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René Girard on ritual sacrifice and the scapegoat

Tuesday, October 4, 2005
About Guest: 

René Girard was born in 1923, in the southern French city of Avignon on Christmas day. Between 1943 and 1947, he studied in Paris at the École des Chartres, an institution for the training of archivists and historians, where he specialized in medieval history. In 1947 he went to Indiana University on a year's fellowship and eventually made almost his entire career in the United States. He completed a Ph.D. in history at Indiana University in 1950 but also began to teach literature, the field in which he would first make his reputation. He taught at Duke University and at Bryn Mawr before becoming a professor at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. In 1971 he went to the State University of New York at Buffalo for five years, returned to Johns Hopkins, and then finished his academic career at Stanford where he taught between 1981 and his retirement in 1995. Girard was the first Andrew B. Hammond Professor of French language, literature, and civilization at Stanford University. With his first two books, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel and Dostoievski: du double à l'unité, Girard rejected the literary retreat of the 1950s and early 1960s from concern with history, society, and the psyche. His initial works analyzed literary texts of Cervantes, Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust, and Dostoyevsky in terms of "triangular" or "mimetic" desire: our desires are copied from models or mediators whose objects of desire become our objects of desire. But the model or mediator we imitate can become our rival if we desire precisely the object he is imagined to have. Or other imitators of the same model may compete with us for the same objects. Jealousy and envy are inevitably aroused in this mimetic situation. Girard began to study primitive religions from the standpoint of the mimetic concept, and he saw that mimesis usually led to collective violence against a single victim, the scapegoat. Girard's most important book is Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World. In the form of a dialogue with two psychiatrists, Jean-Michel Oughourlian and Guy Lefort, its format is a triptych: (1) Fundamental Anthropology, (2) The Judeo-Christian Scriptures, (3) Individual Psychology. In this book Girard declared himself, in effect, as a Christian and advocated a nonsacrificial reading of the Gospels and the divinity of Christ. Girard continues to lecture and write and still offers a seminar at Stanford, where he and his wife Martha make their home. Retired since the summer of 1995, Girard is still actively engaged in thinking and writing.