I meet Bernard-Henri Lévy at his apartment in central Paris on a chilly autumn afternoon. Considerations of security prohibit me from revealing its location. A French Jew who is a public and vocal enemy of both Islamism and some of the world’s worst regimes, Lévy is both perhaps the most important public intellectual in Europe, and a man with enemies. I have come to ask him about the future of the West — if, that is, he feels there will be one.
Lévy, internationally known by his initials BHL, is a philosopher who has been at the heart of French — and international — society for half a century. But he remains an idiosyncratic figure. A quintessential insider who is also something of an outsider, Lévy’s worldview is relentlessly philosophical and indisputably French, but he is not a traditional French philosopher. He has never been a communist or a relativist, but an advocate for the eighteenth-century dream of universal human rights. He believes in the value of experience over ideology and of getting out into the world. Perhaps most controversially of all, he believes that the West is central to upholding not just these values, but almost all the values that matter. He is also a patrician and a liberal in probably the worst time to be either since the 1930s.
A member of staff greets me and shows me to a dining room where Lévy’s wife, the actress and singer Arielle Dombasle, is drinking tea with one of the world’s foremost experts on Proust. We sit and talk. Dombasle is charming and intelligent and thoughtful, as she always is. Lévy arrives and we go downstairs. The apartment is opulent but tasteful, a difficult combination to pull off. Understated gilt mirrors hang alongside old paintings. Paneled doors open onto rooms with yet more paneled doors. In a hallway, a bust of what looks like an ancient Roman looks at me skeptically.
A few weeks earlier, I watched Lévy’s new film, The Will to See, in the home cinema of his holiday house in Marrakesh, Morocco. It was a powerful two hours. I watched him travel to some of the most dangerous places in the world, to battlefields and conflict zones including Libya and Syria. Everywhere, he goes right onto the frontlines and risks his life. In eastern Ukraine, Lévy crawls through trenches. In Mogadishu, he dodges explosions. In Iraq, he does pieces-to-camera right by ISIS positions. In Libya, his convoy is pursued by Islamists roaring that there would be “no Jewish dogs in Tripoli.” He does all of this while remaining stylishly dressed and never once losing his cool.
After the screening had finished, we sat in his garden. As I watched the inky North African sky flicker into starlit life, I pondered on what I had seen. I had discussed conflict with Lévy several times in several places around the world, but until that moment it had never occurred to me to ask perhaps the most obvious question of all. What drives an internationally famous multimillionaire in his seventies repeatedly to risk his life like this?
It didn’t have to be this way. Lévy was born into privilege. The son of wealthy parents from Algeria, he was educated at a top school and then Paris’s École normale supérieure (ENS). During his time there, Lévy was taught by a rollcall of the most abstruse philosophers of the left, including Louis Althusser and Jacques Derrida. It was the age of the communist intellectual and the soixante-huitards, the “generation of 1968.” A life of teaching, writing and guaranteed TV appearances awaited this precocious normalien. Instead, Lévy did something pretty much no one could have predicted. In 1971, aged twenty-two, he left France to cover Bangladesh’s war of independence.
Lévy and I sit at a coffee table strewn with decorative wooden boxes. As I start on a carafe of superb white wine, Lévy starts to talk about Bangladesh. “It was probably almost fifty years ago to the day, and it changed everything,” he says. I ask him if he was rebelling against a life that seemed mapped out for him. He says he probably was. What happened was this: the French writer-soldier-politician André Malraux — long a supporter of Bangladeshi independence, by then in his seventies — issued a public call for an international brigade to support Bangladesh’s struggle against West Pakistan. Lévy joined up. Alas, he was the only volunteer.
“Malraux was totally outdated, not fashionable at all,” he explains. “He had once been a hugely influential writer, and he was also in the Resistance during the war, but he was despised by my generation, who worshipped a lot of communist thinkers. I revered him, though.”
Lévy went to Bangladesh and became a war correspondent. Almost everything that would subsequently characterize his career first appeared there: his willingness to go against conventional wisdom; to go to dangerous places in pursuit of knowledge; and perhaps most of all, to speak to those the world ignores — and to speak for them in the cities and parliaments of the West. Lévy calls this his “creed,” and it is inseparable from the choice he made half a century ago. Alongside his eccentric relationship to Judaism, his religion — he quotes Victor Hugo — is “the religion of seen things.” And like his Judaism, it bears little relation to theology.
The influence of this idea on Lévy is profound. All writers choose certain word clusters that provide ballast for their prose and illuminate the ideas that drive it. Lévy’s lexicon is grouped around two areas: the sensory — “see,” “hear,” “listen,” “touch” and so on — and the empirical: “report,” “find,” “discover,” “investigate,” the last of which reaches its apotheosis in Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, his investigation into the murder of the American journalist in Pakistan.
“Reporting…” opens Lévy’s latest book, The Will to See: Dispatches from a World of Misery and Hope, a round-the-world tour in an age filled with crisis – and it is apt. But if his opening word is well chosen, so are the ellipses that follow it: those three dots indicate a fracture, a trailing-off of thought, a recognition that something is slightly askew. This is a philosopher whose impulse — and it is, he tells me, an impulse — is not to sit and talk but to record and report, and it has driven him to seek out what Conrad called “the dark places of the earth.” I first met Lévy in 2017, in Kyiv, where we had both pitched up three years earlier to cover the war against Russia in Ukraine’s east — if Lévy is famous for his black suits and pristine white Charvet shirts unbuttoned almost to his navel, he is also famous for being unafraid to muddy them on the frontlines.
There is an almost nineteenth-century quality to this, but it evokes not nineteenth-century France but nineteenth-century Britain and America. Lévy’s empiricism privileges the concrete over the abstract, the universal over the relative and above all, the seen over the speculated. France’s most famous thinker is, mentally speaking, a kind of “Anglo-Saxon.” In The Will to See Lévy explains why he felt compelled to risk a life of “traveling the globe and bringing back stories”:
“We left to others the triviality of real things, the humble task of observing them, of traveling to the four corners of the earth under the most inhospitable circumstances, and trapping the concrete and true.”
Early in the book, Lévy wonders out loud, “Was it solely out of love for the United States that I ultimately chose Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, and the ‘New Journalism’ over ‘French theory’?” We would be mistaken to take this as a repudiation of philosophy. For Lévy, journalism is philosophy — based on a bottom-up view of the world that presumes two things. First, that the people on the ground matter. Second, that if you go and listen to what they have to say, you can better understand the world, and through that, the human condition, which is surely the end goal of all philosophy. He is, then, a French philosopher who rejects not French philosophy but many of the fundamental tenets that have long underpinned it. Looked at this way, Lévy’s variegated interests — Libya, gender relations, poetry, pretty much anything interesting — cohere into something like a unified whole. The Will to See makes this, finally, clear. This makes it a tour de force.
We walk through the apartment to his study. Lévy works at a black desk, surrounded by wooden shelves bulging with books. On the floor by a window sits a large bust of Lenin missing a chunk from the center of its face. “My broken Lenin,” he says with a grin. He picked it up in Moscow a few years ago. I suspect that when he looks at it, he sees what I do: the liberation of subjugated peoples. In Ukraine, we both saw crowds celebrate their rejection of Moscow — as similar crowds across the former Soviet Union had done after 1989 — by tearing down the Lenin statues that had for decades dominated their towns and cities.
Walking over to his shelves, he pulls out one of his seminal works, Barbarism with a Human Face. Lévy wrote it in 1977, shortly after his return from Bangladesh, to publicly castigate what he believed to be the evil of Marxism, which he saw as totalitarianism dressed up as progress, and which he despised accordingly. Even today you can hear it in his voice. “I saw Marxism and communism as no different from fascism,” he tells me as I refill my glass. “And they are dangerous.” If this seems banal now, it wasn’t then. It was a brave position to take when the French academy was in the near-total grip of the left, and indeed the communist left. Lévy suffered for it. “This was the first time I was ostracized for going against the consensus of the French elite — of which I was a member,” he muses, and smiles.
In his next book, The Testament of God, he argued that modern humanity could not overcome the problems it faces without returning to belief in a Universal Law and the quasi-monotheistic values whose root he located in the Torah. Again, he wasn’t making a theological argument: “Monotheism means neither a monism nor a theism, but a concrete ethics, a celebration of Law, a pledge to the Universal, and a miracle of Reason.” What he located in the Judeo-Christian tradition was not God but ethics, which had been flattened by a quasi-religious belief in atheist communism or the New Right of Jean-Marie Le Pen:
“I began to wonder… whether humanity could do without gods, if it could topple the supreme god without risking the return of the others… all those gods of ancient Indo-European paganism, and the even more pernicious modern, political gods… Prometheus unchained, hydras and dragons, the gods of race and history, of scouring nature and of science without limits.”
Those words glisten with Lévy’s perennial hatred of dogma, cant and, above all, the unyielding certainty of the fanatic. The Testament of God opens with the observation that it “takes some insolence to continue to speak of hope in the century of the gas chamber and the concentration camp.” This may be the clearest and briefest explication of Lévy’s philosophy I have read. In dark times, only hope and universal laws can sustain against oppression and human degradation. And hope, he insists, is constitutionally incompatible with the deep pessimism of Marxism, which would destroy humanity to “perfect” it.
Marxists believe human progress centers on systems and superstructures over which people have little control. Lévy believes the opposite. “The individual can make a difference,” he tells me. “Despite all the structures, despite all the economic relationships and so on, one man can make the difference. This has been a guiding principle of my life.”
The greatest superstructure of them all, in Marxism, is history. Once again, Lévy finds himself in opposition: “Being a Jew gives you a special relationship to the so-called laws of history,” he observes, while I sip a touch more wine. “We are a people that were condemned by history, but we survived — against all precedent. So as a Jew you are vaccinated against the idea that history is always right — that it is a master you cannot resist.”
Lévy is a witness to the kinds of history we don’t like to think about too much. The “religion of seen things” rejects the inexorability of impersonal forces in favor of personal stories. It focuses on the life of the individual over the march of history, and the infinite diversity of human experience over the suffocating certainties of theory. Where does all this lead? Many places, but one of them is being able to look up from your writing desk and gaze upon Lenin’s fragmented features.
If Lévy was controversial in 1970s France, he is only marginally less so in the 2021 Anglosphere. This is largely because he is unapologetic about his support for and belief in the West’s ability to act as a force for good in the world. This kind of view will always find its enemies: from William Gladstone, the nineteenth-century liberal British prime minister who boasted that he was a “Little Englander,” to Pat Buchanan and the paleoconservative isolationists who, after the failures of neoconservatism, call for the United States to retreat from the world. Lévy believes that nothing less than America’s founding ethos is now at stake — and with it the future of Western democracy.
As president, Donald Trump asked why Europeans get to grandstand about the need for NATO while also expecting the United States to pay for their security and sponsor the projection of European morals across the globe. “To pay or not to pay: it’s an important question but not the main one,” Lévy says. “Of course, Europe should pay more. But the real tragedy would be to break the golden link between Europe and America. The price is secondary.”
A current of political opinion in Washington has long argued that European publics are simply unwilling to forgo funding expensive welfare states to subsidize their own defense. Even if they chose guns over butter, doubts remain over the EU’s ability to effectively organize its own defense. Lévy thinks the root of the problem is deeper:
“The real issue is, do we still want the link? Do Americans still believe that they are “Super Europeans”? America was built on this idea. The Founding Fathers believed that Europe had failed and took its symbols in their ships to America, which they conceived as a project to build a better Europe. And I think that until Reagan this was very much in the DNA of US politics — even if only subconsciously. But things began to change with Obama, and they continued with Trump and then Biden. Now there is more and more rhetoric about turning away from Europe and toward Asia.”
Saul Bellow said he thought about Israel “with the blood”: he was unable to intellectually dissociate it from the strength of emotion it ignited. Lévy thinks about the United States in the same way. He believes in its founding principles, in what it has done and what it might still do. “America is special,” he continues. “It’s a country with a creed and that’s rare. Israel is a country with a creed, France too. Canada is not. The America of Obama, Trump and Biden, which now apparently seeks to tear itself from its roots — to break its links with Europe — can be a strong America that safeguards its economic and military interests and so on, but it will be one that no longer has a creed.”
If a United States with no creed is emerging and the centuries-old transatlantic relationship crumbles for the sake of improving ties with Malaysia, what happens to the West? Does the West even exist anymore as a concept or shared identity, let alone a geopolitical bloc or a human experience? This thought troubles Lévy. He sees the West as an unbroken chain of history: from Odysseus entering the gates of Troy, to Aeneas carrying his father out of its ruins to found what would one day become Rome, and then on through to France and Spain and Britain to present-day America, the land with a creed.
As to what happens to the West if Washington faces East and Europe falls inward, Lévy doesn’t even pause for thought: “Then other civilizations will prevail, and we know them well: those who seek to bring back the Ottoman empire, along with those seeking to restore the Persian empire, the Russian empire, the Chinese empire and finally the Islamic empire, which is the Muslim Brotherhood.”
“It’s either the West or those five. There is no alternative.”
Bernard-Henri Lévy’s new book is The Will to See: Dispatches from a World of Misery and Hope (Yale, $26). This article was originally published in The Spectator’s December 2021 World edition.