L’enfer, c’est les autres

It is the famous quote from Jean-Paul Sartre in his play Huis Clos, which is literally translated Hell is other people. Ideally we would be connected by love to the whole of humanity, but such an ideal is destroyed by man’s fallen nature. We are separated by hatred and sin, such that the “other” person, the stranger, the one we cannot trust becomes a threat and an enemy – at least a potential enemy.

I have always been fascinated by the idea of nobility of spirit, but the paradox is like that of humility. Once the subject becomes self-conscious of his humility, he becomes proud, arrogant and sinful. Similarly, he who is conscious of being spiritually “noble” will become arrogant, a tyrant, someone who believes that rules are only for others – and all of a sudden, we have the self-entitled sociopath sending “others” to their deaths. Thus we have paradoxes and cycles that repeat ad nauseam, just as we have happy and unhappy periods in history.

This whole story of Brexit follows the same pattern. I haven’t lived in England for any significant length of time since 1982, but I have been able to observe what has been going on through the news and listening to people during my many visits to family and friends. Over the years I have been through episodes of nostalgia for my native England. It sufficed to listen to some Elgar or Vaughan Williams and dream about my native Lake District or the Cotswolds, that gentle pastoral seduction of an “eternal” England, the “green and pleasant land” of William Blake. On the other hand, living on the outside brings certain realities home. One such reality is politics for money and power, and no longer the principle of the common good. Crusty old statesmen used to say that the country had gone “to the dogs”. What would they say today?

A couple of years ago, I was not allowed to vote because of the 15-year rule. I have no MP, but then again, I have no residence in the UK, nor do I pay tax. Fair enough, I literally got on my bike in July 1982 and set off for France. The illusions peeled away one by one like the skins of an onion, but I am still here because what is left of my life is here, not England. My ecclesial attachment is in England, as is my father and the rest of my family, who have made their lives and made their mark in the places where they live. As is the tradition in my family, I have been Euro-sceptical, believing the usual narrative of Brussels being an unelected and Orwellian body leading to something like the old Soviet Union. At the same time, I saw its cosmopolitan intentions and underpinning philosophy. If I am European, like a New Yorker is an American, then I am still living close to my origins, and no longer as an exile.

For a while since the 2016 referendum, I failed to take Brexit seriously. It was (and is) the butt of jokes in France. My own wife would say as a joke that it would be “good riddance” when the Gendarmes would come and make me pack my bags before putting me on a boat to England! It all goes beautifully with St Joan of Arc, the Hundred Years War and the Napoleonic Wars. For two countries separated by a small sliver of water you could sail across in a day, the level of ignorance, prejudice and stereotyping is astounding. We British see the average Frenchman in a Breton marinière, wearing a beret and carrying a baguette – moustache de rigueur. They call us rosbifs – roast beef – and something like the army officers of nineteenth century India in the days of the Empire. That is when we are not bankers or civil servants in London with the bowler hat and perfectly ironed newspaper. Those days are gone, but the nostalgia remains in many.

Since seeing the reality of Brexit, that my country was really going to declare war on itself, I had to take stock and try to understand how our elite could really be so stupid as to have set in motion a legal monster without any planning or contingency over the past two years. Only when it is too late do they begin to try to negotiate a solution with the EU, or bully the latter into following their ideology. The EU is not the British Empire, because there were two world wars last century, plus national independence of the formerly colonised peoples, putting paid to all that.

Rob Riemen’s book Nobility of Spirit never ceases to bring me to a kind of self-awareness that has given me certain gifts to see the dangers we are in. There is a definite analogy between our time and the rise of Fascism and Nazism in the 1920’s and 30’s, minus the clown dictators and the militaristic jingoism. The accidents are very different, but there are similarities of substance, if you want to use scholastic language. Perhaps nobility of spirit is discerned in relation to its nemesis, that insidious ideology of stupidity, ignorance and hatred we see around us, that “hell” of “other people”. What is this nobility of spirit? It is surely what Christ stood for as the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, all the virtues of prudence, kindness, search for truth and transcendence. It is the antithesis of barbarianism, greed, lust for power and narrow-mindedness. As these forces gather once again, we can only fight them with love and faith, with courage and refusal to give up our principles of conscience.

I don’t think we can class all the “leavers” in one category. I might have been one of them had I had the vote in the summer of 2016. I was taken in by the narrative according to which all our money was being given to poor eastern European countries that are new to the Union, and that Brexit would allow millions to be given each day to our ailing health service. It was a deliberate lie. Finally, as the protests (in which I have participated mainly through this blog) have intensified, the tide is turning. The inevitability of Brexit is slowly evaporating as they are forced to admit that it can be different. The enemy isn’t some far-off Hitler strutting around in Berlin, but is in our own midst. The mask is coming away slowly but surely.

I find myself in agreement with the idea that Brexit is a kind of cult. It is an irrational ideology, like the religion of Reverend Jim Jones who got all his adepts to commit suicide. The “dogma” according to which the result of the 2016 referendum is graven in stone and immutable is a sign of this state of mind. It was a flawed advisory referendum, not a binding contract. Even contracts can be cancelled for unilateral breach of trust. The broken record is wearing thin.

I have not spent time on leavers’ blogs, Facebook pages and suchlike. The bile is harmful enough when it emerges from its habitual cocoon and affects the political elite. Some remainers have been to those parts of the internet, like new Catholic converts listening to the rants of the Protestant Reformation Society at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. They are witnesses to verbal and even physical violence, ignorance, hatred, words without any real meaning like “democracy” and “taking back control”. What has discredited religion in the past was this refusal of reason in the name of faith.

I very much recommend reading the various writings and official teachings of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI on the theme of Fides et Ratio, faith and reason. This is a part of the discipline of fundamental theology, which is Ratzinger’s speciality. It is the part of theology which examines the foundations, those of divine revelation and human reason. There are many things we will never fully understand, because our rational faculties and senses are limited, but we can grasp something with effort and curiosity. The Enlightenment was a very important step in history, even when it became excessive in the thought of men like Voltaire, Descartes, Locke, Hume and Kant. It was needed to bring us out of the era of witch-burning and country yokel superstition. Then, when everything became dreary classical, faithless and sterile, the world needed the Romantic movement to restore the heart and the imagination to their rightful places. The result is a transformed religious instinct of man believing, feeling and seeking understanding. Thus I am a Christian and a priest, and take this balance between faith and reason very seriously.

I have seen in National Populism many of the lowly aspects I found in Roman Catholic integralism and its aspiration to temporal power with the help of clown dictators like Pinochet. The ugly spectre of the ideology of hate has not gone away with the defeat of Hitler and Mussolini. I am glad that someone has coined the term National Populism, because it will give many a chance for critical thinking and examination of conscience. These are powerful instincts in man, like faith in a God or a universal consciousness, but appealing to the base instincts of competition, dominance and power. Terrorists kill people, not because they are believers, but because they abdicated humanity and reason under manipulation and brainwashing.

Different people’s “other people” take different forms. It can be the people of the ideology. It can be people from other countries because their wars were the fault of our politicians and we refused to let them rebuild their wrecked and war-torn countries. I too beat my breast because I believed too many stories of foreign people taking our jobs and money, yet I too am a foreigner in another country, even though my country is still in the EU. I read many stories of anxiety of British people afraid that we will become illegal immigrants in France after a no-deal Brexit. Are we getting a taste of our own medicine? More hope is now being given now that the Brexiteer politicians are desperately trying to contain the fallout caused by the impending human rights travesties – because there are some three million EU people living, working and paying tax in the UK, and about two million UK people doing the same thing in the EU countries. We rely on being allowed to do that, just like people from India, Africa and the Middle East. We became afraid because of the immigration crisis of 2015, and the ideologues made hay of it. The experience has forced me to examine many assumptions and become open to more rational and human paradigms. May this threat to my country from its own inner enemy be salutary and healing. We are still on the way to our self-defeat, but it can be averted. It would almost seem to be an Old Testament prophecy about Israel!

I would like to give a warning that anything can come full-circle, in the way liberalism has become illiberal and quite absurd in its irrationalism. I have always believed in women’s rights and have found a lot of inspiration in the suffragettes of 1912 and the character of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin who became Shelley’s wife and wrote Frankenstein. I am utterly repulsed by the present-day gender and sexual identity politics, based not on reason or humanism, but on the same hatred and fanaticism that brought women and “different” people to be oppressed in the first place. These ideologies are parts of human nature in its fallen and hylic state. We can only be brought out of it by a balance of faith and reason.

Parochialism, nationalism and cosmopolitanism are only partial explanations of human experience and thought. Cosmopolitanism is associated with life in cities and parochialism with country living, but this notion is relativised by the fact of former city dwellers seeking a better life in the country, affordable housing and a slower pace of life, whilst children of country families go into town to find work and education. Being free from determinism and the inevitable is a gift of the spirit, which is the discovery of God in ourselves and our species, the only force that can unite and connect us.

For some of these questions, I refer the reader to the Greek Orthodox author Christos Yanneras who has written many illuminating philosophical works dealing with the human person and these issues of connection and alienation. His views of human rights are debatable, and need special study. His books are worth reading. I will note that the same levels of hatred and obscurantism can be found in Orthodoxy as in any other religion or ideology. Take the good ideas – yes, cherry-pick them – and make for yourself a synthesis of goodness, beauty and love.

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13 Responses to L’enfer, c’est les autres

  1. For your amusement, David Starkey saying why Henry VIII would have made a better job of Brexit:

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I arrived the other day at the fascinating first chapter of Book Nine of Tolstoy’s War and Peace (in the Maude translation), and am not persuaded by his conclusions, but am very impressed by the wrestling with the matter.

    Meanwhile, I am struck by how little a sense I have of the complexities of contemporary France, when I encounter recent quotations from Michel Houellebecq, saying with reference to Éric Zemmour’s Le Suicide français (2014), “Je n’avais pas été d’accord. […] Dans l’histoire récente de la France, il y a quelque chose qui relève non pas du suicide, mais bel et bien de l’assassinat. Et le coupable de cet assassinat n’est guère difficile à découvrir : c’est l’Union européenne. […] À l’intérieur du monde occidental, l’Europe a choisi un mode de suicide particulier, qui inclut le fait d’assassiner les nations qui la composent.” And also, “Je suis prêt à voter pour n’importe qui pourvu qu’on propose la sortie de l’Union européenne et de l’Otan, ça, j’y tiens beaucoup”! Not having much of a sense of Éric Zemmour, either, I find the English Wikipediast telling me he is critical of the EU in what do not seem such different ways, and that “He also argues that since the fall of Napoleon, ‘France is no longer a predator but a prey'”- seeming to think being a Napoleonic “predator” to be a good thing every true Frenchman should celebrate!

    On the other hand, I recently encountered an academic political philosopher quoting Sir Roger Scruton writing about “The Truth in Nationalism” (2014):

    “According to this [post-World War II] consensus, Europe had been torn apart by nationalism, and the future of the continent could be guaranteed only if the national loyalties that had caused so much belligerence were quietly and discreetly replaced by something else. Just what that something else was to be is another question, and the question was buried so deeply in the process of European integration that it is no longer possible to answer it.

    “But was the reaction against nationalism right? To put my answer in a nutshell: nationalism, as an ideology, is dangerous in just the way that ideologies are dangerous. It occupies the space vacated by religion, and in doing so excites the true believer both to worship the national idea and to seek in it for what it cannot provide—the ultimate purpose of life, the way to redemption and the consolation of all our woes. That is the idea as Sieyes invokes it, and as it appears in the literature of Nazi Germany. But it is not the idea of the nation as this features in the ordinary day-to-day life of the European people. For ordinary people, living in free association with their neighbors, the ‘nation’ means simply the historical identity and continuing allegiance that unites them in the body politic. It is the first person plural of settlement. Sentiments of national identity may be inflamed by war, civil agitation and ideology, and this inflammation admits of many degrees. But in their normal form these sentiments are not just peaceful in themselves, but a form of peace between neighbors.”

    Is Zemmour too much a ‘nationalist’ in the Revolutionary-Imperial ‘tradition’ of the Abbe Sieyes and Napoleon? How distinct, then, is Houellebecq’s critique?

  3. Damien says:

    I have read your blog posts with interest over the years and have found much of value and know that many others do too. I respect that your blog is your own opinion and that you are always at pains to point that out. On many subjects we see eye to eye and I am glad of the various manifestations of your internet presence. Unfortunately this doesn’t extend to your view of Brexit.

    I voted leave – although I didn’t join any particular group or party and didn’t take part in any campaigning for a “Leave” vote. I do not recognise myself in the dismissive and often derogatory description of the average Brexit supporter as trotted out constantly by so many “Remain” advocates. I hope that I am neither mean-hearted, xenophobic or nationalistic. I do also not like to think that I am gullible, stupid, easily misled, uneducated or ignorant. Nor do I recognise this description fitting any of those people I know personally who also voted to leave. Many arguments before the Referendum (and since) have been disingenuous from both sides – so both are as bad as the other. I have long held the belief that membership of the EU as it has become is not something I support – and was not the result of seduction by jingoistic or imperialist nostalgia.

    I hope there will NOT be a second referendum – NOT because I fear a “Remain” victory but on principle – because if one can challenge the original result then any result should be open to being challenged – Ad infinitum!

    However, if there is a second referendum then I WILL join a group and I will campaign to leave because I do genuinely believe it is the right thing to do. If after this the result were to “Remain” – then I will accept, however grudgingly, the result just as I would’ve accepted the democratic vote the first time round if it had been to remain and not Leave.

    The democratic principle may not be to the taste of those who lose the vote – but I believe, as imperfect as it may be, it is worthy of protection and respect – for once lost it will never be regained.

    Obviously you are in a difficult position and no doubt the uncertainty is very concerning for you. I do hope that the future is not as bleak for expats living in Europe as some fear OR as some would like.

    • Dear Bishop,

      Your comment brings home the fact that none of us can rightfully stereotype the other “side” of a political debate. Neither of us are members of the political elite, nor do we possess a perfectly objective view of the facts. I have to admit to a certain degree of influence from the “remain” camp and my own situation as a British expatriate in an EU country.

      Maybe my compatriots have made their bed and will have to sleep in it come what may, even if the impending Brexit is to be no-deal and the infrastructures are not in place to adapt to the new situation. You will suffer, and I will suffer too even with my declaration of French nationality by marriage and living here for a long time. The EU is a mystery, and is far from being exempt from human ambition and iniquity.

      What seems to make sense to me is that we are in a situation of national emergency akin to a declaration of war. I accept and respect the proportion of voters who voted “leave” and did so in all lucidity and understanding of the issues. I presume that their convictions remain unchanged and are prepared for what is coming and what may or may not happen. Many people in France and other EU countries are extremely concerned by the growth of the EU to the present 27 countries, and that poorer countries like Romania are heavy burdens financially. Accepting Turkey would be a catastrophe and would give legitimacy to many violations of human rights that figure in the EU’s founding principles. I read in the media about Greece nearly becoming a failed nation. Italy and Austria have gone the way of National Populism, and the credibility of large institutions is wearing thin. It could be that the EU will face worse crises and the result would be the resumption of the centuries of warfare and persecution that drove so many to seek a new life in America.

      Many “remainers” think that the People’s Vote is the only solution to save what little credibility the entire political establishment has left. I wouldn’t trust Corbyn further than I could throw him, as for Mélenchon this side of the Channel. Soviet Communism is a dinosaur that was discredited in the 1980’s and 90’s. Maybe there will be some deal or fudge, or delay of the date with the electric chair – so that a peaceful and equitable solution can be found. If we have to keep Brexit, as far as I understand things, then the UK might consider ceding Northern Ireland to the Irish Republic and allowing its citizens a possibility of dual nationality. It would be the same kind of thing that would allow me into England on my British passport and into France with my French passport (when I get it in about a year’s time). That would be Mrs May’s needed 5% and we can all sleep at night.

      What would be worse, a second referendum or a no-deal Brexit following the failure of all negotiations between our Government and the EU? Perhaps the stories of lorry parks and blocked ports, and all the other stuff in the press, are exaggerated. To what extent are people prepared to suffer a situation far worse than the 1970’s and perhaps general strikes, revolution and civil war? Maybe it won’t happen, and everything will settle down within days. The USA would come to the rescue like in 1944. I am no one to say it won’t.

      My own uncertainty is less uncertain than that of others. My marriage and time spent in France legally gives me protection by French law. The UK is ready to keep the EU citizens already in the country, so the EU will reciprocate with us. That said, many dreams will be shattered. Maybe there will be a negotiated Brexit to ensure the best for everyone, but many of us presently see chaos and a complete lack of planning. It looks like a no-deal Brexit, and we will have to sleep in the beds we made (I was excluded from voting, which I think was providential). I also fear that families and Churches would be divided. I try to keep my own reflections reasoned and moderate, and I apologise if I have allowed myself to become influenced by ideology and prejudice through trying to keep informed. It has all caused me a lot of anxiety and despondency, because I love England and our tradition of being reasonable, kind and respectful of the rights of human persons.

      • Damien says:

        Well as someone who lives in Kent (SE England) and who has experienced travel delays and frustrations when the M20 has become a “Lorry Park” on a fairly regular basis when “Operation Stack” has been in operation. There have been discussions for years about creating large areas for lorries (carving up a Kent natural beauty spot was the most recent proposal) to park up when there is French industrial action and the Chunnel and Ports are closed. Large numbers of “port-a-loos” are regularly dropped off along the motorway in anticipation of this action. This isn’t even post-brexit – this has been going on for years. Will it get worse? Perhaps. But anyone who has traveled to Gibraltar via Spain knows that border delays happen even when we are all in the same club when individual national sentiments and sensitivities are at play.

        The EU was not created to keep the Peace in Europe – it is Nato which has maintained that. The EU developed out of the common market – when then developed in turn into a trade union – which is now centre stage in the discussions about an “exit deal”. The EU doesn’t have a good track record in areas it does have influence such as trade and the “Eurozone” without suggesting it is a “Peace Keeping” force. (Unless beneath a veneer of peace France, Germany, the UK and other member states are straining at the leash to start WWIII?) – it didn’t do very much in the most recent SE European conflict. Is this an argument for the EU to have its own European Army? I really hope not.

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I hope you will excuse my indulging in a link to some of my own work, but the reference to a “European Army” as we approach the centenary of the Armistice reminded me of how long it was before the Allies in World War I submitted to a single command:


        Interestingly, (if we may trust the Wikipediast here) the American Expeditionary Forces first participated at the front on October 21, 1917, “when the 1st Division fired the first American shell of the war toward German lines, although they participated only on a small scale” – before the Supreme War Council was formed on 27 November 1917, though “the first offensive action and American-led AEF victory on 28 May 1918 at the Battle of Cantigny” was after the single command was in place.

    • Dale says:

      I know that this is late, but I should very much like to thank Bishop Damien and Patrick for their contributions to this discussion. I was feeling very lonely.

      We, I hope, have moved beyond this issue, but some of the verbiage, such as “People’s” Vote March seems very close to what used to come out of the old Soviet Union; are these people insinuating that if one voted for Brexit, one is not one of the people? The Soviet Union may have passed into history, the mentality is still alive and well amongst some of us.

      • Free speech reigns here, and I respect that freedom. I see the limitations of both “remain” and “leave” camps. We make our beds and have to sleep in them. I don’t think Soviet ideology has anything to do with it. The “people” now means not the supreme state as in Soviet Russia but the new populism in its nationalist and cosmopolitan manifestations. The world is changing very quickly.

      • Dale says:

        Fr Anthony, I do not think that those who organised the “‘People’s’ Vote March” really understand freedom of speech or opinion as perhaps you and I understand it. Their implication is that the vote for Brexit was not the voice of the people; that the voice of the people only belongs to those who voted to remain, effectively only those who agree with them. Simply the use of the term People in the context in which is was used is indeed very reminiscent of the old Soviet Union. Those who supported the Soviet ideology were the people and those who did not were not the people. Finally, the game of demanding a new vote until they get what they want is also part of the old playbook as well. Those who voted for Brexit will come to their silly little senses and change their vote to that of the real people. The mentality does not change.

      • Yes, there is a lot of demonising and caricaturing the “other side”. That is a side of politics I have no taste for. I try to understand things as best I can, and I am securing my situation in France. There are big changes in the world as “traditional” political ideologies, including the Communism you invoke, are crumbling. We are left with the extremes of right-wing populism and the “snowflakes” and “justice warriors” militating for veganism and against Trump. The writing on the wall looks like a billionaire feudal system, but one that would not be sustainable. I am not optimistic for the future of human nature and mankind as a spiritual being.

        As for the kind of people who organised the march, I sympathised with it not because of slogans or stereotyped behaviours of some of the people. On the RIFT Facebook group, I found some bitterness and intemperate remarks. Sometime the tone would become more philosophical in things like the text of John Major, former Conservative Prime Minister of the UK. It is difficult to unravel the various strands of liberalism, because the word has so many meanings, but we read much of its demise along with globalism and cosmopolitanism. Fascism is almost back in Italy and in eastern Europe because of mass Islamic immigration of violent and low-skilled people. It seems to be the only way ahead. In Europe, it is called Fascism or some similar idea, and in America something else. Is that what we really want? The mainstream political parties have failed us. American politics have been defined by opposition to Communism since the McCarthy era, and European politics in opposition to Fascism/Nazism since their defeat in 1945. We haven’t spent much time looking for something positive and good for the human soul, other than “junk religion”.

        Everything you say about the “remainers” can be said of the “leavers”. Scylla and Charybdis or Tweedledum and Tweedledee. I suppose it will be a no-deal Brexit and I will just have to learn not to care about the fate of my country. Just hole up and stick it out for as long as possible in the countryside until someone comes and gets me for some reason or another, perhaps because of something I’ve written on the internet. So be it.

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    In some recent reporting I saw a finely distinguished observation that, while the European Court of Human Rights is technically not a European Union institution, signing up to it is a requirement for would-be member-states, and that the British Labour Party peer, Charles Falconer, suggested that “for all intents and purposes” it is “not possible” to be an EU member-state without submitting to the ECHR. If this is accurate, I can’t help thinking the judgement on 25 October in E.S. v. Austria on its own might seem reason enough not to be wanting to join the EU, and deciding to leave it as soon as possible if already a member.

  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Just encountered another unfamiliar late-20th-c. Frenchman, thanks to a quotation from the late Tom Wolfe’s “The Intelligent Coed’s Guide to America” (July, 1976): “He sounded like Jean-François Revel, a French socialist writer who talks about one of the great unexplained phenomena of modern astronomy: namely, that the dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe.” (Looking him up at Wikipedia in four languages, I find he still seems pretty thoroughly unfamiliar… but La Grâce de l’État (1981) sounds like a book I’d like to know more about the content of.)

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