Pascal Bruckner

I have had occasion, in various articles and books, to refer with admiration to the work of Pascal Bruckner, a fractious member of the distinguished fraternity of Nouveaux Philosophes, or New Philosophers, in France and a magisterial political essayist. The author of many books, including the novel Evil Angels (made into a film by Roman Polanski as Bitter Moon), he was one of the radical youth who earned his popular credentials in the student uprising of May 1968, marching in the streets of Paris, holding banners aloft and adopting its revolutionary slogans. But unlike the majority of his contemporaries, he managed to resist the temptation of cheap iconoclasm and antinomian fervor to emerge in the course of time as one of the most lucid, penetrating and erudite thinkers of the age. Despite his oft-expressed disenchantment with the political right and his self-presentation as a man of the left, Bruckner is plainly a conservative thinker in the deep etymological sense of the term.

A defender of Western civilization and its unique contribution to the political, scientific and economic development of world populations, he argues for pride in Western accomplishments and excoriates the easy temptation of masochistic self-recrimination increasingly common among our cultural leaders, soi-disant intellectuals and elite opinion-makers, which often leads to an unsavory idyll with the liberal West’s avowed enemies, the globalist left, third-world sinkholes and triumphalist Islam. As The New York Times  puts it, he is particularly hard on people who favour less developed nations “as though they are all the same and exist mainly to allow Western intellectuals to display their largeness of heart and disdain for their own cultures.”

These ideas were graphically elaborated in his early volumes, The Tears of the White Man (first published in 1983) and The Temptation of Innocence (released in 1985), major documents that have withstood the test of time. Indeed, both should be fixtures in any serious person’s library.

In the first, he skewers  the “remorseless and self-righteous critic who endlessly denounces the deceptions of parliamentary democracy [and who] is suddenly rapt with admiration before the atrocities committed in the name of the Koran, the Vedas, the Great Helmsman, or negritude.” In the second, he writes:  “puerility and whining are not accidents but challenges” that confront us in “the age of entitlement” in which we are now immersed. The only way forward out of the slough of “victimist regression”—the sign of our times—“is to reinforce the great values of democracy, reason, education, responsibility and prudence.”

The analysis is as relevant today as it was when it was when originally set down. Nonetheless, I do not read him entirely without misgivings. One detects a certain moral and intellectual vacillation, as insights of great point and merit give way from time to time to the bromides of conventional thinking. Bruckner is a master of the political slalom. In his 2006 The Tyranny of Guilt, for example, capping his two earlier volumes, he expresses his unhappiness over the American tendency “to place itself above the common law of nations,” its “dubious guerilla campaign against the International Court of Justice in the Hague” and “against the UN which it pursues the better to reject it afterward.” Bruckner suggests that Europe in its natal wisdom has much to offer the United States in its swaggering naivety, tempering the American cowboy sensibility with the patient decorum of educated judgment. The new world has an important lesson to learn from the old world with its long history of philosophical reflection. Oddly enough, this does not prevent Bruckner’s condemnation of Europe’s self-avowed moral supremacy as the self-love of self-hate, as slave to the sanctimonious tradition of anti-Occidentalism “that stretches from Montaigne to Sartre.” European enlightenment or European abdication. Which is it?

Apparently the latter, at least for the nonce. Despite his uneasiness with American exceptionalism, Bruckner laments the extent of Europe’s self-immolation, a theme he has recently expanded in a lengthy Quillette essay, “Europe’s Virtues Will Be Its Undoing.” He has understood that the prevalent infatuation with Islam as a “religion of peace” and a benefit to the West is the obverse of Western self-sacrifice and the erosion of confidence in the Western civilizing mission. Europe “has convinced itself that, since all the evils of the twentieth century arose from its feverish bellicosity, it’s about time it redeemed itself and sought something like a reawakened sense of the sacred in its guilty conscience… Today, the migrant has replaced the proletarian and the guerrilla warrior as the new hero of contemporary victimology.”

Nevertheless, as we will see in the ensuing, there is a pocket of accommodation in his thinking, a fellow-feeling for the “new hero” he seemingly disparages, that would please the colonies of leftist and pro-Islamic appeasers breeding prolifically in the Western world. Such ambivalence is typical of Western political thought even at its most astute—compassion for the “other” whose presence among us represents a significant threat to our own well-being.

A further inconsistency in his contestation is his broad-brush deprecation of the apocalyptic mode of thought, “the seductive attraction of disaster” as he phrases it in the section heading of Part 1 of his 2013 The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse. He is on the money when referring there to those ecological prophets of doom and self-elected saviors of the planet, who as it turns out are always wrong and who are interested primarily in proclaiming their own virtue at the expense of fallen man. But his animus goes further. “There exists among the Moderns a fascination for the theme of decline… Announcing… the decay of an empire makes you seem like a prophet.”

But it may also make you a seer. The discourse of cataclysm or degeneration is, of course, a perennial temptation, but it is often warranted. Empires fall. Civilizations vanish. Nations are erased from the map. Historical thinkers from Polybius to Vico to Gibbon to Spengler to Toynbee have anatomized such convulsions. Bruckner’s reluctance to sound “over the top” does not disguise or obviate a profound apprehension of the worst. Now become the prophet he has previously disdained, he cannot resist his own clairvoyant intuitions. Irrespective of his disclaimers—perhaps even writing against his inherent grain—Bruckner’s crystal ball is filled with plumes of fire and smoke. The incendiary tactics of a devoted enemy will eventually produce what we have come to call the “new normal.”

One notes that Bruckner’s countryman, the novelist Jean Raspail in his 1973 must-read The Camp of the Saints clearly foresaw the Armageddon approaching the West, not by the death by a thousand cuts or a hundred bombs but by a billion refugees and immigrants come to claim their share of Western prosperity. Their slice of the Western pie, Raspail fears, will eventually morph into the whole pie itself. And he is relentless in his dissection of our public intellectuals, media types and politicians who, “bound by all the new taboos, conditioned by thirty years of intellectual terrorism,” have allowed their will to be “gelded of its instinct for self-preservation.” They are no match for what he calls “the Beast,” his term for the Western conscience made up of one part guilt for its colonial past, and one part fashionable anti-racism, which neutralizes any concerted effort to resist the future that is impending.

It is evident that Raspail exerted a formative influence on Bruckner’s thinking. “Remorse,” Bruckner writes in The Tyranny of Guilt, “has become a dogma, a spiritual commodity, almost a form of currency.” We are no longer permitted to judge other cultures or systems of thought, “except by approving those whom we formerly oppressed.” Bruckner quotes a speech by leftist poet Louis Aragon, which is very much to the quivering point: ‘We are those who will always hold out our hands to the enemy.’ Such “destructive jubilance,” says Bruckner, which “subsists in our reflex to spontaneously blame ourselves for the planet’s ills” while at the same time reveling in the conviction of our moral sublimity has become the order of the day. This is Bruckner at his most percipient.

And yet, his most recent foray into the field of inter-cultural relations, An Imaginary Racism, which seeks to alert his readers to the Muslim menace within our borders, sees the fable of Islamophobia as working against the reformation of Islam, allowing the aggressive nature of the faith to remain intact. Anyone who boldly critiques Islam or points out its dogmatic unsuitability to Western usages and mores is denounced as a racist, an Islamophobe.

This is true so far as it goes. But Bruckner doesn’t stop there. He finds that it is the individual Muslim living in the West who is the ultimate victim of his own radical communion, hostage to theological inflexibility and doctrinal violence. With regard to the hoax of “Islamophobia,” it is, he writes, “the enlightened or moderate Muslims who are its main victims.” Thus, the “imaginary racism” inherent in the claim of Islamophobia hurts Muslims at least as much as it damages our ability to resist the invasive force of Muslim immigration. Though recognizing that we are in imminent peril of forfeiting our patrimony, Bruckner alleges that the individual Muslim is just as crucially at risk and requires our support and understanding. As the popular expression has it, puh-leeze!  Raspail’s penetrating grasp of the civilizational issue now seems to have been forgotten and a complaisant sympathy with the adversary to have partially replaced it, a “largeness of heart” characteristic of both liberal and conservative intellectuals of our time.

In this respect Bruckner is emblematic of the chronic propensity of conservatives to flinch at the import and conclusions of their logical trajectory and to veer toward standard liberal-left argumentation regarding such issues as social justice and immigration. This political swerve is especially true, with only a few exceptions, of recent Conservative governments, which often in the course of their administrative lives tend to manifest as the Lite version of the socialist agenda. This is the fly in the conservative ointment, an inability to resist the clichés and infatuations of the cultural weltanschauung. The pathology of expiation has led to a “democratic deficit,” to wit: the rise of identity politics and a ghetto-creating multicultural policy, the relativism of cultural judgment, the curtailment of freedom of speech as a form of hate speech, the erasure or bowdlerizing of historical memory, the belief in pseudo-science to further self-promoting careers and redistributive agendas, and the canard of “inclusion and diversity” with its cowcatcher embrace of all that is culturally exogenous and ritually incompatible. This is a “deficit” which Bruckner has exposed and decried with wit, vast scholarship and rhetorical flair, yet it represents a political debility from which, as “a man of the left,” he cannot entirely free himself.

In response to a harsh review by leftist Nick Cohen, Bruckner claims that “it ought to be obvious to anyone…that I dislike Orban, Salvini, and Le Pen [and] I am reproached for being insufficiently negative about Donald Trump, even though I devoted two pages to criticising him.” Bruckner thus disowns the very leaders who have risen to the defence of those Western values he himself passionately espouses against the scourge of feminism, gender fluidity, climate hysteria and the Muslim invasion of the West through the gates not of Vienna but of immigration policy. Once again we have “the man of the left” asserting his bona fides, the man who once referred to himself as a member of the “decaffeinated socialist Left” who is simultaneously at home in his 2017 The Wisdom of Money affirming precisely those bourgeois values despised by the left. One recalls, too, his 1999 Les voleurs de beauté, a story about a “superior” couple who imprison young girls for the crime of being beautiful—“social justice” with a vengeance. Beauty, like private wealth, is an unearned increment and must be abolished in the name of aesthetic fairness, as in 4th Century B.C. Greek playwright Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusae, or Assembly of Women. Bruckner’s scorn—like Aristophanes’ mordant laughter—permeates the narrative.

What to make of this brilliant weathervane? It seems that Bruckner is the “being of discord” he describes and justifies in The Temptation of Innocence, an individual who “shelter[s] within himself contradictory ideals, a being whose conflict is a treasure and not a curse” in that it presumably enables him to recognize himself as bounded by his culture while struggling to extend the limits of freedom and independence. One might have wished that the conflict “sheltering within himself,” a bizarre combination of precision and muddle, of intellectual power and sentimental feeling, of conservative principles and leftist affinities, had been more satisfactorily resolved.

Here is the crux of the matter. This sly antinomy in Bruckner’s thinking is an indication of how leftist sentiment continues to infiltrate the conservative world view or taint an otherwise robust respect for tradition, a proclivity notable in the oeuvre of such luminaries as George Orwell and Christopher Hitchens (whose father managed, as he puts it in Hitch-22, “to talk to me as if I still had elementary Saxon common sense”), and differentially in the work of Bernard-Henri Lévy  (who gave us the phrase nouveaux philosophes) and the aforementioned Nick Cohen. Unable to surrender a sense of solidarity with the conveniently perennial victim of oppressive forces, a suspicion of free market agonistics, and a modest flirtation with an Arcadian mindset, their purpose is to redeem the “Old Left” from its totalitarian impulses and to issue a shining new product into the political emporium called the “New Left.”

There is something disingenuous about this redemptive project, a failure to understand that the left is always the left in whatever form it manifests, whether deriving from Marx or from Gramsci. Hegemony by any other name would smell as bitter. It signals a falling away from the principles of Lockean democracy—the need for civil order, fair dispensation of justice, the sanctity of private property, and morally regulated competitive freedom in the marketplace of both goods and ideas.

Orwell furnishes an exemplary case. It is odd to bracket the man who wrote Homage to Catalonia and The Road to Wigan Pier with the man who wrote 1984 and Animal Farm when one considers that the real threat to the future of democratic institutions emanates not from fascism but from socialism, not from the far right but from the near left. The same is true of Bruckner. The author of The Tyranny of Guilt is, for the most part, a poor fit with the author of An Imaginary Racism. One cannot be a “classical liberal” or political conservative in one’s core presuppositions and a socialist or new leftist at the same time.

In particular, one cannot credibly argue for the preservation of Western values and the founding principles of the democratic state while accommodating an alien and triumphalist faith in its very midst, making common cause with a civilization with which the West has no common ground. In a memorable volume Faustian Man in a Multicultural Age, Canadian scholar Ricardo Duchesne similarly explains his disenchantment with Bruckner’s “multicultural Western universalism.” Of Bruckner (and his fellow cosmopolitans Niall Ferguson, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Hitchens), he writes: “The immigration of non-Europeans in the West poses no menace to them as long as they are transformed into happy consuming liberals.”

Fortunately there are essayists and philosophers who take an uncompromising stand against the dangers of multiculturalism and Islamic immigration to the desired goal of  Western unity, Duschesne among them. In Bruckner’s congenial entourage we find a few writers who will not allow their attention to be deflected by a conciliatory tenderness for the bearers of an unassimilable ideology. One thinks of his friend Alain Finkielkraut (who also cut his teeth in the revolutionary boulevards of Paris) and novelist Michel Houellebecq, who have skewered the pulpy center of Western self-loathing and isolated without commiseration the hostile nature of the Islamic presage. The foreclosure of Western Christendom seems ordained. But one has to go back to The Tyranny of Guilt to find it unvarnished in Bruckner. Despite his discomfort with catastrophic scenarios and prophetic indulgences, here Bruckner seems to discern what at other times he is reluctant to acknowledge. Recognizing what is ultimately at stake and what the future portends, he expresses his true apprehensions in a short, homiletic statement: “The future of the West is self-destruction.”

It’s a dismal conclusion, but at least it dispenses with the wandering disposition of Bruckner’s staple modus operandi and slices through the later wayward empathy with the unfortunate communicants of a migratory Islam. We are not responsible for the condition of the individual Muslim and have committed no crime against him. No one, no culture, no civilization is exempt from reasons for guilt, but to take the onus of a false culpability upon ourselves is mere self-flagellating delusion. Irrespective of a tendency to tack and scruple, this is Bruckner’s paramount insight, malgré lui. In the current historical moment, our greatest guilt is the sickly appetite to feel guilt for the sins of our fathers while exonerating the sins the “other” who is always innocent and deserving of our sacrifice—an impulse which is bringing us to the brink of the precipice as we embrace the imagined plight of an aggressor.

Wielding a style that seems like a cross between Jeremiah and Oscar Wilde, Bruckner, as we have seen, is equally capable of scorching insights and contradictory assumptions, the “(com)passionate contrarian,” as Nicholas Parsons calls him in Hungarian Review. But largeness of heart should not pre-empt clarity of mind. While sticking to his leftist sheepskin, he also describes himself as a “conservative liberal.” To adapt the catchy trope of the popular TV panel show To Tell the Truth, Will the real Pascal Bruckner please stand up.

David Solway