Mimicry, Mania, and Memory: René Girard Remembered

(Portrait via
In a new biography of the anthropologist and literary critic, we glimpse the personal experiences that corresponded to his analysis of competitive envy.

 Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, by Cynthia L. Haven (Michigan State University Press, 346 pages, $29.95)

On the occasion of the induction of the Franco-American intellectual René Girard (1923–2015) into the Académie Française in Paris in 2005, Girard articulated an abhorrence of what he called the modern descent into “the anti-Christian nihilism that has spread everywhere in our time.” One might well say that over a 60-year period, after his arrival from France as a graduate student at Indiana University in 1947, the literary critic and eventual anthropologist Girard found himself increasingly exposing, analyzing, and challenging this nihilism, and in fact progressively purging its residual effects in himself as a legatee of the histrionic, skeptical French literary-cultural tradition since the mid 18th century, deplored in the mid 19th century by Alexis de Tocqueville, one of whose chief facets Girard characterized as “decadent aestheticism.”

Cynthia L. Haven’s outstanding new biographical and critical study, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, is a brilliant survey of his life and thought, but also a document of high importance for understanding what has happened to the conception and teaching of the humanities in the United States and elsewhere since the 1960s, and why Lionel Trilling was right to worry about “the uncertain future of humanistic education,” the title of a 1975 essay. Starting out as a literary critic writing mainly about the 19th-century novel, Girard developed into a wide-ranging cultural critic and anthropologist at Johns Hopkins (1957–68, 1976–80) and then at Stanford (1981–2015). His thinking has had a vast effect throughout the Western world on literary studies, anthropology, sociology, religious studies, theology, and even the writing of history, influencing numerous scholars in these fields, as well as novelists (Milan Kundera, J. M. Coetzee), and leading to associations and journals for the study and application of his thought. Evolution of Desire is itself a distinguished, judicious work of interdisciplinary cultural analysis and synthesis in the current of Girard.

Most of Girard’s books were published first in French in France, some of them best-sellers, leading ultimately to his election to the Académie Française. The first, Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque (1961; with a pun on “roman,” which also means the novel) was translated into English and published as Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure (1965), and it introduced the theme, which he called “mimetic desire,” that would make Girard famous and influential in the world of the humanities.

The “romantic falsehood” of Girard’s title derives ultimately from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s conception of personal authenticity, portrayed in his fiction, his autobiographical Confessions (1781), and especially in his tendentious, tiresome, heartlessly long and repetitive educational novel Emile (1762), perhaps the single most influential book on education published in the last 250 years. Rousseau argued that in the aboriginal state of nature (or in childhood itself) the human person had a necessary and good kind of self-love (amour de soi-même) but that in the formation of human societies (and adulthood itself) men fell into endless, anxious, comparative, competitive, invidious self-love (amour propre). Rousseau said that his main principle was that “nature makes man happy and good, but that society depraves him and renders him miserable.” Life in existing society is fallen, alienated, insincere, inevitably inauthentic; so too is modern adulthood. The revolutionary implications of this conception found their first political heroes in Robespierre and the Jacobins, and the first of their many explosive modern political outbursts came in the sanguinary French Revolution. Burke saw and said that Rousseau’s alluring concepts and words came first: The catastrophic French Revolution was their sequel.

Girard in Mensonge romantique grants that competitive envy is the very social-psychological motor that drives “enlightened,” atheistic modern personal and social life. “At the heart of the book,” Cynthia Haven writes, “is our endless imitation of each other. Imitation is inescapable.” And she continues: “When it comes to metaphysical desire — which Girard describes as desires beyond simple needs and appetites — what we imitate is vital, and why.” We are inevitably afflicted with “mimetic desires,” first of parents and siblings, then of peers, rivals, and chosen role models, and these desires endlessly drive and agitate us, consciously and unconsciously, causing anxiety and “ontological sickness.”

An example is given in a recent essay by Ross Douthat about Ivy League American education: “The eliter-than-elite kids . . . help create a provisional inside-the-Ivy hierarchy that lets all the other privileged kids, the ones who are merely upper-upper middle class, feel the spur of resentment and ambition that keeps us running, keeps us competing, keeps us sharp and awful in all the ways that meritocracy requires.” Tom Wolfe’s satirical college-campus novel I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004) illustrates these dismal, malignant dynamics in ways that must depress and even nauseate those of us who are professional educators, shocked by the accuracy of its representation of campus degradation, where facilities improve and character deteriorates.

Girard’s argument is that Rousseau’s ideal of completely autonomous personal authenticity, with its explosive social-political effects, is an initially alluring but ultimately and utterly false Narcissistic idol. Our free will is always (and always has been) constrained and conditioned, though not necessarily determined, by the very facts of human childhood, parenting, and linguistic, cognitive, conceptual, and cultural development (see my “Mother, Child, and Language” at NRO). There have always been powerful critics of Rousseau: from H. S. Gerdil (The Anti-Emile, 1763; English translation, 2011), Samuel Johnson, Burke, and Hamilton in Rousseau’s own time, to Irving Babbitt (Rousseau and Romanticism, 1919), Jacques Maritain, T. S. Eliot, and Lionel Trilling in the mid 20th century, and, more recently, E. D. Hirsch (see chapter 4 of The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them, 1996). They have argued persuasively against Rousseau’s anarchic, antinomian, seductive Romantic vision, and Cynthia Haven’s account of Girard’s thought and psychological-emotional development effectively and movingly extends and amplifies their critique.

In 1958–59, before and while writing the “Romantic falsehood” volume, Girard went through internal, personal experiences corresponding to the implications of his own analysis of the “canker vice, envy,” and they amounted to an unexpected Christian conversion, about which Haven writes very well. Still nominally very much part of an atheistic, anti-foundational, French academic avant-garde in the United States, and now increasingly prominent in his position at Johns Hopkins, Girard was even one of the chief organizers of “The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man,” the enormously influential conference, in Baltimore in October 1966, that brought to America from France skeptical celebrity intellectuals including Jacques Lacan, Lucien Goldmann, Roland Barthes, and, most consequentially, the most agile of Nietzschean nihilists, Jacques Derrida, still obscure in 1966 (and always bamboozlingly obscurantist) but propelled to fame by the conference and his subsequent literary productivity and travels in America: another glamorous, revolutionary “Citizen Genet,” like the original Jacobin visitor of 1793–94.

After this standing-room-only conference, Derrida and “deconstructionism,” left-wing Nietzscheanism in the high French intellectual mode, took America by storm, which is perhaps the crucial story in the subsequent unintelligibility, decline, and fall of the humanities in American universities, in terms both of enrollments and of course content. The long-term effect can be illustrated in declining enrollments: at Stanford, for example, in 2014 alone “humanities majors plummeted from 20 percent to 7 percent,” according to Ms. Haven. The Anglo-American liberal-humanistic curricular and didactic tradition of Matthew Arnold (defending “the old but true Socratic thesis of the interdependence of knowledge and virtue”), Columbia’s Arnoldian John Erskine (“The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent,” 1913), Chicago’s R. M. Hutchins and Mortimer Adler (the “Great Books”), and English figures such as Basil Willey (e.g., The English Moralists, 1964) and F. R. Leavis (e.g., The Living Principle: “English” as a Discipline of Thought, 1975) at Cambridge, and their successor there and at Boston University, Sir Christopher Ricks, was rapidly mocked, demoted, and defenestrated, with Stanford students eventually shouting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho! / Western civ has got to go!”

The fundamental paradox of a relativistic but left-wing, Francophile Nietzscheanism married to a moralistic neo-Marxist analysis of cultural traditions and power structures — insane conjunction! — is now the very “gas we breathe” on university campuses throughout the West (see my “Lincoln and Leo XIII against the Nietzscheans” at NRO).

Girard quietly repented his role in introducing what he later called “the French plague” to the United States, with Derrida, Foucault, and Paul DeMan exalting ludicrous irrationalism to spectacular new heights. His own efforts turned increasingly to anthropology and religious studies. Rousseau, Romantic primitivism, Nietzsche, and French aestheticism, diabolism (“flowers of evil”), and atheistic existentialism — Sade, Baudelaire, Gide, Sartre, Jean Genet, Foucault, Derrida, de Man, Bataille — had drowned the residually Christian, Platonist, Arnoldian liberal-humanistic tradition, which proved to be an unstable halfway house between religion and naturalism. Yet the repentant Girard resisted the deluge and critiqued it, initially from within (Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust), but increasingly relying on the longer and larger literary tradition, drawing particularly on Dante and Dostoyevsky as well as the Judaeo-Christian Scriptures. Like other close readers of Dostoyevsky, such as Berdyaev, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, other anti-Communist dissidents including Czesław Miłosz, Malcolm Muggeridge, and numerous Slavic scholars such as Joseph Frank, Girard came to see Dostoyevsky as the greatest social-psychological analyst of and antidote to the invidious “amour propre” and restless revolutionary resentments of modern life, themselves comprising and confirming an original sin of egotism and covetousness. Like Dostoyevsky, Girard became an increasingly orthodox Christian, seeing in the imitation of Christ the divinely appointed way out of the otherwise endless, invidious, simian hall-of-mirrors of “mimetic desires.”

Girard argued that these competitive, comparative “mimetic desires” had geopolitical and not only personal and social effects, from the 18th century onward: siblings versus siblings, generations versus generations, nations versus nations (e.g., French versus Germans, 1789–1945, about which he wrote poignantly at the end of his life), cultures versus cultures (Islam versus the West today). Girard’s later work, and that of his allies and disciples, has ranged widely over these issues and themes of rivalry, imitation, envy, and scapegoating, as Cynthia Haven shows.

At Girard’s induction into the Académie Française in Paris in 2005, his fellow French Academician (and friend and Stanford colleague) Michel Serres also spoke and passionately deplored the violent and perverse world of contemporary audiovisual media, representing and exulting in human degradation “and multiplying it with a frenzy such that these repetitions return our culture to melancholic barbarism” and cause “huge” cultural “regression.” Rousseau’s idyllic Romantic dream has been transmogrified into Nietzsche’s exultant criminal vision of a world “beyond good and evil.”

Girard’s long odyssey began with an idyllic childhood and youth (1923–42) in Avignon, in the beautiful lower Rhône valley of France, Christianized in the second century, location of the Palace of the Popes, where his anti-clerical father worked as an archivist. His mother was an unusually highly educated woman for that time and a devout Catholic who read her children Manzoni’s great providential novel The Betrothed. Wartime study in Paris during the German occupation, 1942–44, and then after the Liberation, 1944–47, preceded Girard’s emigration to the United States in 1947, and his happy and enduring marriage to the American Martha McCullough in 1951. His subsequent professional trajectory took him from Indiana to Duke (where segregation left him with a lasting impression of scapegoating evil), then to Bryn Mawr and Johns Hopkins, Buffalo, Johns Hopkins again, and then to Stanford and well-merited world eminence. Despite his enormous general audience and success in France, and the amazingly successful, disintegrative, Franco-Nietzschean “deconstructionist” invasion of American and British universities, publishing houses, and elite mentalities, he “marveled at the stability of the United States and its institutions,” Girard’s biographer tells. Let us hope Girard is right.

Another Franco-American immigrant-intellectual of great integrity, intelligence, and influence, Jacques Barzun (1907–2012), wrote in his magisterial final work of cultural history, From Dawn to Decadence (2000), that modernism is “at once the mirror of disintegration and an incitement to extending it.”

Cynthia Haven’s fine book on Girard is both brilliant cultural criticism and exquisite intellectual history, and an edifying biographical and ethical tale, providing a philosophical vision of a world beyond monkey-like mimicries and manias that demoralize, dispirit, and dehumanize the contemporary human person. It deserves wide notice and careful reading in a time of massive and pervasive attention-deficit disorder.

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