Evolving desire: the life of Rene Girard.



If you have ever stepped into a room that has young children, a range of available toys and an ongoing dispute because every child's focus is on possession of a particular toy, you have stepped into the orbit of the works of Girard.

Desire is primarily shaped by imitation. The desirable is what is possessed by the admired other. That mutual admiration sets up rivalry. The rivalry can lead to conflict. How we manage that conflict, in multiple contexts, becomes Girard's primary theme. In the case of the nursery, it might be as simple as the adult drawing one of the children aside with a competing object of their admiration or, if the object is shareable, their admiring of the virtue of collaboration that wins, for the time being, the children's approval.

What if, however, the admired object is indivisible such as Helen of Troy who triggers and is yet not the source of the conflict between Greek and Trojan or where the desired admiration is a whole social order that must be maintained against encroachment from any 'other'? Here, for example, is the way in which the white 'Christian' southern USA reinforced itself continuously through the shared ritual of lynching of 'uppity negroes' - and shocking now to realise just how shared and public (and approvingly described in newspapers) they were!

Thus, in wider society, both conflict and its management takes a darker hue in Girard. Social cohesion might require that we disguise our rivalry by projecting it onto a suitable other, who becomes a scapegoat. Expelling the scapegoat, violently, restores social peace. The rivalry was not internal to the group suggests their bad faith but 'their fault', that of the outsider. If we ritualise the projection and its consequences, we may keep the internal rivalry unconscious and within acceptable bounds. All social cohesion, on this basis, needs a repeated account of this liberation heavily disguised in myth and ritual, socially celebrated and told from the victor's, society's, side.

Religion (in all its guises) is the traditional way in which this order has been created. Religion is not a cause of violence but its imperfect 'solution' until, that is, a figure comes along who fails to play ball. Jesus is the scapegoat who refuses to die and be sacralised in ritual, mythical re-enactment. He comes back, literally, death is not the end and his life is now told not from the perspective of the 'community solution' but from the perspective of the victim. Everything is potentially changed by this outing of the centrality of mimetic desire and rivalry. What happens when the control mechanisms of our propensity to violence, of using victims to restore social peace, is exposed? That, Girard argued, is the world we live in: one of both renewed opportunity to more effectively navigate desire and with the possibility of spinning utterly, apocalyptically out of 'control'!

Cynthia Haven in 'The Evolution of Desire; A Life of Rene Girard' has written an exemplary biography showing how his thought developed, how it stood within the intellectual communities he interacted with and how it touches an extraordinary range of our disciplines of understanding. He started out as a historian, metamorphosed into a literary scholar and developed into a myriad minded man whose work struck out across the range of the humanities and human sciences. She, also, shows how his works adoption by theologians significantly deepened and, at the same time, disrupted the dialogue around his work. Girard set out as a dyed in the wool skeptic and found himself converted to Catholicism (though aspects of his thought are undoubtedly heterodox). This was seen as a 'betrayal' by secular thought and created a fault line betwixt it and him. He was too in an age of specialisation, a generalist, and nothing if not speculatively bold!

Meanwhile, Girard was a genius and like many such much more comfortable with the ambiguities, incompletion and exploratory nature of his own theses than many of his subsequent 'followers'. As Jung said, he only wished to be spared mostly from Jungians, Girardians can be a dogmatic crowd, crystallizing Girard's 'tools with which to think' into appropriate doctrines that hyper-ironically must be 'policed' against despoliation by the outside others!

Likewise since he deeply felt he was unpacking the consequences of a very specific period of his own intellectual vision (and Haven does a brilliant job of explaining this and showing how common it is) that was bound with but not dependent on his 'conversion', many could happily dismiss his work from the outside simply by assuming it was fuelled by faith and dogma rather than thought. Walking a middle way with Girard is to avoid being pulled in either of these directions. He is not the answer to 'everything' but once, I found, he entered your head, adjusted your vision, significant aspects of the world will never be seen in the same way again - and it is a greatly enriched seeing.

When I lived in Oxford, I belonged to a small group who met to explore the ideas of Girard and it was a deeply fruitful time, towards the end of which, I was rewarded with an opportunity to meet Girard himself where you encountered a charming, attentive man with a genuine sense of wanting to know what you were making of what he had contributed to your seeing. It was a seeing too that the group deeply contributed too in its catholicity, open mindedness and ability to convivially engage both 'believers' and skeptics and subtle hues between.

At the very least, Girard has given me a profound uneasiness and alertness to how often we do try to shape group cohesion over against an 'other' - whether in the wider world or in the simpler territory of an organisational change at the office. He, also, invites me ever again to question and observe my 'own' desires and ponder whether they are truly 'mine' or simply inherited from the social context and whether that inheritance is a positive or negative dynamic of admiration that leads to or away from an inclusive, including good. His work will endure, develop in wider circles of adoption and become to be seen as a seminal contribution about how we individually and collectively understand the desire that shapes us.


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