It is impossible to imagine any country but France that could produce Bernard-Henri Levy.
BHL, as he is usually known in his native land, manages to bestride the worlds of philosophy, politics, human rights activism and high fashion with equal aplomb, a slender, handsome, swept-haired figure in designer suits and shirts open nearly to the navel. He is married to a fan-magazine beautiful actress and is heir to a vast fortune. He writes weekly columns, appears regularly on television, publishes books and champions the cause of humanitarian intervention with a passion and moral consistency few can match.
He also is regularly assailed as egomaniacal, self-promoting, opportunistic and fundamentally unserious. He is, in other words, a French intellectual celebrity. Levy first came to prominence in the 1970s when – alongside Alain Finkielkraut and André Glucksmann – he helped found the “new philosophers,” who were persuaded to abandon the orthodox Marxist nostrums of the old left by the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago” and the witness of East European literary intellectuals, such as Milan Kundera, Vaclav Havel and Czeslaw Milosz.
Since then, Levy has championed the cause of military intervention in the Balkans and Darfur, become a firm defender of Israel, investigated the murder of U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl, become an implacable foe of militant Islam. More recently, he retraced De Tocqueville’s journey through America and published a memoir of his experience.
It was no wonder, therefore, that during the recent French presidential election, Levy’s friend Nicolas Sarkozy telephoned and asked the philosopher to do what his old comrade Glucksmann had done: write and publish an article announcing his support for the Gaullist candidate. When Levy declined, citing his membership in the “family” of the left, Sarkozy cited their many practical political alliances and demanded to know why Levy persisted in holding with a movement whose members, at every turn, seemed to reject him and his thought? “Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism” is the author’s reply, arranged in a sequence more closely resembling linked lectures – he is, after all, still a professor of philosophy – than it does chapters.
It’s an apologia based first on shared images, ideals and experience – an aesthetic of loyalty, if you will – and then on a series of critiques of the left’s shortcomings, followed by concrete suggestions for their remedy. (The subtitle is borrowed from his initial anti-Marxist manifesto – “Barbarism With a Human Face” – which was itself a gloss of the Prague Spring’s motto: “Socialism With a Human Face.”)
American readers likely will find two of these chapters/lectures of particular interest. One has to do with the pervasiveness, persistence and perniciousness of anti-Americanism as an ideology. You can get a flavor of how the author deals with that by the fact that he terms “anti-Americanism” the “socialism of imbeciles.” (There’s really no put-down like a French put-down.) Levy’s discussion of contemporary anti-Semitism is sophisticated, detailed and convincing. In his analysis, a new left-wing critique centers on Israel and accuses Jews of first, monopolizing the world’s compassion by insisting on remembering the Holocaust; of creating an industry, Zionism, around that memory; and of using both to establish and maintain a racist, fascist and criminal state, Israel.
Levy is particularly good on showing how this new “progressive” critique of Jewish conduct has merged with traditional prejudices against Jews in commerce and professions to create a new, socially acceptable anti-Semitism in England and continental Europe. (It’s worth recalling in this context that Levy always has supported Israel as a liberal democracy rather than a “Jewish state” and has simultaneously argued for the creation of a Palestinian nation alongside, which is today’s conventional diplomatic wisdom.)
Levy offers as fine a description as you’re likely to find anywhere of what the conventional international left – political and journalistic – has adopted as its worldview: “We are in a world in which, on the one hand, we have the United States, its English poodle, its Israeli lackey – a three-headed gorgon that commits all the sins in the world – and, on the other side, all those who, no matter what their crimes, their ideology, their treatment of their own minorities, their internal policies, their anti-Semitism and their racism, their disdain for women and homosexuals, their lack of press freedom and of any freedom whatsoever, are challenging the former.”
The author is not only a committed secularist in the best French republican tradition, but also an atheist by principle and not simply through skeptical default. Yet he links religious insight with the “tragic wisdom” he proposes as the familial left’s salvation – albeit in that inimitable flow of rhetorical quicksilver that is the BHL signature. He begins with William of Orange’s famed martial dictum: “One need not hope in order to undertake, nor succeed in order to persevere.”
At the Hebrew bible’s heart, according to Levy, is a similar insistence on the necessity for a “laborious, tireless, efficient morality”:
“And that’s the beautiful and strange invention of those Polish rabbis from the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th century who – in reaction to Hasidism and its excessive reenchantment of the world… – proposed… the theory of a God who, of course, created the world; who wanted to do so and who therefore created it, but who after having done so, his need satisfied, then ‘concealed his transcendence’ and ‘withdrew’ – leaving his creatures the responsibility to retain or not the pieces of this universe that he left to them. If men failed to take up the task, the world would fall to pieces.”
On the other hand, “if they took care to keep the world from falling apart – then they would manage to prevent that decreation…
“That is how, in any event, it seems to me that politics ought to be thought of in the democratic age.”
Levy proposes that the contemporary left take from the Dutch warrior prince and the learned rabbis three lessons: One, it’s philosophical and psychological “heaven” that must be emptied, the old idols of transcendence, material perfection and the creation of new men and women smashed with “the good Nietzschean hammer.” Second, there must be a mourning period for lost ideals (illusions?), but without that “nostalgia” that engenders “a hope of return.” Finally, the left must adopt an activism “all the more burning because shorn of the pretense of transcendence.”
“This,” Levy writes, “is the melancholy left of Camus . . . the great Camus, pessimistic and joyous, a skeptic but still a fighter – the Camus who affirms with the same energy that neither the kingdom of Grace nor that of Justice is or will be in the world – but the soft upheaval of whose urgency we can still hear, if we pay attention.”
In Levy’s view, the “choice, after all, is clear”: “the melancholy Left versus the lyrical Left.” The former can move forward committed – or, to borrow the French formulation, “engaged” – to democracy, human rights and solidarity. The latter can drift from one self-delusion, the old messianism (the construction of new men and women), to a new demonology – the Anglo-American alliance and Israel. Meanwhile, a force that would devour both if it were able – Islamo-fascism – lurks in the outer darkness, the new totalitarian threat.
At the end of the day, it won’t be too great a surprise if those who choose Levy’s melancholy left end up in a place that looks very much like the liberal, tolerant, pluralistic civil society proposed in the philosophies of Berlin and Popper. Too bad they’re not read alongside Heidegger, Lacan and Derrida in those continental universities.