Finding René Girard

During my second year as an undergrad at Stanford, I moved off campus. I loved going to a book store in Menlo Park called Kepler’s. It was here that I had my own version of the Harry Potter moment in the wand shop. I was perusing the anthropology section when a book seemed to almost fall off the shelf into my hands. The book was called Violence and the Sacred. The cover had a rather ominous graphic on of a person kneeling with their head on a block about to be killed by an axe wielding figure with a ritual headdress. I flipped the book over and the first blurb on the back was from a familiar name (my professor), Victor Turner. It read, “I regard his book as crucial reading for anyone interested in the dynamics of society and culture. He presents the best case I have seen for the primacy of social order.” My eyes scanned down and I read the author bio: “René Girard is the Andrew B. Hammond Professor of French language, literature, and civilization at Stanford University.” My lucky day. I had never heard of him before. I flipped to the front of the book and opened to Chapter 1, “Sacrifice.” Light reading for sure. The first line: “In many rituals the sacrificial act assumes two opposing aspects, appearing at times as a sacred obligation to be neglected at grave peril, at other times as a sort of criminal activity entailing perils of equal gravity.” I was in deep water—I had never tried to read anything this difficult before.

Back at my apartment in Redwood City, I looked at the course catalog for the upcoming term and saw to my astonishment that Girard was teaching a graduate seminar called The Bible and Human Violence. This is just weird, right? Over the next three years, Girard became the major intellectual influence of my life and my mentor. I was able to take 4 graduate seminars with him on subjects ranging from psychoanalysis to literature.

It’s hard for me to summarize Girard’s work given the audacious breadth and depth of his scholarship. He recently died at the age of 91. In an obituary, his biographer wrote:

René Girard was one of the leading thinkers of our era – a provocative sage who bypassed prevailing orthodoxies and ‘isms’ to offer a bold, sweeping vision of human nature, human history and human destiny….  Girard was interested in the causes of conflict and violence and the role of imitation in human behavior. Our desires, he wrote, are not our own; we want what others want. These duplicated desires lead to rivalry and violence. He argued that human conflict was not caused by our differences, but rather by our sameness. Individuals and societies offload blame and culpability onto an outsider, a scapegoat, whose elimination reconciles antagonists and restores unity. He theorized that this victim mechanism was at the origin of human culture and religion,”—Cynthia Haven

In 2005, his contributions were honored by his election to the French Academy (L’academie francaise) where his fellow inductee Michael Serres called him, “The new Darwin of the Human Sciences.” In Girard what I found was a thinker in the mold of Grand Social Theorists like Durkheim, Freud, Marx, and Weber. He was willing to tackle the biggest questions of human life: What is the nature of desire? What are the roots of conflict and social disorder? What is the meaning and function of sacrificial rituals? He wrote books on Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare, Freud, Job, and Clausewitz (who is famous for the expression “War is the continuation of politics by other means”) and many other books.

Through my connection to Girard, I felt like I had access to the major leagues. As a kid my dream was to play professional sports. This was a fulfillment in another venue. I couldn’t believe that he welcomed me into his intellectual circle given that I was still an undergraduate. In fact, I wanted to study with him in graduate school, but was not willing to become a student of French literature to do so. (See blog post on choosing Jamaica).

Nevertheless, his work greatly influenced my work in Jamaica, has stayed with me throughout my life and work, and I am pleased to lecture on it from time to time. Though he was never popular outside of France, where public intellectuals are featured on television and their books sell thousands of copies, his work has gained recognition as the persistent problems of religious violence has come to dominate the news.