Thoughts on an encounter with Rene Girard

That encounter is through a couple of his books but mostly Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World; in grad school I started Deceit, Desire, and the Novel a couple times but could never get past some of the more ridiculous assertions in it (more on that later). Cynthia Haven’s Evolution of Desire: A Life of Rene Girard is the impetus for the latest bout of reading, and I find the biography more satisfying than the primary reading: it softens and contextualizes the kind of claims that make me quit a book. But it’s still suitably inscrutable and koanic as to be interesting: “For Girard, however, literature is more than a record of historical truth; it is the archive of self-knowledge.” Which is great! But I’m not entirely sure what it means or if it’s true—which is descriptive, not critical.

He is an intellectual: “I once asked Girard what the biggest events of his life were. Oh, he assured me immediately, they were all events in his head. His thoughts were what mattered.” Haven isn’t fully convinced, maybe rightly, but I’m attracted to that idea—that it’s about the mind more than the environment. Girard’s method is also unusual, among social scientists, at least:

He studied human behavior as reflected in the greatest works of literature, and found in them a recurring analytical observation of the serious consequences of mimetic behavior. This discovery opened his eyes to the hidden dynamic of group violence.

Is literature the right place to look? To me, literature is the exceptional, bizarre, and unusual; the usual is too boring to include. I wonder if Girard is suffering from selection bias. (Haven does find a fun quote from Milan Kundera: “The art of the novel is anthropology.” Is the same true of film?)

Anyway, when I read Girard, I usually have the same problem I do with most philosophers: there are some interesting passages but too many ridiculous claims that make me close the book and go read someone else. Or I think too much about what’s true. Consider this, with Chris Blattman:

The only reason I’m aware of the René Girard worldview is because I glanced at the “What should I ask Chris Blattman?” questions. [laughs] I saw that name, and I thought, “Oh, I don’t know who that is.” My 10 minutes of investigation suggests that I find nothing about this idea resonates with my personal experience in particular wars.

So maybe “the greatest works of literature” are not a great guide to the real world or analyzing it. And I say this as someone who reads all the time. The great works may be more time-, technology-, class-, and culture-dependent than many of us literary types want to admit.

That said, when Girard’s ideas get in the head, one starts to see them in many places. I listened to Jon Ronson’s podcast / Audible series “The Butterfly Effect,” which is “sort of about porn, but it’s about a lot of other things. It’s sad, funny, moving and totally unlike some other nonfiction stories about porn – because it isn’t judgmental or salacious.” And that got me connecting. In Girard’s cycle of scapegoating and social cohesion, it may be that porn stars are the best examples of a modern group that are hated, loved, sacrificed—and reborn. They provide a service or set of works that are widely consumed but also widely reviled. People oscillate among extreme feelings regarding them. Most of polite society disparages what they do, even as they have a broad, though largely ignored, impact. The highly regulated, highly PR-driven healthcare, education, and government sectors largely revile people who do or make porn, but that’s in part because of a vague but pervasive social feeling about what is “appropriate.” Should we look first at what people do and want, then look at what is “appropriate?” Or should we try to imagine what’s appropriate? If we do that, we may be entering the separation and scapegoating cycle Girard posits.

That being said, to get to the point of connection, you may have to wade. Things Hidden, for example, as with most “philosophy,” is at least twice as long as it needs to be and half as clear, if that. I would’ve liked more footnotes and a style closer to Cowen or Thiel than to a style like academic philosophy. Long-time readers know that I have a certain fascination with and derision for philosophy (see here or here or here) for examples. Philosophy often seems to be a search for broad, generalizable rules that in my view don’t exist or rarely exist; I’d rather start with situations and dilemmas and attempt to reason from there, which may be why I like novels. Indeed, rather than start this essay from first principles I began from an encounter with a book and then reasoned forward.

Overall, very interesting, though Girard’s life was not, particularly. He lived in and for ideas, as near as one can tell, which is fine; my life is probably pretty boring, viewed from the outside. If exciting is World War II, boring and well-fed is pretty good. There are many problems today, and those problems are worth remembering, but many of us don’t think historically and forget what yesterday was really like.

Maybe this says something bad about me, but I feel like I’ve read enough Girard without reading much Girard.

Still, this post is too negative. There are many things to admire, like this, from Haven:

Girard told me that our judicial system is the modern antidote to the mob, with its cycles of accusation and vengeance, its contagious fears and ritual denunciations—and on the whole it works. It has an authority to impose a final punishment of its own—vengeance stops at the courtroom.

The judicial system is, to use a Kahneman term, very system 2—that is, it is slow, deliberate, and often not our first choice. We’d rather make instant heuristic decisions, then allow our internal press secretary to justify those decisions. The judicial system may attempt to short-circuit that fast and unconscious process.

There are also amusing moments in Evolution of Desire that reveal historical change, as when we find this, about the University of Indiana just after World War II: “While the expenses of a sorority were normally beyond the reach of a fatherless student, the local chapters were eager to bolster their academic reputation, so she was recruited to Delta Gamma.” “Academic reputation” does not appear to be a key factor in current college fraternities or sororities.

One response

  1. Great post. I think I had read an essay or two by Girard, but it appears that I haven’t read any of his books. There’s an outstanding philosophy podcast, the Philosopher’s Zone which definitely gets me excited about philosophy if books seem too dry. (Unfortunately the podcast founder died a few years ago, but it’s still very good.

    It’s interesting though how reading a biography of a philosopher can often be more revealing and accessible than the philosopher’s writings himself. I recently read a great biography about Schopenhauer by David Cartwright — it helps to know about Schopenhauer’s struggles with academia! (He was insanely jealous and contemptuous of Hegel). Also, am now reading a biography of Karl Marx by Jonathan Sperber (very interesting life story) and a bio of JS Bach by Christoph Wolff. (It’s funny; I don’t particularly like reading biographies, but they are less dry than their original writings.

    Like

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