Bernard Henri Lévy For years a rock star in France, whose intellectuals may secretly say that he is really not French nor does he understand France, he is the brightest voice in describing what the country is and where it should go. He was born in Algeria and is nominally Jewish, and these are critical in understanding who he is. He is either a Dybbuk or a National Sage, but he does not float by and drop pedals. His confrontations seem more like a hand around one’s throat. He opens the door, makes direct eye contact, and makes you, or the nation, think…and react. What’s not to like.
The real purpose of this blog is at the very bottom, based on his most recent posting in the NYTimes concerning his thoughts on what it is to be human. But, there is much to him besides that is intriguing, maddening and provoking. This is his value, in my opinion.
For the past twenty years of so, I have been intrigued by the writer/philosopher/filmmaker/Dybbuk. I first heard him in the good ol’ days when Charlie Rose was someone whom we all looked up to. That interview was about his just completed film on Bosnia and what happened and needed to happen there. His causes range from this area, to the Magreb, to Afghanistan and Pakistan, to perhaps being the one most responsible for changes in Libya, to his beloved Kurds, to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, and any other area of difficulty that needs a wise viewpoint for understanding. Note the many times he spoke to Rose. There are 62 search results.
His is a prolific and widely read author, working and reading in many languages. His most recent book (he has written nearly thirty) is The Genius of Judaism, which I’ve linked here to a review by the Jewish Review of Books. It is also reviewed in the NYTimes and its title is a deliberate conceit bouncing off the title of Chateaubriand’s “The Genius of Christianity.” The Jewish Review used this to finish up their review, ‘he recalls the lesson an old, rich, and cultivated Jew of his acquaintance once gave him about how to combat anti-Semitism: “have nicer teeth than they do; get their women to love you . . . Live in castles as big as theirs.” A promise kept.’
It is perhaps in this area, as an atheist Jew, that I find him most perplexing. He writes this book to celebrate the Jewish culture, for which I am grateful and in agreement. But, he is a professed Zionist, which gives me pause. His views in support of the present Jewish state are, to me, untenable. I truly feel that the apartheid occurring there is also untenable, though there are scant forces in the world attempting to alter the apartheid state that is there. President Carter was attacked for his comments to that status, and the present president is making matters far worse. The moderates in the Arab world, of which I believe is the majority view, are left outside the conversation of moving towards a peaceful, two-state solution in Israel (I, too, feel there is a significant number os Israeli citizens of Jewish heritage within the country who also support a more reasoned, two-state solution). In this matter, I feel BHL is doing a disservice to history and this solution by confusing Zionism. Zionism is a continuance of the exclusive Jewish needs and obviating the reality of the zero sum solution that has occurred from 1948 onwards, with only the 1967 lines as a real possibility for the final solution. I do not use the phrase “final solution” lightly here. Everyone should note the profundity of what is happening in Israel. But, back to BHL and his thoughts on humanity….
If you want to know about him as a writer, and a reader, and a lover of literature, you must look at this article from the NYTimes delving into these factors, describing him in these perspectives. You will also get a fabulous reading list from the effort. If you want to know about him and the writing process, then, also from the NYTimes, there is this wonderful article on the process of writing.
“Philosopher, publisher, novelist, journalist, filmmaker, defender of causes, libertine, and provocateur, he is somewhere between gadfly and tribal sage, Superman and prophet; we have no equivalent in the United States.” Joan Juliet Buck
He has been vilified by many and today’s #MeToo would have a field day with his take on the opposite sex on many levels. I love the article in the Observer from Jacques Hyzagi from 2015 that describes his new book….”But a better analogy for Mr. Levy’s destiny might very well be François-René de Chateaubriand, the author of the unforgettable Memoirs from Beyond the Grave who had a tumultuous relationship with the diminutive Napoleon and was instrumental in the 1823 French invasion of Spain that led to the restoration of Ferdinand VII. Chateaubriand’s The Genius of Christianity even inspired Mr. Levy to write a fascinating text The Genius of Judaism, treating Judaism not as a religion but as a philosophical system, a guide for living.” Also from Hyzagi’s article, referring to Levy’s third wedding and the difficulty in getting to it, as he was trapped by shelling in the former Yugoslavia as it was breaking up in civil war….”Mr. Lévy was in Sarajevo dodging snipers’ bullets and having tea with Ahmad Shah Massoud in the Panjshir Valley. When he got stuck in Bosnia under Serbian shells, unable to fly to Saint-Paul-de-Vence to marry Eric Rohmer’s égérie Arielle Dombasle, he had President Mitterand send an air force jet to bring him to Provence on time. “Don’t you think that’s why people hate you?” I asked him. “What was I supposed to do? Not get married?” he answered. “Mitterand owed me, I helped him save face in Bosnia. I did so much for the French government, in the name of the French government, that it was really the least they could do to help me fly there.”
He has spent a great deal of time in the company of the Kurds seeking to help them and find his own soul’s roots. Consider this quote from him, “I will enter Nineveh if and when the Peshmerga does. That is another oath.”
On a visit to Jerusalem on the part of the French government in the early 2000s, while meetng with Netanyahu, Sharon and Peres, he told Sharon, “You might win the battle against terrorism, but unless you open up to the Palestinians very quickly, you’ll lose the fundamental war, which is for the security of Israel and justice.”
Again, a quote, “I prefer confrontation to ecumenism!”
When questioned by an interviewer as a follow-up question, ‘How does one — or you — “leave the path of arrogant men”? Lévy, “By moving still further into study. By that I mean the study of Jewish texts and the wisdom they contain. That moment will come. And when it does I will leave the path of arrogant men forever.”
What, though, brings us to this blog is that he recently surfaced within The Stone philosophy columns of the NYTimes where the paper has been exploring the nature of being human. Lévy opened his selection with the title, We Are Not Born Human. It is difficult to avoid such a provocation. Of course, there is much to us as a species: whether nature or nurture is more important, are we separate from all other living beings, are we the unique beings who possess self-reflection and understand the concept of a god, and our questions about how all of THIS was created, or the arrogance of believing that a Supreme Being created this all only for our benefit.
But, Lévy’s statement, “We are not born human.” To explain this, you need to insert his next statement where he claims that we uniquely become human through negation. He is also one that, therefore, claims that nurture and therefore place and time affect one’s humanness. He is from France, or more specifically from parents who left French Algeria because of the war of independence carried out by the Algerians against the French when he was a young man and settled in Paris. He still lives there and also calls Morocco home. Vanity Fair, in deference to such a perspective and philosophical force opened one of its columns about him by claiming “Only France could produce a phenomenon like Bernard-Henri Lévy.”
By negation, the examples Lévy offers are the Atheists denial of God, the Christians’ who accept that there is no purpose without God, and the Jews who appreciate him as a good co-worker. We must be part of society, but must negate its ultimate power over us. He states that we must submit to three births to become part of nature and to be human: the first our birth from our mother (time and science may obviate this), the second the transcendence of our physical beings by escaping the natural, physical world, and the third the joining of society. Man does not live alone, none is an island. Yet, Poe, he points out, describes the dangers of the “we” and the possibilities of distress from a nameless hordes. The trolls of the Internet are today’s demons in society. The self needs to appreciate his aloneness.
For Lévy, the being must engage in life, accept her challenges and seek growth. This is the same as what happens when our brain connects a thought: a dendrite stretches out and completes a link that will allow us to recall and use the link in the future. To quote the article in Lévy’s words, “To be human is to preserve, inside oneself, against all forms of social pressure, a place of intimacy and secrecy into which the greater whole cannot set foot. When this sanctuary collapses, machines, zombies and sleepwalkers are sure to follow. This private power may not be accessible to us at first. We aren’t born human; we become it. Humanity is not a form of being; it is a destiny. It is not a steady state, delivered once and for all, but a process.”
Of course, this does not delve into mental illnesses, nor savants, nor genius, nor any nods towards intelligences that are not developed but apparently come hardwired in some humans more so than in others. Consider those who a more spatially aware, can compute better, understand mapping and contours, comprehend movement as an individual or within larger groups, etc. Lévy’s discussion is on a philosophical level for humans in general. Many experts in neurology and psychology could and have called him out for his omissions.
He ends with a recommendation, one that negates the power of society in trapping you and also after admitting that he truly cannot say with certainty that he knows the real meaning of truth: “When we instead commit ourselves to moving forward, to diving into the unknown and embracing our humanity in all its uncertainty, then we embark on a truly beautiful and noble adventure — the very road to freedom.”