The Chronicle Review

The Gallic Gadfly

Pascal Bruckner takes on Western guilt, self-loathing, and 'apocalyptic propaganda'

June 17, 2013

In the 2011 French comedy L'Amour dure trois ans (Love Lasts Three Years), Pascal Bruckner perches on a red sofa next to his friend and fellow nouveau philosophe Alain Finkielkraut. With a sad smile, he offers his diagnosis: "Today we love love more than we love people. And this love of love is, in my opinion, deadly."

Bruckner's cameo lasts less than a minute, but, as French film audiences know, he has been playing the part for years: pronouncing on the nation's social ills in a series of lean, learned, idiosyncratic books that climb the best-seller lists even as they aim to deflate the moral pretenses of their readers. He's a gadfly and a goad, a self-declared man of the left who considers the influence of leftist ideology on contemporary France to have been, by and large, disastrous. In Bruckner's view, Europe is "wallowing in shame and self-loathing," and France "embodies the illnesses of Europe to excess." As a general rule, the more virtuous-seeming the liberal belief—about love, marriage, minorities, Muslims, the third world, and the West—the more contradiction, hypocrisy, and defeatism he finds corroding its name.

"I am like an epidemiologist of the disease of French democracy," Bruckner, 64, said by phone from his home, in Paris. "I try to sort out the symptoms of French psychological distress." The latest outbreak he's detected is environmentalism. The green movement is being hijacked by extremists, he writes in The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse: Save the Earth, Punish Human Beings, just released in the United States by Polity Press. In place of scientific fact, environmental crusaders spread guilt and fear, terrorizing citizens and undermining their own cause. Surveying images of planetary cataclysm proffered by activists like Al Gore ("Humanity is sitting on a ticking time bomb"), the former NASA climatologist James Hansen (who has called for trying climate-change deniers for "crimes against humanity"), and an array of European science writers and Green Party delegates, Bruckner complains that "all catastrophist discourses suffer from a twofold contradiction: If the situation is as serious as they claim, why fight against it? Why not sit back and await the deluge? But the proposed solutions are ludicrous in view of the perils. ... Let's be clear: a cosmic calamity is not going to be averted by eating vegetables and sorting our rubbish."

Bruckner has said that the book was written in a fit of pique—"People make you feel guilty if you take baths, drive a car, take airplanes. Greenwashing is everywhere."—and it has received mixed reviews in France. (The newspaper Libération's was headlined "Bruckner or the fanaticism of denial.") His argument may be a tougher sell in the United States, where public indifference to climate change poses a far greater challenge for the environmental movement than do extremists within its ranks. (According to a 2012 poll by the Pew Research Center, the proportion of Americans who believe that the earth is warming has declined by 10 percentage points in the past decade.) Bruckner is no doubt right that we are awash in "apocalyptic propaganda"; as the novelist Nathaniel Rich put it, in a recent essay in The New York Times's Sunday Book Review, "there has never been a generation in the history of human civilization with more access to bad news than ours.... No Ebola flare-up or near-miss asteroid goes unpublicized." Yet it's a big leap from the media's fixation on disaster to Bruckner's notion that the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident "merely confirms a concern that preceded it and was looking for something to justify itself." That sentiment registers dangerously close to denialism.

Nevertheless, in its calmer passages, The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse displays the aphoristic eloquence and affinity for paradox that are the hallmarks of Bruckner's style. In France he is credited with reviving the office of the moraliste, or self-appointed social conscience, a position more or less invented by Montaigne and occupied with varying degrees of immodesty and zeal by many of the country's leading lights, from Voltaire to Camus. The term applies as much to form as to content; if the moraliste's intellectual terrain is necessarily vast, his art depends on catchy concision, on enveloping provocation in irony and wit. Thus, for example, Bruckner's formulation: "Multiculturalism is a racism of the anti-racists: it chains people to their roots." The philosopher Tzvetan Todorov, singling out Bruckner's essays for praise amid French literature's "generalized decline," has called him "a disabused observer of our miseries, a pitiless analyst of our mythologies, and a master of paradoxical, highly imaged expression."

Unlike many of the other so-called nouveaux philosophes—a loosely affiliated group whose number includes, in addition to Bruckner and Finkielkraut, the writers André Glucksmann and Bernard-Henri Lévy—Bruckner was never a militant Marxist. The label, coined by Lévy in the mid-1970s, originally designated those young intellectuals who, disillusioned by Maoism (and its most influential French champion, Sartre), had begun renouncing their radical affiliations and attacking leftist dogma in philosophy and politics.

Bruckner joined the student protests of May 1968, mainly out of curiosity and "for the fun," he says. But the extremist tendencies he perceived in some of his fellow demonstrators made a big impression. His first book, Le Nouveau Désordre Amoureux (The New Love Disorder), written with Finkielkraut and published in 1977, was an indignant critique of the sexual-liberation movement. "We were among the first to point out that emancipation was a new dogma, that in those inflamed speeches was a terrorism directed at the body," Bruckner says. "Sexuality was about performance more than about pleasure." The book was never translated into English, but he has frequently reprised its themes, including in Le Paradoxe Amoureux (2009) (The Paradox of Love, 2012), in which he calls "free love" the "oxymoron par excellence": "How can love, which attaches, be compatible with freedom, which separates?" He's also explored the perversities of romantic love in a series of dark, erotic novels. One, the extravagantly dissolute Lunes de file (1981) (Evil Angels, 1987), was the basis for the film Bitter Moon, by Roman Polanski, in which free love is shown to be a grotesque and deadly con.

The book that established Bruckner's nouveau philosophe bona fides was Le Sanglot de l'Homme Blanc (1983) (The Tears of the White Man: Compassion as Contempt, 1986). Disillusioned with China and the Soviet Union, the French left, he argued, had merely transferred its revolutionary aspirations to the third world. The result was patronizing and narcissistic: "Everything became simple, formulaic, and we could steep ourselves in Latin American revolution as easily as in the rampages of the Red Guard. ... The world was a coat rack upon which we could hang our fantasies. We searched for a more intense, and, therefore, more innocent version of ourselves in Angolan soldiers, Bengali Naxalites, and Bolivian guerrillas."

In Bruckner's understanding, tiers mondisme (third worldism) was also a reaction, sentimental and misguided, to guilt over France's colonial adventure, over its brutality in the Algerian war, over Vichy. Guilt became a guiding preoccupation. In La Tyrannie de la Pénitence: Essai Sur le Masochisme Occidental (2006) (The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism, 2010), he extended his analysis to political correctness, multiculturalism, anti-imperialism, and anti-Americanism—all contemporary manifestations of the guilt and self-loathing that Bruckner believes is crippling France. His description of multiculturalism as a form of "legal apartheid," which "accords the same treatment to all communities, but not to the people who form them, denying them the freedom to liberate themselves from their own traditions," became part of a high-profile spat in 2007, when he applied the term to the journalists Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton-Ash, after they expressed reservations about the work of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the outspoken Dutch-Somali critic of Islam—and a former Muslim. "There's no denying that the enemies of freedom come from free societies," Bruckner declared.

Together, Bruckner says, The Tears of the White Man, The Tyranny of Guilt, and The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse make up a trilogy about French guilt—over the past, present, and future, respectively. The schema is a little too neat—after all, environmental degradation is no longer just a future problem—but his hypothesis of a society undone by guilt bears consideration. It owes something, he concedes, to his early education by Jesuits in Lyon, France. "I was brought up in the fortress of the Catholic Church," he says. "They would brandish the crucifix and tell us that if we ate meat on Fridays, we would go to hell." (In that respect, Bruckner differs from the other most prominent nouveaux philosophes, who are Jewish.)

He abandoned his faith as a teenager and eventually completed a Ph.D. with Roland Barthes, by which point he'd concluded that Christian concepts of guilt and redemption were inescapable. "Baudelaire said that civilization is the abolition of the original sin," he told me. "In fact, it's not true; we haven't abolished original sin but rather spread it all over." In Bruckner's scenario, Marxism transposed the idea of Christ onto the working class; paradise would come after the revolution. Then, with third-worldism, colonized peoples became the embodiment of virtue. Now, he says, it's Mother Earth: "She is suffering, the metaphor of all victims." Or, as he writes in The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse, in reference to the ubiquitous phrase "carbon footprint": "What is it, after all, if not the gaseous equivalent of Original Sin, of the stain that we inflict on our Mother Gaia by the simple fact of being present and breathing?"

It's not hard to understand why, outside France, Bruckner's most-vocal readers tend to be conservatives, who relish his dissections of political correctness and see him as a defector to their side—a Gallic Christopher Hitchens. But enlisting Bruckner as a political ally is tricky. As Richard J. Golsan, a professor of French at Texas A&M University, recently pointed out in an article on Bruckner in the journal Yale French Studies, the goal of the moraliste "is not to stir his readership to take specific political actions or to embrace particular causes" but rather to provide a dispassionate account of his society's shortcomings. (Bruckner says he considers himself a "conservative liberal.")

Yet even admirers worry that Bruckner's relentlessly lugubrious take on France does his realist aspirations a disservice. "He spends too much time philosophizing in a lachrymose mode, bemoaning democracy's dereliction, complaining about people who complain," Richard Wolin, an intellectual historian at the City University of New York's Graduate Center, wrote in an otherwise appreciative assessment in 2010. "At times, one wonders whether his anti-democratic lamentations are not more the manifestation of a peculiarly French cultural disorientation than an accurate description of the democratic condition or the human condition."

Bruckner, on the other hand, has since become only more confident of his appraisal. "When you pose a gloomy diagnosis about your society, you always hope you were deceived and will be proved wrong," he said. "But in fact it's getting worse."

Emily Eakin is a freelance writer in New York.