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The Death of Jean Daniel

Bernard-Henri Lévy remembers his friend and mentor, the activist and journalist of the ‘Nouvel Observateur’ and doyen of the French left

Bernard-Henri Lévy
February 25, 2020
Courtesy the author
Jean Daniel with Bernard-Henri Lévy Courtesy the author
Courtesy the author
Jean Daniel with Bernard-Henri Lévy Courtesy the author

Jean Daniel, the French humanist, political activist, journalist, and co-founder of the leftist newspaper Le Nouvel Observateur, died last week at 99.

I remember Jean Daniel on rue d’Aboukir, in 1969, the first time I saw him. I had come to ask him to speak at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, then in a permanent state of insurrection. I forget why it didn’t work out. But I do remember that he was glorious. Prestigious. The only of his kind to inspire such a desire for the most uncompromising, the most sectarian, passions ever to make their way into that school on rue d’Ulm. And already, despite his youth, his own throaty voice, muted, a little ashy, seemed to scratch at who knows what unknown secret pain.

I remember how it troubled me to learn that such a sovereign man, about to be one of my professors of life and energy, was an astral twin to my father: born the same year, the same day; one in Blida, the other in Mascara, in the same Algeria; and stranger still, their twin allures, in their features, in the way they addressed you, very slowly, very sedately, as if you had nothing better to do than to hear them think.

I remember being too intimidated to inform him that day of his striking resemblance to my father. And even less of the staggering coincidence that, a few years earlier, had placed these identical twins in nearly adjoining hospital rooms in the same Hartmann clinic in Neuilly. I was 11. I watched, stealthily, when his door was slightly ajar, when my father’s care required me to leave his room, this neighbor who the attending nurses whispered was a journalist wounded at Bizerte by gunshot of the French army. By spying and observing his parade of visitors, I arrived at the conclusion that a journalist is a Monsieur to whose bedside come ministers, adventurers, a future president of the Republic, Nobel Prize winners in literature, actresses and actors, as well as—last but not least—a ballet of concerned, beautiful women.

I remember how, later, after that conference on rue d’Ulm he missed, I saw his Nouvel Observateur as a kind of “Guermantes Way,” able to attract the survivors of leftism, their noble ambitions and what was left of their hope. Didn’t we find there, in the mix, a taste for words and the weight of ideas? A radicalism tied to the will to act and create a newspaper that would help to change the world? The most honorable politics? The most distinguished writers? And that chemistry, the formula for which no one has since reproduced, that allowed your prose, if you were anointed, to abut that of Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault, Maurice Clave and Jean-Louis Bory, Castor and de Castro, Pierre Mendès France and Jean-Paul Sartre, Roland Barthes and Michel Cournot …

Because I remember, when bringing one’s copy onto the dilapidated premises of the Nouvel-Obs, hallway after hallway on rue d’Aboukir, the initiate’s path: Each stop resembled the great scenes from A Sentimental Education or Lost Illusions. You needed the approval of Guy Dumur, the gentleman-critic who, on good days, gave you the impression that Ionesco and Beckett were close friends. You needed that of Jacques-Laurent Bost, the afflicted Sartre-ist, pillar of the Nausea left, who would summon you to explain what this one comma, oddly placed, said about your relation to the practico-inert or the serial. You had to convince Serge Lafaurie, Hector de Galard, Pierre Bénichou, world champions in recitation of Apollinaire and Aragon, that your entry papers were in order, or not, to gain access to the eminent literary family that was the Observateur.

But that was not all. Once through these hedges there remained the final exam, the ordeal, which Alain Chouffan had warned me was where all was decided—King Jean, a Gaston Gallimard of journalism, haughty and careless, would submit you to an interrogation of your affinities: Had you read Herbart? Where were you with Stendhal and Gide? What were your thoughts on Frantz Fanon? Did you know by heart the stations on Chateaubriand’s itinerary to Jerusalem? Would you rather be wrong with Sartre or right with Aron? And were you in agreement with him, Jean Daniel, in the disputes between Edmond Maire and Georges Séguy, Louis Aragon and André Breton, or, in Portugal, Major Antunes and the Communist Alvaro Cunhal? I remember that whosoever triumphed in these tests was definitively co-opted and enveloped in narcissistic and generous whispers, joining the blessed category of “friends of the Observateur.” And I remember that others, in failure and obscurity, remained outside this empyrean realm, like Virgil abandoned by Dante at the gates of heaven.

I remember Portugal and its Carnation Revolution, which I was covering for Le Monde Diplomatique but which I would tell Jean about over the phone: the general strike, no newspapers, little radio. Those captains of the April uprising who were francophone, even in the atmosphere of gunpowder and wilted flowers floating over the banks of the Tagus, would also read the Nouvel Observateur, awaiting, every Monday, Jean’s editorial. Who would be the Mao, and who the Chiang Kai-shek, this evening? Where was this paradoxical insurrection headed, led as much by cold de Gisors as by age-of-reason Mathieus come to battle, once and for all, for the rescue of a country sickened by the disease of Salazarism? And what did he need, to consolidate nascent democracy and to bring it to Europe, the lusophone Willy Brandt, the jovial and round Olof Palme, the Mediterranean Mitterrand trading Landes soup for the raisin and honey of Sintra, this “friend of the Observateur,” Mario Soares? Well, Jean Daniel knew. Jean Daniel was, for them, the one who was supposed to know. And Jean Daniel—no one in Lisbon was unaware of him—battled in Paris against fake friends who wanted to see this happy revolution give rise to a republic of cigars and machine guns. And I could see the satisfaction it gave the great former reporter in Algeria, a man in favor of dialogue between France and the National Liberation Front, John F. Kennedy’s emissary to Fidel Castro, to be in the tailor-made role offered to him in this theatrical drama, which made him think that he was also, in part, its director.

I remember a Jean Daniel who, beyond Portugal, nourished the beautiful project of making the History that he was commenting on. And I remember how History, spirited, would sometimes throw it back in his face. How, without that, might he have had the power to make coexist columnists who were born to politics out of anti-colonialism and others who arrived there via anti-totalitarianism? Those of first-wave leftism and those of the second? Friends of François Mitterrand and people nostalgic for Pierre Mendès-France? And which other editor-in-chief did Mitterand, once he became president, trust more with his secrets?

I remember lunches on Saturday, boulevard Suchet, where intellectuals and politicians would engage in conversations that lasted—like those hosted by [France-Soir’s Pierre] Lazareff at Louveciennes—late into the afternoon: Jean was, suddenly, quieter; he provided information and wisdom; and it was often his wife, Michèle, who assigned roles and speaking turns.

I remember Jean, in Italy, at Claude Perdriel’s home, the man of his life: disorder and beauty; drunk on light and voluptuousness; his skin cooked, like Rieux’s; long swims, as in Tipaza; dazzled and melancholic consideration of the sweetness of things; Michèle, very beautiful, takes photos; little Sara appears; he is sun-filled and radiant; the coronation of summer; and, together with Edgar Morin, Josette Alia, François Furet, Jean Lacouture, Mona Ozouf, and others, the ceremony of friendship.

I remember that when Jean Daniel returned from vacation, he had a tendency to title his editorials “France Awakens.” And we were some of the people he was waking up.

I remember that all of his editorials were written as if each week he had seen the spirit of the world go by. But it was wrong to ironize. Because the seriousness that motivated him, the staging of his doubts and heartbreaks, his way of saying “We, the Observateur” as if speaking of a political party or a country—didn’t they arm the French exceptionalism that was his newspaper against the century’s great evil, the spirit of snide derision?

I remember the moment when, as little by little politics became more banal, the Nouvel Observateur stopped being (to borrow from Sainte-Beuve) that journalistic Kamchatka, that kiosk, and set out to become a weekly like any other, sometimes better, sometimes worse—and Jean Daniel became a kind of Bourbon of a new left, Orléanist and definitively prosaic. And I remember the art with which he who was, in a past life, such a model of journalism, an exemplary professional, a boss, invented a second life as an independent intellectual, author of books about laïcité and the nation—and in parallel, as an autobiographical writer of intimate and expansive works, in tune with History, laced with his childhood in Blida and his wounding at Bizerte, his founding of the literary review Caliban, his passion for Michèle, his memories of the 2nd Armored Division, and his correspondence with Octavio Paz.

I remember, when The Gulag Archipelago came out, a quarrel, a real one, over communists and their war on Solzhenitsyn: wasn’t it inevitable, given that he lived the idea (an illusion, to my eyes) that the left was a house whose two wings he had preserved?

I remember a debate over Judaism that appeared three years ago in the Obs, which remains to this day his paper: an honor for me, an unequaled gift; but I think some part of him took advantage of it to get himself right with a troubled part of himself—feeling the night come on, to free himself of his Jewish prison.

And I remember our last meeting, on a winter afternoon, a few weeks ago, at his home: He sits upright in his chair with his wrestler’s build; his thinking is clear; he has editing projects; he talks about the company of trees and desert, in Morocco, which he would like to see again; he makes fun; he blames; he returns to old misunderstandings that he claims to have solved; he inquires, as always, after that twin he knew only in my descriptions but whose existence is the tie that singularly bound us as brothers for a half-century; he recalls his older brother, Sydney, who lived past 100; murmurs that the worst part of death is to no longer be there for Michèle. But I observe that the curtains are drawn. He seems to float, suddenly, in the fullness of his rich memory. Is this immortal man understanding that he will, against all evidence, have to go after all?

Translated from the French by Matthew Fishbane. This article first appeared in French in the Nouvel Observateur.

Bernard-Henri Lévy is a philosopher, activist, filmmaker, and author of more than 30 books including The Genius of Judaism, American Vertigo, Barbarism with a Human Face, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, and The Empire and the Five Kings. His most recent film, Slava Ukraini, premiered nationwide on May 5, 2023.

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