Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.
I think of Bernard-Henri Lévy as the last French humanist, the ultimate keeper of a legacy at risk of falling into eclipse. In an era when science is suspect and nations are ingathering, the aging nouveaux philosophe of the 1968 generation remains a tireless apostle of the universal reason of the Enlightenment. He continues on as the living torchbearer of “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” declared in Paris in 1789 wherever such rights are under assault by ethnic cleansers, religious fanatics, nativist demagogues or autocrats.
Never one for the armchair, B.H.L., as he is colloquially known, long ago left “the buzzing of sterile bees” behind in the august halls of the École Normale Supérieure. Believing that “man is not a local adventure,” he leapt headlong into the hotspots of history, part André Malraux (his hero), part Tintin and part Herodotus, the father of history and its first draft, journalism. Reporter, witness and activist seeking to “repair” the world, B.H.L. has inserted himself into the thick of things.
The Will To See
His latest book, “The Will To See: Dispatches From a World of Misery and Hope,” lays out the creed behind his endeavors and chronicles his many escapades, the follies no less than the triumphs. It includes a collection of his most recent reportage for Paris Match from Bangladesh, Somalia, Kurdistan, Afghanistan, Libya, Nigeria, Lesbos in Greece and Donbass in Ukraine.
Sometimes, B.H.L.’s adventures have spilled over into adventurism, the maleffects of his meddling a case in point of the disaster that can result from the well-intentioned humanitarian interventions by the West. What comes most to mind is how he persuaded then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy to take military action in Libya in 2011, leading in the end to the ouster and death of Muammar el-Qaddafi, which unleashed the violent chaos and endless battles among warlords that continue to this day.
Tracing the “archeology” of his “stance,” B.H.L. credits Frantz Fanon’s “Wretched of the Earth” as his inspiration. That book was first published in 1961 with a preface by Jean-Paul Sartre. Fashionable among the left at the time of the Algerian War, it sanctioned the violence of decolonization as a legitimate response to the violence of colonization. “That there were wretched masses on Earth,” he says, “their wretchedness deriving not from the gods … but from their fellow man, from cultures, monarchies, tyrannies, oligarchies and pseudo-democracies — was the source of an anger that never left me, even as I distanced myself from Fanon and his book.”
That anger fired the lifelong aim, as he puts it, “to give voice to the voiceless and to shed a narrow shaft of light on a forgotten war or an unseen misery.” His hope was never anchored in some utopian fix, but “faith in the capacity of man, if not to change the world, at least to prevent it from coming undone.”
If this unambitious tilt against the howl of so much injustice in the world seems incongruously modest, it is because B.H.L. shed very early on the illusion of grand schemes to save humanity. In those heady days in the late 1970s when Marxism still held sway over the left in France and the Communist Party was a major political force, it was B.H.L.’s divergent embrace of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn that catapulted him into the spotlight. He declared the Russian novelist “the Dante of our time” for his book documenting life in Soviet prison camps, “The Gulag Archipelago.”
The Siren Of The Soil
B.H.L.’s first foray abroad was in 1971, when he answered Malraux’s appeal for an “international brigade” like he had joined in Spain in 1936, to help liberate East Bengal. While B.H.L. went to what is now known as Bangladesh to fight for self-determination and against genocide, a bit earlier, in 1967, his compatriot Régis Debray, also seeking to rescue the wretched of the earth, headed to Cuba. Both had been students of Louis Althusser, a so-called “anti-humanist” who believed individuals had no autonomous essence but were mere “bearers” of social and economic structures.
The tale of these two trajectories, and where they ended up, map how history has unfolded over recent decades and speak directly to the issues we face today.
Debray, also a philosopher/chronicler/activist, cast his fate with Fidel Castro and later joined Che Guevara’s misadventures in Bolivia, where Che was killed and Debray imprisoned for three years.
Debray’s long trek through the illusions of borderless revolution led him to a newfound respect for the siren of the soil, the profound pull of nationalism and collective identity embedded in culture. He came to see that culture was the substructure and politics and economics the superstructure, not the opposite as Marxist materialist dogma would have it.
Though a member of the socialist government of François Mitterrand in the 1980s, Debray would later abandon the dreams of internationalists like B.H.L. and the architects of the European Union. He wrote a book in 1994, titled “Charles De Gaulle: Futurist of the Nation,” which argued that the failures of the left were rooted in its detachment from nationalist sentiment. It presaged the clasp of belonging we have lately witnessed as the enduring way of human nature, the grounded counterpoint to the rootless sensibility of globalization.
In a way, the contrasting stances of these two French intellectuals mirrors that between Francis Fukuyama’s idea that history would end in the triumph of liberal democracy and Samuel Huntington’s abiding “clash of civilizations.”
In 2021, Debray’s reading of the world has proven demonstrably on target. Just last week, Éric Zemmour, a Trump-like TV personality and author who is roiling French politics by rapidly advancing in the polls, accused B.H.L. of being a “cosmopolitan” and “traitor” to the nation.
The Dark Side Of Belonging
B.H.L. nevertheless barrels forward because he fears the dark side waiting in the wings of belonging — the yearning for purity. Whether conceived in class, race, religious or nativist terms, it is what lies at the root of all crimes against humanity. It is the impetus of obscurantism, of the impulse to close off instead of open up, to exclude instead of embrace. It grants all power to communities to exile the “foreigners, outcasts, uncounted and untouchables” of the “cosmos” from the “polity.”
B.H.L. sees today’s identity politics as a microcosm of this geo-civilizational phenomenon. Paradoxically, those excluded for so long from a false universality are asserting themselves in turn through a “narrow community-based thinking that extols the ‘decolonial,’ race-based, difference-based identity that holds sway among the far left of the 21st century.”
Like nations turned inward, this hardened subjectivist perspective of identity lacks the dimension of universality that, as B.H.L. sees it, marks “the greatness of humanism” in which “a person is as much all people as he is an individual person.”
Facing today’s challenges, B.H.L.’s humanism remains as humble in its ambitions as it was when he first departed for East Bengal in 1971. He cites “The Soul of Life” by Chaim of Volozhin, who was born in what is now Belarus in 1749, as his guide.
As B.H.L. puts it, the good rabbi saw the world coming apart, “creation being uncreated in a sort of reverse Big Bang that blasts masses of surplus people into nothingness, and who assigns himself the task of doing what it is in his power to do (prayer and study, words and ‘reporting’) to keep the roof beams that allow the human race to live, if not under one roof, then at least under one sky, from collapsing.”