His Concepts : Repair

1 Couverture Barbarie à Visage Humain054The philosophy of responsibility that Bernard-Henri Lévy sketched out in his first book, La Barbarie à visage humain (Barbarism with a Human Face), and then described in more detail in the works that followed Le Testament de Dieu (The Testament of God), accords reparation (in the sense of repairing, healing, or restoring the world) a place that is both basic and very specific.

If, as Lévy has insisted since 1977, the belief in progress is a criminal illusion (cf. notice « ANTIPROGRESSISME »), it follows that man’s vulnerability is unlimited, that the world is at risk of falling apart, that it is beset by forces of rupture, and that barbarism is never far from regaining the upper hand. It also follows, as Lévy often points out, echoing Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents, that the continuity of the world is vulnerable to outbursts of the death impulse—to the devil’s tricks. In BHL’s thinking, civilization is a fragile dike holding back the inhuman.

In pages that trembled with worry, Lévy described, in 1994 (1), the intrinsic fragility of civilization. “It is possible to believe in the crisis only when one no longer believes in death, but death is right here, at least as present as in the cities of waning empires.” He added, “I believe the world is falling to pieces …. When the dialectic reigned, there was order in the world. And in the world’s womb, pregnant with a frail, uncertain existence, there was the coming order, growing, kicking, straining to be born. The end of the dialectic means that there is just one order … and vast disorder. The old order may crumble before a new one appears.”

That prophecy was echoed in Réflexions sur la guerre, le mal et la fin de l’histoire (Reflections on War, Evil, and the End of History), published in 2001. While tracking “forgotten wars” from Burundi to Sri Lanka (cf. notice « GUERRES »), Bernard-Henri Lévy explored the revelatory power of these conflicts that are seemingly devoid of purpose or meaning, these wars that, because they are both lunatic and atelic, doom the world to a future as a ruin: “And what if modernity were that particular state of the world in which ‘every construction’ were destined to ‘fall immediately into ruin’ …. and if ruin were the first as well as the last word of the world into which we are entering?” (2)

A question haunts his work. A question that became an explicit through line, especially in the period between his examination of the forgotten wars and the start of his effort, in March 2011, to liberate Libya: How do we deal with the mortality of the human world? And what can be done to check it, to jam the machine of universal entropy?

What, indeed, can be done?

“Stop revolutionizing the world,” was the answer he gave to the magazine L’Arche, in February 2012. “Repair it. Just repair it. But do so passionately, energetically, and determinedly. That is what I believe. It’s what I have nearly always believed, even during my far-Left period at the end of the 1960s.”

So, might the duty to repair be the underlying motive behind what some describe as the philosopher’s “activism”? Probably—provided the act of repairing is defined in such a way as to meet two preconditions:

First, the concept must be distinguished from “regeneration” (cf. notice « VOLONTE de GUERIR »). Lévy himself recently emphasized the importance of the distinction: Whereas dialectical thinking—notably the thinking behind social revolution—aims to remake the human condition through the use of coercion and violence, repair works toward a much less grandiose goal, namely that of “saving lives” (3): “It’s a lovely word, really,” he writes in Pièces d’identité. “It’s the one that Camus used in The Rebel (1951), in refusing to go along with Sartre’s ideas of revolution and regeneration, which were then in vogue. It is the word of all humanists who know the danger of the competing idea, that of reinventing what it means to be human, of a history more or less broken in two, a break that one does not bother to repair because one is beginning anew.” (4)

So, no reinventing man. No waiting for a regeneration which, in one fell swoop, will do away with the “human problem.” BHL derives the humanism of repair from an inherited genealogy, that of antitotalitarianism, that of a critical tradition which, from Camus to Milosz and Kundera, has always detected in the impulse to create a clean slate the signature of barbarism.

But he also situates his axiomatics of repair outside the equally radical madness of “recommencement,” of making a new start, which is symptomatic of the dream of purity that figures in conservative revolutions, a dream that the defeat of Nazism did not extinguish entirely but that has continued to appeal to some intellectuals since the Liberation. Heideggerian and post-Heideggerian adherents of the conservative revolution (which often takes on an ecological hue) declare that they are working to “save” the world, but they remain prisoners, as Derrida observed, to their morbid fascination with origins.

Second, the notion of repair must be understood in light of its meaning in the Jewish tradition. As Lévy explains in the same passage from Pièces d’identité quoted previously, the Hebrew word meaning to repair is also associated with “the rabbis of Central Europe who, in the nineteenth century, following the example of the Vilna Gaon and Rabbi Hayim Volozyn and, reacting against all the false messiahs who, like Sabbatai Zevi and Jacob Frank, had fired up and nearly consumed European Judaism, offer the vision in which our task is simply to prevent the world that God created from disintegrating into dust and nothingness.”

Viewed within this tradition, the concept of repair, descending in a direct line from the Kabbalah and the Zohar, and transmitted to modern Europe through the teaching of the mitnagdim (the Vilna Gaon and his disciples, beginning with Rabbi Hayim Volozyn), is derived from the Jewish idea of tikkun olam or “repairing the world,” a notion formulated in the late Middle Ages by kabbalist thinker Isaac Luria (5). In the line of thought stretching from Luria to Hayim Volozyn, tikkun is more than a concept—it is the buttress of a veritable cosmogony, one in which man assumes the lofty but tricky role of “co-creator.”

According to the Kabbalah, after imparting life to the world God, literally withdraws. This is Luria’s idea of tzimtzum, the contraction of God, who leaves his creations with the task of holding together the pieces of the universe he has entrusted to them.

Lévy insists that this vision of a universe at risk of breaking apart in the manner of a “fragile, chaotic edifice” (6), which only the act of repair can keep from returning to nothingness (“literally, uncreating itself” [7]), is the product of an unexpected wager. Not a wager on a surfeit of God, but rather on an “empty heaven,” the eclipse, the “rarity,” or even the complete absence of God: “We need an antiwager that we can win not by betting on the existence but on the nonexistence of God,” Lévy wrote in Left in Dark Times. (8)

The “eclipse of God,” as Martin Buber would say, the fading away of the metaphysical shadow worlds, the “concealment of transcendence”— these did not disturb Lévy, because they created an opening for the exercise of responsibility. “That was the very heart of the great biblical wisdom that anchors if not on God’s silence, then at least on the rarity of His word, the necessity for a laborious, tireless, and efficient morality.” That is the morality of modest action.

Repair and the act of repairing: these philosophemes, while seemingly abstract, are never far removed from the urgent matters of our age. They interest Lévy so much because they illuminate the most pressing issues, from the recurrent debate on humanitarianism (cf. notice « DROITS de l’HOMME ») to the reemergence of the question of the “just war” with the Franco-British intervention in Libya (cf. notice « GUERRES »), not to mention the effort to rewrite the software that guides the political Left.

Repair as an alternative to the progressive narrative

In the epilogue of Left in Dark Times, Bernard-Henri Lévy addresses the “melancholy Left,” sketching for its adherents the outlines of a single urgent task, the urgent task of repair:

“And if I had one piece of advice, just one, for all those people I hear saying they want to renovate this and rebuilt that, if I had one contribution to bring to those projects of re-foundation that seem to be the leading issue of the day, it would be just that: think about the lesson of William of Orange on the one hand (9) and that of the Gaon of Vilna, and his disciple Rabbi Hayim Volozyn, on the other.

“First lesson. The empty heaven. Or, if it’s not empty yet, if idols remain, then the good Nietzschean hammer, the beau geste of the celestial road-mender, smashing the remaining stars in the firmament of Politics.

“Second lesson. The mourning period. Which is to say pain, but without nostalgia. Or nostalgia, but without the hope of return. No more odyssey. Farewell to Ithaca. Regret, yes, probably—yet the regret of nothing, a complete focus on the future.” (8)

Siding with the underdog: Messianism according to Bernard-Henri Lévy

That melancholy Left should take to heart the seditious attitude of Walter Benjamin. Like Benjamin, it should endeavor to rub history the wrong way. And, Lévy advises, it should follow Benjamin in not regretting the disappearance of the philosophies of history, which amounted to machines for the manufacture of misery and devastation on a grand scale. But unlike Benjamin, who kept watch over a darkening Europe while writing Zentralpark, a Left emancipated from lyricism must also know how to extricate itself from the Medusa-like spectacle of catastrophe by yanking on the emergency brake when threats loom. The Blue Helmet Left, like the hind of the Talmud, the doe of dawn of Psalm 22, must come to the aid of the humbled, of the “vanquished” of history (11), of “all the faces of the forgotten of the world” (12).

Taking the “side of the vanquished,” of course, is something that BHL has set out to do over four decades of public life. For him, that choice has always reflected a simple but cardinal rule of the game:  that of performing without a net—that is, without the security of a philosophy of history.

Is freedom difficult? Most assuredly. The progressives, like their brother-enemies, the conservatives, will stick to their position: History will roll on, they believe, and one day it will end, as Diderot solemnly assured them, at which point it will recognize its own. The laws of gravity, not of space but of time, are infallible, the theory goes, and each side believes that it alone possesses the secret key.

Lévy embraces a contrary certainty. Since his first trip to Bangladesh and his mission to persuade André Malraux to create international brigades to assist the victims of Pakistani fascism (an experience that changed him), BHL seems to have sensed that because he felt he was needed by the marginalized and the expendable (the hommes en trop of Claude Lefort), he was going to be condemned to swim against the current of the majority. That intuition produced a philosophy of fierce anti-historicism. With regard to Hegelianism and Hegel’s conviction that “the truth is at the end, when Minerva’s owl takes flight,” Lévy was not content to erect a discontinuous ontology, an elitist and tragic metaphysic inspired by Nietzsche and Baudelaire. To hold the line against historicism, he also mobilized the heavy artillery of messianism—a secularized messianism if you will, a messianism without God—that has inspired his expanding reliance on the concept of tikkun and the need to “tikkunize the world.” (13)

To tikkunize the world? In La Guerre sans l’aimer, Lévy’s journal of a writer involved in the Libyan spring, he wrote on June 22, 2011, that one of the goals of the Libyan campaign was to “reclaim for Africa its share of greatness” and “to bring that greatness to the level that the best of Europe joined it in pursuing.” (14) That assertion on Lévy’s part allowed some to claim that BHL totally underestimated the power of the Islamist backlash. On the other hand, it is difficult to deny that by aiding the Libyans to wrench free of Gaddafi’s tyranny Lévy tikkunized that part of the African continent by pointing the way to the lesser evil. And is not the ability to choose the lesser evil the prerequisite of any democratic and antidespotic politics?

Traduit par Steven Kennedy

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(1) La pureté dangereuse, Grasset, pp. 183–185.
(2) Réflexions sur la Guerre, le Mal et la fin de l’Histoire, preceded by Les Damnés de la guerre, Biblio-essais, p. 129.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Quatre lettres au directeur général de la Croix-Rouge française à propos de l’humanitaire, de son histoire et de la misère sociale en France, in Pièces d’identité, Grasset, 2010, pp. 933–959.
(5) La Kabbale, Gershom Scholem, Folio essais.
(6) Pièces d’identité, p. 288.
(7) Ibid., p. 288.
(8) Left in Dark Times, Random House, 2009, pp. 211–213. Originally published as Ce grand Cadavre à la renverse, Grasset, 2007, pp. 409–411.
(9) Ibid., p. 212. Lévy quotes the motto of William of Orange: “One need not hope in order to undertake, nor succeed in order to persevere.”
(10) Ibid., pp. 212–213.
(11) Réflexions sur la Guerre, le Mal et la fin de l’Histoire, op. cit., p. 265. Also see the luminous analyses of philosopher Jean Tellez in Le philosophe en guerre: Introduction à la philosophie de Bernard-Henri Lévy, Germina, 2011 (particularly pp. 144–145)
(12) “Comment je suis juif,” 2003, in Questions de principe IX, Grasset, p. 387.
(13) See La Règle du Jeu, January 2012.
(14) La Guerre sans l’aimer—Journal d’un écrivain au cœur du printemps libyen, Grasset, 2011.


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