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Review: The Tyranny of Guilt

Books

Pascal Bruckner's The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism (Princeton University Press, 2010) gets half the story right: It dissects the West's current obsession with victimhood, making several powerful statements, but it does not seem to understand what to do about guilt.

Guilt is, according to Bruckner, a mixed blessing with its chief purpose to enable us to correct our mistakes and move on. But guilt maintained past those limits is a bad thing, he says, with guilt becoming a pastime in the modern West, especially in Bruckner's native France. Suffering is perceived there as a form of righteousness, meaning that the world owes something to those who have suffered. Guilt, too, has become a tool that Europeans use to feel better about themselves. They try to absolve themselves by feeling bad. Therefore, guilt has become the solution to guilt.

Despite his clear mind, sharp eyes, and even sharper pen, Bruckner fails to suggest anything better than the paradigm he criticizes. His only solution to guilt is to stop feeling guilty. He admits that Europe has done many bad things, including slavery, genocide, and colonization. Yet he says that Europe has "not only transcended but delegitimized" those activities. If we continue being good for long enough, then at some point, he implies, guilt-and the corresponding desire for real justice-will simply go away.

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Bruckner realizes that secularism is a religion as dogmatic as any of those it opposes. Yet he continues to embrace it. His ideal is "benevolent indifference in a religious market open to all faiths." But Bruckner's main point is one well worth making: Guilt, as currently practiced by European and American elites, is an utterly futile endeavor. Unfortunately, so are all efforts to get rid of it without genuine atonement.

Caleb Nelson
Caleb Nelson

Caleb grew up on a ranch in northern Colorado and is currently pursuing ordination in the Presbyterian Church in America. He lives in Greenville, S.C.

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