Dr R Balashankar
The Tyranny of Guilt – An Essay on Western Masochism, Pascal Bruckner, translated into English by Steven Rendall, Princeton University Press, Pp 239(PB), $19.95
Europe – the cradle of renaissance, the birthplace of revolutions, the harbinger of progressivism and modernism, the proponent of the right of the individual — now lies in a state of coma, caught in a web of contradictions, tripped by misplaced ideologies and most of all an interminable sense of guilt and repentance. While the political and economic decline of Europe has been the topic of discussions and writings for sometime now, the spiritual, moral and ecclesiastical waning of the continent has not been paid much attention to.
Pascal Bruckner in his French book, written in 2006 analyses this phenomenal guilt being nurtured as it were by the Europeans. His extremely perspective essays, written with passion strike at the core of the conscience. This book is now available to the larger, English reading population thanks to the Princeton University. It has published the English translation, by Steven Rendall titled The Tyranny of Guilt. If the title is provocative, the contents are explosive.
“Repent!”. “That is the message that, under cover of its proclaimed hedonism, Western philosophy has been hammering into us for the past half century…” Bruckner says, adding later “Remorse has ceased to be connected with precise historical circumstances; it has become a dogma, a spiritual commodity, almost a form of currency.” He derides the way Europe has been bogged down by guilt of the actions from the past, so much so that it is accepting what is happening to it at present — terrorism, erosion of authority and self-respect — as ‘deserved punishment.’ He recalls how by the evening of September 11, 2001, many Europeans despite their obvious sympathy for the victims, were telling themselves that the Americans deserved what they got. After the London bombing, a British newspaper headline said “Al-Qaeda Punishes London.” Sociologists explained the various terror attacks as “the result of the humiliation of the Arab-Muslim world in general because of the creation of Israel, because of the feeling that Islam has become the religion of the oppressed.” The fact is all the bombers had graduated from the best of universities and belonged to well-off families.”
The self-criticism of Europe he says “eventuates in self-hatred, leaving behind it only ruins…Thus we Euro-Americans are supposed to have only one obligation: endlessly atoning for what we have inflicted on other parts of humanity.” In terms of barbarity and killing, both Muslims and Christians have had equal share. Here, Pascal draws the difference between repentance and remorse. While the former recognises the sin the better to separate itself from it and to enjoy the grace of convalescence, the latter remains in the sin out of a sick need to suffer its burning. Europe belongs to the latter category. He raises a pertinent question to ponder over. “There are mosques in Rome, but are there Christian churches in Mecca, Jeddah, or Riyadh?… But it is always from Christianity and it alone that repentance is expected, because it invented repentance in its modern forms.” While it is passe to mock Buddha, Jesus, Dalai Lama, you cannot utter a word remotely mocking about Mohammad,” Bruckner points out.
But in all this, Bruckner brings out the difference between the Americans and the Europeans. The Americans do not suffer the debilitating repentance that Europeans do. When America acts, Europe stands by with arms folded. Look at the way it behaved when the US launched offensive in the Middle East, he says. Even the symbolism has changed. “Consider our common currency. What do bills of 10,20, 50 or 100 euros represent? Arches, bridges, doors, as if our continent were no more than a transit point, a waiting room, a hand held out to the rest of the planet. The figures of Shakespeare, Cervantes, Rembrandt, Leonardo, Goethe, Dante, Pascal, Voltaire are gone. All these men are DWEMs, Dead White European Males…” not to be invoked in these modern secular times of accommodation and coercion.
In a sentiment that could have an implication for our home debate on endless and increasing caste and religion based reservation in the name of past discrimination, Bruckner says, “Nothing is more insidious than the idea of a collective sin that is supposed to be handed down from generation to generation and to permanently stain a people or a community. Contrition is not a policy.”
Bruckner makes an impassioned plea for the merging of “American enthusiasm” with Europe’s “level-headedness.” “We have to bring together the two confused halves of the West because, with the notable exceptions of India and Japan, they are the only guarantees of pluralist political systems.” “There is no solution for Europe other than deepening the democratic values it invented. It does not need a geographical extension, absurdly drawn out to the ends of the Earth; what it needs is an intensification of its soul, a condensation of its strengths… Europe must not smother the spirit of resistance. Europe must cherish freedom as its most precious possession and teach it to schoolchildren.”
Bruckner is the author of several books. Since he wrote the book in 2006 much has happened that only strengthened his perspective. Europe is falling further deep into an abyss, which threatens to pull the rest of the West with it. In its hour of crisis — political, economical and social — the continent is more divided than ever before. Steve Randall, has translated more than fifty books from French and German. He was professor, is a writer and translator.
(Princeton University Press, 41 William Street, Princeton, New Jersey 08540)