for Martha Girard
Just at the point of starting this 500th Chronicle, I learned of the death of René Girard, without whose inspiration these Chronicles, if written at all, would surely have been very different. I have told the story of my encounter with Girard in various places, but I hope my readers will forgive me for returning to it on this sad occasion.
Girard was still a young and relatively unknown Associate Professor when I arrived at Johns Hopkins from Columbia in 1960. He would achieve lasting fame with Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque, published the year of my arrival. Girard was my obvious choice for dissertation director; he was in the “modern” field (19th-20th centuries) and was a brilliant and compelling teacher. He directed my quasi-Freudian dissertation on Flaubert’s early works conscientiously and insightfully, and without imposing his own ideas, which nonetheless left their mark on my analyses.
In those days of the French nouvelle critique, literature was considered a source of what we can simply call anthropological understanding, deeper than the overt ratiocinations of philosophy. But for René, the coherence of the literary narrative reflected the more fundamental truth that he saw revealed in the Christian “greatest story ever told.” Certainly Mensonge romantique, although not overtly a work of religious thought, saw literature as much more of a religious than a psychological-metaphysical experience: the very term conversion by which he defined the novelist’s arrival at an authentic understanding of mimetic desire makes this clear—as does the book’s concluding reference to Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov. (A common love for Dostoevsky was a point of contact with René; my adolescent self-consciousness was born with the revelation of Notes from Underground.)
My first writings after my dissertation were not directly influenced by René. When I came to UCLA in 1969, Alain Cohen of UCSD interested me in the Batesonian notion of pragmatic paradox, and I applied this idea to that of esthetic experience, which oscillates between the esthetic “sign” and the imaginary construction it provokes in its audience. I became interested in applying this esthetic to our understanding of the basic structure of “mature” language, the declarative sentence, which focuses on a thing (noun) and then qualifies it with a predicate. Was not there an ostensive focus on the thing prior to predication? Is not predication the fundamental form of deferral of our potentially conflictive focus on the object of our attention?
My thinking in this period was more psychological than anthropological. What turned me toward anthropology was the appearance of La violence et le sacré. Published in 1972, eleven years after Mensonge, it was my most significant intellectual revelation. The scene of the unanimous lynching of the “emissary victim” was a genuine hypothetical event of human origin, and as I gradually came to see, of the origin of language and representation in general.
I only began to put all this together when in 1978 I was called to Baltimore for a visiting professorship that was to be the prelude to a permanent appointment. Girard was attempting to build a team, and had chosen me as his first collaborator. And I let him down. I believe my failure to secure this professorship was a factor in the disaffection that led to his leaving Hopkins a few years later for Stanford, where he remained for the rest of his life. As I have explained in the online Girardian Origins of Generative Anthropology, when I came to design the graduate course for my visit, instead of building on a course on Girard and Derrida that I had already taught successfully at UCLA, which would have been ideal for a department where Girard was present and Derrida came on regular visits, I decided hubristically to devote the seminar to my theory of esthetic paradox, without a textbook or even a prescribed set of readings, simply presenting and illustrating my ideas week by week. This was clearly a suicidal decision, and it is hard to blame the graduate students whose complaints soon made my appointment unthinkable. In retrospect it seemed that I had wanted to avoid not so much proximity to René as the pressure cooker of East Coast academe, as opposed to the intellectual isolation in which I worked at UCLA. Call it cowardice, call it prudence, I have never been comfortable with the academic establishment, and this even before I began to be offended by its left-wing politics and high-intensity networking (I was still something of a left-winger in 1978; I had voted—and I think René did too—for Carter in 1976, but for Reagan in 1984).
The most important aspect of my abortive professorship at Hopkins was the time spent with René himself, who had just published the final work of what might be called his major trilogy: Des choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde, a work somewhat diminished by its dialogic format, but which nevertheless contains the essence of Girardian thinking about Judaism and Christianity within the anthropological context developed in La violence.
Of our many conversations that year, I recall two in particular. First, in a parking lot behind Gilman Hall, I expressed some Jewish skepticism about a possible relationship to Jesus as a model, given that he was presented as“le fils de Dieu.” René answered, “nous sommes tous fils de Dieu.” That one sentence, whose orthodoxy I had no way of testing, has always seemed to me the simplest and truest definition of Christianity. In its very vagueness between metaphor and literalism, it assumes the burden of the nature of human language—inextricably truth and BS—that our proud philosophers think they can ignore.
The other remark was one he made to me toward the end of my stay at Hopkins, when it was already clear that I would not be offered the job, but when I had begun to elaborate my ideas on language into what would become over the next year or so GA’s “originary hypothesis.” I had given a little talk on this subject to the department, with a dozen or so students in attendance, along with a professor or two. René, who had presented me, said to me afterward that modest gatherings like this were where great ideas had their start. It wasn’t clear to me that he thought my idea was a great one, but it was clear from this remark that he was giving it a chance. Coming from René, whose generosity toward ideas other than his own was not easily forthcoming, I took it not simply as a compliment but as a charitable gesture of encouragement, an act of grace.
Once the Hopkins appointment fell through, as I half-understood at the time, the active part of my relationship with Girard was over. No doubt we remained in contact. The Colloque de Cérisy for his sixtieth birthday in 1983 brought together a number of Girardians, some old, some new, and although I wasn’t involved in the early years of COV&R, in the late 1990s I was made a lifetime honorary member, and for a few years was invited to give plenary talks. I also invited Girard to speak at UCLA several times, including at the founding of the local Center for the Study of Religion in 1995, coincidentally with the (wholly unrelated) founding of Anthropoetics.
When I think of “what I learned from Girard,” what comes to mind is less “mimetic theory”—a term I never heard him use, but assume was intended to turn him into the “social scientist” he was described as in several obituaries but never really was—than a few basic insights, more important from a mimetic or simply from a human standpoint than specific points of theory. Perhaps the most central, an idea that comes more easily to (Catholic) Frenchmen than (Protestant) Americans, is that religious texts, correctly read, are not merely of moral let alone “literary” value, but sources of anthropological knowledge—and that the Judeo-Christian Bible embodies history’s highest understanding of the human as founded in violence contained by/in the sacred.
A corollary of this, often more salient than the underlying proposition, is that what we call “philosophy” is not truly self-grounded and is in fact derivative of religion. René taught me a skeptical light-heartedness toward the philosophical or “Greek” component of the Western tradition, which he saw as having received an exaggerated amount of attention in comparison with the more profound Judeo-Christian element. I am perhaps more comfortable with philosophical discourse than René, but neither of us was trained as a “philosopher” (a term that always strikes me as pretentious when applied to professors of philosophy, particularly “analytic philosophy”), and whenever I am faced with philosophical ratiocination ungrounded in an anthropological model, I think of the little smile with which René, as what he would have called my mediator, would have reacted.
No doubt I wish that René had been more open to the originary hypothesis and to my theory of language and representation. But he was not one to be curious about ideas that, however sympathetic to his thought and acknowledging their debt to it, diverged from it in any significant manner. Perhaps, speaking again from a mimetic perspective, this was really best; an indifferent or even slightly hostile father-figure affords one more freedom than one whose agreement and approval one is constantly seeking. I miss our early conversations and exchanges of letters—in those days we sent paper letters, often hand-written, by snail mail—but even had I stayed at Hopkins after 1978, there would surely have come a moment when collaboration of this sort would no longer have been useful to either of us.
Implicit in the greatness of René’s thought was the audacity of his example. Joseph Bottum’s memorial piece on René in the November 23 Weekly Standard makes the point that his straightforward attempt to explain the human as a whole, in its essence—which is to say, to construct an anthropology in the strong sense of the term—was a throwback from the timidity of twentieth century social science to the systematic thought of the nineteenth century. This faith in human understanding put René, ever the non-Parisian, in clear contrast with the kind of anti-system found in “French theory.”
René wrote to be understood, and above all, to make the world better understood. The post-structuralists certainly had the chutzpah to apply their ideas “universally,” but their ultimate aim was to defeat common sense rather than to enhance it. Derrida, the most powerful of these thinkers (and the one whose thought can most usefully be integrated into the framework created by René), attempted to “deconstruct” our common understanding, not in order to provide a better one, but to show that any intelligible vision of the world is really a form of “false consciousness” in the service of an ill-defined central authority. Understanding is tyranny; deconstruction makes us free. None of this takes into account what René understood to be the problem at the heart of the human: the need to defer mimetic violence. It is this “différance” that provides the adult reality within whose security philosophical children can dream of anarchy.
As a man of faith, René agreed in his own way with Einstein’s point that God doesn’t play dice with the universe. Except that whereas physics, which is only peripherally about us, seems to become ever more confusing, anthropology, which is entirely about us, should not. I am forever grateful for having had the great good fortune to study with the one contemporary thinker who not only truly believed this but had the intellectual power to put it into practice.
Rest in peace, René!