“People are against my theory, because it is at the same time avant-garde and Christian: the avant-garde people are anti-Christian, and many of the Christians are anti-avant-garde.” -René Girard
René Girard is probably the greatest living Christian intellectual you never heard of. His work spans the disciplines of literary theory, theology, philosophy, sociology, psychology and beyond. Over the next few months we’ll post a number of pieces exploring how his views of “mimetic borrowing” and “scapegoating” serve as interesting interpretive devices for a number of issues facing filmmakers, ministry leaders and Christian intellectuals in general. But first we thought you should get to know the man a bit.
Cynthia Haven’s Stanford magazine article on Girard includes an insightful biographic section. We hope it will help you grasp the deep connection between Girard’s spiritual and intellectual journeys. -GDS
History is a Test – Mankind is Failing It:
René Girard scrutinizes the human condition from creation to apocalypse
By Cynthia Haven in Stanford Magazine
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.
“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.
(Girard) 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.
.A Christian/Avant-garde No Man’s Land
“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 (Stanford) 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…
Next Post in Girard Series: The Joker Is Satan, and So Are We: René Girard and The Dark Knight, by Charles K. Bellinger, PhD