THE WORLD THAT literary critic René Girard described and explored — one of runaway desire, obsession with taboo and scandal, and an overwhelming instinct to blame outsiders for our problems — is remarkably like the world we live in today. That Girard, who died in 2015, seems to be writing about our current moment is all the more notable given that his theoretical speculations were an attempt to explain the founding of functional human societies thousands of years ago.

In a series of books spanning decades and disciplines, Girard put forward ideas about culture — linking envy, sacrifice, myth, and religion — that came to him all at once, “a single, extremely dense insight,” as he put it, which he spent a lifetime teasing out. Evolution of Desire is Cynthia Haven’s elegant attempt to introduce the general reader to Girard’s ideas by combining them with the story of his life. Her approach suggests that Girard’s contributions remain underappreciated because, when summarized, they lose something essential. It’s not just what he thought that had power, but how he articulated it — who he was. By bringing us closer to the man, Haven hopes to make his ideas resonate in a way other introductions to them have not.

Those ideas informed his first book, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, published in 1961 when Girard was a professor of French at Johns Hopkins University. Investigating the novels of Cervantes, Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust, and Dostoyevsky, Girard discovered that these writers, whatever their formal differences, all shared a common intuition that human beings do not desire objectively — as autonomous individuals with transparent longings for what is inherently valuable. Rather, they desire objects because they perceive that others desire them. Lacking a solid sense of self, they see their neighbors as possessing a substantiality they don’t have and are therefore unconsciously compelled toward their neighbors’ objects.

For Girard, our desire is never truly our own; it is always fundamentally the other’s. As we imitate the desires of others, and are ourselves imitated in turn, rivalrous conflict over mutually coveted objects, goals, and accolades inevitably occurs — and these conflicts can easily spread and engulf the entire community, like a fire or plague. Society’s efforts to control such outbreaks are explored in Girard’s next major book, Violence and the Sacred, published in 1972 when Girard was Distinguished Professor in the English Department at SUNY Buffalo. In this startlingly confident work, Girard focused on the tendency of envious feelings to escalate in early human groups, resulting in a war of all against all.

A common solution to such crises, which he found across cultures, is scapegoating — the singling out of a victim (usually in some way “other”) onto whom the group’s chaotic, diffuse rage can fasten. The murder or exile of this unfortunate soul produces a temporary peace in the community — and the victim, just moments ago seen as the source of everyone’s troubles, now appears to be almost miraculously responsible for their cessation. So the group divinizes this scapegoat, who then becomes the star of new myths and rituals — sacred representations employed to protect the community against future eruptions of destabilizing desire. In short, violence against one channels and controls the violence of all.

This is an unjust violence because it is based on a lie — the lie of the scapegoat’s guilt. Whatever crime the scapegoat was accused of was just a pretext to justify slaughter or expulsion. But this is not grasped by the mob, which is certain of the scapegoat’s guilt — until, according to Girard, the emergence of Christianity began to chip away at this common misapprehension. This controversial element of his thought is explored at length in Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, Girard’s 1978 magnum opus wherein he claimed that Christianity explicitly thematizes the falsity underlying the violence against innocents that has long structured human communities. In Jesus’s crucifixion, Girard wrote, the familiar scapegoating structure remained in place; however, unlike all previous scapegoats, Jesus’s innocence gradually became apparent. Over time, this awareness destroyed the cultural unity that typically followed the death of the scapegoat. From this point on in history, our instinct to condemn others would exist in perpetual struggle with our understanding that we do so unjustly — a revolutionary change in social reality.

These ideas, which Girard would develop and refine over the following decades, are simple enough in summary, and Haven does an adequate job articulating them. But her summaries lack Girard’s marvelous subtlety, sense of paradox, and psychological depth. Aware of this problem, Haven interweaves her coverage of his thought with the story of his life, as if this personal history will help capture the spirit informing his ideas. Her biographical treatment is effective, but only to an extent. While Haven deftly recounts the major early life events — a mischievous childhood in Avignon, an unhappy period of study in Paris during the occupation, the fateful decision in 1947 to go to the United States — her subject’s characteristic reticence minimizes their resonance. “I once asked Girard what the biggest events of his life were,” she writes. He answered that “they were all events in his head. His thoughts were what mattered.”

But Girard was not very forthcoming about the genesis of those thoughts, either — so Haven has to lean on anecdotes from colleagues and scraps from Girard’s (similarly reserved) interviews. The story she tells is engaging, but it often feels like a succession of sketches where one was hoping for detail and texture. Haven describes Girard’s conversion experiences — an intellectual one as he neared completion of Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, followed closely by a more mystical one triggered by a cancer scare — but she never explores whatever inner crisis might have prompted him to develop a radical new theory of desire in the first place.

Later, trying to make sense of Girard’s shift from individual desire to group violence, Haven refers to his experiences during World War II and his encounters with racial segregation in the Jim Crow South. But here too there is not much to hold onto, as Girard resists her attempts to draw him out, while his friends offer conflicting and uncertain accounts. Even in a brilliantly entertaining chapter detailing the famous conference Girard organized at Johns Hopkins in 1966 that introduced French structuralism to the United States, her subject fades into the background as Lacan and Derrida take the spotlight. Haven gives us a sense of Girard as charismatic and somewhat mercurial — often dazzling, genuine, and capable of great warmth, yet also sometimes insensitive and aloof — but his inner world remains mostly opaque.

That is why the book’s final chapters are so welcome. They cover the end of Girard’s life, when Haven met him at Stanford, where he finished his academic career, leading to the growth of a “warm and unequal” friendship. Haven’s perceptiveness results in a frank and intimate account of Girard’s mind and soul during this period, when he was still occupied with “restless digging for the deepest human truths.” The two met shortly after his last book, Battling to the End (2007), was published in France. It’s a strange work — “an apocalyptic book,” according to Girard, that “claims to be a study of Germany and French-German relations over the last two centuries.” Applying his theory not just to the past but to the present, through a deep reading of military theorist Carl von Clausewitz’s On War (1832), Girard ponders how the “escalation to extremes” that Clausewitz saw in the duel of war manifests in our time. Girard anatomizes military conflicts without real aim or end, new types of resentment spreading mimetically and globally, and “heads of state, bankers and soldiers who claim to be saving us when in fact they are plunging us deeper into devastation each day.”

While Girard circled controversial subjects in the book — his speculations about an essentially regressive character to Islam warrant more robust questioning than Haven’s gentle approach provides — its core is an attempt to understand what underlies the intensifying violence we are presently witness to, not just among nations and groups but against our environment as well. Girard believed that, while Christianity has succeeded in teaching us that our violence is unjust, thereby limiting its conciliatory power, it has failed to persuade us to give it up and fully accept that our victims are innocent. Loath to face the real sources of our cultural disorder, we continue to deploy violence to ever-diminishing ends, like a drug addict who needs to keep increasing the dosage to maintain a physiological status quo. Eventually, the options are to get sober or die, and Girard claims that the same is true for our civilization — either we will renounce our violence or we will destroy ourselves.

Haven’s explication of Girard’s difficult late work is outstanding — sympathetic, thorough, clarifying — but it is her account of the man himself that gives this section such emotional power. She describes a thinker at once exacting and relaxed, “endlessly revising” an interview she did with him, but with an intensity leavened by gentleness: “He would describe the darkest things so lightly.” The gravity of his thought would have warranted a more severe persona, but Girard appeared to feel a “deep tranquility” at the end of his life.

The cockiness of his earlier years, the desire to make a splash, however superficial or transient such a motivation may have been, were now the discarded ribbon and wrapping around a greater gift: himself, silent and alone in a room. […] The boldness and bravura were stripped like paint from a chair — leaving in their wake a startling simplicity.

Perhaps Girard’s reticence about his life derived from a conviction that his ideas were too important to get contaminated by a cult of personality, and silence protected him from such temptations. While Haven sees in Girard’s last years an identification with his favorite poet Hölderlin, her biography’s dramatic arc puts one in mind of The Winter’s Tale, a play Girard analyzed in his remarkable book on Shakespeare, A Theatre of Envy (1991). According to Girard, the playwright was profoundly driven by imitative desire before a late overcoming of it — most clearly dramatized in his penultimate play, where Leontes’s envious reaction to a friend’s innocent conversation with his wife brings about a kind of personal apocalypse, followed by a long period of mourning and atonement, and finally a miraculous resurrection. An anecdote Haven memorably recounts suggests that Girard’s inner journey was not unlike Leontes’s: when a roomful of despairing theologians asks Girard what is to be done about our apocalyptic moment, he says, “We might begin with personal sanctity.”

The reply is pure Girard — at once modest and grandly challenging. The most important thing we can do in the face of catastrophe is to look at ourselves, try to understand our own violence, and become better. Could anything be simpler, or more difficult? While Girard’s thought opens up endless questions about — and possibilities for — the future of our civilization, it’s no surprise he answered the theologians as he did. In its tender closing chapters, Cynthia Haven’s moving portrait inspires readers to look inward and scrutinize themselves, unsparingly yet forgivingly — just as Girard would have wanted.

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Christopher Shinn lives in New York City, where he writes and teaches playwriting at the New School. His 2006 play Dying City will be revived at Second Stage next year.