À la vie : From Lévy to Lévy, the Lives of Benny Lévy
Benny Lévy was my friend.
A friend whom I first met in the late 1960s in the shadow of Louis Althusser.
A friend with whom I reconnected 30 years later, when I published Sartre: The Philosopher of the Twentieth Century, a book that ended with a restaging of the last dialogue between the young Maoist and the author of Being and Nothingness.
From that point there ensued reunions and rediscoveries, long telephone conversations, and shared work and causes, as, together with Alain Finkielkraut, we founded the Institute for Levinassian Studies in Jerusalem.
But it is in À la vie (« To Life, » Verdier, 2013), the beautiful book that his wife Léo has devoted to him — part chronicle of era, part shared sentimental, political, and spiritual education, part romance (at least in this sentence, toward the end: « He trusted me with his body; I didn’t know how to keep it ») — it is there that I discover more or less everything about the friend that I thought I knew…
The angry kid who, right after leaving his native Egypt and entering the Ecole Normale Supérieure, joined and then led the most radical Maoist groups of the time.
The 36 volumes of Lenin’s works, and then Marx’s Capital, methodically transferred onto index cards by a young revolutionary who already placed knowledge — learning? study? — above all else.
The comical episode (accompanied by a nice full-length portrait, seated, floating in a void, perfectly still, while Paris burns) on the night of the barricades, in May ’68, a night that he spent holed up in a classroom on the Rue d’Ulm. Did he believe at the time, like his comrade Pierre Goldman, that the student movement lacked seriousness? Was he expecting, like the real Bolshevik leader whom he dreamed of reincarnating, the arrival of the workers on the scene? Or was it his stateless status (the idea that he was stateless would not have occurred to any of his companions at the time, but still… ), that was consuming him from within, threatening him from without, and making of the supreme leader of the new army of shadows what one would call today an undocumented person, an illegal alien, subject, if arrested, to the arbitrariness of deportation.
Here in his wife’s book we learn of his first doubts when, with Olivier Rolin and those Maoists tempted by direct action, he realized that the Palestinians, whom he liked to say, facetiously, that he « invented, » were capable, in Munich, of gunning down a delegation of Israeli athletes in cold blood.
There we read about this man obsessed with words who already believed, without yet knowing it, that in the beginning there was, and would be, the word. We see him at the birth of his first child asking just one question: « When is he going to talk? »
And then there are the passages on the path to Judaism, a longer path than is commonly believed, more hesitant, more uncertain: a Socratic circle in Paris… a philosophical group in Corbières… sandwiched between a reporting trip, with Sartre, to the heart of rebellious Portugal, and another, with Sartre again, on a visit to the imprisoned terrorist, Andreas Baader, in Stuttgart, the discovery of the work of Emmanuel Levinas… an anti-Zionist rabbi who introduced him to the Gemara… a yeshiva in Strasbourg where he is initiated into the enigma of the letters of fire… his first trip to Jerusalem… then a second… and his first contact, skin to skin, with leather tefillin, and the inscrutable, angelic faces of the children of Mea Shearim — all that takes time, a long time. We are, to judge from Léo Lévy’s narrative, closer to the drawn-out return of a Solzhenitsyn to Russia than to the revelation of a Maurice Clavel bumping into his furniture at night and seeing, in a halo, the face of his Lord. And what is striking, at the end of the path, is the mixture of rupture (didn’t Benny Lévy kill his inner Greek?) and fidelity (wasn’t that murder of the Greek shepherd within him the fulfillment of the project of « changing the man into his deepest self » that had long ago nourished the callow youth?); what is striking is the journey from Moses to Moses, passing through Mao, that makes of this quest for the white stone of Jerusalem one of the most singular human adventures of our time.
A sojourner of substance and consequence, said Jean-Claude Milner, whom Benny Lévy had believed to be all-knowing.
A master himself, a young master for all time, says the generation of apprentice thinkers who, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, increasingly find in his sparse but extremely dense and terse work reasons for hope, reasons to live.
Of this uncommon and private person, illuminated for us by a wife’s devotion, of that voice that she enables us to hear again, but through records drawn from that tiny office in Kadish Louz Street in Jerusalem, dedicated to his memory, of that laughing, intense face that floats through her pages right to the end, as if he were still with us, a face that another Lévy, in a very old novel, might have had in mind (your guess is as good as mine) when he said of his hero: « At the end of that face lay the century » — of Benny Lévy, then, I say that he was one of the most impressive people that I have ever had the privilege of meeting, a man whose absence leaves a void that nothing can fill, or probably ever will.
Ten years to the day from his death, the appearance of Léo Lévy’s book is the most fitting of tributes.