René Girard
A Biographical Sketch

By James G. Williams

Published in: The Girard Reader. Edited by James G. Williams. New York: Crossroad, 1996, 1-6.

René Girard was born in 1923, in Avignon on Christmas day. He received his Baccalaureate in Philosophy at the Lycée of Avignon in 1941 and attended the Ecole des Chartres in Paris from 1943 to 1947. He graduated as an archiviste-paléographe, i.e., a specialist in medieval studies. It was in Paris that he had his only brush with the occupying Germans. His primary academic interest at that stage of his life was history and cultural patterns. His thesis was “La vie privée à Avignon dans la seconde moitié du XVe siècle” (Private life in Avignon in the second half of the fifteenth century).

At this point, in 1947, he had an opportunity to spend a year in the United States. It turned out to be forty-nine years and counting. He matriculated at Indiana University in history, where he received his Ph.D. in 1950. His dissertation topic was “American Opinion of France, 1940- 1943.” It may seem quite removed from his later turn to literature and interdisciplinary research, and in some respects that perception is correct. However, it is related to his later work to the extent that he has always been interested in cultural modes, fashions, and opinions, all of which express and revolve around mimetic desire, the core of his thought. Moreover, as a private citizen he continues to take a lively interest in Franco-American relations specifically and international affairs generally.

The young Girard was assigned to teach courses in French at Indiana. When he was asked to offer courses in literature which he had never read, a fateful period for his career began, although he could not have been clearly aware of this at the time. His doctoral work was in history, but he started to become more and more fascinated with the literature that he was assigned to teach. He would eventually, certainly by the time of his first book, be identified as a literary critic. However, some of Girard’s early published research was historiographical (e.g., marriage in Avignon in the second half of the fifteenth century; Voltaire and classical historiography), and one can see in some other early articles that the creative work of writers in relation to their historical circumstances was one of his main concerns (e.g., articles about reflections on art in Malraux’s novels; history in the work of Saint-John Perse; the situation of the American poet; Saint-Simon and literary criticism). His Dostoevsky, first published in 1963, was composed as a kind of running commentary on Dostoyevsky’s life and the intellectual and social movements, as seen through Dostoyevsky’s eyes, of that period of Russian history.

But Girard’s initial articles did not appear soon enough to win him tenure at Indiana University. He succeeded in publishing a great burst of articles by 1953 (seven in all), but it was too late, as the decision had already been made at Indiana not to keep him. He went to Duke University as an instructor and occupied a position of assistant professor at Bryn Mawr from 1953 to 1957. From there he accepted a position as associate professor at Johns Hopkins University, becoming a full professor in 1961. He served as chair of the Department of Romance Languages from 1965 to 1968.

It was early in this first Johns Hopkins period that he underwent a momentous spiritual change. In the winter of 1959 he experienced a conversion to Christian faith which had been preceded by a kind of intellectual conversion while he was working on his first book. These two conversions are described in the interview at the end of the Reader! (1)

It was during his tenure as chairman of Romance Languages that he facilitated a symposium at Johns Hopkins which was to be important for the emergence of critical theory in America. With Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato he organized an international conference in October of 1966, “The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man.” Participants included Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Lucien Goldman, Jean Hyppolite, Jacques Lacan, Georges Poulet, Tsvetan Todorov, Jean-Pierre Vernant, and others. It was at this symposium that Derrida gave his widely read and cited paper, “La structure, le signe et le jeu dans le discours des sciences humaines” (Structure, sign and play in the discourse of the human sciences). This paper confirmed for Girard that Derrida was a critic to be reckoned with, and he found Derrida’s subsequent essay “La pharmacie de Platon” (Plato’s pharmacy) to be particularly significant. Girard would develop the pharmakos or scapegoat aspect of Derrida’s analysis of writing/poison, placing it within history and actual social existence rather than restricting it to language and intertextuality like Derrida.

With his first two books, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel and Dostoievski: du double à l’unité,(2) Girard had rejected the literary retreat of the 1950s and early 1960s from concern with history, society, and the psyche. However, his first two books did not scandalize the intellectual world like his later writings, beginning with Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World. These initial works seemed to stay within a literary context and they focused on desire, which enjoyed a vogue by the 1960s. He analyzed the work of Cervantes, Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust, and Dostoyevsky in terms of “triangular” or “mimetic” desire: our desires are copied from models or mediators whose objects of desire become our objects of desire. But the model or mediator we imitate can become our rival if we desire precisely the object he is imagined to have. Or other imitators of the same model may compete with us for the same objects. Jealousy and envy are inevitably aroused in this mimetic situation. The romantic concept of a spontaneous desire is illusory.

As he began to study primitive religions from the standpoint of the mimetic concept, he saw that mimesis usually led to collective violence against a single victim. He turned to the great Greek tragedians. Once the pharmakos idea took hold in his thinking, he became more and more convinced of the power and relevance of these dramatists, particularly Sophocles’ Oedipus cycle and Euripides with his stunning exposure of mimetic violence in The Bacchae. He found fascinating Freud’s insight in Totem and Taboo, although Freud turned violent origins into a once-and-for-all myth rather than understanding the scapegoat mechanism as a constant factor in human culture and human relations. The mi- metic concept, extended to include the scapegoat mechanism and refined by the explication of The Bacchae and the critique of Freud: to grasp these developments in his thinking is to grasp the essential argument of Violence and the Sacred.

In 1971 Girard accepted a distinguished professor position at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he remained until 1976. During this period he became a close friend of Cesáreo Bandera, now University Distinguished Professor of Spanish Literature at the University of North Carolina. Bandera was and has remained an important conversation partner for Girard. In 1972 La violence et le sacré was published in France (in English Violence and the Sacred, 1977). He had published scarcely anything on Christianity and the Bible, but that was about to change, and a new stage of his career was imminent as he left SUNY/Buffalo in 1976.

In 1976 Girard accepted a second appointment at Johns Hopkins University, with the title of John M. Beall Professor of the Humanities. The English translation of La violence et le sacré came out in 1977, and for the first time he became the subject of reviews, interviews, and scholarly forums in North America. Violence and the Sacred is the one work by Girard that many American scholars have read, although some literary critics have read only Deceit, Desire, and the Novel.

The most important book Girard has produced appeared in French in 1978, Des choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde (Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World). In the form of a dialogue with two psychiatrists, Jean-Michel Oughourlian and Guy Lefort, its format is a triptych: (1) Fundamental Anthropology, (2) The Judeo-Christian Scriptures, (3) Interdividual Psychology. In this book Girard declared himself, in effect, as a Christian and advocated a nonsacrificial reading of the Gospels and the divinity of Christ. In France he was a cause célèbre or a bête noire, because his argument for a universal anthropological theory, combined with the position that the deepest insights of Western culture stem from biblical revelation, shocked and alienated those who held to the assumption of the all-encompassing nature of language and who tended to ignore Christianity or view it with contempt. However, for many who were seeking a way to affirm the reality of human experience as a referent outside of language or for those who were searching for a way of talking about the biblical God of history, his clear concepts and outspoken positioning of himself against fashionable intellectual modes came across as the discovery of treasure hidden in a field.

This public discussion of Girard’s work happened primarily in France, and to some extent in other European countries. Due to the impact of Things Hidden, there was a new reading audience for Violence and the Sacred. Interest in Girard and the spread of his influence have come about more slowly in North America. The translation of Things Hidden, published by Stanford University Press in 1987, was a signal step forward. Another was the formation of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion, to which I will return shortly.

In 1981 Girard accepted his next and last post, that of Andrew B. Hammond Professor of French Language, Literature, and Civilization at Stanford University. These years until his retirement in 1995 saw the appearance of Le bouc émissaire (1982), published in English as The Scapegoat by Johns Hopkins (1986); La route antique des hommes pervers (1985), put out by Athlone and Stanford as Job: The Victim of His People (1987); A Theater of Envy: William Shakespeare (1991), translated into French as Shakespeare: Les feux de l’envie, which actually appeared in 1990, before the English original; and a very important set of interviews, Quand ces choses commenceront. ..Entretiens avec Michel Treguer (When these things will begin…Conversations with Michel Treguer), published by arléa in 1994. Also, as already mentioned, the English version of Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World appeared in 1987.

Stanford University was a good setting for Girard in some respects. Stanford University is undoubtedly one of the best research universities in the world, the intelligence and background of its undergraduate students ranks high among American universities, and the graduate students in French were certainly very good. But Stanford’s very position as one of the leading universities in the Western world has made it prey to the currents of political correctness that have washed over American education. The problem from Girard’s standpoint is the denigration of traditional disciplines and classical learning. Certainly Girard, although well known and highly regarded on campus, became “odd man out” because of his stance toward certain academic fashions and his avowed Christian identity. But he never felt isolated, and his teaching and research were always interdisciplinary.

One of the most important events of this period from the standpoint of Girard’s lifetime of work and his intellectual and religious commitments was the formation of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion (COV&R) in 1990. It is characteristic of him that he did not take the initiative to start it, nor has he attempted in any way to manipulate its governance or the topics of meetings and approaches to various issues. He has exemplified the lack of that mimetic obsession with power exhibited by Freud in forming and controlling the inner council of the International Psychoanalytic Association, and Girard’s followers and sympathizers in COV&R are noticeably free of the esotericism and cultic exclusivism that have at various times marked disciples of Jung, Heidegger, and Lacan.

The object of COV&R, as stated on behalf of those present at the founding conference at Stanford University, is “to explore, criticize, and develop the mimetic model of the relationship between violence and religion in the genesis and maintenance of culture.” This statement presupposes Girard’s work as the center and starting point, but the organization includes many people who do not share his religious views or differ with him on certain points of the mimetic theory.

From that first meeting of no more than twenty-five people, there are now more than two hundred members, who are located primarily in the United States and Europe. An annual symposium is held in middle to late spring, and a shorter meeting takes place each year in conjunction with the convention of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature. A biannual bulletin, The Bulletin of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion, features a bibliography of literature on the mimetic theory. The bulletin is financially underwritten by the University of Innsbruck. An annual journal, Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture, has been published since 1994.

The great majority are academics, many of whom are dissatisfied with the conditions and attitudes they find in academe. They represent not only the usual complaints of lack of interest in humanistic and interdisciplinary studies and the greater support of disciplines which are more closely connected to what is popular and demanded in the marketplace. The deeper dimension of their reaction is a refusal of that very political correctness which pretends to uphold the rights of victims and minorities, but ends by affirming a helter-skelter hodge-podge which undercuts a consistent moral vision and tends to give the upper hand to those who exalt individual self-fulfillment at the one extreme and, at the other extreme, to those who are able to take advantage of the politics of victimization to gain power over others.

But besides academics holding college or university appointments, COV&R’s membership includes also some ministers and priests, psychiatrists and psychologists, and others who carry on their vocations in overlapping spheres of academy and church, or academy and the work of conflict resolution in racial, ethnic, and religious relations.

Retired since the summer of 1995, Girard is still actively engaged in thinking and writing. His immediate project is a book on Christianity and myth, which is nearing completion. “Christianity and myth” means for him not primarily the valid points of comparison, which of course must be noted, but above all the differences that disclose the truth of Christianity.

1. See also Quand ces choses commenceront, 190-95, in the bibliography of Girard’s writings.

2. Published by Crossroad Publishing Co. in 1997 as Resurrection from the Underground: Feodor Dostoevsky, trans. James G. Williams.