By Roseanne T. Sullivan
California Catholic Daily exclusive
On Sunday January 27, the Benedict XVI Institute of Sacred Music and Divine Worship collaborated with St. Ignatius Church at the University of San Francisco to put on “René Girard and the Catholic Artist.”
René Girard (1923-2015) was professor of French language, literature and civilization at Stanford from 1981 until 2005. He is famous for his theories about the universal human traits of mimesis, rivalry and scapegoating. Girard was elected to the Academie Francaise in 2005. Girard had broken the mold of French intellectuals when he converted to Catholicism in 1959.
“At a time when atheism was practically de rigueur among French intellectuals, Girard came out as a believer and spokesman for what he called the ‘truths of Christianity,'” according to Evolution of Desire’ Review: Who Was René Girard?
Over 100 people, including many Girard experts and friends, came to the event at USF, which began with a viewing of paintings by Alfonse Borysewicz, who credits Girard’s theories with helping him resolve the question, “How do we reconcile modernism with the sacred?” Attendees participated in a conversation about Girard’s influence with Borysewicz and the following three writers.
James Matthew Wilson is a poet and scholar. He wrote me in an email that Girard’s “account of desire and the cruelty and evil of scapegoating revealed to us once and for all on the cross to be very helpful in explaining my own life and experience and so also the accounts of desire gone errant and haywire that populates most of my books.” He was one of the laudatory reviewers of Girard’s biography by Cynthia Haven in Claremont Review of Books.
Cynthia Haven writes the Book Haven blog at Stanford. I met her and René Girard and his wife Martha at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Palo Alto in 2006, when I sang with the St. Ann Choir. Because the choir sings Gregorian chant at the noon Mass, it is called the Gregorian Mass. I met them at one of the collations after the Gregorian Mass in 2006, which Martha still puts on with the help of other volunteers.
When I got to know Haven, I learned she had written books and articles about other figures such as Czeslaw Milosz. She later became close with the Girards. Her 2018 biography, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard has been reviewed in the New York Times, the Times (London) Literary Supplement, and the New York Review of Books.
The third presenter, Joseph Bottum, scholar, essayist, and First Things magazine editor from 2004 to 2010, wrote me in an email, “He has a greater influence on me than any other thinker alive in my lifetime, particularly in my thoughts about violence and the foundation of culture.”
Bottum’s name came up in a conversation with Girard’s widow. I attend the Gregorian Mass occasionally, and I saw Martha after Mass last Sunday, the same day as the event at USF, when she was bringing out hot water for tea. She was wistful about missing the event at USF, but she hadn’t felt up to going. She regretted not seeing some who attended, especially one of the presenters, their friend Joseph Bottum, who had written a poem to René (“Easter Morning”) and an obituary, which describes René’s charm. As it turns out, I learned in an email interchange with Bottum today, he read the poem at the event that morning.