A Course with Professor Girard

Andrew Feenberg Canada Research Chair in Philosophy of Technology, School of Communication, Simon Fraser University, and Directeur de programme, Collège International de Philosophie

The following text contains an account of my notes from René Girard’s graduate seminar on 20th Century French Literature, offered in the second semester of 1962. The notes were recently found tucked in a drawer in an old piece of family furniture. As best I can ascertain, this course is the one described in the Johns Hopkins University catalogue as follows:

The French Novel of the 19th and 20th Centuries 663-664. Professor Girard. Two hours weekly.

Girard gave me, a freshman at the time, permission to attend his class. Perhaps in recognition of this special privilege, my notes are unusually complete. I attempted to write the gist of everything he said, sentence by sentence. This must have been difficult. The course was delivered in French but the notes were written in English in my personal shorthand. Girard’s lectures were freely delivered without a written text and apparently without an outline. As a result there are many repetitions and logical order is not always respected. I did not record questions, just the answers, which no doubt also contributes to the disorderliness of my notes. In preparing this account, I have attempted to remove some of the disorder and clumsiness of the original without changing its meaning. I am sure that much has been lost in transcription and some simplifications and factual errors have no doubt been introduced by inadvertence.

 A final qualification: Girard assumed his students had read the assigned texts but knew little about French literature. The notes are likely to seem didactic to experts while many allusions will be obscure to those not acquainted with the assignments.

Nevertheless, I believe this to be an interesting document. It reveals  something about Girard’s early teaching, his focus not only on literary interpretation but on what he called the “truth” transmitted by literature which he (and we) considered nothing less than a guide to life. As I record him saying in my notes, “For Montesquieu the problem was how one could be a Persian, while for Malraux the problem was how to be oneself, how to be a man.” Girard’s answer was of course very different from Malraux’s, but the problem was the same.

Girard’s physiognomic criticism treated the writers and their characters as more or less admirable human types. He portrayed romanticism as a quasi-religious heresy, a rejection of the world, of “incarnation.” No doubt he found the symptoms in us, his young students. The characters in these novels must come down to earth to survive. It is interesting that at this early date Catholic writers played such an important role for him. However, the lesson of the course was not religious in the usual sense, but aimed at a wisdom in which religion, but not only religion, participated. 


Bernanos, Journal d’un Curé de Campagne

Claudel, La Jeune Fille Violaine et L’Échange

Proust, Du Coté de Chez Swann

Mauriac, Le Noeud de Vipères

Camus, L’Etranger et La Chute

Sartre, Théatre, vol. I

Saint-Jean Perse, Exil

Simone Weil, La Pesanteur et la Grâce

Malraux, Les Conquérants

De Rougement, L’Amour et l’Occident

(No notes were found on Saint-Jean Perse and Weil. My notes on Sartre are too brief and sketchy to include. I have provided brief plot summaries drawn from the Internet to help the reader unfamiliar with the literature.)