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.

Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy

I have a new routine. Since finishing my duties at the university where I work, I have been dividing my time between applying for full-time academic posts and working on a manuscript for Ibidem’s Samuel Beckett in Company series.

I rise early and prepare myself a light breakfast with a cup of green tea. I check the news headlines with a sense of stoic resignation. And then I spend some time reading and writing. After finishing Stephen King‘s The Stand a week or two ago I moved on to William Peter Blatty‘s notorious novel, The Exorcist, and then found myself completing Georges Bernanos‘ excellent Diary of a Country Priest.

Yesterday morning, I restlessly searched among my books for another novel to read. Something that might pique my interest. As someone with a tendency to collect books, there is never a shortage of titles to choose from. Among the contenders were Émile Zola‘s Germinal, and both of Gustave Flaubert‘s novels, Madame Bovary and Sentimental Education. But I stopped on Leo Tolstoy‘s Anna Karenina. I am an avid reader of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, but have never read Anna Karenina before. Somewhat ridiculously, I own two translations of the novel: the recent Pevear and Volokhonsky edition that drew critical attention and acclaim, and a 1912 translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude. According to my Everyman’s Library edition, the latter were a Quaker couple that befriended Tolstoy while living in Russia, and helped him organise the Doukhobor migration to Canada in 1893. I also find in their short biography that they “share[d] many of Tolstoy’s views on spiritual life, moral obligation, and passive resistance to violence”. I picked up the Louise and Aylmer Maude translation and began reading. (more…)

Adam Weiner discusses how a Russian socialist novel from the nineteenth-century influenced the work of Ayn Rand and subsequent economic deregulation in the United States

What motivated you to write How Bad Writing Destroyed the World?

Adam Weiner, How Bad Writing Destroyed the World: Ayn Rand and the Literary Origins of the Financial Crisis (Bloomsbury, 2016)
Adam Weiner, How Bad Writing Destroyed the World: Ayn Rand and the Literary Origins of the Financial Crisis (Bloomsbury, 2016)

The idea evolved over time. While I was attending university I kept hearing about what an incredible, life-transforming experience it was to read Ayn Rand’s novels. Eventually I became curious enough to read The Fountainhead. The awfulness of the writing dumbfounded me, and I began to wonder what people could possibly be finding in there—it couldn’t be pleasures of an artistic order, so something else. As a graduate student I had to read Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s history-making but horribly written novel What Is to Be Done? and I became immediately aware that its badness was akin to what I had found in Ayn Rand. I mean not merely the clunky prose style and android heroes, but the dictatorial, sermonizing tone, and the sense that questionable ideological values were being hawked practically for free. When I began to teach literature at Wellesley College some of my students kept naming Ayn Rand and Nabokov as their favourite writers, and I was dismayed that the two names were being spoken in the same breath. So I read Atlas Shrugged. Only then did I get it: Ayn Rand, while officially despising socialism, had found her most immediate literary inspiration in Russia’s homegrown socialist, Chernyshevsky. All of the same ideas, devices, images: the same rational egoism; the same utopian scheming, right down to weird details, like perpetual motion machines. Humankind would discover miraculous new metals, motors and professional relations that would allow them to re-shape the world in their own image. Do god’s work. Become the master of your destiny. Etc., etc. I knew that all of this nonsense had been a direct inspiration to Lenin, who had destroyed the Russian Empire under its heady influence. Suddenly I saw that Ayn Rand had done much the same thing in the US by programming Alan Greenspan with objectivism and unleashing him into our economy, where he deregulated everything to the point of disaster and beyond. That’s when the book took shape in my mind. (more…)

Michael Lackey on the popularity of the biographical novel, and what it can tell us about the relationship between literature, history and truth
Michael Lackey, The American Biographical Novel (Bloomsbury, 2016)
Michael Lackey, The American Biographical Novel (Bloomsbury, 2016)

What motivated you to write The American Biographical Novel

Through my reading of biographical novels, I noticed a shift in the nature of literary truth.  In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad illuminates the colonial mentality that enabled Europeans to plunder Africa and to abuse Africans with impunity.  Conrad represents that mentality through Kurtz, and as the narrator says, “all Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz.”  In essence, if we want to understand the European mentality that justified colonization and its horrific outcomes, we can look to Kurtz for some answers.  But with the rise of postmodernism, there has been growing skepticism about the traditional literary symbol.

Put simply, postmodernists question the value of an overarching truth claim, because they realize that someone constructed that truth for an ideological or political reason.  This approach to truth impacted the traditional literary symbol, so a postmodernist could easily say: “Look, Joe, you constructed the character of Kurtz in order to promote your own ideological agenda.  Therefore, I don’t see any reason why I should consider a character like Kurtz as symbolic of the European mind.”It is my contention that biographical novelists were becoming increasingly aware of the problems with the traditional literary symbol, but they also did not want to get rid of the literary symbol, because they realized that it could be effectively used to expose the structures and conditions of oppression.  (more…)

To celebrate the birthday of Fyodor Dostoevsky, I speak to film and television actress Vera Graziadei about her acclaimed one-woman performance of one of his most overlooked works

What first attracted you to Dostoevsky’s work?

Promotional image for Alexander Markov's production of Nameless Nobody, starring Vera Graziadei
Promotional image for Alexander Markov’s production of Nameless Nobody, starring Vera Graziadei

Nietzsche once said that Dostoevsky was “the only person who has ever taught me anything about psychology.” I became obsessed with Dostoevsky’s work during my early twenties when I read The Idiot, a masterpiece which became for me not only a source of psychological insight, but also of philosophical thought and spirituality – my other passions, aside from theatre and literature. He is one of those rare writers whose influence extends far beyond his immediate discipline.

It was fascinating for me as a student of Empiricist philosophy, who was dissatisfied with the rational positivist approach taught to me at LSE [London School of Economics and Political Science], to dwell on the “Shakespeare of the lunatic asylum”, and have a chance to explore the darker and more irrational sides of human nature. It was a revelation to realise that Dostoevsky’s philosophical thought is at the root of Existentialism, a branch of philosophy that resonates with me very strongly. And to find out that most existentialist thinkers, including Sarte and Camus, have at some stage addressed the issues raised by Fyodor Mihailovich. (more…)

The author talks about his new book, his influences, and his fascination with modern urban spaces

What made you choose the title “Imaginary Cities”?

Darran Anderson, Imaginary Cities
Darran Anderson, Imaginary Cities

I had more romantic or esoteric titles in mind but it had to be something simple to give, what is a fairly sprawling and extremely rambling text, a sense of coherence. I’ve always liked books with minimalist titles; The Castle, The Plague, Notes from Underground, The Tin Drum, The Lottery. They seem far more evocative to me than The Lighthouse-Keeper’s Daughter-type titles you see a lot. At the same time, my intention was to write something that isn’t self-contained; a book that somehow spills out of its pages and into the world. Reading Susan Sontag’s On Photography, I was initially frustrated that she hadn’t included the photographs she was writing about. Later I came to realise this was a godsend as it sends you out searching and you end up finding entire worlds you didn’t know about – Diane Arbus, Roman Vishniac, Weegee, Vivian Maier. I tried to do the same with Imaginary Cities. I wanted to send people out looking for Sant’Elia or Chernikhov or whoever. It would be as much a map as a book.   (more…)

I talk to Jan Wilm about the Nobel winner. He shares his approach to Coetzee’s writing, and the first two novels that sparked his enthusiasm
J. M. Coetzee
J. M. Coetzee

When did you first encounter the works of J. M. Coetzee?

There seem to me to exist two very common encounters with the literary texts that change one’s life in one’s salad days. Encounter one is raw, perhaps pure, immediate and emotional, when one feels the literary text entering very deeply into what used to be called one’s soul. There, it seizes one, lifts one up and sets one on a course that will retrospectively seem like the right path. Encounter two is marked by bewilderment, lack of understanding, a sense of loss even, being shaken at the feeling that one has failed to taste from the greatness one was sure to find. (more…)

Does Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Poor Folk and Other Stories speak to our troubled economic era?
Portrait of Fyodor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov (1872).
Portrait of Fyodor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov (1872).

In November 1844, Dostoyevsky finished writing his first story. He confides in Diary of a Writer that he had ‘written nothing before that time’. This was 22 years before the publication of Crime and Punishment, and 36 years before The Brothers Karamazov. Having recently finished translating Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet, he suddenly felt inspired to write a tale ‘of the same dimensions’. But he was not only prompted by artistic aspirations. Poverty also played a part. In a letter to his brother, Mikhail, just a few months earlier, he mentions being satisfied with a work-in-progress, and his hopes for greater financial stability: ‘I may get 400 rubles for it,’ he wrote, ‘and therein lie all my hopes.’

First published in 1846, Poor Folk was both a critical and financial success, with one prominent critic hailing Dostoyevsky as the next Gogol. It is a short epistolary novel that traces a five-month love affair. And while it certainly owes something to Balzac’s masterpiece, the role that money plays in determining people’s fates has a distinctly Dostoyevskyan bite. Financial difficulties plagued the Russian novelist’s career, and are a recurrent theme throughout his work, from the destitute student of Crime and Punishment to The Gambler, written to pay off gambling debts. The writer confessed having money troubles in letters to his brother, and hoped Poor Folk could offer some kind of reprieve. It is through his pen, he says, that he hopes ‘to save the whole situation’, considering suicide as perhaps his only other alternative. Money, then, was one of the novelist’s chief motivations, and one of his signature themes. (more…)