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The Last Structuralist

By: James Matthew Wilson
September 13, 2018

 

eginning in the early 1980s Stanford University’s Cynthia Haven would occasionally spy a remarkable man walking across that bright tropical campus. He caught her attention on account of his “large, totemic head, with its dark, deep-set eyes and shock of thick, wavy, salt-and-pepper hair.” Only in 2007 was she introduced to this man and learned that he was René Girard, the legendary French “theorist,” and, by then, emeritus Chair of French language and literature. Within a year, Haven was paying regular visits to Girard at his home. She could not have known then where these visits would lead.

Evolution of Desire is the first biography of Girard to appear, and I would venture to say it will be the last. Girard was a quiet, passive man who repeatedly stated he lived mostly inside his own head. His outward life was placid and uneventful, even though he came of age during the Nazi occupation of France and presided over at least one key episode in the intellectual tumult that overtook universities in the 1960s.

To this scarcity of dramatic detail, Haven brings a sympathetic reading of Girard’s books in all their towering ambition, along with a journalist’s first-person narration as she goes in search of clues to the intellectual origins of her elusive subject. Her candor humanizes a man known for his forbidding and assertive prose, for books that seemed to cast a cold, sometimes naïve, eye on all opposition as he pursued the articulation of what he deemed his one great idea, his one grand theory of human nature and history.

Born in Avignon in 1923 Girard was a student during the Nazi occupation and, after the War, a founder of the annual Avignon festival of the arts. In the late ‘40s he left France for Indiana University at Bloomington. There, he nominally pursued a doctorate in history, while being more deeply and seriously concerned with the pursuit of American girls and cars.

The French intellectual culture of his youth had been dominated by existentialism, with its emphasis on man’s absurd freedom wherein the realization of the individual as individual—his self-formation—was the only possible principle of morality. The age as a whole was one of grand theories, however, most of which put in doubt the existentialists’ individualistic vision. Darwin and Freud had long since denied the significance of the individual and the possibility of genuine intellectual or moral freedom. In the wake of the world wars, their descendants were building up far more formidable refutations of existentialism’s premises. Psychology and anthropology had begun to operate under the star of what would come to be called “structuralism,” the belief that there is a discernable and comprehensive governing structure beneath human activity.

Where theology and metaphysics had once served as the guiding disciplines for western intellectual life, and where the positivists of a century before had forecast that the physical sciences would come to guide society, the postwar fervor for structuralism proposed theories far more immanent than God or Being, and categorically less enthralled to individual or scientific reason than the positivists had been. It was an age that thought one social science or another would finally reveal the secrets of human behavior and render history a predictable outcome based on obscure but binding principles.

Though living far from the Parisian center, Girard carried structuralism’s presuppositions in his head. On his weekly rail trip between Bryn Mawr College and Johns Hopkins, on both of whose faculty he served, Girard had an experience of conversion, or rather, two of them at once. He was struck by a profound insight about the human condition, one it would take the rest of his life to elaborate. But that intellectual change of vision regarding the structure of things came also with a conversion of heart. His ideas “caught fire spontaneously” and, as he later recalled, “Everything came to me at once.”

The idea was, to begin with, his theory of mimetic desire. In Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (1961), Girard argued that the romantic (and existentialist) notion that our individual desires are true, are genuinely ours—the expression of some authentic self-knowledge and free will—was delusional. Rather, our desires are intrinsically formless and malleable, such that we come to desire what others desire: we form ourselves in secret imitation of others. This, in turn, leads to conflict and also resentment and rivalry of those whose desires we share.

Girard had begun the book as a typical instance of “debunking,” a contribution to the modern “hermeneutics of suspicion” that seems part and parcel of much structuralist thought. What authors think they are doing—articulating some authentic desire or self-knowledge—is not really what they are doing at all. Only the structuralist theorist can lay the truth bare.

The son of an irreligious and anti-clerical French republican father, Girard had presumed this argument would fit neatly within his leftist, skeptical view of things. But no. If one should awaken to this mimetic drive, one may also renounce the self it has formed and surrender to being formed by another—in the words of Christian theology, by God, the “absolute other.” Such was the conversion of Dostoyevsky’s protagonists, Raskolnikov and Verkhovensky, and such was Girard’s. For the first time in his life, he became a practicing Catholic.

Girard would transform and overcome structuralism in more than one way. As Haven describes, he organized a symposium on structuralism at Johns Hopkins in 1966. Jacques Lacan gave an incoherent keynote address in mangled English, but the triumph of the event was an address by a young French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, who was just beginning to “deconstruct” the grand schemes of structuralist thought as mere creations of “discourse.” Through Girard, post-structuralism came to America and for three decades reigned almost unopposed within the humane disciplines of the academy.

Derrida was debunking structuralist theories to expose a vacuum of fixed meaning in the world; Girard was coming to appreciate that the world’s secrets were far richer and more profound than he had ever imagined. His Violence and the Sacred (1972) and Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World (1978) gave mature expression to his long gestating theory and gained worldwide influence in literary, psychological, anthropological, religious, and, eventually, theological studies.

Violence argued that archaic religious sacrifice was not itself a cause of violence but rather a means of containing it. By identifying and punishing a scapegoat religions were able to control and reduce the social conflicts produced by mimetic desire. Things Hidden took another bold step. Christ’s self-sacrifice on the cross exposed the practice of scapegoating for what it was, a self-deception, projection, and evil, and so called human beings to renounce it by way of self-renunciation. Sacrifice ceases to be a just act one does to others and becomes a loving act for others to which one submits.

Where did these grand speculations come from? Haven’s biography tries and, by its own admission, fails to provide a source outside that “totemic” head. Girard had witnessed the scapegoating of “collaborationist” French in Avignon, after the liberation. He had spent a year in the South, at Duke, when the lynching of blacks was, with the murder of Emmett Till, being recognized for the barbaric scandal that it was. But Girard seemed to come upon his theory by reflection alone. His formidable argument for the irreducible revelation of the Cross has nonetheless seemed to some critics to follow GWF Hegel in preparing Christianity for its own supersession by the philosophical reason of structuralism.

According to Girard, the clear theme of Christian belief in his work isolated him in the prestigious and secular milieu of academe, and yet the power of his theory was evident to all who encountered it. His hiring at Stanford, in 1981, was thought a great coup for an increasingly distinguished university. In the decades that followed, institutions committed to the exploration and development of “Girardian” thought multiplied. This included Imitatio, founded by the Bay Area billionaire, Peter Thiel, along with more conventional academic endeavors.

In her account of the last decades of Girard’s life, Haven interviews many who taught alongside him or sought to continue his work. But the real wealth lies in her frequently bemused account of Girard, the laconic theorist of Christian self-renunciation, in the hyper and ambitious tropical paradise of Stanford. It is a place, Haven observes, where everyone “would really rather be robots.” While Thiel and other Silicon Valley magnates sank billions into dodging death, Girard sat at home working on still another book, Achever Clausewitz (in English, Battling to the End, 2010). Its subject is a Prussian general of the Napoleonic age whose reflections on the psychology of war serve as a basis for modern theories of total warfare.

Girard’s study comprehended not just the cause and dimensions of the great wars of the twentieth century but also the intricate mimetic dimensions of the new age that opened with 9/11. His seems the right viewpoint, for instance, from which to understand the fact that Mohamed Atta spent the last three days before hijacking American Airlines Flight 11 “drinking vodka and playing video games.” In a rage of mimetic desire, he and his accomplices felt compelled “to destroy the thing that they crave and loathe at once.”

In our contemporary cult of victimhood, we see supposed victims of oppression routinely set out on self-righteous crusades to humiliate and punish their former persecutors. Persecution “is pursued in the name of anti-persecution.” The former persecutors become the new scapegoats who must be sacrificed to eliminate social violence and allow peace to reign. That so many of the causes whose advocates now seek to “punish the wicked” are morally inimical to Christianity is incidental in comparison with Girard’s chief insight about them. Modern scapegoating resuscitates archaic religious sacrifice; the post-Christian world is also a pagan world redivivus, as it refuses to learn the lesson of Christ on the cross fixed at the center of history.

Haven’s story conveys how beloved Girard, a warm but withdrawn man, was to those who knew him; how fruitfully his ideas have influenced others; and how powerful his thought proves in explaining the structures of violence and desire in history. Girard was, in a sense, the last of the structuralists. He shows us the possibility of a post-structuralism that does not reduce the life of the mind to a light, meaningless play of “discourse,” but which digs down into the hidden depths of reality in hopes of understanding the “contagion” of mimetic violence and glimpses the possibility of redemption through a renunciation of our deeply ingrained desire to make a sacrifice.