The Dazzling Shallowness of Bernard-Henri Levy

Bernard-Henri Levy’s latest book, on the COVID-19 pandemic, is a polemic that has a theme but no purpose.
Stephen Chan Fair Observer, Bernard-Henri Levy books, Bernard-Henri Levy philosophy, Bernard-Henri Levy pretentiousness, Bernard-Henri Levy COVID-19, Bernard-Henri Levy thinking, Bernard-Henri Levy work, Bernard-Henri Levy Sarajevo, French intellectualism, French intellectuals

Bernard-Henri Levy, Cannes, France, 5/20/2016 © Denis Makarenko / Shutterstock

November 25, 2020 12:33 EDT

One of the attractions, or oddities, of France is its reverence of those who are regarded as philosophers, or at least philosophical thinkers. In the age of fast information, we also have fast philosophy — soundbite philosophy. Not that this has no value, but this value has to be abstracted from the veneers that accompany not just instant thought but instant thought that seems intellectually attractive: exciting, provocative, perhaps outrageous, but plausible.

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It is in this category that Bernard-Henri Levy now finds a home. It is the task of the reader to distinguish content from veneer. But since many readers seem no longer to try, Levy has a ready audience for instant diagnosis of serious situations, rendered “philosophical” by the constant dropping of names, recognized as the serious thinkers of the past, and constant references to his own earlier work.

Sense of Exaggeration

That earlier work is not inconsiderable. Although always controversial because of his willingness to eviscerate sacred cows, his condemnation of Stalinism was a bold challenge to the European left to make a new start that banished socialism achieved by tyranny. His intellectual histories of French thought, such as in “Adventures on the Freedom Road,” although even then striving for effect, were vibrant and made thought seem integral to the French project of a national self. He wanted that national self to be humane and humanitarian.

Levy’s championing of refugees was staunchly within the moral need for a nation to be compassionate. His defense of freedom elsewhere, as in his taking of sides with Ahmad Shah Massoud against the Taliban and his more recent advocacy of the Kurdish Peshmerga in their fight against the Islamic State, were evidence of a cosmopolitanism that he saw first evidenced in the life and adventures of his hero, the writer Andre Malraux. Malraux had fought in China (with the Communists), Spain (with the Republicans) and France (with the Resistance), and wrote great novels and art histories as well as somewhat exaggerated memoirs.

That sense of exaggeration has always been with Levy. Every adventure has been a photo opportunity, including in Bosnia during the Siege of Sarajevo or wandering the ruins of what had been Muammar Gaddafi’s headquarters in Tripoli. That, of course, comes with kickback. Levy was indeed a frequent visitor to besieged Sarajevo, but those visits tended to be fleeting, leading the entrapped citizens of Sarajevo to nickname him not BHL, as he is widely known in France, but DHL — Deux Heures Levy, in and out (safely on a United Nations plane) within two hours.

That he then compared himself with Susan Sontag, who stayed in the city for a lengthy period, accepting the same risks as all others without UN protection, was always rich. And his perhaps seminal influence on the French and, through the French, on NATO to intervene in Libya had the unforeseen consequence of war without end in the “liberated” country.

His latter-day championing of Jewish identity and culture, echoing in some ways Levinas, but without his philosophical gravitas and genuine luminosity, leaves open questions as to Levy’s stance on any Israeli settlement with the Palestinians that they themselves might find just. This is a shame as, in some ways, he might be a reasonable interlocutor between the two peoples making, one would hope, the proviso that human rights must deploy equality of political rights — and, of course, that there is no humanitarian settlement without human rights.

Gadfly of Thought

Because he’s rich, given to Dior suits and Charvet shirts, lean enough and with sufficient hair to appear dashing in his late middle age, Levy crafts an image that all the same now seems that of the jet-setting gadfly of the international — and of thought.

That sense of the gadfly of thought comes through in his latest (short) book, “The Virus in the Age of Madness,” on the COVID-19 pandemic. It is full of references to (highly excerpted) thought from great philosophers alongside references to his earlier writing. But there is a difference stylistically to his previous work. Levy was once the pioneer of an evocative methodology that married philosophy with fiction that all the same was evocative and sometimes illuminating. That was within the construction of an imaginary conversation between himself, or himself in disguise, and one of the great thinkers.

The great thinker explains himself, but always within the terms posed by Levy as an interviewer. Of course, this made Levy the commander of explication and interpretation of another’s thought. But the technique drew in the reader and did provoke thought among the audience.

This time, Levy seems merely to be interviewing himself, inviting himself to make declaratory and pontifical statements to do with his (seemingly erudite) outrage that COVID-19 has rendered all other catastrophes in the world second-rate as face masks and respirators subvert and overwhelm our awareness of hunger, war, (other) pestilence and political repression. This is a fair point but made with a dazzling shallowness that proposes no means of balancing concerns over the pandemic and for other worlds. It gestures toward the sacrifice of medical frontline workers but almost dismisses them toward the end in a frenzy of concern for the “out there.”

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The short treatise is a polemic that has a theme but no purpose. It pales beside Susan Sontag’s own short book, “Illness as Metaphor,” which discusses the use of metaphor in the ways we refer to serious illnesses — just as Levy announces his intention to dissect the uses of metaphor but winds up proposing grand vistas of image after image for the sake of effect. And, of course, he does compare himself to Sontag in their quite different Sarajevo involvements. He also progresses the use of Benny Levy, once the controversial aide to the elderly Jean-Paul Sartre, from one side of Bernard-Henri’s interview-as-philosophical-insight technique to the status of good friend. No aggrandizement is spared.

Levy’s book does not even interrogate the disease itself. One would have expected Levy to interview the coronavirus, but, in fact, he dismisses its personification even in medical discourse without offering any epidemiological or biochemical investigation as to why the virus has been so easy to personify as an almost thinking antagonist. He offers no way forward except, fatalities and medical staff casualties notwithstanding, that we should diminish our concerns over COVID-19 and elevate our consciousness once again to countenance commitment against the great crimes of the world.

But we never abandoned our commitment against the great crimes. Levy’s evidence that we did so relies only on the plenitude of newspaper headlines about COVID-19, as if that alone were enough to obscure ongoing and heroic struggles. He points out, of course, that he himself never ceased his war on the world’s great crimes.

But this proposal of singularity ignores the fact that in every case of his activism, he had to cooperate with others and bear witness to the work of others. Levy never took up arms alongside the Peshmerga. He did, however, pose for a lot of photos with them. Perhaps one day he will publish a 1,000-page pictorial history entitled “How I Alone Tried to Save the World,” in hope that the world will forget that he once wrote meaningful books.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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