Tributes to Girard at 2016 COV&R Meeting
At the conference dinner of the 2016 COV&R meeting in Melbourne, Australia, two tributes to René Girard were offered, by current COV&R President Jeremiah Alberg, and former COV&R President Wolfgang Palaver. The text of these tributes follows in full.
Jeremiah Alberg: Remembering René Girard
I am grateful for this opportunity to give tribute to the memory of René Girard. I will begin by mentioning and that my daughters and I will be visiting Martha in a couple of weeks. I will tell her about this year’s conference and especially about this tribute. I know it will be a comfort to her. I will also talk with her about the possibility of her being in Paris next year so that she might be able to travel to Madrid and be with us for the 2017 Conference.
René Girard was not the founder of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion, he was not even one of the founders, and yet COV&R owes its existence to him. There may be a René Girard Society at some point in the future but that is not exactly what COV&R was nor is. It is a Colloquium, a discussion, a discussion among friends. So from the point of view of COV&R, which I represent tonight, if we ask, who was René Girard, the answer is that he is the one with whom we spoke, the one to whom we listened, the one we wanted to hear. For years, the highpoint of the COV&R Conference was the talk by René. That is what we desired to hear.
And so we come, as we always do with René, to the notion of desire. What makes one want to hear someone, to want to listen to him. As students of mimetic theory, we know: we want to hear because others wanted to hear. Gil Bailie longed to hear René Girard, and so I, in listening to Gil’s tapes, began to want to hear René, and due to my desire Richard Schenk began to want to hear. So without a false search for a non-existent origin, I think that we can say that our desire to listen goes back to Rene’s own desire to listen. We were imitating him.
René himself longed to hear something. This longing provoked his departure from France and his sojourn in the United States. There he began to hear what he desired to hear in great literature, particularly the literature of France. He also heard quite clearly in works of Dostoevsky. And this lead him to hear, with a clarity that is rare in this world, the voice of Christ, the living Word.
For most of us all of this is precisely what made us so eager to hear his voice, to listen to his talks, to engage him in conversation, to receive his encouragement in our work. We too long to hear, not so much René Girard, but to hear what he heard. We would like to be the other villagers of the Samaritan women in John’s Gospel. “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”
The living voice of René has been silenced. The French accented English, the laughter is now gone. We are right to be sad. But it is ultimately his desire to hear, a desire that has affected us, that makes us miss hearing him, but also makes us want to listen to each other, to the voices of literature and to hear the word of God. This desire lives on in us. It constitutes the very identity of this group and so we are deeply, deeply grateful for his life.
Wolfgang Palaver: Gratitude for René Girard and his Mimetic Theory
Remembering René Girard at our first annual meeting after his death in last November, a deep gratitude comes to my mind. I am personally very grateful for what I have learned from René Girard. In addition, I am deeply convinced that this is true for all of us who have convened here at this dinner concluding a very successful annual meeting of the Colloquium on violence and religion. We own it especially to René Girard that we gather every year to our special type of a family reunion. Our common interest in reflecting on the relationship between violence and religion brings us together. This explains, for instance, why Europeans like myself exchanged this year summer holidays for working in winter.
I like to express my gratitude also in the name of the School of Catholic Theology of the University of Innsbruck in Austria. Due to the long-time friendship between Jesuit Father and Theologian Raymund Schwager and René Girard that lasted from the 70’s of the last century until Schwager’s untimely death in 2004 several colleagues at our institution became followers of mimetic theory that led to a specific theological approach for which our School in Innsbruck is especially known: dramatic theology.
Reflecting on what I personally have learned from René Girard I first remember his deep dedication to come to a better understanding of human life. It was his reading of great European novelists that led him to his unfolding of mimetic theory. By focusing on these insights, he did not respect the boundaries of academic fields but was seeking answers to real questions. In this regard, I see an affinity to the French mystic and philosopher Simone Weil who was also a deeply committed seeker of truth. In one of her very last letters to her parents – just three weeks before she died – she wrote about the fools in Shakespeare’s work who express the truth but are often overheard because they “possess no academic titles or episcopal dignities”. She begged her mother not to look at her achievements at the École but always ask the question “Is what she says true?” René Girard was of a kindred spirit. Truth was much more important for him than academic titles or worldly honors.
By seeking truth, René Girard was forced as a trained historian to move into literary criticism, anthropology, philosophy, biblical studies, religious science, theology, and finally even into archeology. By doing his work he remained exited by new discoveries and was always open for new challenges. When he addressed archeological findings in Çatalhöyük in his last public lecture in 2008 at Riverside, many of us could feel how excited he still was entering into this new field. During the discussion after his lecture he was even willing to change basic assumptions of his own theory if these new insights forced him to do so. The same is true for his stance on the term sacrifice in regard to the crucifixion of Jesus that he changed later in his life due to the influence of Raymund Schwager. René Girard always remained a scholar who was not interested in his status or in his past achievements but in a sound theory that aimed at an anthropological apology of Christianity.
His scholarly work led René Girard back into the Catholic Church. I met him as a humble and regular churchgoer at Palo Alto deeply in love with Gregorian chants. He understood that by imitating Jesus’s mimesis of the heavenly father Christian sacraments are an important antidote against the deadlock of mimetic rivalries. René Girard did not talk a lot about his own spirituality but I am quite convinced that he himself as well as his work have a mystical side. One can discover this mystic dimension by reading the last chapter of his first book Deceit, Desire, and the Novel that is deeply influenced by Simone Weil and by reading the central chapter of his last book Battling to the End in which he deals extensively with the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin. Both Weil and Hölderlin share an emphasis on kenosis, the self-emptying of Jesus. This matches with René Girard’s humility that characterized him deeply.