Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard
by Cynthia L. Haven (Studies in Violence, Mimesis and Culture series / Michigan State University Press, US$29.95 pb)
René Girard, who died in 2015, was one of the leading thinkers of our era – a provocative sage who bypassed prevailing orthodoxies to offer a bold, sweeping vision of human nature, human history, and human destiny. This first biography of this eminent French/American philosopher helps situate the nature of Western civilisation in a new light.
Liberal democracy and capitalism triumphed in WWII. The noxious nationalism was defeated. Communism eventually followed, just as decisively. The dominant Christian democracy of Europe, inspired by Catholic social teaching, played a considerable role in consolidating the victory.
Nationalism was tempered by a sense of our common humanity, while its commitment to human dignity tamed capitalism. Years of economic growth and social progress followed. That chapter has concluded.
Nationalism reasserts itself. The vision of a European Union fades. Capitalism has gone global, escaping the fetters of nation-states. Inequality grows. Despite its failure as an economic doctrine, neo-liberalism dominates politics. We lack the resources to face these challenges. Why?
The answer lies in the cultural impact of the two world wars. The trauma and scandal of these wars damaged the cultures that allowed or promoted them. Faith in ‘grand narrative’, religious or national, eroded. The focus was fixed on the individual, who was now found to be responsible for the meaning and purposes that shaped his life in a meaningless world where, as Sartre remarked, “hell is other people”.
This pessimistic picture was given a positive gloss when seen as emancipation from the oppressions of “bourgeois norms”.
Cynthia L Haven tells us that René Girard, born in 1923 and so marked by both world wars, was a full member of this cultural milieu, following his anti-clerical father rather than his pious Catholic mother.
She traces how the ideas that won him the reputation as one of the 20th Century’s most significant thinkers emerged in his engagement with it. He left France in 1947 to pursue an academic career in the USA. He found in his studies of literature the psychology that showed that the modern individual who proud of his autonomy celebrated his independence was, in fact, caught in a web of antagonistic relationships.
The key was “mimetic desire”. While physical desire is linear, a straight line joining a need, say thirst, with the object satisfying it, water, metaphysical desire is triangular. An object is desired, not for its intrinsic qualities, but because of its relationship to another person: Conor wants that toy because Aoife has it. They fight for it.
Girard unravelled the complexities of mimetic desire in a close reading of Cervantes, Stendhal, Proust and Dostoevsky. Envy, jealousy and hatred accompany mimetic desire. Girard came to see that we can only escape them in the imitation of Christ. He recovered the Catholic faith in which he had been educated. His exposition of mimetic desire inspired work in politics, economics, organisation theory and psychiatry.
Girard’s second idea concerns the violence that inevitably follows from mimetic desire. He showed how the peace and order found in a successful polity is based on violence.
The war of all against all ceases and peace is established when a scapegoat is identified and we find unity and common purpose in attacking him. This peace-finding moment is recapitulated in ritual sacrifice sustained by sacred myth.
The close connection between violence and the sacred that Girard found in ancient myths and the anthropological record is disturbing. Some were even more disturbed with his reading of the Old and New Testaments as a gradual uncovering of the scape-goating mechanism whose culmination is Calvary.
Jesus is the scapegoat, the innocent victim, whose death exposes the mechanism that unites the violent with the sacred.
Haven’s biography provides an excellent introduction to Girard, the “Darwin of the social sciences” as he was described on his induction into the Académie Française. Those already acquainted with his work will find much of interest in her lucid account of the evolution of his thought. They will enjoy the portrait of the personality that emerges from these nuanced pages.
We see Girard as independent minded and combative, an inspiring teacher who attracted enthusiastic followers just as he appalled those troubled by the confidence with which he ranged across disciplines.
While the world may be deaf, or indifferent, to the Gospels, Girard shows how they understand the world better than it understands itself. They direct us out of the “hell that is other people” to which modernity assigns us and they reveal the mechanism through which violence constitutes our society providing an uneasy and always threatened peace.
Girard gives us an account of the salvation of the world that matches our troubled times. Cynthia Haven must be congratulated for the skill with which she conveys this good news.