Today, a century after the close of the “war to end all wars,” the prospect of achieving what the U.N. and other such garrulous bodies call “global peace” seems ever more remote.  According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, if only we could establish everywhere the right to equality before the law, freedom of speech, freedom from “arbitraxry detainment,” access to justice, and a host of other rights, glorious and perpetual peace would blossom.  In the view of the propagators of such dangerous nonsense, violence is the product of social and political deprivation.  Eliminate injustice, poverty, discrimination, class barriers, political tyranny, barriers to immigration, etc., and violence will fade away along with all the old soldiers.  Of course, schoolchildren and delusional political activists aside, no one really believes this, not deep down, though we may repeat the “peace and justice” mantra as a form of self-hypnosis, desperate to believe it because the alternative seems too unsettling.  And in a post-Christian era, the notion that violence is the result of ineradicable human sinfulness—the Augustinian prognosis—is hopelessly unfashionable.

Enter René Girard, the 20th century’s most provocative analyst of violence, which, for him, is almost always sacrificial—that is, mimetic.  For those unfamiliar with his work, this connection between sacrifice and mimesis will require some explaining.  In Girard’s best-known book, Violence and the Sacred (1972; 1977 in English translation), he uncovers the origins of social order in an act of communal violence against a chosen victim, or scapegoat.  Out of this sacrificial bloodletting, tribal unanimity—i.e., peace—is established.  How can this be?  Blood sacrifice, in this primal scenario, arises out of a mimetic crisis, itself the inevitable result of the conflict of metaphysical desire.  Humans are, most fundamentally, creatures of desire: the desire for power, possessions, status, admiration, wealth, and so on.  But here is the crux: Our desires, contrary to common belief, are not our own.  We learn through mimicry to desire what others—admired others—desire.  The objects of our desire are secondary to our desire to become the admired other.  Yet because we have learned to desire what the model desires, we enter into potential rivalry or conflict with him or her, since we both desire the same object (a sexual object, the adulation of a particular group, a job promotion, some position of status in the community, or what have you).  Such mimetic rivalry carries with it, by virtue of its open-ended nature, the possibility of contagion; it is a rivalry that may spread into the community at large, spawning wider conflict and, ultimately, a “war of all against all.”

In Gerard’s originary scenario, mimetic crisis is a profound threat to tribal solidarity, a threat that must be met with an equally profound, if ultimately fragile, resolution.  Blood sacrifice (human or, later, animal) brings resolution because it restores unanimity via the shared hostility directed at the chosen victim, a surrogate who is laden with the guilt of the group.  Around such rituals of purgation, mythologies arise to protect the community from full knowledge of their own complicity, to veil the innocence of the victim.  Thus the genesis of “religion,” and with it social order.  The fragility of such order is evident: The rites of surrogate victimage must be reiterated endlessly lest a new mimetic crisis disrupt the peace essential to human flourishing.  Historically, the operations of the “scapegoat mechanism” (an unfortunate coinage borrowed from Kenneth Burke) have been universal and can be discerned at the origins of every civilization.  Yet that is not the end of the story.  Uniquely, in the prophetic tradition of the Jews, an anti-sacrificial awareness of the innocence of the victim emerged and culminated in the advent of Christianity, the religion which paradoxically brings an end to religion.  For at the heart of the Christian salvific narrative, the innocence of the chosen victim is enshrined.  Henceforth, this new (and powerfully destabilizing) awareness matures over the course of the centuries, and even in its secularized forms has undermined the ancient sacrificial order.  This, obviously, is not to say that scapegoating no longer occurs, but rather that its efficacy for the control of violence has been gradually dissolved.

As Cynthia Haven demonstrates in this, the first full-length biography of Girard (who died in 2015), his early years provide scant foreshadowing of the major intellectual light he was to become.  This is true even though he was the son of an art historian of note, Joseph Girard, who served for many years as the curator of the Palais des Papes in Avignon, Girard’s birthplace.  As a youth he was an indifferent student, though unusually intelligent and capable of passing his exams with minimal exertion.  He was only 16 when World War II erupted, and spent the war years in school, eventually taking his baccalauréat in history and medieval paleography in 1947 at the École nationale des chartes.  The war years in Paris were a time of acute deprivation and constant anxiety, especially since his ability to move freely through the city depended on a faked identity card.  Haven, in her quest to find some event in Girard’s early life to account for his later interest in scapegoating, makes a good deal of the public humiliation of German sympathizers in the Avignon region (to which Girard briefly returned after his studies).  No doubt such harrowing scenes did make a lifelong impression on this perceptive young man.  In any event, teaching positions were scarce in France after the War, and like many others he chose to emigrate to America.  He settled in Bloomington and pursued a Ph.D. at the University of Indiana, eventually writing his dissertation on “American Opinion on France, 1940-1943.”  In his early American years Girard seems to have been most interested in acquiring a wife and a sleek new American car, and not necessarily in that order.  Find a wife he did, in 1951, and eventually a car: a 1956 yellow Chevrolet with tail fins.  His bride, Martha McCullough, had been one of his students, and would be his constant companion for over 50 years.  After leaving Indiana, Girard taught French at Duke and Bryn Mawr before landing at Johns Hopkins teaching Romance Languages.  He remained there for a decade and published his first book, Deceit, Desire and the Novel (1961), a work which almost overnight propelled Girard to the front rank of literary critics, both here and in France.  Eventually, he accepted a position at Stanford University, where he taught until retirement.

While still at work on his first book, Girard underwent a conversion experience which brought him back to the Catholic Church of his childhood.  The initial experience, which occurred on a commuter train, seems to have been “mystical” in nature, though Girard was always reticent about details.  Then, over the course of several months, several more such experiences followed, like the aftershocks of a powerful earthquake.  Whatever Girard’s “road to Damascus” experience entailed, it destroyed his by-then ingrained skepticism.  Moreover, it appears to have been linked to his intellectual work on Deceit, Desire and the Novel, not a literary critical work in the usual sense, but a psychological study of the mimetic structure of desire in a number of classic novels, among them works by Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Proust, and Cervantes.  As Girard explained it later, as he delved ever deeper into the process of composition which produced novels like Madame Bovary or Notes from the Underground, he began to see a pattern.  The author’s first draft in each case was discarded because he recognized it as “an attempt at self-justification.”  Each began to recognize that his hero was a self-projection and that his villain was his own “mimetic rival.”  The act of revision then became an act of self-examination: “The writer begins to realize that he is the puppet of his own devil.  He and his enemy [his mimetic “double”] are truly indistinguishable.”  The greatness of a novelist like Dostoyevsky, then, arises from his ability to describe the “wickedness of the other from within himself.”  Girard’s conversion arose, at least in part, from his understanding that the degree of inwardness necessary to enact this recognition was only possible because of centuries of Christian influence on the European psyche.

In the 1960’s, Girard felt himself increasingly estranged from the post-structuralist currents (deconstruction, Lacanian psychoanalysis, etc.) that were then all the rage in both the American and French intellectual scenes, though at Johns Hopkins he had been very much at the epicenter of that turbulence.  He thought of himself as an epistemological realist, and had little patience for deconstructionists like the Belgian Paul de Man, who once pronounced that “death is a displaced name for a linguistic predicament.”  Girard had nothing but scorn for an avant-garde that paraded its inadequacy by preaching the “non-existence of the real.”  By contrast, he was digging ever deeper into the real, and specifically into the reality behind Greek tragedy; it would be this encounter that led him to the philosophical anthropology that characterized most of his later work, and which established for him a link between mimetic desire and sacrificial ritual.  A conference paper on Oedipus Rex delivered in 1966 prefigured this new trajectory, and would become the backbone of Violence and the Sacred.  Anyone who has studied Oedipus is aware that with repeated readings the play becomes more mysterious, seemingly riddled with internal contradictions and inexplicable gaps.  Over the centuries, literary historians, critics, and philosophers have attempted to “interpret” the play, and their attempts usually meant finding some way of smoothing over the contradictions and imposing thematic unity upon its puzzling elements.  Girard, by contrast, takes the play’s aporiae as a given, as evidence of a partially failed effort on the part of the playwright to expose the terrible sacrificial truth at the core of the Oedipus myth—a truth which only the Gospel narratives would fully reveal.

One of the many virtues of Haven’s biography is that she devotes a good deal of attention to Girard’s writing process, especially with regard to Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978; 1987 in English), which is the record of an extended dialogue between Girard and two French psychiatrists, Jean-Michel Oughourlian and Guy Lefort.  Oughourlian had been powerfully impressed with mimetic theory upon reading Violence and the Sacred, seeing in it great potential for understanding the psychology of drug addiction.  As Haven explains,

He was interested in showing how people are not psychologically isolated in their own heads, but rather bound with everyone else in a dynamic, contingent process of imitation—in short, “interdividual psychology.”

Then a psychiatric researcher at the Sorbonne, Oughourlian traveled multiple times to the U.S. to meet with Girard at his home, where they recorded hundreds of hours of conversation.  The format of Things Hidden reflects this dialogic process and the work is rightly regarded as the most comprehensive statement of Girard’s theory, coupling the psychology of mimetic desire with originary sacrifice in a way that goes well beyond Violence and the Sacred.  It is also the first work in which Girard’s Christian commitments are made fully explicit.  For many, the most interesting aspect of this book is its analysis of the sacrificial theme in Freud’s Totem and Taboo.  On the one hand Girard pays homage to his predecessor for having approached very close to the truth about the foundations of culture.  But he parts ways in at least two crucial respects.  First, he faults Freud’s understanding of the self, which the latter discovered in what he called the “libido”—that is, in sexual desire and the triangular dynamic of father, mother, and child.  Girard argues that the formation of the self cannot be reduced to innate biological “drives” and instincts; rather, desire at the most significant level is, again, metaphysical.  We desire plenitude but, pace Augustine, we possess only contingency.  At the core of our being we are defined by emptiness.  We fixate upon a model who seems to possess self-sufficiency, and we covet that which will transform us into the model.  The self, as commonly understood, is an illusion produced by desire.  Second, Girard agrees with Freud that culture originates in sacrifice, but rejects the Freudian scenario in which the sons murder the father to possess what has been denied by the imposition of the incest taboo.  As others besides Girard have observed, Freud’s theory thus presupposes the rudimentary social order that the first blood sacrifice was supposed to have brought into being.  For Girard, Darwin’s “primal horde” can only have been just that—a horde, without communal order, a stable family structure, systems of taboos, etc.  How Girard’s primal scenario can be fully reconciled with orthodox Christian doctrine (if at all) is not a question that Haven asks.  This will no doubt be a central issue for theologians, many of whom are already absorbing Girard’s influence, though not uncritically.  One of these, John Milbank, argues with some cogency in his Theology and Social Theory that Girard’s theory betrays a positivist bias, one in which the primary purpose of “religion” is to provide a given social order with “feelings of social solidarity.”  Milbank further suggests that “by positing a real pre-religious phase of unlimited and anarchic conflict, Girard himself falls victim to a component of the pagan mythos as diagnosed by Augustine.”

Haven’s biography is somewhat unique in that most of her information about Girard’s life is drawn from personal interviews with Girard’s many associates and collaborators, as well as with Girard himself during his final decade.  Thus, she was able to witness firsthand his growing pessimism in those years—a pessimism reflected in his final book, Battling to the End (2009), which is a long meditation on the implications of Carl von Clausewitz’s seminal work On War.  Composed in dialogue with Be noît Chantre, the president of the Paris Association Recherches Mimétiques, this book is deeply rooted in history, not only the history of the Prussian theoretician whose work on violence and warfare lies at its heart, but also the history which follows Clausewitz’s age (which was, of course, the age of Napoleon, Clausewitz’s great mimetic model and rival).  Here Girard posits that the post-Enlightenment era has witnessed a gradual but striking escalation of violence, an escalation which, in the latter half of the 20th century, reached a point of global magnitude with the advent of nuclear weapons.  Contrary to the rational vision of the Enlightenment, which seemed to promise an end to the irrationality of warfare, Girard argues forcefully that the demythologizing of the old sacrificial order has made us more vulnerable to mass violence than ever.  This is in part because the old sacrificial controls are no longer efficacious.  Clausewitz, Girard believed, was a transitional figure and, perhaps without fully meaning to, offered valuable glimpses of the more violent world to come (or already coming into view with the French Revolution and the emergence of Napoleon).  One of these glimpses comes early in On War when Clausewitz writes, “War is an act of violence, which in its application knows no bounds; as one dictates the law to the other, there arises a reciprocal action, which, in the conception, must lead to the extreme.”  Girard seizes upon this last phrase to suggest that Clausewitz prophetically sensed the trajectory of the modern world, which is caught up in “an escalation to extremes,” yet is now bereft of any effective means to rein in the violence.  The evidence, of course, is everywhere.  In an interview with Haven published in First Things two years after the publication of Battling to the End and just six years before his death, Girard spoke in explicitly apocalyptic terms.  He hinted that we may now be moving toward the final stage of this violent escalation, a long apocalypse which would be, in effect, a mimetic crisis that could be resolved only by absolute global renunciation of violence, or by the Second Coming.


[Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, by Cynthia L. Haven (East Lansing: MSU Press) 346 pp.; $29.95]