Conversations with René Girard. Prophet of Envy
edited by Cynthia L. Haven (Bloomsbury Academic, £65.00 hb/£21.99 pb and Kindle)
René Girard (1923-2015), the French literary historian and philosopher long resident in the United States, has been described as one of the 20th Century’s most original and important thinkers. It is hard to disagree, for his influence on Catholic thought has been immense.
Two problems beset humans: interpersonal relationships and politics (and politics’ handmaiden, violence). While the problems are perennial, their context changes. The vicissitudes of love, the pleasure we find, and the damage we inflict in its pursuit, were once traced in the inequalities of power and constricting social roles, protected and enforced by social conventions.
Today, the grip of social convention loosens, our freedom of choice increases and we enjoy, it appears, greater autonomy. But the difficulties remain, albeit in different forms and the anguish has hardly diminished. The evidence is there in contemporary novels and the expanding shelves of ‘self-help’ books. If we can rejoice in our liberation, it is not from self-loathing, paralysis of will, shame, envy, jealousy.
The end of the cold war, the globalisation and the weakening of nationalism promised an era of peace. It is highly unlikely that European states will revert to the warfare that defined the continent’s history. Today’s violence comes as terrorism, expressing antagonisms that, while they may not be national, are no less potent. Arsenals of nuclear weapons capable of obliterating humanity remain well stocked.
Secularism eclipses the Gospels; believers struggle to demonstrate their relevance.
Girard has something important to say on all these issues.
Girard shows how politics is not the solution to the problem of violence”
He shows that the emphasis on individuals and their autonomy masks an interdependence rooted in the nature of our desiring. Our desires are ‘mimetic’; that is to say we desire what the other has, and so we become rivals with those we admire and emulate.
Remember the old advertisement ‘would you give your last Rollo to the one you love?’ This rather unpleasant toffee becomes desirable once we suppose our loved one wants it.
Girard traced the ramifications of mimetic desire and its manifestation in different social circumstances in the novels of Cervantes, Stendhal, Flaubert, Dostoevsky and Proust. The concept receives support from neurology and has informed the work of psychologists and economists.
Perhaps Girard’s most notable contribution to the social sciences has been his study of the interplay between violence, politics and the social. He shows how politics is not the solution to the problem of violence. Violence is the solution to politics’ problems in establishing social order. The key is scapegoating.
Mimetic desire makes us enemies of each other, rivalry begets violence that spins out of control. Peace is restored when a scapegoat is identified as the source of the disorder. Rivals become brothers-in-arms as all turn against the scapegoat. He must have been the cause of the disorder since his identification and elimination have solved the problem and restored unity.
Girard provides copious evidence from history and anthropology to demonstrate how the social order is sustained by the ritual reenactment of scapegoating supported by myth.
Most sacred texts conspire to conceal the mechanism to protect its potency. The Bible is alone in uncovering it. The revelation comes to its culmination in Crucifixion. We read in the Gospels, for the first time, the story of a scapegoating told from the point of view of the innocent victim.
The imitation of Christ counters the pernicious consequences of mimetic desire; his Crucifixion, death and resurrection arms us against the lie that is scapegoating, the temptation of all politics. Love can drive out hatred.
These necessarily brief remarks hardly do justice to the richness of Girard’s thought. I hope that they are sufficient to indicate why theologians, philosophers and social scientists are interested in his work.
Of course, Girard has his critics. The commonest criticism is that he has built a system on the basis of a few ideas that purports to explain everything.
Cynthia L. Haven, whose biography of Girard published in 2018, provides an excellent introduction to the man and his work, has assembled this collection of 17 interviews with Girard and various interlocutors over a span of 24 years.
Interviews are a poor device for the expounding of a system…”
It disarms the criticism. Girard appears as engaging, good humoured, and open-minded. What we find is not a system builder, but an immensely well-read interpreter of myths, novels, the plays of Shakespeare, and the anthropological record, who brings what he has found to bear on the problems of human existence, seen in the light of the Gospels’ revelation.
Interviews are a poor device for the expounding of a system. That is the task of a monologue. As these interviews demonstrate dialogue is well-suited to the sharing of interpretations.
For those already acquainted with Girard, the book is a good refresher, for those yet to engage with him, a good introduction. All will find abundant evidence that Girard is an invaluable interlocutor in conversations on the perennial problems of the human condition.