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.

Francis O’Gorman describes how his tendency to worry led him to investigate its cultural and literary origins. We talk about Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes stories, and the prominence of ‘worry’ in everyday life
Francis O'Gorman, Worrying: A Literary and Cultural History
Francis O’Gorman, Worrying: A Literary and Cultural History

What motivated you to write the book?

There’s a very short answer to that: I’m a worrier and I wanted to think about what that meant. Several people have asked me why a literary critic would write such a book, and whether I am merely using literature as a kind of case study, as representation. But for me being a literary critic means reading as intently and alertly as possible. And that includes, where necessary, reading the patterns of one’s own mind.

What exactly is ‘worry’, and why is it so difficult to pin down?

I don’t think that there is an ‘exactly’ in relation to worry. In the book, my topic is being fearful about the turn of ordinary things. Worry—those questions in the mind that mostly start with ‘what if …’—is a way of trying to take some control over a future that we don’t know but would like to. Worrying isn’t a ‘mental health’ book in that it doesn’t concern conditions of mind that would even vaguely interest a clinician. And I don’t write about grave worries—including worries about the grave. I’m interested, rather, in the mundane, in the meaning of low level bothers about what might happen next. (more…)

Alison Flood (The Guardian) reports on a petition that rejects traditional English curriculum at Yale
Undergraduates at Yale University have launched a petition calling on the English department to abolish a core course requirement to study canonical writers including Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton, saying that “it is unacceptable that a Yale student considering studying English literature might read only white male authors”.

The prestigious Connecticut university requires its English majors to spend two semesters studying a selection of authors it labels the “major English poets”: “Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, and John Donne in the fall; John Milton, Alexander Pope, William Wordsworth, and TS Eliot or another modern poet in the spring”. (more…)

Source: Literary Hub.

Michael Wood (NYRB) reviews four biographies of the American filmmaker and raconteur
orson-welles-citizen-kane-arriving-premiere.jpg
Orson Welles arrives at the premiere of Citizen Kane on 1 May 1941. The actor, director, producer, and co-screenwriter is 25 years old.
There is a special risk in writing about Orson Welles. The dimensions may get a little out of hand, as if they had to mime the physical size and imaginative reach of the subject. Patrick McGilligan’s excellent biography of Alfred Hitchcock takes 750 pages to cover the director’s life and his fifty films. By page 706 of Young Orson, Welles is about to start shooting Citizen Kane, his first full-length movie: he is twenty-five years old, and he lived till he was seventy. There is a thirty-nine-page postlude about the day and night of Welles’s death.

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Professor Robert Darnton
Professor Robert Darnton
In a 2011 interview, I asked the American cultural historian and academic librarian how he sees the future of the printed word…

In The Case for Books you wrote that ‘the explosion of electronic modes of communication is as revolutionary as the invention of printing with moveable type’. How do you feel this revolution is changing the way knowledge or information is spread?

Robert Darnton, The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future
Robert Darnton, The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future

Well, first I should say that the word ‘revolution’ is used very loosely, in general, so I said that after some hesitation. I mean, I’ve read about revolutions in menswear and revolutions in football styles of defence and so on. So, I don’t want to weaken the term. And, it’s a term that can be used in lots of different ways. But let’s say that the assertion is that the means of communication are changing as rapidly, as dramatically, today as they did in Gutenberg’s day. And, in fact, we’ve learned a lot about Gutenberg’s day: the change, perhaps, was not quite as rapid as people had thought when they refer to it as a revolution. We know, for example, that manuscript publishing continued for three centuries after Gutenberg, and really flourished. So, that’s by way of preface to what I was saying. But your question is how does this change, whether revolutionary or not, affect the way communication penetrates into society.

Well, you know, you have to just sit on a bus, or in a subway if you’re in New York, or London, or Paris and watch people with their smartphones or their various handheld devices. The phrase is sometimes used: ‘people are always “on”’. That is, they are always online, they’re always communicating. There has, I think, been a restriction of a kind of blank space in life: a time when people, so to speak, did nothing. Of course, they were never doing nothing. But it meant that there was a time in which they weren’t consciously communicating, but letting the world go by. Now, there’s a lot to be said for letting the world go by. You could sit and observe things, and maybe be exposed to surprises. But now I think there is this sense of constantly exchanging messages. Doing it all the time. That’s different, I think, qualitatively, from anything that ever existed before, even though people were exchanging gossip at the village pump. So, I think it is a very profound change in the way we live our lives, and it’s made communication and information more central than they ever were. (more…)

Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison
In a 1993 interview with The Paris Review, Elissa Schappell talks to Toni Morrison (with additional material from Claudia Brodsky Lacour)

Interviewer: What do you appreciate most in Joyce?

Toni Morrison: It is amazing how certain kinds of irony and humor travel. Sometimes Joyce is hilarious. I read Finnegans Wake after graduate school and I had the great good fortune of reading it without any help. I don’t know if I read it right, but it was hilarious! I laughed constantly! I didn’t know what was going on for whole blocks but it didn’t matter because I wasn’t going to be graded on it. I think the reason why everyone still has so much fun with Shakespeare is because he didn’t have any literary critic. He was just doing it; and there were no reviews except for people throwing stuff on stage. He could just do it. [Read More]

Call for Papers

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Victor Erofeyev (The New York Times) writes on literature, life and ideology

I get a physiological pleasure from reading Tolstoy, and the more I read him, the greater the pleasure. His words generate smells, sounds, vibrations of feelings and moods. They are broader than any philosophical doctrine, and more significant even than the author himself, whom his words mercilessly exploit. In all literature, perhaps, there never was so “idea-less” a writer who released into the world writing that fills us with admiration of its power, and fear of its candor. (more…)