There was a kind of grandeur about René Girard—a creator of grand theories, a thinker of grand thoughts. Born in France, he spent most of his career in the United States, before slipping away this month, age 91, at his home in California. But to read him, even to meet him, was to feel as though you’d been taken out of time, catapulted back into the presence of one of the capacious minds of the past.
Tall, with thick, expressive eyebrows and a great tousle of hair, René was like a figure out of the 1800s who had somehow been born a hundred years late, striding through the second half of the twentieth century without any concern that large claims about the human condition had fallen out of fashion. Without any concern that the great run of theorists, from Hegel to Freud, had dwindled away to almost nothing. Without any concern that the thought of late modernity had taken a hard, antifoundationalist turn into a kind of skeptical cynicism.
Girard followed his insights, step by step, into one last grand theory, one last grand set of thoughts. His sheer existence sometimes seemed an indictment of our suspicious, small-minded time. Living the life of the mind, René Girard was a great man in an age that had few such men.
I have to plead special circumstances: René Girard has influenced me more than any other thinker I’ve ever met, and I find his accounts of culture generally persuasive. For that matter, I found him personally charming beyond measure. The first time we threw a dinner party for him, my wife decided, in some fit of hubris, to make difficult soufflés for the Frenchman’s visit. After dinner, he bent down from his great height, kissed her hand, and announced with a Maurice Chevalier twinkle, “It was superb, just as my mother would have made.” I think my wife—and everyone else there—would have followed him out the door, if he had only asked.
After finishing an undergraduate history degree in Paris, Girard came to the United States in 1947 to do graduate work at Indiana University on the history of French-American relations. It was only a one-year fellowship, but he was invited by the university to stay and finish his doctorate, on condition that he teach a course in French literature. The topic caught his imagination, and a series of provocative essays on Gallic authors led to a successful academic career in comparative literature at Duke, Bryn Mawr, Johns Hopkins, SUNY Buffalo, and Stanford.
His first book, published in 1961, was a French study of novelistic forms, translated into English five years later with the title Deceit, Desire, and the Novel. It’s hard to remember all the swirls and eddies of intellectual politics in those days, but, in Paris, the book was the beneficiary of a laudatory review by the influential Marxist critic Lucien Goldmann. It was, in French circles, the kind of review that makes a young critic’s career—even if Goldmann praised the book mostly because Girard seemed to provide a way to read literature as a critique of bourgeois life, without the un-Marxist Freudian psychologizing that dominated literary criticism at the time.
The Marxists were right, at least, about Girard’s rejection of Freud, even if they missed the religious impulse that Girard would later insist he was unpacking in all his work, ever since a breakthrough insight he had back in 1959. Reading figures from Flaubert to Dostoyevsky, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel points out that a series of triangular relations appears over and over in Western literature, especially in the competition of rivals over a love interest.
Our greatest literary artists tell us, in other words, that we learn what we want at least in part from what other people want. Freud had argued that human desire comes prepackaged in certain shapes: the Oedipal complex, the death wish, penis envy, and so on. But Girard insisted that literature teaches instead that desire is mimetic: If we want the mother, it’s because the father wants her. If we want an unattainable love interest, it’s because others have that interest. Our desires aren’t packaged into predetermined forms; they’re created in imitation of the desires of others. We catch desire like a disease.