“Know thyself.” It’s not an easy proposition. As Entitled Opinions host Robert Harrison says, “To know yourself means, above all, to know your desire. Desires are what lurk at the heart of our behavior. It’s what determines our motivations. It’s what organizes our social relations. It’s what informs our politics, religions, ideologies, and above all, our conflicts.”
In this conversation, Harrison talks with Stanford’s expert on human desire, René Girard, whose work on the subject was rooted in literary criticism, but eventually reached across disciplines to embrace anthropology, sociology, history, religions, and even the hard sciences.
Girard began his work in the 1960s with a new concept of human desire: our desires are not our own, he said, we are social creatures, and we learn what to want from each other. He has been called “the new Darwin of the human sciences” and was one of the immortels of the prestigious Académie Française.
Their 2005 interview discusses envy and desire in literature — in Canto V of the Inferno, in Cervantes, Balzac, and Flaubert, but most of all in the plays of Shakespeare. They also discuss the role of vengeance as an act of mimetic rivalry, “snobbery” as a form of imitation, and the “sacramental” nature of advertising today. “If you consume Coca-Cola, maybe if you consume a lot of it, you will become a little bit like these people you would like to be. It’s a kind of Eucharist that will turn you into the person you really admire.”
Ultimately, they talk about the mimetic escalation of warfare, Girard’s late-life fascination with the war theoretician Clausewitz, and the need to renounce violence.
This is Part 1 of a two-part discussion. Robert Pogue Harrison writes about René Girard in the Dec. 20, 2018, issue of the New York Review of Books here.
French theorist René Girard was born in 1923, in the southern French city of Avignon on Christmas day. He studied at the École des Chartres in Paris, 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 his 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, then returned to Johns Hopkins. He arrived at Stanford in 1981, as the inaugural Andrew B. Hammond Professor of French Language, Literature, and Civilization.
Girard was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and twice a Guggenheim Fellow. He was elected to the Académie Française in 2005.
Girard’s first book, "Deceit, Desire and the Novel" (1961 in French; 1965 in English), considered Cervantes, Stendhal, Proust, and Dostoevsky as case studies to develop his theory of mimesis. The Guardian compared the book to “putting on a pair of glasses and seeing the world come into focus. At its heart is an idea so simple, and yet so fundamental, that it seems incredible that no one had articulated it before.”
In 1972, he spurred international controversy with "Violence and the Sacred" (1977 in English), which explored the role of archaic religions in suppressing social violence through scapegoating and sacrifice.
"Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World" (1978 in French; 1987 in English), according to its publisher, Stanford University Press, was “the single fullest summation of Girard’s ideas to date, the book by which they will stand or fall.” He offered Christianity as a solution to mimetic rivalry, and challenged Freud’s "Totem and Taboo."
He was the author of nearly 30 books, which have been widely translated, including The Scapegoat, I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightning, To Double Business Bound, Oedipus Unbound, and A Theater of Envy: William Shakespeare.
His last major work was 2007’s "Achever Clausewitz" (published in English as "Battling to the End: Politics, War, and Apocalypse"). The book, which takes as its point of departure the Prussian military historian and theorist Carl von Clausewitz, had implications that placed Girard firmly in the 21st century.
Girard died on November 4, 2015.