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René Girard and the mysterious nature of desire | Hub 10.08.

18, 17(03

LO N G R E A D

RENÉ GIRARD AND


THE MYSTERIOUS
NATURE OF DESIRE
Biographer and journalist Cynthia Haven explores the life and times of
French thinker and critic René Girard: "His writing is powerful, incisive,
lucid. It invites you to change your life."

Bret McCabe / ! a day ago


René Girard, the late French literary theorist and philosopher of social sciences, probably
isn't the first intellectual who comes to mind when wrestling with the political tumult of

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2018. But as cultural journalist Cynthia Haven notes in Evolution of Desire, her recent
Girard biography, he very well might be the thinker we need.

In a series of books published in the 1960s and '70s, Girard analyzed literature to unlock
what makes humans tick, why they do the things they do, and why they scapegoat the people
they do. And Haven, who blogs about literature at Stanford University's The Book Haven,
writes that the explanatory power of these ideas "roams from international politics to the
memes on the daily Twitter feed."

Girard wrote and published many of the books that form


" the core of his thinking during his time at Johns Hopkins
University. He spent nearly 15 years at the university's
Homewood campus, arriving as an associate professor of
French in 1957. He left in 1968 for the State University
of New York and came back in 1976 to join the faculty of
the Humanities Center (known today as the Department
of Comparative Thought and Literature) before moving
on to Stanford in 1981, where he would remain until his
death in 2015.

During his time at Hopkins, Girard published his first


book, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in
Literary Structure—first in French, and then in English
translation by the Johns Hopkins Press in 1965—and
worked on what would become his breakthrough text,
Violence and the Sacred, which Hopkins Press published in English translation in 1977. He
also helped organize, alongside now Professor Emeritus Richard Macksey and Eugenio
Donato, "The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man" conference that imported
French literary theory to America.

Girard's Hopkins career, which Haven calls "one of the catalytic periods of his life,"
occupies the middle section of Evolution of Desire. The Hub caught up with Haven, who
today was named a 2018 National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar, via email
to talk about Girard's time at Homewood, his ideas, and what makes them not only relevant
today, but necessary.

Use the links below to jump to a specific question in the conversation.

How would you describe Girard's theory to a general audience?


What made the '60s such a fertile period for the humanities—at Hopkins and beyond?

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To what do you attribute Girard's more niche popularity in the U.S.?


How did your personal relationship with Girard inform your understanding of his ideas?
What effect did witnessing the Jim Crow era in the South have on Girard?
What effect did his religious conversion have on his work?
What qualities of art, music, literature, and theater drew Girard?
What do you think Girard has to tell us about today?

While Evolution of Desire is written for a general reader, I imagine that general reader
is probably going to have some interest in and familiarity with literary criticism. How
would you describe Girard's theory of mimetic desire for a layperson, and why it has
such lasting significance?

I'd start this way: We want what others want. We want it because they want it. These desires
are shaped by our restless imitation of others. When the coveted goods are scarce, these
desires pit us against one another—on an individual level, on a community level, and on a
global scale as well. It causes divorces and it causes international wars. It causes children to
fight over a five-buck toy in the sandbox.

René Girard wrote: "All desire is a desire for being." It's


a phrase I use often because this imitated desire is
powered by the wish to be the person who models our
desire for us. We think that this person possesses
metaphysical qualities we do not. We imagine the
idolized individual has the power, charisma, cool,
wisdom, equanimity. So we want that person's job, shirt,
car, spouse. The relationship, as he wrote, is that of the
relic to the saint.

The nature of desire is mysterious. René said: "Desire is


not of this world. That is what Proust shows us at his
best: it is in order to penetrate into another world that
one desires, it is in order to be initiated into a radically
foreign existence." No wonder he was such a devotee of
"Talking with him was always such Proust!
an adventure. Writing Evolution of
Desire was an adventure, too," says
That passage succinctly answers the second part of your
Cynthia Haven.
question as well. Our most fundamental longings—
throughout the centuries—are addressed in his corpus.
That is why it is important, and always will be important.

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Girard's stint at Hopkins was a significant period for him but also for Hopkins'
emerging Humanities Center and for French intellectuals in the U.S. in general. As you
show in Evolution, the personalities involved contributed a great deal to the intellectual
life of the times. I'm curious: what do you think made this era—at Hopkins, in the U.S.
—such a fertile period for the men, as it seems to have been exclusively men, of that
era?

It was a time when so many of the best professors were refugees. Certainly the humanities at
Johns Hopkins benefited by taking in scholars who were fleeing war or impending war in
Europe. The list includes Nathan Edelman of France, Ludwig Edelstein of Germany, and
influential literary critic Leo Spitzer of Austria. At Johns Hopkins, Girard also met literary
critics such as Georges Poulet and Jean Starobinski, as well as the Spanish poet Pedro
Salinas. Enlightened leadership played a role at Johns Hopkins; no doubt the brand new
Humanities Center did, too. It was a special moment in Johns Hopkins' history. Everyone
who was there at the time felt the electricity.

And it wasn't entirely for men—although, as I note, not a single woman was on the program
for the 1966 symposium. Change was already in the air, however. By the time of the
conference, Girard's first graduate student, Marilyn Yalom, had already received her PhD
from Johns Hopkins, a degree she earned while she was the wife of a medical intern and
mother of several children. She would go on to be a leader in feminist studies and a
prominent author in her own right.

I greatly enjoyed the chapter devoted to The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of
Man symposium in 1966, and I appreciated how you accurately point out that whatever
knock-off version of Derrida's ideas that persists in culture today, they're poorly
understood and even more inadequately used. You point out that interest in this
symposium persists more than a half-century on. Aside from being the launching pad
of Derrida across America, why do you think that is?

Dick Macksey says he still gets correspondence from people who are "addicted to one or
another of the players." I flinched at that because I suppose I am one of them. The
Structuralist Controversy, the book of the proceedings, is a rare academic best-seller and is
still in print all these years later.

ALSO SEE
"'Evolution of Desire': René Girard, a man in full"/ The Philadelphia Inquirer
"‘Evolution of Desire,’ by Cynthia L. Haven"/ SFGate
"“The Genius to Glue Them Together”: On René Girard and His Ideas"/ The Los Angeles Review of
Books

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That said, I'm not sure the symposium does get much attention. It's not very well-known
outside rarified academic circles. America may have been ground zero for deconstruction,
but most American students aren't familiar with much philosophical thought from the last 50
years. "Deconstruction" has become, in the popular culture, a lazy synonym for "analyze."
The average student maybe gets a little bit of Plato's Republic or Machiavelli's The Prince.
Perhaps a little Locke in political science classes. But you can easily get a bachelor's degree
from a major university without much more than this. Meanwhile, our French counterparts
are able to play with abstract philosophical concepts in a way we cannot. It's in their bones.
They get it in high school.

That's why deconstruction could sweep America. I compare it to a smallpox epidemic,


finding a population with no immunities. It's not the only case where ideas have swept over
large portions of America without balance or moderation.

It's a great argument for the humanities, isn't it? When people are more grounded in
philosophy, when they're conversant with the history of ideas, they can recognize intellectual
fads or even frauds—think of the gurus of the 1970s—and don't mistake them for wisdom or
truth. It requires a philosophical sophistication and flexibility that's not part of the STEM
agenda.

I ask because though Girard was one of the symposium's co-organizers who provided a
cultural bridge to French intellectuals, I kind of feel like he and his works can feel less
well-known in America. To what do you attribute his, shall we say, more niche
awareness? I mean, he lived in the U.S. for the majority of his adult life. And, since
your book encouraged me to go back and reread some Girard, his ideas feel more
direct, and his writing certainly less aggressively complex, than some of the French
thinkers who have occupied rock-star status in the States.

You're right. His writing is powerful, incisive, lucid. It invites you to change your life. Not in
the sense of becoming a camp-follower or a professional "Girardian," but rather encouraging
awareness of how we scapegoat others, how easily we join crowds, and how we hunger for
the wrong things for the wrong reasons. These are at once the lineaments of human history
and the contours of our personal life stories as well. And let's not forget that his writing is
great fun to read, too.

"WHEN PEOPLE ARE MORE GROUNDED IN PHILOSOPHY, WHEN


THEY'RE CONVERSANT WITH THE HISTORY OF IDEAS, THEY CAN
RECOGNIZE INTELLECTUAL FADS OR EVEN FRAUDS."

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Certainly part of the reason is Americans' general disinterest in European thought, as we've
discussed already. How many know the work of Michel Serres, another major French
thinker?

Jean-Pierre Dupuy, yet another French intellectual largely unknown here, suggests a different
reason. It's an obvious one: Girard's Christianity alienated audiences in secular France. Even
in American academic circles, bringing up Christian thought can be a little like burping at
dinner. I was keenly aware it would not be so if he were a practicing Muslim or Buddhist.

There's one reason he's not well-known that I tried to tackle singlehandedly: No one has tried
to explain his ideas through the man himself, embedding them in his life and times. I wanted
to reach readers who might not pick up a book that drills down into abstruse theory on the
first page, but who would be willing to give him a hearing if the life and work were woven
together in such a way to present a living man, rather than a summary of a couple of dozen
books.

I also tried to situate him among his peers, not as man standing alone in an empty field.
That's one reason I spent so much time discussing the 1966 conference. He was embedded in
an intellectual history, and his thought paid tribute to the work of others, from Aristotle to
Max Scheler's Ressentiment—and even Derrida. Girard had respect for Derrida, devotes two
pages to "Plato's Pharmacy" in Violence and the Sacred.

You note in your introduction that you came to Girard and his ideas not through his
works but through personal friendship. You know him. How did this personal
relationship inform your understanding of his ideas?

It certainly made writing more of a tightrope act. As many have noted, the book is, in part, a
memoir, and I try to make my friendship apparent—I didn't want to fake an "objective"
stance. I got to know him at a certain time in his life, in a certain place, and my
understanding of him is inevitably torqued accordingly.

"HE ONCE SAID, 'I'M NOT CONCEALING MY BIOGRAPHY, BUT I DON'T


WANT TO FALL VICTIM TO THE NARCISSISM TO WHICH WE'RE ALL
INCLINED.' THAT MADE MY JOB A LITTLE HARDER."

As to how it affected my understanding of his ideas, his life was a seal on his work. I saw
that he practiced what he preached and got better as he practiced. I'm a firm believer that, as
the Slavic scholar Carl Proffer wrote, "Dostoevsky insisted that life teaches you things, not
theories, not ideas. Look at the way people end up in life—that teaches you the truth."

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One of the greatest influences in education—I say this in an era when online learning is all
the rage—is to be around men and women who are not merely giants of the intellect but
giants of being. Wise people who exemplify their profoundest thoughts. Mimetic models are
unavoidable, but we can put ourselves under the influence of those who will transform our
thinking and our lives.

In my experience, there can be a certain leeriness about literary criticism and theory
because it's considered obstinately intellectual and removed from life as lived. And yet,
and as I think you show in writing about Girard and his ideas, there's a wealth of the
lived experience that informs intellectual labor. So I want to ask you about three
examples of that in Girard's life that came to mind when reading Evolution. The first
concerns Girard's understanding of the racial violence of the South during his year at
Duke University in 1952–53. I get the impression from that chapter that you suspect the
Jim Crow South had a marked effect on him.

How could it not have affected him? He had arrived from France only five years before and
was suddenly fully immersed in the Jim Crow South for a year. That's why I spent pages
explaining what it was like: For the millennial generation, this will be as alien to them as
Mars. I recall what a shock it was for me traveling briefly through the South in the 1960s—
and I'm an American.

"IN 2008, HE POINTED OUT TO ME HOW GENERAL ANXIETIES IN THE


NATION WOULD BE REPEATEDLY FUNNELED INTO PUBLIC DUELS
BETWEEN TWO PEOPLE. ... IT'S OUR OWN CHEESY REPRISE OF
SOPHOCLES AND EURIPIDES, WITHOUT THE ARTISTRY."

René wrote about his impressions in an autobiographical fragment that I quote in Evolution
of Desire. He would make passing references over the years. But he was silent about so
much in his life. He once said, "I'm not concealing my biography, but I don't want to fall
victim to the narcissism to which we're all inclined." That made my job a little harder.

But there's more to it than that. He and his wife, Martha, had a way of not "seeing" the faults
of their friends, and not "remembering" the trauma, upheaval, and even wickedness around
them. They don't gossip. They came of age well before the confessional era, remember, and
a stiff upper lip policy was not confined solely to the British. They extend much forbearance
and charity to their friends. Frankly, I think I'd be a much better person if I were more like
them.

From the point of view of the intellectual biographer, what do you think Girard's

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religious conversion experiences in 1958–59 made him feel about his work? Perhaps
what I'm asking comes from being raised with a hearty variety of Mexican-American
mystical Catholicism, but it seems like what his conversion introduced was a need for a
more complex sensitivity to moral ideas in his explorations of ethics.

I don't think it was anywhere near that intellectual. You don't "decide" to see a butterfly.

He had been writing Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, a study of several novelists whose
protagonists went through an end-of-life conversion, a conversion that was not necessarily
"religious" in any overt sense but seemed to involve an element of self-abandonment, self-
renunciation.

To his surprise, he found that he was undergoing the same experience that he had been
describing in his book, in which he said the novelists had realized that they were nothing but
"a thousand lies that have accumulated over a long period, sometimes built up over an entire
lifetime."

It's often said that we take things too personally. But perhaps a greater error is not taking
things personally enough. Suddenly, it was personal for him. Suddenly, his own life went
under the microscope. How does that change your writing? It changes nothing. And
everything.

After his experience, the words on the page became real to him. He wanted to engage the
authors on their own terms—his new experience had given him the evidence to do so.
Whether he was working in anthropology, history, literature, myth, he began to trust that the
texts were real, and trying to tell us about real events. This deep understanding became a
cornerstone of his work.

We don't know exactly what happened to him, other than his words and the few remarks he
made to others. We only have the clues he left us, like this one: "Conversion is a form of
intelligence, of understanding."

What can you tell me of Girard's aesthetic world? I mean, I know intellectuals choose
to write about the works they do because they fit into the larger ideas and theories they
have, but I also think intellectuals write about works that genuinely move them in some
way. What qualities of art, music, literature, theater, whatever, did Girard like? What
was he drawn to? What novel or piece of music might he, say, suggest to a friend simply
because he wanted to pass along its aesthetic experience?

He once said to me, "I tend to have the taste of my mother, you know, who was classical."
That was about music. But art? He told me he wondered if today's art might be "a conspiracy

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of merchants."

I don't remember him passing along recommendations, but he certainly did communicate his
enthusiasms. Way back in the late 1960s, he saw a performance of Shakespeare that led him
to a passion that resulted in the only book he conceived and wrote in English, A Theater of
Envy.

His tastes remained very French. At the end of his life, he told me he wanted to write a book
about Countess of Ségur, who had been born Sofiya Feodorovna Rostopchina, whose father
was supposed to have burned Moscow in 1812. She became the greatest writer of children's
stories in the 19th century—something like 35 million, ultimately. And he also said that he
was rereading Madame de Staël.

But recommendations? I can't think of anyone he would recommend more strongly than
Proust. But that takes us back to that earlier quote about desire. That madeleine, the longing,
the desire for beauty.

Both The Marriage of Figaro and chant have this in common: It is music that reaches
beyond itself and touches the eternal, that penetration into another world "in order to be
initiated into a radically foreign existence."

Finally, I know it's a bit of folly to ask such things, but as you point out in both your
introduction and postscript, Girard is actually somebody who might have something to
tell us about right now. He died in 2015, prior to the elections in 2016 and 2017 in
Europe and the U.S. What do you think Girard has to tell us about our current time
and the highly polarized world in which we currently live?

He'd tell us it's always imitative behavior. And we fight not because of our differences but
our similarities. Is the world as polarized as we think? Both sides want the same thing:
power and supremacy. As they fight, they come to resemble one another more and more, all
the while insisting they have nothing in common. They echo and amplify one another's
public accusations, campaign tactics, social media tantrums, fundraising pitches, legal
actions, and even violence in their escalating tit-for-tat retaliation.

Watch as each side successively finds scapegoats on which to hang all the blame, with
increasing hysteria and hyperbole. Eventually, the political leaders and the media turn toward
one person, or one small group of people, on which to pin the responsibility for the conflict.
The targets may not be entirely innocent, but the blame heaped upon them will be
disproportionate and fantastical. The vox populi will demand their punishment, resignation,
incarceration, expulsion. And when that fails to restore social harmony, they will find a new

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scapegoat.

René and I often discussed the news together—he was an indefatigable news-watcher. The
people who were drawn to his work crossed all sorts of partisan divides, and he accepted
everyone impartially.

In 2008, he pointed out to me how general anxieties in the nation would be repeatedly
funneled into public duels between two people. At that time, the financial instability was
creating public unease, and the media pitted Clinton and Obama against each other again and
again to further inflame public opinion. It's our own cheesy reprise of Sophocles and
Euripides, without the artistry.

He was always seeing something I didn't. I remember asking him for his own impressions of
the financial crisis. And he pointed out that Europeans would have rushed the banks under
the same circumstances, precipitating a worse crisis. He marveled at the American trust in its
institutions, which allowed us to ride out national crises. He came at events from a different
angle, like a visitor from another planet.

That's why talking with him was always such an adventure. Writing Evolution of Desire was
an adventure, too.

Posted in Arts+Culture, Voices+Opinion


Tagged literature, humanities, q+a

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