It began with Bangladesh’s war of independence. Influenced by André Malraux, who urged that an international brigade be formed and sent into the former East Pakistan (cf. notices « ses maîtres », and an unpublished text by Bernard-Henri Lévy on the subject), the 22-year-old philosopher embraced the cause of the Bangladeshi people and became the mouthpiece of their legitimate desire for independence. That investigative expedition, which he reported in his first book, Les Indes rouges, (1) was the first in an unbroken series of dispatches and interventions in conflicts around the world, some of which received extensive media coverage (such as the Serbian aggression in multicultural Bosnia in 1993 and, more recently, the Franco-British engagement in Libya, which BHL helped to get off the ground), while others were more or less left out of the spotlight of world history.
Les Indes rouges was published almost 40 years ago. In it, the climate of the time, colored by the pro-Beijing stance of France’s maoists, is palpable. But since his time with the Bangladeshi maoists known as Naxalites, the future New Philosopher has felt passionately about the question of the meaning of war and has not concealed his skepticism about the halo of romanticism that often surrounds war. Two intuitions that would later prove important came together in this youthful text—first, that of the bankruptcy of historicism (cf. notice « ANTIPROGRESSISME »), and, second, the inkling that he would soon be obliged to consider himself a warrior. (2)
This agonistic conception of intellectual life is inseparable from Lévy’s ethical perspective, in which he is neither a “committed spectator” in the manner of Raymond Aron, nor a “confidant of providence” like the communist intellectuals whom Aron grapples with in Peace and War—or, more precisely, whom he judges on appeal from the putative judgments of history, as only a philosopher assigned to a post far to the rear of the front line can do.
So it was not by chance that, following 1977’s Barbarism with a Human Face, the ethical perspective of Bernard-Henri Lévy was bound up closely with a radical critique of historicism (or the belief in social progress based on historical evidence), which soon became one of the main thrusts of his philosophy.
What effect, one may ask, did this antihistoricist turn have on his thoughts, and recently his actions, concerning war? What is the link between his dismissal of the philosophies of history and the attention he has focused on episodes of conflict? As Lévy suggested as early as Le lys et la cendre (1995), and even more insistently in his reporting on “forgotten wars,” from the Nuba mountains of South Sudan to Colombia, published in Le Monde in 2001, war will have a different meaning depending on whether or not it is conceived as part of a grand scheme of history.
As long as one remains within the echo chamber of historical necessity, in which even the most horrifying events can be deemed necessary for human progress or evolution—as long as one remains remains under the influence of Weltgeschichte, in other words—the smallest war assumes meaning, falling within a secular theodicy that keeps it from appearing as pure and simple carnage, no matter how cruel it is or how many ordinary lives it obliterates. This is the meaning of the remark that opens his 2001 collection of reports on the forgotten wars, Reflections sur la Guerre, le Mal et la fin de l’Histoire (reflections on war, evil, and the end of history): “For a long time, wars had meaning.” (3) Wars just and unjust, wars of aggression and resistance, wars of religion, wars of national liberation, and finally “revolutionary wars whose protagonists stormed the heavens in order to build a new world”—when the Hegelian dialectic held sway, no conflict failed to register on the “world-historical” radar screen. And if, as sometimes happened, the protagonists lost their will to fight, well then Ideology stepped in to give their struggle the foundation that it seemed to lack, closing the ranks of the confused and dispirited combattants. From this point of view, Lévy wrote, the lowliest “guerrilla from the Mollucan Islands, South India, or Peru … was, whether he knew it or not, a participant in a global struggle.”
That providential mechanism is now obsolete: “The decline of Marxism and the rest of the great myths that together gave meaning to something meaningless, namely people’s endless pain and suffering, broke that hoary catechism into a thousand pieces,” Lévy wrote. (4) The breakdown of the philosophical machine that had justified “the world’s agonies” meant that naked violence could no longer be fed into the gargantuan maw of Progress. It also meant, BHL added, that loss, ruin, and entropy returned to world history. Along with tragedy.
That metaphysical revolution legitimized fear in the face of the irreparable: “In the past, in our lands, the absurd and the tragic were understood as singular, personal feelings,” wrote Lévy (5). “We believed in the absurd, but within the confines of private life. We could accept madness, even the idea of living to die, but, again, in the context of individual destinies. But when confronted with the transports of the species as a whole, majestic or convulsive, the position changed and different theme music, a different fanfare, was cued up. The same people who swore by La Nausée in the personal sphere had trouble imagining pure savagery and naked violence, insisting that the collective, no matter how dark, was necessarily the site of the workings of reason and its obligatory results.” In other words, the withdrawal of the secular theodices and the cloak of abstractions that they threw over conflict, exposed to the naked light the grinding “storm of steel” of Ernst Jünger (6): “It is as if a mighty tide went out, leaving behind men and women who continue to fight—sometimes with even greater ferocity than before—with the difference that their clash is now devoid of the sense, the promises, and the epiphanies that it once held.” (7)
As Lévy intuited as early as La Pureté dangereuse (1994), the decline of the philosophies of history offered humanity a chance at freedom, but it also floated the threat of a partitioning or fragmentation of the world, putting it on a collision course with meaninglessness and nihilism. “I foresee a proliferation of wars, all of which will be civil wars,” the philosopher wrote at the time, alarmed by the cruelty of Algeria’s jihadists toward the country’s civilian population. (8)
And what is the consequence of that fracturing of the shared world? “More and more numerous are conflicts that have severed the cord that tied them to the universal, conflicts the outcome of which, one feels (rightly or wrongly) will in no way change the fate of the planet.” (9)
Of course, some wars are immunized against the absurd, and Bernard-Henri Lévy earns his living exploring them: The wars of an armed people against tyranny, for example, such as the rebellion against Gaddafi of the chebabs of Cyrenaica and their brothers in Jebel Nafusa, whom Lévy, after a trip to Egypt in February 2011, would aid in a manner without equivalent in modern intellectual history. Or the insurrection of the Bosnians against Serbia’s Panzer-like communists in 1992–93. (10) Or the uprising of the young Republic of Georgia against the Russian tanks and missiles of Putin and Medvedev in 2008. All of these BHL observed and reported on. (11) The struggle of the Afghans, supported by a coalition of allies, against the radical Islamic Taliban falls into the same category (12) (cf. notice « FASCISLAMISME »).
In the planetary thaw of meaning, only wars of deliverance, wars that break chains and reignite the flame of the people’s spring, retain a positive side. But the desert that forms around nihilism supports few such wars, while greatly increases the number of those that Lévy calls “untouchable.”
“Untouchable wars?” In Lévy’s thinking, the expression reinforces the concept of “forgotten wars,” for which it also serves as a synonym. The usage was the subject of a trenchant analysis by Jean-Claude Milner in his Penchants criminels de l’Europe démocratique (2003), in which the linguist praised Lévy’s double conceptual innovation: “The oblivion that he evokes is structural rather than circumstantial, akin to untouchability in the caste system.” (13) Further, Milner explains: “Those looking for meaning can adapt to war as understood by Clauswitz—that is, as a continuation of politics by other means. But the context of such wars is peace. Clauswitzian wars are a preparation for peace using specific means…. By contrast, there are wars that it is impossible to view as peace in the making. Those wars we forget—we do not touch them…. This new form of noli me tangere exists alongside the hermeneutic conception of peace, of which it is the bloody opposite.” (14)
What is the intellectual to do in the face of a river of desolation that has no common word to describe it (Lévy calls it “disbeing”) and no bed to contain it? Is it possible to philosophize on the shunned theaters of extreme terror? Yes, is his answer, but only if one abandons, once inside the zone of horror, all of the hallowed trappings of the scholar—the confidant of providence, the adviser of princes, the expert—to become what he called, in Le Siècle de Sartre, “Hegel’s Jew,” who declined the almighty’s offer of salvation. (15)
Hegel’s Jew? Is that Lévy’s self-portrait, painted against the background of the “forgotten wars”? No doubt, but that’s not all it is. The distinctive feature of these untouchable conflicts is that they constitute “wars without a name,” (16) or wars whose names “tell us nothing about anything.” The first task of the reporter, then, is “name the places,” “to create not commonplaces but places in common,” and “to make people hear ‘Huambo’ and immediately see the abomination, unobscured by any memorial.” (17) Now, this act of restorative naming (cf. notice « REPARATION ») can be performed only by a mind that has been relieved of its Hegelian baggage. Knowing that horror is irreducible, knowing that the extreme vulnerability of the human world is a challenge to his sense of responsibility, Hegel’s Jew does not count on any consolation from dialectics and accepts the humble but enormous role of the witness to ruin.
In 2010, Bernard-Henri Lévy offered an image closely related to this axiom of responsibility by contrasting the “doe of Venus” (or of dawn or of the Talmud) to “Minerva’s owl,” a central figure in the Hegelian dialectic. (18) Whereas the latter, once night falls over the battlefield, takes flight to deliver the verdict of History, the former, rebellious and messianic, rubs history the wrong way and, in a manner closer to Walter Benjamin than to the philosophers of reason in history, steps between the belligerents, distinguishing the agressor from the aggressed, in the hope of reducing the scale of the devastation in both camps. A mere image? No, for between the lines, this double metaphor expresses the role that BHL assigns to the intellectual in situations of extreme hostility, particularly those that are the most vicious. The role of witness, of course, in the line of fire if need be, but even more important, that of a conscience capable of evoking the heroism of the victims, capable of restoring their names and faces, of pulling from the fire their fragile singularity.
This is reluctant war, war waged without relish. (19) Though still war, it is purged of the status symbols of salvational violence. Lévy’s allegory of the doe of the Talmud, offered a little over a year before the start of the war against Gaddafi’s tyranny, announces the philosophical task that BHL set for himself in taking up the cause of a free Libya, the task of a new Byron protected against romantic exaltation by keeping his eye on the goal, which is to save lives. That is far indeed from the reductionist image of the warlord conveyed by the derisive monniker “Lawrence of Libya.” But it is very close to the anti-Franco Malraux of Serra de Teruel.
Translation by Steven Kennedy
1. Originally published by Maspero in 1973 as Bangla-Desh: Nationalisme dans la révolution. Reprinted in 1985 by Livre de Poche/Biblios.
2. On this point, see La pureté dangereuse, Grasset, 1994.
3. Réflexions sur la Guerre, le Mal et la fin de l’Histoire, Biblio-essais, p. 21. Originally published by Grasset, 2001.
5. “Les damnés de la guerre,” Le Monde, May 30, 2001, www.lemonde.fr/conflitsbhl.
6. Jünger’s Stahlgewittern (1920) was published in 2004 by Penguin as Storm of Steel.
7. “Les damnés de la guerre,” op. cit.
8. La pureté dangereuse, Grasset, 1994, p. 183.
9. Réflexions sur la Guerre, le Mal et la fin de l’Histoire, op. cit., p. 21–22.
10. cf. Le lys et la cendre: Journal d’un ecrivain au temps de la guerre de Bosnie, Grasset, 1996.
11. Pièces d’identité, Grasset, 2010.
12. Report of the President and the Prime Minister on France’s Contribution to the Reconstruction of Afghanistan, Grasset, avril 2002.
13. Les Penchants criminels de l’Europe démocratique, Verdier, 2003, p. 90.
14. Ibid., pp. 90-91
15. Le Siècle de Sartre, Grasset, 2000. In an anecdote from Hegel, the Almighty appears before a Jew and offers him a choice between eternal salvation and the morning paper. The Jew chooses the morning paper.
16. Réflexions sur la Guerre, le Mal et la fin de l’Histoire, op. cit., p. 129.
17. Ibid., p. 125.
18. De la guerre en philosophie, Grasset, 2010, p. 105 .
19. La guerre sans l’aimer (Grasset, 2012) is the title of BHL’s book about the Libyan revolution of 2011. The title can be translated in various ways, from the literal (“war without loving it”) to the transformed (“reluctant war”).