thing or two about this process.

Another excerpt:

In When These Things Begin: Conversations with Michel Treguer, Girard tells Treguer, “I’m not concealing my biography, but I don’t want to fall victim to the narcissism to which we’re all inclined.” For Girard, interviews served the same purpose as his “books of conversation”: to challenge and test his ideas while discovering new things in the company of others. Cynthia L. Haven, the author of a remarkably insightful biography of Girard, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, has now put together a selection of these interviews. They give us a good picture not only of the complexity and multifacetedness of Girard’s ideas, but also of the process through which a young professor of French literature originally operating in a rather narrow field turned into a visionary thinker of global renown, as revered as he was contested. As Haven puts it in her introduction, in “these interviews, over years and decades, Girard gradually becomes Girard, like an image slowly appearing in the developer of an old darkroom.”

Read the whole thing here. It’s fun.

Conversations with René Girard in the LARB: “Girard at both his most typical and his most surprising.”

Thursday, August 27th, 2020
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Philosopher Down Under

Chris Fleming has written a witty and lively review of my Conversations with René Girard: Prophet of Envy for the The Los Angeles Review of Books. (We’ve written about him here and here.) The Australian professor has written widely on issues of culture, philosophy, and literature, both in academic journals and in mainstream publications such as The Guardian, LitHub, The Chronicle Review, and The Sydney Review of Books. His debut on the West Coast is titled “The Last of the Hedgehogs” … well you see where that’s going:

IN 1953, Isaiah Berlin published his long essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” outlining his now-famous Oxbridge variant on there are two kinds of people in this world. He drew the title from an ambiguous fragment attributed to the ancient lyric poet Archilochus of Paros: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog one big thing.” Written with the aim of pointing out tensions between Tolstoy’s grand view of history and the artistic temperament that saw such a view as untenable, Berlin’s essay became an unlikely hit, although less for its argument about Russian literature than for its contention that two antithetical personae govern the world of ideas: hedgehogs, who view the world in terms of some all-embracing system, seeing all facts as fitting into a grand pattern; and foxes, those pluralists or particularists who refuse “big theory” for reasons either intellectual or temperamental.

Berlin’s typology is beautifully blunt: perhaps more a serious game than a scientific typology, it works wonderfully only when it does. With the French American literary and cultural theorist René Girard, it works very well. As Roberto Calasso suggested, Girard was almost the Platonic ideal of a hedgehog: he belongs to that lineage of 19th- and 20th-century thinkers whose vast synthetic ambition is now seen by many in the academy as not simply wrongheaded but almost impolite. Sweeping intellectual projects such as his come across today as naïve and even oppressive, animated by the most obnoxious nostalgias for the Enlightenment. Of course, the academics who offer such judgments are typically those whose own work is parasitical upon grand synthesizing theorists like Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche.

Like these older thinkers, although distinct from them in important ways, Girard was disinclined toward mere taxonomic labor, such as structuralist classification or the identification of linguistic “themes” and “figures,” but was interested rather in asking large questions about origins — the origin of religion, of language, of culture, of violence, of human psychic life. And although such explanatory ambition is hard to find in humanities academics these days, it is surprisingly common among contemporary scientists, who suffer far fewer anxieties — one might argue, insufficient anxieties — about their own capacities to address the big questions that interest them most. And so, physicists and biologists continue to write magnificently incoherent, best-selling books addressing large questions about human nature and culture on behalf of those of us who, some time ago, politely vacated the field. Whether this is because we in the humanities no longer find such all-encompassing theorizing intellectually tenable, or whether (less flatteringly) we have been conditioned by those institutional and funding frameworks that render such projects nonviable, a generation devoid of Freuds or Nietzsches or Marxes of its own might turn out to be something we will one day regret. (Unless, of course, we are now content to have Yuval Noah Harari carry the banner for us all.)

The upshot:

“Cynthia Haven’s fascinating new collection, Conversations with René Girard: Prophet of Envy, showcases Girard at both his most typical and his most surprising. Like many intellectuals, and not just hedgehogs, Girard returned repeatedly to the same themes throughout his career — what he called with self-mocking charm, in one exchange included here, his “monomania.” Of course, as one would hope, the reader will find in this book explications of the standard Girardian theses about imitative desire, scapegoating, and religion. And yet, throughout the volume, Girard also turns his attention to topics rarely if ever broached in his body of work: opera, eating disorders, Husserlian phenomenology, literary modernism. … Haven’s book is a welcome tonic for those of us for whom universalist theories are liable to provoke an outbreak of hives. As Adam Phillips once said about psychoanalysis: “like all essentialist theories,” it “makes a cult out of what could be just good company.” Regardless of how one evaluates Girard’s overarching intellectual project, there is little doubt that he was often excellent company indeed, as this collection amply attests.

Read the whole thing here. Many people did – it was picked up by 3quarksdaily, Books Inc. and Daily Nous, among others. A week after its publication it was still the best read piece at LARB. See the screenshot below for proof:

 

Christopher Lydon, Robert Pogue Harrison discuss our “worldwide theater of imitated desire”

Thursday, July 2nd, 2020
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“HISTORY IS A TEST FOR MANKIND, BUT WE KNOW VERY WELL THAT MANKIND IS FAILING THAT TEST.” – RENÉ GIRARD

Is Geryon an image of our time?

The tables are turned on Entitled Opinions’ Robert Pogue Harrison: public radio show host Christopher Lydon recently interviewed the interviewer for Open Source in Boston. The wide-ranging conversation considered the French theorist René Girard’s mimetic theory, the nature of warfare, the dangers of biotechnology, and the social media.

A recording of the conversation is available at the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Entitled Opinion channel here.

Mankind is an imitative species “with a terrible envy built into it, a competitive desire to be like some ideal of the other person,” Harrison said, citing the work of Girard. Facebook is the “perfect mechanical vehicle” of such envy. Facebook services mimetic needs with “a prosthetic self and a prosthetic social life and prosthetic friends.”

“We have this illusion that there’s nothing more proper to my inner self than my own desires,” said Harrison – but Girard challenges that assumption, showing that our desires are the result of imitation. No coincidence, then, that Facebook was “a worldwide theater of imitated desire on people’s personal computers,” he said. Certainly his former Stanford pupil Peter Thiel, an early investor in Facebook, understood the importance of Girard’s legacy when he said: “I suspect that when the history of the 20th century is written circa 2100, he will be seen as truly one of the great intellectuals, but it may still be a long time till it’s fully understood.”

Radio host Lydon

Imitation leads to violence, and Harrison noted that Girard is “more compelling in his diagnosis of the problem of violence rather than what he offers as an alternative.” Girard’s solution? “The refusal to retaliate he believed was the only sane recommendation in the face of this vortex that international violence could create,” said Harrison.

Harrison also took on the gene-editing boom: “In the name of doing good, you can license a lot of harm,” he said. “Mengele in Auschwitz will eventually be recognized as a visionary of the 20th century, although his methods will be condemned and his Nazi affiliations never endorsed.”

Radio host Harrison

Harrison, a Dante scholar, pointed out that the Inferno’s portrayal of sea-faring Ulysses was the “archetype of scientific discovery,” always heading to new frontiers of exploration and knowledge, which ultimately led to his death. “The line that’s being crossed today is taking the role of creation into our own hands and presuming to know better than nature.” He asked what the motivations behind biotechnology are. Dante’s Geryon, the furry monster who represents fraud in the Inferno, “has the face of a gentle, kind, smiling man, and the tail of a scorpion,” he said. “I want to know where the scorpion tail is hiding in this new explosion of biotech.”

Listen to the whole thing at The Los Angeles Review of Books here.

“THE ONE WHO BELIEVES HE CAN CONTROL VIOLENCE BY SETTING UP DEFENSES IS IN FACT CONTROLLED BY VIOLENCE.” – ROBERT HARRISON

What Can Oedipus Teach Us About The COVID Crisis?

Tuesday, May 19th, 2020
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From the trendy, tony website 3quarksdaily (we’ve written about this bold venture here):

What is worse – coronavirus itself, or the social and economic catastrophe that comes with it?

René Girard, one of the leading thinkers of our era, argued that the biological and social aspects of a plague are interwoven: he points out that historians still debate whether the Black Death was a cause or a consequence of the social upheavals in the 14th century.

The Stanford professor, who died in 2015 at age 91, has been called “the new Darwin of the human sciences,” but he began as a literary theorist. His work, beginning in the 1960s, offered a new concept of human desire: our desires are not our own, he said, but are “mimetic.” As social creatures, we learn what to want from each other.

Imitation leads to competition, which leads to conflict, which then spreads contagiously throughout a community. Eventually, the community targets one person or group to blame for the disorder, someone like Oedipus. The targeted scapegoats are punished, expelled, or in the past, often killed. Girard began in literature, but quickly took on anthropology, sociology, religions, and more. And while he initially wrote mostly about myths in archaic societies, he eventually became an observer of contemporary culture, focusing on rivalry, violence, and warfare today.Towards the end of his life, he wrote about the social ramifications of natural disasters, and plagues are no exception. Certainly our desires and hostilities have proven as contagious as COVID-19, which has in many ways fueled and exacerbated them, and variously targeting presidents, governments, protestors, and the Chinese for blame.

In 2005, Girard met with Robert Pogue Harrison, author of Juvenescence: A Cultural History of Our Age; Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, and The Dominion of the Dead, for a two-part interview on Harrison’s celebrated “Entitled Opinions” radio and podcast series, available on iTunes.

The full transcript is among the interviews included in the Conversations with René Girard: Prophet of Envy, edited by Cynthia L. Haven, published this month by Bloomsbury.

Read the rest here.

Psssst! I have a new book out today! Conversations with René Girard: Prophet of Envy – check it out!

Thursday, May 14th, 2020
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What is the sound of one hand clapping? It is the sound of having a book published during a worldwide pandemic! But here we are, and here it is!

Today, May 14, is the official publication date of Conversations with René Girard: Prophet of Envy

You can order from Amazon here or directly from the publisher Bloomsbury here.

French theorist René Girard was one of the major thinkers of the twentieth century. Read by international leaders, quoted by the French media, Girard influenced such writers as J.M. Coetzee and Milan Kundera. Dubbed “the new Darwin of the human sciences” and one of the most compelling thinkers of the age, Girard spent nearly four decades at Stanford exploring what it means to be human and making major contributions to philosophy, literary criticism, psychology and theology with his mimetic theory.

This is the first collection of interviews with Girard, one that brings together discussions on Cervantes, Dostoevsky, and Proust alongside the causes of conflict and violence and the role of imitation in human behavior. Granting important insights into Girard’s life and thought, these provocative and lively conversations underline Girard’s place as leading public intellectual and profound theorist.

That all sounds very official, but trust me: they are interviews you will want to read again and again.

No reviews yet, but here are some of the early reactions:

“A vital book. It gave me René Girard as I’ve never before encountered him in a text: like looking at a diamond from eighteen different sides. Each interview reveals the fecundity of his thought and the brilliance of a mind that was able to probe the human condition in a singular way. It’s full of fire.” –  Luke Burgis, Entrepreneur-in-Residence, Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship, The Catholic University of America, USA and Author of Wanting: Our Secret Economy of Desire

“René Girard was one of the most influential and important thinkers of the 20th century, much of his wisdom was dialogic in nature, and this volume brings together an excellent collection of conversations with him.” –  Tyler Cowen, Professor of Economics, George Mason University, USA and Author of the “Marginal Revolution” Blog

Conversations with René Girard is sure to become an indispensable reference for readers interested in Girard’s views on a wide range of topics, including such hot button issues as abortion, eugenics, same-sex marriage, anorexia, Islam, and Europe’s demographic crisis. Cynthia Haven deserves tremendous credit for bringing these interviews, some of them hard to find, together in one volume.” –  George A. Dunn, Centre for Globalizing Civilization, Hangzhou, China

“This collection of interviews with the great French theorist René Girard offers an excellent presentation of his theories on mimetic desire, scapegoating and sacrificial violence, and the power of Biblical revelation. It covers Girard’s remarkable explorations of everything from archaic cultures, to the great works of Western literature, to the crises of the contemporary world. An important book for scholars and the general public alike.” –  Richard J. Golsan, University Distinguished Professor and Senior Scowcroft Fellow, Texas A&M University, USA

Dostoevsky’s dream of a worldwide plague

Tuesday, May 5th, 2020
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The great poet Anna Akhmatova wrote of Fyodor Dostoevsky, “The prisoner of Omsk understood everything and gave up on everything.” But did he see our future, too? In Crime and Punishment, René Girard notes: “Raskolnikov has a dream during a grave illness that occurs just before his final change of heart, at the end of the novel. He dreams of a worldwide plague that affects people’s relationship with each other. No specifically medical symptoms are mentioned. It is human interaction that breaks down, and the entire society gradually collapses.” 

From Crime and Punishment (trans. Constance Garnett):

He dreamt that the whole world was condemned to a terrible new strange plague that had come to Europe from the depths of Asia. All were to be destroyed except a very few chosen. Some new sorts of microbes were attacking the bodies of men, but these microbes were endowed with intelligence and will. Men attacked by them became at once mad and furious. But never had men considered themselves so intellectual and so completely in possession of the truth as these sufferers, never had they considered their decisions, their scientific conclusions, their moral convictions so infallible. Whole villages, whole towns and peoples went mad from the infection. All were excited and did not understand one another. Each thought that he alone had the truth and was wretched looking at the others, beat himself on the breast, wept, and wrung his hands. They did not know how to judge and could not agree what to consider evil and what good; they did not know whom to blame, whom to justify. Men killed each other in a sort of senseless spite. They gathered together in armies against one another, but even on the march the armies would begin attacking each other, the ranks would be broken and the soldiers would fall on each other, stabbing and cutting, biting and devouring each other. The alarm bell was ringing all day long in the towns; men rushed together, but why they were summoned and who was summoning them no one knew. The most ordinary trades were abandoned, because everyone proposed his own ideas, his own improvements, and they could not agree. The land too was abandoned. Men met in groups, agreed on something, swore to keep together, but at once began on something quite different from what they had proposed. They accused one another, fought and killed each other. There were conflagrations and famine. All men and all things were involved in destruction. The plague spread and moved further and further. Only a few men could be saved in the whole world. They were a pure chosen people, destined to found a new race and a new life, to renew and purify the earth, but no one had seen these men, no one had heard their words and their voices.