A Happy Contrarian

‘Conversations With René Girard,’ ‘Evolution of Desire’
René Girard (Agence Opale/Alamy Stock Photo)

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.

 

There is hardly a field, sphere of life, or situation, where Girard’s theory does not apply.

The interviewers often push Girard to explain how his theory applies to real life, and he is happy to oblige. The theory’s journey into the world is a great story in its own right. No sooner did his argument reach a certain “elegance” than Girard started to realize its growing applicability: “You suddenly see that there is a single explanation for a thousand different phenomena.” He first formulated his theory in a book of literary history, then went on to apply it to the study of mythology and religion, then to politics and international relations, then to society and economy, fashion and eating disorders, and whatnot. Just open a newspaper and pick something, anything, at random. Even the stock market? Especially the stock market, Girard would respond. That’s “the most mimetic institution” of all—indeed, a textbook illustration of how mimetic theory works: “You desire stock not because it is objectively desirable. You know nothing about it, but you desire stuff exclusively because other people desire it. And if other people desire it, its value goes up and up and up.” There is hardly a field, sphere of life, or situation, where Girard’s theory does not apply. He finds that fascinating. Some of his readers find it too good to be true. Others find it scandalous.

In Haven’s collection, Girard’s mimetic theory, with its ever-increasing range of applicability, comes forth forcefully. He had the rare gift of narrating ideas. Yet there is something else that the book reveals, which not only makes it a compelling read but deserves at least as much attention: the portrait of René Girard as a major public intellectual and one of the most seminal thinkers of our time; his uncompromising unorthodoxy and unusual position in American academia; the fascinating case of someone who, as a matter of both scholarly method and personal lifestyle, always seems to go against the flow, no matter the consequences.

Jean-Michel Oughourlian, a renowned French neuropsychiatrist and psychologist, is one of Girard’s interlocutors in Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. The discovery of Girard’s theory (and then the chance to work with him) was a life-changing experience for Oughourlian. One gift Oughourlian received from Girard, he recalls, was the “lightness, humor, and laughter when approaching the thorniest problems.... I have never laughed so much as during the preparation of Things Hidden, nor have I ever learned so much.” This is precisely what Haven’s collection reveals. Girard is utterly serious about his ideas, but he never seems to take himself too seriously. “My main desire was to get a car,” the theorist of mimetic desire recalls about his first years in America. His recorded conversations are full of irony directed at himself, self-deprecation, even self-mockery. Such humility, coming from such a great man, is what makes reading Haven’s collection a profoundly refreshing intellectual experience.

Typically, Girard hides himself behind a sober professorial mask, and that’s what renders his humor so effective. “Just look at academia, that vast herd of sheep-like individualists,” he exclaims in one of the interviews. Nietzsche, he observes elsewhere, “is so wrong that, in some ways, he’s right.” Speaking of how he came to the mimetic theory, Girard admits, tongue firmly in cheek, that “my theory took me by surprise.... I’m really just as startled by it as anyone else.” Girard had the finest of manners, and that may be why his sting was so lethal: “Deep down, Sartre was very comfortably petit bourgeois, a lover of tourism, and too even-keeled to become a true genius.”

There was another gift that Jean-Michel Oughourlian remembers receiving from Girard: “An utter irreverence with regard to canonical authors, that is to say, freedom of thought.” In American academia, Girard was a strange animal. Even as he managed to get to the top of the system (he held prestigious positions at Johns Hopkins and Stanford, among other places), he never cared too much about its rules and conventions. The hierarchies and holy figures of the academic game left him unimpressed. His exact position in the system was never clear, which he must have found amusing. Many considered him a literary scholar. Yet, he says, “in an academic sense, literary criticism is no more ‘my’ field than anthropology, or psychology, or religious studies.” He was interested and did significant work in all these fields, without having formal training in any of them. The one discipline in which he did have such training was the one in which he did the least work. “If our ‘real’ field is the one in which we are not self-taught,” he said, “my ‘real’ field is history.” Here he is teaching at an elite university while praising the virtues of auto-didacticism: “In everything that truly matters to me...I am self-taught.”

 

Girard needed to believe in order to make better sense of the world—as he observed, “conversion is a form of intelligence.”

Something that many of his academic colleagues could not forgive Girard for was his religion. While he started from a purely secular position (“I am rooted in the avant-garde and revolutionary tradition”), Girard adopted Christianity for philosophical reasons. His theory led him to think that the Passion of Christ (as recorded in the Gospels) was a turning point in history because it put an end to an uninterrupted line of violent scapegoating by exposing the scapegoat mechanism for what it was. As Haven shows in Evolution of Desire, Girard’s was primarily an “intellectual” conversion. He needed to believe in order to make better sense of the world—as he observed, “conversion is a form of intelligence.”

Yet many could not comprehend how such a brilliant and sophisticated man (and a Frenchman to boot) could go so medieval. Conversions were not exactly in intellectual fashion in American academia. When “theory,” the latest French import, was Gospel truth in the humanities, Girard would never cease to poke savage fun at it. “If a Rabelais shows up at the right time,” he said in 1993, “he will do hilarious things with our current scholasticism and in particular with our use of the word ‘theory.’” Girard grew up and was educated in France, and could see right through the whole thing. In the United States, “theory” was a fad that would soon die out, as fads always do:

The next generation will wonder what impulse could so move so many people that go on endlessly writing the most convoluted prose in a complete void of their own making, disconnected not only from the reality of their world but from the great literary texts, of which recent theory has been making a shamelessly parasitic use.

Prophetic though Girard was in other respects, he was dead wrong here. The next generation of literary scholars may have abandoned “theory,” but only to venture into new voids.

What depressed Girard most about academia (even though it was yet another confirmation of his theory) was the combination of ferocity and nihilism he observed among his colleagues. They were the representatives of a most peculiar brand of fanaticism: fanatics who don’t believe in anything. They could wage the nastiest of intellectual wars, hurt and humiliate others, even destroy careers, in the name of absolutely nothing:

Whenever people really believe in some truth larger than the academic world, they do not dedicate themselves to the pursuit of academic success with as much ferocity as the people who believe absolutely nothing.... far from making people more relaxed and generous, the current nihilism has made academic life harsher and less compassionate than before.

This pushed Girard into an increasingly isolated position within American academia. Not that he disliked being in such a situation—if anything, he may have found it exhilarating. The more his colleagues shunned him, the more he mentioned the emperor’s nakedness; the deeper their silence, the sharper his criticism. The contrarian’s role seemed to suit him well. While most of his peers were advertising their disdain for religion, Girard was praising the virtues of true faith: “If we had more genuine religion, we would have less violence.” Nothing too scandalous here, certainly. However, right after this, he adds a coda. “This is what most ordinary people still believe,” he said, “and, as a rule, when the ordinary people and the intellectuals do not agree, it is safer to go with ordinary people.” One can get away with saying many things in today’s university, but not this. The theorist of scapegoating was courting trouble.

A comment that Haven makes in passing toward the end of her biography has been haunting me. When Girard’s Achever Clausewitz (Battling to the End)—another “book of conversations,” with Benoît Chantre as interlocutor—came out in France in 2007, it became an instant bestseller. It was much talked about and passionately debated; even the French president had something to say about it. Girard was a star in high demand, with journalists camping out in front of his Paris home. That was in France. “Meanwhile,” Haven comments wryly, “once back in the United States that had been his home for sixty years, Girard walked the Stanford campus virtually unnoticed and unrecognized.” The contrast could not be sharper—but he may have preferred it that way.

Conversations With René Girard
Prophet of Envy

René Girard
Edited by Cynthia L. Haven
Bloomsbury Academic
$26.96 | 232 pp.

Evolution of Desire
A Life of René Girard

Cynthia L. Haven
Michigan State University Press
$29.95 | 346 pp.

Published in the March 2021 issue: 

Costica Bradatan is a professor of humanities at Texas Tech University and an honorary research professor of philosophy at University of Queensland in Australia. He is the author, most recently, of Dying for Ideas: The Dangerous Lives of the Philosophers (Bloomsbury).

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