This essay is excerpted from Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard by Cynthia L. Haven, forthcoming from Michigan State University Press in spring 2018. You can learn more about the book here.
Zorba: Why do the young die? Why does anybody die?
Basil: I don’t know.
Zorba: What’s the use of all your damn books? If they don’t tell you that, what the hell do they tell you?
Basil: They tell me about the agony of men who can’t answer questions like yours.
Zorba: I spit on their agony.
—Michael Cacoyannis, screenplay for Zorba the Greek
The conference has been called “epochal,” “a watershed,” “a major reorientation in literary studies,” “the French invasion of America,” the “96-gun French dispute,” the equivalent of the Big Bang in American thought.
To hear the superlatives, one would have thought that “The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man” symposium held at Johns Hopkins for a few frantic days from 18 to 21 October 1966 was the first gathering of its kind ever held. It wasn’t, but it did accomplish a feat that changed the intellectual landscape of the nation: it brought avant-garde French theory to America. In the years that followed, René Girard would champion a system of thought that was both a child of this new era and an orphan within it. He was at once proud of his role in launching the symposium, and troubled by some of its consequences. Let us consider what happened during this watershed autumn.
The event itself was René Girard’s inspiration. He had assumed the chair of the Romance Languages Department from Nathan Edelman the year before, and became one of the triumvirate who brought the symposium together. Another was that brilliant figure who has been somewhat overlooked in American intellectual history—the restless, quicksilver Eugenio Donato. The third, Richard Macksey, was a co-founder of the new Humanities Center. Girard, however, was the senior member of the group, and the one with international connections.
“He already had some visibility. And yet he wasn’t so senior that he had offended too many people in Paris, which was significant,” said Macksey about his colleague. “René was more aware of issues of civility than we were. He was older and more established.” Noting the heavyweight names of those who came to Baltimore, Macksey added that he thought the symposium had a big impact on his French colleague. “René, as a young person, was deeply influenced by this—although he might deny it.” (Girard was two months shy of his forty-second birthday at the symposium; Macksey was thirty-five.)
At that historical moment, “structuralism” was the height of intellectual chic in France, and widely considered to be existentialism’s successor. Structuralism had been born in New York City nearly three decades earlier, when French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, one of many European scholars fleeing Nazi persecution to the United States, met another refugee scholar, the linguist Roman Jakobson, at the New School for Social Research. The interplay of the two disciplines, anthropology and linguistics, sparked a new intellectual movement. Linguistics became fashionable, and many of the symposium papers were cloaked in its vocabulary.
Girard never saw himself as a structuralist. “He saw himself as his own person, not one of the under-lieutenants of structuralism,” said Macksey. Yet structuralism would have had a natural pull for Girard, who was already moving away from literary concerns and toward more anthropological ones by the time of the symposium. Indeed, in this as in other matters, he was indebted to the structuralists. His own metanarratives strove toward universal truths, akin to the movement that endeavored to discover the basic structural patterns in all human phenomena, from myths to monuments, from economics to fashion.
Given structuralism’s interdisciplinary bent, the symposium included representatives of both the humanities and the sciences. It brought together leading French intellectuals from an array of disciplines and interests—over a hundred thinkers from nine nations at the standing-room-only event. The conference was not designed just to bring a range of disciplines together to talk, but rather to teach them how to talk through this new intellectual architecture, which had its own language, its own way of writing and thinking. The structuralists were committed to the map they had discovered to order all knowledge; they believed it would lead its practitioners to the universal truths they were trying to access.
Lévi-Strauss couldn’t attend in person, but he gave his blessing to the summit. Since so many of the speakers and participants were from France, the event was bilingual, which added a continental élan to the proceedings.
France has always prized its intellectuals, and a philosopher in Paris can achieve the status of a superstar even today. Jacques Lacan, the celebrity among the group, was keenly sensitive to the prestige of what would be his first American appearance. The French doctor had been called the most controversial psychoanalyst since Freud. Lévi-Strauss, Barthes, Foucault, and Julia Kristeva had attended Lacan’s renowned seminars at one time or another. With their mutual interests in imitation, rivalry, and the nature of desire, Girard may have felt a natural interest about meeting Lacan in person.
The other symposium speakers, besides the troika of organizers, included Roland Barthes, Lucien Goldmann, Jean Hyppolite, Charles Morazé; Georges Poulet, Guy Rosolato, Nicolas Ruwet, Tzvetan Todorov, Jean-Pierre Vernant, Neville Dyson-Hudson, and the young, thirty-six-year-old Jacques Derrida. Hegelians, existentialists, social scientists, and literary theorists of all stripes rubbed elbows with the newest thinkers from the Continent.
With a brand new Humanities Center, Johns Hopkins had an incentive to put on a high-powered intellectual show, and the support of the center’s founding director, Charles Singleton, gave the symposium an added luster. A Ford Foundation grant gave them “just enough gunpowder to make the cannon go off,” said Macksey.
Only in the New World could such a meeting occur—certainly not in Paris, with its rivalries, tensions, and tectonic shifts. “The odd thing about it is, this struck me at the time even, these folks would not have gotten together under any circumstances in Paris under the same roof. There were enough lines already drawn in the sand, or drawn in blood, or whatever. So, a neutral ground,” Macksey explained.
The symposium was intended to be a crowning achievement for structuralism, but here’s the surprise: it signaled its end instead, as the movement slid into post-structuralism, so smoothly and effortlessly that the leading structuralists tend also to be the leading post-structuralists—Lacan, semiotician Roland Barthes, philosopher Michel Foucault, among them. The dark horse, Algerian-born Derrida, delivered the very last paper of the symposium, challenging the work of Lévi-Strauss and impishly skewering the structural weaknesses in the towering edifice the maestro had built. The paper, still a much-read classic of French theory, made the young philosopher’s reputation in America and everywhere else. America, not France, would become ground zero for the “deconstruction” he introduced.
Everyone afterward sensed that there had been a metamorphosis. “It wasn’t clear whether it was a wedding gown for structuralism in America, or a winding sheet for structuralism in America,” Macksey told me. “Did we know what had happened? No, but there was a sense.”
* * *
In my conversations with him, Girard was consistently contemptuous about “la peste,” describing it as a kind of star thistle that had taken root across the United States and proved impossible to eradicate.
With two other interviewers, he explained, “When Freud came to the USA, he said, as he approached New York: ‘I’m bringing the plague to them’; but he was wrong. Americans digested and Americanized psychoanalysis easily and quickly. But in 1966 we really brought the plague with Lacan and deconstructionism, at least to the universities!” What Girard called “the beginning of the great merry-go-round Americans call ‘theory’” started on those few autumn days at Johns Hopkins. It’s worthwhile to take a little time to unpack the conference and what it represented, for while Girard is often portrayed as standing alone in a field, he was, in fact, part of this intellectual generation. He was often responding to that cohort and contributing to its thinking, and he was alternately dismayed or inspired by his fellow players over a long lifetime. Does this French invasion sound like ancient history? Let us consider the effects of the symposium on our thinking today, at half a century’s distance.
The kind of intellectual tussle the symposium represented could easily fly over the heads of most of the educated American public—and could easily be dismissed as jousting with air. For most, it’s hard to understand what the fuss was about—but perhaps that’s precisely the point. So much of what we consider as a “given,” an objectively “correct” way to think, derives from this generation of mid-century intellectuals and their abstruse philosophical ping-pong matches, however much the heirs may have distorted the more nuanced thinking of these idea shapers. “Post-structuralist” ways of the world have been conflated with the term “postmodern”—a term with more recognition among the general public. By whatever label, the influence of both in our time has been pervasive. Think of the heightened sensitivity to how ideology keeps political and economic power entrenched; think of the way our current sense of history has been splintered into thousands of viewpoints and stories.
Inevitably, ideas were coopted by a cognoscenti that wished to sound clever and up-to-date. A parallel: a Stella McCartney handbag gets applauded in Milan shows, then reproduced in the thousands for customers who find the knock-offs at Bloomingdale’s or Macy’s. Eventually buyers on a budget find the purse a few seasons later as they paw through the marked-down bin in Ross Dress for Less. Does the Taiwan version have a resemblance to what was paraded on a Milanese catwalk? Sure, but it’s far from an original; it doesn’t have the subtlety, sass, splash, and dash anymore. Post-structuralism eventually descended to the morass of “relativism” and moral ambiguity—however, to lay that consequence on the shoulders of, say, Derrida, whose positions could be highly principled, misses the point. If you’ve slapped your ten bucks on the counter, taken home the knock-off handbag, and watched it fall apart in the first seventy-two hours, it’s not quite fair to blame that on Gucci or Armani.
Think of it this way: When someone tells you, “That’s your truth; it’s not my truth,” he is paying homage to the legacy of these thinkers. Though the idea of subjective valuation appears in Nietzsche and others, the post-structuralists took the ball and ran with it. When you are told there is no reality, or when President Bill Clinton defends himself in court by saying, “It depends on what the meaning of is is,” he can thank not only Yale Law School, but also Derrida, who advanced the notion that the meaning of a word is not a static thing or even an idea in the mind but rather a range of contrasts and differences in balance with the meanings of other words around it. One edges even closer to the discount bin when one examines how the term “deconstruct” and “deconstruction,” so much in the public parlance, especially in criticism, have become synonyms for the more quotidian terms “analyze” and “analysis.” When a teenager lazily rebuts your views with, “Yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion”—the response would have been inconceivable a century ago, not only for its impudence, but for its content, such as it is. In the post-structuralist world, there are no absolutes, no great “Truth,” no grand historical narratives, only texts to be deconstructed.
Thanks to Foucault, some postmodernists insist that what counts as “knowledge” in a given era is always influenced, in complex and subtle ways, by considerations of power. This idea has given rise to a welter of academic departments and books on post-colonialism, gender politics, ethnic studies, feminist studies. The fissures would deepen beneath the smooth, imperturbable surface of academia for a decade or so before large chunks of the iceberg gave way. Major universities, including Stanford, would reconsider a core curriculum that included an awful lot of dead white men, in favor of literature from Africa or Asia, with more modern works by women and writers of various ethnicities and sexual orientations. Not a bad idea, but one could argue that to love everyone is to love no one, and a curriculum, if not a culture, must be centered somewhere. And, ironically, the thinkers who taught that there are no sacrosanct texts (“It’s art if I say it’s art”) have themselves become sacrosanct, their insistence on plurality the new dogma that it is apostasy to challenge.
The post-structuralist writers also separated history and our “historicity,” the latter term encompassing the notion that our history has meaning and purpose, which we interpret and construct as we go along. Our historicity is always up for reinterpretation, and “factual history” may not be separable from our construction of it; we may not even be able to decide reliably what is “meaningful” about our history. (When, exactly, did the Renaissance begin and end? Who decides? Who decides that there was a “Renaissance” in the first place?) Derrida would say that factual history is secondary to our historicity—that is, our interpretation makes the system happen, not the other way around. For example, we “see” constellations in the sky, but they are of our making. Regulus indicates the tail of Leo the Lion for someone who views the sky as a “structuralist.” But someone from another civilization might see a bulldozer in the same set of stars. For someone from the red star Antares, the same stars might align in an altered pattern altogether. For Foucault, we have “constellations” of influence and power and meaning. These lines of thinking are a direct attack on the structuralists and modernism in general, as it deconstructs the Hegelian idea of history, which dominated the era and still dominates our historicity—and which had an influence on Girard as well.
“I have always been a realist, without knowing it,” Girard said years later. “I have always believed in the outside world and in the possibility of knowledge of it. No new discipline has ever produced any durable results unless it was founded on commonsense realism. This I would say is a principle that has always been verified. I think that the old German idealistic legacy has simply been misleading for the whole European culture,” he said, referring to a generation of German thinkers such as Kant, Schelling, and Hegel.
“I’m interested in thinking patterns and I think you have to take the real seriously. Language is a problem, of course, but one that can be resolved. I’m sure that the engineers who managed the flooding of the Nile in Ancient Egypt and agronomists in present-day California, after some initial introduction, would understand each other perfectly. What deconstruction can deconstruct quite well is German idealism, because it is not grounded on real premises.”
The endpoint of the deconstructive credo may be the Belgian literary theorist Paul de Man’s pronouncement that “death is a displaced name for a linguistic predicament.” In such cases, sometimes Girard couldn’t resist scorn. When he wrote, “Think about the inadequacy of our recent avant-gardes that preached the non-existence of the real”—well, this may have been the kind of thing he was considering.
The questions that drove his life were fundamentally different, and little akin to those who were shuffling with the shifting meaning of words, the shifting meaning of meanings. He was moving toward a sweeping teleological Weltanschauung, a bold reading of human nature, human history, and human destiny that owed perhaps a little to Hegel. “I think that historical processes have meaning and that we have to accept this, or else face utter despair,” he said in the 1990s. The distance from many of his peers would lengthen with the years. He was so far from moving toward a postmodern notion of history that he would write with haunting certainty at the end of his life, “More than ever, I am convinced that history has meaning, and that its meaning is terrifying.”
* * *
The America that awaited the French when they came to the “Ball-tee-more” conference, as they insisted on pronouncing it, would baffle anyone under forty today. Although the 1960s were well underway, most of what we associate with the sixties would not begin until the seventies. This was Baltimore, not Berkeley. The French were still exotic; “Miss Susan Sontag,” the future ambassador of French thought to America, was mentioned only twice at the symposium, in connection with her “faintly hysteric ignorance.” What did the Americans think of the French? Recall the remarks the Girards heard about “mixed marriages” in Indiana.
Macksey is the last of the troika to be able to speak about the events so many decades past. He shared his memories from his home stuffed with seventy thousand books and manuscripts in English, Russian, French, German, Italian, Spanish, even Babylonian cuneiform (he can read and write in six languages, and laconically noted that his collection includes an autographed copy of The Canterbury Tales and a presentation copy of the Ten Commandments). A generous and legendary teacher, he still holds seminars in this spacious landmark home, even though the house is so crowded that a visitor can’t walk more than a few feet in any direction without running into a bookshelf. He lives, according to a colleague, on “three hours of sleep and pipe smoke.” He writes as prolifically as he reads, publishing fiction and poetry as well as scholarly works. No topic bores him, and his memory is astonishing. Milton Eisenhower, brother of the president and Johns Hopkins’s president at the time of the conference, commented that going to Dick Macksey with a question was like going to a fire hydrant for a glass of water. Macksey recalled that the program for the symposium was put together quickly, with messages ricocheting around the globe. Girard and Donato were in France during the critical months—the ideal location for recruitment. “I was the most pedestrian of the lot,” said Macksey, and the other two pitied him for spending his sweltering summer in Baltimore. The $35,000 grant from the Ford Foundation—a lot, in those days—had come through with unexpected speed the winter before, so the entire event was planned in less than a year, a daunting organizational task before the days of cellphones, voicemail, email, and ubiquitous air travel that could be scheduled quickly.
In addition to scholars presenting papers, the symposium would include a European innovation: “colloquists,” who would question and discuss the presentations, and “who would sometimes be standing outside the structuralist wave that was coming in,” said Macksey. “We even had some very old people”—by which he meant Hegelians, such as Hyppolite, and perhaps even existentialists. Both camps were influenced by Alexandre Kojève’s lectures (as was Girard himself)—“and Kojève was an eccentric Hegelian to say the least.” The interlocutors needed to have the intellectual heft to improvise extemporaneous mini-lecture replies that might spur discussion, and also be able to take on the large-scale personalities who were speaking—which put pressure on the organizers to find even more top-notch participants. Paul de Man, who would later be discredited for collaborating with the Nazis’ anti-semitic campaigns, was among the colloquists. So were Edward Said, Roman Jakobson, Jan Kott, and others.
“So there was a lot of scurrying around about more people,” Macksey said. “René had run into Foucault at a café and—this is secondhand—but he said he was interested in coming. Well, we knew Foucault really was a flake about ever showing, especially if there was going to be bullets flying. I mean, the events of ’68, Foucault checked himself into a sanitarium so that he didn’t have to make any political statements and stand in the wake of the revolution.” Predictably then, Foucault was a no-show. According to Girard, however, Lévi-Strauss was the luminary who had cancelled his trip, creating a black hole in the schedule. Whether Lévi-Strauss or Foucault’s failure to appear was the cause, the organizers were looking at an important gap in the proceedings.
Girard was unsure whom to invite, and called Michel Deguy, who had written a long review of Deceit, Desire, and the Novel in Critique. He tipped him off that Derrida was to publish important essays in the next two years. “That’s why we invited him,” Girard said. “Indeed, Derrida was the only participant who stood up to Lacan. Moreover, he delivered a lecture that is one of his best essays.”
The group had seen Derrida’s article in Critique, and a few early pieces on different topics, including one on “Freud’s Mystic Writing Pad,” but he was largely an inconnu. “Hyppolite just said, ‘I think he would be somebody who would come.’ So we got in touch with him, and Derrida, on fairly short notice, said yes, he would come,” said Macksey. Hyppolite’s voice carried considerable weight: in addition to being “a generous and heroic figure,” he had translated Hegel and was considered the dean of Hegel studies in France. The book that arose from the conference, The Structuralist Controversy, is dedicated to him. “If Jean Hyppolite said this was a good idea, we were very apt to say yes. It didn’t take an awful lot of nerve or reflection to say, ‘Yeah, we’ve read a little bit of this guy and he does sound interesting.’”
“We all knew the real source, who gave the fuse and the explosives for the symposium, and that was a great Hegelian,” said Macksey. “What I didn’t realize was he wasn’t well while the symposium was going on. We corresponded afterward about the texts, but he was terminally ill.” Hyppolite would die two years later. As for Derrida, “I hadn’t realized that he was going to be the Samson who would tear down the temple of structuralism, really.”
The cast of characters was memorable in other ways. Lacan came to the conference early, via New York, where he had made a detour to see the Albert C. Barnes Foundation art collection outside Philadelphia. A graduate student, Anthony Wilden, had trekked to New York for the care and feeding of Lacan, whose English was sketchy, before his triumphal entry into Baltimore. “Lacan was at his best, because he wanted to attract attention to himself alone, and the literature people really felt for him and remained fascinated while the psychiatrists remained indifferent,” said Macksey.
All the guests were housed at the Belvedere Hotel—and it was there that Lacan and Derrida met at last, on American soil. “So we had to wait to come here, and abroad, in order to meet each other!” said Lacan with “a friendly sigh,” according to his own account. The mimetic doubles were to have a testy future. According to Élisabeth Roudinesco, a French academic psychoanalyst:
The following evening, at a dinner hosted by the organizers, Derrida raised the questions which concerned him about the Cartesian subject, substance, and the signifier. Standing as he sampled a plate of coleslaw, Lacan replied that his subject was the same as the one his interlocutor had opposed to the theory of the subject. In itself, the remark was not false. But Lacan then added, ‘You can’t bear my already having said what you want to say.’ Once again the thematic of ‘stolen ideas,’ the fantasy of owning concepts, the narcissism of priority. It proved too much. Derrida refused to go along, and retorted sharply, ‘That is not my problem.’ Lacan was being made to pay for his remark. Later in the evening, he approached the philosopher and laid his hand gently on his shoulder. ‘Ah! Derrida, we must speak together, we must speak.’ They would not speak.
Lacan was high-maintenance. “He wanted his underwear laundered,” said Macksey. “They were silk and he wanted them hand laundered. He wanted this and he wanted that.” The Girards remembered the underwear, too. They laughed as they recalled the graduate student who took Lacan’s silk shirts and knickers to the laundry. He reported later that when the Chinese managers at the cleaners were warned that they were “fancy” and “special” shirts, they responded by wadding them up and throwing them on the floor, putting the snooty customer in his place, in absentia.
Lacan may have strained his hosts’ goodwill, but he was easier for the conference organizers in other ways. While most of the participants soldiered through all the days of the conference together, requiring food, chairs, beverages, and amenities, Lacan was conveniently holed up at the Belvedere Hotel writing the paper he was to present, under the patient watch of Tony Wilden, who was assigned to help him translate his inflammatory essay attacking the underpinnings of conventional Freudian psychiatry. “Lacan was trying to prod Tony into writing the paper for him all week,” said Macksey. “He was his amanuensis, his cicerone, whatever.” Wilden would go on to make a major contribution to Lacanian studies, as well as works on communication theory, ecology, and social interaction. But the symposium tried his nerves, if not his allegiance. As Macksey said, “Tony Wilden put up with a lot.”
During the conference, “Tony was calling up here because he realized Lacan had very little English, although he quotes a lot of English, and that he really didn’t have a paper,” said Macksey. The plan was to circulate the English translations in advance. Hyppolite, among others, had done so. Wilden had urged Lacan to present the paper in French and phoned Macksey, with tentative success. “This was all more difficult when not everybody in the world had cell phones. And he said, ‘I convinced him. He’s going to do the thing in French. So relax.’ So I said, ‘Well, you relax.’” Macksey then added diplomatically, “We’ll both relax.”
Lacan also complained that he hadn’t had a chance to meet with the students, which in his unfortunate pronunciation came out as “mate.” “Well, of course, because he had been down in the damned hotel he didn’t meet with the symposiasts either,” said Macksey. “And then he went on about mating with the students for awhile.”
“So Lacan enjoyed putting stress on systems, systems frequently being his patients. And he put a lot of strain on Tony—who blew up, of course, at the symposium.”
* * *
On the day of the French invasion, the excitement was palpable. “Well, people were falling out of the windows,” said Macksey. “It had an air of improvisation to say the least about it. And of course we had to feed all these characters,” he said, adding, “These are all very famous French people, for the most part, they are accustomed to arguing for two hours about where they’ll go to lunch.” Macksey discussed the caterers, the fine wines served, and the hotel accommodations, but clearly the big show was on the main floor. A closed-circuit broadcast was eventually set up in the new Milton S. Eisenhower Library’s lounge to deal with the overflow crowd.
The French psychoanalyst continued his exhibition. “Lacan was clowning around in an extremely calculated and hilarious way,” Girard recalled. He threw his arms around the Ford Foundation representative, Peter Caws of Hunter College, as if he were an old friend. “He wanted literally to take over America!”
Girard’s own contribution, the first paper in the symposium, was easy to overlook in the drama and pyrotechnics. He added a prophetic note, borrowing from Sophocles’s retelling of the Oedipus myth to offer a cautionary tale about those who think they have the copyright on “the truth”:
Tiresias, losing sight of the fact that no God, really, speaks through him; forgetting that his truth, partial and limited, bears the imprint of its true origin which is the heated debates and battles of men as well as the imbrication of converging desires; Tiresias will think he incarnates the truth and he will abandon himself to oracular vaticinations . . . This is the failure of Tiresias and it might be our own. It is this failure which drags Tiresias into a painful, sterile, interminable debate with Oedipus. This, of course, should not be a model for us in the discussions to come. Perhaps it is not fitting even to mention such a deplorable precedent. But, in matters intellectual as well as in matters financial, danger and profit always run together.
The sparks began to fly after the next rather uncontroversial paper by historian Charles Morazé on literary invention. In pages of response to the presentation, Lacan asked, “Who invents? There would be no question of invention if that were not the question. You consider this question resolved.” He raised “the term subject as [something] distinct from the function of individuality you introduced.”
Singleton was not interested in theoretical games; nevertheless, he generously welcomed the participants, and responded in game, if somewhat rambling, fashion to Lacan’s verbal arcana: “Now, predictably I’m going to speak about a certain Italian poet. I’m known to think of nothing else or read nothing else. I’m going to hold to my old habit, use Dante as a touchstone, and test some of the speculations and assertions made today, including collectivity, social classes, and possibly—though I still have to understand Monsieur Lacan—in-mixing, and so forth. But as far as invention goes, it is in a sense safe to say that Dante invented nothing . . . in the sense of a problem. And yet he invented everything. What did he invent? An experience. An experience that the mathematical symbol does not offer . . . the poetic vision comes forth in its totality. I think that this question was excellently launched today in terms of invention. The experience is there to be had by all who can read the language and prepare themselves to have it. It is repeatable, and keeps on repeating itself.”
“Now this isn’t coming close at all to ‘signe,’ and ‘invention de problème,’” he continued, “it’s just suggesting that we are already operating here in terms of modern problems, and just let a plodding medievalist suggest that there are other historical horizons in which it might be interesting to situate our thoughts occasionally, as René Girard did in terms of Oedipus.”
Poulet had given a fine and generally disregarded paper, and tried to bridge the chasm that was beginning to open as he responded to Roland Barthes. “We are a little like people who live in the same building but on different floors. The difference can be seen in our use of the word language . . . you seem to avoid the word thought as if it were becoming rapidly obscene. Nearly every time you use the word language, I could replace it by the word thought almost without incongruity. I think that if you tried the same exercise, inversely, you would make the same discovery . . . Therefore it seems to me that we are at the same time very close and yet separated by an abyss—an abyss that we could leap if we wanted to.”
Barthes politely but firmly refused the hand that Poulet had offered. “I am very touched by what you have said, but I can’t really reply because, as you said, there is a separation and, if I may say so, what separates us is precisely language. . . . if I don’t use the word thought, it is not at all because I find it obscene; on the contrary, it is because it is not obscene enough. For me, language is obscene, and that is why I continually return to it.”
A brave new world was dawning, and some tried to get a foothold—or perhaps simply remind some of the participants that they had not reinvented the world. The Polish scholar and theater critic Jan Kott was reeling. “Throughout this colloquium I have had the dizzy sensation that the world is collapsing,” he said. Hyppolite’s last paper on Hegel opened almost tentatively: “Isn’t it too late to speak of Hegel in our age, when the sciences have gradually replaced metaphysical thought?” Macksey sympathized with the great Hegelian: “I wouldn’t say he was on the wrong track, he was on the wrong planet.” The conference marked the emerging centrality of Nietzsche to modern thought, rather than Hegel.
Thursday evening was to feature two Lacan papers, one by the doctor himself, the other by Guy Rosolato, “who was Lacan’s shotgun,” said Macksey. Who would go first? The two tussled on arrangements, but finally Lacan had his way and went before his colleague. The title of Lacan’s paper was inauspicious: “Of structure as an inmixing of an otherness prerequisite to any subject whatsoever.”
Lacan galvanized the audience with a few provocative opening remarks, and then described his obscure musings while holed up in the Belvedere Hotel: “When I prepared this little talk for you, it was early in the morning. I could see Baltimore through the window and it was a very interesting moment because it was not quite daylight and a neon sign indicated to me every minute the change of time, and naturally there was heavy traffic and I remarked to myself that exactly all that I could see, except for some trees in the distance, was the result of thoughts, actively thinking thoughts, where the function played by the subjects was not completely obvious. In any case the so-called Dasein as a definition of the subject, was there in this rather intermittent or fading spectator. The best image to sum up the unconscious is Baltimore in the early morning.”
The paper was almost incomprehensible because it was not English and it was not French. He had overruled Wilden in the end, saying it would be “a violation of the hospitality rite” to present his paper in French, according to Macksey. Lacan tried to describe how he was rethinking Freud in an impossible mélange of his impenetrable French and his near-nonexistent English, to the confusion of all. He illustrated his concepts with the diagram of a Mobius loop.
Wilden threw in the towel. The public was baffled. The organizers thought they were the victims of “a bad joke.”
The interlocutor, the literary theorist Angus Fletcher, was of questionable assistance. Friends had taken him out for several rounds of French 75s, a potent concoction of gin and champagne and lemon juice with a dash of sugar, and Fletcher was the worse for wear.
Fletcher called him out in his first comment: “Freud was really a very simple man,” he explained. “He didn’t try to float on the surface of words. What you’re doing is like a spider: you’re making a very delicate web without any human reality in it . . . All this metaphysics is not necessary. The diagram was very interesting, but it doesn’t seem to have any connection with the reality of our actions, with eating, sexual intercourse, and so on.” At least, those are the heavily edited words from The Structuralist Controversy, which don’t capture the hysteria and pandemonium (Donato’s careful hand would rework this section).
At the event itself, rather than Donato’s diplomatic recreation of it, Fletcher’s voice had taken on an accusatory tone—“Vous, vous monsieur . . .” He attacked in a British-inflected French, while Lacan insisted on replying in his inadequate English. “Lacan was enjoying every bit of this. He was like a Cheshire cat,” said Macksey. “Angus just went ballistic.”
“I should have been aware, and wasn’t, the state that Angus was in. Angus is a very bright guy.” Elsewhere in the room, Girard was “trying to climb under the chair, it was so embarrassing,” he said. “René felt we owed something to the Ford Foundation, from whom all blessings flow . . . I would watch him. He was the senior member of the troika—at moments, he seemed to be thinking that the wheels had come off and we were rolling downhill.” Girard’s concern regarding the Ford Foundation was understandable, since “Lacan particularly set Peter [Caw]’s teeth on edge”—perhaps from the moment of the big bear hug.
Macksey felt that the microphone had to be kept from Wilden at all costs. Someone passed the mic to Wilden nevertheless. “At that point Tony lit into Lacan, saying this was your great opportunity, this was your first exposure in the United States. All you had to do was just talk your language and you don’t know diddly squat about the English language.” Goldmann jumped into the melée, attacking Lacan on procedural grounds as well.
The Structuralist Controversy gives little indication of this discord—remarks were toned down later to reduce the decibel level, and much of the action was between the lines, anyway. According to Macksey, “It got to be about midnight and things were just going on wildly and Rosolato says, ‘Oh, he always does this to me. He schedules me to talk right after him and then there’s no time.’ So Nicolas Ruwet, who is a Belgian linguist, read a paper that I thought was more exact and applied overt structuralism more than most of the people who were participating had done. But nobody paid attention to that paper. Alas.”
Back at the Belvedere, Lacan started calling everyone in Paris—Lévi-Strauss and Malraux among them—giving his version of the events. Eventually, he would run up a $900 phone bill from the hotel. “People in Paris thought a small revolution had occurred,” said Macksey. But the revolution would take place the next day.
Enter Derrida for the final paper of the symposium on Friday. “You realized fairly early that Derrida was, well, now everyone uses this term, but even then, he was an intellectual terrorist. He had better manners than many French academics. But there was an element of disruption, obviously,” said Macksey.
“Of course, that was the stick of dynamite under the meeting. If he had come in earlier in the week it might not have had quite the impact that it did. But he was there at the end.”
Derrida’s paper was a tour de force, with an abundance of the italicized terms and wordplay that would later irritate those who couldn’t keep up with his verbal antics, and who certainly didn’t take them seriously. His paper, which he had written in ten days, suggested there was no reality apart from the name we give to it at any moment. Structuralists presupposed an origin and center—Derrida saw only a periphery. Language violates the “universal problematic” and the “moment when, in the absence of a center or an origin, everything becomes discourse.” How could a structuralist study the “structure” of a text if it lacked a center or any organizing principle? He set out the program for deconstruction, suggesting not that we abandon the familiar philosophers, but that we read them in a new way. He advocated substituting signs for one another, freed from any tyranny of the center.
“Here or there I have used the word déconstruction, which has nothing to do with destruction. That is to say, it is simply a question of (and this is a necessity of criticism in the classical sense of the word) being alert to the implications, to the historical sedimentation of the language which we use—and that is not destruction,” he said.
And yet it was destruction—everyone knew it, and Derrida would, through the years, be criticized for it. He saw the structure that the structuralists saw, but he showed where it falls apart. The overarching structure isn’t primary, it’s secondary—a result rather than a cause. Structuralists saw language as a pure system. Derrida was showing that it is impure and jumbled. We’re inevitably mired in a flawed system.
Hyppolite had presented a long series of comments and queries, and then asked what he said would be his last question. It wasn’t. He ventured two or three more and then, finally, he asked Derrida to define structure, without the use of algebra.
“The concept of structure itself—I say this in passing—is no longer satisfactory to describe that game,” said Derrida. “So I think that what I have said can be understood as a criticism of structuralism, certainly.”
What would halt chaos? What would stop a free fall? In a long roundabout way, Hyppolite asked him where he was going with his line of thought—in short, what was he driving at? “I was wondering myself if I know where I am going. So I would answer you by saying, first, that I am trying, precisely, to put myself at a point so that I do not know any longer where I am going.”
* * *
It was over but it wasn’t over. The crowd had dispersed, the chairs and rubble cleared away, the trash emptied, but there was a curious coda with Lacan among the American psychoanalysts. “Friday, he wanted to meet with America,” said Macksey.
At the end of the week, Lacan asked to meet with the Baltimore psychoanalysts, so there was a final excursion after the conference was officially over. “We had disconvened, except for Lacan ‘mating’ with students,” recalled Macksey, and so the ever-genial host made arrangements to take Lacan to Sheppard Pratt, a leading psychiatric hospital in Towson, a northern suburb of Baltimore.
“The guy who had just arrived as the director [Dr. Robert Gibson]—I think he felt that he had been mugged. I explained, ‘This is a very eccentric psychiatrist. He wants to meet with American psychiatrists.’ And he said, ‘Do I have to read him?’ I said, ‘No, just hospitality.’”
Macksey accompanied the French doctor to the lavish seminar dinner—he recalled “seas of shrimp and abundant food.” After some socializing, the guest of honor rose to speak to the assembly.
“Lacan got up and finished by insulting everybody there in various ways. His topic was the length of a psychoanalytic session—and of course Lacan was notorious for having sessions that only lasted five to ten minutes, and some that lasted three hours. Anyhow, he managed to provoke outbursts there that were at least as loud in decibels as the ones that he had provoked Thursday night.”
One eminent psychoanalyst long associated with the university, Sam Novey, had had enough. “Sam got up and said sort of to nobody in particular but to the audience in general, ‘I know a schiz when I see one,’ and walked out. Others just quietly walked out. A few others made little speeches. Lacan was enjoying every minute of it.”
* * *
The participants in the conference regularly use hyperbolic expressions to describe it—blood, bullets, dynamite, gunpowder, terrorism, Samson pulling down the pillars, and so on.
On an intellectual level, however, the earth really had shifted beneath everyone’s feet. One person knew it. Macksey described how Poulet was stopped on the campus by a colleague who wanted to know how the symposium was going. “We just heard a paper that destroyed everything I stand for, but it was a very important paper,” he replied. Said Macksey, “I cherish that little anecdote. It showed that Poulet wasn’t a fool. He knew what was happening.” Did the others understand the importance of the Derrida paper? “A number of people did, but a number of people didn’t.”
Let’s consider, for a moment, the many ways Derrida’s paper pulled out the stakes that supported the structuralist tent. Structuralists on the whole accepted the existence of a “reality,” some material, human, or socio-economic facts beneath their ideas; post-structuralists questioned that very notion, emphasizing that the gulf between “ideas” and “reality” is constructed through discourse. If any “reality” exists, it may be worlds apart from our perception of “truth.” For structuralists, systems were all—they emphasized the importance of systems in structuring our worldviews, our sense of ourselves, our thoughts. They sought “universal truths” through structures that bind people together. Post-structuralists had given up that search, and instead focused on difference and on the individual reader or speaker operating within a structure. Rather than seeing coherent systems, they saw incoherence and a mushrooming plurality of meanings.
The structuralists’ eagerness to uncover hidden patterns and structures within culture began to seem contradictory and problematic, their language tainted by authority and entrenched academic rituals. Many structuralists began decamping to the post-structuralist tents. Yet the line between the two was often blurred—after all, both emphasized language, but structuralism’s fatal flaw (according to post-structuralism) is that it “privileged” one point of view, however grand and overarching, over another, which is choice, not truth. Post-structuralism had swallowed structuralism, acknowledging its quest for structure and order, but exploded into bricolage, using found things to make something new (think collage in art, remixing in music). The year after the symposium, in 1967, Derrida published three audacious books that were new volleys in his war on structuralism, which was still trendy in French intellectual circles: Speech and Phenomena, Writing and Difference, and his masterwork, Of Grammatology.
Derrida discovered America in the way Girard had nearly two decades earlier, and none of the pieces went back together in quite the same way—for him or anyone else. Derrida quickly became a superstar with international speaking engagements and even film gigs. He proselytized in West Africa, South America, Japan, and even the U.S.S.R. He would become the most frequently cited authority in papers submitted to the Modern Language Association, and his influence and his centrality were inescapable, the new orthodoxy. “America IS deconstruction,” Derrida would crow.
In the following decade, Johns Hopkins would be a hotbed for post-structuralist thought and thinkers. Derrida returned to teach at Johns Hopkins several times. Lucien Goldmann, Georges Poulet, Michel Serres, Emmanuel Levinas, Roland Barthes, and Jean-François Lyotard also made guest visits. Literary critic Paul de Man, who began his long and fruitful association as the herald of deconstruction when he met Derrida at this symposium, moved from Cornell to Johns Hopkins. He told Macksey, “‘I’m so comfortable at Cornell and happy, but I feel I should get into the fray.’ Well he got into the fray and a couple of bombs exploded.”
“It was a time of enormous intellectual ferment, much of it the work of French thinkers and writers,” wrote a Johns Hopkins colleague, Lionel Gossman. “As phenomenology and existentialism were challenged by structuralism and structuralism in turn by ‘post-structuralism,’ we in the French section of the Romance Languages Department found ourselves in the role of mediators between our colleagues in the other disciplines and the French maîtres penseurs to whom we had direct access and whose aura illuminated us too to some extent. Curious physicists and puzzled English professors looked respectfully to us to provide explanations of the latest trends. French in those years was an extraordinarily lively discipline at the very center of the Humanities.” Americans who had been insulated from Continental fashions, Girard explained to me, did not see that this tsunami was an enthusiasm posing as truth, a vogue that would pass—as existentialism was passing, as structuralism was beginning to pass. Today, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, post-structuralism is no longer cutting-edge. The au courant literary scholars are now absorbed in such innovations as Franco Moretti’s data-crunching modes of literary analysis, the digital humanities, or combining evolutionary psychology and brain science to determine how we may be hard-wired for fiction-making, aesthetic appreciation, and the like.
An important element in “la peste,” and one not commonly remarked upon, is that American and British students don’t have the grounding in philosophical discourse that their French, and often European, counterparts do. In France, for example, philosophy is formally taught at the high-school level; at best, an American student gets a little bit of Plato’s Republic and Machiavelli’s The Prince in political science classes—nothing from the most recent half millennium. A reasonably educated Frenchman has the vocabulary for abstract philosophical discussion, and can tinker with these concepts in a way most Americans cannot. Author Jean-Paul Aron wondered how any student who did not have Plato, Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger downloaded into their mental software could appreciate Derrida’s restless and sophisticated oeuvre. How, he wondered, could they understand his “enigmatic work”? He added, “Some powerful ideas, swiftly vulgarized, had to satisfy their [i.e., the students’] appetite.”
That’s one reason avant-garde French thought took the country, east to west, like smallpox among the natives. No natural immunities existed in a nation new to the feverish intellectual fads from Europe. French thinkers were a hot ticket, and the trendy new scholars could name their price. Academic departments were “ruining themselves to attract the Parisian stars in order to be one up on their neighbors.” The French swelled with pride at the success of their boys in Baltimore (not a single woman had been on the program).
Todorov, Genette, Julia Kristeva, and others took to the road to spread the gospel. “There were heartrending lexical conversions: at Madison, at Minneapolis, at Ann Arbor nobody wrote about Flaubert anymore: they ‘read’ him. Columbia . . . was captured and soon it was Yale’s turn: Yale, which under the masterly direction of Henri Peyre had become the frontrunner in French studies in the United States,” wrote critic Richard Jones. Irvine, at that point one of the lesser University of California schools, became the “aerial bridgehead uniting theoretical France and American universities.”
* * *
One French scholar had a different take on Derrida’s triumph—and Girard’s attitude toward it. “We knew and understood each other much better than the Americans did,” said Jean-Marie Apostolidès, an Auvergne-born scholar, playwright, psychologist, and colleague at Stanford. “Derrida could cheat people and take himself as a god. He could not cheat us.”
Apostolidès is an engaging and flamboyantly off-the-wall character, apparently unfettered by the need to please his colleagues; he seems to relish making sweeping, provocative remarks as he nears his retirement. So perhaps I should have been less startled when he insisted Derrida was Girard’s mimetic double. Seeing Derrida’s success “transformed René. He thought ‘Why not me?’” said the provocateur. “It’s definitely what convinced René to transform his public image into something stronger.”
After all, Derrida had managed a spectacular, American-style self-reinvention. The Algerian-born thinker had failed to make a mark in his first adopted home. “He was humiliated—belittled and passed over in France,” Apostolidès said, “probably because he was arrogant.” Apostolidès continued calmly, emphatically: “Derrida’s obsession was success. He tried to place his spoon everywhere in America. . . . He had no success in France. He was a little humiliated Jew and he wanted revenge. He took America as his field for revenge.”
Benoît Peeters, the Derrida biographer, visited Apostolidès for his research, and the Stanford scholar thinks the author presented a creditable, if somewhat whitewashed, view of the philosopher. Not surprisingly, his own frank criticisms didn’t appear in the six hundred–page book. “He did not present Derrida as totally cynical,” said Apostolidès, dismissing Derrida as a hypocrite, especially in his image as a “great feminist”: “It’s a big, big lie if you know his private life,” he said. “He was fucking women everywhere in America.” The silence, he said, is out of deference to Marguerite Derrida, the widow—and also because many of Derrida’s women now have prominent academic roles.
This was hardly a secret, however, despite his remarks. Even Peeters noted euphemistically, “Derrida had an irresistible desire to seduce. And if he almost never spoke of his relationship to women, this was because his obsession with secrecy was greater in this area than in any other. But many people knew that ‘the feminine’ was, for him, always in the plural.” Part of his cachet and influence in America, no doubt.
The theatrics of Baltimore raise another important point, and one that’s emerged since. To put it bluntly: How much was pure sham, pure preening and ego jousting? At times, the mimetic rivalries and derivative desires seemed to be a showcase for the very principles Girard’s Deceit, Desire, and the Novel describes.
The American philosopher John Searle excoriated Derrida, insisting,
You can hardly misread him, because he’s so obscure. Every time you say, “He says so and so,” he always says, “You misunderstood me.” But if you try to figure out the correct interpretation, then that’s not so easy. I once said this to Michel Foucault, who was more hostile to Derrida even than I am, and Foucault said that Derrida practiced the method of obscurantisme terroriste . . . And I said, “What the hell do you mean by that?” And he said, “He writes so obscurely you can’t tell what he’s saying, that’s the obscurantism part, and then when you criticize him, he can always say, ‘You didn’t understand me; you’re an idiot.’ That’s the terrorism part.”
Not everyone, of course, agrees with this reading—though many have criticized Derrida for his byzantine writing, with its italics, its phrases in phantom quotation marks, and its dizzying wordplay. Girard himself clearly felt respect, as well as dismay, for his colleague. Girard himself, although dismayed by the deconstructive frenzy Derrida wrought, clearly had respect for his colleague as well. In particular, he wrote and spoke admiringly of Derrida’s early essay, “Plato’s Pharmacy,” which anticipated his own insights in some respects.
To some extent, Searle’s criticism reflects the porous divide between analytic and continental philosophy, and the former still dominates the American intellectual landscape and our public discourse. Speaking very roughly, analytic philosophy focuses on analysis—of thought, language, logic, knowledge, mind; continental philosophy focuses on synthesis—synthesis of modernity with history, individuals with society, and speculation with application. Anglo-American philosophy has emphasized the former; mainland Europe the latter. Searle is aligned with the analytic camp; so is linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky, one of America’s leading public intellectuals.
Chomsky called Lacan a “total charlatan” posturing for the television cameras, charging that “there’s no theory in any of this stuff, not in the sense of theory that anyone is familiar with in the sciences or any other serious field. Try to find in all of the work you mentioned some principles from which you can deduce conclusions, empirically testable propositions where it all goes beyond the level of something you can explain in five minutes to a twelve-year-old. See if you can find that when the fancy words are decoded. I can’t,” he said.
Searle’s and Chomsky’s critique is part of the American opposition that began in the 1980s, continuing the philosophical school of “American pragmatism” that looks for ideas to deliver some intellectual payoff. American pragmatists have been called “the plumbers of philosophy”—they attempt to solve problems, not provide elegant and clever descriptions of problems.
Perhaps questions should be practical, too. Sometimes a single naive question can bring down an entire edifice of thought. Let me extend a few naive questions, then, in that spirit: How is a philosophy embodied in the man who espouses it? What is a philosophy that does not change a man—not only what he says, but how he lives? How does a man’s being—the sum of his knowledge, experience, and will—“prove” his knowledge? Can we ever devise a philosophy, even a theory, wholly apart from who we are, and what we must justify? These questions were raised in earnest when Heidegger’s affiliation with the Nazis, and later Paul de Man’s complicity with them, were revealed. What does the test of time show us about the merits of an idea? However heated the arguments in the Parisian coffee shops, in the end, decades later, they would become systems of thought characterized by wordplay, mind games, and a noncombatant’s flexibility, charm, and elasticity—all delivered with an ironic wink. And what of Girard?
* * *
Girard had already begun to define himself in opposition to the prevailing winds. In the wake of his intense conversion experience, he seemed to be picking up the torch from older French thinkers, such as Blaise Pascal or Simone Weil—people who weren’t afraid to use the word “God” without irony.
With the abandonment of grand narratives, the fans of deconstruction found little meat in Girard’s development of a totalizing theory, which bridged so many disciplines. It was a game of musical chairs that left Girard and a few others standing and bewildered.
Invisible fingers were already scribbling “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin” on the walls. Said Girard, “At that point, I felt at Johns Hopkins as alienated as in Avignon with my post-surrealistic friends. One year later deconstruction was already becoming fashionable. I felt uncomfortable with that fashion. That’s the reason why I went to Buffalo in 1968.”
Donato followed him to the State University of New York at Buffalo, continuing his long and tempestuous relationship with Girard—“the tempest was on Eugenio’s part,” said Girard’s wife Martha. This was the beginning, not of a rift, for they remained close friends, but the first bumps along their long road together. Donato, with his passionate nature, had fallen under the spell of post-structuralism. Martha laughed as she recalled Donato telling them that he was going to make a speech. “He said, ‘It’s going to be wonderful. No one will understand a word I am saying.’” He was only half joking.
Within a few years, “Derrida was being thrown in René’s face,” according to Martha. When confronting these contrary headwinds, she explained, “René’s reaction is not to stand and fight, but to say ‘You don’t want me,’” and depart. Freccero had already left for Cornell after a painful estrangement with Singleton, who had regarded him as a son. Girard would write much about double-bind mimetic relationships of mentor and protégé, but Freccero only said, “If I was weaker, it would not have happened. If he was softer, it wouldn’t have happened.” The lunchtime clique was breaking up.
This was not everyone’s view. Gossman, when I spoke with him decades later, was astonished at the very idea that Girard had felt alienated, and said it didn’t correspond with his own perceptions of Girard’s power and sway in Baltimore. “When he left, we were stunned. What were we going to do now?” His predecessor as chair, Nathan Edelman, was “wonderful, but a quiet, gentle guy. He didn’t throw his weight around. He was happy to let René run the show”—so Girard’s departure would leave a vacuum.
“Why was he going to Buffalo, dammit? What a place to go! We felt we had been sort of abandoned.” Yet Gossman, too, would leave Johns Hopkins for Princeton in 1976, for many of the same reasons. The Johns Hopkins students “all imitated Derrida like crazy . . . They would borrow phrases and whole modes of speech. I didn’t know if they understood what they all meant.” French vogues had discouraged students from speaking in class; they feared that they were not à la mode. He found the students at Princeton, farther from the epicenter, were livelier and less inhibited, and his teaching acquired new vigor.
I wondered if Girard’s departure indicated, once again, how he was more sensitive to slights than he sometimes let on, despite some of his more pugnacious attitudes—if so, it would have been a considerable handicap in a field of postmodern thinkers who seemed to enjoy the fistfights almost as much as the glory. However, it could be that Girard simply practiced what he preached. I asked him once what to do if one found oneself a scapegoat, or at least the target of malice. “You just leave,” he said.
* * *
The hurricane left town, but Macksey is still dealing with the correspondence from the event, half a century later. The scholar, now an octogenarian, told his interviewer, Bret McCabe: “I got correspondence, and I should have done this this week and I haven’t—people keep writing who are addicted to one or another of the players.” I’m afraid my correspondence had contributed to the backlog.
At one point, the elderly scholar began looking for a light for his trademark pipe, and asked his guest if he had a match handy. They began shuffling through the mountains of papers, looking for one, and McCabe waved a matchbook he’d found. “No, they’re empty.” Then he caught the script logo of a Swiss tobacconist on the box. “They’re Davidoff. I haven’t had Davidoff since Jacques Derrida was here.”
Cynthia L. Haven writes regularly for The Times Literary Supplement and has contributed to The Nation, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and many other publications. She has published several books, including volumes on Nobel poets Czesław Miłosz and Joseph Brodsky. She has been a Milena Jesenská Journalism Fellow with the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen in Vienna, a visiting scholar at Stanford University, and a Voegelin Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.
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