Her carefully researched biography is a fitting tribute to her late friend and one that will enlighten both specialists and non-specialists alike ... Ms. Haven’s ability to interweave Girard’s life with his publications keeps her narrative flowing at a lively pace. For a man who woke every day at 3:30 a.m. and wrote until his professorial duties took over, it would be enough for any biographer to focus on his intellectual life, without linking his thoughts to a person ambulating in the world. Fortunately, Ms. Haven portrays Girard as he interacted with colleagues, students, friends and family ... The chapter Ms. Haven devotes to a major conference organized by Girard and his [Johns] Hopkins associates in 1966 reads like an uproarious movie script featuring the oversize egos of the all-male cast, most notably the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Even as Girard negotiated the politics of American academe and international rivalries, he drew strength from his Catholic faith. Ms. Haven sympathetically recounts his conversion experiences in 1958 and 1959. At a time when atheism was practically de rigueur among French intellectuals, Girard came out not only as a believer but also as a spokesman for what he called the 'truths of Christianity.'
Girard, who died in 2015 at 91, ventured into many disciplines. And Cynthia Haven’s Evolution of Desire is an ingenious travelogue of his life and thought ... Haven’s book, in fact, is something of a marvel. She knew Girard and got to know his friends and colleagues. She guides the reader along the trail of evidence, sketching deftly those she talked with and showing how she arrived at her conclusions. The result is an an extraordinarily vivid portrait of a man admired not just for his intelligence and erudition, but also for his character, wisdom, and humor.
Evolution of Desire is Cynthia Haven’s elegant attempt to introduce the general reader to Girard’s ideas by combining them with the story of his life ... These ideas, which Girard would develop and refine over the following decades, are simple enough in summary, and Haven does an adequate job articulating them. But her summaries lack Girard’s marvelous subtlety, sense of paradox, and psychological depth ... Her biographical treatment is effective, but only to an extent. While Haven deftly recounts the major early life events—a mischievous childhood in Avignon, an unhappy period of study in Paris during the occupation, the fateful decision in 1947 to go to the United States—her subject’s characteristic reticence minimizes their resonance ... Haven gives us a sense of Girard as charismatic and somewhat mercurial—often dazzling, genuine, and capable of great warmth, yet also sometimes insensitive and aloof—but his inner world remains mostly opaque ... That is why the book’s final chapters are so welcome ... In its tender closing chapters, Cynthia Haven’s moving portrait inspires readers to look inward and scrutinize themselves, unsparingly yet forgivingly—just as Girard would have wanted.
The book presumes no prior knowledge, and includes several useful primers of the texts that established his reputation ... One of the abiding questions that drives the book is how a man who appeared to lead such a quiet and ordered life was animated by some of the most troubling themes in human history. Adopting the lively and accessible style of an investigative reporter, Haven looks to Girard’s formative experiences for an answer. The reader is along for the ride as she drives a rented Citroën through southern France, or pores over archival images and family photographs. Her research is rich in important and surprising details, and there are entertaining tidbits of juicy academic gossip along the way ... In an academic world that favored detached skepticism, Girard’s private convictions and idiosyncratic approach contributed to his outsider image. Haven catalogs Girard’s unique intellectual engagement with a host of writers and philosophers, from Dostoevsky, Stendhal and Proust to Sartre, Camus and Derrida. Yet there are also mystical and ambiguous influences at play ... At a time when religious fundamentalism, violent extremism and societal division dominates the headlines, Haven’s book is a call to revisit and reclaim one of the 20th century’s most important thinkers.
Haven was a close friend of Girard’s, and that privileged perch allows her to consider his life both personally and intellectually. Many aspects of his history would be hard to adequately comprehend without this dual perspective ... her rendering is as panoramic as his thought—she considers a vertiginous array of diverse subjects insightfully ... Haven ably, even elegantly, synopsizes the central tenets of Girard’s beliefs ... In this intimate but philosophically searching book, the author’s writing is marvelously clear. She expertly unpacks Girard’s ideas, making them unusually accessible, even to readers with limited familiarity. A penetrating account of an important thinker—and as agile, profound, and affecting as its subject.