History is a test. Mankind is failing it.

René Girard scrutinizes the human condition from creation to apocalypse.

July/August 2009

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Portrait of René Girard

Photography by Michael Sugrue

He is one of the most recognizable, if largely unrecognized, superstars on the Stanford campus: The shock of white hair, the strikingly deep-set eyes beneath dark eyebrows are unmistakable. René Girard is one of only 40 members, or immortels, of the Académie Française, France's highest intellectual honor. He has taught here for 30 years, but the emeritus French professor admits that few people here understand quite what he does.

Girard, 85, has produced book after book. His latest, Achever Clausewitz, created a firestorm in Paris when it appeared in 2007—the kind of conflagration only a public intellectual in France can ignite. French President Nicolas Sarkozy was citing his words, and reporters made pilgrimages to Girard's Paris doorstep day after day. That sort of brouhaha is unlikely to happen when the English edition, Battling to the End: Politics, War, and Apocalypse, is published by Michigan State University this fall—but not because Girard avoids controversy; he seems to revel in it. Even in America, he's had his share.

Girard's work crosses the fields of literature, anthropology, theology, philosophy, sociology, psychology. His brainchild, the mimetic theory, emphasizes the role of imitation in our lives, as an effect and a behavior and a motivation. Toddlers learn to talk by imitation; we learn a foreign language by imitation. But mimesis is not only the way we learn—it's also the way we fight. We compete; we want what our brother has; we "keep up with the Joneses." Girard's theory—a long thought played out over decades—suggests that mimesis is the basis of all human conflict, and that the resolution of conflict through the public sacrifice of a scapegoat was the very foundation of archaic religions and civilizations. But the ancient formula no longer works, he says. The world may be headed for an impasse.

While the idea of mimesis is hardly foreign to the social sciences today, no one had made it a linchpin in a theory of human behavior and human destiny, as Girard did beginning in the 1950s. His one-man interdisciplinarity can present problems in academia, whose denizens haven't always condoned poaching.

"I'm a specialist of the mimetic theory, but the mimetic theory is my creation, you see?" Girard says. "You're not supposed to have your own theory in the academic world. You cannot theorize about literature and sociology, in the manner I do. The mimetic theory—they would tell you it's a gimmick, maybe."

That hasn't slowed the accolades, though French professor Michel Serres, another immortel (of the handful who live outside France, two are at Stanford), dubbed Girard "the new Darwin of the human sciences." Robert Harrison, chair of French and Italian, has called him "by any measure, a giant of 20th-century thought" and "the Heinrich Schliemann of contemporary anthropology." On Girard's ascension to the Académiebiology professor Sharon Long, then dean of Humanities and Sciences, said he was "a living legend and one of the great philosophers of his generation."

Girard's hands typing on a keyboard


Yet his mimetic theory finds application in situations as fresh as the stock market's recent somersaulting and crash. In a Newsweek article last October, former Law School professor Lawrence Lessig described "herd behavior" as the missing link in our financial models.

"It's always imitative behavior," Girard says. "You have signs that make some people negative about the market that would not necessarily make other people negative." Then comes the formation of a crowd. "Every time you add one, the move towards the unity of the mob becomes faster, it has more power and attraction." So often, modern media become the crowd's "channel," he notes. "So the modern world is constantly threatened by mob aspects."

Girard was born on Christmas Day, 1923, in Avignon. It's a city with romantic connotations, suggested in the children's song about the oldest bridge in France. Girard demurs. "If you are from Avignon, it is not that romantic," he says. "It is less than 50 miles from the sea, but it's not the Riviera. It's a small provincial town." His father was curator of Château des Papes, France's biggest medieval fortress and the pontifical residence during the Avignon papacy.

"No one likes to do the same thing as his father," Girard says, yet he took a degree from l'Ecole des Chartres with a dissertation on marriage and private life in 15th-century Avignon.

A student visa brought him to the United States, where he earned a PhD at Indiana University. He was denied tenure there for the age-old reason that he hadn't published enough—ironic for the thinker whose books today have been translated into 25 languages.

He migrated to Duke—"They didn't realize I was a 'lemon' when they took me on," he says—then Bryn Mawr and Johns Hopkins. During those years, 1955 to 1959, he wrote his first landmark book, Deceit, Desire and the Novel. (Some of his uncollected essays from this period were republished last year by Stanford University Press as Mimesis and Theory: Essays on Literature and Criticism, 1953-2005.)

He began to see the Bible as “anti-myth”—a description of humankind’s long climb up from barbarity. Violence, retaliation and a vengeful God evolve over centuries into themes of forgiveness, repentance and the revelation that the scapegoat is innocent.

As Girard reflected on the works of Balzac, Proust, Stendahl, Cervantes and Shakespeare, he began to notice a common theme: Desire is derivative. For example, Don Quixote falls so much in love with his books on chivalry that he imitates the goals and ideals of their heroes. So often in literature, friendship morphs into rivalry. Two men love each other so much that they want what the other wants, including the same woman. Hence, they become mortal enemies.

Girard was already resisting intellectual fashions. He would approach a line of thinking as systematically as possible, with the rigor of a scientist deriving a theory from data. But he was working in a literary world that abhorred systemization.

"I think the very notion of the humanities is at stake today because of this insistence that they not be touched by religion or science," he said in an interview with author Millicent Dillon in 1981. "That's why I think the humanities are withering on the vine. Of course, if I say things like this, it's terrifying to most people because you question all the categories. I think we live in a prudent world, but I like to take risks."

That includes risking criticism. "Theories are expendable," Girard says. "They should be criticized. When people tell me my work is too systematic, I say, 'I make it as systematic as possible for you to be able to prove it wrong.'"

He was also challenging the critical taboo of linking writers' works to their lives: "In this country it has been an absolute given that the writer's life has nothing to do with the work. But it's sheer nonsense," he told Dillon, adding that writers ultimately talk only about themselves.

The Frenchman began making a big impression early. "From the moment he arrived at Johns Hopkins in the late '50s, René commanded respect and even awe from the graduate students and junior faculty," feminist historian Marilyn Yalom, senior scholar at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, said in an email. (Girard supervised her dissertation on Camus and Kafka.) "With his leonine head, we felt we were in the presence of someone resembling a prophet rather than a university professor. His lectures were inspiring, and his face-to-face encounters encouraging."

Published in 1961, Deceit, Desire and the Novel was important to Girard not just for the mimetic theory, but also for the powerful personal epiphany it brought the author. Girard discussed it with James Williams in an interview included in The Girard Reader. "I started working on that book very much in the pure demystification mode: cynical, destructive, very much in the spirit of the atheistic intellectuals of the time. I was engaged in debunking, and of course recognizing mimesis is a great debunking tool because it deprives us moderns of the one thing we still have left, our individual desire."

He described his eventual realization this way: "The author's first draft is a self-justification." It may either focus on a wicked hero, the writer's scapegoat, who will be unmasked by the end of the novel; or it may have a good hero, the author's alter ego, who will be vindicated at novel's end. If the writer is a good one, he will see "the trashiness of it all" by the time he finishes his first draft—that it's a "put-up job." The experience, said Girard, shatters the vanity and pride of the writer. "And this existential downfall is the event that makes a great work of art possible," Girard said. The work is no longer a self-justification, and the characters he creates are more than good guys or bad guys.

‘Theories are expendable. They should be criticized. When people tell me my work is too systematic, I say,“I make it as systematic as possible for you to be able to prove it wrong.”’

"The debunking that actually occurs in this first book is probably one of the reasons why my concept of mimesis is still viewed as destructive," he added. "Yet I like to think that if you take this notion as far as you possibly can, you go through the ceiling, as it were, and discover what amounts to original sin." The experience, "if radical enough, is very close to an experience of conversion."

Indeed, that awakening returned Girard to an orthodox view of the Bible as revelation—the revelation of the nature of mimetic desire and what it would lead to, which became the subject of subsequent books. This was his "intellectual conversion," which he describes as "comfortable," without demands or commitment. But a brush with cancer in 1959 changed everything. "Now this conversion was transformed into something really serious in which the aesthetic gave way to the religious." He had his children baptized, and he and his wife, Martha, were remarried by a priest.

Moreover, Girard began to see mimetic rivalry as the cause of violence. Two men, two cities, two groups are inevitably drawn into conflict to obtain the common object of desire. The only way to resolve the conflict is to blame an outsider—a foreigner, a cripple, a king, a woman. The mob unites against the scapegoat; the victim is sacrificed; harmony is restored. To cover up its terrible deed, an exonerating mythology develops. In archaic societies, the scapegoat may even be deified. Hence, Oedipus is blamed for the plague in Thebes, persecuted, and glorified at Colonus.

Girard had crossed from literature to anthropology, taking on not only the worldview of literary criticism but also the work of Freud and most anthropologists. He was again challenging the very nature of these categories. "People think this theory of mine is so outlandish, but I don't think it is at all. It's all over the place, if you just look. If you read literary texts and anthropological texts, the scheme of [Freud's] Totem and Taboo inevitably reappears in a mimetic context," he said in 1981.

"Why should you be prudent about ideas, when there is no danger involved? I think you should push ideas as far as they go until you get rid of them. When I saw the possibility of linking mimetic behavior and anthropology, I said to myself, 'Why not?'"

He began to see the Bible as "anti-myth"—a description of humankind's long climb up from barbarity. Violence, retaliation and a vengeful God evolve over centuries into themes of forgiveness, repentance and the revelation that the scapegoat is innocent, culminating in the Crucifixion.

"People are against my theory, because it is at the same time an avant-garde and a Christian theory," he says. "The avant-garde people are anti-Christian, and many of the Christians are anti-avant-garde. Even the Christians have been very distrustful of me."

During a meeting last year of an informal philosophical reading group, Girard recounted the Old Testament story of Joseph, son of Jacob, bound and sold into slavery by his "mob" of 10 half-brothers. At first, "they all get together and try to kill him. The Bible knows that scapegoating is a mob affair." Joseph establishes himself as one of the leaders of Egypt and then tearfully forgives his brothers in a dramatic reconciliation. It is, Girard said, a story "much more mature, spiritually, than the beginning of Genesis." Moreover, the story has no precedent in archaic literature.

"Like many biblical stories, it is a counter-mythical story," he said, "because in myth, the lynchers are always satisfied with their lynching."

Girard suggested the group might not have noticed this before. After all, they had been trained to think that the Bible was a backward book, preceded and followed by superior texts, with little new to offer the world. The room erupted at once into a series of "but . . . but . . . but." Girard slouched back in his chair a little, smiling softly and watching.

The provocative prophet has assumed darker themes more recently. Achever Clausewitz takes as its point of departure the Prussian military historian and theorist Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831), but moves to a discussion of current world events and human self-destruction.

In a spellbinding lecture last year, Girard pointed out that we have reached a point in history where we can no longer blame scapegoats. The mechanism of scapegoating is too well known, so the ritual murder no longer expiates the society. War no longer works to resolve conflict—indeed, wars no longer have clear beginnings, endings or aims. Moreover, as weapons have escalated, war could destroy us all.

Portrait of Girard sitting in his office at his desk

The weapons of war are less and less distinguishable from forces of nature, echoing apocalyptic texts of the New Testament. "Before the invention of apocalyptic weapons, we couldn't see how realistic these texts were," Girard said. "But today we are in a situation where we can see that, and we should be extremely impressed by that."

Man is creating "more and more violence in a world that is practically without God, if you look at the way nations behave with each other and the way people behave with each other," he said. "History, you might say, is a test for mankind. But we know very well that mankind is failing that test. In some ways, the Gospels and scriptures are predicting that failure since it ends with eschatological themes, which are literally the end of the world."

His conclusion: "We must face our neighbors and declare unconditional peace. Even if we are provoked, challenged, we must give up violence once and for all."

Whether Girard proves prophetic about the world's fate, his multidisciplinary bent was prescient. Today, an international, interdisciplinary foundation called Imitatio promotes and studies his theories. It is directed by Robert Hamerton-Kelly, formerly dean of Memorial Church and a former senior research scholar at Stanford's Center for International Security and Arms Control. The Colloquium on Violence and Religion, an independent association of international scholars, also studies mimetic theory and publishes an annual journal, Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture.

In his lifetime, Girard has become a one-man institution, as Hamerton-Kelly acknowledged at a Stanford conference last year launching Imitatio's research program. After the usual encomia, he turned to the guest of honor and apologized. "Forgive me for talking about you as if you were an institution while you're still alive."

"Not for long," was Girard's mild response, and for a moment he seemed more than ready to tackle the next controversial challenge in a less tangible future.

Cynthia Haven is a frequent contributor covering humanities and arts.

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