“Offensology experts” according to Pascal Bruckner

May 14, 2024

Photo: Archives JF Pagga

According to Pascal Bruckner, the fashionable phenomenon of class defectors provides some fine examples of ‘dolorism’.

Christian Desmeules, Le Devoir, 13 May 2024

In this age of allergy to constraints, heightened sensitivities, reluctance to accept obligations and martyrdom of all kinds, ‘offensology experts’ seem to be all the rage.

“Alfred de Musset wrote in La confession d’un enfant du siècle: “It is sweet to think oneself unhappy when one is nothing but empty and bored.

“The French novelist and philosopher Pascal Bruckner writes in his most recent book, Je souffre donc je suis. Portrait de la victime en héros, (I am suffering, therefore I am. Portrait of the Victim as a Hero) the tragedy of sated cultures, incapable of facing adversity”. Bruckner’s previous works include Le sanglot de l’homme blanc (1983) and La tentation de l’innocence (1995, Prix Médicis essai).

The impetus to write this book came to him, he explains, after François Hollande’s government expressed its desire in 2015 to award the Légion d’honneur posthumously to the 130 victims of the Bataclan attacks. An honorary decoration that rewards the “merits” of individuals who have rendered “eminent services” to the French nation. Is the unfortunate now more heroic than the valiant?

In his eyes, it was a symptom of our delicate and comfortable times. He believes that the reason why so many people now open their wounds in public “is to gain symbolic as well as material benefits”. Just look at Prince Harry’s memoirs, that “torrent of chic tearfulness”.

I’m describing France as it is today,” says Pascal Bruckner, speaking to us from his home in Paris. I think that, of all the European countries, France is one of the most sensitive to this mentality of complaining. We’re a country of moaners, where we moan a lot, and where moaning is seen as political rhetoric.

In his view, the trend is strong and extends far beyond France, and he even believes that “suffering sells more than sex”. Looking for reasons for the phenomenon, the essayist points the finger at the “judicialisation of everyday life”, an education system that makes no demands, and a young generation that is cajoled, brought up in cotton wool, fear and susceptibility. Blaming the general “pasteurisation”. Have we collectively become cosy?

“In Western countries, I think this is the case, because living conditions are much better. As soon as people move towards comfort and security, they experience a great deal of anxiety about unexpected illnesses and attacks to which they don’t know how to respond“. This is the counterpart, he acknowledges, of major progress in medicine and in consideration for human beings.

Real and fake victims

People claim to have been a battered or unhappy child, a woman who has suffered violence, a people or minority group that has been unfairly treated. People today want to save their lives by describing them as the object of a terrible misfortune,” says the 75-year-old writer. There’s a kind of victim heroism that’s very much in demand these days, among women and men alike. Entire careers are built on it.

“I’m trying to see how we can get out of this victimisation disease, which has the paradoxical effect not of soothing the injured or hurt, but of driving them deeper into their misery”, he explains.

“I don’t lack empathy. But I think the real problem in our societies, which is also a political and symbolic problem, is to distinguish the real victims from the fake ones. As soon as everyone wants to become a victim, there are bound to be impostors,” he continues.

According to Pascal Bruckner, the fashionable phenomenon of class defectors provides some fine examples of “dolorism”, to use the words of French sociologist Gérald Bronner. Like the writer Annie Ernaux, who tells anyone who will listen that she writes to “avenge her race and her sex” and who, according to Pascal Bruckner, has almost succeeded in turning her Nobel Prize into a personal curse.

“Annie Ernaux, who, despite the enormous privileges she enjoys and who is now a multi-millionaire, still considers herself a proletarian. Which she never was, in fact, because she comes from a petty bourgeois family. It’s a posture,” adds Pascal Bruckner. It’s a posture that allows her to put on a distressed face, even though she should be delighted to have received this magnificent award.”

Competition between victims

In the twentieth centurye , Jewish suffering became the benchmark, but in the age of “victim competition”, the essayist argues, for many people today the Jew has become the rival to be destroyed, usurping a place that should belong to blacks, Palestinians, Muslims, women, etc. “It is no longer from oblivion that we must wrest Auschwitz, but from its kidnapping by the bandits of memory”, he writes.

The case of one academic, comparing in 2019 the “testimonial challenge” of actress Adèle Haenel, the source of a “cultural revolution” in France that he is calling for, with the testimony of Primo Levi, a concentration camp survivor, seems to him to be particularly revealing of our times.

Pascal Bruckner believes that the attack in Israel on October 7th was accompanied by the most massive Judeophobic “coming out” in recent years, particularly on the far left.

“We’re in a slide that’s a bit reminiscent of what happened before the Second World War. All of a sudden, hatred of the Jews is being expressed openly, there is no longer any filter, censorship has fallen”, he notes with concern.

He is also particularly indignant at the idea that Islamophobia is the new anti-Semitism. “All of a sudden, any criticism of Islam is equated with racism, whereas Islam, he notes, is still the religion that causes the most attacks and crimes, including and primarily against Muslims.”

The essayist also points out that the duty of remembrance is now taking precedence over the duty of history. In his view, our vision is hemiplegic. History is reduced to massacres, wars and killings, while ignoring beauty, achievements and discoveries.

Pascal Bruckner also believes that the “competition of victims” seems to be making us lose perspective. “Genocides are flourishing”, and the word is becoming increasingly hackneyed and meaningless. According to some, Auschwitz and Gaza are synonymous.

“If the word multiplies indiscriminately, it risks losing its relevance, and no one will take [the situation] seriously when a real genocide takes place. Between a simple crime and genocide, there is a whole range of distinctions, which are undoubtedly unbearable for the victims, but which exist and must be studied very carefully.”

In many cases, he believes, victim status seems to have become hereditary. And yet, “the principle of democracy is that fault, like injury, ends with the person who committed or suffered it”.

He adds, feeling compelled to point out the obvious: “No child is born guilty or  victim from the actions of his or her forebears.”

I suffer therefore I am. Portrait of the victim as hero, Pascal Bruckner, Grasset, Paris, 2024, 320 pages. French version in bookshops in May.

Translated by DeepL, verified by Michel Virard

Michel Virard