Small World After All

too cool for schoolBefore I continue posting material and suggestions for a high school curriculum on mimetic theory, I just have to report something way cool that happened at school today. Jozefien Meersschaut, one of my students who is new to our school this year, came up to me before class and simply said, “You know, sir, my aunt worked with professor René Girard at Stanford University for a PhD; he was her mentor.” I was like, “You must be kidding me…” She continued, “Well, her name is easy to remember, it’s Josephine like my name, Josephine Gross.” She also told me that her aunt’s brother, her uncle, knew the work of Girard quite well.

Well, I’ll be damned! Indeed, it’s a small world after all.

Of course you come across Girard while reading novelists and essayists like J.M. Coetzee and Milan Kundera. Kundera even claimed in his Testaments Betrayed that Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque, Girard’s first major work, was the best book he ever read on the novelHe is but one of many in praise of this book. Well-known atheist philosopher Alain de Botton rates it five stars out of five on goodreads (click here to read more on Alain de Botton and Girard).

Further on in the intellectual world, other contemporary well-known philosophers, atheists like Gianni Vattimo or Slavoj Zizek, a socially oriented philosopher like Hans Achterhuis or the “Christian thinker of Modernity” Charles Taylor… were all heavily inspired by Girard. Vattimo wrote a book together with Girard. Hans Achterhuis constantly refers to Girard in most of his major works. Charles Taylor attended an important conference on Girard’s work at the University of Antwerp in 2001… Slavoj Zizek, as an atheist, agrees with Girard’s basic assessment on the nature of Christianity’s historical impact. Zizek writes (in a collection of essays, namely God in Pain: Inversions of Apocalypse):

slavoj zizek“[Quoting Jean-Pierre Dupuy] ‘Concerning Christianity, it is not a morality but an epistemology: it says the truth about the sacred, and thereby deprives it of its creative power, for better or for worse.’ [Zizek himself] Therein resides the world-historical rupture introduced by Christianity: now we know, and can no longer pretend that we don’t. And, as we have already seen, the impact of this knowledge is not only liberating, but deeply ambiguous: it also deprives society of the stabilizing role of scapegoating and thus opens up the space for violence not contained by any mythic limit.” (Quote from Zizek in Slavoj Zizek & Boris Gunjevic, God in Pain: Inversions of Apocalypse – [Essay] Christianity Against the Sacred, Seven Stories Press, New York, 2012, p. 64).

De Geruchten (Hugo Claus)And then we have not yet talked about renowned psychologists like Andrew Meltzoff or Vittorio Gallese, who set up a dialogue between their own work and René Girard’s mimetic theory. I could go on for hours I guess, talking about how Girard keeps on popping up in the humanities, even in the world of economy and finance (see for instance Peter Thiel, an entrepreneur who cofounded PayPal and set up Imitatio to promote Girard’s work; he’s also one of Girard’s former students). I could talk about Girard’s influence in many other fields and contexts, for instance about De Geruchten, a novel by Hugo Claus written with Girard’s work in mind…

Ah, well, none of that is as cool as Jozefien coming up to me saying, “My aunt worked on a PhD with professor René Girard…,” now is it?

I guess mimetic theory is right by claiming that our approach to reality is highly mediated by our social environment. That is true for our assessment of philosophical and scientific theories as well, hence also for mimetic theory. So I secretely hope that Jozefien likes her aunt and uncle. It will make access to what’s actually being said a lot easier :).

Perhaps we are often too much interested in an author’s identity to appreciate what is actually being written. To some people it is enough to know that René Girard is a Christian to dismiss his work (although they will often encounter similar content, albeit in different terms, in other contexts and appreciate it!). A shame, really, but all too human.

J.K. Rowling Robert Galbraith quoteThink, for instance, about the book J.K. Rowling wrote under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Before the general public knew that the crime novel The Cuckoo’s Calling was actually written by Rowling, who became famous for her Harry Potter books, the book only caught the favorable eyes of some critics. Just moments after the news of the author’s true identity broke, Harry Potter fan site The Leaky Cauldron reported that the book had only sold 1,500 copies up to that point, and that a second Galbraith book was to be published a year later. A few hours later, New Statesman reported that the book’s Amazon sales had gone up more than 150,000 %. Of course no one doubts Rowling’s talent for writing, but this story shows that not all gifted authors sell as much as their equally gifted colleagues. Still, “Robert Galbraith” wrote the exact same book as “J.K. Rowling”. People’s desire to buy The Cuckoo’s Calling was (mimetically) awakened by the name of Rowling, not just by the content itself or by the critics – who proved to be weak models for mediating the desire of potential readers…

American Beauty RoseOn the other hand, not everything that is hyped is worth the hype. It is not because a majority of people claim that “the emperor’s new clothes are beautiful” that there is actually anything to see at all. Our tendency to judge reality by looking at others (because of our mimetic tendencies) sometimes fools us. It may blind us for what’s truly worthwhile and beautiful. And so we’re back at one of the major themes of American Beauty, the film I wrote about in some previous posts :). Thinking of the roses in that movie, I’m reminded of that famous line in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet…”

In short, it’s been a really cool and inspiring day in this “small world” ;).

a rose by any other name would smell as sweet