Europe’s Thirst For Punishment

Excerpt from The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism, by Pascal Bruckner (Princeton University Press, 2012). Reprinted with permission from the author.

From Chapter 2: The Pathologies of Debt

A Thirst for Punishment

Poor Europe: today as before, a stench of carrion rises from it, its past adheres to its present like a leprous mold. Whatever it does turns back on it in the form of a symptom of its disease. Take, for example, the waiting zones where foreigners without papers and asylum seekers are held. These are certainly not comparable to Nazi camps. Within our democratic societies they nonetheless share certain basic traits that define the paradigm of the concentration camp, that is, according to Giorgio Agamben, “a space that opens when the exception starts to become the rule. … they are places not governed by law.”[20] After that, how can we be surprised when we are struck by heaven’s thunderbolt, the wrath of Allah’s madmen? How can we dare to judge the various barbarities that are ravaging humanity, when we have shown an “unparalleled savagery” in history?[21] We are paying for an ancient stain, we are retroactively responsible for the horrors committed by our ancestors or by other people. We can well say with the Psalmist: “O God, cleanse me of sins I do not perceive and forgive me those of others.” Once again, let us admire the talent with which guilt is re-created, reinvented by the class of philosophers. We Europeans are born with a burden of vices and ugliness that mark us like stigmata, for we have to recognize that the white man has sown grief and ruin wherever he has gone. For him, to exist is first of all to excuse himself. Ferocity is white, as a lawyer of Colombian origin, Rosa Amelia Plumelle-Uribe, puts it in the title of her book, white and not black or red: the white man is genetically determined to kill, massacre, rape; he has split himself off from the rest of humanity in order to enslave it. He can’t help it. His skin color is not only a matter of pigmentation but a moral defect, an inexpiable stain, as Professor Louis Sala-Molins explains in the preface to Plumelle-Uribe’s work. He denounces the “wheeling-dealing voraciousness … of the white-American nations of Christianity” and sees every white venture as “an uninterrupted spiral of horror.”[22]

What is the West, after all? The very figure of Satan, whose evil presence corrupts everything because it “has its center everywhere and its circumference nowhere” and occupies the head “of a warrior in Papua, a loin-cloth seller in Cotonou, and an imam in Qom” as well as that of a speculator on the London Stock Exchange or a worker in the Renault factory.[23] Moreover, anyone who speaks up for it is not respectable (fréquentable).[24] It is a dizzying panorama: using the West as an explanation makes it possible to account for the totality of the real. The Euro-American is simultaneously cursed and indispensable: thanks to him, everything becomes clear, evil acquires a face, the dirty rat is universally designated. Biological, political, metaphysical guilt. And since we no longer believe in the kingdom of salvation, since Asia, Africa, and Latin America have (temporarily) ceased to be lands of redemption, nothing remains for us but to continue the execration ad nauseam.

Excerpted from The Tyranny of Guilt by Pascal Bruckner. Copyright © Princeton University Press, 2012. All rights reserved.


[20] Enzo Traverso, Le passé, modes d’emploi (Paris: La Fabrique, 2005), p. 84.

[21] Mariella Villasante Cervello, “La Négritude: une forme de racisme héritée de la colonisation française?” in Marc Ferro, Le livre noir du colonialisme, XVIe–XXe siècle: de l’exterminaton à la repentance (Paris: Hachette, 2004), p. 1018.

[22] Rosa Amelia Plumelle-Uribe, La Férocité blanche, des non-Blancs aux non-Aryens, ces génocides occultés de 1492 à nos jours (Paris: Albin Michel, 2001), preface by Louis Sala-Molins, pp. 9ff.

[23] Latouche, L’Occidentalisation du monde, pp. 84–85.

[24] According to a professor in Quebec interviewed by Antoine Robitaille, “For some people, saying that one is a Westerner, acknowledging a kind of pride in belonging to that group, is practically equivalent to admitting that one is a criminal. It is to participate in a civilization that not long ago still thought it was the civilization, which colonized other peoples, ran a slave trade, and today … prospers as the result of an absolutely inequitable trade and, in addition, its way of life is leading toward an ecological apocalypse.” Antoine Robitaille, “Le Choc des cultures, Peut-on se dire occidental et fier de l’être?” Le Devoir (Montreal), May 26, 2006.

Pascal Bruckner is a French writer and intellectual and a leading critic of cultural trends in Europe. He is one of France’s most creative and original minds and the author of over 20 books. Critic Clive James has called him “one of the indispensable philosophers of our time”. Historian Richard Wolin said Bruckner “might well be the most distinguished essay writer in France today. … Whether one agrees or disagrees with him, he does the life of the mind an invaluable service.”

The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism
By Pascal Bruckner
Princeton University Press; Tra edition (April 1, 2012)
ISBN-10: 0691154309
ISBN-13: 978-0691154305
$19.93

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