His Concepts : The Will to purity

4 COUVERTURE LA PURETE DANGEREUSEEvery philosophy has its own climate, its inimitable Stimmung. That of Bernard-Henri Lévy, as far back as you go in his work, is dominated by a talent for contrary thinking cultivated at the side of his master, Louis Althusser, a talent for engaging in polemics, for waging a war (a polêmos)—for identifying the enemies against which the thinker must use his systematizing skill as a rampart. BHL’s philosophical model is thus that of the guerrilla. Thinking, for him, is to wage a war of position and to draw what Althusser would call a “dividing line” across a highly changeable front where circumstantial enemies often conceal essential ones.

From his reporting in Bangladesh in 1971 to his most recent stances in favor of the Sudanese insurrection of General Yasir Armin, BHL has struggled against all sorts of adversity, but there is one enemy that he has always kept in his sights, tried to yoke, and feared: purity. The ideal of purity. Or better yet, the will to purity. More consequential, more powerful, in his eyes, than the will to know, perhaps more destructive and nihilistic than the Nietzschean will to power, the will to purity resides within an episteme that Lévy has spent his philosophical career trying to defeat. The reason is that purity epitomizes the dark forces that the writer-philosopher has doggedly chronicled over the past four decades. Behind the fulminations of this or that nationalistic or populist leader and in the back of the minds of the young, machete-wielding killers of the Rwandan genocide, the ethnic purifiers of Greater Serbia, the Anglo-Pakistani assassin of journalist Daniel Pearl, and even the self-righteous French commentators on the moral failings of Dominique Strauss-Kahn in the wake of the Sofitel affair—a single demon can be detected, hidden under dissimilar motives, and that is the demon of purity.

The recurrence of this motif gives BHL a distinctive place in the antitotalitarian family. Hannah Arendt sees the ultimate signature of totalitarianism in the rejection of “human plurality.” François Furet (The Passing of an Illusion) is inclined to blame historicist illusion. And Alain Finkielkraut (L’humanité perdue) asserts that Arendt and Furet are both right, describing totalitarianism as hypnosis by the number two—that is, as a reduction of the human problem to a choice between “two camps” represented by Robespierre and Lenin. By contrast to all three thinkers, BHL prefers to probe, to pull at threads, to dissect what he sees as “a sad passion.” That difference results in definitions that seem to deviate from the mainstream of the antitotalitarian movement. For the founder of the Messager européen, escaping totalitarianism meant “counting up to three.” For the editor-in-chief of La Règle du Jeu it means, above all, resisting the enchantments of purity.

What does it mean to resist the temptations of purity? It was in 1994 that this idea, which would prove so important in Lévy’s writing, first took form. The End of History and the Last Man, the bestseller by American political thinker Francis Fukuyama, published in French translation two years before, provided a glimpse of the global triumph of the liberal and democratic order, accomplished through contagion. And while nothing appeared capable of challenging the hegemony of Fukuyama’s model, while the gradual extinction of antagonisms on the peaceful horizon of the “end of history” was taken to be almost obvious, BHL set out like a sharpshooter to shake the “post-communist” consensus. Adhering faithfully to the line of his polemic, and even more to his pessimism and rejection of teleology, the philosopher explained in La Pureté dangereuse (Grasset, 1994) that, far from ensuring a happy ending to the world’s future, the fall of the Berlin Wall implied a crumbling, a fragmentation of the universal. To the promise of the gradual damping of conflict, the philosopher responded with the thesis of a tragic resurgence of conflict, a revival of âgon against a background of generalized relativism. In chapters that reprised Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, BHL described a twin threat: the expanding desert of anomie and the attrition of the great signifiers of universality.

Against the confident universalism of Fukuyama, BHL, who never ceased being an antitotalitarian, even after the evaporation of the Eastern Bloc, posited a troubled universalism. He made no secret of his unease. To take the full measure of the global regression that he foresaw, he deployed a new conceptual model, that of the “will to purity.” It was a model adapted to a new world still being formed, the only one, he claimed, to warn of the danger that lay ahead: “Do we really want to change times?” he asked. “To enter, with no possibility of return, the era that’s coming, with its one solution—the will to purity—that, alas, will be the new catch-phrase?” Honesty requires us to acknowledge, that the notion had already appeared one or two times in Lévy’s philosophy. In Les derniers jours de Charles Baudelaire, the philosopher had dwelled momentarily on the ambiguous passion for purity, perceiving it as one of the drivers of modern unreason, guided by Baudelaire’s warnings on the topic of “mankind’s folly for purity.” But La pureté dangereuse broke new ground by putting purity at the center of a scheme that purported, to the exclusion of nearly all other factors, to explain the new configurations of barbarism.

Bernard-Henri Lévy was certain of it: Despite the optimistic predictions of Fukuyama, despite the Panglossian tendencies of Fukuyama’s French imitators, history was again lashed to the wheel. Exactly five years after taking this position, standing with Jacques Derrida and Christian Bourgois in defense of Salman Rushdie against the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini, BHL drew up a discouraging list of the many places where a new collapse of sense and meaning was looming. Along with Russia, already in a nationalist swoon, and Rwanda, then split by genocide (the widespread denial of which would never cease to haunt him), BHL focused his analysis on the fate of two countries that the proponents of purity were doing their best to destroy.

First, Bosnia, that miracle of coexistence, that “open society” whose very qualities made it vulnerable to the fury and vandalism of Serb national-communism and its armed wing, the tchetniks. Bosnia, whose cause he had taken on two years before, a country in which “ethnic cleansing was not the means, but the end (….), not just an awful weapon wielded in pursuit of a war, which would at least have had its own logic, program, and goals, but the goal itself, the entire program of the war.” (1) That Bosnia which, because it was a microcosm of Europe, polarized the anger of those obsessed with land claims, the border fanatics, all those who hated the Danubian diversity and multiculturality celebrated by Claudio Magris.

Next, Algeria, where the philosopher was born, and one of the first fields of confrontation between secularism and what Lévy had not yet labeled “fascislamism.” Algeria, where the FIS (the Islamist party), supported by the GIA (groupes islamiques armés, armed Islamic groups) had launched all-out war against the regime born of the FLN. BHL writes: “As for Algeria, and all the other countries threatened by Islamism, or overtaken by it, they, too—and how!—are drunk on a form of purity, which it would be too easy to dismiss by contrasting it with the brazen spectacle of bare-faced corruption of the FLN state.”

Is Algeria drunk on purity? With a few other French thinkers of the era, including his friend André Glucksmann, Lévy reported from the field, hammering home this hypothesis, the proof of which he saw in the Islamist insurrection’s treatment of intellectuals, whose throats were slit at their front door or who were gunned down openly in the street, point blank, as if their very existence was “a sort of stain on the immanent unity of the Arab nation.”

A basic characteristic of the fascism of purity begins to emerge. As in Mussolini’s Italy and Nazi Germany, as in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, the will to purity goes hand in hand with open hostility toward those who look too closely, those too devoted to thought, and those who cultivate the critical spirit. “In Rwanda, intellectuals were identified by the fact that they wore glasses. In Algeria, they were recognized by their appearance, their gestures, their way of walking, standing, or dressing—any mark of difference, sometimes nearly imperceptible, that betrayed western influence and that disturbed the tranquility of the Ummah. Cleanliness, uniqueness, permanence, timelessness, limpidity: These are the bywords of purity. And invariably it is in the name of that purity that, after a clandestine drubbing and unending terror, a man whose sole crime was thinking is executed.” (2)

Lévy’s journalistic insights into the ravages of purity also underpin a phenomenology of the will to purity that revisits and updates his oldest conceptual formulations. According to BHL, “whenever integrality, purity, is in the driver’s seat, we have to assume the presence of a fundamentalism that may not always speak its name but that should be recognized and identified for what it is.” Politically, this implies the existence of a “fundamentalist international” whose signature is the “fantasy of a body, whole and entire, but purged of its parasitic elements.”

Baudelaire, remember, faulted the “friends of the human race,” that is, those who had not yet come to be known as progressives, for ignoring original sin. The poet’s refusal to play along with the denial of the fall of man was, according to the author of The Last Days of Charles Baudelaire, one of the most brilliant esthetic and ethical threads in Baudelaire’s work. To the extent that, in BHL’s eyes, the will to purity is fundamentally anti-Baudelairian: In it, original sin is always imagined to be annullable. The knotty, twisted wood of humanity can be straightened at will. In this sense, the fundamentalist is not blinded so much by his crazy convictions as by a faulty ontology: Trapped in a labyrinth of surreality, he has faith in the existence of a “good origin,” the full plenitude of which must be fully restored at all costs. “There is only one beginning, and it was good, goes the thinking of someone whose judgment is affected by the will to purity. If only Stalin had not betrayed Lenin. If only the Emir had not strayed from the Caliph.”

In other words: “Deviation (…), an error of interpretation, of understanding of the sacred text” derailed the train. One need only go back to the point at which the deviation occurred and start over. One need only reboot history. Above and beyond the correction of the Lucretian clinamen, the denial of original sin encourages a demiurgic, alchemistic politics: “Original sin is radical, irremediable—and that is exactly what makes it intolerable to the fundamentalist. The advantage of the idea of deviation is that one can return to the fork, taking the right path this time, and, in so doing, erase the original mistake.” (3) In the “purist’s” vision of history, one may lodge an appeal against evil before a divine court: “Fundamentalism (…) is a return, not to origins, but to the point of deviation from the straight and narrow.” (4)

Lévy warns us not to deceive ourselves into thinking that this metaphysical regression affects certain “secular religions” more than others. In the course of the twentieth century, all swayed to the mad cadences of the desire for purity. Every one, including the various manifestations of communism, which did not wait for Stalin before splintering into competing orthodoxies and breaking into two parts the history of the human race; the various religious fundamentalisms, grafted onto the resurrection of the “origin”; and, of course, all of the forms of fascism and the multiple variants of the “revolutionary right,” which give free rein to the ultimate fantasy, that of the “fundamentalist international”—again, the fantasy of a perfect body purged of its parasites. That was the fantasy at work in the fascist revolution that resulted in the Vichy regime, which right thinkers long persisted in viewing as a mild and benevolent form of reaction. Expanding on the thesis of his Idéologie française, BHL shows that the “the sinister and chilling nightmare of Vichy,” in the words of Roland Barthes, was also a nightmare of purity, for the will to purity was able to prop itself up by appealing to forms of naturalism and organicism congruent with its orientations.

Naturalism, first: In the case of the regime founded by Marshal Pétain on the ruins of the republican France of Léon Blum and Jules Moch, naturalism is the very air that one breathes. In this telluric grounding, where good blood and good sense combined to defeat the transcendentalists of the despised republic, the motto was to rely on the “spontaneous substantialism of societies.” A strategy of “regeneration,” directed against all those who were thought to be muddying the holistic comity of eternal France (the Jews, the freemasons, and the communists, among others) restored to positions of authority the instincts, primordial allegiances and associations, and basic identities—the roots that supposedly do not lie. (5)

And, second, organicism: “The complete society, present to itself, natural, that extraordinary and exquisitely formed social body that, in order to be reborn, awaits only the removal of the miasmas of the law, politics, ideas, and representation. Is that imagined society,” Lévy asks, “not another version of the ‘good community’ that was the dream of the fundamentalists?”

Naturalism, organicism, denial of original sin. Can it be by chance that the three basic affects of the will to purity, as suggested in scattered observations in La Pureté dangereuse, are close, in the realm of philosophical meaning, to the terrible atmosphere of gnosis? The gnostic experience is that of the being cast adrift, the dereliction of man abandoned in a universe that is not only unfinished but also evil. In Late Antiquity, gnosis culminated in escapism. Those who cultivated it preferred to escape to other realms, to a hidden world, to a consoling surreality far from the uninhabitable Earth. In modern times, the gnostic aspiration is re-anchored in the here and now. The task is to carve out a new man, raised up from his limitations. The transfiguration of human nature becomes once again a promise to be fulfilled on the horizon of history. The German philosopher Hans Jonas and his contemporary Eric Voegelin produced a brilliant exegesis of the gnostic tradition. Their reading rests on the affinity between the primordial experience of gnosis—that of an odious world to be fled and deserted—and the totalitarian solutions forged in the modern era in the hope of escaping the human dilemma.

When the human subject experiences himself primarily as cast adrift (geworfen), he is forced, in order to regain control over his own existence, to refashion his stay on earth. “The existing reality must be annihilated,” wrote Voegelin. “That is the major task of gnosis.” In his autobiographical notes, commenting on the practical consequences of the gnostic stance, he added, in a disillusioned voice, “The metastatic hope for a new world to take the place of the old during one’s own lifetime has become a permanent source of trouble in political life.” Why? Because, in the gnostic view, “the eschatological state of perfection will be attained by direct violence.” Voegelin, an anti-Nazi conservative, had the German catastrophe in mind when he wrote those pessimistic lines. They remind us of BHL’s brilliant passage on what Emmanuel Levinas called the “philosophy of Hitlerism”: “Nazism and the will to purity. It would be useful to reread all of the canonical texts of Nazism, to revisit all of its programs and the accumulated literature of propaganda, by Goebbels, Rosenberg, and others (both before and after taking power), in order to tease out the signs of that other metaphorical constellation, this one framed in positive terms, that of the radiant evocation of the lost virginity of Aryan Germany.” (6)

On the frontier of apocalyptic delirium, the will to purity dissipates and vanishes, leaving the stage to another diabolical figure that is its extension and projected shadow: the will to cure—otherwise known as medicalism. In Lévy’s thinking, that is the capping concept that emerges from analysis of the totalitarian phenomenon. (cf. notice « VOLONTE DE GUERIR »)

Translation by Steven Kennedy

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(1) La pureté dangereuse, p. 71.
(2) La pureté dangereuse, p. 77.
(3) La pureté dangereuse p. 123.
(4) La pureté dangereuse, p. 124.
(5) La pureté dangereuse, p. 258 and 208.
(6) La pureté dangereuse, p. 100.


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