Meet René Girard (1923—2015)

René_Girard_memorial_imageIt is not uncommon for academics to spend their careers pursuing narrowly defined areas of research. They become quite expert at things no one can understand except those in their field. René Girard was an academic who shatters that mold by being both interdisciplinary and relevant to a wide range of readers. He began his academic life in his native France as a historian in the 1940’s. His area of interest: private life in the second half of the fifteenth century in Avignon, a perfect example of a narrow field of scholarly study. He had the opportunity to study in the United States at Indiana University and, after earning a PhD in history in 1950 the university offered him a position teaching not history, but French literature. Nevertheless, he accepted the position and what appeared to be an odd personnel decision became a turning point in his career.

To prepare for his new teaching assignment, Girard read French novelists with great interest. Cervantes, Stendhal, Flaubert and Proust were all luminaries who were praised for their distinctive styles and contributions to literature. But Girard saw more than their uniqueness. As he read, commonalities emerged that had been previously unobserved by prevailing literary scholars. This historian-turned-literature-professor discovered that each of these writers, along with the Russian novelist, Dostoevsky, was dealing with the same dynamic: the origin of conflict in human desire.

Girard’s first book, Desire, Deceit and the Novel, presented his theory that we learn what to desire from one another, and those shared desires lead us into conflict. By continuing to study literature, anthropology, mythology and the Bible, he developed an understanding of how conflict is resolved through the use of scapegoats and the sacrificial mechanism.

Girard’s discoveries transcended the disciplines of history and French literature, as well as the limits of academic departmentalization. His theories incorporate such diverse fields as psychology, anthropology, linguistics, theology, and education. Girard defied our idea of the typical academic in another way, too: he was unpretentious and genuinely interested in others. He always insisted that it was not his theory, rather that it belongs to the many great writers and thinkers who came before him who have been trying for centuries to get our attention and communicate their observations. With both clarity and humility, René Girard perceived the import and implications of their insights.

Here are some of the many awards and honors Girard received during his lifetime:

  • Guggenheim Fellow (1960, 1967)
  • Modern Language Association Award (1965)
  • Honorary doctor of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (1985)
  • Honorary doctor of the University of Innsbruck/Austria (1988)
  • Prix Médicis essai for Shakespeare, les feux de l’envie (1990)
  • Honorary doctor of the Université d’Anvers/Belgium (1995)
  • Grand prix de philosophie de l’Académie française pour l’ensemble de son œuvre (1996)
  • Nonino Literary Prize, Italy (1998)
  • Honorary doctor of the University of Padova/Italy (2001)
  • Honorary doctor of the Université de Montréal/Canada (2004)
  • Prix Aujourd’hui for Les origines de la culture (2004)
  • Member of the Académie Française (2005)
  • Leopold-Lucas-Preis, Univerität Tübingen/Germany (2006)
  • Honorary doctor of the University of St Andrews/UK (2008)
  • MLA Award for Lifetime Scholarly Achievement (2008)
  • Comendador de número de la Orden de Isabel la Católica (2013)

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Many Voices in Celebration: A Tribute to René Girard