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A Self-Contained World

[The following review appeared in the January 2011 issue of Chronicles.]

The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism, by Pascal Bruckner, translated by Steven Rendall. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 256 pp., $26.95

Pascal Bruckner is a French version of the Cold War liberal, updated for the age of jihad. In general, his views would be at home in blue-state America. He is pro-E.U. and pro-affirmative action, takes a more positive view of the free market than is common in France, is generally pro-Israel and pro-American, and favors a moderate version of the “War on Terror.” He is also a strong proponent of lifestyle liberalism, with its emphasis on nondiscrimination, personal autonomy, and hedonism.

The point of his book is to defend such principles against what he calls “Western masochism” or “the tyranny of guilt”: the view that the West should always give way because it is eternally guilty, its history an endless series of crimes, while all others are spotless victims. The author cites instances of such attitudes, and most readers can supply their own. His response to them is immanent cultural and psychological criticism of the European intellectual class. The criticisms he presents are well expressed, to the point, and often quite penetrating.

On the author’s account, Western guilt serves a variety of functions. Some are quite obvious, as when it provides unjustified psychic and material benefits to those who claim to be victims. “In our age of loudly displayed enjoyment,” he says, “affliction still runs the show. Anyone who seizes control of it also seizes power.”

Others may be less evident, such as the rewards Western guilt offers Europeans by facilitating their hedonistic self-absorption. “Self-denigration,” the author notes, “is all too clearly a form of indirect self-glorification.” It assures Europeans they are at the center of things, since otherwise they would not be the target of so much blame, while allowing them to avoid the burdens of their position: “Culpability suits us: it provides an alibi for our abdication.” And when guilt itself becomes too burdensome, one can always take refuge in scapegoating America and Israel. Blaming the world’s ills on America and saying Jews are Nazis maintains the principle of victimology, while letting the heirs of colonialists and collaborators off the hook.

Such attitudes lead to remarkable perversions of thought. The intellectual world the author inhabits strikes poses instead of appealing to the nature of things. Western guilt makes the victim’s pose trumps, and the result is a distortion of values that turns Auschwitz into “a monstrous object of covetous lust” that “fascinates people not as an abomination but as a treasury from which it is thought advantages can be drawn.”

Perverse thought leads to practical problems. One example is the multicultural imprisonment of the person in a cultural identity that turns minorities into “museum pieces” for the contemplation of jaded Westerners. The author’s greatest objection to wallowing in guilt, however, is that it takes the edge off the battle for the Enlightenment. He shares the leftist sensitivity to past injustices, but prefers repentance to remorse. The former leads to action; the latter to a paralysis that ignores or excuses abuses perpetrated by others.

Bruckner is a rationalist, a man of the Enlightenment who believes that humanity is progressively perfectible through critical reason, and that present-day Europe has brought that process to a new and higher level. “Europe has more or less vanquished its monsters,” he tells us. “What continent can boast of such a record of accomplishment?” With such views, he finds most things outside his intellectual world archaic and rather alarming. He is therefore conservative with regard to contemporary advanced liberalism and determined to maintain the dominance of Enlightenment thought. He wants to protect the social achievements of post-Christian Europe from leftist and irrationalist excesses, just as the neoconservatives wanted to protect New Deal liberalism from the excesses of the 1960’s.

Like the neoconservatives, he has come to believe that the best defense is a good offense. He is a sort of French Wilsonian determined to spread Enlightenment values and what he calls democracy throughout the world. He views radical Islam as helpful to that cause because its presence promotes moral clarity. Like George W. Bush, he treats it as basically a negation of the West, saying that the “ultimate motivation” of terrorism is “fanatics’ hostility to the principle of an open society in which formal equality is recognized for everyone.” “What is pompously called `Arab Muslim humiliation,’” he tells us, “is perhaps nothing other than allergy to diversity.”

The struggle against reaction and obscurantism is to be mostly a matter of intellectual engagement: “the only war that ultimately matters, as we have known since the Enlightenment, is the war of ideas.” Still, in an untidy world force is sometimes necessary and prudent. While the author has mixed feelings about the intervention in Iraq—he calls it “an exemplary case of the double bind: whether one approved of the intervention or not, one was wrong”—he wants Europe firmly allied with America, much as the original neoconservatives wanted to ally themselves with ordinary Americans.

There is a great deal of value in this book. Europe deserves defense, irrationalities should be exposed, brutality and corruption are problems in the Third World, anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism do not substitute for thought, and the author’s energy, intelligence, and rhetorical skill deserve credit. Nonetheless, the book’s setting and intent impose serious limitations on its analysis. It deals with basic civilizational issues from what remains at bottom the standpoint of a faction bound to a very partial view of things.

The book is a performance within a self-contained world, that of the progressive European intellectual who speaks of the critical outlook but inevitably exempts himself because as a modern man he makes his consciousness his absolute. The specificity and artificiality of its setting is beneficial in some ways. It makes it as full of penetrating observations as a memoir of life at court:

“The rebel used to be a man of the people who wanted to shock the bourgeois; now he is a bourgeois who wants to shock the people.”

“An eternal movement: critical thought at first subversive, turns against itself and becomes a new conformism, but one tha is sanctified by the memory of its forme rebellion.”

“Life is never better than in a country in decline, when a people’s fading vitality increases the attractiveness of its traditions.”

The Tyranny of Guilt is shot through with the prejudices of the author’s class. It tells us that the Church invented “state racism” and “institutional torture,” ordered “the first genocide in the history of Europe,” and took an “indulgent attitude toward the Third Reich.” It blandly assumes the inevitable factual equality of all peoples: “There is no doubt that someday Africa will take off, and the Arab world as well, that they will cease to be objects of our compassion and become direct competitors, partners on equal terms.”

The most important matters that escape the author’s critical thought relate less to specific facts and probable tendencies than to ultimate goals. What exactly does he want? He believes in the self-critical society, which is no doubt a good thing, but self-criticism by what standard and to what end?

Here the book’s setting and purpose become serious problems. The vision of life it presents is altogether negative. Not only is Islamic radicalism a negation of Europe, but Europe itself is a negation: “what is sacred to us here in Europe is desacralization.” Since most people have always thought otherwise, most human efforts have been misdirected or worse. For that reason the author believes that “the whole history of humanity is in a sense the history of a crime against humanity.”

He notes that Western negativity about the West has a religious quality and attributes it to the Christian sense of Original Sin. He should look closer to home. In fact, it results from the radical secularity on which he insists. Post-Christian Europe recognizes no creator God, and this-worldly faiths have ended in disillusion and disgust. Under such circumstances, existence loses credit. It seems a baseless intrusion that violates the unspotted chastity of the void. Hence the self-destructiveness of much recent Western thought.

In this milieu, politics becomes a struggle against complex realities—human nature, the past, the transcendent—in favor of a simplified construction that lets us get what we want. Man becomes divine, and we become worthy of ourselves by rejecting our history: “The extreme Right … asserts the grandeur of a country despite its crimes, but we have to be proud of ourselves against our crimes because we have recognized them and rejected them.” The “traditional and authentic” are the “archaic,” so “the ideal would be to arrive at an indifference to color, ethnic group, and identity.” That ideal is compulsory: “anyone who is hostile to the diversity of physiognomies and the plurality of ways of life, to the great mixture of our cities, should not live in France.” We are to find our identity, it seems, in the rejection of our identity.

The author apparently views the destruction of history, identity, and the transcendent as essential to democracy. Getting rid of such things is indeed democratic in a sense, since it eliminates inequalities and obstacles to the will. As a practical matter, though, it destroys people’s ability to deliberate and make decisions, since they cannot know who they are or how to make sense of things. The result, of course, is the modern custodial state, which is the antithesis of popular self-rule. The author recognizes the tendency:

The result of the Revolution of 1789 that did away with intermediate bodies and left the individual to confront the state alone is that there is no category of the population that does not depend on the state while at the same time castigating it, there is no lobby that does not demand the state’s intercession and is not engaged in an adolescent relationship of rebellion/submission with regard to the powers that be.

That is where we are today, and that is the state of affairs the book wants to defend. But why favor conditions that lead to such an outcome? One reason that may play a role is that they entrench established powers. Our rulers reject all particularities so they can identify their rule with pure principles of equality and expertise. Who can find fault with something so abstract and inscrutable? At a more practical level, the custodial state puts all power in the hands of the custodians. The people have to do what they are told because without intermediate institutions they cannot function on their own, and in any event history is said to show that they do horrible things when they try to act independently.

Bruckner’s democracy is the democracy of the European Union and of contemporary liberalism generally. As such, it makes it possible to advance the goals of the managerial state without the inconvenience of dealing with an actual people. American liberals still have to worry about actual Americans and devote energy to abusing “tea baggers.” European democracy is more advanced, so it frees the author from such necessities. He need not take people outside his own class seriously, so he can take Paris for France, France for Europe, and intellectuals for Europeans. He refers to ordinary Europeans only indirectly, as when he attributes what he calls the “potential barbarity—racism, anti-Semitism, machismo, homophobia” of immigrants in housing projects to “the plebeians’ worst instincts,” thus making recently imported Third World lowlifes emblematic of ordinary Frenchmen.

There are many things in this book that overcome the author’s worst tendencies. He is acute enough and aphoristic enough in his style to include observations that are at odds with his official commitments. He notices problems with those commitments but is unable to transcend them so the problems remain unresolved. He worries, for example, about the need to turn immigrants into “true Europeans—Spaniards, French, Italians.” He notes that “it is the charm and the good fortune of Europe … to still [sic] be fraught with bizarre customs, old-fashioned civilities, and ancient solidarities that form a fascinating kaleidoscope.” And he praises borders: “the border,” he says, “is not only an obstacle, it is the condition for the exercise of democracy, it establishes a durable link between those sheltered within it and gives them the feeling of belonging to a common world.”

His single-minded commitment to self-defining individual autonomy makes it impossible for such insights and concerns to lead anywhere. He wants to resolve the conflict between identity and autonomy, for example, by basing the former on “freely accepted, voluntary association.” But how can such an approach result in the establishment of an actual identity? If I decide I am French, does that make me a Frenchman? Who, on the author’s view, would have the right to tell me no? And what can such donned and doffed identities amount to, when they are consumer goods interchangeable with any other good on the market? Bruckner gives no sign that he notices such questions, and it is unclear what his answers would be if he did.

In spite of its virtues, this book suffers from a basic lack of seriousness. The author cares less about reality than about a privileged and self-satisfied world of discourse, and his position in it. He wants to improve the rationality of that world, which he views as the conscience of humanity, but the basic principles that have led to its craziness are for him beyond question. The book is at once an analysis and an example of what is wrong with today’s European intellectuals.