There is a nice distinction between the titles of the latest extended essay from France’s leading intellectual, Bernard-Henri Lévy. In Britain and America, this pungent broadside against received wisdom is called The Virus In The Age Of Madness. In French, however, it is called Ce virus que rend fou— or, literally, “this virus which makes one mad”.
For Lévy, or B-H L as he is popularly known in Paris, it is six of one and half a dozen of the other. We are living, he says, in an age where people have been made mad because of their response to the virus; and his book is an impassioned plea for common sense to strike. It was written, he says, “from anger — we are all making a huge mistake”.
Although the frustration had been building for some time, Lévy says it was a phone call from a Kurdish friend which triggered his real alarm and led him to write the book. “He told me of a big massacre which had taken place close to the Turkish border. And I realised I knew nothing about it — all the news had been hijacked by stories about the response to the coronavirus”.
We have no equivalent to B-H L in this country, a sort of gentleman buccaneer and derring-do reporter, combined with generous dollops of philosophy which go down well in France, but are often greeted with bemusement here, where there is no real category of “public intellectual”.
Always pictured in his trademark open-necked shirt, he is said to be seriously rich, having inherited his father’s timber business; and he is also brave, frequently putting himself into dangerous situations. About a week before our Zoom encounter he had reportedly been chased in Libya after a visit to a mass grave, and called a “Jewish dog”; the journalism, for the Wall Street Journal, is part of B-H L’s determination to keep that part of his life alive despite the pandemic.
So when Lévy, 71, says that he was shocked not to know about a massacre in Kurdistan, he is talking from a particularly well-informed viewpoint. That phone call, he says, made him realise that “the biggest catastrophes could be happening, and we will know nothing”.
In his slim book he writes of a brief experiment: picking out a random week and looking at how news was reported. He writes: “I discovered that, according to the mirror that is held up to us, not a thing had happened that week except for the virus. The migrants had disappeared. Global warming no longer existed…the war in Yemen had not happened. The one in Syria was a mirage…”
And with an angry passion he goes on to detail how the men he tells me are “dictators and apprentice dictators” have used the coronavirus, to advance corruption and venal practices all over the world, confident that whatever they are doing will go virtually unnoticed and unrecorded.
Besides obvious targets such as Russia’s Putin or Xi Jinping in China — particularly with the latter’s treatment of the Uighur and the crackdown in Hong Kong — Lévy points the finger at Turkey’s President Erdogan.
Of him, he writes: “Erdogan, not content with having the blood of the Kurds on his hands or the squalid poverty of the refugees of Lesbos on his conscience, cut the water supply for 460,000 men, women and children in Syrian Kurdistan, just as frequent hand-washing had become essential. At the same time, he was violating the territorial waters of Cyprus, a fellow member country of the European Union. He was pushing his advantage in Somalia, and, as if engaged in no more than a walk in the park, sending his janissaries to stretch their legs and their Kalashnikovs in Libya. But nobody seemed too worried. Social distancing also applied between continents”.
Democracies, he believes, “fell into the trap of putting health and liberty in balance”, and inevitably liberty suffered.
It is the loss of liberty that has made Lévy so angry. He devotes almost half of his fury to the wholesale acceptance, as though they were the words of God, of the doctors and scientists who have driven the global response to the pandemic.
Though he says that “physicians are for the most part admirable people” and offers thanks for the presence of Dr Anthony Fauci in front of “the wilfully ignorant and imbecilic cynicism of the American president”, that does not mean, says Lévy, that we should make “physicians into supermen and superwomen and endow them with extraordinary powers”.
But indeed, Lévy says, that is exactly what has happened, in the global rush to find someone — anyone — who will point to a route out of the pandemic.
Intriguingly, B-H L does not shy from reminding the reader of his roots in this polemic. He speaks of the weary inevitability that Jews would get blamed for the virus, writing that “among far-right agitators, the indictment of the ‘Chinese virus’ was quickly followed by by the announcement of a ‘Judeo-virus’, worse than the coronavirus. This led, in turn, to a variety of wild claims. The virus was designed by Israel as a biological weapon, according to Paul Nehlen, white supremacist and failed congressional candidate. From the Nation of Islam’s “research group”, we heard that Israel had developed the virus for political assassinations. A Swiss Holocaust denier claimed that George Soros was spreading th virus through his biological laboratories in Wuhan”.
And during the weeks of lockdown, he contacted many Jewish thinkers and writers to see if there were an answer in rabbinical literature as to how to approach the virus. He does not come up with a definitive answer, other than to offer the gloomily amusing talmudic assertion that “the best of doctors is going to hell”, a quote he found in the Mishnah, and then offers the gloss and interpretation from scholars such as Maimonides and the Maharal of Prague.
Maimonides, himself the court physician to the sultan of Egypt, warned that “the same doctor, using the same treatment, can kill one patient and cure another. Another reason he should go to hell.”
The Maharal, supposedly the creator of the Golem, the inanimate figure brought to life to help to save the Jews, wrote about hell, says Lévy. “Hell is the body… and the body alone. Hell is you, it is me, it is us — but because we are trapped in our bodies, reduced to our bodily life, and, under the sway of medical power… we consent”.
Altogether Lévy wants us to treat doctors not as superhuman beings with all the answers, but with a level of respect — and acknowledgement that the doctors, too, are only human.
“Of course I respect doctors,” he says, “I consider that they are heroes. To risk one’s life the way they do is pure heroism. But I also know that medical knowledge is not God knowledge.”
Unlike almost every commentator on the effect of the virus, Lévy dismisses the idea of the “new normal”. He believes that it is possible for the world to return to the way it was, though with some lessons learned about kindness and helping each other.
One of the things which has most horrified him, he says, is what American doctor Anthony Fauci said about shaking hands — that it was probable that society would never return to this gesture. For Lévy that would be an abrogation of everything he stands for — of civilised human contact.
“I am praying,” he says, “that people should understand that this — [the masks and the social distancing] is not good for society. These gestures should not become habit. I shuddered when I read what Dr Fauci said. I hope and pray that handshakes come back soon. They are a huge symbol of peace and a gesture of solidarity.”
And he adds: “A masked face is not a face. I pray every morning and every night that the masks should be a parenthesis.”
Lévy, of course, despite his Algerian birthplace, is the epitome of every French citizen who believes devoutly in not just handshakes but kisses when someone is greeted, and we should perhaps also recognise that France banned face veils three years ago.
Just the same, Lévy, who says he was “100 per cent obedient — I’m not an outlaw” and abided by all the lockdown rules when they were first imposed, now has hopes for the post-Covid world. He would like to see proper advisory councils which will draw on the expertise of not just doctors “but also psychiatrists, to look at the effects of confinement on mental health, input from teachers, parents and pupils, NGOs and those who deal with conjugal violence, together with representatives of different faiths”.
“What I am preaching now,” says Lévy, “is for us to go back to the world in order to repair it. Tikkun olam.”