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Barbarians and the Civilized

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Barbarians and the Civilized

The spirit of critical examination remains the West’s best defense against fanaticism and brutality. Winter 2017
The Social Order

It is by now a familiar cliché, long propagated by Western thinkers and the media, that Europe and European culture are responsible for a multitude of ills. Europeans have been raised to detest themselves, certain that they have inflicted evil for which they must relentlessly atone. This evil is known by two terms: colonialism and imperialism, both driven by capitalism. Nothing today is more European than this self-hatred, this passion for cursing and lacerating ourselves. Yet, by issuing their anathemas, the high priests of defamation only signal their membership in the universe they reject. How can we fail to see that we take a strange pride in being the worst? Self-denigration is all too clearly a form of indirect self-glorification. Evil comes only from us; others are always motivated by sympathy, goodwill, and candor. Such is the paternalism of the guilty conscience: seeing ourselves as the kings of infamy is still a way of staying on the crest of history. Europe remains messianic in a minor mode, campaigning for its own weakness. Barbarism is the European’s great pride; he denies that others are ever barbarous, always finding attenuating circumstances for them, which also denies them all responsibility.

Europe has committed the worst kind of atrocities, of course. But it has also made it possible to conceptualize great crimes such as genocide. The peculiar genius of Europe is to have become aware of its dark areas; it knows only too well what ails it and how fragile are the barriers that separate it from its own degradation. This lucidity—Europe at its best—keeps it from calling for a crusade against evil on behalf of the good, encouraging instead a struggle for the preferable over the detestable, to use Raymond Aron’s formulation. Europe is critical thought in action: since the Renaissance, it has constituted itself within a pervasive doubt, which casts on it the eye of an intransigent judge. Western reason is a unique adventure in self-reflection that leaves no idol standing and that gives traditions and authority a pounding.

The European spirit differs profoundly from other cultures that have not embraced this systematic challenging of their own convictions. To welcome the European West is to open the door, behind which lurk daring and chaos and challenges to the abuses disguised as traditions and inequalities based on nature. This spirit imposes on societies the enormous task of freeing themselves from their pasts and emerging from the reassuring cocoon of custom—and this can provoke intense opposition and even hatred. Europe is detested less for its actual faults than for its efforts to correct them, for tearing itself away from its bestiality and inviting the rest of the world to follow its example, even at the cost of shaking its own sovereignty. As soon as Europe began to moralize history in this fashion, however, it was caught in its own trap, and other peoples began to throw all its wrongs back at it.

It is the paradox of open societies that they seem disordered, unjust, and threatened by crime, loneliness, and drugs, but this perception is partly due to their willingness to display their indignity before the whole world. Other, more oppressive, societies can seem harmonious because they muzzle speech and oppositional politics. “Where there are no visible conflicts, there is no freedom,” Montesquieu observed. Democracies are naturally uneasy, never realizing their ideals; they ceaselessly create a gap between the hopes they elicit and the humbler realities they construct. But the real fault would be ignorance of what ails us.

The terrible presumption of the cry “we are civilized” too often meant, earlier in European history, that “we are superior to you.” The colonial system could not fail to degenerate into de facto segregation and an apology for the white race, debasing both native and colonist. The exportation of violence to distant lands, where it could be practiced without witnesses, allowed the conqueror to abandon laws and rules and turn back the wheel of progress—especially since Europe left this business to rogues and desperadoes. But the violence came adorned with the culture’s forms and alibis, giving it an impunity in the name of a superior vocation.

Today, being civilized means knowing that we are potentially barbarian. Woe to the brutes who think they’re civilized and close themselves in the infernal tourniquet of their certitudes. It would be good to inject in others the poison that has long gnawed away at us: shame. A little guilty conscience in Teheran, Riyadh, Karachi, Moscow, Beijing, Havana, Caracas, Algiers, Harare, and Islamabad would do these governments and their peoples considerable good. The finest gift that Europe could give the world would be the spirit of critical examination that it discovered and that has saved it from many perils. It is the best remedy against arbitrary violence and the violation of human rights.

Our shifting understanding of barbarism and civilization is reflected in how we have viewed childhood. Childhood, like the nuclear family, is a relatively recent notion in Europe, as historians Philippe Aries and Edward Shorter showed in famous studies. Regarded in medieval times as a fragile little thing, with neither heart nor face, a res nullias—the infant mortality rate was, of course, very high in those days—the child attained full humanity only over time. It wasn’t until the seventeenth century, and only among the well-to-do classes, that religious orders were able to inaugurate a school movement and children began to be seen as part of a family based on intimacy and private affection. Now viewed as innocent, in the image of the infant Christ—until the Renaissance, artists had depicted babies as miniature grownups—the little child was to be protected from noxious influences. He would be placed under the control of pedagogues endeavoring to prepare him for adulthood, an educational project that required sustained attention, new methods, and a new class of specialists. The child was akin to the native, in need of instruction and improvement.

We have rejected this heritage, or, rather, we have reorganized it along different lines. Another tradition, this one inherited from Rousseau and Freud, refashioned our vision of childhood. Not only did childhood become the key to the development of the adult; it also came to be seen as a squandered treasure that we must recover by any means possible. The child and the savage were still understood as kindred figures, but now they were sources of wisdom. Both live in an immediate communion with things, a limpid apprehension of truth, a purity that civilization and society have yet to contaminate. From Freud, we retain the emphasis placed on the first years of life and childhood as a foundation that haunts us until our last breath. Rousseau, though, leads the dance with his eulogy of the state of nature. Anticipating our interest in primitive peoples, he announced, in his usual fulgurating manner, two of the intellectual obsessions of modernity: ethnology and pedagogy.

Our shifting understanding of barbarism and civilization is reflected in how we have viewed childhood.

After Rousseau, the madman, the artist, the criminal, and the rebel would be placed with the child and the noble savage on the same plane. All were impervious to civilized order, all pointed to an origin buried under ossified conventions and the constraints of society. “I am two things that cannot be ridiculous, a savage and a child,” said Gauguin during his voluntary exile in the islands of Oceania. Paul Claudel, the poet and dramaturg, celebrated Rimbaud as a “mystic in the wild state,” who, by virtue of his youth, could capture in his verses a dash of the divine. In a Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment, the child becomes something akin to a colonial subject of the family, just as the native is suddenly seen as the child of humanity, the madman as the pariah of reason, and the poet as the savage of developed society. Since age is a descent into the lies of mere appearances and the industrial world is the destroyer of natural equilibrium, we must rely on these naive or fiery characters, we must drink from these fresh sources if we’re to discover or rediscover the truth.

What was colonialism if not the ultimate product of pedagogical optimism, based on the metaphor of the master and the pupil? Europeans gave themselves the mission of guiding toward Enlightenment the indolent, cruel, or spontaneous native, overtaken by his emotions and mired in ignorance. Anticolonialism and its sixties-era prolongation, Third Worldism, kept the metaphor while reversing the roles: the young nations of the Southern Hemisphere would be entrusted with saving the postimperial northern powers. By gaining their independence, the colonized nations offered to their former rulers the chance to redeem their souls. The materialist West could regenerate itself by becoming prisoner of its own barbarians.

Yet in both cases, it was the reference to the infantile that ultimately triumphed. It’s because they were underdeveloped that the African, the Indian, and the Chinese were better than us, according to the Third World activist. The “backwardness” of such societies was really an advance, for they remained in touch with something vital, even as we faced the twilight. The worn-out civilizations of Europe created an oasis of retrospective youth: we needed regeneration from dynamic barbarians.

As for the child, he was now our “good savage in residence,” in Peter Sloterdijk’s formulation; he blurted out profound words, leading us toward the enchanting edge of frankness. The child knew many things better than we did. He was almost entitled to become his parent’s parent, or his teacher’s teacher, as in certain modern pedagogical theories that have promoted children’s free expression, their “genius,” at the expense of literacy.

Hatred of the bourgeois unleashed its own form of barbarism. For two centuries, the bourgeois has been a reviled figure, a kind of abstract prototype of ignominy. The whole history of antibourgeois mythology is a series of anathemas. Violently rejected by the nobility because of his prosaic nature, by the working class for his cupidity, by the artist who despises his enslavement to calculation and utility, the bourgeois is characterized by an ontological baseness. The only fault lacking from his catalog of negative traits was criminality, and since Hannah Arendt, we have known about the very normal bourgeois who ran the Nazi murder machine.

One must be either a monk or a soldier, Joseph de Maistre exclaimed, summing up the grandeur of an Old Regime driven by a few fundamental passions. It was when the warrior and the saint declined that the bourgeois was born, devoted to the genteel commerce that would, in the Enlightenment understanding, exorcise violence. Before the Marxists and socialists detected in this stance a shameless exploitation of the proletariat, the Romantics had seen in its process of pacification a terrible narrowing of the human. Bourgeois morality, they charged, had reduced desire to the mean dimensions of material enrichment alone. Life might be calmer, but how small it now was—especially for those who had experienced the splendors of monarchy and the hurricanes of the Napoleonic adventure. The earthly paradise that the Enlightenment promised had become a flat and banal reality. The new class of entrepreneurs and merchants promised a dull sort of happiness; beyond the shop and money, there was no salvation. Opposed to all excess, the petit bourgeois—the man who is, so to speak, small twice over—is the insipid being par excellence. Even his tragedies smell like stew pot.

The crime of this new class? It was, for many critics, to have re-created destiny—after the French Revolution had promised freedom, equality, and mobility—collectively, by restoring, through social inequalities, a society of orders; individually, by forging a new human type who was docile and modest. The bourgeoisie, on this view, gave rise to the standardized, mass-produced individual, fated to perform the same kind of task, share the same desires, think the same way—the “one-dimensional man,” as the social theorist Herbert Marcuse dubbed him.

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries responded to the bourgeois flattening-out of ideals and behavior with dreams of shattering catastrophe, a revolution or war that would interrupt the monotonous course of time. “Rather barbarity than boredom,” the French romantic Théophile Gautier cried in 1850. His exclamation would illuminate an entire period of rancor and disgust. Since life under the gray skies of the bourgeois order suffers from the most fetid lethargy, the predatory morality of the aristocrat or the freedom of the savage, proud of his body and his desires, is preferable to it. The conflagration of war took on for many the attraction of the new and sensational, especially after the long period of peace that Europe experienced before 1914 (in the same way that some youths today, bored with life in affluent Europe and America, travel to Syria to join the jihad). Tired of the uniformity and boredom of their lives, Europeans embraced the idea of a thrilling apocalypse—and then made it a horrifying reality.

As a young thinker put it in 1913, “War: why not? It would be amusing.” For many Europeans of the time, war was more than amusing; it represented the most beautiful of syntheses, a combination of barbarian energy with feudal courage. In 1915, the sociologist Werner Sombart contrasted the shop-keeping mentality of the British with the heroism of the Germans, the descendants of the brave Teutonic knights. Adolf Hitler got down on his knees in 1914 and thanked God that war had broken out. He saw it as man’s natural fatherland, a supreme test that would make the trenches a “monastery with walls of fire.”

To the vulgarity of Nietzsche’s “last man,” the bourgeois devoted to his little pleasures, the whole twentieth century—from T. E. Lawrence to the Red Brigades, via the Futurists and the Freikorps—counterposed a Romanticism of volcanic spirits, impatient to lose themselves in “storms of steel,” in Ernst Junger’s formulation. So many modern intellectuals, from Robert Brasillach on the right to Alain Badiou on the left, revealed a fascination with violence. “I want to live only in extreme situations. Everything that is mediocre exasperates me so much I could scream,” exclaimed the French collaborationist Drieu la Rochelle in 1935, on his way to Moscow after visiting Nuremberg and Dachau. Nine years later, in 1944, he noted in his journal, before committing suicide, how much he admired Stalin, the new master of the world, proven stronger than Hitler. Better to be a terrorist or criminal, it seems, than a little bureaucrat or petty stockholder.

It also happens that the bourgeois, in turn, can transform himself into a barbarian under the pretext of defending civilization, as when torture is sanctioned in the fight against terrorism. When that happens, there is a grave danger of adopting the enemy’s ways of seeing and doing, the better to defeat him; of setting up a system of generalized surveillance of citizens on the pretext of protecting them; of weakening the marvelous edifice constructed by the founders of the open society. “When fighting a monster, beware of becoming a monster yourself,” warned Nietzsche.

Still, a paradox remains. We do our best these days to raise our kids properly. We educate them, teaching them good manners, politeness, and benevolence. We cherish democracy, law, peace, and the great works of Western culture. But many of us nevertheless feel that our way of life, if it were generalized on a global scale overnight, would bring a soul-deadening dullness. To put it otherwise, we need monsters to fight against; we invoke what lies beneath in order to defeat it; our mind is shadowed by darkness. The civilized man must constantly look barbarism in the face, to remember where he comes from, what he has escaped—and what he could become again.

Europe and America have been home to opposed attitudes in this context. Since 1945, Europe has been haunted by the specter of “explosions of collective bestiality,” as Stefan Zweig termed them: a new Auschwitz, a new Gulag. Europe remembers Diderot’s observation that it is easier for an enlightened people to return to barbarity than for a barbarous people to take a single step toward civilization. Violence has become Europe’s most powerful taboo. Some observers even suggest that national anthems should no longer be played before soccer matches, to avoid arousing chauvinistic feelings. Yet how can one fail to see that soccer fields are substitutes for battlefields, or that scuffles among fans—or even postgame riots—are preferable to the conflicts of infantry and tanks?

America, by contrast, displays its violence with a candor that forces us to indulge it, offering at times a savagery in the service of justice. What is fascinating in America for an older European is the nation’s combination of violence and sentimentality, symbolized by those ambiguous American characters—the cowboy, the sheriff, and the vigilante—all on the brink of breaking away, of plunging everything into chaos in order to reorganize the law on juster lines. Order is never simply order in the United States, as it is in Europe; it always seems to be on the verge of disorder, of being carried away by uncontrollable violence.

Two dreams confront each other in our Western democracies. One, European, wants to eradicate human malice solely by means of dialogue, tolerance, and constant reminders of past horrors. The other, American, wants to put the darker powers of human nature in the service of social perfectibility—a creative barbarism, analogous to Greek catharsis. An angelism of niceness on the one hand; the channeling and sublimation of violence, on the other. Such is our predicament. We are urged to defend the law, civilization, and decency against savagery, while knowing perfectly well that we need savagery to awaken us. We want to defeat the barbarian and also preserve him, so as to preserve the energy he instills in us. He is both detestable and desirable.

Photo: The cowboy, an American archetype, symbolizes the hero on the edge of disorder. (GRANGER, NYC — ALL RIGHTS RESERVED)

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