Wednesday, March 13, 2013

It All Started With Rousseau by Bernard-Henri Levy

It all started with that unprecedented book called The Social Contract, whose thesis provoked first in France and then in Europe – a thrill, a shock, almost a spiritual earthquake.


All the people needed was a “general will” to create a society?

All the people needed was to say “We want to be joined into a society, we don’t have anything in common but we’ve decided to join together” for such an association to exist and take effect?

Starting with a transcendental purity – an abstract and empty form, whose only principle would be the well-negotiated exchange between each member’s freedom and a superior liberty guaranteed by an agreement – a true community of men and women could come about?

People might have nothing in common – nothing, neither heroes, nor great events, nor shared miseries, nor even a common place of birth – and found a nation by a simple act of understanding – by one of the purely mind-based decisions described in the Encylopedie, in the same terms Rouseau used in his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, as reasoning “in the silence of human passions” and of “associations.”?

People are never quiet about passions and associations, grumbled the Contracts outraged readers.

Counterrevolutionaries like Burke and Carlyle mocked Rousseau, saying that nobody had ever seen a society come about through such vain and artificial methods.

When, On December 26, 1815, Bonald went before the National Assembly to plead for and obtain the abolition of the divorce law that the Assemblies of the French Revolution had voted for, he insisted that history had never known a society that was not based on this common principle, these primary and natural limits, that were, for example, families.

What’s all this about the “contract,” Lamartine himself wondered, in issues 65 and 67 of his Cours familier de literature? Societies don’t come about thanks to contracts! They can’t be decreed! They are “instinctive.” They are “inevitable.”

How could you possibly imagine –thundered Maurice Barres, once again in the  National Assembly, on June 11, 1912, during a session dedicated to celebrating the bicentennial of Rouseau’s birth – how could you even conceive that the national congress could wish to glorify this “false spirit,” this “extravagant creature,” this prince of lies and artifice? I admire “the artist,” he allows. I admire “the musician.” And ‘the man himself, that poor and crabbed virtue allied to that lyrical love of nature and solitude, I won’t attack him.” But as for signing up for “the social, political, pedagogical principles of the author of the Discourse on Inequality, the Social Contract, and Emile – as for celebrating the person who “established as a principle the idea that the social order is entirely artificial,” and that it is “based on conventions” – as for anointing with the holy republican chrism the big bloated head of someone who preaches every one’s right to “reconstruct society at whim” - as for letting France look ridiculous by celebrating that lunatic, drunk on himself and his own correctness, one whose whole life was dedicated to chasing the pipe dream of “placing all life on a Procrustean bed” – as for following, therefore, this false prophet in his “detrimental, and moreover powerless, rebellion which advises us to act as if we had to remake everything all over again”- I won’t do that: I won’t give him so much credit.”

Herder too followed the lead of the French Counter-Revolutionaries; also opposed to Rousseau’s bad “Gesellschaft,” that abstract entity issued from contractualism that was obtuse and definitively deaf to the soul ( the “Voklksseele”) and to the spirit of the people (the “Volkgeist”), the good “Gemeinschaft” which itself was founded on a community of memory and roots – Herder to, upon hearing the name Rousseau, cried that he was refusing reality, following a figment of his imagination, something arbitrary, and pulled out his naturalistic, and already volkisch revolver . . .

I’m simplifying things, of course.

But that’s exactly how, over the course of two centuries, with inexhaustible rage, the mad hatred of Rousseau and his “contractualism” has been expressed. The leading figures of the anti-enlightenment shared the feeling that contractualism is the apex of the “sin of pride,” the “vice” in “all its splendor (Burke); the image of an illegitimate government whose prince would be “more disgraced than a valet or a laborer (Carlyle); but which, praise God, is all; just a big fraud – so big, so enormous – then one thing is sure: it will forever remain irrelevant.

Barres, once again, thought the Social Contract was “profoundly imbecilic.” And Renan,  a text from 1869 reproaching Napoleon III for having ceded too much to the American myth of “equal rights for all” and of transforming his government, in so doing, into a simple “public service,”: without memory, without ambition, and without the ability to elicit in others that elementary political feeling known as “respect”; wasn’t he already talking about American “impertinence’?

Since this is where we realize that it’s not just a fraud.

This is where it appears that Rousseau’s construction – a utopia, a whim, a dangerous and criminal fantasy, but a fantasy nonetheless – was a  bit more than that.

This is where the idea, seemingly so crazy, so devoid of meaning or future prospect, incapable of bearing any relation to the real history of a real people; the idea which nobody ever imagined would go further than the prospect for the Constitution of a Corsica or a Poland that themselves were figments of the imagination – here’s where that flight of fancy takes shape in a place that is neither Corsica nor Poland.

Far, far away, in the New World, a real place, not a dreamland or a paper construction – where, we’re told, people have come from every end of the earth, people with different skin colors, different languages, different histories and traditions, different gods, different heroes. Have decided to come together, to agree on a contract and to gather in a nation – there is a country, America, where Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s project, that almost unthinkable doctrine that all the people needed to do was make up their minds, then say it and swear to it, in order to create a political body, left their skies and descended earthward, where it actually came to pass.

At first, nobody believed it.

They say it’s so absurd that it can’t last.

It goes against the grain of things and it will necessarily fail.

They say, they repeat: it’s nothing, it’s ridiculous, a remake of Glaucon’s “City of Swine” in the Republic, an experiment, a flash in the pan – it will fall just as it rose, in a cloud of dust and a burst of laughter, once reality strikes.

But here we are.

Time goes by.

Thee experiment has staying power.

The country Renan thought was impertinent scoffs at the serious nations.  .  .  .

Today, to be sure, it’s not the first crisis – nor, I’ll bet, will it be the last –of the old, beautiful idea of human universality.

There was the Romantic crisis, a direct reaction to the Enlightenment: universality doesn’t exist; the only thing that does, said Herder, are individual cultures, each bearing witness to the progress and appearance of God among men.

In reaction to the region of the Enlightenment that was Kantianism and its attempt to discover universally applicable principles of morality, there was the great Hegelian offensive: Moralitat! The only serious basis, not only of morality but of politics, as Sittlichkeit, ethnicity, the conditions that the world Spirit made for every people’s path towards the Absolute.

There was Kierkegaard answering Hegel’s own argument, since he saw in this dialectic of the Absolute – in this odyssey of a Spirit devoted to imposing itself, not today, to be sure, but tomorrow, the day after tomorrow – an even more subtle form of stamping out uniqueness” :  Moralitat or Sittlichket, what’s the difference, Kierkegaard thunders! For painful subjectivity, for my irreplaceable and irreducible self, what’s the difference between one person’s immediate Universal and someone else’s deferred Universal?  In both cases, the same murderous generality suffocates me, crushes me .  .  .

There was Nietzsche, of course, whose “perspectivism,” whose conception of philosophy as the “art of transfiguration” and of the “hammer,” the “main theme of the body,” the theory of the “will to power” as a “transvaluation” of all values, was another way to shatter the concept, for him too poor, to oversimplifying, of Kant’s and Hegel’s Universality: “Could the culminating point, the final point, of the universal process, coincide with his own Berlin existence?” – childish, ridiculous, he suggests.

Rosenzweig, from the trenches of Macedonia, where he conceives and writes The Star of Redemption, amid the blood and the horror of the battles he witnessed, sees the true face of humanity supposed, again according to the universalists, to have discovered itself spontaneously, to have affirmed God’s goodness and justice in the face of the existence of evil, to be enshrouded by the divine halo of fully achieved Presence: it was nothing more than savage states! Nations thrown against each other in combats whose violence exceeded anything ever before seen! Poor wretches, faceless and nameless, thrown into carnage, tossed into blood baths: that’s who we are in this age of the Universal! What an idea.  .  .

Nazism, of course, and the crisis of a universalism to which it opposes paganism and its “volkisch” beliefs.

Marxism, which was another way – in the name, this time, of the “class position” of the subject, of his “interests” in relation to his own “alienation” – of rejecting a still-to-easy, lazy Universal, which wanted to treat subjects identically despite their structural differences.

Nietzsche once again:, or, to put it more precisely, his return, under the guise of Michel Foucault, who called the ancient art of the hammer “genealogy,” a genealogical hammering that will finally finish of these poor, empty generalizations tradition placed under the name of the Universal.

So we’ve gone through all these crisis.

Throughout the last centuries, the Universal has never ceased to be attacked on every front, from every side. On the Right as well as on the Left – but here again, aren’t we in one of those areas in which that distinction itself becomes muddied and absurd? – I see a general movement of retreat, of moving away from the duty of caring for others, even of questioning what we no longer want to call the ideology of human rights – “Such Western arrogance!” Such unbearable ethnocentrism! Where do you get the right to impose rules on a bunch of people who’ve never asked for them and, above all, never even thought of them?

Everywhere, indeed, we see the powerful return of the old “differentialist” doctrines – based on the idea that humanity is divided up into little sections, separated from the other parts of itself, and that we have to give up the idea of imposing the same idea of justice and law, the same conception of democracy and its regime,, the same regime of development and survival – all the way to Alain Badiou’s “stay out of their business”.  .  . all the way to “Stop imposing your norms, let others be and exist according to their own values and norms,” which is the common denominator in all these retreats.  .  .

And, observing and hearing all this – the disavowal of Europe, anti-Americanism and the morbid fixation on Empire, this recurrence of anti-Semitism, this refusal to understand the truth about Fascislamism -observing it in the reflected light of past re-considerations, hearing it with a slightly philosophical ear, it’s hard for me not to think that this is a crisis that, perhaps because it was preceded by all these others, perhaps because it randomly synthesizes and extracts from the old arguments – not in detail, just taking whatever goes best with the needs of the moment (at one point someone borrows from Herder’s characterology of nations; someone else from a sub-Marxism arguing against formal rights and liberties; another, from a popularized Nietzsche, suggesting that there are as many ways to evaluate something as there are cultures; yet another, in terms of a follower of Rosenzweig could almost recognize, describes the process of the leveling of the planet by the flattening universalism of the big states) – I can’t help- but think, therefore, that we’re faced with a disarray that is exceptionally serious, perhaps also in part because we are emerging from a time that did value internationalism, care for others, and dreams of emancipation. . .


1 comment:

  1. How could anyone glorify this “false spirit of the Universal,” this “extravagant creature,” this prince of lies and artifice; this lunatic, drunk on himself and his own correctness whose whole life was dedicated to chasing the pipe dream of “placing all life on a Procrustean bed” – this false prophet with his dangerous and criminal fantasy which advises us to act as if we had to remake everything all over again! What’s all this about the “contract,” Societies can’t be decreed, they “instinctive." They are "inevitable,” based on primary and natural limits.