Rene Girard to join ranks of the 'immortals' with French Academy induction

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Girard, who has taught at Stanford for nearly 30 years, will be inducted into the French Academy.

René Girard, an emeritus professor in the Department of French and Italian, is a genuinely humble man, “without any of the clunky self-importance that goes along with a resume of 250 pages,” said his friend Robert Hamerton-Kelly, the former dean of Memorial Church, when he introduced Girard at a campus talk in May.

Girard will add to his list of honors and achievements this month, when he is inducted into the august French Academy, a body of 40 members founded by Cardinal de Richelieu in 1635. Known as the “immortals” – in reference to a seal first used by Richelieu – its members have included Voltaire, Jean Racine and Victor Hugo.

The honor is the highest that can be bestowed on an intellectual in France, said Robert Harrison, Rosina Pierotti Professor in Italian Literature and the chair of the Department of French and Italian. Girard, whose theory of culture based on the concept of “mimetic desire” as the root of violence combines scholarship in the fields of literature, anthropology and religious studies, is “by any measure, a giant of 20th-century thought,” Harrison added.

“Girard is a living legend and one of the great philosophers of his generation,” said Sharon Long, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences. “He has brought great distinction to Stanford throughout his career.”

At Stanford, where Girard has taught for nearly 30 years, Girard’s election to the academy is made all the more remarkable by the fact that he is the second member of the 12-member department to be named to the academy, Harrison said. Philosopher and historian of science Michel Serres, professor of French and a permanent visiting faculty member, was elected to the academy in 1990.

“To have one [member of the Academy] is exceptional enough, but to have two …,” Harrison said. “Sometimes I think the administration doesn’t realize the cachet that Stanford has in France and Francophone countries,” he added.

The Academy is steeped in tradition: During ceremonies in Paris on Dec. 8 and 15, Girard will be presented a sword and will wear a waistcoat embroidered with olive tree branches in green silk, as directed by Napoleon Bonaparte. For such a de-ritualized culture as France’s, the Academy’s ceremonies are “very bizarre” Girard said by telephone from Paris. “People make fun of it, of course – the 40 ‘immortals’ who are not immortal at all,” he said.

Girard, 82, was born in Avignon, France, and studied at the Ecole des Chartres Paris, where he specialized in medieval history. He came to the United States in 1947 for a year’s fellowship at Indiana University, where he stayed to complete a Ph.D. in history. Girard began his career teaching French literature and first wrote about his theory of “mimetic” desire – that we learn from one another what it is that we desire – as a literary theorist analyzing the patterns of human behavior found in texts by Cervantes, Proust, Flaubert and others.

Girard’s literary analysis noted that such desire inevitably results in rivalry, conflict and violence, and he began to apply his theory to the anthropology of religion, first in archaic religions and then in the Bible. In Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (Stanford University Press, 1987), which many regard as his most important work, Girard argued that the conflict that mimetic desire creates in human societies historically has been resolved by identifying a scapegoat, who is then sacrificed to restore order. Human society and religion from ancient to modern times are built upon the mechanism of scapegoating and the ritualized repetition of collective violence, he contends. In the book, Girard, who returned to Catholicism, presented a picture of a God, who contrary to the conception of a vengeful God, is “foreign to all forms of violence.”

Although Girard published Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World – three decades ago, the influence of his work has only grown more and more substantial over the years, Harrison said. Partly that’s because of Girard’s breakthrough works on the anthropology of religion – which argue for a fundamental understanding of the roots of human behavior in varying cultures and throughout history – were published during the heydey of French deconstruction, Harrison said. Girard’s theory of culture “presumes to a certain degree for the universality of his theory, which I think is something that bothers some people,” he said.

“He has been very bold,” he said. “Girard is the Heinrich Schliemann of contemporary anthropology,” Harrison added, referring to the founder of modern archaeology, who in the 19th century intuited that the writings of Homer referred to historical events and went looking for the remains of ancient Troy with a copy of the Iliad under his arm. “People can argue with [Girard’s] methods, but fundamentally, his insights are right,” he said.

Girard’s theories also have gained attention globally as scholars and non-academicians have struggled to find an end to violence in an age of terrorism.

“Girard has been thinking in a sustained way about the cycles of violence and revenge and the way that societies and nations have been caught in reciprocal violence, Harrsion said. “That is a problem that history has shown just doesn’t go away.”

“My life is a little bit framed by the atom bomb in 1946 and the present period – the end of Communism and the rise of Islamic terrorism,” Girard said. Although certain forms of violence – such as domestic violence – have decreased over time, the rise of technology has given the world mimetic rivalry on a planetary scale, he said. “This is the first time in history that man is in a situation where he can destroy life on earth.”