COV&R-Bulletin No. 7 (Oct. 1994)
Hans J. Lundager Jensen, René Girard. Fredriksberg: ANIS, 1991.
"Girards hypotese er dermed i stand til-igen: på dette punkt-at forbinde viden og etik som én og samme sag." (93)
Hans J. Lundager Jensen's book is a lucid, compact exposition of Girard's thinking. The ANIS series which it inaugurates aims to offer short but self-contained expositions of major thinkers, without the heavy weight of footnotes and secondary sources. (They have followed Jensen's book with Lévinas by Peter Kemp). Why is René Girard such a good book? Most COV&R subscribers have faced the task of summarising at least an element of Girard's work, in order to affiliate it to their own, in print, in conference, or in class. We can appreciate what Jensen has done. We must credit Jensen first, but there are also conditions which make Girard's work travel well. First of all, Girard himself, always a clear writer, has never been more successful at representing his thinking. In general, his work after Des choses cachées sets the mimetic hypothesis to incontrovertible proofs.
But that is not enough. Discussion within the disciplines of anthropology, classical studies, psychology, and literary studies since Des choses cachées has been uneven. Why do scholars like Jensen (a lecturer at The Institute for the Old Testament, at Aarhus University) read Girard so well? Biblical studies as a discipline has always held open the possibility that a text knows more than its reader. This salutary and unmodish attitude is at the beginning of Girard's work (Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque), and has characterised his thinking throughout his career: the theoretical potential, the representational power of texts now called literary to tell us something we don't already know.
Jensen's book has chapters on "Literature and Mimetic Desire", "Anthropology and Religion," The Biblical Readings," and "Girard's Hermeneutic." As one would expect, Jensen pays close and careful attention to Girard on things hidden siden verdens grundlæggelse, but there is also an excellent exposition of Girard on modern mimetic desire in the early modern novel. Jensen regenerates Girard's hypothesis by rethinking it from one end to the other, convincing himself of its truth. In the process, if one reads very carefully, he occasionally clarifies relations to Girard's antecedents that are only hinted at in Girard's own work.
I wish that Jensen had discussed Girard's remarkable interventions into contemporary discussions of representation. Girard suggests in Des choses cachées that symbolism itself originates in the scapegoat effect, the one singled out from the many. Further, he challenges orthodox and defeatist notions of referentiality in Le bouc émissaire. Girard's claim that everyone (except literary intellectuals) believes that the texts of persecution indicate real Jews and real suffering belongs in Jensen's discussion of forfølgelsestekster.
As the few quotations above suggest, René Girard is written in Danish. I hope it will be available in English soon, for it is an ideal book to recommend to one's students, as well as those colleagues whose sudden interest in Girard must be fed from a single work. (The Shakespearian in any English Department, in my experience).
Don't wait for René Girard to be translated. Most Girardians have profited from watching his ideas circulate through French, English, German, Spanish and Italian. It is a pleasure to feel one's schema for Girard reappear in another language. Most members of COV&R know German and English well enough to triangulate Danish, and almost certainly once bought a version of Teach Yourself Danish that is still around the house, somewhere. Use it on this book.
Beyond Jensen? Kierkegaard, Ibsen, and Strindberg belong to that company of early modern writers chosen for Mensonge romantique who research the mediation of desire and the sacrificial ethos in modern society. They also deserve to be read in the original.
William A. Johnsen