Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard by Cynthia L. Haven, Michigan State University Press, US $29.95, Pp 346, April 2018, ISBN 978-1611862836
René Girard (1923-2015) was not just another twentieth-century genius, he was without a doubt one of the leading thinkers. He rejected the commonly-believed myths and offered new theories of human nature, human history, and human destiny. He offered what is known as a “mimetic theory” that inspired writers like Milan Kundera and J. M. Coetzee. Unfortunately, his work is not well known outside small academic circles. In Evolution of Desire, Cynthia L. Haven traces the evolution of his thought and provides a comprehensive introduction of his oeuvres.
Cynthia L. Haven says that literature is more than a historical truth for René Girard. It is the archived knowledge of self-knowledge. René Girard’s public life began in literary theory and criticism, with the study of authors whose protagonists embraced self-renunciation and self-transcendence. Eventually, his scholarship crossed into the fields of anthropology, sociology, history, philosophy, psychology, theology. René Girard’s thinking including his textual analysis, offers a sweeping reading of human nature, human history, and human destiny. He overturned three widespread assumptions about the nature of desire and violence. First, that our desire is authentic and our own. Second, that we fight from our differences, rather than our sameness. Third, that religion is the cause of violence, rather than an archaic solution for controlling violence within a society, as he would assert.
He was fascinated by what he called “metaphysical desire,” which is the desire we have when our needs for food, water, sleep, and shelter are met. Cynthia L. Haven says, in that regard, he is perhaps best known for his notion of mediated desire, based on the observation that people adopt the desires of other people. In short, we want what others want. We want it because they want it. Human behavior is driven by imitation. We are, after, all, social creature. Imitation is the way we learn, it is how we begin to speak, and why we don’t eat with our hands. It’s why advertising works, why a whole generation may decide at once to pierce their tongues or tear their jeans, why pop songs top the charts and the stock markets rise and fall.
Cynthia L. Haven argues that the idea of mimesis is not foreign to the social sciences today, but no one had made it a linchpin in a theory of human competition and violence, as René Girard did, beginning in the 1950s. Cynthia L. Haven further argues that Freud and Marx were wrong. Freud was wrong to suppose that sex was the building block of human behavior and Karl Marx was wrong in believing that economics was fundamental to human behavior. The true key was “mimetic desire,” which precedes and drives both. Imitation steers our sexual longings and Wall Street trends. When a Coca-Cola advertisement beckons you to join the glamorous people at a beach by drinking its beverage, mimetic desire poses no immediate privations – there is enough Coca-Cola for all. Problems arise where scarcity imposes limits, or when envy eyes on objects that cannot be shared, or one that the possessor has no wish to share — a spouse, an inheritance, the top-floor corner office.
René Girard claimed that mimetic desire is not only the way we love, it’s the reason we fight. Cynthia L. Haven says that two hands that reach toward the same object will ultimately clench into fists. Whatever two or three people want, soon everybody will want. Mimetic desire spreads contagiously, as people converge on the same person, position, possession as the answer to a prayer or the solution to a problem. Even conflict is imitated and reciprocated. Cynthia L. Haven says that, eventually, one individual or group is seen as responsible for the social contagious – generally someone who is an outsider, who cannot or will not retaliate, and so is in a position to end the escalating cycles of tit-for-tat. The chosen culprit is, therefore, a foreigner, a cripple, a woman, or, in some cases, a king so far above the crowd that he stands alone. The victim is killed, exiled, pilloried, or otherwise eliminated. This act unites the warring factions and releases enormous social tension, restoring harmony among individuals and within the community.
Evolution of Desire is a fascinating biography of one of the leading thinkers of the twentieth century. In this meticulously-researched and lucidly-written book, Cynthia L. Haven explains René Girard’s theories on violence, religion, desire and scapegoating in an easy-to-read style as she tells the story of his life. Evolution of Desire will go a long way to help the world discover a great thinker like René Girard. It is highly commendable of Cynthia L. Haven to write on one of the greatest philosophers of our times whose work had not received the attention it deserved. Cynthia L Haven’s scholarly credentials are unmatched.