Festival of New French Writing 2011: Pascal Bruckner, Mark Lilla, Adam Gopnik

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

By JK Fowler

 

Event: Festival of New French Writing
Date: 02/25/11
Time: 2:30PM
Panel: Pascal Bruckner and Mark Lilla. Moderated by Adam Gopnik.
Location: 100 Washington Square East, Silver Center, NYU.
Website: http://frenchwritingfestival.com/

New York City: Silver Center, NYU. Event 3 of the Festival of New French Writing.

Robert Adrian stands, carries his lanky body, thin, chiseled face to the podium. To his right, Pascal Bruckner, world-renowned French philosopher, Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker, Mark Lilla of Columbia University. A selection is read from the conclusion of Bruckner's Tyranny of Guilt: As Essay on Western Masochism. Religious flagellation is to be the topic of the panel's discussion. The heavy burdens of guilt, the revisitation of times long-gone must necessarily be stopped. The spirit of critical examination so widely
employed throughout Western societies a gift of prison-like fortitude to be shared with other cultures around the world. Selective hypermnesia, the focusing-in on past events selective towards the dark, selective towards the guilt-invoking.

"The whole world hates us, and we deserve it; that is what most Europeans think, at least in Western Europe. Since 1945 our continent has been obsessed by torments of repentance." (p.6 Tyranny of Guilt)

Gopnik asks where Lilla and Bruckner locate themselves politically in America and France. Bruckner replies that he belongs to the leftby atavism, that to gain legitimacy in France one must belong to the left and attempt to change the direction of the ideological parade from the inside. To Bruckner, the left and right have become the new religions of a France that has experienced the fall and dissolution of the Catholic church. Lilla returns with a personal note, speaking of his adolescence as a Pentecostal bible thumper in Detroit. It was when his self-described nieve belief in how people's faiths were born disappeared that he was constitutionally markedas a "liberal".

In a 1988-1990 Paris, the fall of the Berlin Wall occurs and history felt as though it were ending in that region and there arose a sobriety about Liberalism and Democracy. This according to Bruckner who would later explain that he too was raised a Jesuit and that very clearly he began to see the left as torn between dogmatic ideology and cynicism in action and a right with a taste for technological innovation and a strong conservatism in morals. This, says Bruckner, reveals the moral quagmire France currently experiences.

"If you want to be an intellectual, you have to leave the box." (Pascal Bruckner, Festival of New French Writing 2011)

How is it, Bruckner asks, such a de-Christianized society such as France continues to live by very Christian ideals? Through countless bloody religion-driven wars, through the struggles between the monarchy and the Church, through the beheading of large numbers of priests, the anti-clerical stance against priests, nuns, the pope, through all of this and more the values of the Christian tradition have remained, manifesting themselves daily through unexpected avenues.

"Modernity claimed to get rid of religion and in fact, all the religious frames are coming back in unexpected ways." (Interview with Pascal Bruckner and JK Fowler 02.26.2011)

To Lilla, God is invoked in America with few Christian values encased within. Gopnik states that while this may be true, religion is seen as deeply important in American politics but asks why and how deep it actually goes. Lilla explains that while people may believe, it amazes him the extent to which people will believe in very simple things. The result: the intellectual life of American religion is vapid, a statement which is only emboldened by walking into any of the countless religious-material stores in American malls. Religion emerges then as window dressing in the American political realm. And how strange this all is, all three contemplate, considering that historically deeply religious confrontations would become extremely violent whereas today, confrontations are kept within the realm of the political, rarely gaining foot outside of the smoothly-contoured halls of plastic political rhetoric. We encounter anxiety today over the prospect of living without God while never free of God, a paradox which is not lost on the audience.

"For America, God is like a super-coach." (Pascal Bruckner, Festival of New French Writing 2011)

Bruckner explains that the religious experience in Europe and America seems very different, the latter being more a venue for the creation and nurturing of a particular collective life. As the constitutional monarchy rests within the collective subconscious of the British, the constitution of religion leaks into the American mind through the appeased experience of the faith.

Integration into the societies of France and the US take on quite different flavors and this emerges as Gopnik inquires as to whether or not we are poorer without religion. Lilla explains that the integration in American society occurs not through religious means but rather through civil society and pop culture, ostensibly the knowledge of the latest contestants on American Idol the ticket to a rubber stamp on one's green card. America, as a large stomach to Bruckner, has the impressive capability to ceremoniously Christen (pun intended) thousands of foreigners as Americans, a fact which many French quietly admire from afar. In France, Bruckner explains, the lack of employment leads youth to turn to radical ideologies but notes that while the number of Muslims in France is quoted at 5-6 million, many (if not the majority) are no different than any other French person, paying seasonal heed to important religious holidays while for the majority of the year living life as any other would. The best sign of integration according to Bruckner lies within the statistics of French mixed marriages, jokingly stating that France's erotic appetite is particularly strong which is met with audience laughter. It is an integration from below rather than one from above.

"In religious societies, at least in the Catholic world, you had the practices of the indigences and God was ultimate judge so you could always say, 'Yes I have been a sinner but at least the Lord will forgive me.' But today there is no more forgiveness; you have to carry this burden all your life and the judge has become the multiple voices of the 'Others'." (Interview with Pascal Bruckner and JK Fowler 02.26.2011)

Bruckner and Gopnik discuss how the personal to the political is an easier transition for Bruckner than most. To wit, Bruckner replies that this lies firmly within a long French tradition stretching back to the Enlightenment when it was not uncommon for writers and intellectuals to write novels and philosophy, covering a wider breadth of topics without today's need for pinpoint specialization. It is this process of turning around the same obsessions, hoping for something new to emerge that preoccupies French intellectuals particularly in the realm of the French essay, Bruckner explains.

The social intellectual in French life emerges as nomadic pedagogue, traversing the French countryside to speak in villages, cities, small communities. Lilla and Gopnik contrast this to the American intellectual experience: closeted, relegated to the darkened corners and dusty halls of the society as dust bunny profession.

The event ends on a discussion of the schizophrenic nature of French society: on the one hand gauged as the most pessimistic country in the world and on the other, possessed of one of the fastest reproducing populations globally. It is to the children that the future which the elders have lost is entrusted.

"We have to write as accurately as possible the history of our ancestors: what we did, the crimes we committed; we don’t have to ignore that. But we also have the duty to let the new generation start again, start over, start afresh and write a new history. So we don’t have to ignore the past but the past cannot let it hinder the present." (Interview with Pascal Bruckner and JK Fowler 02.26.2011)

A fluid movement of poetic words and challenging concepts, this panel hosted through the Festival of New French Writing will prove to pave the way for future Festivals to emerge, for future French and American voices to weave sobering tales on the state of American and French societies in the 21st century.

Hour-long interview with Pascal Bruckner: click here.

Bios

Pascal Bruckner: A prolific writer, Pascal Bruckner belongs to that venerable lineage of French philosophers and essayists who, for centuries, have cast an ironic and always intelligent critical glance on the weaknesses and excesses of their society. His best-known works have been dynamically controversial and widely discussed, particularly Le Sanglot de l'homme blanc and La Tentation de l'innocence, for which he won the Prix Médicis de l'Essai in 1995. Bruckner has also written fiction, including Lunes de fiel (adapted for the screen by Roman Polanski) and Les Voleurs de beauté (winner of the Prix Renaudot), and has published books for children. He has taught in universities in France and the U.S. and contributes editorials to major newspapers in many countries.

Selected Works

Le nouveau désordre, Seuil, 1977
Le Sanglot de l'Homme blanc, Seuil, 1983 
(The Tears of the White Man, Free Press, 1986)
Le divin enfant, Seuil, 1992 (The Divine Child, Little Brown & Co., 1994)
La Tentation de l'innocence, Grasset, 1995 
(The Temptation of Innocence, Algora, 2000)
L’Euphorie perpétuelle: Essais sur le devoir de bonheur, Grasset, 2000
(Perpetual Euphoria: On the Duty to Be Happy, forthcoming 2011)
La tyrannie de la pénitence, Grasset, 2006 
(The Tyranny of Guilt, Princeton University Press, 2010)

Mark Lilla: An essayist and currently Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University, after having taught at the University of Chicago's Committee on Social Thought and New York University. He has written and lectured widely on modern European thought and contemporary politics, and is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, the New Republic, and the New York Times.  Among his awards are the Rome Prize of the American Academy in Rome and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Institute for Advanced Study.  He is a founding editor of the New French Thought series at Princeton University Press and his most recent book, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 2007 and has recently appeared in French translation as Le dieu mort-né (Le Seuil).

Selected Works

The Public Face of Architecture: Civic Culture and Public Spaces, Free Press, 1987
G.B. Vico: The Making of an Anti-modern, Harvard University Press, 1994
New French Thought: Political Philosophy, Princeton University Press, 1994
The Legacy of Isaiah Berlin, New York Review Books, 2001
The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals and Politics, New York Review Books, 2001

The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West, Knopf, 2007 

Adam Gopnik: Born in Philadelphia and grew up in Montreal where he studied at McGill University. A writer, essayist, and cultural commentator, Gopnik has been writing for The New Yorker since 1986, contributing non-fiction, fiction, memoir, and criticism. His book Paris to the Moon, 2000, was a New York Times best-seller. He published an adventure story for children, The King in the Window and Through a Children’s Gate: A Home in New York. Gopnik also edited the book Americans in Paris: A Literary Anthology. His latest Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life (Knopf) was published in early 2009. He has twice won the National Magazine Award for Essays, as well as the George Polk Award for Magazine Reporting.

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J. K.