16 March 11 | Chad W. Post

Following up on last week’s post about the Festival of New French Writing that took place in NY last month, today we have the second of JK Fowler’s write-ups and interviews, this time on Pascal Bruckner.

According to the Festival’s website, “Pascal Bruckner belongs to that venerable lineage of French philosophers and essayists who, for centuries, have cast an ironic and always intelligent critical glance on the weaknesses and excesses of their society.” His books include: The Tears of the White Man, The Temptation of Innocence, Perpetual Euphoria: On the Duty to Be Happy, and The Tyranny of Guilt.

Here’s a bit about the panel that Bruckner was on with Adam Gopnik and Mark Lilla:

Religious flagellation is to be the topic of the panel’s discussion. The heavy burdens of guilt, the revisitation of times long-gone must necessarily be stopped. The spirit of critical examination so widely employed throughout Western societies a gift of prison-like fortitude to be shared with other cultures around the world. Selective hypermnesia, the focusing-in on past events selective towards the dark, selective towards the guilt-invoking. [. . .]

How is it, Bruckner asks, such a de-Christianized society such as France continues to live by very Christian ideals? Through countless bloody religion-driven wars, through the struggles between the monarchy and the Church, through the beheading of large numbers of priests, the anti-clerical stance against priests, nuns, the pope, through all of this and more the values of the Christian tradition have remained, manifesting themselves daily through unexpected avenues.

To Lilla, God is invoked in America with few Christian values encased within. Gopnik states that while this may be true, religion is seen as deeply important in American politics but asks why and how deep it actually goes. Lilla explains that while people may believe, it amazes him the extent to which people will believe in very simple things. The result: the intellectual life of American religion is vapid, a statement which is only emboldened by walking into any of the countless religious-material stores in American malls. Religion emerges then as window dressing in the American political realm. And how strange this all is, all three contemplate, considering that historically deeply religious confrontations would become extremely violent whereas today, confrontations are kept within the realm of the political, rarely gaining foot outside of the smoothly-contoured halls of plastic political rhetoric. We encounter anxiety today over the prospect of living without God while never free of God, a paradox which is not lost on the audience.

Bruckner explains that the religious experience in Europe and America seems very different, the latter being more a venue for the creation and nurturing of a particular collective life. As the constitutional monarchy rests within the collective subconscious of the British, the constitution of religion leaks into the American mind through the appeased experience of the faith. [. . .]

The event ends on a discussion of the schizophrenic nature of French society: on the one hand gauged as the most pessimistic country in the world and on the other, possessed of one of the fastest reproducing populations globally. It is to the children that the future which the elders have lost is entrusted.

You can read Fowler’s entire write-up here.

He also interviewed Bruckner, and here are a few interesting bits:

JK: Atiq Rahimi and Russell Banks were talking yesterday about how, in their late teens, they travelled to and through different cultures and saw different modes of seeing life, of operating. So there is something to be said about shaking one from the norm.

PB: Yes, I think that the worst thing that can happen to a human being is to be locked into its village. That’s why the life in the countryside was so dull. You were condemned to the small succor of your family, your folks. So you had to reproduce a destiny of your ancestors and this is why big cities have been created: to allow men and women to forge their own destinies without being pre-determined by the purse or the social class and that’s all the movement of modernity. You are not doomed to reproduce what your ancestors have done. The son will not be like his father, the daughter will not be like her mother. She can invent something new. I think that is the best message of modernity, that’s what we have to preserve. Whatever the flows of our modern times are the idea is that you can create something new out of nothing and that the race and the social class . . .

JK: But nothing emerges out of nothing . . .

PB: Not out of nothing but you can create something new, you can deviate from the trodden path. At least that’s the dream many have. So at the end of our life we can always wonder, did I really do something new?

JK: But then it is so often the case that we wake up later in life and realize that we have repeated many of the same mistakes of our parents, isn’t it?

PB: Absolutely. That’s why Sigmund Freud was invented [laughter] in order to say that we must free ourselves from the burden of neurosis. Yes, it is a teenage rebellion. You rebel against your parents in order to reproduce later on the same mistakes as they did with you. You produce them with your own kids.

JK: So how can one not feel trapped? Because there is that feeling if you start to see these things and you start to realize that, “Wow, I am doing the exactly the same things I said I would never do.”

PB: Yes, I know but I think the fact that you are aware of it is a way to go far from it maybe but you know, you do not always reproduce the family fatalities.

JK: Yes, it is repetition with difference.

PB: Yes, repetition with difference.

JK: So we have this credit boom in the 70s in the States at least, the goal of which is to give people immediate satisfaction. The reality is that I am not sure how much satisfaction people actually received from the experience and when we start talking about homes and ownership of property . . .

PB: Yes, we have the subprime crisis. Yes, this is the interesting paradox. Well, firstly the economic system cannot be based on satisfaction. It’s based on un-satisfaction. Suppose you are satisfied with your car, you are satisfied with your house, you stop buying things and so the industry collapses. So the trick and it’s quite a trick of genius, is to appease your hunger but also to relaunch it or…

JK: Breed new desires.

PB: Breed new desires, yes. So you have to avoid the double experience of frustration and society.

JK: And this is where advertising comes in.

PB: Yes, advertising, marketing. Because the worst thing would for people to be satisfied and this would be very sad. There would be nothing left to desire. And of course the other side of this movement is that as Capitalism lowers the wages without wanting to frustrate people they invented this credit system of sub-primes in order to make every American an owner of his house which ended in dispossessing so many of their own habitat.

JK: Right. But they had it for a few years [laughter].

PB: Yes, which Europe has avoided. The rules for credit in Europe are more strict.

JK: In talking about happiness, again we have this strange thing where the people in France and the United States consume the highest amounts of anti-depressants in the world and yet regularly preach happiness.

PB: I know, I know. I don’t know about in the United States but in France we consume a lot of anti-depressants. I think we have an art of life which goes back to the Middle Ages and we shouldn’t so that but the new thing about happiness which has changed…it’s not only related to consumerism which would be too simple. We all know that buying a car, buying a house cannot bring happiness. But what changed in the sixties is that the obstacles between me and my happiness have disappeared. There’s no more religion telling us that we must suffer and to go through pains to gain our salvation and there are no more social classes prohibiting us from being happy. So the only obstacle between me and my happiness is myself. So being the main obstacle, I must work on my own soul, on my own spirit and this is where a huge market of happiness enters which is one of the biggest markets of today. It can be found in chemistry, medicine, surgery, religions, it’s a huge array of possibilities which are given to us in order to make us happy.

So what has changed in our conception of happiness? It used to be formally related to something maybe a little silly. You know it was ignorance and bliss. You were ignorant so you could be happy with almost anything but today happiness has become a major stake in the construction of your self. You construct your happiness as you construct a house and you have to work on it. It is a daily job and that’s why the people that try to be happy look so unhappy because you know they do not have one moment of oblivion. It’s a constant concern. And this is quite visible in two domains which are sexuality and health. Health is obvious. You know if you want to be healthy people you have to start very young and for one simple reason that life is a mortal disease because death will be the end, whatever you do. So that’s why so many people consume so many drugs, care so much about their food, stop smoking, do sport and work out because they want to preserve this capital of health which is, no matter what we do, vanishing day after day because we are doomed to disappear one day. And so the cult of happiness turns into a huge concern which to my opinion is exactly contrary to what happiness should be: a paradise of enchantment. You’re happy when you leave your concerns to the side and when you experience a pure moment of joy with friends. So happiness has become like the myth of Sisyphus, an unending job. You are never done with it. Go back to your quest for happiness. And so we reproduce in secular societies exactly the same kind of commandments that religious societies had before. We are doomed to be free, we are doomed to be happy, we have no way to escape it.

You can read the entire interview here.

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