Pascal Bruckner, in City Journal, contemplates Western Civilization’s contradictory attitudes toward Barbarism and violence.
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. …
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. â€œRather barbarity than boredom,â€ the French romantic ThÃ©ophile 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 apocalypseâ€”and then made it a horrifying reality.
As a young thinker put it in 1913, â€œWar: why not? It would be amusing.â€ 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 manâ€™s natural fatherland, a supreme test that would make the trenches a â€œmonastery with walls of fire.â€
To the vulgarity of Nietzscheâ€™s â€œlast man,â€ the bourgeois devoted to his little pleasures, the whole twentieth centuryâ€”from T. E. Lawrence to the Red Brigades, via the Futurists and the Freikorpsâ€”counterposed a Romanticism of volcanic spirits, impatient to lose themselves in â€œstorms of steel,â€ in Ernst Jungerâ€™s formulation. So many modern intellectuals, from Robert Brasillach on the right to Alain Badiou on the left, revealed a fascination with violence. â€œI want to live only in extreme situations. Everything that is mediocre exasperates me so much I could scream,â€ 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. …
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 escapedâ€”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 â€œexplosions of collective bestiality,â€ as Stefan Zweig termed them: a new Auschwitz, a new Gulag. Europe remembers Diderotâ€™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 Europeâ€™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 fansâ€”or even postgame riotsâ€”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 nationâ€™s combination of violence and sentimentality, symbolized by those ambiguous American charactersâ€”the cowboy, the sheriff, and the vigilanteâ€”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 perfectibilityâ€”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.
A must read.