A Man in the World

Bernard-Henri Lévy in Bangladesh, with women raped in that country’s war of 1971 (Marc Roussel)
Bernard-Henri Lévy is a French philosopher, writer, adventurer, and activist. Get to know him: his thoughts and his life.

Editor’s Note: Today, we publish online an expanded version of a piece that appears in the current issue of National Review.

Bernard-Henri Lévy is sitting in his library, at home in Paris. I have joined him, via Zoom, on the other side of the Atlantic. BHL looks comfortable in his library. He is. He is a philosopher, after all: a dedicated intellectual. But he is comfortable in war zones and other hells, too. At least, he is willing to go to such places. In fact, his latest book is titled “The Will to See: Dispatches from a World of Misery and Hope.”

That’s a curious phrase: “the will to see.” It makes perfect sense to BHL. It all has to do with his background — his education.

He had the best education obtainable in France, or maybe anywhere: first, the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, then the École Normale Supérieure. He entered ENS in that fevered year of 1968. Traditionally, the École was a place of future professors and pure idea-men. Normaliens were fit to talk with one another, and practically no one else.

I think of the ditty about old Boston — where “the Lowells talk only to Cabots, and the Cabots talk only to God.”

Among Lévy’s teachers were Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida — dirty names where I live, on the American right. According to Lévy, American conservatives badly misunderstand these thinkers (or don’t bother to learn about them in the first place). Same with the American Left, he says. For example, if you think that Foucault would approve of today’s identity politics, you’re nuts.

In any event, Normaliens were not supposed to go out into the world, getting their hands dirty, gathering the news. Other people could do that. They themselves were supposed to think, read, write, and teach. But Lévy and his cohort were different. They had more of a “will to see,” and to do. Lévy, in particular, had the bug.

He had read a book by Roger Stéphane, published in 1950: Portrait of the Adventurer (whose foreword was by Sartre). It was about T. E. Lawrence, André Malraux, and talented, daring, dashing others. The book, Lévy relates, was “an invitation to action.”

After being graduated from ENS, he went to Bangladesh — “Bangla Desh,” as we spelled it then — and was off to the races. He would spend a good chunk of his life “traveling the globe and bringing back stories,” as he writes. Not just a reporter or a storyteller, he has been an advocate, even an activist. He is associated, for example, with the Kurdish cause, and that of Ukrainian democracy.

Naturally, he has critics. On the left, they accuse him of imperialism, colonialism, Orientalism, and other isms we could name. On the right, they accuse him of being an international busybody, a Mrs. Jellyby, ignoring problems in his own neighborhood and swanning about the world.

Come to think of it, criticisms from both sides — and all sides — mingle.

Bernard-Henri Lévy hears them, sometimes answers them, and plows on. Without apology, he is “a universalist” and “an internationalist,” he says. (A chapter of his new book is headed “Man Is Not a Local Adventure.”) “It is how I am built,” he says. He believes that comfortable people have a “sacred duty to approach the afflicted” — whether they live next door or far away. He decries the “fierce indifference” of many Westerners to horrors elsewhere.

In Syria, for example. Between 500,000 and 600,000 have been killed. Some 13 million are displaced. And on and on.

BHL is an internationalist, yes, but he is also a French patriot. “I have on several occasions placed my international activism in the service of the French Republic,” he writes. For instance, he was the special envoy of President Chirac to Afghanistan. Lévy has also acted as a kind of go-between — connecting people in desperate situations to officials in Paris. It was a great and moving moment of his life, he tells me, when he was able to do this in Syria.

He was in the bunker of General Mazloum Abdi, leader of the Syrian Kurdish resistance. Turkish drones were searching out the general. On “a little cellphone,” he says, Lévy was able to connect Abdi to President Macron.

“I tried my best to break the loneliness of the Kurds” — the isolation of the Kurds — “and to break the indifference of our privileged people in the West, regarding Syria.”

Universalism and internationalism may be out of fashion, but identity is very much in — and BHL has several: Frenchman, European, Jew, human being. Does he have a primary one? A hierarchy of identities? No, he says. He feels different ways at different times. Some days, he feels more European than French. Some days, he feels more “pro-American,” as he says, than European. Some days, he feels “more Jewish than anything else.”

I ask him whether French antisemitism — which has dogged him — has ever shaken his patriotism. No, he says, not ever. “There are two Frances,” he says: “a dark France and a luminous France.” Even when antisemitism is aboil — during the Dreyfus affair; during World War II, certainly — the luminous one remains. The flame of the better France never goes out, he says.

He says just the same about America, by the way. He is an America-lover from way back. One of his books is subtitled “Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville.” He has qualms about today. He does not care for our “cancel culture” or “America First,” among other phenomena. But he has a deep belief in the enduring goodness and greatness of America. He is unblushing in his approbation.

In his new book, Lévy talks about America as “an idea” and “a piece of ground” as well. Elaborating with me, he says that all countries are pieces of ground. But only a few — Lévy names the United States, Israel, and France — are ideas in the bargain. The idea, in his view, takes priority over the piece of ground. An idea dwells in minds and spirits, through thick and thin.

BHL was born in 1948. “My father was my hero and my model,” he tells me. That was André Lévy, a veteran of World War II — Monte Cassino, in particular. In his book, BHL cites Pier Paolo Pasolini: “Happy are the sons whose fathers were heroes.” He also cites Alfred de Musset, who says essentially the opposite: Miserable are such sons. BHL is a strong example of the former camp.

After the Battle of Monte Cassino, a citation was entered into his father’s record: “André Levy, ambulance driver and stretcher bearer, always ready and willing, day or night, whatever the mission, carried out evacuations under mortar fire with total disregard for his personal safety, returning several times to search for the wounded on lines then under intense enemy fire.”

Over the years, BHL has thought of these words, when he has been in danger and afraid: in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, for example, or in the trenches of the Ukraine war. The example of his father bolsters his own courage, he says.

In addition to his war exploits, André Lévy was a businessman, and a successful one. Therefore, his children had means, which surely made Bernard-Henri’s life of adventure — scholarship and philosophy combined with adventure and activism — more achievable. Many critics resent BHL for this, as he himself points out. He could hardly be riper for envy: rich, Jewish, talented, smart, handsome, jet-setting, famous, influential, world-minded. For certain political types, he is a nightmare. They let him know, too.

His new book, The Will to See, is a peculiar one. He lays it out in two parts: “My Creed” and “On the Road.” Part One is philosophical and personal. It also shows immense learning, as the author draws on history and literature from antiquity onward. These are literate chapters for literate readers, or those who aspire to be. Lévy is unashamed in this regard (as in most).

Part Two consists of the dispatches promised in the subtitle — “Dispatches from a World of Misery and Hope.” They are from Nigeria, the Donbass, Mogadishu, Lesbos, and other difficult places (“difficult” to say the least). The dispatches were first published in Paris Match and the Wall Street Journal.

Paris Match, a magazine I know for jiggling starlets? (That’s why guys like me read it — or looked at it — when we were French students.) It speaks well of a society that so popular a magazine would carry dispatches such as BHL’s.

He made these trips in 2020, the pandemic year, which saw a “global house arrest,” as he says. Under some compulsion, “I moved toward places where people who have no home in which to wait out the pandemic were living and dying.”

The trips took a lot out of him. They brought hardship and peril, together with psychological and emotional tolls. But it is his duty to go and see and tell, he says. Plus, “I have such a sweet life on the other side.” The other side? Yes, Paris, New York — the West. “I am so lucky, I have so many privileges — I’m surrounded by such a great family and great friends — that I can afford these hard times. They are like a tax, which happiness must pay to destiny. And I pay it with a light heart.”

Lévy is always ready, he says: ready for pursuits intellectual and pursuits physical. “Ready for an adventure of thought, an adventure of philosophy,” as he sits and works in his library, and “ready for an adventure of witness and testimony.” Simply put: “I’m just ready.”

Gauging his opinion on various world events, I ask him about Afghanistan — the pullout of the United States last August. Was he sickened? Disgusted? “I was sad,” he answers. “Sad for America, sad for the West. It was such a stupid move, an unstrategic move — it was absurd, the way in which your president bought the plan of his predecessor.” Afghanistan was “such a moral defeat for the West,” “such a loss of credibility,” “such a disaster for all of us.”

Ukraine, he says, is a test for the West — another one. The Ukrainians are facing a terrible illiberal force, namely Vladimir Putin and his government. If we fail to support the Ukrainians, they may lose their democracy and independence. “We have to help them for the sake of being faithful to our values,” says Lévy. “They believe in us. We have to support them.”

Israel, he has visited, thought about, and written about for a long time. He first went there on the last day of the Six-Day War (1967). The Abraham Accords, he says, brought great relief. (“Abraham Accords,” as you know, refers to the recent normalization of relations between Israel and four other states, starting with the United Arab Emirates.) This development “changes everything,” says Lévy. “It is a Copernican revolution.” He gives the Trump administration due credit, along with Israelis, Emiratis, and other vital parties.

Among the topics of The Will to See is friendship. For 40 years, Lévy has been traveling, reporting, and adventuring with Gilles Hertzog: “my best friend,” he tells me, “my brother-in-arms.”

Hertzog’s grandfather, Marcel Cachin, was a founder of the French Communist Party, and the longtime editor of the party’s newspaper, L’Humanité. The grandson had a painful break with this ideology.

Of Hertzog, BHL writes, “He does not watch television, but he has Chateaubriand at his fingertips.” Also, “he confuses Google with Wikipedia, does not know how to use the Internet, but has all the answers on the historic rivalry between the Turkish and Russian empires.”

Best of all, maybe, Hertzog is “up for anything.” This reminds me of William F. Buckley Jr. — who prized friends who were “up for anything,” as he himself usually was.

Lévy writes, “I pity anyone who has not experienced the heavenly gift of a true friend, an eternal friend, a friend as transparent as water from a rocky stream. A friend.”

All of this talk about friendship, and internationalism, and nationalism, and identity, and sectarianism, and other issues of the kind, puts me in mind of a story that WFB occasionally told. He got it from Anton Rossi, a French sociologist and historian, who was making a point about French individualism. The story goes something like this:

Two strangers are sitting in a café — call them Messieurs Lavigne and Boucher. Boucher is reading a newspaper. Lavigne, wanting conversation, asks, “Do you like the Americans?” “No,” says Boucher. “Well, then, do you like Frenchmen?” Again, “No.” “Do you like the Jews?” “No.” “Catholics?” “No.” “The rich?” “No.” “The poor?” “No.”

Finally, with some exasperation, Lavigne asks, “Well, whom do you like?” Boucher, barely glancing away from his newspaper, answers, “I like my friends.”

Plenty of people have a friend in Bernard-Henri Lévy, whose life has been helpful to others, as well as fulfilling to himself.


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