The Tyranny of Guilt

Has Europe vanquished its monsters or have they just changed shape? wonders Robert Eaglestone

July 15, 2010

The relationship between "the West" (or what used to be called the First World) and "the Rest", including the heterogeneous internal populations of Europe, is a complex matter of the very utmost importance. It ought to be handled delicately and with care, especially in a book from a scholarly press, eschewing undue and unnecessary polemic and seeking detail, evidence and fine distinctions to make its case. Pascal Bruckner's The Tyranny of Guilt is a bombastic, badly annotated and ill-supported book of opinion and rhetoric that does little to advance or clarify any debate on these issues.

Bruckner argues that from "existentialism to deconstructionism, all of modern thought can be reduced to a mechanical denunciation of the West, emphasising the latter's hypocrisy, violence and abomination". Yet for a book that claims to be aimed at "modern thought", it draws its examples mainly from hearsay, inflammatory newspaper articles and received opinion.

For a book that rightly praises the Enlightenment, and seeks to maintain its legacy, it veers a long way from its values. It is full of errors typical of overly polemical writing and it lacks nuance.

Did "anti-Americanism" win Harold Pinter the 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature, or was it, in part, perhaps, his astonishing influence on modern theatre? Is Tariq Ramadan really a "fundamentalist preacher" or a more complex figure? Did the "cream of the European intelligentsia" blame the US for 9/11, or was it one or two commentators?

The Tyranny of Guilt, full of mockery and rather grim de haut en bas irony, is Bruckner's attack on his version of what the Gallic chattering classes believe.

Some of these crudities stem simply from the polemical form, but occasionally more deeply submerged ideas seem to surface. When Bruckner castigates France for importing foreign holidays, for example, he is clearly right about Halloween, but is Gay Pride really an imported holiday? (Did gay people arrive in France with the pumpkins and trick or treat?)

Is it true that "in the United States, gay men and women cannot, except in rare cases, be accused of sexual harassment: the free expression of their libido is always innocent"? (No, a US lawyer friend tells me: in a case called Oncale v Sundowner Offshore Services, the Supreme Court held that same-sex sexual harassment claims are permitted, but the harassment must be "based on sex" not on "sexual orientation" - a distinction this claim utterly misses or, worse, ignores.)

And in discussing Holocaust commemorations, is Bruckner's contention that the "Jews seem a problematic elect" or that there is a feeling that "Jews are monopolising all the suffering in the world" a little close to blaming the Jews for anti-Semitism?

Moreover, for all the claims that this book is about Western masochism and modern thought, it is really about France. France provides nearly all the examples; France provides the focus for a discussion of the decline of Europe; France - and a characteristically French statist view - provides the solutions.

With a patrician-sounding condescension, Bruckner explains that the French youths "of distant immigrant origin who hate France but have nowhere else to go, who boo ... when the national anthem is played at soccer games" (no cricket-test for nationality in France) "and wave Algerian flags" (just in case you thought the distant origin of the immigrants might be, for example, white Dutch or white British) need to "take themselves in hand ... undergo self-reconciliation and to transform their anger into political action, into collective improvement". In short, they need to learn to love Asterix, the Republican ideal and secularism.

But, oddly, it is this France, obsessed with heritage culture, that gets it in the neck in the penultimate chapter, suffering, Bruckner argues, from "a unique combination of arrogance and self-hatred". Are the flag-waving Muslim boys supposed to love this? It seems more as if Bruckner, too intelligent to fall into a simple nostalgia, has also got "nowhere else to go".

The arguments of the book, such as they are, look quite dated: indeed, as the author writes, they pursue a line of thought of his book from 1983, translated in 1986 as The Tears of the White Man: Compassion as Contempt. This tiredness is absolutely not because the issues have gone away - indeed, they have become more intricate and more pressing - but because this sort of "now's the time to choose your side"/clash of cultures rhetoric has already failed to deal with the complexity of Europe today.

Like a number of recent anglophone books, Bruckner's seeks to reassert the values of Europe against its internal "naysayers" (another English word he could have used) by arguing that "Europe has more or less vanquished all its monsters, slavery has been abolished, colonialism has been abandoned, fascism defeated, communism brought to its knees". But this sort of confident self-acclaim just leads one to ask other questions that wash away his argument: has Europe in fact just exported her monsters (as usual) and have they taken on new shapes? Is there a contemporary version of slavery? To these and to other questions of "the West", this book has no answers.

The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism

By Pascal Bruckner

Princeton University Press 256pp, £18.95

ISBN 9780691143767

Published 24 March 2010

Reader's comments (1)

Eaglestone calls the book crude, but his own critique is over-fine and conspicuously unconvincing: e.g. Pinter was "in part, perhaps" (!) came to the attention of prize committees for something other than his notoriously demented anti-Americanism. Whether over-focused on France or not, Bruckner's charge of European self-cannibalization, due to manipulated excessive guilt, is so ubiquitous that it cannot be denied. World War I was when European civilization "committed suicide", as distinguish Cambridge Uni Professor of Chinese, Denis Twitchett, once said in my presence. See the review in Independent for a much more balanced appreciation than Eaglestone's.

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