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.

Alice Kaplan shares how Albert Camus wrote one of the twentieth century’s most iconic novels
Alice Kaplan, Looking for The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic (University of Chicago Press, 2016). National Book Award Finalist.
Alice Kaplan, Looking for The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic (University of Chicago Press, 2016). National Book Award Finalist.

What inspired you to write Looking for The Stranger?

The Stranger is the first novel I ever read in French, and the first novel I ever taught. I’ve always been struck by the fact that during all the years I spent studying it, word by word and scene by scene, I learned almost nothing at all about its Algerian setting. My trips to Algeria, my visits to the places Camus lived when he worked on the book were deeply inspiring. Twenty years ago, there was no way to travel to Algeria and I feel very lucky to have been able to explore Camus’s life there.

Your title draws attention to the elusiveness of Camus’ novel. What kinds of challenges did you face during your research?

That’s a question every researcher loves to answer! Whatever papers Camus used to write the novel are lost. One theory has it that he left all his stuff in the Madison Hotel on the Boulevard Saint Germain when he evacuated to Clermont-Ferrand during the German invasion. The Germans eventually requisitioned the hotel, and by the time he went to collect his belongings there was nothing left. So I had to imagine what inspired him, through hints in his letters, his diaries, and in the novel itself: James M. Cain’s novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice; the Fernandel comedy, Le Schpountz; trials he covered for the newspaper Alger-Républicain. Then there are the manuscripts. If you set out to write the life story of a novel, the various manuscript versions are bound to tell a compelling story about how the writing evolved. In the case of The Stranger, there is only one available manuscript, which seems to be cobbled together from several versions. Part of it is hand written and part typed. The most interesting thing about that manuscript is that “Meursault” is spelled without an e, “Mersault.” When did he add that “u”, which put death (meur) right in his narrator’s name? (more…)

Victor Brombert discusses how literature reflects changing ideas about life, death, and the condition of mortality
Victor Brombert, Musings on Mortality: From Tolstoy to Primo Levi (University of Chicago Press, 2016)
Victor Brombert, Musings on Mortality: From Tolstoy to Primo Levi (University of Chicago Press, 2016)

What motivated you to write the book?

Probably it was an early childhood and adolescent awareness of our mortal condition, of human vulnerability in general: the death in infancy of my younger sister (I was seven years old), the assault on human life and dignity by totalitarian regimes that forced families like mine into multiple exiles, and later the experience of war and the Nazi occupation of France, our escape to the United States on an overcrowded freighter zigzagging for six weeks across the Atlantic to elude German U-boats, my joining the American army and surviving the Omaha Beach landing and the Battle of the Bulge — perhaps above all the growing belief that all valuable human achievements, especially in literature and the arts, were a defiance of death.

Your subtitle traces a history between Leo Tolstoy and Primo Levi. What is significant about these two writers?

It is a long trajectory between Tolstoy and Primo Levi. The distance and the contrast tell a story. Whereas Tolstoy in The Death of Ivan Ilych is concerned with an exemplary individual, his morally and spiritually empty life, and his ultimate salvational epiphany at the hour of death, Primo Levi by contrast is dealing with a collective moral and political context in which private salvation is no longer thinkable. The trajectory as well as the authors along the way tell the story of the 20th century as that of a growing awareness of a collective tragedy. (more…)