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French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy addresses people gathered at Paris’ Human Rights Plaza on Oct. 12, 2019, during a demonstration to support Kurdish militantsLUCAS BARIOULET/AFP via Getty Images
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Bernard-Henri Lévy’s Fierce New Testament

The French thinker’s latest book offers a global vision in which national pride and universal ideals can powerfully coexist

by
Liel Leibovitz
November 19, 2021
LUCAS BARIOULET/AFP via Getty Images
French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy addresses people gathered at Paris' Human Rights Plaza on Oct. 12, 2019, during a demonstration to support Kurdish militantsLUCAS BARIOULET/AFP via Getty Images

“Never in the modern age,” Bernard-Henri Lévy writes in his new book, The Will to See, “has humanity been so separated from itself, so divided. And never has the unity of the human race, a fragile but sacred principle since the origins of the Judeo-Christian West, been so monstrously challenged.”

We hardly need Lévy, one of our most luminous writers, thinkers, and activists, to remind us of just how spectacularly we’re failing that oldest moral exhortation, the one urging us to be our brother’s keeper. What we do need is a way out of this mess, and in his concise and beautiful new book, Lévy gives us just that.

Like all great books—the ones that keep on troubling you long after you put them down, that force you to rethink your pieties, that accelerate you into action—this one, too, engages from the very first lines. Its subtitle, “Dispatches from a World of Misery and Hope,” already invites a question: How do you see that most amorphous and porous of constructs, “the world”?

Look around you, and two answers emerge, both of them terrifying. The first comes to us courtesy of those whose instinct is to squeeze the globe into ever-narrowing circles, from continents to blocs, from blocs to nations, and from nations to regions. This appetite for contraction, Lévy reminds us, is hardly new: “Athenians,” he notes, “were forbidden to enter the temple of Hera in Argos, just as the people of Argos were denied entry to the equivalent temple in Athens.” The Greek system of thought that put the polis in cosmopolitanism, Lévy wisely observes, contained within it a major flaw, leaving out a whole swath of people, not only slaves and metics but also everyone else excluded from the great good life by the sheer accidents of birth.

Which brings us to the second terrible way to see “the world,” the one occupied by too many of those who today wave the cosmopolitan banner, but in the service of nothing more inspired or inspiring than stifling bureaucracy. “As for this soulless Union,” Lévy writes, “in thrall to the worst of domination-by-spectacle, this Europe of identical streets, cookie-cutter malls, and business districts speaking the same global English and haunted by the same despair—yesterday superconsumerist, today burrowed into locked-down molehills—well, you have to read me wrong to believe that I celebrate that.”

What, then, is left? If we reject both the boobs in Brussels who preach globalization by regulation and the chest-thumping jingoists the world over who demand we retreat into our own borders, where in the world does that leave us?

Lévy’s answer is daring and difficult. It is, in short, a form of internationalism that is mindful of both parts of the word. Declaring himself to be the last member of the “Internationale,” Lévy goes on to tell us that “it has never bothered me when the Internationale issues its commandments from a particular nation, or even in that nation’s greater glory—provided the nation in question is, like America or Israel, an idea as well as a piece of ground; that the nation strives, like all ideas, to dialogue with other ideas of the same sort … That it invokes an expanding Universal rather than a local genius brined in identity; and that, as a consequence, it has the capacity to be greater than itself, to be great for a great number of people, and to speak to the rest of the human race.”

This isn’t the chest-thumping of the Pax Americana, which sought to reorder the world with Washington as the new Rome. It’s a call to a new system of thought in which nationalism—throughout the book, Lévy repeatedly and proudly celebrates his own Frenchness—can not only coexist with a commitment to universal peace and justice but, indeed, inform and even fuel it. Why bother with the wretched of the earth, writhing away in pain in dark corners of the globe? Not only because, as the past two decades had shown us all too painfully, tremors in one end of the world tend to travel very quickly to New York and Paris and London, but also because that is precisely what the spirit that had always animated the Western tradition demands us to do. “My Europe, the only one that commands my passion and my time,” Lévy writes, “is the one where, as one walks the streets strewn with fast-food signs and shops selling junk made in Bangladeshi sweatshops, one somehow manages still to encounter the ghosts of Kafka, Canetti, Pessoa, and Joyce, or Eduard Mörike describing Mozart directing, in Prague, the first performance of Don Juan.”

You are free, of course, to dismiss the above as the romantic yearnings of a French philosopher from a more refined and privileged age, and say that the problems we face today are too many and too jagged to allow us the pleasure of pining for Pessoa or Proust. But those of us who truly believe in American exceptionalism, say, or take seriously Judaism’s ultimate spiritual striving—see under: “light unto the nations”—will find themselves unable to argue with Lévy’s exhortations. America and Israel are both covenantal nations, and each is called, in every generation, to renew the covenant, a bond as rooted in moral obligations as it is in geopolitical calculations. Or, to put it crudely, anyone who truly wishes to make America great again cannot help but grapple with its obligations to those everywhere else in the world yearning to breathe free. 

This, too, is an abstraction, of course, and Lévy, virtually alone among current-day intellectuals, is allergic to the sterility of thought divorced from action. He reflects on this point in the book’s opening chapter, a thrilling tour of the academic landscape that shaped him—Paris of the 1960s, dotted with monumental figures like Sartre and Foucault and Derrida. His elders’ “idolatry of theory,” he writes, “their concepts so fanatically refined as to go missing, as the poet said, from the bouquet of the things of the world—all that had a paradoxical effect: ultimately it equipped us with a greater intelligence about the world, a concern for real things, a commitment to the very singular part that beings play, all made more compelling and urgent by the fact that we had previously been taught how to disengage ourselves from false thoughts and precritical illusions.”

And so, while most still choose to disengage—Lévy reserves particularly pointed arrows for journalists who fetishize the idea of objectivity to the point of delivering reports that neither move nor matter—Lévy steps up. The book’s second half is a thrilling account of his travels to Nigeria, Kurdistan, Mogadishu, and other places torn by war and suffering, a travelogue all the more admirable considering that it occurred as much of the world, stupidly and against mounting scientific evidence, chose to eradicate all normal life and cower in fear of COVID-19. Lévy is unafraid, neither of Putin’s snipers in Donbass nor of critics at home who, facilely and stupidly, dismiss him as an attention-seeker. He’s the first to admit, as he does throughout his book, that seeking attention is central to his work, but the focus is always on those who need it most and so rarely receive it, from the Nigerian Christians hacked to death by Boko Haram to refugees living in squalor in a makeshift hell on the island of Lesbos. Lévy, his smartphone connected to presidents and billionaires and editors, tries to help them. Sometimes, he succeeds, arranging for a conversation between Kurdish leaders and France’s Emmanuel Macron. Sometimes, as when he tried to find permanent shelter in Europe for Lesbos’ refugees, he fails. But the example he sets is Byronic, an embodiment of that old Talmudic chestnut reminding us that none of us is expected to conclude the work of repairing what’s broken in the world, and yet none of us is at liberty to set this sacred work aside.

To anyone wishing to follow his example, Lévy has sobering words: Proceed with mistrust—of global elites and petty patriotic chauvinists alike—but never with loathing. “Internationalism,” he writes, “is not synonymous with the rejection of localized cities or the national model of the modern era.” Here, at last, is a vision for the overwhelming majorities the world over who, having been left out of the global polis erected by a small cabal of meritocrats who papered over the immense inequalities they created with empty talk of virtue, gave their votes to a string of dark and troubling candidates: The world belongs to you, not to the mutually credentialing mediocrities for whom internationalism is nothing more than tariffs and trade accords. Embrace it, and you’ve got a national vision far more thrilling than merely thumbing your nose at the Ivy League set.

It’s not hard to imagine a future politician taking Lévy’s message to heart, offering Americans—or Israelis, or the French—a heartbeat that is uncompromisingly tethered to a sense of national identity and yet understands this identity as a mandate to lead by example, which means extending the will to see—to see injustice, to see cruelty, to see despair—beyond our own borders. That is exactly the vision that animated the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, and, through them, America’s Founding Fathers. Now, Lévy is reminding us with great urgency and eloquence, it’s time to let it soar once again.

Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.

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