A biography provides a portrait of French theorist René Girard.
In her book, Haven (An Invisible Rope, 2011, etc.) recounts the rich details of Girard’s life. He was born on Christmas night in 1923 in Avignon, the second of five siblings. His mother was among the first women in the region to receive a baccalaureate, and his father was an anti-clerical archivist who served in World War I. Girard was a mischievous prankster and inconstant student but still showed precocious signs of his sensitive devotion to literature. Around age 10, the two books that influenced him the most were Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Due to his sickliness, he was later ineligible for military service. He studied at the École des Chartes in Paris in the 1940s while the city was under German occupation. Girard jumped at an opportunity to teach at Indiana University, where he met his wife, Martha McCullough. He was denied tenure, neglecting to take seriously the counsel that publishing was crucial to advancement: “It is under this principle that I started to write, around 1950, after two or three years devoted essentially to female students and cars.” Girard was forced to take a position at Duke University in 1952, well before it was a heralded institution, which furnished plenty of fodder for his thinking on race. In 1961 he published Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, a philosophically sprawling work that covered the likes of Flaubert, Stendhal, and Dostoyevsky. And in 1966 he helped organize the legendary conference “The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man,” which introduced the United States to an established Jacques Lacan as well as Jacques Derrida, a rising star. Girard’s illustrious career was crowned in 2005 with an election to the Académie Française; he died in 2015.
Haven was a close friend of Girard’s, and that privileged perch allows her to consider his life both personally and intellectually. Many aspects of his history would be hard to adequately comprehend without this dual perspective. For example, she offers an impressively incisive account of his conversion from atheism to Christianity in 1958 (“It was something no one could have anticipated, least of all himself. ‘Conversion is a form of intelligence, of understanding,’ he said; it’s also a process…and as such would absorb him for the rest of his days”). In addition, her rendering is as panoramic as his thought—she considers a vertiginous array of diverse subjects insightfully, including Girard’s trenchant criticisms of Camus’ The Stranger, the ways in which the French and Americans view each other, and desire’s metaphysical aspects. Furthermore, Haven ably, even elegantly, synopsizes the central tenets of Girard’s beliefs, in particular his pioneering views on mimesis—a kind of updated version of Rousseau’s amour propre—the notion that the desires and violent conflicts that often spring from people have their root cause in the gregarious mimicking of others. In this intimate but philosophically searching book, the author’s writing is marvelously clear. She expertly unpacks Girard’s ideas, making them unusually accessible, even to readers with limited familiarity.
A penetrating account of an important thinker—and as agile, profound, and affecting as its subject.