Posts Tagged ‘Robert Pogue Harrison’

Do the French take their literature seriously? The furor over “La Princesse de Clèves”!

Friday, May 31st, 2019
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Another Look turned its attention to an earlier century on May 1, with Madame de LaFayette’s landmark 1678 novella, The Princesse de Clèves. The Another Look director, Robert Pogue Harrison, led the panel, joined by Chloe Edmondson, a Stanford PhD candidate studying French literary and cultural history, and very special guest, Yale’s Prof. Pierre Saint-Amand, the author of The Pursuit of Laziness: An Idle Interpretation of the Enlightenment. Mostly the participants spoke off-the-cuff, but Edmondson’s opening remarks were an excellent introduction to this short and compelling work:

“Many of you may be familiar with French classics like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, yet you may not have ever heard of Madame de Lafayette, not to mention the book she wrote in 1678. To the French though, it is as much of a national treasure and classic, as Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The book in fact had a huge resurgence of popularity in 2009 after President Sarkozy publicly disparaged the book.

He said, “Non”!

He was talking about the entrance exam for public sector workers and how it included questions about Lafayette’s work. He suggested it would be absurd to ask a metro ticket clerk what he or she thought about the Princesse de Clèves, that it was useless that candidates must have a knowledge of the Princesse de Clèves.  He added, too, that he “suffered greatly by the princess” in school.

These comments triggered a full-blown scandal, and the French people took to defending the work as a pillar of their national and cultural heritage, a work they felt should be read and appreciated by everyone, not mocked as irrelevant. University strikes that year gave rise to marathon public readings throughout the country of La Princesse de Clèves as a form of protest. Publishers saw sales of the book double within a year. Even a book fair in Paris that year sold, in mere hours, more than 2,000 pins that said “I read The Princess of Clèves” and “This year, the Princess will vote!”

Edmondson also retraced the history of the book for the audience:  “Born 18 March 1634 to a family of minor but wealthy nobility, Marie-Madeleine Pioche de La Vergne, became a maid of honor to Queen Anne of Austria in 1651, which initiated her entrée into the world of high society. It is during this time that she first became a part of the literary world of 17th-century France, frequenting the salons of Madame de Rambouillet and Madame de Scudéry, as well as becoming friends with Madame de Sévigné.

But the people said, “Oui!”  Vive la France!

“She married François Motier, Comte de LaFayette in 1655, and with him had two sons. She lived with him in the countryside until her return to Paris in 1660, when she started her own literary salon, regularly receiving in her home some of the most important men of letters of her time, like the Duc de La Rochefoucauld who introduced her to the great playwright Racine. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she starts to write as well.

“In 1678, La Princesse de Clèves was published anonymously, though it is quickly attributed to Lafayette. At the time of its publication, it was the source of literary scandal. It was a question of genre – people weren’t sure how to categorize what seemed to be a unique text, combining elements of two of the most popular genres at the time – the romance and the historical novella.

“Romances were generally set in a time and place distant from the author’s, with implausible heroic plots and fantastical events, whereas novellas – short novels – were generally set in recent history, with historical characters behaving according to social conventions. La Princesse de Clèves, set in the court of Henri II in the mid-16th century would seem to favor realism, but readers believed that the characters did not conform to the ways that people “really” would behave, because of what seemed to be exceptionally strange behavior of the heroine, such as the Princess’ confession to her husband of her feelings for another man.

“Today, one of the big scholarly debates surrounding the book also has to do with genre – namely whether or not it really did mark the birth of the modern novel. Regardless, I think we can appreciate that it holds qualities that will become characteristic of the types of books we consider novels, works that give readers access to the inner thoughts and emotions of the main characters over an extended period of time.

“Indeed, if we look at the history of the work’s reception, what no one seems to contest, even in the 17th century, is that it captured – to quote her contemporary critic Jean-Baptiste Valincour – the expression of “what happens in the depths of our hearts,” the “expression” of things that all have experienced.”

Werner Herzog’s short talk about a long walk from Munich to Paris

Thursday, May 9th, 2019
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Legendary film director Werner Herzog during an earlier visit to Stanford. (Photo: L.A. Cicero).

Filmmaker Werner Herzog came to Stanford on Tuesday, to discuss his book, Of Walking in Iceduring a Q&A with Amir Eshel, Robert Harrison, and a small invited audience at the Stanford Humanities Center. The discussion was characteristically iconoclastic. Martian colonies? “The idea is obscene,” he said. “The universe is not harmony of the spheres, but chaotic and murderous and it’s not a good place out there.”

The 20th century saw the demise of political utopias, he observed – the Communist, the Nazi dreams were dashed to pieces. The 21st century will see the “bankruptcy of technological utopias,” he continued. “It is baloney – we’ll see in this century.”

“My consolation, my anchor,” he said, is the Psalms and the Book of Job. And he reiterated, as he did on a former visit, that it was for his books, not his films, that he will be remembered.

Before we adjourned for dinner at a restaurant in Menlo Park, he took about a dozen questions about his book. Of Walking in Ice is the publication of his diaries describing his three-week journey on foot from Munich to Paris in the winter of 1974. He believed his wild trek would throw a lifeline to his dying friend and mentor, Lotte Eisner. And it worked. An excerpt:

No, not a soul, intimidating stillness. Uncannily, though, in the midst of all this, a fire is blazing, lit, in fact with petrol. It’s flickering, a ghostly fire, wind. On the orange-colored plain below I can see sheets of rain, and the annunciation of the end of the world is glowing on the horizon, glimmering there. A train races through the land and penetrates the mountain range. Its wheels are glowing. One car erupts in flames. The train stops, men try to extinguish it, but the car can no longer be extinguished. They decide to move on, to hasten to race. The train moves, it moves into fathomless space, unwavering. In the pitch-blackness of the universe the wheels are glowing, the lone car is glowing. Unimaginable stellar catastrophes take place, entire worlds collapse into a single point. Light can no longer escape, even the profoundest blackness would seem like light and the silence would seem like thunder. The universe is filled with Nothing, it is the Yawning Black Void. Systems of Milky Ways have condensed into Un-stars. Utter blissfulness is spreading, and out of utter blissfulness now springs the Absurdity. This is the situation.

And a sampling of his conversation, during an earlier visit to Stanford for the Another Look book club, is below:

Robert Harrison’s “Entitled Opinions”: philosophy without borders

Wednesday, May 8th, 2019
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Over at the blog for the American Philosophical Association, I have a guest post describing my work with Robert Pogue Harrison‘s brainchild, the intellectual talk show Entitled Opinions, available as a radio show and podcasts. The piece been adapted from a longer essay that will appear in Literary Criticism as Public Scholarship (edited by Rachel Arteaga and Rosemary Johnsen), under contract with Amherst College Press. An excerpt from the blogpost:

I teamed with Harrison to plan for a bigger future for Entitled Opinions a few years agoA generous donation from former Stanford President John Hennessy helped fund a website redesign, with easily searchable programming and a home of its own that was not in a hard-to-find corner of the French and Italian Department website.

I argued that there was nothing on either the new or old website to indicate what a listener would hear in the particular podcast – a powerful disincentive for anyone thinking to invest an hour. Not everyone will gamble an hour of their precious time that way. Jazz scholar Ted Gioia, a master of the social media, had counseled me that the missing component in our modern cyber-edifice is this: while there is much transferring text to visual images, tweets, audio, and so on, there is comparatively little transfer going in the opposite direction – that is, turning audio and visual content into text. A few synoptic paragraphs with quotations from the episode would entice as well as inform potential listeners.

We forged a partnership with the Los Angeles Review of Books, establishing a podcast channel for Entitled Opinions that would bring more visibility to the program and draw new audiences. We also struggled to get a presence on social media – no small thing either, as Harrison was at first resistant to Facebook, Twitter, and the rest. He cherished the cult status of Entitled Opinion, and emphasized the whole message of Entitled Opinions was for long thoughts over short ones, through the medium of intensive hour-long conversations. I was sympathetic. But in today’s world, to get the word out without using social media is to try to get the word out without getting the word out.

Now we are taking the next step: we are creating lightly edited transcripts and pitching them to the international media to spread the word about Entitled Opinions. Harrison’s interview with German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk ran in translation in Die WeltThe original English transcript is forthcoming in Los Angeles Review of Books. The first of a two-part interview with French thinker René Girard ran in England’s Standpointthe second is scheduled for Zurich’s Neue Zürcher Zeitung, which has also run a translation of Harrison’s interview with American philosopher Richard RortyThe Chronicle of Higher Education has published part of a transcript of a conversation with “metahistorian” Hayden White.  More are on the way. (Both the Girard interviews will be published in my forthcoming Conversations with René Girard, to be published by Bloomsbury in 2020.)

Read the whole thing here.

Please join us for Madame de LaFayette’s “The Princesse de Clèves” on Wednesday, May 1!

Thursday, April 25th, 2019
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Please join us for the “Another Look” book club discussion of Madame de LaFayette’s The Princesse de Clèves. The final event of our seventh season will take place on Wednesday, May 1, at 7:30 p.m. at the Bechtel Conference Center of Encina Hall, 616 Serra Street on the Stanford campus.

Madame de LaFayette’s The Princesse of Clèves was published anonymously in 1678. Although the title character is fictional, most of the others are historical, and the people and their intrigues are rendered with precision and authenticity.

The plot centers on the 16-year-old heiress Mademoiselle de Chartres, who comes to the court of Henry II to make a good match. The beautiful and virtuous girl marries the stolid Prince of Clèves, but then falls in love with the dashing and seductive Duke de Nemours. Considered by some to be the first modern novel, The Princesse of Clèves portrays a milieu of appearances and deceptions, rife with suspicion, passions, temptations, and jealousy. This penetrating, finely wrought novel reveals a society where competition is unending – whether in war, in courtly games and gestures, or amorous adventures.

Nota bene: this is a historical novel, with Madame de Lafayette writing about events that took place in the previous century, when Mary Queen of Scots is still a 16-year-old girl and Queen of France. This seems to confuse a lot of publishers choosing cover illustration, who often get the wrong period. The Oxford World Classics edition edition, for example, features Anne of Cleves (no relation), the fourth wife of Henry VIII and a generation earlier before the action of this novel.

Speaking personally, I’m excited by this little book (it’s one of three novellas in the Oxford edition), not only a forerunner of the modern psychological novel, but an important work by a largely overlooked woman. That’s not why I adore it, however. The story is absolutely gripping.

Panelists include: Another Look Director Robert Pogue HarrisonChloe Edmondson, a Stanford graduate student studying French literary and cultural history; and a special guest, Yale Prof. Pierre Saint-Amand. The Yale expert in the philosophy of the Enlightenment (photo at left) will be a real treat for Bay Area audiences – the inside word is that he’s great fun! However, he has suggested that readers be patient for the first twenty pages, which introduce many names and titles from the French court. After the characters are in place (and you’ve sorted out the names and titles), the pace accelerates to its inexorable conclusion.

Oh yes, the most important part: The event is free and open to the public! Come early for best seats! (The parking areas closest to Encina Hall are Memorial Drive and Parking Structure 7, located off Campus Drive, underneath the Knight Management Center-Graduate School of Business. For parking information, contact the Parking and Transportation Department’s Visitor Parking page.)

Walter Tevis’s The Queen’s Gambit: you read the book, here’s the podcast of the Another Look discussion!

Friday, February 22nd, 2019
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Walter Tevis is best known for his three novels that were turned into major films: The Hustler, The Color of Money, and The Man Who Fell to Earth. But on January 29, Stanford took another look at his overlooked masterpiece, The Queen’s Gambit, a book about chess, and the teenage girl who masters it. The lively discussion was headed by Another Look’s founding director, the eminent author Tobias Wolff. He was joined by Robert Pogue Harrison, a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books, and former Stanford fellow Inga Pierson. Some considered it our best event ever! Judge for yourself: the podcast of the discussion is here.

Tevis was born in San Francisco and grew up in the Sunset District. While his parents relocated to Kentucky, he spent a year in the Stanford Children’s Convalescent Home (which later became Stanford’s Lucile Salter Packard Children’s Hospital). Hence, Another Look’s winter event will be a homecoming for the author, who died in 1984.

Photos below by Another Look friend David Schwartz.

TONIGHT! Stanford’s Another Look features Walter Tevis’s “The Queen’s Gambit”!

Tuesday, January 29th, 2019
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Local boy

Please join us for the Another Look book club discussion of Walter Tevis‘s Queen’s Gambit. The novel is about chess, and more particularly about Beth Harmon, a sullen and unremarkable orphan – until she plays her first game. By sixteen, she is playing chess at the U.S. Open Championship. The Queen’s Gambit follows the intense mental and existential pressures that a chess champion must endure in order to remain at the top of the game.

Tevis is best known for his three novels that were turned into major films: The Hustler, The Color of Money, and The Man Who Fell to Earth. Tevis was born in San Francisco and grew up in the Sunset District. While his parents relocated to Kentucky, he spent a year in the Stanford Children’s Convalescent Home (which later became Stanford’s Lucile Salter Packard Children’s Hospital). Hence, Another Look’s winter event will be a homecoming for the author, who died in 1984.

The event will take place at 7:30 p.m. TONIGHT, Tuesday, January 29, at the Bechtel Conference Center of Encina Hall. Panelists will include Stanford’s National Medal of Arts winner Tobias Wolff; acclaimed author Robert Harrison, and former Stanford fellow Inga Pierson.

“Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard” goes into its third printing – and sparks some reflections in Zürich’s “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”

Thursday, January 17th, 2019
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Some good news! Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard is going into its third printing in its first year! Here’s some more good news: an article in Zürich’s Neue Zürich Zeitungone of Europe’s most highly regarded newspapers. The piece is by one of the continent’s leading intellectuals, Stanford’s own Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht

The first few paragraphs in a rough, off-the-cuff translation by a German-speaking friend of ours. An excerpt from: “Equality, Desire, Violence and the Restrained Presence of René Girard”:

A few weeks ago the French magazine Le Point invited Peter Sloterdijk to a conversation about the protest movement of the yellow jackets and their relationship to President Macron. With his learned and yet very decisive point of view, the philosopher activated an unconventional line of intellectual positions: in addition to  Mikhail Bakhtin‘s thesis on the transformation of Carnival moments into violence, and to Alain Peyrefitte‘s identification of social immobility as the heritage of absolutism, and to Elias Canetti’s theory on the dynamics of people in masses, he also referenced–most of all–the vision of the French-American anthropologist René Girard, who is rarely cited in his own homeland, a vision of working out  collective tensions through the attack and murder of a “scape goat.” Sloterkijk’s interlocutor could only with difficulty hide his outrage over this application of an analysis of the present situation.

Sepp Gumbrecht (Photo: Reto Klar)

With his left-liberal aligned reaction, the news would have no doubt fit well, to hear that the Silicon Valley billionaire and original Facebook investor Peter Thiel offered, for the coming Winter quarter at Stanford, a seminar on the conflict between “Statehood and Global Technology,” a course that was supposed to be derived from Girard’s theory and a course with such unusual resonance among the students that the university had to implement conditions for acceptance into the class.  Around 1990 Thiel had in fact taken several Girard Seminars, and to this day Thiel likes to amaze his interlocutors with the comment that he owes his life-changing engagement with  Facebook to these Girard seminars. In view of Sloterdijk, Thiel and their antagonists, it is  increasingly evident that there is a  pattern of tension between the way eccentric thinkers trust Girard’s intuitions and a mostly unfounded refusal to even acknowledge them. Against this blockade, in a new biography which is widely celebrated in many websites in Silicon Valley, Cynthia Haven has described how Girard distanced himself from all political positions, and described his shock at his own insights, a shock he shared with his most vehement opponents.

Haven’s conclusions and the peculiar ambivalence that she references confirm my memories from the 1990s, when I met with René Girard as a colleague at Stanford almost daily. Despite the warning brought from Germany by an eminent literary scholar that Girard’s dark theory corresponds to a powerful sense of character engraved in his face, I learned to know a professor who fascinated the youngest students in particular, and who consistently avoided competitive situations. Not from a feeling of uncertainty or self-doubt at all, but rather because as a prophet he was convinced of the truth of his insights. He in fact felt called to point out these insights repeatedly, and yet expected no personal admiration, never courted agreement, and never held it against me for instance, when I reacted with skeptical commentary. Already in 2005, when he was accepted into the forty “Immortals” of the Académie Française, Girard heard from afar the powerful encomium of his friend Michel Serres and reacted to our congratulations with a rumpled brow. Nonetheless, he seemed to want to say, no one could avoid the evidence of what he had to say.

The articles goes on to discuss Robert Pogue Harrison’s “Prophet of Envy” in the New York Review of Books (“the central organ of the American East Coast intellectuals”), the intensification of internet envy with FaceBook, and more. Read it here.

Not enough good news for you? The Claremont Review of Books article is up. Did we mention we’re getting lovely letters? Enough! We’ll share more tomorrow.
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“Who was the most fateful person in the history of Western mankind?” Nietzsche answers.

Wednesday, December 26th, 2018
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Sloterdijk wrote “Nietzsche Apostle.”

The Berlin national daily Die Welt has published Robert Pogue Harrison‘s recent Entitled Opinions radio/podcast interview with philosopher Peter Sloterdijk in time for the holidays here. You can listen to the interview (recorded in English) over at the Los Angeles Review of Books here

It’s kind of a Christmastime message, in a backhanded sort of way.

It begins:

Robert Harrison: I have just finished reading your splendid little book called Nietzsche Apostle, which was published in English in 2013 but first came out in Germany in the year 2000, on the hundredth anniversary of Nietzsche‘s death. What exactly you mean when you speak of Nietzsche as an apostle?

Peter Sloterdijk: he answer is quite simple. Nietzsche had very high ambitions, and he asked an elementary question, “Who was the most fateful person in the history of Western mankind?” And the answer he gave by himself, to himself, was that this person was obviously Saint Paul, whom he took for the real founder of Christianity – only apostle Saint Paul, who invented the apostolic role as such.

Saint Paul was the most fateful person in history, according to Nietzsche. If it were possible to undo the effects that Saint Paul had created, it would change the course of history. According to Nietzsche, Saint Paul brought genius into resentment. He elevated resentment to a level from which it could became a gospel.

Harrison: Do you believe that the figure of Jesus is secondary, in Nietzsche’s mind, to Paul?

He thought rather highly of himself.

Sloterdijk: In a certain way, yes. It’s absolutely not clear if Jesus had a universalist message. Jesus seems to be an elitist. He talks to those who can understand. Eventually there’s an encounter between the Gospels and the evangelical messages and Greek philosophy. The meeting began in Paul’s writings and were taken up in the fourth Gospel, which was written later. This meeting between Hellenism and the unruly Jewish method made possible what we call Christianity.

Harrison: Of course, the word gospel means “good news” or “glad tidings.” You make a point of Nietzsche’s claim that he wrote the fifth gospel in his book Zarathustra. Can you speak a little bit about this fifth gospel and the paradoxes at the heart of it? You claim Nietzsche made a great effort to convince himself of the “good news” and to continue believing that he was actually a bearer of good news. He was tormented by the fact that before you get to any good news, there’s terrible news – dreadful, awful news that he has to bring to humankind.

Sloterdijk: First of all, the category of “news” is problematic because news, in modern terms, is actuality, whereas for those who used it as a term ἄγγελμα in former times simply meant “message,” or in German, botschaft. The ἄγγελος is just a messenger. That is important. The connection with time is not yet so clear.

Read the rest here – but if you don’t know German, you’ll have to have a go with Google Translate. Or wait for English publication.

René Girard: “Today envy is the emotion which plays the greatest role in our society.”

Tuesday, December 18th, 2018
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Robert Harrison with René Girard outside the Stanford Faculty Club (Photo: Ewa Domańska)

Here’s some good news for the holidays! My Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard has been named one of the San Francisco Chronicle‘s top books of 2018! You can read about it here. We can’t think of a better Christmas present. But there’s more good news.

We wrote about Robert Pogue Harrison’s New York Review of Books essay, “Prophet of Envy,” on French theorist René Girard. We’ve also written about his Entitled Opinions radio show and podcasts. The year-end double issue of the U.K.’s  Standpoint has published a transcript of one of his 2005 Entitled Opinions interviews with his Stanford colleague – and with a line on the cover, too! (See right.) Excerpt below:

Robert Pogue Harrison: The founding adage of western philosophy is “know thyself.” That’s not an easy proposition. To know yourself means, above all, to know your desire. Desires lurk at the heart of our behavior, determine our motivations, organise our social relations, and inform our politics, religions, ideologies, and conflicts. Yet nothing is more mysterious, elusive, or perverse than human desire.

Our government invests billions of dollars in scientific research every year so we might better understand the world of nature, so that we might continue our pursuit of knowledge, yet commits only a tiny fraction of that to advancing the cause of self-knowledge. Most of our major problems today are as old as the world itself. The problem of reciprocal violence, for example. You would think we would want to understand its mechanisms, its psychology, and its tendencies to spiral out of control. Instead, we keep on perpetuating its cycles much the way our ancestors have done for centuries, and even millennia. Nor are we any closer to knowing the deeper layers of our conflicting and conflict-generating desires than they were.

René, your work has an enormous reach. It branches out into various areas and disciplines — literary criticism, anthropology, religious studies, and so forth. Today, I’d like to focus on what I take to be the foundational concept of all your thinking, namely mimetic desire. Can you tell our listeners exactly what you mean by that term?

René Girard: Mimetic desire is when our choice is not determined by the object itself, as we normally believe, but by another person. We imitate the other person, and this is what “mimetic” means. For example: why have all the girls been baring their navels for the last five years? Obviously, they didn’t all decide by themselves that it would be nice to show one’s navel — or that maybe that one’s navel is too warm, and one must do something about it.

One of San Francisco Chronicle’s top books for 2018

We’ll see the mimetic nature of that desire the day that fashion collapses. Suddenly, it will be a very old-fashioned to show one’s navel and no one will show it any more. And it will all happen because of other people — just as now, it is because of other people that they show it.

RPH: But how far do you want to go in saying that desire — by its very nature, and in human beings — is fundamentally mimetic?

RG: Maybe one can start from this question: what is the difference between need, appetite, and desire? Need is an appetite all animals have. We know very well that if we are alone in the Sahara Desert and we are thirsty, we don’t need a model to want to drink. It’s a need that we have to satisfy. But most of our desires in a civilised society are not like that.

Think of vanity, or snobbery. What is snobbery? In snobbery, you desire something not because you really had an appetite for it, but because you think you look smarter, you look more fashionable, if you imitate the man who desires that object, or who also pretends to desire it.

 And later in the interview…

RPH:  I asked in my opening remarks about why can’t we have an institution devoted strictly to the study of vengeance, for example, and work out its logic — reciprocal violence, these kinds of things. We are far from overcoming the behaviour that has characterised human history throughout the centuries.

But let’s move on to another emotion, which is closely linked, obviously, to hatred, vengeance, and jealousy, namely envy. I think envy is a highly underestimated emotion in the human relations. How do you see the role of envy?

RG:
 I see it the same way. Today envy is the emotion which plays the greatest role in our society, where everything is directed towards money. Therefore you envy the people who have more than you have. You cannot talk about your envy. I think the reason we talk so much about sex is that we don’t dare talk about envy. The real repression is the repression of envy.

And of course, envy is mimetic. You cannot help imitating your model. If you want money very badly, you’re going to enter the same business as the man who is your model. More likely than not, you will be destroyed by strength. So when people talk about masochism and so forth, they are still talking about mimetic desire. They are talking about how we move always to the greatest strength in the direction of the desire we envy most. We do so because that power is greater than ours — and it’s probably going to defeat us again. So there will be what Freud calls repetition in psychological life, which is linked to the fact that we’re obsessed with what has defeated us the first time. Our victorious rival in lovemaking becomes a permanent model. So novelists like Dostoevsky and Cervantes will show you characters who literally asked their rival to choose for them the girl they should love.

Read the whole thing here

Postscript on 12/18: The actual, physical copies of Standpoint arrived in my Stanford p.o. box today. It’s beauuu-ti-ful! (See photo at left.) Moreover, “Love and Envy in Shakespeare: A Dialogue with René Girard on Mimesis and Desire” leads the “Civilisation” section of the magazine. Thanks to Daniel Johnson and the London staff of Standpoint magazine. What fine work you do! And what a splendid Christmas present – not just for me, but for all of us!

Praise for Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard in the New York Review of Books!

Wednesday, December 5th, 2018
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The New York Review of Books has a three-page spread on our favorite French theorist, René Girard, in its Dec. 20 holiday issue – and Evolution of the Desire: A Life of René Girard is at the top of it. The article, “Prophet of Envy” by Robert Pogue Harrison, a friend and colleague of the Académie Française immortel, is a bold and brilliant, incisive and insightful consideration of René Girard’s theories and works. I hope it is cited, picked up, and republished everywhere. It begins:

A friend of Harrison’s and a friend of mine…

René Girard (1923–2015) was one of the last of that race of Titans who dominated the human sciences in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with their grand, synthetic theories about history, society, psychology, and aesthetics. That race has since given way to a more cautious breed of “researchers” who prefer to look at things up close, to see their fine grain rather than their larger patterns. Yet the times certainly seem to attest to the enduring relevance of Girard’s thought to our social and political realities. Not only are his ideas about mimetic desire and human violence as far-reaching as Marx’s theories of political economy or Freud’s claims about the Oedipus complex, but the explosion of social media, the resurgence of populism, and the increasing virulence of reciprocal violence all suggest that the contemporary world is becoming more and more recognizably “Girardian” in its behavior.

In Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, Cynthia Haven—a literary journalist and the author of books on Joseph Brodsky and Czesław Miłosz—offers a lively, well-documented, highly readable account of how Girard built up his grand “mimetic theory,” as it’s sometimes called, over time. Her decision to introduce his thought to a broader public by way of an intellectual biography was a good one. Girard was not a man of action—the most important events of his life took place inside his head—so for the most part she follows the winding path of his academic career, from its beginnings in France, where he studied medieval history at the École des Chartes, to his migration to the United States in 1947, to the various American universities at which he taught over the years: Indiana, Duke, Bryn Mawr, Johns Hopkins, SUNY Buffalo, and finally Stanford, where he retired in 1997.

Of the seven books on the list, Evolution of Desire is the only one not authored by René himself. The  final book is one of my favorites, and I discuss it a good deal in Evolution of Desire: it’s his  Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoît Chantre:

A frequent essayist in NYRB

It is in many ways one of his most interesting, for here he leaves behind speculations about archaic origins and turns his attention to modern history. The book’s conversations with Benoît Chantre, an eminent French Girardian, feature a major discussion of the war theorist Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831), whose ideas about the “escalation to extremes” in modern warfare converge uncannily with Girard’s ideas about the acceleration of mimetic violence.

Toward the end of his life, Girard did not harbor much hope for history in the short term. In the past, politics was able to restrain mass violence and prevent its tendency to escalate to extremes, but in our time, he believed, politics had lost its power of containment. “Violence is a terrible adversary,” he wrote in Battling to the End, “especially since it always wins.” Yet it is necessary to battle violence with a new “heroic attitude,” for “it alone can link violence and reconciliation…[and] make tangible both the possibility of the end of the world and reconciliation among all members of humanity.” To that statement he felt compelled to add: “More than ever, I am convinced that history has meaning, and that its meaning is terrifying.” That meaning has to do with the primacy of violence in human relations. And to that statement, in turn, he added some verses of Friedrich Hölderlin: “But where danger threatens/that which saves from it also grows.”

Here’s the good news! “Prophet of Envy” is online here! And the holidays are coming up – time to buy some books for family and friends.