Acclaimed as the founder of mimetic theory
Born Dec. 25, 1923 in Avignon, France
Died Nov. 4, 2015, at his home on the Stanford campus in California
It is not uncommon for academics to spend their careers pursuing narrowly defined areas of research. They become specialists, expert at things that have no clear application to life’s problems. With a PhD in medieval French history, René Girard, the great theorist of desire, rivalry and violence, seemed to be destined for a similar fate.
Girard was born on Christmas day in 1923 in the historic town of Avignon in the south of France. Following in the footsteps of his father, who was an archivist of Medieval history, René chose to focus his research on a tiny sliver of the past: private life in his hometown in the second half of the fifteenth century. Narrow, to be sure, and hardly relevant to the existential questions that erupted in France in 1940 when it was conquered and occupied by Nazi Germany. René was sixteen years old at the time.
Occupation and Humiliation
During the years of occupation, Girard found himself studying in Paris, facing the humiliation of the French defeat and random harassment by German troops. Walking on the streets of the city, one could be forced at any time to produce an identity card or risk imprisonment. René told his biographer, Cynthia Haven, “I hated it. I hated Paris. I hated Paris more than any other city.”1 He recalled living on a shoestring budget and during his first year there he was often cold and hungry.
Throughout France, the pressures of occupation turned citizens against each other as the nation split into camps – those who openly cooperated with the Germans and those who joined the underground resistance. Suspicions, rumors, and accusations were part of the air one breathed in Paris and Girard could not wait to return to the relative calm of his family home in Avignon.
The Stupidity of War
War had touched the Girard family before. During WWI (1914-1918), René’s grandfather served as a lieutenant and suffered a serious head wound that required surgery and a long hospitalization. René reports that he was anti-war the rest of this life. “He was aware of the stupidity of it all,” René said. Sadly, his grandfather’s brother was killed in the final offensive of the war, the infamous and bloody Battle of the Somme.
Girard never knew his great-uncle or his grandfather, who died when René’s father was only five years old. Yet their absence hovered over the family and formative years of the young scholar. War, loss, humiliation, fear, and the eruption of mob violence after the war as the factions turned their hate and resentment against each other – this is the backdrop on which Girard would work out his theory of scapegoating violence as his career took him to the United States.
Girard revolutionized our understanding of ourselves, of human origins, and of the risks and promise for our future as a species.
A New Direction
When he arrived to teach at the University of Indiana in 1947 it was as a professor of French language and literature. He became a popular teacher, but he felt the humiliation of being rewarded for speaking French and being French, two things that had nothing to do with any achievement of his own. He felt resentful and craved recognition for something uniquely his. What he did not recognize as he began dutifully reading the French authors he had been assigned to teach was that he was about to make the discovery that would win him a place among the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century.
To prepare for his new teaching assignment, Girard read the French authors Stendhal, Flaubert and Proust, who were known for their distinctive styles. But Girard saw more than their differences. As he read, commonalities emerged that had been previously unobserved by critics. This historian-turned-literature-professor discovered that they were each writing about the same thing: the origin of conflict in mimetic desire. This child of two world wars, humiliation and resentment, discovered the truth about himself on the pages he was reading.
Girard continued working on literature as he took teaching appointment at Johns Hopkins. He read Cervantes, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Greek dramatists, myths, and the Bible finding the revelation of mimetic desire and the rivalry that emerges from it central to all these works. Working on his first book in 1958-592, Girard had a conversion experience as he recognized himself caught up in the imitation, rivalry, and desire for originality that defined the novels’ heroes. Dr. Ann Astell, a professor of theology at Notre Dame, describes this pivotal time in Girard’s intellection and spiritual journey:
Travelling weekly by train in 1959 between Maryland and Philadelphia (he was teaching at that time at Johns Hopkins University and at Bryn Mawr), he had had (as he remembers) “quasi-mystical experiences in the train as [he] read,” enjoyable experiences connected with a sense of illumination. This first conversion experience made no pressing demands on him for “any change of life.” Soon afterward, however, the thirty-five-year-old Girard underwent treatment for a cancerous spot on his forehead, and his comfortable, intellectual “conversion was transformed into some- thing really serious.” When the worry of melanoma was lifted, precisely on Wednesday during Holy Week, Girard, who had not been a practicing Catholic, immediately went to confession; he received the Eucharist on Holy Thursday. His marriage to Martha Girard was sacramentalized and their children baptized. “I felt that God liberated me just in time for me to have a real Easter experience, a death and resurrection experience,” Girard recalls.3
Girard experienced a sudden moment of insight, an intuitive flash that pulsated with spiritual and intellectual significance. In looking back over his career, he explained that “Everything was there at the beginning, all together. That’s why I don’t have any doubts. There’s no ‘Girardian system.’ I’m teasing out a single, extremely dense insight.”4
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His Life’s Work and Ours
Girard’s insight led him to make remarkable contributions to Christian theology and biblical interpretation, the understanding of human desire and violence, the origin of human culture and the ancient world of myths, rituals and sacrifice. In 2005, he was given France’s highest honor, becoming a member of the Académie Française where he was hailed as a new Darwin of the social sciences, a fitting tribute for a man who spent his life on a voyage of discovery.
Mining the depths of that “extremely dense insight,” Girard revolutionized our understanding of ourselves, of human origins, and of the risks and promise for our future as a species. Girard’s work will be an essential guide if we are to have any hope of leaving behind the stupidity of war, scapegoating and mob violence in order to embrace the things that make for peace.
You can find a summary of Girard’s academic career here.
1 Cynthia Haven, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, Michigan State University Press, 2018.
2 René Girard, Mensonges romantique et vérité romanesque, 1961 (Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure, published in English in 1965).
3 Ann Astell, Violence, Mysticism and René Girard, Theological Studies 2017, Vol. 78(2) 389–411. Quotations from The Girard Reader, 285-6.
4 René Girard, When These Things Begin: Conversations with Michael Treguer, trans. Trevor Cribben Merrill, Michigan State University Press, 2014, page 128-29.