Bernard-Henri Lévy, known most widely as a philosopher and nonfiction writer, is also a novelist, filmmaker, and playwright. He is the author of more than 40 books.
Born in Beni Saf, Algeria, in 1948, he was one of the founders of the “New Philosophers” movement. A committed intellectual, he is known for his opposition to authoritarianism in its manifold forms and as a proponent of the “duty to intervene.”
Known universally as BHL, he is a columnist for numerous periodicals in France and abroad and chairs the advisory board of the French media network Arte. He is publisher of the review La Règle du jeu and manages the “Figures” collection at Grasset, a Paris publishing house.
The origins of a life of activism
Bernard-Henri Lévy studied philosophy at France’s prestigious École Normale Supérieure. After a period of teaching epistemology and philosophy, he took another direction.
In 1971, Lévy found himself as the sole member of the “international brigade” that André Malraux had tried to form to liberate the Bengalis of what was then East Pakistan from oppression at the hands of West Pakistan. His account of the experience—Bangladesh: Nationalisme dans la révolution—appeared in 1973 (later reissued as Les Indes rouges). This was the first war zones in which Lévy would commit embark to and later reported from conflict regions including Darfur, Ukraine, Nigeria, and Kurdistan.
For half a century Lévy has continued to venture into the heart of the globe’s “forgotten wars,” remote conflicts in which the weak face seemingly overpowering odds against the weapons of the powerful. To these starkly unbalanced struggles he has devoted much of his work in the form of books, on-site reporting, documentary films, and commentary.
The New Philosophy
Lévy quickly found himself at the head of a generation of young philosophers who were shaking up the intellectual scene. Along with André Glucksmann, he embodied the new current of antitotalitarian thought. In 1977, Lévy published Barbarism with a Human Face, followed two years later by The Testament of God. Both works that explored the parallels between Nazism and Marxism in search of the sources of totalitarianism. Emmanuel Levinas and Roland Barthes were among the prominent philosophers who hailed the significance of these works.
In L’Idéologie française (French Ideology, 1981), Lévy analyzed the philosophical underpinnings of fascism in France. The work provoked fierce polemical debate within France’s intelligentsia, opening divisions that persist to this day.
The duty to intervene advocated by Lévy is intended to combat the abuses of what he described in La Pureté dangereuse (1994) as the “will to purity” of fascist regimes around the world.
About Lévy and the committed intellectual that he embodies, Salman Rushdie said this: “The intellectual must adopt a rapid-response mode if he doesn’t want to miss the train. He spends a long time—several years—in research and writing, then a very short time intervening in a must-have debate.”
The works that followed were Adventures on the Freedom Road: The French Intellectuals in the 20th Century (1995), a critically acclaimed biography of Jean-Paul Sartre (2000), and De la guerre en philosophie (On the War in Philosophy, 2010).
His commitment is equally evident in his reporting expeditions, such as the one he made to the United States in the footsteps of de Tocqueville (American Vertigo, 2006), and in his correspondence with Michel Houellebecq, which appeared as Public Enemies (2008).
Lévy is also the author of plays—Le jugement de Dieu (The Judgment of God, 1992), Hôtel Europe (2014–15), and Looking for Europe, 2018–19). His novel Le Diable en tête won the 1984 Médicis Prize. Four years later, his Les derniers jours de Charles Baudelaire (The Last Days of Charles Baudelaire) captured the Interallié Prize. Comédie appeared in 1997. Jorge Semprun hailed Lévy’s “generous writing,” which he described as “beautiful, often superb.”
The duty to intervene
In support of Bosnia-Herzegovina under President Alija Izetbegovic, Lévy made his first documentary, Un jour dans la mort de Sarajevo (A Day in the Death of Sarajevo), which appeared in late 1992. His subsequent Bosna! was screened at the 1994 Cannes Festival. The filmmaker’s journal of the grueling Sarajevo ordeal was published in 1996 as Le Lys et la cendre (The Lily and the Ash).
The same combination of filmmaking and writing came to the fore during the war in Libya in 2011. BHL’s documentary, The Oath of Tobruk, was accompanied by his war journal, La Guerre sans l’aimer (Reluctant War). A similar synergy has surrounded the struggle of the Peshmerga in Iraqi Kurdistan (Peshmerga; The Battle of Mosul) in the fight against ISIS.
His new documentary film, The Will To See, came about in 2020 when Lévy was sent by a group of international newspapers to bear witness and report from countries around the world overcome with suffering and hardship, disrupted by war and the most challenging geopolitical disasters, yet no one seemed to be paying attention. A journey to Nigeria, Syrian and Iraqi Kurdistan, Ukraine, Somalia, Bangladesh, Greece, Libya and Afghanistan, Lévy’s film is an unflinching look at the world’s most unreachable hotspots and urgent humanitarian crises throughout the pandemic.