NBCC Featured Review: Cynthia L. Haven on René Girard

by Eric Banks | Jan-12-2010

Critical Mass regularly highlights an exemplary review by an NBCC member. Here, in a review first published in the , Cynthia L. Haven considers René Girard's Battling to the End, the recent translation of the scholar's acclaimed 2007 Achever Clausewitz.

 

In Laurel and Hardy's Big Business, two door-to-door Christmas tree salesmen fight a bad-tempered homeowner. The manic tit-for-tat escalates from head banging to a demolished house and an exploded car. The three become more and more alike as their wiggy violence spirals without aim or purpose.


It's funny because we know that that's the way we are, from the cradle. You hit your brother; he hits back; you hit again, only harder. Aggressor and aggrieved become interchangeable, indistinguishable, and parents know there is little point in trying to figure out "who started it."

As the Stanford scholar Rene Girard observes in the book-length interview Battling to the End, "The aggressor has always already been attacked" and so feels justified. Look at the Middle East.

But what if violence goes unchecked? "This is an apocalyptic book," Girard states at the outset. The more probable such an endgame becomes, "the less we talk about it."

The world-renowned author, a member of the Academie Francaise, should cut a bigger figure on the American intellectual landscape: He has, after all, lived in the Bay Area for decades. This Eurocentric book is unlikely to do the trick: Readers to whom the names Peguy or Adenauer are obscure, and who are unfamiliar with Girard's prior work, will be left in the dust somewhere between the Battle of Jena and Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises.

C'est dommage. Battling to the Endis elegant, profound, wide-ranging and frequently punchy. The introduction and epilogue are persuasive, prophetic tours de force.

Battling to the End created an intellectual buzz in 2007 when it was published in France as Achever Clausewitz. The book focuses on Prussian general and military theoretician Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831), the Napoleon-obsessed author of On War. According to Girard, "The apocalypse appropriate for our time is perhaps no longer Saint John at Patmos, but a Prussian general riding with his friends along the roads of Russia and Europe."

Clausewitz speculated about total war, but funked it midway through On War, claiming it was only a theoretical possibility. Man's natural tendency to hedge his bets, postponing commitment, causes his opponent to scale back. This process inevitably short-circuits infinite escalation. Or rather, it used to.

"If we had been told 30 years ago that Islamism would replace the Cold War, we would have laughed...or that the apocalypse began at Verdun, people would have taken us for Jehovah's Witnesses," writes the Avignon-born octogenarian.

Fundamentalists, preoccupied with apocalypse, nevertheless grab the wrong end of the stick: "They cannot do without a cruel God. Strangely, they do not see that the violence we ourselves are in the process of amassing and that is looming over our own heads is entirely sufficient to trigger the worst. They have no sense of humor."

Girard insists that our desires are mimetic; envy and admiration fuel imitation and resentment -- and eventually violence. We become our foes. In one of the sweeping, epigrammatic statements that pepper the book, Girard claims, "Individualism is a formidable lie."

Decades ago, Girard formulated his controversial contention that scapegoating is the time-honored way societies control violence and restore peace -- "sacrifice prevents vengeance."

However, Judeo-Christian history, beginning with Cain and Abel and culminating on Calvary two millennia ago, revealed the scapegoat's innocence -- thus irrevocably undermining the mechanism. We no longer have bloody hands and clean consciences: Over 2,000 years, war itself has been breaking down under the burden of the truth. Yet violence is unchecked: "We are thus more at war than ever, at a time when war itself no longer exists."

Now, with the advent of global terrorism, one man can unilaterally wage war -- witness the Fort Hood massacre. Globalization and technology have only accelerated "the worldwide empire of violence."

Girard claims the only answer is to "abstain completely from retaliation, and renounce the escalation to extremes." He advocates "the imitation of Christ in order to avoid the imitation of men."

A Christian accused of bypassing orthodox Christian mysticism (notwithstanding echoes of Thomas A. Kempis), Girard is inspired by the image of the otherworldly Friedrich Holderlin, in the poet's final years of seclusion. Girard asserts that "salvation lies in imitating Christ, in other words, in imitating the 'withdrawal relationship' that links him with his Father....To listen to the Father's silence is to abandon oneself to his withdrawal, to conform to it."

In these passages and elsewhere, Girard seems to be gripping a torch passed from Blaise Pascal, through Simone Weil, detouring the existentialists and their latter-day heirs. (Girard slyly chides our intellectual fashions: "Think about the inadequacy of our recent avant-gardes that preached the non-existence of the real.")

Big Business ends with Laurel and Hardy running away, half a block ahead of a cop. That's the formula for comedy. But we're not cast in comedy. Girard writes hauntingly, "More than ever, I am convinced that history has meaning, and that its meaning is terrifying."

Cynthia L. Haven has written for the Times Literary Supplement, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and San Francisco Magazine. Her An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz will be published next year. E-mail her at books@sfchronicle.com.




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