Self-Hatred in Europe

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 1: Guilt Peddlers

The Irremediable and Despondency

The whole world hates us, and we deserve it: that is what most Europeans think, at least in Western Europe. Since 1945 our continent has been obsessed by torments of repentance. Ruminating on its past abominations—wars, religious persecutions, slavery, imperialism, fascism, communism—it views its history as nothing more than a long series of massacres and sackings that led to two world wars, that is, to an enthusiastic suicide. Unparalleled horrors, the industrialization of death on a grand scale in the Nazi and Soviet camps, the promotion of bloodthirsty clowns to the rank of mass idols, and the experience of radical evil transformed into bureaucratic routine: that is what we have achieved. And the greatest virtues—work, order, discipline—have been put to the most dreadful ends, science has been dishonored, culture mocked in all its pretensions, idealism disfigured. Europe, like a groggy boxer stunned by the blows he has absorbed, feels overcome by crimes that are too heavy to bear. There is no nation in the west or east of this little continental peninsula that does not have to examine its conscience, and whose history is not full of corpses, guard towers, tortures, and exactions. So many sublime works, lofty metaphysics, and subtle philosophies, all just to end up in civil wars, charnel houses, gas chambers, the Gulag. Europe has combined, in an unparalleled way, calculating thought with murder, constructing methodically and systematically a dehumanizing machine that reached its apogee in the twentieth century. A curse is hidden behind our civilization that corrupts its meaning and mocks its grandeur. The highpoints of thought, music, art—all that useless and tragic luxury has as its corollary abysses of abjection.

In 1955, when Claude Lévi-Strauss discussed the Indians of Brazil in his Tristes Tropiques, he noted with consternation “the monstrous and incomprehensible cataclysm represented, for such a broad and innocent part of humanity, by the development of Western civilization.”[1] Today, countless travelers and theoreticians continue to bear witness to this feeling of repulsion. Forty years after Lévi-Strauss wrote these lines, the same view continues to be expressed: “Collectively, we have many faults that need to be pardoned,” the philosopher Jean-Marc Ferry observes. “We have to remember, in a critical way, the violence and humiliation we have inflicted on whole peoples on every continent in order to impose our own vision of humanity and civilization.”[2] A historian specializing in Algeria writes with dismay that “the French have never seen guilt as a constitutive part of their history.”[3] In a series of lectures delivered in 2005, Edgar Morin sees in a pacified Europe, and in it alone, the ferment of a potential barbarity: “We have to be capable of conceiving European barbarity in order to transcend it, because the worst is still possible. Amid the threatening wasteland of barbarity, we are for the moment in a relatively protected oasis. But we also know that we are living in historical, political, and social conditions that make the worst conceivable, particularly in moments of paroxysm.”[4]

All Europeans should be convinced that Europe is the sick man of the planet, which it is infecting with its pestilence. To the question, “Who is to blame?” in the metaphysical sense of the term, the standard, spontaneous response is: “We are.” The West, that alliance between the Old and the New Worlds, is a machine without a soul or a captain that has put “humanity in its service.” Henceforth it lives in the age of the “revenge of the Crusaders” [sic] and seeks to export its “unbridled passions” everywhere.[5] There is no monstrosity in Africa, Asia, or the Near East for which it is not to blame:

The Third World is the outlet for passions unleashed by the chaotic play of uncontrolled competitions. At the origin of the mad bloodbaths in the Third World that spread horror in humble shacks and confirm us in the belief that the Other is a barbarian, we find the frustrations created by the West. Examples are legion: peaceful Cambodia plunged into an unprecedented genocide following American intervention, Iran deprived of Mossadegh’s bourgeois revolution by Anglo-American intervention, and the blind terrorism of the kidnappings, hijackings, and hostagetaking elicited by the nightmare of the Middle East.[6]

Extermination is “at the heart of European thought” (Sven Lindqvist), and its imperialism is “a biologically necessary process that leads, in accord with natural laws, to the inevitable elimination of inferior races.”[7] If the West “was probably able to produce computers only because somewhere people were dying of hunger and desires,”[8] the conclusion to be drawn is obvious: we have to resist its disintegrating power by all means at our disposal.

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


[1] Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques (Paris: Plon, 1955), p. 375.

[2] Jean-Marc Ferry, Les Puissances de l’expérience: essai sur l’identité contemporaine, 2 vols. (Paris: Le Cerf, 1991), p. 219.

[3] Benjamin Stora, “Les Aveux les plus durs,” in Patrick Weil and Stéphane Dufoix, L’Esclavage, la colonialisation et après (Paris: PUF, 2005), p. 591.

[4] Edgar Morin, Culture et barbarie européennes (Paris: Bayard, 2005), p. 92.

[5] Serge Latouche, L’Occidentalisation du monde (Paris: La Découverte, 1992; new ed., 2005), pp. 26, 27.

[6] Ibid., p. 77.

[7] Sven Lindqvist, Exterminez toutes ces brutes. L’odyssée d’un homme au coeur de la nuit et les origines du génocide européen (Paris: Le Serpent à plumes, 1998). Original in Swedish (1992). Quoted in Géraldine Faes and Stephen Smith, Noir et français (Paris: Panama, 2006), pp. 324–25.

[8] Latouche, L’Occidentalisation du monde, p. 120.

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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