- Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard by Cynthia L. Haven
Nearly three years after his passing, it is certainly both appropriate and necessary for there to be a comprehensive biography on René Girard (1923–2015), the lauded yet controversial intellectual maverick primarily known for his work on rivalry, sacrifice, and scapegoating. Moreover, such a biography should be illuminating not just for academics, but for the general public as well. In Evolution of Desire, Cynthia L. Haven has accomplished just that by crafting an accessible, readable, and informative work on the French-American philosopher’s remarkable life. Even if one is not particularly interested in Girard, Haven’s elegant writing, combined with her sharp acumen, make Evolution of Desire an enjoyable read.
Haven’s work ably summarizes Girardian themes, and also introduces many entertaining anecdotes from Girard’s personal journey, which took him from being a student during Nazi-occupied France to becoming one of the most esteemed professors at Stanford by the time he retired in 1995. Girard was most fascinated by ideas; many were based on personal experiences that shaped Girard at a young age. While there are various appealing aspects in Evolution of Desire, perhaps the most interesting is the enormous role that the United States played in the theorist’s intellectual and personal trajectories. After arriving at Indiana University in 1947 to teach French and begin a doctorate, Girard would remain in the States for the rest of his life, raising three children with his wife, Martha. Following Bloomington, he taught at Duke, Bryn Mawr, Johns Hopkins, and SUNY Buffalo, before finally settling at Stanford. Thus, Girard got to know Humanities and Social Science departments at the height of their prestige in American life.
While so many of his peers were enamored of deconstruction after the famous Hopkins symposium in 1966—which, curiously, he was instrumental in organizing—Girard was becoming a pioneer in interdisciplinarity, studying literature, history, psychology, anthropology, and theology. These interests would lead him to publish groundbreaking works such as Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (1965), Violence and the Sacred (1977), Things Hidden since the Foundation of [End Page 326] the World (1987), and numerous other articles and books. His teaching in the United States afforded him a freedom that he was quick to embrace, allowing him to create his own path. Girardian concepts like triangular desire (the desire of an object is based on a model), and the use of scapegoating to quell internecine enmity, are ideas that will be forever useful for analyzing human behavior.
In addition, Evolution of Desire reveals how Girard was much more personified by humility rather than hubris. Haven befriended Girard during the last decade of his life and spent those years chronicling the characteristics of a man who preferred to discuss his ideas rather than himself. Given that reality, Haven’s work is a considerable feat due to Girard’s penchant for privacy and modesty. We read of Girard quietly working in the early hours at his Palo Alto home well into his eighties, all the while combating the maladies and other struggles of old age. The biography is particularly intriguing because Haven was by no means a “Girardian” or an expert on his work prior to meeting him in 2007. As the author states, “I encountered René Girard not through theory or books, but through the man himself ” (6). Evolution of Desire is not simply based on a handful of conversations with Girard, rather on genuine friendship and mutual respect. Naturally, such an arrangement leads to occasional flattery in Haven’s work, but this shortcoming would have been hard to avoid. Certainly the author is not obsequious, and overall keeps her thoughts measured, connected, and organized.
The biography is refreshing because the style is more journalistic than scholarly, perhaps the way a biography should be. Rather than employing academese, Haven’s approach is inviting and smooth, providing enlightening narratives about Girard’s career and personal life. The author writes like a cultural historian, and therefore makes the subject matter colorful and applicable...