Perhaps the most interesting thing I’ve read this year is a mere 20 pages long and takes less than half an hour to read. It is “Everything Came to Me at Once,” Cynthia Haven’s account of a conversion experience undergone by René Girard, the historian, critic, and philosopher who died in 2015 at age 91. Cynthia Haven’s name will be familiar to readers of this blog, since I frequently link to posts on her blog.
In 1958, Girard was at work on his first book, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel. He was also commuting regularly on the Pennsylvania Railroad from Baltimore to Bryn Mawr College outside Philadelphia. Among Girard’s fundamental notions was that our desires are mimetic, that we learn them, just as we do language and manners.
According to Girard himself, as he was working on the final chapter of his book, “I was thinking about the analogies between religious experience and the experience of a novelist who discovers that he’s been consistently lying ….” Girard came to realize that this existential downfall of the novelist causes him “to realize that he has been the puppet of his own devil.” It is this that enables him “to describe the wickedness of the other from within himself.”How this led to Girard himself to be, as he put it, “kicked into a change of religion” is what Haven’s booklet is about, and it is an intriguing story indeed. So I will say nothing more, except to recommend getting a copy. Here is what Cynthia had to say on her blog.