There is a recognizable arc to the type of literary career that most interested the public in the days when art was king, and books and magazines were primary means of distributing new fashions, fads, and ideas. First, a blaze of youthful fame, which contained equal portions of originality, promise, and messiness/failure. Second, the construction of a persona around the work, one that could be drawn with clear-enough cartoonlike lines to launch a recognizable character. Third, the deployment of that character in public controversies and soap operas, through the manipulative efforts of bored editors and needy feature writers, with the connivance of the author himself or herself. Fourth, the use of the public stage to launch works that might appeal to a large, global audience, and whose success or failure would themselves create a kind of news; draw attention to a new style, fad, or cause; or possibly launch a television series or an Oscar-winning film from Miramax. Fifth, death by drug overdose, or heart attack, or diabetes, or marriage to a famous musician, guru, movie star, or chef; those who survive this passage can look forward to the cratering of their inflated reputations under the accumulated weight of negative reviews generated by decades of extra-literary distraction, or by the resentments of their less talented peers. Sixth, the realization, impelled by surviving one of the preceding events, that life is short, that all that really matters is the work on the page; for good or for ill, the years spent moving through stages 1-5 of the fame cycle are gone forever. Seventh, a redevotion to the art of one’s youth, which is either made deeper or more complicated and difficult by the fact that one is no longer young or even recognizably the same person. Eighth, death, followed by disappearance from the shelves of all but the most remote bookstores and libraries while awaiting the final judgment of the Gods.
It’s fun to make lists like this. Yet the main point here in America is that the world depicted above no longer exists except as a parody of something that was once real and can now be sold to trust-fund suckers and crazed midlevel careerists who aren’t yet in on the joke, or never got the joke. People, there is no such thing as “the New York literary scene”; no actual writers under the age of 75 can afford to live in New York City, nor do they have any desire to live there. The secret of real achievement in the arts, as someone wise once told me in my youth, is low overhead.
Politics, public boredom, the destruction of gatekeeper institutions, and the bad-faith gamification, expansion, and radical toxification and dumbing-down of the so-called public sphere have put an end to the arts in America, at least for now. What’s left is a gigantic, out-of-touch, stale bureaucracy, staffed by people who might, in a different age, have worked at the U.S. Department of Agriculture or in a provincial department store. No one actually gives a crap about the latest novels of Jonathan Lethem and Jonathan Franzen; they’re white men on the public dole who are scared to death of being canceled. The last time anyone wrote a “novel that mattered” was 2001. Writers are people who teach in “creative writing” departments; their racket is to sell the coffin odors of the New York literary scene of 40 and 50 years ago to bright-eyed provincials and the children of new immigrants whose parents can somehow afford to pay $60,000 or $70,000 a year. The magazines that once introduced Vladimir Nabokov, J.D. Salinger, and V.S. Naipaul to the world are simply broke; no one reads them or advertises in them; their subscribers are mostly dead; they are ghost ships for trust-fund kids and suckers on starvation wages, the type of people who might buy a steamboat ticket to Paris to see Josephine Baker dance. They would never dream of publishing right-wing cranks like Joan Didion. The anti-woke racket is nearly as depressing, in its muddled thinking, pleas for elite approval, careerist maneuverings, and the neglect of aesthetics. Unless you are Ibram Kendi, there is no such thing as a “literary career” in America anymore.
Which brings me to my friend Bernard-Henri Lévy, otherwise known to his admirers and detractors by his stage-name BHL. Of all my friends, Bernard-Henri has the greatest appetite for fame, and the least interest in himself. BHL is a character that he created, using intelligence, cunning, and art. It is a warrior’s mask containing elements of himself, and other elements drawn from films, books, and childhood fantasies.
Bernard-Henri—the creator of the famous BHL—has survived the various stages of the fame cycle, finding himself now somewhat reluctantly posed between stages 6 and 7. He is not as devastatingly handsome in a plain white shirt as he once was, but his facilities are remarkably intact. In his early 70s, he is like a character in a modern version of an Albert Cohen novel co-authored perhaps by Michel Houellebecq. Over lunch in Morocco recently, he confided to me that he is discussing—wait, I shouldn’t say anything about that. Part of the collapse of the once-robust institutions of the press and publishing houses is that nothing important gets said there. Either it’s in real time on social media, or, more often, in private, on Signal groups or secure email. In the future, libraries will buy chats instead of artists papers. In the absence of artists who can be plausibly fetishized, the Harry Ransom Library at the University of Texas at Austin will pay tens of millions of dollars for the early Google searches of Sergey Brin—all other forms of human electronic communication having already been stored inside a mountain in Utah by the FBI, i.e., the New Mormons of the digital age.
So who is Bernard-Henri Lévy? He is a French writer, and a courageous and original thinker. Beyond that, he is a man—an instinctive rebel, a man who shows real courage, who is not afraid to visit the front lines, and sleep there, and eat with the fighters. He is a concerned and loving father. He is the ultimate jet-setter, yet also an intensely private person. He has a gift for friendship. He would want me to say here—put it first!—that he is a Jew, an assertion which is part of his machismo, and at the same time also a key yet strangely overlooked part of his intellectual lineage. Perhaps his greatest strength is his ability to think against himself in real time, a talent that generates considerable drama and tension on the page.
As I see it, the great drama of the present moment of Bernard-Henri’s remarkable self-fashioned life is his wavering between stage 6 and stage 7 of the fame cycle; completing the movement would require him to acknowledge death’s power over him, which he refuses. His own life is not so interesting or important to him, he says. What matters is to speak; to write. As for the rest, it is better to be a nomad, and not a monad.
What follows is an edited version of a conversation with Bernard-Henri Lévy that took place over two evenings in Morocco during the course of a longer visit to the Palais de la Zahia, his home away from home, where Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney once celebrated Christmas together.
Editor’s note: Bernard-Henri Lévy’s new film, The Will to See, will premiere at the 2022 New York Jewish Film Festival this Sunday, Jan. 16, at 4:00 p.m.
THE GIFTS OF THE NOMAD
David Samuels: What is a nomad?
Bernard-Henri Lévy: The nomads are those who are at home nowhere. I really believe that to feel à sa place, in one’s proper place, to feel well-situated, well-rooted, at ease, at home in a place, whatever it be, is a limitation on the power of an intelligence and on the beauty of the civilization of which one is a bearer.
Nomads are beings who spread a little cloud of anxiety, of uncertainty, of guiltiness to be what we are. If humanity had no nomads, if we were all members of a polis, members of a village, at ease with our place, humanity would be hopeless.
Outside of their relation to a settled place, what virtues do nomads show in their relations with each other?
The first virtue is unsettledness, discomfort. We spoke about this the other night, you were here, when we discussed the story of Cain and Abel. In this story, the nomad owes less of an offering to God than does the civilized man. He owes less because he has less, and his discomfort is sweet to God.
So now between nomads, when Sally meets Harry, when nomad meets nomad …
What happens are often the greatest sparks of civilization and of intelligence. I believe that anyone has a road inside himself toward the possibility of intelligence, a moment, a stroke of intelligence. Though intelligence is the rarest thing in the world, this capability is elevated when the nomadic part of us meets the nomadic part of someone else.
Between settlers, those sparks happen much less often. The settler is too sure of his rights, too sure of himself, too convinced that truth is here and not there.
After that, the game is complicated, because you also have settlers, including me—I’m a settler—who work to unsettle themselves; thank God, you have this process called voyage, travel, adventure. This is a settler who has decided to uproot the settled parts of himself or herself.
What is the difference between a nomad and an exile?
An exile is nostalgic for his point of origin and is animated by the dream of return, and the dream of a golden age when you were a settler and when you will be a settler again. A real nomad does not have that— he got rid of it or never knew it.
One of my grandfathers was a real nomad, as you know.
Tell me about his life. What do you know of it?
He was a shepherd, my mother’s father. He was probably a rich shepherd, a prosperous shepherd, but a shepherd. He spent his life going from Algeria to Spanish Morocco, to Tangier, more or less, with his sheep and with his cattle. He spent his life bringing cattle from one point to another.
Did you ever meet him, as a child?
No, no. Never. He died early. In my book on Libya, I devoted one or two pages to him. He died in the desert during one of his processes of nomadism. He died between sky and earth without a human being around him, without a doctor, probably sometime in the 1930s. He died like an animal or like a saint—I would rather say like a saint.
Did you have an image of him as a child? Were you familiar with his story?
There are two existing photos of him which I have. Probably once I heard my mother evoking his fate, his death—once, no more. And I did not ask more. In my family, we did not speak about important things; we avoided it.
When you were a boy in school, how do you remember thinking about your origins? You were a Jew; your family was from North Africa; your skin was darker than your colleagues; these three things would’ve been hugely obvious to a schoolchild in Paris in a wealthy environment in the middle of the century.
No. But it struck me rather early on that my family, my father and my mother, were absolutely not participating in the grandes messes of the French national religion. My parents felt themselves, very quietly, without any arrogance, without any insolence, to be outside of all that. Sometimes when my parents had a guest, wine would be served for the guest, but otherwise, never.
It’s a thing I noticed about you early on—you like good clothes, you cut an attractive figure, but even by American standards, and especially by French standards, you are completely uninterested in food and wine.
When I was a young, arrogant dandy, it was a matter of principle when I was in a restaurant, whether the most modest or the best, to choose my meal in 20 seconds, no more. I remember when a date, a girlfriend, spent more time than that on the menu, it was a bad sign.
So the points where you identified a difference between yourself and your classmates was the French religion—food and drink.
Not only. For example, I was raised in a prosperous neighborhood, Neuilly, in Paris, and there was a ritual at this time, at 16, 17, for boys, the family bought a tuxedo, and there were parties between the chic boys and girls. So, when I asked my father to buy me a tuxedo to go to these rallies, as they were called, it was one of the first times when I saw my dear father really, really angry at me. When I say angry, I mean close to violence, telling me “how dare you, how could you?” Because it was stupid. Because it was a waste of time. Because it was the sort of place where I would meet a majority of idiots.
So, I did not have a tuxedo, I did not go to the rallies, and I was condemned—and it was great—to search for my girlfriends and friends outside the good society of Neuilly.
And eccentrics, outlaws, sometimes. It’s not a secret, my daughter said it a few days ago on French TV … the first love of my life, my first wife, Justine’s mother, was a real outlaw, for example. She was an outlaw in a proper sense; she spent time in jail …
How did you meet?
We just met in a student cafe in Paris in the Quartier Latin; she was very, very beautiful, and very extravagant, and I was absolutely struck by her charm and beauty. So we formed a sort of love at first sight, which lasted seven years. She was a French aristocrat, Isabelle Doutreluigne, from one of those poor aristocratic families, formerly rich and now—not poor, but ruined.
Very chic, and very beautiful, but totally outside society. Her own rules.
How did your father respond to this liaison?
With a letter. It was the only letter I ever received from my father. He warned me that the worst will happen, and that I could wind up in jail because of her. It had no effect on me. But he was not wrong, because she, actually …
Wound up in jail.
Right. She was one of these very special flowers which a great country can produce in a serre, you know, a hothouse; she was the quintessence of that. After she made the step outside of her clan, she became a sort of semi-Nietzschean, semi-surrealist, a devotee of André Breton and surrealist literature. She was the last surrealist, probably. So, a French aristocrat, very beautiful, being at 17 or 18 years old, this sort of creature out of a novel or of a poem of Breton or René Crevel ...
Good luck to you!
For someone nourished, as I was, by this sort of literature, it was like a gift.
It’s interesting when people achieve the goal of acceptance and are also successful in preserving their separateness.
I don’t even know if it is a success, it is a reflex. For example, I entered in one of the most desirable postsecondary schools in France, the École normale supérieure. The first thing I did when I entered the school on Rue d’Ulm, the school of Jean-Paul Sartre, in February 1969, was to go to Mexico—not to Mexico City but to Sinaloa state, north of Mexico City, to follow the traces and the footsteps of Antonin Artaud, who went there searching for the Tarahumara Indians.
The École normale was an odd place, by the way. You could do whatever you wanted. It was a mix of Oxford and Cambridge, Yale, and the Abbaye de Thélème of Rabelais. So what I did was not completely odd, but nevertheless. I was in Mexico, from February to probably May 1969.
As I get older, I think to myself a lot about that early experience of finding acceptance in elite institutions, and then taking for myself the freedom to be who I wanted—after pocketing their gifts, of course.
Which include the gift of washing your hands of them.
THE WRETCHED OF THE EARTH
In your new book, The Will to See, you talk about your encounter at the École normale with the work of Franz Fanon. Did you read Fanon differently as a Jew, a dark-skinned outsider, whose family also came from Algeria?
I don’t think that I thought about that connection then. I can say that because many, many years afterwards, 30 years later, I made a film about the history of French intellectuals which was produced and released by French television in 1992. So, 25 years after I first read Fanon’s books, I discovered that he was a doctor in a village close to my father’s village. I think I did not know that when I read it, because the surprise was fresh. And I made some great footage of the psychiatric asylum of Fanon in Blida, which is not far from Mascara, where my father was from.
As a Jew, I think it did not count, either, because my sense of Judaism at this time was so impoverished. I only really became aware of my Jewishness during the Six-Day War. It came at a single stroke, not as the outcome of a slow process of understanding and integrating something that was familiar to me.
You had one grandfather who was religious, though.
Great-grandfather. And even then, I’m not so sure. My family was so poor, the two sides, that their traces are lost very soon, in the night of the obscure men. The title of my book, The Will to See—in French it is called Sur la route des hommes sans nom, “On the road of obscure men.” The obscure men are my family.
Ten years ago, I was with [my wife] Arielle and [my close friend] Gilles [Hertzog], and a few other friends, in Salt Lake City, Utah, where as you know the Mormons have this giant database of genealogies. Arielle found a genealogical tree going back to the 15th century. Gilles found maybe two or three centuries. I found absolutely nothing, beyond my father and mother. I had no lineage.
So, when you saw Fanon theorizing this social-psychological split on the basis of skin color …
Which is the better book?
By some regard the worst also, as you have some real calls to crime and so on, but was the equivalent in France of, I don’t know, Malcolm X. But there was such compassion embedded there …
That’s why it’s the better book.
Even in this time when I was very, very leftist, I always understood that there could be an unequal distribution of merits and efforts, but what Fanon said, that it was really distribution absurde, sans loi, sans principe, sans raison, [an absurd distribution, unprincipled, with no rhyme or reason], that was a shock for me.
Because I did not realize it. I was bred in the republican school traditions where we were really taught, maybe like Protestants were in America, that when you make efforts you are rewarded; when you are lazy, you are punished; that you deserve your destiny. You deserve what you have. All the hypocrisy of the republican French tradition was dismantled by this book of Fanon.
But you didn’t connect Fanon’s writings to your own family, and your Jewish origins in Algeria?
No, no. No, because there was such a pronounced break in my family. Such a break, nearly amnesia, organized within a family is not so frequent.
Some form of sentiment usually interferes even with those who desire a complete break with the past.
With us, not. All of that was repressed. Refoulé. No conversation, nothing.
No language. Nothing on the walls.
The houses of my parents were very, very modern American style, you know, the modernism of the 1950s and 1960s.
No objects. I inherited that, by the way. At the end of the day, I lose everything. When I am offered an object, it does not please me so much—though of course I am grateful for the thought and the feeling behind the gift.
As a child, could you feel any emotion behind this forgetting?
My father and mother probably hated their childhood. But what I felt was an immense desire for modernity. Until her death, my mother, every year for 50 years, like a religion, she went to America for a week at the end of summer, with one of her lady friends, her best family friend. They went, the two of them, every single year, until the year before her death. This week in America was sacred. One week in Nevada, in Idaho, in California, in Texas.
Your father didn’t go?
No, no, no. My father didn’t even know what holidays were; he did not care.
How did she start to go there? What was the connection?
The connection was that America meant nomadism. It was modernity, not too much attachment, a house which you dismantle and rebuild a few hundred kilometers farther west.
JACQUES DERRIDA AND MONSIEUR CHOURAQUI
The French are very sensitive to accents, especially in Paris. Your parents never betrayed their origins when they spoke?
No. They did not have accents. The revolution was total. There is a typical accent for French from North Africa, for les pieds noirs [Frenchmen from Algeria] ...
They didn’t have it at all, un peu peut-etre [imitates North African French accent]?
No. Their family, they had lot of brothers and sisters, whom I did not see often, they had a little accent, maybe. My parents, no.
And when you looked at these other family members, do you remember your emotions? Was it, “I am like them”? “I am not like them”?
I am like them. When I was admitted at the École normale supérieure it was before the internet, so you had the list, like in America ...
Posted on the wall.
On day of the results, my mother had four sisters, some of them came by surprise, to see my name there. I was charmed. My mother, I don’t know.
Jacques Derrida was then a professor at ENS, right? Did you take his classes?
Derrida, it’s a funny story, which is connected with what we’ve just said.
Derrida was also like me and my parents, French from Algeria. And probably, like my parents, but in a completely different way, he made the same kind of absolute break. He spoke of that history only in the last books. He wrote about Maurice Blanchot, Antonin Artaud, Samuel Beckett, whatever, without a mention of his origins.
However, it happened that in Neuilly, where I was living with my parents, there was a big pharmacy owned by Derrida’s cousin, who was a typical French Algerian Jew. His name was Monsieur Chouraqui.
Now, at that time, I was a great consumer of amphetamines, in order to prepare for the exams for the École normale. Monsieur Chouraqui was the one who provided me with amphetamines. I said, “I’m preparing for the École normale supérieure,” and he was the first cousin of Jacques Derrida, so of course he gave it to me; it created a link between us.
Monsieur Chouraqui was a typical prosperous drugstore owner in Neuilly, you know; he grew fatter and fatter every year as his business grew. And he was also, at the same time, proud of his very famous cousin, Derrida. At the same time, he felt as if he was a successful man but that Derrida had failed, you know—a poor professor.
So, upon my arrival at the École normale supérieure, the first thing that happens is the class is divided between les littéraires , les historiens et les philosophes. We were maybe 20 littéraires, specialists in Greek, Latin, and so on; 10 historians, and 10 philosophers. And the ritual was that each of us was received for one hour either by Derrida or by Althusser in order to have an informal conversation: who are you; what do you expect; are you more Hegel or more Kant; what is your favorite dialogue of Plato. Althusser was never there because he spent that whole year in a psychiatric hospital. So, while I was technically a student of Althusser, I was to be supervised by Derrida.
So when my time comes to enter into the holy place, the office of Jacques Derrida, I was petrified by timidity, destroyed by shyness, losing my words. He asked me a question about philosophy, and I was completely unable to reply. The only thing I can think to tell him is, “You know, I am very well acquainted with your cousin, Maurice Chouraqui, the drugstore owner in Neuilly.”
In that moment, I understood that I had committed the first serious mistake of my life; that this remark was unforgivable for this man who did in his own way what my parents had done, which was to cut off his connection to his past. And here comes this stupid young Jewish boy to remind him of all that.
And I was the only one at the École normale supérieure who probably knew. Nobody else knew. He lived in a world of Maurice Blanchot and Faulkner. Chouraqui was trapped in the abyss. I understood that the interview was shortened dramatically.
I was not expelled but very soon, “Bien, monsieur, je crois, that’s enough for today …” I think he hated me from this time onwards. All my time in École normale supérieure, we had a very bad relationship. I think that he never looked me in the eye …
Dreading the moment when you would again bring up his cousin Monsieur Chouraqui in his drugstore.
Or maybe some additional information. Nevertheless, the first serious text I wrote in my life, which is available on La Règle du jeu, you can find it—it’s maybe 50,000 words — is a study about Antonin Artaud and Friedrich Nietzsche, which was delivered in Derrida’s seminar in 1970, the year after my trip to the Tarahumara.
So, he was not my friend at all. He was not my master, because I never esteemed him so much; I esteemed Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, and Michel Foucault much more. For me, Derrida was a level below. He was a great Talmudic commentator, but still a commentator …
Was he aware of how Talmudic his approach truly was, or was that something that would have also disgusted him?
Yes, he would have been furious if somebody had told him, at least in those years; after that, no. In the second part of his work, and of his life, he of course gained awareness and commented that yes, he knew that he was …
A strange Talmudist. Strange, eccentric …
He was a mystic …
No. A real materialist, admitting that material, matter, was the text. I could sustain, I could prove, I could develop that this is a form of mysticism, by the way.
That’s what I meant. The materiality of the text is an incarnation of an ineffable spirit that produces meaning by itself, of itself.
The core of the world, the sense and the core, were there. Not in the language of stones; not in the language of stars; not in the language of landscapes, but in the letters. Except that it was not Hebrew letters; he did not read Hebrew. But in this sense, yes, he was probably very Jewish.
What was his criticism of you?
He did not like me. The basis for it was that I did not take philosophy seriously enough. If I am completely honest, he probably thought that I did not take enough time to do serious work. I probably had the ability, but I spoiled this ability.
I have a book which is not translated into English, which is a pity, maybe, called Comédie; it’s a semi-fictional book. Derrida is the hero of the book. Have you read it?
No. What’s the plot?
The plot is that I am in Tangier; I am walking in Tangier, and I look for him. I am there to heal some wounds after my film—I did a fiction film which was a disaster; I was left for dead on the dance floor of Paris. I went to Tangier for a few months, not knowing what I was doing to do next. And I see in the newspaper that mon vieux maître, my old master, Jacques Derrida, is giving a reading. I call him. I say, we should meet after 25 years; let’s meet, forget pharmacien Chouraqui. Do you know Tangier?
No. I’ve never been.
It’s a walk in Tangier, building up to the rendezvous with Derrida.
Of course, he’s not there.
Right. I am remembering the Chouraqui story; remembering other episodes of my relationship with him; my heart beating in anticipation of the moment that we meet; I think I see him; yes, he’s here. But finally, no.
I will find you a copy. No, you are right: It’s an important story in my life; it’s the story of a failed rendezvous. A failed rendezvous at the École normale, a failed rendezvous in Tangier.
It’s perfect that he doesn’t show up. It’s the only possible ending.
He was infuriated by this book.
Why? You were very famous yourself, but you could not let go of him.
Yeah, of course. But in the book I called him vieux maître—old!
We had a common friend in Claude Lanzmann, so I sent Claude as an emissary to see what Derrida thought of the book: “I don’t care, blah, blah, blah; I’m out of this world of stardom.” But Lanzmann understood that the thing which wounded him was to be qualified as old.
I never said the name of Derrida; Derrida isn’t named in the book. I say, “the old master.” And this expression, “old master,” made him crazy.
And what was Claude Lanzmann’s relationship with Derrida like?
Based on what?
I don’t know. Probably based on a man called Michel Deguy, a poet, philosopher, and a specialist on Heidegger. Deguy was one of the disciples of Claude Lanzmann, a member of the Temps Modernes committee, and very, very close to Lanzmann, and through Heidegger close to Derrida. Maybe he was the link.
Derrida went back or went forward toward Judaism at the end, a lot. And my parents finally never forgot they were Jews. A lot of French Jews changed their names after the war. For my parents, this was absolutely forbidden.
Still, the most striking part is the amnesia. Anyone can say “Bah! I don’t care about Judaism, it’s all silly superstition, I love the taste of lobster and pork, go whine in your hovels, I don’t wish to be bothered.” But to go further, and to erase everything, is a much more radical act; an assault on memory: “I erase Algeria; I erase the little town where I grew up; I erase my mother’s cooking; I erase my parents, my brothers and sisters, and also my cousin, Monsieur Chouraqui, who loved sweets, and gave the students amphetamines so they could study harder.”
To protect me, my father taught me one thing and untaught me another one. He taught me how to fight, by all means, including combat sports, which I did a lot as a child, but also intellectually. And he tried to unteach Judaism.
When I published The Testament of God, my parents did not understand what the hell I was doing. After a while they were very proud, but at the beginning, when I gave them the manuscript they saw all their efforts …
Ruined. A true French academic, going to Rue d’Ulm, speaking, tutoyant [using familiar form of “you”] with Racine and Jean-Paul Sartre, falling back into Talmud? They really did not understand; they did not catch the point. [Laughs heartily]. Especially after Barbarism with a Human Face, which was a true, secular, French book. It was a great success, probably one of the biggest after the Second World War, but on a completely secular basis, you know. So there I was with Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Jean-Paul Sartre, and suddenly, I am back to Torah.
A Jew chanting Torah, under the spell of Levinas.
They were a bit distressed by that idea, yes.
HOW JEWS INVENTED THE IDEA OF HUMANITY
The religious idea that animates your new book is humanism. Like every other idea, the idea of the human has a history, it has a beginning, it’s not part of nature, even though many of us have been taught to regard it that way. What are the origins of this idea?
Jewish. It is unthinkable outside of the Jewish background. The idea of the human took birth with the Jewish world, and it will last as long as the Jewish name lasts.
Before the Jewish word was uttered, before the gift of the law, the specificity of humanity was unthinkable. You had a common material; a nature of which what we afterwards called humans were just one part. So, inseparable from the Jewish revelation, what the Jews brought to humanity is the idea of humanity—that’s it.
As a philosopher who was trained at France’s best schools, surely you were taught that the origins of this idea are Greek and not Jewish.
As for myself, I demonstrated rather early in my work, in my third book, The Testament of God, why it was not and could not be a Greek belief. Forty-five years ago I made a precise demonstration that all the attributes of humanity—which are, I don’t know, responsibility, self-thinking, distinction between humans and animals, all of that—are absent from Greek thought, or can be discovered there only in retrospect.
It’s an old book now, but my main examples were not Plato and Aristotle, but the Greek tragedians, Sophocles, Aeschylus. Humanism is unthinkable to the Greeks because of the idea they had of nature, which was a sort of big being that included humans, but who were not worth more than any other beings.
So Greece could invent the idea of order or disorder; Greece could invent the idea of beauty; Greece could invent the idea of harmony or disharmony; Greece could invent the idea of courage or cowardice. But the idea of humanity—even the idea of courage and cowardice, by the way, when you look at the moment in the Iliad when Hector runs away from Achilles, who is pursuing him with savage screams. Hector runs all around the ramparts of the city, and suddenly he faces him. Neither the first is cowardice; nor the second is courage, as is properly said in the text of Homer. Hector is just obeying the orders of his goddess mistress. So the idea of a proper quality of this piece of being, which is Hector, that could be qualified as courage, bravery, or cowardice, is absurd; it is just what Athena or a goddess whispers to him from the clouds.
And in the end, the behavior of Athena and the other gods is governed by their whims, which have no greater meaning, even to themselves.
Caprice … playing.
They are bored, so they play with these strange creatures which we call human. They throw them against each other. None of them, the little animals, have any personal will. None of them has real feelings. When we say that Achilles is angry, it is again a retrospective projection. The gods simply play games with us.
I guess my avenue into that same world of thought about Judaism came through Paul Ricoeur, when he writes about the invention of the idea of time and how in the relationship between God and Israel you create the idea of linear time, you create the idea of memory, you create the idea of history, all of which have meaning because there’s a back and forth relationship between what the children of Israel do and how God reacts. In turn, that relationship means that events that happen in human lives have meaning. It’s not a Greek idea of time, which is cyclical; it’s a purposeful, linear idea. Then you have Christianity, which is a version of the Jewish idea that merges with the Greek idea through Rome, and—poof!—you can have a universal idea of the human.
SELFISHNESS, CRUELTY, AND THE ACCEPTANCE OF CRIMES
Now of course, there’s another story, the negation of the story you just told me, which you can say begins with Franz Fanon, or more properly with Levi-Strauss and de Saussure, which is then picked up by Foucault, and in America by Edward Said in his book Orientalism, which is a story about the exclusion of those who do not fit the universalist model. In fact, the idea of the human is a racist fraud, an instrument of domination invented by those in the Western cultural continuum in order to oppress others.
All my life I have been accompanied by this way of thinking, this historical revisionism, which has always seemed to me to be the enemy. It is the will to exclude Judaism from Western thought—because this is the point, at the end of the day.
That’s a point that I think few people who attempt to critique Said, for example, actually grasp. They focus on “Oh, well he was a Palestinian nationalist”—well good for him, why not? If that’s your problem with Said, you’re an idiot. That’s just an instance of a much more ambitious and problematic negation, of something much larger.
It’s a form of Oriental Marcionism. There is no problem with Christianity, for example, for Said, if it accepts to cut its Jewish roots.
Said took the obviously limited, culturally bound attempts by 19th-century European scholars to go outside of themselves, as flawed as those attempts may have been, and reduced them to crude acts of colonial violence and domination. That same simplistic, reflexive criticism is used to criminalize every attempt to make contact with the humanity of others, the effect being to imprison everyone within the narrowest, most isolating definition of the self.
This is the, probably the most difficult, but the most essential intellectual battle which I have had to wage my whole life. All my life I’ve heard that line of questioning: Who is speaking? From which point of view? How dare you go outside of yourself? Good for you, but how dare you believe that you are able to understand anything of a remote culture, and so on.
So this question which seems to be a new one, when you read the press about the woke, I’ve tried to reply to it all my life. I remember in the ’80s—’85 or ’86—I went to China, and I wrote a book called Impressions d’Asie, and this was exactly the problématique: What happens when you arrive in a country? You don’t speak the language; you don’t know a lot about it; you cannot read ideograms. Can you pretend to have a relationship with the people whom you meet, in whom reside the common humanity you share, or … do you in fact share it? For me it was a question, and of course my reply was yes. I wrote a whole book, a book of photos and of text, about that.
This was a few years after Roland Barthes published a book about Japan called The Empire of the Signs. And Roland Barthes was not far from thinking that in the conditions which I am evoking, you don’t speak the language; you can’t read the writing, you don’t know a lot about the culture, that there is a Chinese wall between you and the others and that there is no sense in pretending to share anything. Roland Barthes thought that. L’Empire des signes meant that he was in front of an indecipherable world. And then, bye bye common humanity!
I did not believe that, and I still don’t.
I think everyone understands by now the immediate consequence of this denial of the idea of the human. Which is, “Shut up.” But what are the larger consequences of a vision in which you assert the absence of a common humanity, and indeed, the criminal nature of the claim that men are all brothers under the skin?
The consequence is selfishness, cruelty, and acceptance of crimes. It’s the perfect crime, le crime parfait, because it is the best way to legitimize the crimes of the other. I cannot protest, I cannot denounce, because I don’t understand. It is the building of a block of wickedness, of cruelty, of selfishness.
To have battled against that for 50 years has another consequence, which is the knowledge of how strong this thought is—this way of saying that human communities are structural forms, No. 1. And No. 2, that these structures are closed to outsiders; that they are like Leibnizian monads, incapable of connection.
This was a strong thought; and it was bad; it could only feed and create cruelty and selfishness; the only outcome was to stay at home and to close windows and doors. What I experienced very young is that it was based on the huge workings of the systems of Levi-Strauss, of Michel Foucault, which were built on a strong concept, the concept of epistemes. The idea behind that is you have systems of thoughts and words and so on which work together, are perfectly calibrated like the machinery of a clock; they are absolutely great to look at and so on. But if you are in one, you cannot be in the other one. At any rate, this way of thinking about the problem, the concepts that underpinned it, the concepts of structure, of epistemes, the concepts of rupture, were robust ones.
This point you’re making is a very, very important point. Which is not the superficiality or the idiocy of these concepts, but their strength.
Yep. Strong thoughts. And so, No. 1, it was a strong thought; No. 2, the outcome was very quickly seen by me as the reign of what I said, selfishness and cruelty; and No. 3, the peculiarity of those thinkers is that they knew it.
This is what I tried to say in the first page of The Will to See; they knew these terrible and criminal consequences of their own thoughts and tried to fight them themselves. When I think about Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser or Jacques Lacan, they were strong enough, and they were anxious enough, and they were complex enough, to see the terrible outcome of their thought, and to try to repair it. That’s why Michel Foucault, for example, was, on one side, the impeccable demonstrator of the impossibility of doing anything in history because history works like big tectonic plates, and he was also the best militant of human rights, building small activist groups about jails, about psychiatry, about discipline in the army, and so on. He was both.
So, what I also learned 50 years ago was that it was possible to think against oneself, which is a sense that tends to be lost in our times.
Two more foundational pillars for this thought, right? First of all, the interests of governments. If I can say you have no right to say anything; your perceptions don’t matter; then the field is clear for me to put my people in prison or to put women in a bag; who are you to say anything about it? Who are you to criticize my culture?
And the other fact, which makes it hard to tell good from evil, is that the same claim that can be used by abusive, authoritarian governments was at the same time also made by groups in the West which had historically been excluded or found it more difficult to gain places of authority in the academy or in intellectual life.
My feeling is that there are two different things. There is first what we call in France souverainisme [sovereignism], which is the fact that borders define the way in which justice can be applied or not; the fact that the people belong to the state; the fact that you outsiders cannot act inside, why? Because there is no universal justice. Instead, there is the affirmation that justice—good, evil, truth, and so on—are dependent on the place, traced by the design of a border. This, for me, is one of the most criminal thoughts against which humans of good will have to fight.
Then there is a second one, which is identity politics. Honestly when the Democrats in the time of Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson instituted the policy of busing and all of that, I thought that it was good. I know that when you leave a society to function on its own workings it does not turn out for the best; a state has to intervene, you have to impeach the spontaneous way in which the things work.
So, political correctness, so-called, in itself, why not? The fact that we have to fight against the fact in France there are not enough French people of Arab origin on the advisory boards of the big companies, and so on, why not? I agree with all that.
The real problem is when you transform that into a new series of jails in which each of us is confined. When you go from these measures of reform to quotas you fall in the terrible trap, which is a trap for everyone, for those who are considered as too privileged, as much as for those who are encouraged and helped. Everyone is reduced to the most contingent and the least interesting part of himself. So, No. 1 it’s a jail; No. 2, it’s not an interesting jail; No. 3, it prevents us from thinking; it prevents us from advancing—so it’s a trap for everyone.
What started with the goodwill of the mid-century Democrats in America has turned out to be a sort of racist ideology enclosing each one in his most natural and contingent part of himself, which is the definition of racism.
MAN AND ANTI-MAN
These people go back to an old debate which is well formulated in the Christian tradition since the beginning, which is the debate between monogenism and polygenism. Since the beginning of Christianity, you have this debate; you have those who believe that we have to take the genealogy of the Old Testament very seriously, and those who believe, on the other side, that all that is a metaphor, that in reality, there are really diverse sources of humanity, and diverse geneses, and so on. This debate, which dates from the beginning of Christianity, bloomed in the time of the conquest of America, among all these Jesuit fathers surrounding Las Casas who were pleading for the rights of Native Americans and so on; this debate is coming back with people who revive the idea of a polygenetic origin of humanity, and it is the oldest debate, with new garments, but with the same effect, which is, again, the justification of murder.
Because the only way that humans have ever been able to prevent murder, or at least to limit murder, is to be able to imagine that they were about to kill their relative, someone who is of their family. It is the only idea that ever restrained the arm of the killer. If you really believe that you belong to different identities …
Yeah. It’s a profound point. So, if you were writing a biography, a short biography of the human, a book called Human, which traces the Jewish origin of this concept, and the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and blah, blah, blah. What would you say was the period where this concept achieved its greatest vigor and excellence?
This concept has always been fought against by its opposite. We were speaking the other night about Marcion. Marcion was a bishop, as we know, but he’s still there. Hitler was a Marcionist. Chamberlain was a Marcionist. You could write the counterhistory of the Christian church through the presence of the Marcionists. Heidegger was a great Marcionist.
Anti-man, yeah. There is a Marcionist temptation in what Americans call French theory, or structuralism. So I don’t know if there is a moment of particular excellence of the idea of the human because the idea has always been corrupted, hemmed in, contested from within—sometimes inside one and the same soul—by the counterargument of eternal Marcionism. Protestantism is full of this; American neo-evangelism is full of it.
And you think that this is because, that this is part of the DNA of Christianity itself, which is the horse that the Jewish idea rides?
Because it’s the DNA of Christianity, because there’s this hubris in Christianity, constant hubris which dreams to be able to stand without the Jewish brother, to stand alone; no need for this …
This embarrassing reminder; remainder; yes, reminder and remainder, reminder of the …
That’s why, by the way, the Nostra Aetate encyclical was such a huge silent revolution because it settled once and for all the debate, saying that the Jews were not the fathers of the Christians but the brothers, this very little change of one word. Nostra Aetate was just that. Sorry? We said father? A mistake, that was brother.
Nostra Aetate was one of the biggest revolutions of modernity. It’s as important as the French Revolution, these few lines in Vatican II. As you know, the Nostra Aetate encyclical is full of considerations about Islam, Buddhism, atheism, Protestantism. There are only a few lines about Judaism, which were hardly discussed, announced and decided at the very end of the process. Five minutes to midnight: not fathers, brothers.
This was supposed to change everything and to settle forever the story, because if you are a brother, you are here for good. As long as I live, you have a chance to live. If you are a father, you are due to die; you have to die; the normal order of things is that you will die before me, so it is historically possible to get rid of you.
The Marcionists are just people who want to go a little quicker, to hasten the process, not to wait. That’s Marcion. But you don’t even need to be Marcionist if you were a Christian before Vatican II. Father will disappear very soon. Vatican II changed all of that, so, maybe that is one of the moments of excellence, perhaps. Which no one perceives. No one ever talks about it, of course.
WHY JEWS ARE ANNOYING
There’s a question that sometimes people ask me, and I feel 98% positive I know your answer to it, but I will ask it anyway. Why is your attachment to Judaism not simply a form of the identity politics you claim to deplore?
Because what the Torah says, and what the Talmud confirms and repeats over and over, is that every letter of the Torah, every character, has to be read as if it had 70 faces. Very simple. This is one of the things you find over and over in the Talmudic commentary. Being a Jew means reading the Torah as if each verse, each word, each letter, had 70 faces. Which means that being a Jew means to believe in a text in which the 70 faces—the whole of humanity, the number of the nations—can recognize themselves.
When you believe in a text which is built, constructed, in order to allow anyone to recognize part of himself, to subjectivize himself, to start the adventure of becoming a subject through the mirror of this text … when you believe in that, you are fully vaccinated against identity politics.
Jewish particularism also contains the world’s most powerful form of universalism.
The idea of election, of a chosen people, what does it mean? The word employed in Hebrew is segula, which is treasury. It means that the Jew is a treasure, a treasury, not for himself but for others. The meaning of being chosen is that the Jew is a treasure for the sons of Noah. And a treasure, what does it mean? It means someone who silently, in secret, like the treasures of the Jewish kings, which are kept secretly, without anyone being aware of it, escorts the others on the path of their redemption. Any way you take the Jewish thought, it supposes, it implies, a hypothesis about the destiny of humanity.
I have a friend who said something to me once about the resentment that’s inherent in Christianity toward Jews. The friend is Christian. He said something very smart. He said, both Jews and Christians are God’s chosen people, but the way that they become chosen is fundamentally different. The Jew was chosen as a Jew. The Christian is called out from among the nations to be chosen. The Christian must break his tie with his tribe, and lose the tribal person’s idea of eternal life, and instead look to heaven, to the afterlife. Whereas for the Jew, their chosenness is inherent in the tribe; they do not have to break with the tribe. So when Christians see the Jew able to have heaven on earth, to enjoy chosenness without having to forgo the tribal tie, this touches a sensitive nerve. It’s an interesting explanation. What do you think of it?
First of all, yes, it’s interesting, but my feeling is that the resentment of the Christians, when it existed strongly and still exists today, because it’s not completely finished, of course, comes from the fact that they owe too much to the Jews—the sense of debt sometimes is unbearable, too heavy. It’s not easy to owe so much, even in private life.
The other cause of resentment is the stubbornness of the Jews. If you take seriously the thought of Judaism, there is no problem that Christians exist. If you take Christianity seriously, it is a real problem that Jews continue to exist. The fact that this little people continues to assert its message, persists in waiting for the Messiah among the beggars at Rome’s gate—for some Christians it is absurd, scandalous, and can only feed resentment.
And the third reason for resentment, for me, is that to be the guardian of the law is a terrible role, and this is what it means to be a Jew; to be a little, modest, guardian of the law. But in front of those who have no problem with offending the law, in the eyes of all those who take pleasure in idolatry, who see God everywhere, in their eyes the monotheistic Jewish people, the guardians of the law, are annoying. Who are these people who want to prevent us from living?
In every serious Jew there is something of the killjoy. Someone who prevents, who forbids you to go about your business, the little business of humanity. Adoring gods, adoring the people, the party, the race, the city, the village, the little identity—all this business; then you have the Jewish witness who is there, silently, in a corner of the room. He doesn’t say anything; he’s just there. And he reminds us that there are some people who believe that this usual business is criminal. So you want to get rid of this witness.
EVERY HUMAN BEING IS A SECRET, KNOWN ONLY TO GOD
Is digital technology a threat to the idea of the human, or is it becoming our new image of God? Is it good or bad?
In the dictatorships, strangely enough, I believe, from experience, that the new technologies are more helpful than damaging. Dissidents often being more articulate than tyrants, they make better use of technology. I saw this in Iraq and in Ukraine. In the West, the effect of new technology is a disaster. And a disaster not only because of control, because you have big companies that have all data which can fall into anyone’s hands, we know that. But it’s a disaster for two other reasons, which are less often underlined. The first is that everyone watches everyone. I really believe that the freedom of human beings is absolutely dependent on the secret part that everyone keeps alive in themselves; this intrusion of the technology in my life, the possibility for so many people to know so many things about me, is absolutely the real threat.
Describe how this obliteration of the idea of privacy is destructive to the idea of the human.
I think a human being is a secret. You can judge the quantity of humanity you have by the depth and amount of secrecy which you shelter. A man without secrets is no longer a human.
This is the part of us that just makes us different from the others. This part of privacy. This part of darkness.
And there is a second reason why the new technologies threaten our humanity. It is because of memory. Humanity is secrecy, OK? But it is also memory; this is what make us human. The new technologies and the internet and so on have generated an exfiltration of our memory into our devices, into our telephone, an exfiltration, a derivation, and une vidange, vidange means to make something empty.
And once your memory has been exfiltrated into the machine, it becomes communal property and is then daily rewritten according to the needs of the moment, so that you are always as an individual being confronted by a collective memory that says you are a liar. Which to me is one of the creepiest things about these machines. “Actually, what happened to you was the opposite of what you saw with your lying eyes. Let us redescribe your reality for you so that you can remember it better.” There’s something shameless about it. There’s something absolutely disrespectful about it. There’s something mutilating about it.
One of the reasons I stay as far away as I can from these machines is the sneering voice which now dominates all the platforms—a voice that reflects the fact of control and the knowledge that you are reliant on the machine, so what are you going to do about it, asshole?
There is in the history of France a very famous figure of French Christianity, a saint, called St. Dénis. He’s famous because he was decapitated by Romans or whatever, but when his head fell on the ground, he retained the strength to pick up his own head, to put it under his elbow, and to climb the hill which is called now the colline de St. Dénis. What I’m saying is that we are now all like St. Dénis, with our head not exactly under our elbow, but in our pocket; it is not exactly our head; it is our memory. So we are in this nightmarish situation, which was previewed by probably the most lucid of the Christians 17 centuries ago.
And second, what you say, what I did not think of, but you are right: It is the dream of Stalin. The collectivization of memory and rewriting; collectivization plus collective rewriting. And for me Wikipedia is the embodiment of this modern horror—Wikipedia.
Who among your readers can say that when he has to check a piece of information he doesn’t go on Wikipedia; but Wikipedia is what you say, unsigned, a collective memorialization of humanity, ever-changing, authored by no one. Ever-changing, which creates madness. By no one, which is a nightmare scenario, like ghosts.
I remember the story of Philip Roth, when he said, I’m sorry, but this information regarding my life is not exactly accurate. Wikipedia told him, “Who are you? You are not a reliable source.” The reliable source about Philip Roth was no longer Philip Roth; it was the collective wisdom, based on changing information, about Philip Roth.
In the end, anyone who’s been trained as a philosopher imagines, in their heart, that it is possible to create a small group of people, a cohort, well-trained, morally and ethically disciplined, and that in one way or another those people can be given power within institutions and networks, and they can be the ones who will decide, and who will instruct. This is a belief that’s been inherent in the practice of philosophy, statecraft, whatever, at least since Plato. Lately what you see now is this dream of ending this idea of elites, because it makes people feel guilty, because they’ve lost the confidence in the ability to choose, and because we have all committed so many crimes. Instead, we will turn it over to a machine; we will build God out of AI; and the machines will take away this burden of having to decide our own fate. And this God that we build will be infinitely more intelligent than we are, with infinitely more processing power and capacity. It will never feel tired or bored [laughs].
The only problem is that sometimes the most original thought comes from tiredness. Sometimes it comes from boredom.
The tireless machine, the machine that will not know boredom, maybe will not be able to invent anything, number q. Invention is truly dependent on boredom and dreams. When you read the epistemologists—if you read Bachelard, Canguilhem—the greatest scientific inventions don’t come from a mega-calculation of the spirit; they come from, from a dreamy way of thinking, a floating attention. The machine does exactly the contrary. The theory of the reflex, cell theory, relativity theory, would never be invented by a machine.
I believe that the best work of humanity has been made by communities of friends. I really believe that. Friends. Communities of people who were not due to be together and who nevertheless, because of chance, because of circumstance, because of common creed, because of common goals, because of whatever, got together, communicated together, exchanged ideas, dreams, and so on. All the important events in the history of humanity happened this way.
The apostles, they were a community of friends, right? Researchers in a lab, that’s a community of friends; the great literary movements, communities of friends, yours and mine, all communities—that’s how humanity works. And maybe, one of the last disgraces of the new technologies will be to extinguish, to throw back into the past, to make un-useful this idea of community.
You are not on Instagram; I am. I have some friends on Instagram. I have friends on Facebook. This disfigurement of the notion of friends or followers, fake followers, and fake friends, empty of any meaning, whose true meaning is that you are swallowed in the bubble of the void, this is the ultimate grimace of this new system we are entering.
Ok, we are done.
We are done, but I am destroyed.
David Samuels has written cover stories for Harper’s, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic and other magazines. He is Tablet’s Literary Editor, and the Editor of County Highway, a new American magazine in the form of a 19th century newspaper.