Study Guide

René Girard Biography

Basic Information

Name

René Noël Théophile Girard

Nickname

Master of Human Disaster, Leader of the Girardians, ReGi

Sex

Male

Home town

I hail from Avignon, France—home of the oldest bridge in France and affectionately referred to as "The City of Popes" because a big pope rivalry went down there back in the 15th century. During that so-called Papal Schism, a lot of people were claiming to be the "real Pope." Anyway, it got down and dirty, 'cause let's face it: you can only have one Pope. So profound was the impact of this local history on me that I later wrote my thesis on it. That early tour de force was provocatively titled Private Life in Avignon in the Second Half of the Fifteenth Century.

Work & Education

Occupation

After picking up a PhD at Indiana University, I thought, Why not stay in the land of the free? So the United States became my home. For a long time, I was like the hobo of academia, going from university to university and never staying all that long. I have plied my trade at Indiana University, State University of New York in Buffalo, Duke, Johns Hopkins, and Bryn Mawr. (I'm sure I'm forgetting something). My last and longest stint was at Stanford (1981-1995), where I had one of those highly coveted, extensively titled endowed chairs. I'm pretty sure they had a rough time chiseling Andrew B. Hammond Professor of French Language, Literature, and Civilization on a little plaque for my office door. My degree was in Medieval Studies, but I taught literature from across space and time: my faves were Cervantes, Stendhal, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, and Proust. Never one to be greedy with my knowledge, I wrote heaps of books; churned out dozens upon dozens of articles; collected honorary degrees, fellowships, and awards—oh, and I was elected to the Académie Française, the Super Bowl of French thinkers. My mega-groundbreaking work was Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (1966)… but much much more on that later.

Education

I went local for my BA (in philosophy) but then did the requisite study in Paris, where I conducted my research in Medieval Studies. The Nazis were occupying the city, so that was a bit of a buzz kill. I ended up going to the United States to study at Indiana University—a wacky place for an Avignonnais to end up, right? My dissertation—American Opinion of France, 1940–1943—was in history, but after graduation I ended up teaching literature. (Maybe they misread my résumé? Must follow up.) Anyway, I just embraced it, and I morphed into a literary critic. Sometimes life has other plans.

Beliefs

Political views

Look, I have ideas about everything—but many of them are more theories than opinions or views. So, I'm not political in the sense of supporting a presidential candidate or having something to say about Syria or Obamacare. I theorize about violence, human conflict, and civilization, all of which naturally have to do with politics, but in a more high-falutin' kind of way. I've never strayed far from my early ideas that human beings are competitive, violent, self-destructive, and prone to mob mentality. I found inspiration for a lot of these ideas in the Bible. I mean, if Joseph wasn't scapegoated by his brothers, then I don't know what! My 2009 book Battling to the End: Politics, War, and Apocalypse, was like a poker stuck into a hornet's nest. I basically said, "Earth to you all: war doesn't put an end to conflict anymore. All of the things we used to associate with it—what weapons are being used, who the enemy is, and why the war is being fought—went the way of Nazis. These days, it's peace or total destruction."

Religious views

As I mentioned, I was a bit of a traveling professor, but I did wind up at Johns Hopkins University from 1957 to 1968, and even became chair of the Department of Romance Languages there. But being chair wasn't the highlight of my JHU years. I also had what some may call an epiphany, or a spiritual revelation. Let me back up: my first publication—a little work called Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure—converted me to a bona fide literary criticism. But it also converted me to more than that. Up to that point in my life, I had been tripping along, an unquestioning agnostic. God just wasn't my thang yet. But I began to identify deeply with the religious conversion experiences in Dostoevsky's novels (like The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment) and thought, "I want to get me some of that." From then on, I've been a hardcore Roman Catholic. My work and my faith go hand in hand, so you'll be hearing a lot more about that.

Activities & Interests

Likes

Desire
Crisis and Resolution
Violence that destroys violence
Order
Struggle
Ritual Sacrifices
The theories of Claude Lévi-Strauss
Rivalries
Taboos
Responsibility

Dislikes

People who don't give me fair shakes because I'm Christian
Pretending nothing is wrong
The Oedipus Complex as an explanation for culture and civilization
Privileging science over religion
Non-mimetic desire—what gives?
Sir James Frazer—the guy totally ignores Christianity
People who ignore Satan—he may be mean, but he matters
Postmodern critics
Being accused of exaggeration
Blind adherence to scientific language

Interests

The Bible
Thinking up new transgressions
Desiring other people's desires
Playing "Duck, Duck, Scapegoat"
Being an unfashionable critic (take that, Sartre)
Making Nietzsche work for my theories (against the odds)
Working toward peace
Pondering the Gospels—endless possibilities
Making grand claims and sticking to them

Groups

Anthropological Philosophers
Untrendy French Theorists
Mimetic Philosophers
The Imitationists
Christians in the Academy (Membership: 3)
Friends of Proust
Theologian
Bible-Loving Hermeneuticists
Christians for Desire
Scapegoaters Anonymous