Re-Founding the World: A Western Testament

Re-Founding the World: A Western Testament

by Jean-Claude Guillebaud



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781892941558
Publisher: Algora Publishing
Publication date: 01/28/2001
Pages: 344
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

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Chapter One

After The Shipwreck: Taking Stock

"How have we managed to empty the sea? Who gave us the sponge to erase the whole horizon?"

    "Crazed by massacres and dazed by inventions", as Jürgen Habermas wrote, we leave the 20th century counting our dead — by the millions, by the ten and hundred millions: the dead of Les Éparges, Kolyma, and Ravensbrück, of Guernica and Katyn, the anonymous victims of Hiroshima, of Phnom Penh, Madagascar, Shanghai, Izieu, and so many other places, who have returned one by one in recent years to revive our memories. Night and fog, crimes against humanity, innumerable, "civilized" acts of barbarism. Commemorating them in Black Books and courtroom repentances, we have set out doggedly, all through the 1990s, to enumerate all the crimes, lies, and follies of a century that the poet Osip Mandelstam characterized as "despotic". Have there been many centuries as bloody, and in which there was such a dearth of reason, as the 20th? Has there ever been, in all of history, such a sense of waste, such an overwhelming nausea, such a "secret shame", to use Vladimir Jankélévich's expression?

    No thinking about our contemporary state of confusion, no examination of the nihilism that afflicts our age, would mean anything at all if this dreadful balance sheet weren't taken into account first. Imbued with an unparalleled historic puzzlement, and driven by an incurable skepticism — not to say animmense metaphysical "hangover" — we have tried to bid the 20th century adieu. But the process has been more painful than we imagined. Marked by anniversaries or legal events, the 1990s began to look like one long group psychoanalysis session, which in itself was revealing. Whatever we do, we go on and on drawing lessons from of our recent past. We Westerners will never be done with sorting through the debris, identifying and naming all the disasters that seem to blend together according to a logic that has become familiar — as if the passage of time finally let us see the whole road we have traveled, as if the increasing distance allowed us to better reconstruct the successive phases of the devastation, and to estimate its true extent.

    No, it is not by accident, nor even because of our need for commemoration — or our concern for justice — that we have expended so much effort on this strange convening of the century's memory, just as it is ending. It is because we have to, because we are obeying a legitimate imperative: no future can be imagined unless we unburden ourselves of such a past.

    For the dead, even in their hundreds of millions, were not the only victims of the 20th century. Far from it. Besides the flesh and the blood, major ideas (the loss of which still hurts) were also swept away. From one episode to another, from massacre to massacre, from folly to folly, the principles, beliefs, and hopes that had given shape to the way we experienced history from the Enlightenment on, and indeed for much longer, have been progressively "disabled" (to borrow a computing term). Their disappearance — or, what is worse, their compliance with evil — has left a whole series of vacuums, has pointed to the likelihood of failure, and revealed dead ends, condemning us ultimately to a kind of moral exhaustion, and made us retreat into an attitude of suspicion — if not into the facile nihilism that in the end prefers to take refuge in forgetting.

    In fact, there has been a definite period of disenchantment corresponding to each of these tragedies of war or of ideology (of the right or the left). Every episode of this history has been followed by a specific decline in confidence, a disillusioned renunciation of historical optimism, a collapse of our vision of the future. Unconsciously, blinded by the present, we moved on from one mental breakdown to the next. As the heirs of disaster, we find ourselves deprived today of what Hans Jonas has called the "hope principle". Any attempt to re-found our world, any thinking about the new century, first requires a clearer awareness of the century just ended. Our ultimate confusion "closely resembles that of the lover who, once his passionate romance has come to an end, believes he has discovered the 'truth' about his beloved. Realizing that she is not the kind of person he had thought, he says he was taken in by love, as if he had swallowed a magic potion and been in a hypnotic state".

    We should first try to understand this hypnotic state. Let us avoid round figures, for they are deceptive. The 20th century, as a historical reality, lasted no more than 75 years. It began with a revolver shot and it ended with the clang of a pickax. The pistol shot was fired on April 28, 1914, at Sarajevo, by a nineteen-year-old Serbian student named Prinzip who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As we know, it sparked the First World War, which would engulf the old world. As for the pickax, it was used on November 8, 1989, to demolish the graffiti-inscribed concrete of the Berlin wall, whose destruction symbolized the collapse of the Communist idea. Seventy-five years ... From that point on it seemed very much as if the premature end of this "useless century" had enabled us to understand better how it evolved, as if today we could recreate the twists and turns of this lengthy aberration with new insight.

    This is no doubt what explains the bitter re-reading of history we have embarked on during the past decade. The events in themselves were not so important as the assurances, the shared beliefs, and the founding values, which were caught up in the tumult and consumed in the conflagration.

1914-1918: The Infernal Matrix

    Obviously, pride of place must go the Great War. This apocalyptic event, of which only a few perspicacious contemporaries had any understanding, was a portent of the "entombment" of Europe, as the young philosopher Gershom Sholem wrote in his personal diary on August 1, 1916. This somber prophecy echoed another, expressed two years earlier by Pope Benedict XV, who had predicted as early as 1914 that a "European suicide" would follow that same war. And, indeed, was it not the infernal matrix that gave birth to everything else — the initial cataclysm, of which the others were mere aftershocks, in the seismological sense? Between the upbeat departures for the front in August 1914 and the hideous body counts of November 1918, something had indeed taken place, and we are still trying to assess its gravity today. Between the almost joyful warlike spirit of the mobilization for the "war to end wars" (or the "just" war) and the unexpected way the war became mired in bloodshed — the "technical surprise", as Raymond Aron called it — a mysterious threshold was crossed, and a certain idea of the world was destroyed forever. The "technical surprise" (for instance, the Hotchkiss machine gun and the unexpected effectiveness of the German heavy artillery) transformed this mass offensive, still very much in the style of the 19th century, into an unimaginable but very modern slaughter.

    An infernal matrix? The most obvious consequences of 1914-1918 are well known, and listing them is sufficient to make the point. The war made nationalist rhetoric and patriotic propaganda — all that kind of "brainwashing" — ineffective. It decimated the strength and the active classes of several nations, including France. Culminating in the humiliating Treaty of Versailles, it foolishly fuelled the motivation and resentment from which Hitlerism would spring fifteen years later in Germany. In France, the disillusionment of the socialist workers and peasants, whose internationalism felt betrayed by the nationalistic "United Front", helped bring about a split in the French left at the Congress of Tours, in December 1920, and the choice of Bolshevism by a portion of it. After all, weren't capitalism and the "arms-dealers" to blame for the disaster? And, finally, we mustn't forget the obtuse pacifism, the weak-kneed betrayal by the intellectuals, heralding the "Munich mentality", without which neither Franco nor Hitler could have enjoyed such success. More broadly, the war sounded the death-knell of Europe as a great power, and the imminent dismantling of its colonial empires.

    But the cataclysm's shockwaves were probably even longer lasting in the realm of ideas, and that is what interests us here. Apart from the new doubts cast on democracy, it was historical reason, Hegel's elevation of history, and confidence in the idea of progress, that were undermined by the butchery. "In affirming the preeminence of the march of humanity over human beings of flesh and blood, the idea of progress restored to history, and to human life on earth, the great metaphysical division of being between a lesser reality and a true reality. And suddenly an event occurred that made this abstract division concrete and revealed it in the cruelest way.... The notion of historical reason met its end on the battlefield". Thus the universalist and optimistic humanism of the 19th century was engulfed by the war. A Better Future, Science, the Republic — these words written with a capital letter would emerge devalued from the great slaughter that was the result of nationalistic rivalry.

    More significant still is the fact that the humiliating mud and stench of the battlefield, the pounding of high explosives that reduced the trembling individual, crouching in his own filth and bodily fluids, to no more than an abattoir animal, discredited holism itself — i.e. the priority of the "we" over the "me", of the group over the individual — for it was this priority alone that had made possible such a voracious consumption of men by the Minotaur of war. The individual, a being of flesh and dreams, suddenly became expendable: 600,000 young men were sacrificed to no good purpose in Artois, the Vosges and Champagne, in the offensives of 1915 alone! This was enough to break a fundamental bond. Never again would appeals to self-abnegation or solidarity, calls for sacrifice or invocations of the national honor, have the same effect. The unwavering comradeship of the trenches was no more than the inverted image — a seditious, and sometimes anarchist one — of the disastrous "we" of the general staffs. Later, France might be covered with monuments and veterans honored for the next half-century, and Victory celebrated piously, and there could even be the wild parties of the 1920s — the années folles — but the relationship between France and its individual citizens would never again be the same.

    After 1914-1918, a lingering mistrust, a certain sense of meaninglessness, would continue to grow and spread, penetrating the inner reaches of the collective unconscious, undermining and profoundly unsettling the basic postulates of democratic reason — or of reason pure and simple. We could give a thousand examples of this insecurity. The birth of the Dada movement, founded in February 1916 in the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, was one of them, with its subsequent well-known history. Initiated by a group of artists, including the Romanians Marcel Janco and Tristan Tzara, the Frenchman Hans Arp and the German Hugo Ball, the Dada movement proclaimed its rejection of all culture, and refused the very notion of an established order. Quickly gaining new adherents in Germany, New York and Paris (Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, Man Ray, etc.), the movement had its own review, Die Freie Strasse, by 1916. Its editors denounced blind patriotism and warmongering, exalted individual liberty, and claimed their objective was the destruction of the old world. It would no doubt be unfair to see the Dada movement as nothing more than a sign of the times. But it was that too, and one of the earliest. Surrealism, the universal suspicion of the Pataphysicians, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline's prophecies of "ultimate putrefaction" — to mention but a few — would be its distant descendants.


Table of Contents

Preliminary Questions7
Do We Have to Talk About "Morality"?8
How Can We Avoid Nostalgia?11
Isn't The Law Enough?15
Can We Still Take It All In?18
How Can We Avoid Squabbling?21
Part IFarewell to The Twentieth Century23
Chapter IAfter The Shipwreck: Taking Stock25
1914-1918: The Infernal Matrix27
The Cunning Of Leninist Reason31
Hitler: Crime And The Will33
Colonial Wars And The "Unhappy Consciousness"37
The Triumph Of Suspicion40
The Grave Of Thought?42
The End Of The "Postmoderns"?46
Chapter IIHistory's New Cunning49
It's All About Bees52
When The Dead Possess The Living55
The Great Liberal Transformation58
From One Revolution To Another60
A Totalitarian Logic?63
A New Arrogance67
Democratic Dispossession69
Part IIThe Legacy of The West73
Six Shaky Foundations75
Chapter IIIThe Waning of The Future79
The Future Ain't What It Used To Be80
Is Time Still Going Somewhere?85
Remember The Future!88
St. Paul And The "New Adam"90
The Paradox Of The Englightenment93
From Salvation To Progress96
An Idea Gone Mad?98
Fate Makes A Comeback101
New Forms Of "Wisdom"103
Chapter IVInequality by Design105
One Man Like Another108
Concern For The Poor, A Godsend For The Rich112
The Bourgeois Mentality And Inequality116
Identity ss. Equality119
When The Poor Get Poorer122
Eliminating The Least Fit126
Injustice Made Banal130
Chapter VReason Hobbled133
The Greek Apotheosis134
In Praise Of Critical Reason140
Science And The Enlightenment143
The Return Of A Closed World144
Gabor's Rule145
Bouvard And Pecuchet Redivivi148
Scientist Superstition150
Towards A New Darwinism?153
The End Of A Culture155
Set Reason Free!158
Chapter VIGlobal vs. Universal161
A New Kind Of Imagination165
Retribalizing The World167
The Specter Of America169
Signs Of The Tribe172
A Return To The Source175
Flesh And Spirit178
The Deracination Of The Self181
Chapter VII"I" in Search of "We"185
Awareness Of The Self186
Smoke And Crystal188
"Go Into Thyself"191
Towards Modern Identity195
An Invisible Frontier200
Individualism Vs. The Individual203
From One Imperialism To Another205
A Mild Lobotomy207
Chapter VIIISacrifice and Vengence Return211
From Justice To Litigation213
The New Penal Order214
Sacrificing The Weak217
The Revenge Of The Persecutors220
A "Thirst For Sacrifice"223
Innocent Victims226
From Subversion To "Official Religion"229
Atheistic Catholicism?231
Persecuting Illusions233
Part IIIOur Rendezvous With the World237
The Case for a Paradoxical Humanism239
Inevitable Oligarchy240
Thou Shalt Be King!241
A Rainbow World243
John Rawls's "Intuitions"246
Chapter IXBarbarism's New Clothes251
The New "Pagans"252
The Case Of Julius Evola256
The Rejection Of "Linear Time"258
Tradition Vs. Subversion262
Catholic Or Christian?265
The Temptation Of The East268
Theological Folly?271
Chapter XThe Future of Judeo Christianity275
The New Secular Paradox276
A Dialogue, Or "Judeo-Christian" Ideology?280
Common Enemies281
Hitler And The Hatred Of Christianity283
The Culture Of Disdain284
The "Archivist" People286
Pagan Anti-Semitism288
Strange Free-Thinkers292
In Crisis295
A New Enlightenment?297
Epilogue: The Next Planet301
The Laughter Of The Gods302
Cyberculture At Your Fingertips305
From Social Movement To Virtual Market309
Universal Morality and Universal Law312

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