Review of Cahiers de l’Herne: René Girard

Trevor Merrill
UCLA / Association Recherches Mimétiques

Cahier de l’Herne: Girard, Paris, 2008. 276 pp.

Becoming the subject of a Cahier de l’Herne is an achievement for which there is no real American equivalent. Brecht, Berlioz, Musil, and Strindberg, Fuentes and Michel Foucault, Mao Tse-Toung (!) and Thoreau have all had this honor. A Cahier is a festschrift on a grand scale, at once homage and sacralization. To have a Cahier is to become “incontournable,” an unavoidable reference in an intellectual landscape so fragmented and divided that few figures are capable of generating a consensus among their peers.

René Girard, it seems, has become such a contemporary classic. After being named to the French Academy in 2005, Girard was recently listed by Le Nouvel observateur as one of a handful of titans atop the list of France’s most influential intellectuals. And in September, the 89th Cahier de l’Herne appeared in French bookstores, its cover graced with a photo of a bemused and rather sardonic Girard posing in front of–what else?–a mirror…

The Christianity that Girard has defended throughout his career is paradoxical to a modern sensibility accustomed to separating the domains of reason and faith. To affirm, as Girard does, that the crucifixion and the resurrection are at the root of modern skepticism is to transgress boundaries that the university, for reasons both good and bad, holds as inviolable and self-evident. Mark Anspach, the volume’s editor, recognizes this implicitly when he refers in his foreward to the deceptive transparency of the mechanisms illuminated by Girard, each of which, he observes, “is accompanied by a puzzling but” (9). Mimetic desire draws human communities together but also divides them; lynching brings peace but at a terrible price; and the Biblical revelation of scapegoating brings this truth to light but in doing so threatens to deprive humanity of religion, without which it quite literally threatens to self-destruct.

The Cahier de l’Herne: Girard is divided into six parts. The first, “Jalons,” includes unpublished texts by Girard himself, some taken from his personal archives. Among these rare or forgotten materials the “Souvenirs d’un jeune Français aux Etats-Unis” deserves special mention. A brief, intense, and introspective reminiscence of his early career, this text is a sort of intellectual confession, an implacable mimetic self-analysis: “I would have liked to write vengeful political pamphlets, to electrify the masses, but the beings who obsessed me were too mediocre not to condemn my obsession to mediocrity; I alienated my perception in things that were not representative” (29). There is something sublime in this unsparing backward glance, written in 1979 and published here for the first time, in which Girard confesses to suffering from a terrible mimetic “malady,” more advanced even than Proust’s, and which caused him to come within a hair’s breadth of “total, irreversible powerlessness” on the intellectual plane.

Each of the articles in this treasure trove of interviews, correspondence, panegyrics, polemics, and anecdotes refracts the light shed by the mimetic theory in the manner of a prism, each testifies in its way–personal, scholarly, humoristic–to the influence that René Girard has exerted not only on his students and colleagues but also on some of the leading intellectuals of the last fifty years, from Michel Deguy and Pierre Pachet to Paul Ricoeur and J.M. Coetzee.

Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s contribution, first delivered in 2005 at the Sorbonne, where Girard was being presented with his academician’s épée, stands out as among the most brilliant pieces in this first section. Dupuy places the emphasis on the personal engagement needed to arrive at a deep understanding of the mimetic theory: “One experiences the truth and force of the theory in his flesh.” And though he makes no formal profession of faith, and even admits to his doubts regarding “the Girardian God,” he concludes with one of the most moving religious statements in the entire collection, one which also manages the unlikely feat of bridging the gap between science and the humanities. I leave to those who lay their hands on a copy of the Cahier the pleasure of discovering Dupuy’s piece, as well as that of French psychiatrist Jean-Michel Oughourlian, who collaborated with Girard and Guy Lefort on the portentously titled Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, and who here gives us an account of his first encounter with Girard, and of the atmosphere of excitement and discovery in which that now-famous book was written one summer in Baltimore. The young Oughourlian finds himself in the office of Grasset’s Françoise Verny, who, a cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth, agrees with some reservations to publish the mammoth manuscript. We learn also that the man who introduced Oughourlian to the work of Girard was a Parisian bookseller named…Gizard.

In the next section, “Des fous et des rois,” we find an article from Nobel Prize-winning novelist J.M. Coetzee, who lends convincing proof to the Girardian hypothesis that goods novelists are also–and above all–first-rate mimeticians. His article on Erasmus displays a solid grasp of the mimetic insights, and its very presence raises some interesting questions: if the purpose of the novel is to reveal mimetic desire, does the genre as a whole lose its raison d’être once mimetic theory brings its foundations to light? Has the age of description ended, giving way to the age of systematization for which Girard was already calling in the late 70s?

As for Professor Lucien Scubla of the CREA, he is far from a household name, but this discreet disciple of Lévi-Strauss is a bottomless well of erudition and among the most eminent of living anthropologists. He proposes that Girard’s anthropology, far from constituting a radical break with the past, can be seen as the summing up and synthesis of modern athropology: Violence and the Sacred, he argues, is one of “the great scientific events of the second half of the twentieth century,” not because it exploded modern categories of thought and turned anthropology on its head, but rather (and more interestingly it seems to me) “for having linked up again with the unjustly forgotten tradition of classic religious anthropology, which had ended up going extinct, around 1939, with the death of Freud and Hocart.”

The prize for most fascinating article in this section, however, goes to Dutch anthropologist Simon Simonse, who is among the few to have tested the validity of the mimetic theory in the field, during his time observing and gathering information on the rainmaker Kings in the south of Sudan. His experience resulted in a book–Kings of Disaster–and some brilliant insights into and extensions of the mimetic model, particularly as regards the link between the scapegoat scenario and what Simonse calls “the enemy scenario,” in which internecine violence is expelled through engagement with external enemies.

We have only arrived at Part III, and in my enthusiasm for the first two parts I have already eaten up the space that I could have used to tell you about the other four. No matter–the reader has by now a feel for the diversity and richness of this Cahier. A rapid survey will suggest the remaining contents. In “La victime innocente dans les Ecritures: controverses,” the reader is offered revealing excerpts from the correspondence between Girard and the late Raymund Schwager, the Austrian theologian and author of Must There Be Scapegoats? whose influence on Girard’s later work was considerable. Part IV, “La face obscure des Lumieres,” features articles by French novelist and essayist Pascal Bruckner, as well as an elegant reading of Marivaux by Brown professor Pierre Saint-Amand. The volume closes with reflections on Shakespeare, Levinas, and Joan of Arc (Part V), as well as (Part VI) an article by prominent French journalist Jean-Claude Guillebaud and a meditation on “firstness” by UCLA professor of French and “Generative Anthropologist” Eric Gans, one of Girard’s first students. Also not to be missed: the article by French economist André Orléan, whose work on finance and mimetic violence–in this volume and elsewhere–is invaluable reading for anyone wishing to understand the financial debacle that currently threatens to plunge the world into another Great Depression.

Reading this Cahier convinced me once again that mimetic theory is the most fruitful way forward for the human sciences. Gender studies, subaltern studies, gay and lesbian studies, race, ethnicity, and migration studies, and all of the other various forms of post-colonial cultural history, seek to show how categories our forefathers took for granted are in fact cultural constructions set up to perpetuate victim-making differences. The mimetic theory says nothing else, but despite its lack of an activist slant, it is still more radical than the various brands of deconstruction currently in fashion. It offers a take on religion and culture that at once exposes violence and warns of the danger in doing away with all cultural constraints. Mankind has always needed prohibition and ritual to handle its own internal violence. Expelled through sacrifice, pushed outward into the darkness beyond the borders of the community, violence was and remains more than ever an intractable problem. Today, rivalries multiply as the mythic projections and misrecognitions that enabled pre-modern and early modern societies to marginalize violence are deconstructed one by one. For lack of socially sanctioned enemies, we postmoderns have had to become adept at defusing our own squabbles, though immigrants, gypsies, and other minority groups continue to suffer for our sins, while nature is ravaged to feed our insatiable consumption. Cold War brinksmanship strategies for warding off nuclear war—invoking sacred violence to terrify us into refraining from unleashing it—no longer seem tenable in a world of proliferation. Will we be able to manage our violence much longer, both within our families and communities, and on the larger geopolitical scale? Each of the articles in the Cahier Girard leads us sooner or later to this overwhelming question.

#Review of Cahiers de l'Herne: René Girard#Trevor Merrill#Vol. 7 Issue 1 Fall 2008