I’ve known the writing of Cynthia Haven for ages; she’s a literary blogger at Stanford, an expert on dissident Eastern European poets, and now the biographer of French literary critic and philosopher René Girard. Cynthia has been kind to me over the years, boosting my poetic follies and helping me track down scholarly sources behind the scenes, so I’m already inclined to support her work—but after reading an excerpt of her new book, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, I’m struck by how accessibly she writes about philosophical abstractions, and how sensitive she is to the tendency of human institutions to muffle or restrict truly free inquiry:
“I’ve said this for years: in the global sense, the best analogy for what René Girard represents in anthropology and sociology is Schliemann,” said the French theorist’s Stanford colleague, Robert Pogue Harrison. “Like him, his major discovery was excoriated for using the wrong methods. The others never would have found Troy by looking at the literature—it was beyond their imagination.” Girard’s writings hold revelations that are even more important, however: they describe the roots of the violence that destroyed Troy and other empires throughout time.
Like Schliemann, the French academician trusted literature as the repository of truth, and as an accurate reflection of what actually happened. Harrison told me that Girard’s loyalty was not to a narrow academic discipline, but rather to a continuing human truth: “Academic disciplines are more committed to methodology than truth. René, like Schliemann, had no training in anthropology. From the discipline’s point of view, that is ruthlessly undisciplined. He’s still not forgiven.”
I have appreciated Harrison’s analogy, though some of Girard’s other friends will no doubt rush to his defense, given Schliemann’s scandalous character—but Girard scandalized people, too: many academics grind their teeth at some of Girard’s more ex cathedra pronouncements (though surely a few other modern French thinkers were just as apodictic). He never received the recognition he merited on this side of the Atlantic, even though he is one of America’s very few immortels of the Académie Française.
I was once daunted by the numerous checkpoints that stand between academic disciplines in the humanities, and amused by how much talk of dismantling them is mere air. Girard just clambered over them:
For Girard, however, literature is more than a record of historical truth, it is the archive of self-knowledge. Girard’s public life began in literary theory and criticism, with the study of authors whose protagonists embraced self-renunciation and self-transcendence. Eventually, his scholarship crossed into the fields of anthropology, sociology, history, philosophy, psychology, theology. Girard’s thinking, including his textual analysis, offers a sweeping reading of human nature, human history, and human destiny.
Cynthia goes on to say that Girard “overturned three widespread assumptions about the nature of desire and violence.” You can click through to her blog post to find out what they are, but if you’re fond of scholars who gleefully veer not just into neighboring lanes but across entire freeways of thought, René Girard may be for you—and if so, Cynthia’s new book awaits you.