Evolution of Desire
A Life of René Girard
By Cynthia L. Haven
Michigan State University Press. 346 pp. $23.66

Reviewed by Frank Wilson

The Wikipedia entry for René Girard describes him as a historian, literary critic, and philosopher. It's a good start. Girard, who died in 2015 at 91, ventured into many disciplines. And Cynthia Haven's Evolution of Desire is an ingenious travelogue of his life and thought.

Appropriately enough, the decisive episode took place on a train, during Girard's commute from Baltimore to Bryn Mawr College. As Girard explained:

In autumn 1958, I was working on my book about the novel, on the twelfth and last chapter that's entitled "Conclusion." I was thinking about the analogies between religious experience and the experience of a novelist who discovers that he's been consistently lying, lying for the benefit of his Ego, which in fact is made up of nothing but a thousand lies that have … sometimes built up over an entire lifetime.

What Girard realized is that he had been doing the same thing himself. He also realized he was undergoing a religious conversion. Born on Christmas Day in 1923 in Avignon, France, Girard had been baptized Catholic. His mother was religious, but his father — who was for a time curator of Avignon's Palais des Papes — was not. Girard had stopped attending Mass when he was 13. "I was proud of being a skeptic," he said. "It was very hard for me to imagine myself going to church, praying, and so on." But things had suddenly become quite different. "I remember quasi-mystical experiences on the train as I read, contemplated the scenery, and so on …  my mental state transfigured everything, and, on the way back, the slightest ray from the setting sun produced veritable ecstasies in me."

The fundamental insight Girard had hit upon is that, however much we may like to think that our desires are our own, they are in fact a product of mimesis — imitation. (And, in fact, research has shown that when someone sees someone else drink a glass of water, the same parts of the brain are activated in both observer and observed.)

Girard rewrote his "Conclusion" and revised much else in his book, called Deceit, Desire, and the Novel. His thesis was that the great novelists explore not only how we borrow our desires from others, but how it is precisely the other person's desire for something that provokes the same desire in us, which turns the other into both model and rival.

As Haven explains: "desire, being imitative in nature, spreads contagiously. … One woman, not necessarily the most attractive in a village, inspires the desire of one man, then two, then by contagion all. The process accelerates as it spreads. One parcel of property becomes valuable chiefly because it is wanted by all factions — think of the history of Alsace-Lorraine, or Jerusalem."

Girard  spent the rest of his life teasing out the implications of his insight. Haven sums it up nicely:

With "Violence and the Sacred," René Girard would present all human history as a crime thriller, in which the murderer escapes undetected, and the private investigator — in this case, Girard himself — is left only with hints and clues. Human society as a whole is guilty and complicit, hiding the body, and lying about what happened and how. The world's religions and mythologies are the fibs it tells, both revealing and camouflaging what happened. Who benefits? The murder is what gave birth to the society in the first place: its generative event.

Along the way, in the '60s, Girard was the key figure in organizing a conference at Johns Hopkins University that brought to America the most prominent French intellectuals of the day, notably Jacques Derrida, the godfather of deconstruction. Haven's account of that conference has a comic dimension that makes one wish Tom Stoppard would read it and turn it into a play.

Haven's book, in fact, is something of a marvel. She knew Girard and got to know his friends and colleagues. She guides the reader along the trail of evidence, sketching deftly those she talked with and showing how she arrived at her conclusions. The result is an an extraordinarily vivid portrait of a man admired not just for his intelligence and erudition, but also for his character, wisdom, and humor. Let us give him the last word on what he referred to as "the so-called système-Girard":

What should be taken seriously … is the mimetic theory itself — its analytical power and versatility — rather than this or that particular conclusion or position, which critics tend to turn into some creed which I am supposedly trying to force down their throats. I am much less dogmatic than a certain reading of my work suggests."

Frank Wilson is a retired Inquirer book editor. Visit his blog Books, Inq. — The Epilogue. Email him at PresterFrank@gmail.com.