Bernard-Henri Lévy is almost always described as a philosopher, a public intellectual or both. Yet these terms are misleading. He does not issue pronouncements from the comfort and safety of a study or a studio in Paris.
As we find out in his new book, The Will to See: Dispatches from a World of Misery and Hope (Yale University Press), Lévy has put himself in harm’s way in the dangerous and troubled places that he writes about, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Ukraine.
“I persisted in traveling … to stateless Kurds cast adrift by nations that deny them the right to be our brothers, to cursed Mogadishu, to abandoned Donbass, to crumbling Afghanistan,” he writes.
His mission is very much of the moment: “It is because of this way of thinking, which was already in a bad state, collapsed under the weight of the global house arrest imposed in reaction to the coronavirus that I decided, at age seventy-two—and as I have done all my life—to take to the road.”
But he could not fail to see what was happening in the wider world, and he added documentary filmmaker and frontline correspondent to his curriculum vitae. Indeed, many of the chapters in his new book first appeared in the pages of Paris Match and The Wall Street Journal.
On a 2019 visit to the Kurdish communities in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, for example, Lévy inspects a children’s prison, where he finds “a hundred-odd adolescents, all boys, like Nelson from New York or little Ahmed from Toulouse.” Their only crime is that they have “a father or a mother who was a terrorist.”
The Kurds themselves, he points out, are forgotten and friendless “after being abandoned by the Americans and left with their backs to the wall” to face the predations of the Turks, “the criminals against humanity in Damascus” and the pro-Iranian forces in Iraq. He praises one of the Kurdish leaders for “being able, like the generals of the French revolutionary army, of the Israel Defense Forces, and of the early Soviet revolution, to stand up so superbly to the rest of the world.” And he wonders aloud, “How could the nation of generals John Pershing and George Patton, the world’s oldest democracy, succumb to such an act of self-betrayal?”
Lévy reminds us that we live in a world that is no longer dominated by American power or influence, and the players of consequence are numerous and diverse. In his account of a visit to Somalia in 2020, for example, he describes the threat of the al-Shabab jihadists in the capital city of Mogadishu, where mortar attacks and firefights, car bombs and suicide bombers, sniper duels and hostage-taking are known as “Mogadishu music.”
The government relies on a “mixed bag of an army” that includes a few Navy SEALs, some officers on loan from Uganda and Burundi and private contractors from an American NGO, but perhaps the best prospect for “[imposing] any semblance of order on the insane chaos” is, surprisingly, Turkey.
“[W]ith the Americans limiting themselves to air strikes, the European Union administering a massive aid program of which no trace can be detected on the ground, and the Chinese not yet aware of the interest of this accursed country, only the Turks remain,” he reports, “and they are only too happy to find themselves alone on the Horn of Africa…”
Of course, everything we find in The Will to See is filtered through the thought and experience of a philosopher. In that sense, the book is also a memoir and a manifesto.
“What makes me run?” he muses. “What leads me to throw myself once again in this mess or that inferno?” In a moment of ironic wit, he observes: “One who changes his locale, the Talmud says, changes his mazal [luck].”
More often, he muses on his intellectual and literary forebears and the examples they have set. Descartes, for example, was “one who lives the philosophical adventure like a battle, a charge, requiring as much bravery as it does wisdom.”
But it is also true that Lévy has come to play the role of a gadfly, a truth-teller who insists on confronting us with the little wars and local atrocities that are often underplayed or wholly ignored by Western governments and media: “[A]n inner compass provokes me to say, ‘No, impossible, intolerable; and what is most intolerable—disgusting, really—is the fierce indifference of my fellow Westerners.” He readily concedes that he has “disguised himself as a reporter,” but is actually an activist.
“I am not a journalist because my slant is the inverse of the journalist’s,” he explains. “I never set out on a reporting trip without the firm intention of intervening in what I see and changing what I show.”
Exactly here, by the way, we find one of Lévy’s self-affirmations: “[T]he Jew in me cannot help but recognize himself in the inability to report facts without matching them with a good and rightful action—dare I say a mitzvah—the ultimate purpose of which will be the repair of the world, the tikkun olam.”
Lévy goes on to explain that he was “one of those leftist sympathizers … who never succumbed to the infantile disorder of hate for Israel.” His “true return to Jewishness,” as he puts it, is based on what he defines as “the affinity between the universalism to which we aspired as students and the other universalism that, through its will to repair the world and to accompany it on the paths to redemption, constitutes the genius of Judaism.”
Q&A with Lévy
Lévy spoke by Zoom with the Jewish Journal’s book editor, Jonathan Kirsch, about The Will to See.
Q: You write in your new book about your “return to Jewishness” and how it led you to write one of your earlier books, The Genius of Jewishness. Throughout the world—and in Israel itself—Jews bitterly debate what it actually means to be a Jew. How would you define your Jewishness?
A: In one sentence, I would say that Jewishness is the only identity I know that cannot be reduced to a single identity. It is so complex to be a Jew; it is such an accumulation of paradox and reflection and knowledge, that the word “identity” is a very poor way to express it.
Q: You write about eight places around the world where you personally witnessed and wrote about suffering and struggle, and Afghanistan is one of them. Americans have recently learned the lesson that the Soviet Union learned a half-century ago and Great Britain learned more than a century ago: It is a graveyard for countries that regard themselves as Great Powers. What lessons do you hope that Americans will learn from our long-running war in Afghanistan?
A: I refuse the comparison between what is happening today and what happened to the Soviets and the Brits. America did not lose the war. America won the war. The Taliban were defeated. Twenty years after their defeat, they were reduced to the margins of Afghan society; they were underground. America succeeded in Afghanistan. I was there only a few months before the Taliban took over; I am a witness, and I write about it in my book. Under the umbrella of America, a real civil society was developing in the cities of Afghanistan. Behind the wise and benevolent shelter of American troops, women in Afghanistan started the process of liberation.
Q: And yet, most Americans see the end of the war in Afghanistan as a defeat.
A: I hear it from both sides, Trump and Biden, that the war in Afghanistan was a failure, an endless failed war. But it’s not true. America and the West in general made a terrible mistake in withdrawing. We had no reason to withdraw from Afghanistan. America has troops in so many countries of the world—in Germany, Japan and Korea—for some 70years. The role of a great power is to have great diplomats, to have a great influence, and sometimes to have a few troops, too. If America decides to become Switzerland, then we shall leave the field to the Iranians, the Turks, the Russians, the Chinese and the Muslim Brotherhood. That’s the position we are in, and that’s a tragedy.
Q: You write about what you memorably describe as “creation being uncreated (and desecrated) in a sort of reverse Big Bang that blasts masses of surplus people into nothingness.” Yet the subtitle of your book is “Dispatches from a World of Misery and Hope.” What hope do you have for a different and happier fate than the Big Bang in reverse?
A: The hope is that we still believe in tikkun olam, both Jews and non-Jews. There are battalions of great spirits who believe that being human means that we make the effort to repair the world. I have encountered them in the cursed and damned areas of the world on the trips to hell that I describe in the book. What gives me hope are the people who suffer the most and yet stand up, full of dignity.
Q: You conclude your book with an affirmation and a challenge: “I believe that a life is not a life and does not make us accomplished people unless it is a little more than life and adheres to an idea, an ideal, a principle, or certain values that transcend it and raise it above itself.” So I ask: What is the idea, the ideal, the principle or the value to which you have adhered?
A: For me it is the Torah, the ultimate object of study, which enriches and fills my life and which assists us interpreting repairing the world and repairing the world.
Excerpt from The Will to See:
I believe that over the life that lives on, over the life that, emitting its own light, crosses space and time to take root in another life; over that satellite of life, that capsule of life, that life palpitating like a synthesized soul, aching like a missing limb, and lacking nothing but consciousness—I believe that over such a life death has no hold as long as there are ears to hear it and to divine the sound of the voice that breathed it.
Blessed by words, in a sense. Saved by the life of books. That is another conviction. And it reassures me.
And finally I believe that a life is not a life and does not make us accomplished people unless it is a little more than life and adheres to an idea, an ideal, a principle, or certain values that transcend it and raise it above itself.
“Liberty or death,” said the French revolutionaries.
“Better to die standing than to live on one’s knees” was the cry of the childhood heroes whom I still admire.
And that could be said of many others, less glorious or not glorious at all, untraceable, nameless: I believe there is in every woman and every man a passage to greatness, every single one, not only the great by their transcendental calling, such as kings, near-kings, artists, and writers.
I love life passionately and hope to love it still longer and better. But I know that it is worth nothing if it is not fed by the idea, not of a great death, but of a great life. And I believe the greatest of lives are those that—having resolved to leave a last word, not to death but to life—decide not to accept death when it prowls around those whom one loves or whom one has decided to protect.
I have never given much credence to all the stories of adrenaline, intense moments, and so on that are told about war reporters. I don’t believe that skirting the abyss and, in so doing, leaving open an inner window on death boosts the gusto for life that one feels upon returning safe and sound. I believe even less in it since I have many times had the opposite experience of returning from a reporting trip in which I saw death close up, not my own but that of others, and had trouble resurfacing and resuming life as I had lived it before. But I think I know what I sought from all those distance voyages, those reporting adventures. What I was chasing is probably the exquisite diversity of my fellow man. But I also found in those lands that I frequented fifty years ago, twenty years ago, or a few months ago, lands where one is great not because one is born that way but because one has no other choice and cannot behave otherwise. I have found beautiful stories of resistance, struggle, goodness, and abnegation that I have never forgotten and that testify to a true love of life lived greatly.
It may be said that these convictions are vague and rhetorical and will not do me any good when the moment comes for me, too, to take my life.
Maybe that’s true.
But that’s not the moment I’m talking about.
I’m talking about right now.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.
This article was first published by the Jewish Journal.