Mixed Media

UB’s French Connection

When Girard, Foucault and a coterie of intellectuals revolutionized the American academy

Albert Cook and René Girard

Albert Cook (left) and René Girard at a party at Arts and Sciences provost John Sullivan’s home in Buffalo, 1974. Photo: Bruce Jackson

By Jeff Klein

A generation ago, an intellectual revolution challenged traditional assumptions about Western culture, transforming academia. That revolution was sparked by a vanguard of deep-thinking French scholars— and UB was on the front lines.

A new book, “Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard,” recounts the career of one of those thinkers, a historian, critic and philosopher of social science who taught at UB from 1968 to 1976. Girard wrote exclusively in French, producing more than two dozen works delineating his theories on the origins of violence and ritual in human behavior. One of his most influential, written largely while at UB, is “Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World.” It has the odd distinction of resulting from a series of profound philosophical dialogues conducted at a hotel in Cheektowaga.

Book Cover of “Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard”

The author of “Evolution of Desire,” Girard’s friend and fellow scholar Cynthia L. Haven, describes how Girard was lured from Johns Hopkins to UB, which, “in the shifting hierarchies of post-war academia,” had become “the hot new intellectual hub.” These were the days when English department chair Albert Cook helped recruit an incredible array of literary talent: novelist John Barth, playwright Lionel Abel, poets Robert Creeley and Carl Dennis, the enfant terrible literary critic Leslie Fiedler, and many more. “I loved Buffalo,” Girard told Haven before his death in 2015.

Girard was only one of several world-famous French intellectuals who taught at UB in the ’60s, ’70s and beyond. The roll call includes Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida and Hélène Cixous. They, and others who passed through as lecturers and guest speakers, helped open minds to new approaches to interpretation and reshape the rigid Western literary syllabus into the more inclusive canon taught at universities today.

To celebrate UB’s role as a privileged place for this golden generation of French scholars, the UB Humanities Institute and the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures are hosting an international colloquium, Buffalo: Transatlantic Crossroads of a Critical Insurrection,” this October.