“René Girard never played the Great Man,” says biographer.

“René Girard never played the Great Man,” says biographer. January 19, 2016

Rene Girard at Stanford University (Photo taken by and used by permission of Ewa Domanska, all rights reserved).
René Girard at Stanford University (Photo taken by and used by permission of Ewa Domanska, all rights reserved).

René Girard was an influential theorist, member of the Académie française, professor at Stanford since 1981, and a revert to Catholicism. Stanford University will hold a memorial service in his honor today.  You can read his official obituary here and a brief summary of his thinking here.

Cynthia Haven and I met over An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw MiloszI provided the translation for one of the Polish essays in the book. We met at the Milosz centenary in Kraków and have stayed in touch ever since. When I heard she was writing a biography of René Girard, I asked to interview her, and we spoke shortly after the French theorist’s death in November.

By way of introduction, the Stanford-based scholar has written for The Times Literary Supplement, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Washington Post, World Literature Today, and others. Her work has also appeared abroad in Le Monde, La Repubblica, Zeszyty Literackie, and other publications. She has been a Milena Jesenská Fellow with the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen in Vienna.  Peter Dale in Conversation with Cynthia Haven was published in London, 2005. Her Czeslaw Milosz: Conversations was published in 2006; Joseph Brodsky: Conversations in 2003; Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz was published in 2011 with Ohio University Press / Swallow Press. Her biography on René Girard is forthcoming with Michigan State University Press. She also blogs regularly about literary topics at The Book Haven.


ARTUR ROSMAN: How did you become friends with Professor Girard? Did the prophetic intensity of his books carry over into his everyday life?

CYNTHIA HAVEN: I was on the Stanford campus in the 1980s, and I would occasionally see him, although I didn’t know who he was. He was a memorable presence, even without knowing about his work. He was in his sixties then, and had one of the most remarkable and distinctive faces I had ever seen – typecast for the role of a great thinker, writing deathless books. Dark, deep-set eyes and shock of thick, wavy, salt-and-pepper hair. As I recall he carried a brown leather briefcase, the old-fashioned kind with buckles and stuffed with papers, letters, and folders.

The face was so memorable that I remembered it twenty years later, when I met him at last – by that time he was well into his eighties. He had been in my peripheral vision all along, and I had not known it.

So I wasn’t immediately captivated by his “prophetic intensity.” Later, I noticed that he would say the most astonishing things – prophetic, I guess – in a simple, non-bombastic way. Sometimes as a throwaway line, or undercut by a joke. He was one of the least pretentious or self-interested people I have ever met.

People who never knew René don’t understand how much fun it was to talk to him. He was witty and charming and bracing and very, very smart. I found he would have a fresh and different take on pretty much everything under the sun. We became friends, in the usual sort of way.

And he would listen as much as he would talk. Given the great inequality of our friendship, this was noblesse oblige indeed. Yet he never made you feel this inequality. He never played the Great Man.

AR: Were you familiar with Professor Girard’s theories before you met him? What did you think of them?

CH: His name was familiar to me as an important French theorist, but that was about all.

The more I learned and read, the more I was surprised that more hadn’t been written about him in the American mainstream media. After all, he’d made his home in the U.S. since 1947.

Many felt his ideas were abstruse and difficult. On the contrary, I found the ideas to be pretty straightforward, and not hard to explain – although some of the applications of his ideas, and the research he uses to support them from the fields of, say, anthropology, can be challenging. I began writing a series of articles about him. He told me afterwards that this was the first time ordinary people understood what he was doing, although I think he was being overly generous. He signed my copy of Mimesis and Theory, “To Cynthia, with all my thanks for her splendid contribution to my scholarly reputation.”

I find his ideas have enormous explanatory power not only for the world we see around us – but the world we find within us. People may question his reading of archaic societies or historical events, but the place to verify his theories is within oneself. We imitate each other. We are driven by competition and rivalry with the real or imagined “other.” We struggle to acquire status symbols, which we fantasize will make us more like the one we idolize . We join in Twitter mobs, or Facebook mobs, that castigate and vilify the person or group we think is responsible for all our ills, and whose elimination will bring peace at last. The Democrats. The Republicans. Donald Trump.

This kind of “evidence” is much closer at hand than the Aztecs or the ancient Greeks. That said, I don’t feel a need to force his template onto everything I see. Certainly he explains enough of our metaphysical dilemma that I thought his ideas should be much more widely known, and figure more prominently among the tools in our psychological tool kit. I don’t see why his ideas can’t circulate as widely as we those of Freud or Marx. Many people talk about the Oedipus complex without having read a word of Freud.

René wrote about so many aspects of human life and human nature: How much we imitate each other, and how our desires are not our own. We want what others want. Inevitably, then, our desires converge on the same objects or symbols. This leads to competition and rivalry, and ultimately violence, which spreads mimetically within a society. The all-against-all conflict devolves into all-against-one. A person, or group of people, are seen as responsible and blamed for all the trouble. The violent passions are assuaged only by the death, exile, or elimination of a scapegoat – often an outsider, or someone otherwise not in a position to retaliate and continue the cycles of violence. Archaic religions controlled the violence by the ritual of sacrifice – the sacrifice of the scapegoat would bring peace and harmony to the society, and a temporary, but only temporary, reprieve from its passions. But the Judeo-Christian tradition has gradually revealed the innocence of the victim, culminating in the most innocent victim of all.

I recently ran across this quote from René’s The Scapegoat: “Each person must ask what his relationship is to the scapegoat. I am not aware of my own, and I am persuaded that the same holds true for my readers. We only have legitimate enmities. And yet the entire universe swarms with scapegoats.” True for us all, still.

Speaking of “prophetic intensity,” the first book I read was Battling to the End, his study of the military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, along with Franco-German relations, war, peace, the escalation to extremes, and the end of the world. Although many found it a dark, pessimistic, end-of-life effort, I found it riveting and persuasive. My review of it for the San Francisco Chronicle was well received and even  spotlighted by the National Book Critics Circle. He was speaking urgently about what is increasingly clear to us each day: war no longer “works” to resolve our difficulties, and yet peace eludes us.

AR: That’s quite a book to start with! It is something like Girard’s equivalent of Solzhenitsyn’s Warning to the West.

CHAchever Clausewitz had just been published in Paris at the time I met him, so it was much on his mind then. In France, at least, the impact was major: French President Nicolas Sarkozy was citing René’s words, and reporters were besieging him at his Paris apartment. At the time I met him, eight or nine years ago, the English translation was being prepared for publication, too.

Obviously, then, that book would have to have a special place in my approach to René’s work, and so in my writing, too.

There are other reasons, of course. Although Battling to the End was a book that took on European history, it was also a book that was focused on the here and now, and had much to say about our current predicament: War no longer works, yet we don’t know how to make peace. We don’t believe, at least not entirely, in the guilt of the scapegoat, yet we keep repeating the process, hoping that it will bring peace. We keep hoping that the answer is to whack harder at our perceived enemies. Not such an easy sell when we can watch them killed on our TV screens, and watch their villages burn, knowing your government, and you, are responsible.

In previous centuries, a war was declared, the enemies fought, one side surrendered, and they came together to negotiate terms. A treaty was signed, and everyone knew roughly who won and who lost and by how much. Peace may not have been permanent – think of Alsace-Lorraine – but at least hostilities were suspended for the time being, and everyone knew where they stood.

When we wage war today, our aims are unclear, the enemies ambiguous, and the finale is muddied by troop withdrawals rather than treaties. We manipulate language in an Orwellian fashion to disguise the whole process. We long for peace, yet are trapped in reciprocal cycles of escalation. Carl von Clausewitz, the military theorist at the heart of Battling to the End, thought total war was only a theoretical possibility – but now?

AR: Has war really changed that much in since the 19th century?

CH: The Guardian published a respectful article on René’s views after his death, focusing on what Clausewitz called “the escalation to extremes.” The essay gets some things wrong, but this one right: “In a nuclear age, this modern lex talionis is the drumbeat of a future apocalypse.” Now we have transnational actors who represent no government. No one answers for them. A single man with a large enough weapon can pretty much declare war on a major power unilaterally, thanks to modern technology.

Let me read what René wrote: “On September 11, people were shaken, but they quickly calmed down. There was a flash of awareness, which lasted a few fractions of a second. People could feel that something was happening. Then a blanket of silence covered up the crack in our certainty of safety. Western rationalism operates like a myth: we always work harder to avoid seeing the catastrophe.”

A week after René’s death, France suffered the greatest attack on its soil since World War II. René’s Palo Alto Requiem Mass took place on a day of national mourning in France – how strange and apt for the man who wrote so much about violence. So often René was saying what we did not want to hear. Already the silence is beginning to settle like snow around the Paris atrocity. We find we can get used to just about anything. René said we are facing a whole new phenomenon, and that what we are watching with Islamic terrorism is in fact a new religion, an archaic one armed with modern technology.

Two decades ago, René said in When These Things Begin, an excellent book-length interview with Michel Treguer, recently published in English: “I think that historical processes have meaning and that we have to accept this, or else face utter despair.” Clearly not a post-modern thinker – and he owed a little to Hegel. By the time of Battling to the End, he wrote: “More than ever, I am convinced that history has meaning, and that its meaning is terrifying.”

However, at least for me, perhaps the haunting cry that resounds through Battling to the End is René’s offhand comment about the 9/11 pilots: “Who asks about the souls of those men?” And who does?

AR: Will the apocalyptic (in the original sense of revealing things hidden) Battling to the End be the focus of your biography? Will you also discuss the hidden connections that Girardian thinking reveals between seemingly unrelated disciplines such as theology, psychology, neurobiology, economics, history, literature, race theory, anthropology, literary theory, and political science?

CH: Given the news headlines, and the world we live in, of course Battling to the End was behind many of my thoughts – but so was Deceit, Desire, and the Novel. So was Violence and the Sacred.

Certainly I discuss his books at length, and the connections you mention are inherent in his oeuvre. However, this book is the story of the man, and the forces that shaped him – using his life as a vehicle for exploring our era and the evolution of his thought.

Above all, I’m writing for the general reader, not specialists. There are plenty of books for specialists, written by specialists. In the end my background is in literature – I’m not a anthropologist or neurobiologist or economist. As a journalist, I have a long track record of explaining complex ideas to a lay public. I’m writing for the intelligent, educated reader who, say, reads the New York Times, but has no prior exposure to René or his thinking. I wanted them to be haunted by his questions, and intrigued by his answers.

AR: What were the most formative experiences in Girard’s life? How did they shape his thought?

CH: I once asked René what the most pivotal experience of his life was, and he replied that the major events were in his head. That’s what everyone else said about him, too. However, events in our heads are put there by the things we see around us. Events in our head tend not to stay with us unless they explain what we see around us. Otherwise they’d be no use.

I pressed harder, and he responded emphatically, “Coming to America.” That event in 1947, he said, made everything else possible. René is an American phenomenon, as much as a French one. Without America and the bigger vision it offered after the war, there would have been no books, no theories, and no academic career.

He had been trained as an archiviste-paléographe at one of France’s grandes écoles, the École des Chartes in Paris. It was the same school his father had attended. It was a training ground for archivists, librarians, paleographers. The suit didn’t exactly fit him. In the rigid French professional hierarchies at the time, the opportunities it provided were narrow.

And of course America led to other things. An exceptionally happy marriage, for example. Martha McCullough was in one of his first classes at Indiana University. The name stumped him midway through roll call. “I’ll never be able to pronounce this name,” he said. They met again a year or so later, when she was no longer his student. And he fixed the name problem for her in 1951, when they married. The stability and contentment of that 64-year marriage cannot be underestimated in supporting his very long, very fruitful career.

Let me add two more. Another formative experience was the “strange defeat” of France in 1940. Franco-German relations fascinated him throughout his life. It’s a straight line from the toy soldiers he played with as a child, reenacting the Battles of Austerlitz and Waterloo, to his final book, Battling to the End. Certainly the topic frequently recurred in my own talks with him. Clearly he was pondering the real nature of the struggle for much of his life. It would be the centerpiece in Battling to the End.

And finally, of course, his conversion experience. “Conversion experience” is a mysterious, much-misunderstood term. He didn’t say much about it – he said the subject was difficult to explain, and counterproductive to his work in advancing his mimetic theory. But one time he discussed it was in the book I mentioned earlier, When These Things Begin. Here’s what he said about that period in autumn 1958, when he was working on his first book, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, which discusses Cervantes, Proust, Stendhal, Flaubert, and Dostoevsky: “on the twelfth and last chapter that’s entitled ‘Conclusion.’ I was thinking about the analogies between religious experience and the experience of a novelist who discovers that he’s been consistently lying, lying for the benefit of his Ego, which in fact is made up of nothing but a thousand lies that have accumulated over a long period, sometimes built up over an entire lifetime.”

“I ended up understanding that I was going through an experience of the kind that I was describing. The religious symbolism was present in the novelists in embryonic form, but in my case it started to work all by itself and caught fire spontaneously. I could no longer have any illusions about what was happening to me, and I was thrown for a loop, because I was proud of being a skeptic. It was very hard for me to imagine myself going to church, praying, and so on. I was all puffed up, full of what the old catechisms used to call ‘human respect.’”

It changed him from being a very clever French literary scholar to something much more profound. And it also meant he lost an audience – yet he never backed off from what he understood then.

AR: What, if any, significance do you attach to Girard being born on Christmas Day?

CH: G.K. Chesterton said, “Coincidences are a spiritual sort of pun” – it’s about the only Chesterton quote I know. I’d go with that one, but with some caution. After all, Isaac Newton and Humphrey Bogart were born on Christmas Day. So was Egypt’s Anwar el-Sadat, Canada’s Justin Trudeau, and Pakistan’s Muhammed Ali Jinnah. So was Karl Rove, for that matter. That said, I’m tickled that René was born on Christmas!

See also: My post on the basics of Girard’s thinking (René Girard: Is Christianity a Myth?) and the one on his remarkable interdisciplinary influence (TOP10 Books: The Girard Option of Interdisciplinary Influence).


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