Where I Stand 01/03/16

In Pierre Nora’s Les Francais D’Algeria (1961) Nora states that the liberal pied-noirs of Algeria claims to the discourse of pluralism (liberty, equality and fraternity) and their ‘recognised generosity and openness’ (Carrol 22) were nothing but a charade hiding a deep racial hatred of the Arabs and Berbers.  They, he claimed, excluded the Arabs and Berbers from their day-to-day life and thinking much as the openly racist did. And in so doing, he argued, they lived in a repressed state of denial of the fact that all they wished for was a ‘genocidal’ removal of the native population.

“Nora’s study has a strong anthropological dimension and constitutes in large part of the exploration of the customs and thinking of a people he presents as being completely ‘foreign’ to the authentic French Republican community of mainland France. Pied-noirs appear in his study as a strange exotic and extremely dangerous tribe. They are people with a smile on their face but murder their hearts. They may claim to be participating in the ‘civilising mission’ of the natives of Algeria, but they are the ones who in fact lack civilisation. They may be French that in name only.” (Carrol p.24)

This is to me, as a ‘liberal pied-noir’, troubling for various reasons.  One is that the notion referred to as ‘a genocidal removal’ of the native population does most certainly exist – although couched here in more inflammatory language than is actually the case.  Certainly in South Africa many whites simply wish the vast majority away to the perifory of their personal and social concerns, dehumanising people to the status of fungibility. This helps them in their justification of their refusal to accept that a fellow person has the same needs (what Amartya Sen calls functionings) as they do – this is certainly a common enough discourse within white circles in South Africa.

However, to suggest that all colonials/ex-colonials/pied-noirs are inherently affected by this psychological disturbance is not only troubling but Nora’s argument is in fact nonsensical in that it claims that it is the attitude of the colonial and not the colonializing country.  So where did the colonial pick up this uncivilised habit of hating the other? Were they so psychologically affected by their encounter with Africa/India etc. as to turn them into barbarians?  Surely this is not the argument Nora would have us believe?

Of course this notion is contained in A Passage to India where the ‘Indian’ echo of the Marabar caves is too much for the simple innocent civilised English person as to turn them into something other than entirely sane.  This is in stark contrast to Conrad’s description in Heart of Darkness where Marlow’s visit to Brussels is described in far from admirable  terms. He refers to the city as a ‘whited sepulchre’ (a place inwardly evil but outwardly professing to be virtuous) and encounters two witches ‘guarding the door of Darkness’ of the colonial office that employs him. That is to say the source of evil in HoD is not Africa but Europe. (It astounded me to see the other day the academic Prof Xolela Mangcu, who I have much respect for, referring to Conrad as ‘the racist’. For although much post-colonial theory has painted him as one it is an incredibly thin reading of Conrad and is certainly not the point of much post-colonial theory to merely dismiss a writer as simply ‘racist’).

This is certainly why Conrad and Heart of Darkness are seen as prophetic.  That is to say the barbarism of colonialism lay within a distinctively European psyche rather than an African.  This is a point intimated by Tony Judt in Postwar.

But the peoples who fell under German rule after 1939 were either put to the service of the Reich or else were scheduled for destruction. For Europeans this was a new experience. Overseas, in their colonies, European states had habitually indentured or enslaved indigenous populations for their own benefit. They had not been above the use of torture, mutilation or mass murder to coerce their victims into obedience. But since the eighteenth century these practices were largely unknown among Europeans themselves, at least west of the Bug and Prut rivers. It was in the Second World War, then, that the full force of the modern European state was mobilized for the first time, for the primary purpose of conquering and exploiting other Europeans. (Judt p.14, 2005)

It would however be too reductive to merely answer Nora’s claim that all pied-noirs (both liberal and reactionary alike) are inherent ‘genocidal’ racists with the claim that it is not the colonial experience but rather Europe that made us so.  Here instead I would follow the thinking Simone Weil who saw history with two strains running concurrently: one was focused on the ideas of glory and ownership, the other was committed to the humanist obligations that we have towards one another as was exemplified in the ideas that underpinned 1789.  It is here where there is a small chink of light. As Weil said: ‘History is a tissue of base and cruel acts in the midst of which a few drops of purity sparkle at long intervals.’  Surely there is enough room to suggest that some liberal pied-noirs are and were well intentioned?  Of course as for the rest, Nora’s description is not inaccurate enough to be dismissed.

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