Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Stanford Wizard

He is one of the most recognizable, if largely unrecognized, superstars on the Stanford campus: The shock of white hair, the strikingly deep-set eyes beneath dark eyebrows are unmistakable. René Girard is one of only 40 members, or immortels, of the Académie Française, France's highest intellectual honor. He has taught here for 30 years, but the emeritus French professor admits that few people here understand quite what he does.

Girard, 85, has produced book after book. His latest, Achever Clausewitz, created a firestorm in Paris when it appeared in 2007—the kind of conflagration only a public intellectual in France can ignite. French President Nicolas Sarkozy was citing his words, and reporters made pilgrimages to Girard's Paris doorstep day after day. That sort of brouhaha is unlikely to happen when the English edition, Battling to the End: Politics, War, and Apocalypse, is published by Michigan State University this fall—but not because Girard avoids controversy; he seems to revel in it. Even in America, he's had his share.

Girard's work crosses the fields of literature, anthropology, theology, philosophy, sociology, psychology. His brainchild, the mimetic theory, emphasizes the role of imitation in our lives, as an effect and a behavior and a motivation. Toddlers learn to talk by imitation; we learn a foreign language by imitation. But mimesis is not only the way we learn—it's also the way we fight. We compete; we want what our brother has; we "keep up with the Joneses." Girard's theory—a long thought played out over decades—suggests that mimesis is the basis of all human conflict, and that the resolution of conflict through the public sacrifice of a scapegoat was the very foundation of archaic religions and civilizations. But the ancient formula no longer works, he says. The world may be headed for an impasse.

While the idea of mimesis is hardly foreign to the social sciences today, no one had made it a linchpin in a theory of human behavior and human destiny, as Girard did beginning in the 1950s. His one-man interdisciplinarity can present problems in academia, whose denizens haven't always condoned poaching.

Read more of History is a test. Mankind is failing it. René Girard scrutinizes the human condition from creation to apocalypse.

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