I've written before on the French public intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy, and I won't restate all that. But I do agree entirely with the review in the Spectator (London), January 7, 2006, by Anthony Daniels, of Levy's new book, War, Evil and the End of History. It is a very astute, very funny review. I thought his remark that Levy would have done better to have sat at the feet of Raymond Aron rather than Althusser is exactly right. Here, sub req'd. Excerpts:
(Update, January 29, 2006. American intellectuals and writers, not even Blue Staters, are not much impressed with Levy's tour of America, American Vertigo. Pretty typical is Garrison Keillor's reaction in the NYT book review of January 29, 2006. Keillor was a shrewd pick by the NYT to review Levy, having set himself up as the chief interpreter of the American heartland, at least to its college educate elites. Here, sub req'd. and here is the representative opening paragraph - it's one of the better passages Keillor has written:
Any American with a big urge to write a book explaining France to the French should read this book first, to get a sense of the hazards involved. Bernard-Henri Lévy is a French writer with a spatter-paint prose style and the grandiosity of a college sophomore; he rambled around this country at the behest of The Atlantic Monthly and now has worked up his notes into a sort of book. It is the classic Freaks, Fatties, Fanatics & Faux Culture Excursion beloved of European journalists for the past 50 years, with stops at Las Vegas to visit a lap-dancing club and a brothel; Beverly Hills; Dealey Plaza in Dallas; Bourbon Street in New Orleans; Graceland; a gun show in Fort Worth; a "partner-swapping club" in San Francisco with a drag queen with mammoth silicone breasts; the Iowa State Fair ("a festival of American kitsch"); Sun City ("gilded apartheid for the old");a stock car race; the Mall of America; Mount Rushmore; a couple of evangelical megachurches; the Mormons of Salt Lake; some Amish; the 2004 national political conventions; Alcatraz - you get the idea. (For some reason he missed the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, the adult video awards, the grave site of Warren G. Harding and the World's Largest Ball of Twine.) You meet Sharon Stone and John Kerry and a woman who once weighed 488 pounds and an obese couple carrying rifles, but there's nobody here whom you recognize. In more than 300 pages, nobody tells a joke. Nobody does much work. Nobody sits and eats and enjoys their food. You've lived all your life in America, never attended a megachurch or a brothel, don't own guns, are non-Amish, and it dawns on you that this is a book about the French. There's no reason for it to exist in English, except as evidence that travel need not be broadening and one should be wary of books with Tocqueville in the title.)
And now, back to Anthony Daniels:
Jaw-jaw about civil war
by Anthony Daniels
January 7, 2006
War, Evil and the End of History
Duckworth, 371pp, £12.99, ISBN 0715633368
Bernard-Henri Lévy is possessed of a large fortune, great intelligence and film-star good looks (if now a little ageing). He therefore had the wherewithal to go through life like a hot knife through butter, but yet has chosen many times to expose himself to great danger in the continuing wars of torrid zones. Why?
In this book, he reprints his reportage from five lengthy, indeed seemingly eternal, civil conflicts — Angola, Burundi, Colombia, Sri Lanka, Sudan — and then appends philosophical reflections as footnotes to what he wrote. These footnotes form two thirds of the book.
The author suffers from one of the besetting sins of French intellectuals, a tendency to torrential, undisciplined abstraction, presumably in the hope that profundity will eventually emerge of its own accord. It would have been better for the author’s prose if, during his youth, he had sat at the feet of the clear and concise Raymond Aron rather than at those of the mad and muddy Louis Althusser (anyone who has read the latter’s prose will be surprised only that his wife did not kill him before he killed her).
Nevertheless, many of Lévy’s reflections are interesting, if in the end unsatisfying. He characterises the wars he has here written about as ‘meaningless,’ in the sense that they no longer have a place in any grand narrative of history. For example, what was once in Angola a proxy confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States, between the ideals represented by communism and anti-communism, became, after the end of the Cold War, merely a struggle for loot in the form of oil and diamonds, with child soldiers not knowing what they were fighting for but committing acts of savagery (so much for the intrinsic innocence of childhood, Lévy rightly remarks).
Did this emptying of the conflict of ideological meaning represent a moral advance or a moral retreat? The author cannot quite decide whether wars fought, at least ostensibly, for ideologies are better or worse than wars fought for no such reason, which are wars that are for him — a pale Hegelian — outside history, or rather History.
I personally find the characterisation of large events, such as people being massacred by the hundreds of thousand, as being outside history both mystifying and profoundly distasteful. It implies that there are some people who take part in history and others who merely experience events. There is an echo here of Marx’s disgusting and proto-genocidal contempt for unhistorical nations.
Surely the war in Burundi has a meaning. As the author recognises, Burundi is a mirror image of Rwanda (as Rwanda is of Burundi). The war is thus an attempt to pre-empt genocide by means of committing it first. This may not be glorious or even rational, but it is certainly not meaningless for those who participate in it. Indeed, one might ascribe the war not to the absence of history, but to the tyranny of history: the inability to suppose that anything in the future could be different from, or not completely determined by, the past. The evidence that the author adduces for the post-historical nature of the Burundian conflict, namely the silent blankness of the faces of the victims it creates, is evidence of no such thing. It is evidence only of what they have suffered.
The footnotes to the reportage represent an eternal pirouetting around concepts of dubious ontological status or explanatory force. No doubt they give plenty of scope for ferocious polemics by like-minded intellectuals, but they make me think of the extraction of sunbeams from cucumbers.
The author half-recognises the self-indulgent nature of his enterprise. (It is interesting that he cites one of the great early French masters of reportage, Albert Londres, who was most definitely not a self-flagellating narcissist.) Much as he hates violence, and excoriates an intellectual and literary tradition that has glorified it, he is honest enough not to claim that he travels to war zones solely for the good of humanity. A man with his possibilities of leading an extremely comfortable life surely cannot expose himself to insect bites by the million with the chance of being shot into the bargain simply because he wants to give voice to the voiceless — though his desire to do so is creditable.
Perhaps the most memorable words in the book are a quotation of Drieu la Rochelle, the novelist and fascist sympathiser. Anyone who has heard and followed the siren song of man-made danger — as I have done — will recognise the truth of these words:
There is within me a terrible taste for depriving myself of everything, for leaving everything: that’s what I like about war; I’ve never been so happy — while being atrociously unhappy — as in those winters when all I had in the world was a fifty-cent book by Pascal, a knife, my watch, and two or three handkerchiefs, and when I didn’t get any letters.
Lévy, too, has known life stripped of its accidentals, when only the big questions are asked. As I read this book I oscillated between admiration and irritation.