1 – Pour Benoît

Benoît Chantre’s narrative of René Girard’s life after he had made his reputation with Mensonge romantique et verité romanesque, while necessarily of somewhat less human interest than that of his beginnings, will be of great value not only to readers of Girard but to students of French intellectual life in the second half of the last century, which the detailed descriptions of Girard’s activities illuminate. In Girard’s later writings, including his astute readings of Shakespeare’s plays and his analyses of Job and other biblical texts, the most striking difference with the era of Mensonge is a growing historical pessimism that is never quite transcended by the increased focus on prophetic texts and perspectives.

For me the most significant breakthrough in Girard’s later career occurred not with his turn to the biblical in Des choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde (1978), but in his preceding volume, La violence et le sacré (1971). This work, focused for the first time not on literary analysis but on a theory of the sacred based on the study of classical and ethnological myths that is at the same time a theory of human origin, was for me and others in literary fields an opening to the human sciences of a very different nature from the structuralist and post-structuralist developments of “French theory” that Girard had ironically been instrumental in bringing to the US.

In La violence, Girard develops the hypothesis that the watershed event of emergent humanity was that of “emissary murder,” in which a tribe in a state of generalized mimetic conflict would regain its unity by focusing the members’ hostility on a single member of the group, singled out by some distinguishing trait like Oedipus’ “sore feet,” and discharge their aggressive impulses by collectively lynching him, as the pharmakos was later killed in Athens. Although I was never fully comfortable with this theory, it reoriented our thinking about mimetic desire from the modern-literary to the preliterate-anthropological domain, and it was under its inspiration that I wrote The Origin of Language.

This is in no way to deny that Girard’s best and most satisfying work remains Mensonge romantique et verité romanesque. It is clearly the most pleasurable to read, containing none of the often repetitive rhetoric I referred to in the previous Chronicle, and the exposition of his simple yet enlightening typology of internal and external mediation avoids the rhetorical inversions that occasionally cloud Girard’s later works (see the previous Chronicle for examples). The novels of Cervantes, Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust, and Dostoevsky record a historical transformation that Girard’s description of the passage from external to internal mediation describes quite effectively. And although there is no attempt at a discussion of religious texts or theory of the origin of human society, if one goes back to Mensonge after having read his later works, one can see with little difficulty how they were all so to speak contained in germ in this masterpiece.

Above all, in contrast to the gloomy and/or apocalyptic perspectives that permeate his later writings, this first book, as I tried to bring out in Chronicle 507, is a work of spiritual uplift, a “conversion manual” that encourages us to turn away from the modern world’s tangle of “internal mediations” toward the “vertical transcendence” of the Christian message enunciated by Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov. This message of personal salvation addresses the reader directly, offering the example of Christ’s mediation as a liberating alternative to the earthly mediators who enslave us—and thereby inspiring psychotherapeutic applications such as the work of Michel Oughourlian. It is this applicability of its brilliant literary analyses to the lives of its readers that has made Mensonge the most popular and enduring of Girard’s books.

Not that Girard’s personal charisma was ever absent from his writing; he remained throughout his career a thinker accessible to the educated non-specialist. In that sense he was faithful to the religious roots of his scholarship, writing for his reader not as an academic scholar but as a moral being, tempted by sin and desire and seeking the path of salvation.

Girard’s apocalyptic strain became dominant at the end of his life in his Achever Clausewitz (2007), written as a dialogue with Benoît Chantre, and inspired in part by the West’s brutal awakening on 9/11/2001 from the complacent illusion of the “end of history.” In the ominous tone of this work, Girard returned to the original Christian conception of secular history, within which Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection were understood as signaling the demise of worldliness in the terms of the original conception of the “end of history,” the Last Judgment. But as Girard was well aware, this vision can do little for a human community that hopes to survive into the future. This helps us to understand the decline of Christianity’s influence in the modern world, in contrast with the disquieting success of the openly resentful strains of Islam and “post-colonial” ideologies.

The very existence of Chantre’s monumental biography (865 pages of text, 1148 in all) is a tribute that could only be paid to a larger than life cultural figure. Chantre’s dedication to Girard in his later years is made clear in the final chapters of his text, culminating in their collaboration on Girard’s last major publication—an expanded edition of which appeared in 2022. Few thinkers have had the strength to inspire such intelligent devotion. Even the longueurs in some of Chantre’s later chapters must be appreciated as spirited defenses of Girard’s ideas against his detractors. This is a volume of which its author can be deservedly proud.

2 – Pour René

It goes without saying that René Girard taught me a great deal, and I cannot imagine my intellectual life independently from his guidance and influence. Thus although I cannot help but regret the increasing distance of his later years, these negative moments cannot make me forget my gratitude for his mentorship and encouragement throughout my career.

Had my visiting professorship at Hopkins in 1978 been successful, our relationship might well have been much richer. I have always attributed the real cause of this failure to an instinct that told me—as a similar instinct had told Girard to leave France and make his career in the US—to avoid the mimetic intensity of the Eastern university world and pursue my interests in the relative isolation of UCLA.

My comments above and the preceding Chronicle have made clear my admiration for the devoted and intelligent effort that Benoît Chantre put into this biography, which not only reveals in considerable depth the important facts of Girard’s vie et oeuvre but provides objective evidence of why his work is historically and intellectual significant.

But it seemed to me appropriate to conclude this second Chronicle with a gesture of tribute to my directeur de thèse by dedicating to him some reflections on the originary anthropology that I began to conceive in 1978 during the semester spent in Baltimore at his invitation.

On returning to Los Angeles, I began developing the thesis I had previewed (with Girard’s encouragement) in a short presentation just before my departure from Baltimore. The result was published by the UC Press in 1981 as The Origin of Language: A Formal Theory of Representation.

This volume was followed over the years by a number of others, but since publishing a shortened and updated version of the original book in 2019, my theoretical insights have been expressed chiefly in these Chronicles, and while my brain is still more or less functional, it seems to me that it is time, over forty years after the original publication, for me to provide a synthesis of generative anthropology/GA (a term that I began to use in 1985 with the publication, also at UC Press, of The End of Culture) to serve as a point of departure for anyone interested in understanding the theory in as mature a form that I have been able to give it. GA has certainly become broader in scope than a theory of language origin, although I would still insist that in order truly to understand what is specifically human, one must begin with a minimal hypothesis that provides a criterion for the necessity of language, on the principle that in matters of evolution, necessity is the mother of invention.

This requires, in particular, setting aside or “bracketing” the philosophical and psychological doctrines about human thought and consciousness that have emerged over the centuries. In so doing, I feel I have been more loyal to Girard’s originary intuition of the centrality of mimetic desire than he was himself. For the point of departure I provide for the originary hypothesis is simply that proto-humans, having reached a certain level of intelligence driven by their increasing mimetic ability, were forced to find a solution to the problem of mimetic rivalry, to which Girard gave its name.

If Girard refused to understand my hypothesis of language origin, it was at least in part because I did not think to explain it to him in his own intellectual vocabulary. It is important to make clear that my rejection of his hypothesis of an “emissary murder” at the origin of the human in no way implied a rejection of the significance of his fundamental intuition concerning mimetic desire. On the contrary, I believe that by making the “Derridean” element of deferral (différance), which is in effect already present in the néant within the Sartrean pour-soi, the means of converting the potentially conflictive appropriation of the object of contention into its designation, which can be shared unproblematically by all, the pointing gesture that was no doubt the originary sign—a gesture which as I have noted is not used even by chimpanzees as a sign in this sense—allows the original mimetic conflict to reach a successful resolution in what Homer would call an “equal feast” among the participants.

Where inhibition in the Pavlovian sense provides the individual with an automatic safety valve for a potentially dangerous stimulus, deferral includes a recognition of the “interdividual” conflict implicit in shared desires. If I have often referred in this context to the model dilemma of whether to take “the last canapé,” it is because, however quasi-automatically we pull back before reaching it, this deferral of action is very different from the mindless reflex that pulls our hand back from a hot surface. And its very minimality as an act of judgment suggests the liminal character of the first sign as an emergent mode of behavior.

Although it is self-evident that human language as the “solution” to mimetic desire is not an individual trait like the opposable thumb, throughout its history, philosophy’s point of departure has always been the individual mind, as though its dependence on the human community were a mere epiphenomenon.

Discussions of human consciousness that begin with an isolated individual always remain solipsistic at their core. Girard rejected the originary hypothesis as a “social contract” without realizing that by neglecting the originary grounding of the human community in semiotic language, he made it impossible to offer a minimal theory of the human as such—including the phenomenon of the sacred, with regard to which I have often cited Roy Rappaport’s statement in Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (1999; see in particular Chronicle 282) that language and religion were “coeval,” born in the same moment.

I need not repeat here my critiques of the often absurdly solipsistic scenarios of the birth of human consciousness. Nor does it suffice to emphasize that the human child learns language in human society rather than “instinctually.” The fact that thinking in the human sense requires language, which is to say, virtual dialogue with the human community, for any more elaborate intuitions than that of Kohler’s ape using a pole to knock down the bananas, is simply taken for granted and then forgotten. And with it, we lose the sense of language as a human invention in the context of solving a crucial problem, and come to see it rather as a beneficial discovery, as though, like mathematics, language were a self-contained system independent of human thought that at a certain point came to be “downloaded” for use by human brains.

No doubt the manipulation of numbers implies constraints that are not self-evident consequences of the act of counting, but that must be discovered—which even then is far from justifying the typical scientistic attitude that the universe is in itself “constructed from” mathematical entities. But in any case, language is very different; its rules and laws are by no means inherent features that humans “discover,” but patterns derived from their exercise of speech and writing. That the human individual is able to think, that is, use internal language to develop arguments that can be used to manipulate all aspects of external reality, does not make this individual a self-substantive creation.

And just as the originary function of language (and, I would add, in the spirit of Rappaport, that of the sacred) was to defer the conflicts arising from mimetic desire, so this remains the central function of all the cultural institutions that human communities have built on their basis over the millennia. Unlike inhibition, deferral is conscious, an act of judgment—with the unsettling consequence that, as emerged in Eden, its sacred demands may come to be disobeyed. Language and the sacred as means of deferring conflict do not abolish conflict; on the contrary, the success of each deferral allows the potential danger of mimetic desire to increase.

Thus Girard was well advised to remind us in his final writings that we are perpetually under the apocalyptic threat of self-destruction that we have created for ourselves. But humanity’s only possible response to the threat of nuclear apocalypse, as it had been in the beginning from that of community breakdown and starvation, remains that realized by the first human word pronounced in response to a “sacred” intuition: deferral of conflict.

Our celebrations of communal unity, however welcome, are always fragile, and the resentments they defer return in ever new guises. In times of peace we grow soft and unable to conceive of the horrors that war would make us bear. We bewail the decline of Christianity while witnessing the (hopefully temporary) triumph of its caricature in the victim-worship of Wokism—even when the “victims” perpetrate the barbarities of October 7. For a great moral idea is no more invulnerable to such travesty than the community that gave birth to it. The postwar era’s relative stability increasingly appears to us as the prelude to a new “time of troubles” with the potential of unimaginable destruction from which “starting over” can only be conceived in science fiction.

As Girard’s final work made clear, la montée aux extrêmes in the age of ultimate weaponry gives renewed force to our eternal hope that, in the belief that we inaugurated our species with violence, we will always find a way to turn violence to our own ends.

Would that it sufficed to maintain the West’s self-confidence to believe, however irrationally, in an originary victime émissaire… But Genesis offers us the model of a more realistic perspective. The sacred, by deferring violence, makes future violence inevitable. But given that God allowed human society to start over after the Flood, and then let it survive the Tower of Babel, we can only act in the faith that humanity will be permitted to defer once more the fatal montée aux extrêmes and allow our human world still another reprieve.