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The Genius of Literature

Bernard-Henri Lévy draws from the well of late-18th-century French philosopher Chateaubriand for a broad defense of the aesthetics and morals of liberalism

Paul Berman
May 16, 2017
Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Chateaubriand's tomb, St. Malo, France.Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Chateaubriand's tomb, St. Malo, France.Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Does society require a solid spiritual foundation of some sort to stave off social decay and political collapse? Is this is our problem right now, a shakiness in what is supposed to be firm, which has led to political crises in one country after another? I have been reading Bernard-Henri Lévy’s book from a couple of months ago, The Genius of Judaism, which circles around this question, and I notice that his discussion and even his title invoke a very old book called The Genius of Christianity, by Chateaubriand. This is clever of BHL. It is fitting. It invites a comment. Chateaubriand is one of those writers whom everyone has heard of and hardly anyone has read; and yet, reading him is a grand and delightful experience. The tenor of his voice alone makes him a master of world literature—a gorgeous tone, supple, composed, and indefatigable. And, on the question of spiritual foundations and social collapse, Chateaubriand does have something to say. He says it with an easy air of fresh observation, too, as if he were the first person ever to have seen the problem, which surely he was not. But he did see it from a dramatic angle.

This was the unhappy perspective of a liberal aristocrat in the French Revolution—a disciple of Rousseau and a man of the Enlightenment and, all in all, a believer in human progress, even if he felt no particular urgency about progress. He believed in the Revolution, too, in its early, tepid, and reformist moments. But the early moments were brief. He happened to be in Paris on July 14, 1789, and he stood at the window of his sister’s apartment and watched in horror as a revolutionary mob paraded down the street carrying severed heads on pikes. Within a few years, his brother was guillotined, together with the brother’s wife and her grandfather and other people in her family. His mother and sister were jailed, and they died of their sufferings after their release. Chateaubriand himself, having lost his revolutionary sympathies, enlisted in the royalist and counterrevolutionary army, which led to battlefield wounds and illnesses and a shadow over his own life. He recovered. And, having been to hell and back, he set out, as a proper philosopher in the 18th-century mode, to sort out his intellectual confusions and to discover the roots and causes of social collapse, not just in the case of aristocratic France but universally and throughout history, beginning with the Greeks and the Romans, with lessons to apply to the future.

His first volume on this topic, which truly no one reads (but why not?), was a treatise in 1797 capaciously titled Historical, Political, and Moral Essay on Revolutions Ancient and Modern, Considered in Their Relations to the French Revolution of Our Time, or, less wordily, Essay on Revolutions. This is a delicious book. It is an inquiry into his own identity—“Who am I?” (his first sentence)—and into world history at the same time. He dwells on the Athenians and the Spartans and the Syracusans. Then again, he recounts an exploratory expedition that he undertook into the far-away forests of the United States of America, where, in the course of his wanderings, he nearly fell into the cataracts at Niagara and was rescued by wild Indians!—which yields to a still more vivid chapter, “Night Among the Savages of America,” about the spiritual superiority of the Indians and his good fortune in having spent a night lost in ecstatic contemplation of the Niagara moonlight.

But mostly he contemplates the causes of social collapse. These, in his analysis, boil down to a single recurrent and contemptible cause. It is frivolous intellectuals and their cynical mockeries. In ancient Athens the frivolous intellectuals were the sophists, who mocked the reigning Greek polytheism, and in 18th-century France the frivolous intellectuals were the philosophes, who mocked Catholicism; and, in both cases, mockery dealt a blow to the social and cultural mores, which led to disaster. The French deterioration was especially severe because the priests in the countryside were superstitious bigots, and the priests in the cities were hopelessly corrupt, and nobody in the Catholic Church was capable of resisting the fanatical anti-Catholics, who were in the grip of their own bigotries and corruption.

And so, having drawn up this analysis, Chateaubriand appointed himself to be the defender of the Christian religion—therefore (in his eyes), the defender of freedom, of progress, and of civilization. Here was his masterpiece, The Genius of Christianity: or, The Beauties of the Christian Religion. It is a still more delicious book—angry, forceful, rueful, megalomaniacal, rapturous, self-assured, amusing, and erudite in Greek, Latin, English, Italian, and Spanish, apart from French. His defense of Christianity is oddly untheological. He stands by every one of the Christian precepts but never seems tempted to discuss them. Instead, he sets out to prove that, whatever Christianity’s sacred dogma may be, it has yielded wonderful results, which he demonstrates by offering an extravagant tour of a thousand years of Christian architecture, sculpture, painting, music, and poetry. This is not a foolish point. He returns to the history of poetry in order to show that, compared to the poetry of ancient Greece and Rome, the poetry of Christian times has been kindlier, more compassionate, and more appreciative of human suffering, which makes for a moral argument on Christianity’s behalf, in addition to the aesthetic argument. He demonstrates that, in human affairs, progress does, in fact, exist. The progress consists of advances in the understanding of a single emotion, which is sadness—an achievement of the Christians. The ancient poets knew how to groan, but the Christian poets have made a science of weeping. Is he right about this? You would have to be a terrible prig to ask. The argument is exquisite, even if you could raise an eyebrow from, say, a Jewish standpoint, or a Muslim standpoint, or a Cathar standpoint, or a heathen standpoint.

The poetry discussion leads to his biggest argument of all, which is bound to puzzle us. Ultimately the social collapse that accompanied the French Revolution was brought about, he believes, by a failure in literature. For thousands of years, civilization had produced epic poems, beginning with Homer and advancing to Virgil, to Dante, to Tasso, to Racine, and to Milton (and he is brilliant at arguing that, contrary to received opinion, the modern poets are superior to the ancient poets). But in the 18th century, under the heckling of the frivolous philosophes, the French writers discovered that epic poetry was no longer within their reach. Voltaire gave it a try, but frivolity undid him. And France collapsed.

We laugh. But, I don’t know—should we laugh? In Chateaubriand’s interpretation, an epic poem is a narrative account of the founding of a society, emphasizing the heroic and moral traits that are required. Or else it is the account of the collapse of a society, owing to the lack of heroic and moral traits. An epic poem is, in this respect, a contemplation of history, with attention to vice and virtue. A society that knows how to generate epic poems is a society that knows how to examine itself, therefore knows how to remain vigorous. A society without poetry, by contrast, is doomed to die. Those are quaint ideas, but they are not ridiculous ideas. We could translate Chateaubriand’s notion into nonliterary terms by observing that society needs to maintain a proper appreciation of its own history—an appreciation of its own best traits, which brought the society into existence, and its worst traits, which put it in danger. Only, Chateaubriand would disapprove of the nonliterary translation. Epic poetry, in his eyes, is more than an instruction. It is also a method of instruction, which proceeds through the beautiful. It speaks to the soul and not just to the brain. Social science cannot replace it, even if, with his systematic analyses and his comparative tables, he was something of a social scientist. The truly master science, in his interpretation, can only be the science of poetics. It is poetics that reveals to us the inner history of mankind, which is the history of literature.

This was very French of him. In the United States, we tend not to think along those lines. We do not usually picture American literature or the American arts as a continuous tradition over the centuries, whose ups and downs ought to concern us for reasons that are more than literary or artistic. Or, if sometimes we do think along those lines, we do so only fitfully. There is not much tradition in our idea of tradition. On the other hand, we Americans have always harbored a sneaking suspicion that literature and the arts do perhaps deserve a theoretical reflection, touching on questions of human nature and world history; and, for this purpose, we ought to pay attention to the French. Admiration for the French critics is the tradition that we have. Lately that has been true in the universities; and it was true in Edmund Wilson’s time; and was true for William Dean Howells; and was true in the 1830s and ’40s, when The Genius of Christianity and Atala were in vogue among the American writers.

As for Bernard-Henri Lévy, you will notice that, in The Genius of Judaism, his chief concern is to offer a few Jewish correctives to Chateaubriand and his defense of Christianity. BHL wants to show that, from Rashi and his Talmudic commentaries in the 11th century to Proust, it was not merely the Catholics who created the literature and language of France. Or perhaps his chief example consists of himself and his own little circle of philosophers, the Jewish thinkers who came out of the French student revolt of 1968 and made the transition from Marxism to a Judaism of one sort or another. These were the Jewish radicals whose biggest achievement was to convince Sartre himself, the greatest of the modern French philosophers, to see in Judaism a tolerant and libertarian and necessary criticism of the tyrannical monomanias of Hegel and the Marxists. BHL tells us that, in his later years, Foucault, too, responded to the younger writers by displaying a curiosity about the Jewish alternative. Do these observations about French literature and its history, with the emphasis on Jewish contributions, seem insignificant or silly? A case of pointless Jewish vanity? The observations will seem more impressive if you think of French literature as a self-conscious tradition, and if you think of Sartre as a modern giant within in the tradition, and if you recognize that, if such a thing as world civilization exists, the French tradition is a central pillar.

BHL has written more than 30 books, and the finest of those books, the most solid, the most moving, the most thoughtful, is one that he devoted to Sartre, and especially to the period, late in Sartre’s life, when the question of Judaism aroused his curiosity. This is Sartre: The Philosopher of the Twentieth Century. The new book, compared to Sartre, has the look of a journalist’s notepad, agitated and slapdash. The new book fills out the picture of Sartre and the Jews, though, and, in doing this, it more-or-less conforms to Chateaubriand’s poetics. It takes the history of literature as its theme and pushes forward the story, in the belief that more than literature is at stake.


One more note: No sooner did I jot down these observations about Chateaubriand than I had the opportunity to attend a showing in New York of BHL’s new film, The Battle of Mosul. The film is a follow-up to a documentary from last year called The Peshmerga, which I have not seen. BHL has been championing the cause of the Kurds in Iraq and Syria, and, in the course of doing so, he and his film crew have spent a good deal of time with the Kurdish fighters in their war against the Islamic State. The Battle of Mosul records scenes from the assault on Mosul, in Iraq, which is going on right now—scenes of the Kurdish soldiers in their struggle to rescue Mosul from the Islamic State, together with scenes of the regular non-Kurdish Iraqi army, together with scenes of refugees from Mosul who have escaped from the Islamic State, together with a passing glimpse of American soldiers. These are frontline scenes. They are excruciating to watch—scenes of devastation, and of death, and of extreme suffering. There are dismaying scenes of the regular Iraqi army, including a dramatic shot of an Iraqi adorned with a huge swastika, in homage to the Nazis—a common sight in the Iraqi army, BHL tells us.

The scenes of the Kurdish army are more inspiring. There are scenes of Kurdish religious tolerance, and of Kurdish moral seriousness. BHL draws political conclusions. He admires the Kurds. He thinks we have reason to be grateful to them for putting up such an impressive fight against the Islamic State. He thinks we ought to recognize that Kurds are defending civilization and not just themselves. He thinks we ought to recognize that a tolerant and modern Islam does indeed exist, and it can be seen among the Kurds. He thinks that someday an independent Kurdish state ought to come into existence, and we ought to be lend our support to that project—ought to do so out of gratitude, and out of a recognition that a moderate and tolerant Islam needs to be saluted and encouraged.

The film does something more. It shows us a commitment to a militant liberalism, which is BHL’s commitment, and that of his crew (one of whom was gravely wounded in filming The Peshmerga but recovered and went back to work on The Battle of Mosul). The book about Judaism displays a lack of focus now and then, and The Battle of Mosul shows us why that might be the case. BHL has been otherwise engaged. In The Genius of Judaism, he dwells on the biblical Jonah, who went to do God’s work in Nineveh, which is close to the present-day Mosul. And his own efforts have been concentrated on the present-day Mosul. The film is strong, it is stirring, it is a highpoint of his career. If the opportunity arises for you to see it, you will learn about the Kurds, about Iraq, about the Islamic State, and about the nature of war. You will weep. The pangs of solidarity will tear at your gut. You will be reminded of a quality that liberal civilization requires, which is heroism. And if, as sometimes happens, you notice that liberal heroism has been flying a Jewish flag, well, to borrow from Chateaubriand’s subtitle, such are The Beauties of Judaism.


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Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.