Armed with a copy of the Iliad and a shovel, Heinrich Schliemann set out to find Troy in 1871. Two years later, he hit gold.
He was vilified as an amateur, an adventurer and a con man. As archaeologists refined their methods of excavation in the subsequent decades, Schliemann would also be deplored for destroying much of what he was trying to find.
Nevertheless, he found the lost city. He is credited with the modern discovery of prehistoric Greek civilization. He ignited the field of Homeric studies at the end of the 19th century. Most important, for our purposes, he broke new ground in a figurative, as well as literal, sense: He scrutinized the words of the text and believed that they held the truth.
“I’ve said this for years: In the global sense, the best analogy for what René Girard represents in anthropology and sociology is Schliemann,” said the French theorist’s Stanford colleague, Robert Pogue Harrison. “Like him, his major discovery was excoriated for using the wrong methods. The others never would have found Troy by looking at the literature—it was beyond their imagination.” Girard’s writings hold revelations that are even more important, however: they describe the roots of the violence that destroyed Troy and other empires throughout time.
Like Schliemann, the French academician trusted literature as the repository of truth and as an accurate reflection of what actually happened. Harrison told me that Girard’s loyalty was not to a narrow academic discipline, but rather to a continuing human truth: “Academic disciplines are more committed to methodology than truth. René, like Schliemann, had no training in anthropology. From the discipline’s point of view, that is ruthlessly undisciplined. He’s still not forgiven.”
I have appreciated Harrison’s analogy, though some of Girard’s other friends will no doubt rush to his defense, given Schliemann’s scandalous character—but Girard scandalized people, too; many academics grind their teeth at some of Girard’s more ex cathedra pronouncements (though surely a few other modern French thinkers were just as apodictic). He never received the recognition he merited on this side of the Atlantic, even though he is one of America’s very few immortels of the Académie Française.
For Girard, however, literature is more than a record of historical truth; it is the archive of self-knowledge. 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. 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; and 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 calls “metaphysical desire”—that is, the desire we have when creature needs for food, water, sleep and shelter are met. 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.
Girard is probably best known for his theory of mimetic desire; at least, that’s why I know him. I’m reading a lot more about him this year.