This book is a very readable prose piece about the state of postmodern, Western "man." It contains almost no philosophical or literary references, and while the author clearly is traversing territory covered by Existentialism, Heideggerian hermeneutics, ethics, negative theologies, postsecularism, and even some branches of postmodernist theory, she does not feel compelled to enter into hard conversation with the Continental or Anglo-American philosophical traditions, with sociology, or with theology (or with critical theory, for that matter). [Discussing the Nazi trials, Delsol concludes that we should condemn them because "a normal person's conscience tells him that Nazi law is evil" (230). If that is the case, then one wonders how Nazism got so popular in the first place. There is no investigation here of what is meant by "normal" or "conscience" or "evil," no historical memory of how many people--especially French people--actually supported Nazi law (were they all abnormal?), nor--more importantly--any consideration of ethics, literature, or political philosophy (for example, Arendt's magnificant claim about the banality of evil, aligning it, in fact, with a kind of "normalcy").] The tenor of Delsol's writing is decidedly aligned with a "small c" conservativism, but with none of U.S. conservativism's religious leanings or valuation of social norms; I guess many feel comforted with having a French intellectual express in a readable way opinions that at least *sound* congenial to a return to traditional values.
The book poetically summarizes the West's contemporary condition and makes some timely claims: that "man" today in the First World tends to have his needs fulfilled but still feels a sense of emptiness and yearning for meaning; that our turning inward to ourselves--even through our various emancipatory models of progress--has led us not to satisfaction but to a continued feeling of lostness; that existence needs an object beyond itself, paradoxically, to give itself meaning. After stating the problem rather repetitively (but again, poetically and astutely enough to hold a reader's attention and even perhaps gain his/her assent), the author reveals her "solution": we must realize that religion or other social systems of meaning will return, but cannot return in their traditional forms if they want to keep pomo mankind interested; that there must be a return of existential personal responsibility for the future and a willingness to take risks on behalf of belief/the absolute; that we must accept uncertainty and the world's contingency; that we must return to the notion of the valuable life as a daily struggle toward that which is not yet, and will never be, realized; that barbarity is always just under the surface of any happy society we create; that the "man of vigilance" must take over from the "man of Progress." The man of vigilance knows "he owes a debt to the world"; vigilance "is the state of mind of care-givers who can never entirely heal, can never entirely eradicate illness and evil, but untiringly keep threats at bay" (227).
All of this earns a "you go, girl" from me, but the last chapters reveal where all of this is going, and it's not good. What Delsol seems to arrive at is a kind of neo-Emersonianism or even a strong-man theory, where the secular, self-reliant individual acts according to his "moral" conscience in the absolute absence of "any extrinsic authority or any objective 'good.'" The more one looks at it, the scarier this poetic meditation becomes. Ironically, Delsol does not seem to realize--or does realize and is very cleverly obfuscating the fact--that rejecting the Enlightenment and advocating a Nietzschean ethics puts her firmly in the postmodernist camp. Delsol's rejection of universals of any kind in favor of individual conscience, however, does indeed distance her from the Enlightenment fathers, who believed (for example, in the construction of U.S. federalism) that the strong man must operate within social checks and balances--or inevitably turn tyrannical. This study ends up a confusing jumble of postmodernist politics, pragmatist ethics, and conservative values, and seems to be a part of a radical turn in French theory that talks like American conservativism but smells like European fascism.