An English professor reflects on teaching literature and linking it to what students find viscerally and deeply important.
As American society increasingly questions the importance of what we in the humanities do, in the classroom I’ve been able to depend less and less on the grand narratives that long ago motivated my own passion for literature and instead imagined an importance for literature—a story behind the story—sourced not in grand abstract metanarratives, but in what students themselves find viscerally and deeply important.
In one of the first courses I took as an undergraduate, the English professor walked into class one morning invoking the name of Faulkner as if it were a sacred incantation: “Today, ladies and gentleman, we are going to read Faulkner.” We students shivered at the sublimity of the name. Since this trick seemed to work with his students, I figured I, now some 20 years later and new professor in my own right, would try the same trick with mine: “Today, ladies and gentleman, we are going to read—Faulkner.” But something was conspicuously missing here. Students just stared at me. After class I overheard some of them whispering down the hall: “I hear Faulkner’s novels are zig-zaggy and confusing and filled with all this weird stuff about race. Why, oh why, must we read Faulkner?”
My own undergraduate experience immersed me in a sense of the gravitas of Great Literature. Matthew Arnold had claimed that “the best which has been thought and said” had the power to elevate the mind and transfigure the human spirit. The school of New Criticism elevated the critic as high priest of the poem, then later the poststructuralists gave the critic full apotheosis as one who, through the act of criticism, unveils vast hidden structures of domination. All in all, I felt a form of belief palpitating throughout my college education: a belief that Great Literature, the act of engaging with it, especially in its torturing difficulty, carried with it near metaphysical weight. So I was only happy to take up monastic vows to Literature: night after sleepless undergraduate night, followed by eight grueling graduate years at the poverty line.
But now I found myself standing before students far less concerned with Literature’s sublime powers than with gaining tools for a precarious job market and towering college loans. So what they wanted to know is, Why? Why subject oneself to the sound and the fury of a plotless modernist novel, or the white noise of a fragmented postmodern novel? Why all this needless obscurantism? And why must these novelists fuss so much about race? Why can’t we just read a really awesome story, like The Hunger Games or Harry Potter? In response, I continued proclaiming heady metanarratives: “Look, this has been considered by the best minds to be important! The best that’s been thought and said! It’s GOOD for you.” They yawned, checked their Twitter accounts, and at the end of the semester left me a Yelp rating of 1.5 stars….
“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
Published in 1961,Deceit, Desire and the Novelwas 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…
Prolific writer-producer Brian Bird is co-founder of Believe Pictures(with Michael Landon, Jr.) with the mission of developing and producing “high quality, entertaining, and life-and-faith-affirming, films and television depicting positive images and compelling moral stories.” Bird and Landon wrote and produced two novel inspired films for Fox and they are currently writing and/or producing three films: When Calls the Heart, Deep in the Heart, and The Shunning (Premiering this Saturday, April 16, on the Hallmark Channel at 9pm/8pm Central).
Brian also writing a separate screenplay for the Fox Searchlight film, Captive, the true story of Ashley Smith and the Atlanta hostage crisis from 2005. He will also produce the film along with Ken Wales and Ralph Winter.
Previously, Bird served as Co-Executive Producer and senior writer for four seasons on the series Touched By An Angeland his TV writing/producing credits include more than 250 episodes of Touched By an Angel, Evening Shade, Step by Step, and The Family Man, as well as numerous TV and feature films. His script Call Me Claus was the highest rated cable film of 2002. Brian also wrote and co-produced Tri-Star’s 2009 film Not Easily Broken.
On a more personal note, I have met few Hollywood filmmakers with as great a commitment to personal mentoring as Brian. As an official mentor in the Act One program and the Visual Story Network, as well as an unofficial mentor throughout the industry, Brian has distinguished himself in his willingness to invest in the lives of young writers and producers.
In celebration of the premier of The Shunning this Saturday (Hallmark, 9pm/ 8pm CDT), I asked Brian a few questions about the film, about the greatest influencers in his life, and about origin of his incredible commitment to mentoring.
Interview with Writer-Producer Brian Bird
GDS: What excites you most about the film?
Brian Bird: One reason is because I think we have very faithfully recreated both the world of the Amish, and one of Beverly Lewis‘ most important novels.
GDS: Do you think people will relate to a film set in such an “other” world?
BB: Absolutely, even though the storytelling is set among the Amish, I think it’s a very universal tale that all families can relate to because it deals with how we try to pass along our values to our children, and how they have to choose the values they are going to live with.
GDS: Any personal stake in the film?
BB: Well, The Shunning makes a very important statement about the theme of adoption — which is very significant to me as an adoptive father of two daughters. That statement is this: love is thicker than blood when it comes to our family relationships.
GDS: Let’s talk about people who have influenced who you are and your career as a filmmaker. First, an easy one, what films have influenced you most?
BB: Let’s see, Horton Foote (To Kill a Mockingbird)—whose screenplays taught me that plot and character are intertwined and always default to character if you have a choice. William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid)—whose body of work as a screenwriter taught me that you have to know the rules in order to break them.
Also, Robert Bolt (A Man for All Seasons)—whose screenplay taught me about striving to be epic in my writing. And then there’s Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Identity series)—whose screenplays taught me to strive to be taut in my writing.
GDS: Any other kinds of writers influence you?
BB: Well, C.S. Lewis was formidable in shaping my worldview, and Francis Schaeffer formidable in shaping my ideas about art and its influence on culture. Oh, and also Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, who helped me understand that great literature should take the reader’s breath away. Of course, there is also the Bible, which has been an uber-influencer for me.
GDS: Any others?
BB: I’ve had some very significant mentors.
GDS: Like who?
BB: Well, in no particular order, there is Ted Smythe, Mass Media Professor Cal State University, Fullerton, who told me not to be afraid of ideas outside my worldview because in the marketplace of ideas, truth always rises to the top.
Don Ingalls, legendary TV writer-producer, great-uncle, who gave me my first network TV writing assignment and told me nepotism can open a door, but skills have to keep it open.
Morgan Freeman, legendary actor who directed my first feature film (Bopha), told me that there is only one race of people — the human race — and two kinds of people: good ones and bad ones.
Rick Warren, my pastor, who told me not to preach in my writing, but just to ask great questions.
GDS: Did any of them influence how you approached The Shunning?
BB: (Laughs) All of them, but maybe especially Michael Warren, because of what I just mentioned. When he gave me one of my first opportunities in show business he made me promise to leave the door open for others behind me.
GDS: How did you do that in The Shunning?
BB: I chose to give a newer, younger writer an opportunity to write this film rather than writing it myself. We hired Chris Easterly—a graduate of Act One’s screenwriting program who had served faithfully as a writer’s assistant on Touched By An Angel—to write the teleplay for this film, and he knocked it out of the park.
GDS: Isn’t that taking quite a risk on behalf of a younger “unproven” writer?
BB: It wasn’t charity on our part. We needed somebody with some real writing chops to do this work, and Chris showed himself approved. I left the door open for a very gifted young man in the same way Michael Warren left the door open for me in 1990.
GDS: So you’re leaving a legacy?
BB: That is certainly my intention. And I know that Chris will do the same thing for somebody else when he comes into his Showbiz kingdom.
Don’t miss The Shunning: Saturday (April 16): The Hallmark Channel at 9pm (8pm Central).
Follow Brian: On his blog: BrianBird.net: The Art of Story, The Craft of Screenwriting and More, or on Twitter: @brbird.
Other Two Handed Warrior TV Writer and Filmmakers: