A call to revisit and reclaim one of the 20th century’s most important thinkers
Cynthia L. Haven, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard (2018)
Cynthia L. Haven, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard (2018)

Cynthia L. Haven’s Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard is the first full-length biography of the acclaimed French thinker. Girard’s “mimetic theory” saw imitation at the heart of individual desire and motivation, accounting for the competition and violence that galvanize cultures and societies. “Girard claimed that mimetic desire is not only the way we love, it’s the reason we fight. Two hands that reach towards the same object will ultimately clench into fists.”

Often a controversial figure, Girard trespassed into many different fields — he was, by turns, a literary critic, an anthropologist, a sociologist, a psychologist, a theologian and much else besides. Haven’s biography is the first book to contextualize Girard’s work within its proper historical, cultural and philosophical context. The book presumes no prior knowledge, and includes several useful primers of the texts that established his reputation: Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (1961), Violence and the Sacred (1972), Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978), and his study of Shakespeare, A Theater of Envy (1991). But it is the author’s closeness to the man once described as “the new Darwin of the human sciences” that brings this fascinating biography to life.

Haven was a friend of Girard’s until his death in 2015, and met with family members, friends and colleagues closest to him to prepare for the book. She recalls a calm and patient man who was generous with his time. “I came to his work through his kindness, generosity, and his personal friendship, not the other way around.”

He lived with his wife, Martha, on the Stanford University campus, and followed a strict working routine: “Certainly his schedule would have made him at home in one of the more austere orders of monks. His working hours were systematic and adamantly maintained.” He began his day at his desk at roughly 3:30 in the morning, broke for a walk and relaxation sometime around noon, and spent his afternoons either continuing what he had begun that day or meeting his responsibilities to students.

One of the abiding questions that drives the book is how a man who appeared to lead such a quiet and ordered life was animated by some of the most troubling themes in human history.

Adopting the lively and accessible style of an investigative reporter, Haven looks to Girard’s formative experiences for an answer. The reader is along for the ride as she drives a rented Citroën through southern France, or pores over archival images and family photographs. Her research is rich in important and surprising details, and there are entertaining tidbits of juicy academic gossip along the way.

This extract is from my review of Cynthia L. Haven’s Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, published in the San Francisco Chronicle, 1 July 2018.

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Sat down and read Cormac McCarthy‘s play (or “novel in dramatic form”) The Sunset Limited. An African American man saves a white college professor from suicide, and they share a compelling dialogue about life, suffering, religion, and humanism. Sometimes McCarthy’s stage directions lack racial sensitivity and tact (e.g. “the black” vs. “the professor”), but the characters have an intelligent and entertaining critical dialogue. Dianne C. Luce offers an interesting reading of the text’s conclusion over at the official Cormac McCarthy website (contains spoilers):

“The novel’s denouement rests on the intellectual triumph of White, which ironically leads to his suicide, and the temporary rhetorical defeat of Black, who courageously recommits to his belief in the possibility of goodness. Thus the dialogue remains elegantly balanced, poised between forceful articulations of opposing views of life and human nature, giving ascendancy to neither. McCarthy seems to have no ideological agenda here, but rather he aims at capturing the internal debate of the thoughtful individual seeking to navigate the subway of earthly existence, who hears within him- or herself the competing voices of, on the one hand, empirical reasoning and world-wearying experience and, on the other, hope and the transcendent spirit.”

Overall, a genuinely engaging work struck through with darkly comic elements. Recommended.

Finished reading Stephen King‘s Under the Dome. It’s one of the author’s longest works, and has been compared by publishers and critics to his earlier post apocalyptic novel, The Stand. While the story of an hermetically sealed American community has the feel of a modern parable, Under the Dome is ultimately a straightforward (if fantastical) crime thriller about small town political corruption.

Stephen King, Needful Things (1991)
Stephen King, Needful Things (1991)
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lood. Someone’s reflection in a bathroom mirror. A man in a wide-brimmed hat. These are my fragmented recollections of the 1993 adaptation of Stephen King’s Needful Things, which starred Ed Harris and Max Von Sydow. I caught the end of it on television late one night when I was around ten years old, and these anxious impressions are all that I remember. Actually, that’s not true. I also had the impression that the film’s themes were somehow too grownup for me at the time, remote from the day-to-day concerns of a child still in primary school. Marriage, relationships, mortgages and finance, that sort of thing.

By the age of ten I was already familiar with King’s novel, which had been published back in 1991. In fact, I owned two copies. A shiny paperback published in the mid 1990s, and a hardback that came my way shortly after that. There was a period during my childhood and adolescence when King was about the only author that I read; I avidly collected his books and ordered them neatly on a shelf in my bedroom. But I didn’t read Needful Things back then. I got my kicks reading about killer clowns and supernatural forces, and just wasn’t interested in the idea of a demon shopkeeper mortgaging people’s souls. (more…)

Oliver Sacks. Photograph: Bill Hayes.
Oliver Sacks. Photograph: Bill Hayes.

Started reading Bill Hayes‘s memoir, Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me yesterday afternoon, and didn’t stop until the final page. Through a series of reflections and intimate diary entries, the book offers a revealing account of Hayes’s relationship with the late neurologist Oliver Sacks. The book is also a love letter to New York, and captures “the evanescent, the eavesdropped, the unexpected” nature of the city through brief vignettes and black and white portraits. Björk even makes an appearance. And another one. I laughed and cried at several points. Beautiful style. Wonderful photographs. Truly life affirming. To sum it up, I’m reminded of something Oliver Sacks said which Hayes recorded in his diary:

“4-22-15

O: ‘The most we can do is to write—intelligently, creatively, critically, evocatively—about what it is like living in the world at this time.’”

— Bill Hayes, Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me