The fact we have
before our eyes and
the ideology of a truer reality
"By its refusal to perceive it, totalitarian thinking gets rid of reality as it is given to us and of the event as it takes place. Relying on a granite certitude it insists on a 'truer' reality hidden behind perceptual things, controlling them all, things that can only be detected with a sixth sense"
by Stefano M. Paci
|Alain Finkielkraut, the French writer and philosopher who has rediscovered Péguy|
Worldwide levelling and the mistaken perspective of Catholicism, Charles Péguy and Hannah Arendt, the horrors of the century we are about to leave, and the dangers of the one that is looming. The following conversation with Alain Finkielkraut, heir to the best French philosophical tradition, a Jewish intellectual who writes for Libération and Le Monde and whose works are used as textbooks in French universities, turned out to be an adventure. It begins with Péguy. Péguy is one of the great passions of this refined Jewish intellectual: "I'll drag him out of the ghetto," Finkielkraut promised us some years ago (cf 30DAYS No. 6 1992), disconcerted that the man he had found to be one of the greatest thinkers of the modern world, undoubtedly of the stature of Nietzsche, Benjamin, Heidegger, had no right to citizenship in the city of the mind. What most struck him, he told us then, was Péguy's thinking on event: "An event is something that erupts from the outside. Something unexpected. And this is the supreme method of consciousness". Finkielkraut continued: "The most extraordinary thing is that if the event is not rescued one loses all contact with reality. If a blasphemy or sacrilege has been committed by the modern spirit it lies in its arrogance towards reality. There is an unprogrammable character to the given, a face which things present for themselves. Péguy speaks of the absolute respect one must have for reality and its mysteries, 'the religious respect for reality sovereign and absolute master, for the real as it comes, as it is given us, of the event as it is given us'. Whereas for modern man revelation - the fact of something giving itself, or appearing - is no longer the mode whereby the truth of the real happens. And so man, by refusing reality as it is offered to our fleshly eyes, no longer attempts to shape reason patterned on the image of the world, but to construct a world on the image of reason. Experience is abolished: the real is over-powered and nature, instead of being listened to, is forced to respond to the exigencies of man and to shape itself to his will. In the place of experience which, as Péguy says, 'is born from the womb of nature, the earthly experience still full of scum and mud,' modern man has put 'experience as it ought to be'. And this substitution is a veritable ontological revolution".
This is the fundamental question that Catholicism must ask itself today: great demonstrations are organized, crowds are brought together, incredible numbers of people gather, but at the same time the Church finds it ever harder to hand on its legacy, of whose message it is the depository. The Catholic world is in danger of being blinded by the worldwide popularity bestowed on John Paul II, mistaking it for across-the-board acceptance of the Catholic Church. But that is not how it is, it's just a trick of perspective
What does Péguy mean by "event"?
ALAIN FINKIELKRAUT: Something very simple: the event is what befalls. That's it. One has to be very careful not to give a 'mystical' definition to event. An event is what befalls exactly in the sense that one can't completely predict it. It's what Hannah Arendt means when she says 'we live in the world of human plurality'. If the dweller on the earth is no longer a concrete man, a man with a name and surname, born at a particular point in time and space, but abstract Humanity, it means we are no longer capable of encountering events. Events, things as they befall, always come about a little by surprise. One has to accept this surprise rather than believing that one can, by the mere exercise of intelligence, pin down history with inexorable laws.
Among Catholics there is a danger through cultural programmes of nullifying the surprise that comes from the event ...
FINKIELKRAUT: I don't for a moment believe in the possibility of a resurgence of Catholic culture today. Of course there is a strong need to make sense of a culture based on technology and instrumental reason. But I don't believe Catholic culture, as such, has any chance of shaping behavior. All one has to do is look at the extreme popularity of the Pope and the extreme irrelevance of what he has to say. It makes no impact whatsoever. Look at all the effort John Paul II puts into the question of morality, which seems to have become the core of the Christian message, and the indifference with which it is, in fact, received. John Paul II is popular, not for what he says but 'in spite of' what he says. This is the fundamental question that Catholicism must ask itself today: great demonstrations are organized, crowds are brought together, incredible numbers of people gather, but at the same time the Church finds it ever harder to hand on its legacy, of whose message it is the depository. The Catholic world is in danger of being blinded by the worldwide popularity bestowed on John Paul II, mistaking it for across-the-board acceptance of the Catholic Church. But that isn't how it is, it's just a trick of perspective.
|The main gate of Buchenwald, Germany. The words say: "To each his own"|
People may laud Pope John Paul II as a great ethical teacher, but nobody tries to put
his teachings into practice ...
FINKIELKRAUT: Emmanuel Levinas also thought morality was first and foremost an event. He, too, went through painful experiences: held in a kommando for Israeli prisoners in Germany, his philosophical thinking is entirely dominated by memories of the horrors of Nazism. According to him, something must happen in the self for it to cease being a 'force that goes' and rouse itself instead. This coup de théatre is the encounter with an other, the revelation of a 'face'. Something similar happened to the Italian officer Emilio Lussu during the First World War, an experience he describes in Un anno sull'altipiano (A Year on the High Plateau). Lussu had ventured out of the trenches to try to locate an Austrian gun which had been shelling them for days. When he came across the enemy trenches he found himself looking at something strangely familiar. He saw men chatting together and drinking coffee, just as his companions were doing, and an Austrian officer lighting a cigarette. 'That cigarette created a sudden relationship between him and me. It was just an instant. My finger relaxed on the trigger. This was a man in front of me. A man! A man! To shoot a man like that, from a few feet away ... like shooting a wild boar.' Lussu was struck by the lightning of the obvious. That face was not reducible to any seeming. I want to make clear that Lussu's interest in the Austrian officer did not derive from any good intention, on the contrary. His awareness as a soldier who was risking his life in defence of his country and his ideals was shaken by a disconcerting ultimatum, by a solicitation from elsewhere, over which he had no control. He did not take the initiative in the change that struck him. That radical change was an event, that is, something that suddenly reared up in front of him.
The reduction of men to Man is the permanent temptation of thought. And this temptation, which yesterday had the face of ideology, now triumphs as "concern". We belong to a "humanitarian" generation: we no longer believe in the march of humanity, now we are concerned with suffering humanity. We don't love men, they are too disturbing: we love to be concerned about them
The century about to end witnessed the horrors of Nazism and also the Communist empire
which, though it fought against Nazism, sullied itself with dreadful crimes. I'd like you,
you who belong to a generation of philosophers that began as left-wing, to tell us how
that was possible ...
FINKIELKRAUT: Well, though the differences between the SS and the Soviet regimes seem obvious enough, they shared a common ontological core. No matter whether it was a race or a class war, despite their difference in values and convinced as both were that they were heading in the direction of progress, they showed the same abysmal lack of scruples towards the 'given' as something which could be twisted according to their own purposes. Both of them had an idea of politics based on the same paranoid conception that nothing exists independent of the conflict of the will. Reason became distorted, and it wasn't bestiality that drove them into criminality but radicality, that is, the determination to follow their thinking through to its ultimate conclusions. It was thus necessary to destroy the adversary if the great promise of history was to be realized. For finitude is not one's own limit but the fault of the enemy. By its refusal to perceive it, totalitarian thinking gets rid of reality as it is given to us and of the event as it takes place. Relying on a granite certitude (the mortal struggle between man and the enemy of mankind) this sort of thinking rids itself of the reality we all perceive with our senses and, as Hannah Arendt puts it in The Origins of Totalitarianism, 'it insists on a 'truer' reality hidden behind perceptual things, controlling them all, and which can only be detected by a sixth sense'. And it was this mode of thought, this 'sixth sense', which rids itself of all experience in favor of a presumed power to explain everything, that Arendt called ideology. In her view ideology is not the lie of appearances but the suspicion cast on them and the systematic misrepresentation of the reality before our eyes as a superficial and deceptive screen.
|Barbed wire around Majdenek near Lublin in Poland|
Is the concrete person inevitably destined to dissolve into this abstraction?
FINKIELKRAUT: From the personal point of view, no, because one can judge it and oppose it. Renan, in that bible of progress L'avenir de la science, said: 'What do I care about this man who comes and sets himself between humanity and me? How do the meaningless syllables of his name concern me? His very name is a lie. Anonymity is much more expressive than the true. True nobility does not consist in having one's own name, one's own genius, but in being part of the noble race of the children of God, in being a soldier lost in the immense army advancing towards the conquest of perfection'. Once again, an abstraction. But in Stern der Erlösung (Star of Redemption), a work written on postcards during the Second World War on the Balkan front, Franz Rosenzweig found himself confronted by the event of the war. And he cried out that he was a concrete self. 'Man roars with all the voice left in his throat, he goes on roaring self in the face of the implacable that threatens such an inconceivable annihilation. After reason has absorbed everything and proclaimed that only it exists, man suddenly discovers that, though digested this long time by philosophy, he continues to exist. 'I that am only ashes and dust, I, mere private subject, a name and surname ... I still exist.'
But it looks as if the epoch of the totalitarian regimes is over. Do you think a new era is beginning that will be more humane?
FINKIELKRAUT: No. Naturally not. I believe there are new dangers. The reduction of men to Man is the permanent temptation of thought. And this temptation, which yesterday had the face of ideology, now triumphs as 'concern'. We belong to a 'humanitarian' generation: we no longer believe in the march of humanity, now we are concerned with suffering humanity. But we won't, precisely in the way ideology would not, expose ourselves to what Arendt described as 'the infinitely improbable that constitutes the very fabric of the real'. We don't love men, they are too disturbing: we love to be concerned about them. And if they're free we're afraid of them: better if they're handicapped and then we can let loose our maternal instinct on them. But for our generation who is this man, this victim to be rescued, 'whether from the quaking of the earth or that of society,' as André Glucksmann puts it? Nobody in particular. Not man in the singular living on the earth, he is not poor Rosenzweig trembling with fear and horror and crying 'I, I, I', but men in their infinite plurality.
|The main avenue of the Birkenau camp in Poland|
Yet again, an abstraction. And for this generation which prefers bodies to causes,
after the exhilaration of history, no cause any longer seems universalizable. Once the
Cold War had ended, there began the war of the flags, of national identities. And on
behalf of what should one side with this identity rather than with another? It is this
that has given rise to the long prostration of public opinion in the face of the last
European war this century, that in former Yugoslavia. Nowadays we live in the epoch of
Internet, of a single worldwide web which renders man a planetary being, and will
increasingly do so. And for this man, violence is belonging. Evil is the dictatorship
exercised by surnames over names, Evil is when the spirit does not take flight but
shatters and becomes flesh, Evil is the incarnation. Let me quote Hannah Arendt again, who
said that the emotional disposition characteristic of modern man is resentment. Resentment
'against everything that is given, even against his own existence, against the fact that
he is not the creator of the universe, or of himself'.
Is there an alternative to this resentment?
FINKIELKRAUT: Yes, there is. And it is Arendt again who points it out: 'A basic gratitude for the few elementary things that are invariably given us,' she explains, 'such as life itself, the existence of man and of the world'. Once again perceptual and palpable data. 'Interwoven with the flesh of reality,' Péguy would have said.