In his mid-thirties, the late French thinker René Girard experienced an intellectual and religious conversion, which he credited with granting him the dense insight he would gradually unfold over a wide-ranging career as a literary critic, anthropologist, and Christian apologist. In “Everything Came to Me at Once,” cultural journalist Cynthia L. Haven gives us an elegant, accessible account of Girard’s transformation from skeptical nonbeliever to Catholic Christian. The slender booklet is excerpted from Evolution of Desire, her full-length biography of Girard, to be published by Michigan State University Press in the spring of 2018. Yet it stands on its own as a look into events that changed a young professor’s life, and as a test case of Girard’s own thesis that the highest forms of literary and intellectual creation spring from a humbling deflation of pride.
The booklet is divided into seven sections, the first of which tells how Girard was converted while working on his classic study of “triangular desire,” Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, first published in French in 1961 as Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque (Romantic Lie and Novelistic Truth). Subsequent sections offer background on his ideas about imitation, sacred violence, and the Christian deconstruction of myth, and brief overviews of similar “intellectual visions” experienced by Descartes, Pascal, and (most tellingly, perhaps, since Girard admired and drew on her work) philosopher Simone Weil. Yet the majority of the essay circles around Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, which, Haven tells us, Girard conceived in a cynically destructive mode, only to come back to the book after his conversion so that he could rewrite the conclusion and “other passages in the otherwise completed work, weaving his new understanding into the whole.”
“The watershed marks Girard’s transition from being a clever, up-and-coming lit critic to something far more profound,” she writes, citing Girard’s own recollection of what happened:
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 accumulated over a long period, sometimes built up over an entire lifetime.
He had spotted a conversion motif in Cervantes (Quixote renounces his quest and his cherished novels of chivalry), Stendhal (Julien Sorel gives up his fanatical ambition and discovers inner peace as he awaits his execution), and Dostoevsky (Raskolnikov’s repentance, for one). Reflecting on these moments, in which the character dies to self and overcomes madness and pride, Girard realized they were less rhetorical and conventional than he had thought. And he began to experience a change within himself. Just as the novelist had to see through his own illusions to create his character—a breakthrough to which those death-and-rebirth endings alluded, Girard now believed—he himself suffered what Haven calls an “existential downfall,” which gave way (in Girard’s words) to “quasi-mystical” ecstasies on the train from Baltimore to Bryn Mawr College, as he gazed at the sun illuminating scrap iron and vacant lots.
A sobering brush with skin cancer transformed this first, purely intellectual, and by his own admission rather “self-indulgent,” conversion into full-fledged religious belief. Girard returned to the Church he had left in his youth, renewed his marriage vows with his wife, and had his children baptized. He would go on to explore the link between religious revelation and hidden human behavior not only in other works of literary analysis, such as his 1991 study of Shakespeare, A Theater of Envy, but also, and most famously, in anthropological essays and interviews that defended his central thesis about the significance of the Bible and especially the New Testament as a source of insight into ancient myths and cultures. “[T]he revelation” that was his conversion, writes Haven, “became his work.”
Biblical stories like Joseph’s or Job’s resist the mob violence from which ancient myths of divinized criminals spring, Girard argued. Oedipus couldn’t really be solely responsible for the crisis in Thebes, any more than a contemporary president has the power to cause a bad hurricane season. The Passion of Christ, which fully reveals the alleged culprit as an innocent fall guy (“It is better that one man should die than that the whole nation should perish,” says Caiaphas), undermines the unjust sacrificial practices on which social order rests, and points to our guilt—as well as to the vanity, in a fallen world, of simple political or economic answers to human dysfunction (in one tantalizing quote, Girard likens mimetic desire to original sin).
The influence of Christianity has been complex. Revelation destabilized “the violent solution to social violence, the mechanism that allowed the victim to be both criminal and redeemer,” writes Haven. “Hence, we no longer have clean consciences as we murder. Individuals and groups today even compete for the cachet of being a victim in the Oppression Olympics, as the power-holders play defense. Wars continue, but end with no clear resolutions. International rivalries still escalate, but towards uncertain ends. The stakes are higher than ever today: we teeter on the nuclear brink.”
These words aren’t getting any less prophetic. Reading them as North Korea hints of a coming hydrogen bomb test, and as our president threatens to rain fiery destruction on “Rocket Man,” is to be reminded of the simultaneously terrifying and ridiculous nature of tit-for-tat in a world Girard quite plausibly described as “apocalyptic.” It is also to grasp the urgency of conversion now that localized conflicts can so easily spread online and touch down halfway around the globe in an eyeblink.
If I took one thing away from Haven’s little book, it was the likeness between Girard’s own creative conversion and that of the novelists he studied in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, which despite his later shift to religious anthropology may still be his most compelling and characteristic work. Deceit is at once a brilliant take on five classic writers—Cervantes, Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust, and Dostoevsky—and a history of desire in the modern west, tracing how pathological competition sprang up on the ruins of the Old Regime’s feudal hierarchies. But it is also, if more discreetly, a book about artistic creation. Great writers, Girard argues, come to grasp that our desires are less personal than we like to believe, and that others often wield a decisive influence over us just when we think we are free. Don Quixote is aware of imitating. Much as the Christian asks “What would Jesus do?”, at every moment Quixote wonders: “What would Amadis of Gaul do?” But Dostoevsky, writing as rapidly urbanizing Russia played catch up with the West, portrays an alienated self-love that feeds on others yet can only survive by denying this. Anticipating Seinfeld by more than a century, his “underground men” get worked up over tiny slights, and rush out to give their enemies the cold shoulder.
Unconscious “triangular desire” (the metaphor accounts for the way our desires draw strength from a model or “mediator” instead of going straight from subject to object) lives or dies on our tendency to buy the “romantic lies” we feed others. We tell ourselves—and our friends—that we are going to the beach to soak up the sunshine and feel the soft caress of a sea breeze. Or that we take an interest in literature out of a detached scholarly curiosity. But it may be that the beach is so tempting because an ex-girlfriend often goes windsurfing there, and that our heavily-footnoted study of Chinua Achebe masks a craving to write prize-winning novels. Our friends see right through us, of course—but they have their own obsessions, which we treat with a condescending indulgence to equal theirs toward us.
In short, triangular desire is something one complacently or indignantly observes in others, but it must be discovered in one’s own life. This is obvious on one level, but on another it can be difficult to grasp. Maybe that’s why a persistent misunderstanding surrounds Girard’s reading of literature. Some take the mere presence of triangular desire in a work as sufficient reason to declare its author a world-class genius, on par with Proust or Dostoevsky. Articles and dissertations trumpet the triangularity of this or that writer’s fiction, as if the ability to spot envy and jealousy in the modern world, which often encourages those vices, were especially noteworthy in itself.
But triangular desire is just part of the equation. For Girard, aesthetics and religion are inseparable. An existential and personal engagement with snobbery and jealousy—that is, a spiritual transformation—must take place before mere psychological acuity can become something deeper. In Deceit, Desire, and the Novel Girard singles out pride as the root cause of imitative desire and the chief obstacle to good writing. A book can give accurate descriptions of triangular desire and still be a failure, if its author has failed to conquer pride.
Take Marcel Proust’s early unfinished novel Jean Santeuil. It includes devastating send-ups of snobbish socialites, and describes the triangular mechanisms governing whether an aspiring guest gets in (or not) to this or that noble salon. But the book goes much more lightly on its golden-boy hero, a gifted young writer fawned over by the dukes and duchesses of the Faubourg Saint-Germain. Resentment and wishful thinking combine to give a distorted view, which Proust would correct only in the novel that would become his life’s work, In Search of Lost Time. There the self-serving idea of monstrous snobs and angelic aesthetes gives way to a humble awareness of the narrator’s own involvement in the game of snobbery. Unlike in his failed early sketch, Proust gives the reader both the inner feeling and the objective humor of wanting what you can’t have.
“If the writer has the potential for greatness,” says Girard in a passage cited at length by Haven, “after writing his first draft, as he rereads it, he sees the trashiness of it all. His project fails. The self-justification the novelist had intended in his distinction between good and evil will not stand self-examination. The novelist comes to realize that he has been the puppet of his own devil. He and his enemy are truly indistinguishable. The novelist of genius thus becomes able to describe the wickedness of the other from within himself. . . . This experience is shattering to the vanity and pride of the writer.”
What is apparent from Haven’s account is that Girard went through this same process of self-assertion and revision while working on Deceit, Desire, and the Novel. The novelist writes the novel twice. Likewise, Girard wrote his first book twice, once before, and once after (or during) his conversion. “Girard began to reconsider the conclusions of the novels he was writing about, and, in doing so, he made a more serious attempt to reach these authors on their own terms,” writes Haven. “The authors, he saw clearly, were describing how they were being freed from their own secondhand desires. With that new understanding, they became their stories in a new way, with a wisdom previously inaccessible to them.”
That itinerary recalls the purgatorial journey of Dante in the Commedia, whose incipit serves as an epigraph to Haven’s booklet. It also partakes of the sublime forgiveness that crowns Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, which Girard describes (along with Gregorian chant) as “the most mystical of all music.” Haven has given us a revealing homage to the man whom she befriended in his last years before delving into his writing and ideas. Situating the pivotal moment in his intellectual life alongside turning points in the lives of his great intellectual predecessors is a fitting and illuminating gesture, while invoking Dante and Mozart does justice to the artistic and literary side of this great thinker who was first, and perhaps above all, a passionate reader of novels.
A parting hope: may this booklet fly off the shelves, so that a second printing can fix a couple of typographical slips, which stand out in a text this brief, and distract from the otherwise uninterrupted pleasure of reading it. And may it whet the appetite of many readers for the full-length book coming next spring.
Photo credit: Herlinde Koebl. Used with permission.