Delighted to see that my review of Cynthia Haven’s Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard is included among the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Year in Review: The Best Books of 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.
About the Book
What do Socrates, Hypatia, Giordano Bruno, Thomas More, and Jan Patocka have in common? First, they were all faced one day with the most difficult of choices: stay faithful to your ideas and die or renounce them and stay alive. Second, they all chose to die. Their spectacular deaths have become not only an integral part of their biographies, but are also inseparable from their work. A “death for ideas” is a piece of philosophical work in its own right; Socrates may have never written a line, but his death is one of the greatest philosophical best-sellers of all time.
Dying for Ideas explores the limit-situation in which philosophers find themselves when the only means of persuasion they can use is their own dying bodies and the public spectacle of their death. The book tells the story of the philosopher’s encounter with death as seen from several angles: the tradition of philosophy as an art of living; the body as the site of self-transcending; death as a classical philosophical topic; taming death and self-fashioning; finally, the philosophers’ scapegoating and their live performance of a martyr’s death, followed by apotheosis and disappearance into myth.
While rooted in the history of philosophy, Dying for Ideas is an exercise in breaking disciplinary boundaries. This is a book about Socrates and Heidegger, but also about Gandhi’s “fasting unto death” and self-immolation; about Girard and Passolini, and self-fashioning and the art of the essay. (more…)