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.
Apart from the books he collaborated on with others, Girard gave countless interviews to journals, magazines, and newspapers in the United States and elsewhere. With him, though, this wasn’t about vanity; you learn precious little about Girard the person from these interviews. 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.”
The core of Haven’s collection deals, unavoidably, with Girard’s mimetic theory; some of these interviews could serve as excellent single introductions to “the Girard system.” If you don’t have the time to read Girard’s oeuvre, the interviews with Rebecca Adams or Robert Pogue Harrison, to give just two examples, might offer you a fairly good idea of what mimetic theory is all about. In any event, you should get enough from them to decide whether you love Girard’s thinking or hate it—the two most common responses to Girardism. Very few of his readers are ambivalent about him.