Indeed, Girard opened the door to them. After spending the 1950s as a junior academic in various US institutions, Girard became full Professor at John Hopkins University in 1961, publishing his first monograph Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque (1961, translated as Deceit, Desire and the Novel in 1966). This work famously introduced Girard’s theory of ‘mimetic desire’, the idea that desire is always mediated by another, a rival, in relation to readings of Shakespeare, Proust and Dostoyevsky. It was in the year of the translation of this work that Girard, along with his colleague Eugenio Donato, organized the ‘symposium of structuralism’ in Baltimore that introduced the avant-garde of French thought to a new generation of American academics mostly from the field of comparative literature. In fact, some of the French were meeting each other for the first time. Jacques Derrida, for example, notes the peculiarity that he had to go to Baltimore in order to meet Lacan, ‘we were introduced to each other by René Girard’.1
Girard’s own interlocutors were pre-eminently Freud and Claude Levi-Strauss whose ideas he both adopted and passionately contested drawing his greater inspiration, it seems to me, from his host nation. Girard’s oeuvre is a fascinating elaboration of some of the major themes of European anthropology, theology and philosophy of myth that are reformulated against a backdrop of the ‘primitive passions’ of America in the 1950s and 60s. For example, while it has been noted that the theory of mimetic desire bears some similarities with the desire of the Other associated with Lacan and Alexandre Kojève, Girard’s notion owes much more to Hobbes and Madison Avenue than Hegel. In contrast to the desire for another desire that provides the basis for human subjectivity that for Kojève transcends the given reality of animal desire, Girard’s interest is in a model of desire that provides the basis for imitation. In its most simple form this is the envy of the other’s objects. It is not for Girard a desire framed by Oedipal rivalry or the desire for recognition; on the contrary, it is ‘very concrete’, even Biblical, and directed towards objects that satisfy the drives – particularly when they can move up the gears of a smart car. ‘When the Bible tells you first, “Don’t desire the wife of your neighbor”, that’s essential’, said Girard, in an interview with Sergio Benvenuto in 2002, ‘and then, do not desire the donkey of your brother: in other words do not desire the Mercedes Benz of your brother; and the Mercedes of your brother is much more important than anything Freud is talking about’.2 For Girard these mimetic desires have a direct link to the state of nature and would proliferate in the war of ‘all against all’ if it were not that the mob, united in mutual ressentiment, eventually alight upon a ‘scapegoat’ whose sacrifice offers a moment of relief and expiation. Human civilization and order is based on the rituals that commemorate this victim and the violence that intermittently has to be renewed. No doubt reaction to the various traumatic assassinations that scared American society throughout the 1960s supported this view. The quotidian proliferation of such acts of random gun violence, however, and their link to an aesthetic-economic domain of generalized minor celebrity would suggest both that the rituals of expiation are no longer working and that the drive, as Freud maintained, is not satisfied with the goods unless they can become vehicles for that which in life prefers death.
In his remarkable tribute on the occasion of his entry into the Académie Française, Michel Serres acclaimed Girard ‘the Charles Darwin of the human sciences’. From a certain perspective it is possible to see how contemporary American society and a US Academy dominated by human sciences that seek to understand all animal and human behavior according to the same system of basic physiological functions would provide a perfect laboratory for such an approach in which the Bible, or even Sophocles, can be read as a Darwinian text. Speaking of how Oedipus’s limp encodes the predatory nature of animals in myth, Girard concludes ‘when lions and tigers choose their prey, they usually choose the handicapped prey: they are easier to catch’.3
The two police officers who in the week of Girard’s death, shot to death a six year-old boy belted in the back of his father’s car were not planning to eat him. But it is curious that in reporting the incident journalists thought it necessary to add the detail that the child was autistic,4 making one wonder at the pervasiveness and chilling relevance of Girard’s philosophy of the victim.
1 Jacques Derrida, Resistances of Psychoanalysis. Stanford University Press, 1998, p.50.
2 Sergio Benvenuto and René Girard, ‘Psychoanalysis and Sacrifice’ JEP. 14 (2002) www.psychomedia.it
3 Ibid. “Mafalda”, Quino, Ed. Lumen.