Philosophy: Pushing the Limits Series: An Interview with Pascal Bruckner
On the 26th of February, 2011 I got a chance to sit down with Pascal Bruckner, world-renowned French philosopher, at the Gaby Restaurant at the Sofitel Hotel on W. 44th Street in New York City while he was in the city to attend the Festival of New French Literature at NYU's Silver Center. Below is the full transcript of our conversation.
Time: 11:00 AM
Location: Gaby Restaurant, Sofitel Hotel 45 W. 44nd Street, NY NY
JK: I wanted to start by talking about the interview you had with Andrew Anthony in January 2011. In that interview you say that The Tears of the White Man examined a guilt from the past, The Tyranny of Guilt looked towards a guilt of the present and you are currently working on a book about the future.
PB: The future yes. On ecology.
JK: Time as a concept is very present in your work. What is the relationship you see between concepts of time and guilt?
PB: Oh my God, that’s complicated [laughter]. No it’s just that I realized recently that these three dimensions of time, past, present and future, were saturated with guilt and for a period like ours which claimed to get rid of the original sin. I think there is a motto by Baudelaire that civilization is a foul pronouncement towards the original sin. It’s quite a strange situation. We are coming back to our discussion of yesterday. Modernity claimed to get rid of religion and in fact, all the religious frames are coming back in an unexpected way. So, well that is what I can say and concerning environment, the philosopher who terrorized the guilt towards the future was Hans Jonas who is a German philosopher (I don’t think he is well known in America) and he says that we have to feel an anticipated remorse towards incoming generations to prevent, to hurt them or to do some kind of evil by our own actions as we cannot foresee the consequences of our actions so what we now have to do as our power exceeds our knowledge we have to engage into abstention. That was his motto and it became the motto of most of the green movement in Europe.
JK: Shifting a little bit, you are well known as an opponent to multiculturalism and I wanted to bring up the idea of intersectionality, defined as various socially and culturally-constructed categories such as gender, race, class, disability and other axes of identity interacting on multiple and often simultaneous levels and this contributes to a systematic social inequality. So in thinking about multiculturalism, I am interested to know what you think about this idea of intersectionality.
PB: Well, I have never heard of it before. It seems quite complicated but maybe it expresses something much more simple.
JK: Let’s approach this at another angle. What would you say one of the main goals of multiculturalism is as an idea?
PB: I don’t know because it doesn’t exist in France. Maybe it’s a fiction but we live under the concept of Republican universalism so the only thing I can say is that we live in a multi-racial and multi-ethnic society. This is a fact and multiculturalism implies that communities could live side by side, mixing or not together and each community having its own rules and reasons, its own ways of life which of course confronts the Republican idea of one law for everyone. Of course if multiculturalism means eating cous-cous and having Chinese food and celebrating festivals of each community this doesn’t bother me but if it means a separate rights for separate people it is another definition of apartheid and this is where multiculturalism bothers me. So we can have many different cultures in one country. For instance in France we celebrate Ramadan, we celebrate the Chinese New Year’s Eve but that doesn’t mean that the Muslim part of the population or the Chinese do not share the same values and do not abide by the same rules as we do.
JK: In talking about time as we were before, what is your belief about pasts operating in the present? Talk a little bit about guilt because what I have taken from your works and from your talk yesterday is that this guilt for this past that exists somewhere (maybe in our imaginations) needs to be stopped. The self-loathing must be stopped and replaced with something else. These pasts that some of us feel guilty about aren’t necessarily past, are they?
PB: Yes, that’s a line from William Faulkner I think. The past is never past.
JK: Yes. If we stop feeling guilty are we pretending that the past is no longer operating in the present?
PB: Well, I don’t think we have to feel guilty. Only the criminals have to feel guilty for what they did. We may feel responsible for what happened so if you are French you have to assume the whole history of France and our history is full of massacres and bloodbaths and crimes all over but you cannot ask young generations who did not do anything to feel guilty about what their ancestors committed. And the past is a very long history and usually when you insist on guilt you emphasize a few periods and it’s always the same. It’s colonialism, slavery, imperialism and WWII and so people come to this life with a huge burden on their shoulders. They do not exist within a new beginning but they are very old when they were born because they are full of blood and I do not think a dynamic nation can survive with this kind of moral injunction.
So our duty is not to remember but the duty of memory is a misunderstanding. Duty of memory is a concept forged by Primo Levi which is the duty of the survivors to testify on what they saw of the massacres and the genocides. It’s not the task of people coming afterwards. So our duty is a duty of history. We have to write as accurately as possible the history of our ancestors: what we did, the crimes we committed; we don’t have to ignore that. But we also have the duty to let the new generation start again, start over, start afresh and write a new history. So we don’t have to ignore the past but the past cannot hinder the present.
JK: We don’t have to dwell on it.
PB: Yes, we don’t have to dwell all the time because this would mean we are blocked in a specific period of history.
JK: But on the other hand, people are not just born into a vacuum. There is a structure and system in place and quite possibly the same economic system that nurtured and created colonialism and all of these problems is still in existence today, albeit in different forms. But I suppose for you it is a matter of dwelling and by dwelling so much in guilt that we cannot move forward.
PB: Well, guilt is a very good thing if it is shared by others but the problem is the white man’s burden. Only one section of humanity is condemned to guilt and the other section is condemned to innocence. Some are executioners and some are victims and what has changed in the last 50 years is the independence of the Third World. So these newly de-colonized countries have proved themselves capable of committing crimes exactly as the former colonizers did and so this is why I am preaching for the expansion of guilt to nations who, until now, have tried to escape it. And I noticed that recently, for instance Qaddafi last year made a very interesting statement. The man is crazy and he is a criminal but he apologized for Arab slavery in Africa. He said the Arabs had behaved in the same way as the Europeans and he apologized which was the first time that it happened. And for instance, Fidel Castro last year also recognized in a public statement on broadcast television that he had totally failed the socialist experience which in a way is very honest and very perverse because that doesn’t mean he is going to change, to reverse his stand and start a new life as a Cuban. He said, “Yes, the Socialist experience is a failure. Sorry but we keep going on.” But at least you see some hints of remorse getting into the minds of people that used to be tyrants.
JK: And maybe now as future generations look at the experience of Fidel Castro will see that aspect as well.
PB: Yes, exactly. So remorse is extremely useful for a generation which has in fact dirtied its hands but for the next generation you cannot ask, for instance, young Germans today to feel guilty about Hitlerism. They have to be informed and learn about the history of national socialism in Germany and in Europe but I think we should distinguish between responsibility and guilt. Guilt only touches the ones who committed the crimes but the son of a criminal is not a criminal himself.
JK: This is interesting because in the 1990s and now, there is an element of consumer-guilt. I am thinking specifically of electronics and “blood minerals”, those minerals largely coming from mines in the Congo, the profits of which support militias and buying weapons. So this element of consumer guilt is that because I have such and such computer I should feel guilty that I am using this product.
PB: I know. It is like the fair trade movement. One should only drink coffee which has been paid a fair price to the producer. I believe this guilt is stated to control the elements of our daily objects and so we had the same problems with blood diamonds and...
JK: But guilt arguably has a good effect in this case.
PB: In bringing awareness, yes. Because it is nowadays. It is something which happens today so you can act on what is going on but you cannot change the past. What has been done has been done. Guilt in the present is of course more effective.
JK: I guess the consumer side of things is interesting to me because especially in the States (and probably in France as well) most people that consume things have no idea where the different elements of their products have come from and the awareness of this at times make people feel as if they shouldn’t be using that particular product and it is that immediate guilt that you are talking about. So a guilt in the present has the possibility of affecting positive change?
PB: Yes, yes. But what my book focuses more on is that guilt in the past, the burden that we can never get rid of.
JK: But The Tyranny of Guilt, as we talked about earlier, is about a guilt in the present.
PB: Yes, a guilt in the present about past acts.
JK: Can we talk a little bit about your book Tears of the White Man? In the book you mention three versions of Third Worldism: solidarity with, pity for, and imitation of. Can you talk to each of those different types because I feel they are all still very much present today?
PB: At that time, “solidarity with” was solidarity with Third World movements which were at the same time the anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist movements. They were trying to build a new world and it was a continuation of the Communist movement but through other means and through other people. Most of the progress we saw at that time was disappointed by the fate of the Soviet Union. They found that the Marxist movement had become bourgeois and that the working classes in the West and in the East were only trying to gain advantages without trying to make the revolution. So Third Worldism was trying to resume the movement and regenerate the world through the rebellion of the ex-colonized peoples and of course this hope which started with the Banda movement in 1956. This hope was followed by a series of disappointments. The apex, the climax was the fall of Saigon in April, 1975 followed by the fall of Phnom Penh a few weeks later I think. And then immediately and very quickly the disappointment came both to people in Vietnam, the genocide in Cambodia, the cultural revolution in China and like for Communism was a huge expectation followed by a huge disappointment and so all of the solidarity people were trying to find paradise in the tropics with Chairman Mao or with the African Socialism. It ended in bloodbaths, everywhere: in Ethiopia, in China, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Cuba revealed itself to be a huge cell so the solidarity movement ended with a huge failure and the last echoes of that were the Iranian revolution in 1979 which was praised by Michel Foucault and Baudrillard in France. And the last, last movements of that were in Nicaragua and Marcos in Mexico but in much more subdued tones because there was no bloodbath, just a few guerilla fights; not the same movement as before, without the same momentum that was there in the 1970’s/1980’s. So this solidarity movement has ended even if here and there there are a few activists that try to revive it but it has become a minority movement.
JK: In the contexts of the Democracy uprisings in the Middle East do you see linkages between those and this past solidarity movement?
PB: Well, not really as the Middle East has been mostly viewed by specialists under the angles of the Israeli and Palestinian position and everyone agreed that the Arabs were only good for tyranny and were doomed between radical Islam and authoritarian regimes. And what happens is totally new to the people because nobody had foreseen this movement which is not made in the name of Islam (at least for the moment) but which is made in the name of dignity, respect, decency and equal human rights so in fact it’s a triumph of Western values in the Arab world. But Western countries and Western democracies had to be surprised by this because they had doomed this part of the world to darkness which by the way the UN report on the Arab world of 2004 had confirmed.
JK: The second part of the Third Worldism is the “pity-for”.
PB: Yes, well. The pity is still very strong. This is probably the most common occurrence in the humanitarian movement which is essentially based on mercy and compassion. So compassion is extremely strong and everybody tries to enter into this category of the victim.
JK: And you yourself worked for a humanitarian organization.
PB: Yes, I worked for five years with a humanitarian organization which was active in Africa and Pakistan and South America and it was quite interesting but it’s a market now. Pity has become a market. And so there is a stange perversion in these humanitarian NGOs; that they are not working to help people. They are looking for people to help in order to promote themselves. So they are fighting in Brussels or in the United States, I don’t know, you must have also fundraising organizations?
JK: Oh, lots.
PB: So they are fighting to get subsidies and prove that they are better than the others. And of course they are useful. They do a good job and I think the best job of the NGOs is the job of information. They unveil scandals when most of the media is silent. That’s what they did in Darfur, that’s what they did in Bosnia and Croatia during the war so they are very useful but at the same time a huge part of the budget of those big NGOs like Oxfam, UNICEF is devolved by their own functioning. Like 80% of the budget is spent feeding themselves on it. So you see you give money for starving people or dying people and in fact they created a new bureaucracy besides the official bureaucracy of the UN, of the states and that’s extremely confusing. But I think they have become indispensable. We have NGOs in the humanitarian field and environment today.
JK: Well in consumption as well to get us back to consumer-driven philanthropy. You buy this cup of coffee and 10% is going to go to help starving people somewhere.
PB: I know. It is a way to have a quiet consciousness. Just by living your everyday life you help people which I don’t think it works in such an easy way. But of course the ultimate goal of the NGOs would be to disappear. It would be that the people help themselves and do not need your money. And the emerging countries don’t like the NGOs very much. The Chinese, the Indians, they have their own organizations and they don’t like to see foreign people interfering in their own private business.
JK: It’s interesting because guilt is not only the reason most of these organizations exist (it’s a great business as well) but it also locks countries and people into relying on these NGOs.
PB: Yes of course. It incarcerates poor people into poverty. There was a motto by an author which was quite interesting...very simple but I think she had said the essentials. You don’t have to give people fish everyday but instead you must give them the pole to learn how to fish themselves and I think it says it all. And there is a miserablism. In Christianity there is the theologian who has always been thinking of charity. What does that mean, charity? Do you do that just to gain your paradise or meet the Lord or do you really show yourself as a charitable person in order to suppress poverty? And in Catholicism especially the poor are a very ambiguous character. You know, they need to be there in order for you to feel good.
JK: Right. So if they start to disappear, create them.
PB: Right. It creates a vacuum. Where will your good will go? So you need the poor to gain your paradise and the same thing happened with the humanitarian NGOs. They inform and at the same time they live on human misery. They need it and that’s also our relationship with the media. Why do we watch the news every night on the television? We should not because it is only bad news. I think it’s in order to feel better. After watching the 7pm news, we think, “Well, after all, my lot is not so bad.”
JK: As a form of self flagellation.
PB: Yes. All those poor people but finally I am not as unhappy as I think.
JK: What’s really interesting is that at that point when you start to empower people or a group as an NGO or development organization, they begin to show their own voice. Interesting things happen when the people you are helping begin to speak back.
PB: Yes, exactly. Yes. Because they are no longer the object of your compassion. They become ordinary human people and that’s why I don’t like compassion that much. I think it’s a very ambiguous feeling. You can have compassion for someone who is suffering and try to help this person but if your relationship with mankind is only one of compassion, it is only another form of contempt and it prevents feelings like admiration, empathy which to my mind are much more positive.
JK: Do you see compassion and pity as very similar sentiments?
PB: Well, Hannah Arendt has made a very interesting difference which I don’t remember exactly but she said that pity was concerned with specific persons and compassion was embracing masses of persons in large numbers. But this distinction had been made by Jean-Jacques Rousseau who has been in philosophy the inventor of compassion which in its own way is a useful feeling. For instance if you take the issue of animal cruelty. If little by little philanthropists, philosophers, poets, religious people started to condemn cruelty towards the animals it is through the channel of compassion so of course when you see a donkey or a pig or a cat that is suffering, it is through compassion that you understand that those animals who don’t speak our language have an affectivity which we should take into consideration.
JK: Speaking of Rousseau and the idea of the noble savage, the third part of Third Worldism is “imitation of”.
PB: Ah the third part, yes. So as I said, compassion is one of the strongest feelings of today but the noble savage is constantly resurrecting in our societies under two forms. And as I am working now on the ecological movement I find it very interesting. The first form is neo-primitivism which is extremely strong in France today. I think it is the same in America because you have the Indians who have been massacred and persecuted. And it’s quite striking through the works of our last nobel prize winner, J. M. G. Le Clézio, a hard defender of primitive tribes. He’s working with the NGO Survival International which of course is a very nice thing to do but for him and for many of his readers, primitive tribes are not only people that need to be protected from the grip of civilization but they have something fundamental to teach us which we have forgotten which is authenticity, mythologies, they don’t waste energy, they have a very low carbon impact so they should become our own masters and we should become their pupils so this neo-primitivism is extremely strong in the environmental movement for which progress should be a return to the past. It is a down-shifting movement which is quite powerful in France, very powerful here, also I think on the West Coast. The carbo-rexics? You say that? They coined this term from forging carbon with anorexic so you have to diminish your...
JK: carbon footprint [laughter].
PB: Yes, carbon footprint [laughter]. Exactly. So this elegy of primitive communities like the Amish, like the gypsies...
JK: For us, definitely the American Indians. The big part of guilt being that we feel that we have lost much of the knowledge that this group had.
PB: Yes, of course. And in Europe we didn’t have any Indians. Our noble savage is the farmer, the peasant. That’s why most of the recommendations of the environmental groups are wanting to expand gardening all over. We have to go back to the village community. And of course it’s a very idealized rural community because a life in the countryside (until very recently) was extremely harsh and a terrible life. People were quite unhappy. So our noble savage today would be an urban farmer growing the salads and the potatoes on one’s very own terrace so now we have in France as you do in America urban gardens.
JK: Yes, it is a big movement in New York City.
PB: It’s a big movement in New York City? Well in fact it is not that silly. It has many implications and it is a kind of a revival of the old Marxist idea of the abolition of separation between the manual laborer and the intellectual worker. Everybody can be a gardener a few hours a day and why not? But the idea of the noble savage is coming back through those channels.
JK: What’s so interesting is that it is marketed as looking back but in reality it’s almost an aggressive act of creation in the present looking to the future. It’s an imagined past, isn’t it?
PB: Yes, it is true. Yes, you’re right. Because of course this countryside which is recreated inside our cities has nothing to do with the life of our ancestors. Yes, it is a re-creation.
JK: But how strange that most people would say that it is a return to something. They wouldn’t say we are building a future. It is a resurrection of the past.
PB: Yes, I suppose it depends on how it is formulated. I think in California they try to join this gardening movement with the inventions of new technologies but in Europe it is always seen as a nostalgia for the past. For example, let’s take a very simple example. You know this chain of restaurants called Le Pain Quotidien? We were there yesterday and if you look at the setting, it is a present re-creation of what our grandmothers used to have in their kitchen when we were young. It’s only in wood because wood is supposed to be the original and authentic material beyond plastic or concrete. It has homemade marmalades which of course are made in factories. It has bread that used to be made by hand but the bread we now have of course has nothing to do with the bread of 50 years ago. It has been totally reinvented.
JK: It is the Disneyland of grandmothers.
PB: Yes, it is the Disneyland of grandmothers. Exactly [laughter]. And so you breathe the past, the good past (because of course we had the good and the bad past) which is not an urban past but a countryside past. You eat healthy. Everything you eat must is supposed to be healthy. You come out of this a regenerated person and that’s also the fashion of the organic food which is not always better or safer than the conventional food but it is a common mythology.
JK: I am thinking of Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition. How we have this constant repetition but every time it repeats there is a slight difference. It is similar to all of these resurrections that we have been talking about, isn’t it?
PB: Yes certainly. There was this book by this German philosopher, Heidegger’s pupil, Hans-Georg Gadamer, where he talks about this other representation of time; not time as an arrow but time as a cycle. I think the Italian philosopher, Vico, had made a representation of time as a spiral and every time it comes back on the previous spiral but with a very small difference and I think Deleuze has taken this idea of repetition from Vico’s representation of history. It comes back but at another place and I think that’s very interesting. And this is a very useful metaphor even in creation because creating something, creating a work of art or writing books is not creating something absolutely new. You resume an obsession or resume a topic which you had treated previously but you resume it at a new angle or on a new basis.
JK: Thinking about that with guilt is very interesting as well.
PB: Yes, because each generation has its own guilt.
JK: Yes, and each person imagines a unique past to which they feel guilty.
PB: Yes, exactly. There is no life without guilt anyway, at least in the Western world. I think in other civilizations it might be different but if the world is getting Westernized all over, guilt will enter through the technology and democracy and their actions. It will come side by side so there won’t be anymore innocent societies in the future I think which in fact is not such a bad thing.
JK: Have you seen the recurring articles on the “Lost Tribe” in the Amazon in Brazil?
PB: Yes, this primitivism is very rich and has a lot to say but I think that through this interest for lost tribes it is a way for us to go back to the origin of mankind. Who were we as a beginning? And there was also this controversy which arose in France after the 18th/19th century on the savage child. You know this child that had been raised by wolves or deers.
JK: As in The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling.
PB: So who are we, what are we? When did language occur to the human being? And of course that’s a very exciting problem. That’s why we are so keen about investigating our ancestors.
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: Hopefully the difference is as big as one would like.
PB: Yes, the difference is hopefully bigger but the topic of fatality has never been stronger than today. Since our motto is freedom and modern societies are obsessed with reproduction precisely because they think they are free. That’s why the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu for instance is specifically based on studies of reproduction and the risk of this kind of sociology is to miss what is new inside of reproduction. It is reproduction but also new things are happening.
JK: And it’s a matter of scale as well, isn’t it?
PB: Which maybe we are missing, yes. We have never been more obsessed with fatality since we think we are our own creators and so this old debate between self-creation and the repetition of the ancestor has never been so obsessive as today.
JK: Which then gets us to the book which was published in January of this year in English on happiness, Perpetual Euphoria. It’s not only an obsession with fatality, it’s an obsession with the way in which we must live our lives which is... happily.
PB: Yes it is a re-creation of the topic of the "Good Life" by the ancients. The idea is that happiness is not only a right which has been gained by centuries of fights but it is also a duty now. Since the two main obstacles which separated man from the happiness have disappeared. First, market economy now has pronounced happiness as a motto and this turn was made during the fifties and the eighties and the sixties when Capitalism had to multiply its consumers and have them buy more products. So now the economic machinery is speaking the language of happiness. We want you to be happy and happiness in that case means refusing any sort of frustrations. The mechanism of credit was a very exciting invention. Credit was invented in the States in the twenties, in Europe in the fifties. The normal regime of the time was expectation. You had to wait to obtain what you wanted to obtain. And when our grandparents wanted to buy a house or a car or a piece of furniture they waited until they had enough money to buy it and when they had it it was like a symbol of social success. Whereas today what credit tells us is it’s yours, you don’t have to pay. It’s yours now and frustration is a bad experience. What you have to stress is the satisfaction. So it has totally reversed our relationship to time.
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.
JK: The burden of freedom.
PB: Yes, this is what always interested me. Yes, in the sixties we thought we had found the solution. We are going to promote love, we are going to promote happiness, we are going to get rid of all the taboos and prejudices. We have to get rid of guilt because guilt is a bourgeois invention and in fact, all these notions came back through the back door exactly where we did not expect them. And so what we promoted as solutions became problems. And this is the strange trick which has been played on us.
JK: To treat these periods of time as teenagers almost, the sixties and seventies were the teenage rebellion and now we’re seeing the reproductions of the...
PB: Of the evils we pretended to kill.
JK: But in different form.
PB: But in different form, yes. Different forms and there is no more church to absolve us. In religious societies, at least in the Catholic world, you had the practices of the indigences and God was ultimate judge so you could always say that yes you had been a sinner but at least the Lord will forgive me. But today there is no more forgiveness; you have to carry this burden all your life and the judge has become the multiple voices of the “Others”, pointing fingers at you telling you, “You did that!”, “You did this!”. It’s very ironic but at least in Europe we are not going back to religions. We don’t have the faith anymore.
JK: Do you have the rabid consumerism in France that we have in the States? I feel like in the States, consuming often takes the place of worshipping any God or Higher Power.
PB: Yes, we have it in some section of the society but what we have in Europe and especially in France is a counterweight of culture: way of life, gastronomy, a taste for culture, we still have a strong readership in Europe, an appetite for beautiful things. To me this is the French difference, the French paradox. So of course we all love consuming, we go to shopping centers...our main cities have turned into shopping centers as has happened to New York and Chicago and San Francisco but we also have this element of resistance which to my opinion is extremely important.
JK: So shifting a little bit, you studied at the Sorbonne under Roland Barthes. He wrote an essay entitled“Death of an Author” from 1967. In talking about the author he said that the author is merely the scriptor and that the piece of writing is multi-layered and so every work is eternally written here and now by the reader. And what he was also saying was that the biography, personality, psychological makeup of the author should be separated from the piece of work itself. How much do you feel that you inject yourself into your works? Can you separate yourself like this?
PB: Well the funny thing with Barthes was that his later life denied what he had said before. The older he grew, the more his personal life entered into his writings. His last book was about his mother’s death. The failed love affair with a young boy who dumped him. And so in Barthes works there were these two parts: the first part of his life he tried to be a modern and at the end he turned classical and said that he didn’t care to be modern anymore and he started to insert fragments of autobiography into his own critical works which is quite interesting.
JK: He moved from being a strong structuralist to a post-structuralist.
PB: Yes, to a very skeptical one. As far as the separation, you have to do it in your public works and in your public life. Of course for yourself you know exactly what this sentence means and what it refers to. But today we are going the other way that Roland Barthes indicates with this new genre called autofiction which is not exactly autobiography but it’s an attempt to make your life look like a novel and the founder of this is Serge Doubrovsky who is teaching at New York University who is a friend of mine. And it’s not uninteresting in a way because you take every detail of your life and you make an epic out of it. But turning it into a genre...it’s like a flood now and everybody telling about their mother, their first love affair, my first measles, my first pain. Who cares about that? Today it is an obscene display of everyone. And it looks like those reality shows on TV. Yes, it is reality shows applied to literature. I think discretion remains a major quality in literature.
JK: But there is an element of that in every piece of writing, no matter what the genre is.
PB: Yes, the writer has a life and a personality but the problem of today is that most of those writers have exactly the same life; they belong to the same social class, the same milieu, they have the same experiences. Once you read one of those books, you have read them all. And this is a problem. So literature means also bringing something new to the creation. The only novelty is to read someone that has not had the same life as you. It tends to be quite boring in the end otherwise.
JK: So when you have produced an essay or a book and it is printed and dispersed within the public, is there a sense of loss, that now it is in the hands of anyone else that reads it to decide what it means?
PB: Yes, I had this before but not anymore. No, I am now relieved. No it’s not the loss, it’s the exposure. You feel fragile, that you will be wounded in one way or the other, you will be misinterpreted, you will be destroyed though there is nothing really to lose. It clears the way for a new book and of course if you don’t have anything more to say, it is very sad, it is a real loss. It is something like the baby blues for a few weeks. I used to have that but do not have that as much nowadays.
JK: I think that’s where we’ll stop. Thank you very much.
PB: Yes, thank you.
Bio of Pascal Bruckner
A prolific writer, 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 best-known works have been dynamically controversial and widely discussed, particularly Le Sanglot de l'homme blanc and La Tentation de l'innocence, for which he won the Prix Médicis de l'Essai in 1995. Bruckner has also written fiction, including Lunes de fiel (adapted for the screen by Roman Polanski) and Les Voleurs de beauté (winner of the Prix Renaudot), and has published books for children. He has taught in universities in France and the U.S. and contributes editorials to major newspapers in many countries.