In memoriam René Girard

As sometimes happens with foreign books sent as “free samples” to avoid paying customs fees, Grasset was obliged to send more than one copy of this volume before one finally reached me at the beginning of February. Given its significance, I promised Benoît that I would reserve Chronicle 800 for my discussion of it. This first Chronicle will discuss what amounts to the part of Girard’s life until a little after 1966, when I obtained my PhD and ended my student days, leaving the later years for another Chronicle or two.

And 1966 was coincidentally the year when in October, Girard organized and directed, along with a couple of colleagues, the historically significant colloquium at Johns Hopkins, “The Language of Criticism and the Sciences of Man,” which led to the institution in the US of what came to be known as “French theory”—as an ironic result of which Girard’s work was largely neglected to the profit of deconstruction. For it was at this conference that Jacques Derrida became for a few decades an academic rock star whose influence went far beyond Comp Lit and language departments—and rather suddenly went into decline in the mid-1990s, more or less at the time of the “end of history.” Today, Derrida’s name is seldom mentioned in academic circles, whereas Girard’s often shows up in the press in reference to scapegoating, and a year or two ago even appeared in a New York Times crossword puzzle as the answer to “Theoretician of mimetic desire.” Girard passed away in 2015, but well-funded associations of Girardians continue to exist in France, the US, and elsewhere.

Among many other details of Girard’s life, Chantre’s narrative revealed to me what began as a strangely “mediated” relationship between Girard and Derrida—the major and minor inspirers of Generative Anthropology. Chantre analyzes at length the course of this quasi-master-slave relationship, which at first inspired Derrida to write a near-Girardian analysis in his 1968 essay “La Pharmacie de Platon” dealing with the pharmakos or scapegoat figure in Plato’s Phaedrus; but as Derrida’s celebrity grew in the US, his interest in Girard did not endure. Learning this, I better understood why, when in 1998, Anthropoetics ran a special issue on Deconstruction while Derrida was visiting at UC Irvine, he politely declined to participate or speak with us.

At the time of obtaining my PhD I cannot say that I had evolved a personal system of criticism, nor would I have called myself a disciple of Girard. Yet I had much appreciated his Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque (in English, Deceit, Desire and the Novel), which remains in many ways his masterpiece. My dissertation, reflecting Girard’s characteristic opposition between mensonge and vérité, discussed, in largely Freudian terms, Flaubert’s teen-aged romantic writings, indicating the trajectory of disillusionment that would characterize his post-romantic maturity. Thus its substance, as well as its title, Discovery of Illusion (UC Press, 1970), had a distinctly Girardian flavor.

Even later when I wrote The Origin of Language (UCP: 1981) I had not yet conceived the intellectual program that would become Generative Anthropology. The book was focused on presenting the simplest conceivable origin of language in syntactic terms, so that the original ostensive sign was hypothesized to give rise first to the imperative, and then to the declarative/interrogative as the result of a “failed imperative.” As for the occasion on which the first sign would be produced, I assumed that, in terms of Girard’s idea, expressed in his La violence et le sacré (Grasset, 1971), the human began with the “emissary murder” of a member of the group, but that in any case, this first event of human language would occur on the occasion of dividing up the body of a sacrificed victim (whether human or not), the key point being that, in order to preclude mimetic violence, the “animal” act of appropriation would be aborted or deferred, and the original gesture of appropriation become a pointing or ostensive gesture: the first linguistic sign.

As my article “Differences” (MLN 96, Spring 1981) already made clear, GA’s core idea was “the deferral of violence through representation,” combining the watchwords of both thinkers. I recruited Derrida’s idea of deferral (différance, a creative misspelling of the normal différence that, as he pointed out, could not be heard but only seen in writing) from its original point that by deferring (différer) one’s choice of a word, one has thereby the possibility of choosing among different words in a paradigm, e.g., of colors, shapes, etc. That may well be true, but his metaphysical vocabulary prevented Derrida from noting that the primary deferring act is the sign itself as an aborted act of appropriation, that is, renouncing the attempt to possess the object with its inevitable threat of igniting mimetic violence, and thus merely designating or representing the object, along with one’s renunciation, to the others in the group.

Benoît Chantre’s masterful biography, published in Girard’s centenary year of 2023, touches in great detail on every aspect of Girard’s personal and intellectual development. It is grounded in years of painstaking research, which included conversations with many of Girard’s colleagues and students, travel through the American countryside in search of material at the various universities where Girard taught, as well as to his home town of Avignon, where Jean Girard, René’s father, had been a distinguished medieval scholar, the director of the library at the Palais des Papes (as well as a ghost-writer of René’s early thesis on medieval marriage).

The care and tenacity with which Chantre defends Girard’s memory and his intellectual contributions—against the Derrideans in particular—is a magnificent and well-deserved tribute to a truly significant thinker whose work has still not received the attention it deserves. The book analyzes in great detail the intellectual atmosphere of the years it discusses, with many exhaustive reports of conversations and exchanges that shed light on Girard’s writings. We witness the density of his intellectual relations in Paris and at the same time his preference for making his career abroad. I may have been Girard’s “first serious student,” but I learned much from Chantre about his career and his relationships with other thinkers. This product of his intelligent devotion makes Girard truly come alive, both as a personality and as a thinker, and I can imagine how much pleasure this biography will bring to his widow and children, as well as his many friends and admirers.

Born on Christmas day in 1923 (whence his middle name Noël), Girard was a youth during the German occupation, but as a member of a respectable Catholic family in Avignon, which was part of the at first non-occupied Etat français a k a Vichy, he does not appear to have had any significant dealings with the Nazis. After the war, he and some friends put on an art show in Avignon in 1947 that included many of the major artists of the period, including Picasso, Matisse, and Chagall, and during this period he even had a fairly serious liaison with a well-known actress, Sylvie Monfort.

But after having renounced his arty ambitions and gone through the program at L’école des Chartes in Paris, René declined to follow in his father’s footsteps as a medieval philologist, and in 1947 he went off to Bloomington, Indiana to study at Indiana University, where he received a PhD in 1950 with a doctoral dissertation on “American Opinion of France, 1940-1943.” (When I was later appointed as Assistant Professor at IU in 1967, the chairman, Samuel Will, told me semi-proudly that he had been the only person ever to “fire” Girard, who had not obtained a regular teaching position there.) It was also at Indiana University that he met his wife Martha, at the time a student librarian.

Chantre makes clear why Girard, without ever renouncing his French roots, and not always appreciative of what he saw of American political conflicts, was nevertheless ultimately more at home in the US than in France—and would become perhaps the only member of the Académie Française to make his entire career in a non-French-speaking country.

Chantre’s book also clarifies for me why I parted company with Girard, as an American who could never quite become comfortable with the language of metaphysics even in the unpretentious and evangelical mode in which Girard employed it. Although Derrida was deliberately arch and paradoxical, to the point where I stopped reading his writings after Glas in 1974, whereas Girard was always readable and even eloquent, Chantre’s many quotations remind us of the curious similarity of their rhetoric. Hence although I would in principle take Girard’s side in their dispute, and certainly find less than noble Derrida’s refusal, noted by Chantre, to cite Girard’s name in his writings despite the early expressions of his debt to him, I take their obvious rhetorical similarity as a sign that in order truly to leave the metaphysical domain behind for a humanistic anthropology, a radical simplification was necessary, such as could be accomplished only by putting aside both philosophical/metaphysical and Biblical/prophetic rhetoric and starting over from the beginning with a pragmatic hypothesis trimmed down by Ockham’s razor. Although at first expressing encouragement, Girard never really made an effort to understand my hypothesis, interpreting its refusal to begin with “originary violence” as proof that it was merely an update of “social contract theory.”

To provide a typical sample of Girard’s quasi-evangelical rhetoric, I have selected a passage from “Symétrie et dissymétrie dans le mythe d’OEdipe” Critique n°249 (Feb. 1968), cited on p. 480 of the Biographie:

La vérité et le mensonge surgissent ensemble, également partagés entre les adversaires. Plus on avance dans le mythe, plus la symétrie est éclatante, plus le besoin de la nier se fait irrésistible. Tous les lecteurs du mythe, tous ses interprètes éprouvent ce besoin. Tôt ou tard, le bien et le mal, le vrai et le faux doivent s’incarner en d’infaillibles champions. La tentation d’éliminer la symétrie en expulsant l’émissaire est irrésistible.

Truth and lie emerge together, equally divided between the adversaries. The further one advances in the myth, the more the symmetry is striking, the more the need to deny it becomes irresistible. All the readers of the myth, all its interpreters feel this need. Sooner or later, good and evil, truth and falsity must become embodied in unfailing champions. The temptation to eliminate this symmetry by expelling the emissary/scapegoat is irresistible. (my translation)

Such conflations of opposites, which claim to clarify a false opposition by converting it into a true one, can be convincing only so many times, before one realizes that in describing the problem, they are also describing themselves. I see this as proof that the real problem in the overcoming of metaphysics which all these post-Hegelian thinkers are seeking must be traced to the sublime fideistic gesture on which Western civilization has been based since Constantine: the Christian revelation. Girard’s own “conversion” in 1959 to his childhood faith was, as Chantre makes clear, the decisive event of his intellectual as well as his personal life. Already married in a Protestant ceremony, René and Martha remarried in a Catholic church. (And I well remember a conversation in 1995 with Martha, who would call me her “fils adoptif,” in which she expressed a gentle impatience with René’s religiosity.)

GA’s minimal conception of the sacred by no means implies that the fideism that defines Christianity is “false,” let alone “wrong.” But it does remind us that we must start from a minimal point of departure; and Christianity is anything but minimal. Girard’s conception was that humanity as such (without any need for language, which when pressed he actually considered a secondary development) is born from the breakdown of a given hominin community into a condition of reciprocal hostility, a war of all against all, which is finally resolved by the quasi-arbitrary choice of an “emissary victim”—someone marginal, perhaps with a limp (or “sore feet” like Oedipus)—who by a simple process of contagion is chosen as the collective scapegoat and lynched by the others, bringing peace by discharging the violent potential of the entire community. Girard claimed to have found evidence for this theory of origin in his study of the myths of elementary as well as Classical societies, although his only evidence for it was in the myths themselves and in practices such as the Pharmakeia in Athens mentioned above, brushing aside the fact that such practices could only be attested in hierarchical societies, and was never illustrated in Paleolithic cave paintings, in which only animals are hunted.

Certainly GA’s minimal hypothesis has nothing of the sexiness of a communal lynching. Its minimality makes it almost invisible; in lieu of discharging all their mimetic aggression on a member of the group, the members of the community defer their appropriative behavior around the central victim of the hunt and thereby avoid conflict, allowing the community to celebrate what Homer called “an equal feast.” And clearly, even if after the murder they divided the scapegoat up and ate him, this would hardly be a sustainable procedure for a prehistoric tribe. No doubt Derrida’s notion of différance had a very different point of departure from my own, but both exemplify in language the same phenomenon of not acting on instinct, of experiencing not, like an animal, an inhibition but an interdiction, which in Sartre’s terms adds the open space of the néant to the unfree, “cramped” en-soi and converts it into the free pour-soi—in other words, humanity.

I very much regret that Girard never let me try to convince him of this minimal origin, which would certainly not have required him to reject the basic thrust of his anthropology—but would no doubt have obliged him to situate it not in prehistory but in history, as the New Testament explicitly does. John wrote, “In the beginning was the logos,” but that for John, Jesus embodied the logos from the beginning of time is secondary to the central truth of Christianity: that, unlike the God of the Torah, Jesus appeared on Earth in historical time as a living and dying individual in a mature, literate society. Christianity is dependent, as Judaism is not, on belief in a set of events of which some were inconceivable in worldly terms—virgin birth, Resurrection—while others were situated in concrete historical reality. Whether or not resurrected, Jesus was indubitably a real person who suffered a real crucifixion.

Deferral is not annihilation, and mimetic passions that are deferred remain as potential sources of violence whose destructiveness grows with the evolution of society. And indeed, Girard’s Christian interpretation of novels and tragedies as myths of transcended violence is very much apposite to the societies in and for which these works were created. But none of this requires that we derive the emergence of the human from an originary experience of collective murder. This indeed strikes me as contrary to the very spirit of Judeo-Christian religion, which interprets Jesus’ “coming” in the middle of history as inspiring a New Testament commemorating this late solution to the human curse of mimetic desire, one following which the (presumably brief) remainder of human history will be experienced in the awaiting of Jesus’ “second Coming” at the biblical equivalent of Hegel’s “end of history.”

To be continued…