AUGUST 16, 2020
IN 1953, ISAIAH BERLIN published his long essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” outlining his now-famous Oxbridge variant on there are two kinds of people in this world. He drew the title from an ambiguous fragment attributed to the ancient lyric poet Archilochus of Paros: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog one big thing.” Written with the aim of pointing out tensions between Tolstoy’s grand view of history and the artistic temperament that saw such a view as untenable, Berlin’s essay became an unlikely hit, although less for its argument about Russian literature than for its contention that two antithetical personae govern the world of ideas: hedgehogs, who view the world in terms of some all-embracing system, seeing all facts as fitting into a grand pattern; and foxes, those pluralists or particularists who refuse “big theory” for reasons either intellectual or temperamental.
Berlin’s typology is beautifully blunt: perhaps more a serious game than a scientific typology, it works wonderfully only when it does. With the French American literary and cultural theorist René Girard, it works very well. As Roberto Calasso suggested, Girard was almost the Platonic ideal of a hedgehog: he belongs to that lineage of 19th- and 20th-century thinkers whose vast synthetic ambition is now seen by many in the academy as not simply wrongheaded but almost impolite. Sweeping intellectual projects such as his come across today as naïve and even oppressive, animated by the most obnoxious nostalgias for the Enlightenment. Of course, the academics who offer such judgments are typically those whose own work is parasitical upon grand synthesizing theorists like Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche.
Like these older thinkers, although distinct from them in important ways, Girard was disinclined toward mere taxonomic labor, such as structuralist classification or the identification of linguistic “themes” and “figures,” but was interested rather in asking large questions about origins — the origin of religion, of language, of culture, of violence, of human psychic life. And although such explanatory ambition is hard to find in humanities academics these days, it is surprisingly common among contemporary scientists, who suffer far fewer anxieties — one might argue, insufficient anxieties — about their own capacities to address the big questions that interest them most. And so, physicists and biologists continue to write magnificently incoherent, best-selling books addressing large questions about human nature and culture on behalf of those of us who, some time ago, politely vacated the field. Whether this is because we in the humanities no longer find such all-encompassing theorizing intellectually tenable, or whether (less flatteringly) we have been conditioned by those institutional and funding frameworks that render such projects nonviable, a generation devoid of Freuds or Nietzsches or Marxes of its own might turn out to be something we will one day regret. (Unless, of course, we are now content to have Yuval Noah Harari carry the banner for us all.)
There are exceptions, of course — such as Girard. Behind the seeming, teeming variety of cultural forms — myths, rituals, prohibitions — he famously saw a striking unity, a finite set of patterns, one that he hypothesized was generated by the same sociopsychological mechanisms: universal mimesis and collective violence. Girard’s conception of the human person is homo imitans: the human as imitator. Denied the rigid instinctual scripts that govern most sentient life, humans are instead imitation machines who come to inhabit their cultures and societies through conscious and unconscious forms of mimicry. Our culture is a heritable legacy, albeit not one carried in the double helix; unlike anthills, those veritable insect masterworks, human fabrications do not derive from some chromosomal script. This insight about human imitation is not novel, and parallel contentions — from Aristotle to Gabriel Tarde — have been made. But many believe that, until the work of Girard, the most serious implications of this insight had not been properly understood.
Though welcomed into the cohort of so-called “immortals” of the French Academy in November 2005 by the philosopher Michel Serres with the breathless decree, “Je vous nomme désormais le nouveau Darwin des sciences humaines!” [“I hereby name you the new Darwin of the human sciences!”], Girard’s legacy in mainstream social science has been relatively minor. Like Freud, he ultimately developed his theories from a reading of literature. While a junior academic with a PhD in modern history, Girard was asked to teach French literature to undergraduates for no other reason than that he was himself French — a little like a Chinese economist being asked to teach the Analects of Confucius on account of his birth certificate. Girard had to find his feet and come up with something to say, which he was quick to do.
His debut book in literary theory, Mensonge Romantique et Verité Romanesque (1961; translated four years later by Yvonne Freccero as Deceit, Desire and the Novel), involved not just a new understanding of the fictional protagonists of Proust, Stendhal, and Flaubert, but of those protagonists as we find ourselves in them. Girard’s book turned out to be that very rare kind of literary analysis — one that continues to fascinate not just literary scholars but novelists themselves, a species not typically given to public effusion over the often byzantine labors of literary academics. Girard’s work shows a surprising absence of the baroque affectations and intertextual pebble trails that became de rigueur during the halcyon decades of “French theory.” One never gets the sense, reading Girard, that one has suddenly lucked upon a failed poet.
Cynthia Haven’s fascinating new collection, Conversations with René Girard: Prophet of Envy, showcases Girard at both his most typical and his most surprising. Like many intellectuals, and not just hedgehogs, Girard returned repeatedly to the same themes throughout his career — what he called with self-mocking charm, in one exchange included here, his “monomania.” Of course, as one would hope, the reader will find in this book explications of the standard Girardian theses about imitative desire, scapegoating, and religion. And yet, throughout the volume, Girard also turns his attention to topics rarely if ever broached in his body of work: opera, eating disorders, Husserlian phenomenology, literary modernism.
But this collection isn’t valuable simply because of its combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar, but because of the energy of the textual form itself. There are intellectuals who, when cornered, mumble unintelligible jargon, never seeming capable of matching wits in a way that would do justice to their scholarly work. Girard was never like that. As Haven points out in her introduction, Girard’s capstone work, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978), is itself a long dialogue, as were many of his other major works, including his last, Battling to the End (2009), an erratic but often brilliant argument about our understanding of dialectic, history, and the era of “total war.” Indeed, the interview form itself is interesting insofar as it represents one of the most persistent remnants from older approaches to intellectual production. Over the course of its long history, philosophy has given rise to a rich variety of textual forms — the aphorism, the address, the dialogue, the essay, the letter, the dramatic work, and so on. But today we only seem capable of producing the essay or monograph. If nothing else, this collection offers a salutary reminder that the dialogue can still be one of the most provocative and valuable argumentative methods.
One of Girard’s notable theses runs contrary to the mainstream in social theory, with its view that human conflict is the result of our incapacity to cope with difference. Girard’s contention is that the opposite is often true — it is not difference but sameness that engenders conflict. That this fact can usually only be perceived outside the purview of antagonists (who see between themselves all manner of radical difference) means little; the ideology of “difference” is not just a means of understanding conflict, it is sometimes one of the principal mythologies sustaining it. As postcolonial critics have pointed out, it is often not the difference of the colonized that proves most provocative to the colonizer, but rather their presumption of equality, their refusal of otherness.
There is surely little that is more insulting than seeing ourselves as indistinguishable from our adversaries. But even terrorism thrives not simply on perceived differences but on a deadly symmetry of antagonism. In one interview included in this volume, Girard asks rhetorically whether the attackers on 9/11 were not at least “a bit American themselves.” No doubt the similarities can be overstated. Even so, we should be receptive to what such a perspective — and corrective — might reveal. After all, Thomas Jefferson’s claim that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots” is not so different from Ayatollah Khomeini’s assertion that “the tree of Islam can only grow if it is constantly fed with the blood of martyrs.”
Similar provocations run throughout Haven’s collection. The Girard found in these pages proves himself to be a thinker whose ideological commitments are apt to confuse in an era when political identities have become so homogeneous, not least in their retreat to facile oppositions. Girard is a Catholic who critiques Heidegger for his insufficient humanism, who praises Richard Dawkins and thinks Nietzsche’s understanding of religion was more profound than anything offered up in 19th-century theology; he is a theorist who sometimes suggests that Marxism simply offered up scapegoats, yet also a thinker for whom economic injustice loomed large and upon whose work the Marxist Lucien Goldmann lavished praise; he is a liberal who applauds Foucault’s analysis of modernity while simultaneously excoriating Adam Smith and Francis Fukuyama. And so on. Despite his drive toward abstraction, Girard was not typically a fan of the set piece.
Throughout this collection, Girard displays an admirable capacity for self-mockery, a deep insight into his own foibles. He presumes no position above or outside the fray he describes, even admitting to his own mimetic, polemical nature, to having his own scapegoats. He also shows a mischievous sense of humor. During a moment of levity in his brilliant sparring with French writer-director Michel Tréguer, Girard asks whether Tréguer’s defense of French provincialism would entail dressing in traditional Provençal costumes and playing wooden flutes. The Girard on display here is a thinker who can criticize his own work, can detect overemphases and omissions, a man whose mind seems permanently open to challenge and change. One might imagine, reading his monographs, that Girard always had a story to tell and stuck to it, but apparently not.
In a fascinating interview that appeared in Diacritics in 1978, Girard admitted that his views were “scandalously out of proportion with the general temper of the times.” That temper has remained roughly consistent ever since, despite the resurgence of so-called “big history” and the grand systems advanced by philosophers like Alain Badiou. But Haven’s book is a welcome tonic for those of us for whom universalist theories are liable to provoke an outbreak of hives. As Adam Phillips once said about psychoanalysis: “like all essentialist theories,” it “makes a cult out of what could be just good company.” Regardless of how one evaluates Girard’s overarching intellectual project, there is little doubt that he was often excellent company indeed, as this collection amply attests.
Chris Fleming is an associate professor in the School of Humanities and Communication Arts at Western Sydney University. He has written widely on issues of culture, philosophy, and literature, both in academic journals and in mainstream publications such as The Guardian, LitHub, The Chronicle Review, and The Sydney Review of Books.