The Will to See

From The Wall Street Journal:

The Will to See” is a pugnacious little book—part reportage, part autobiographical manifesto—written by a man whose conscience is frozen in time. That judgment isn’t meant as a put-down. It’s a way of saying that the moral compass of its author, the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, appears not to have been reset since he graduated from the École Normale Supérieure in Paris in 1971. Now 73, he was then an idealistic (even quixotic) 22-year-old with a degree in philosophy, “a young graduate with heart.” Living life as a cloistered intellectual seemed to him like “poison,” as did the prospect of working as a “servile technician” in the service of the academic establishment or the French state.

So he turned his back on the paths, cozy and conventional, that lay before him. He wasn’t alone in his rejection of life’s bourgeois roadmaps. Some of his classmates went to work in factories. Others slipped away “to stir up revolution” outside France. The political project that Mr. Lévy “chose”—his verb—was Bangladesh, where for several months he “endeavored to support the birth of a nation” that was fighting to secede from Pakistan in a harrowing civil war. He stayed on after the country won its independence. Working as an adviser, he counseled the fledgling government to treat as birangona—heroines—the 400,000 Bengali women who had been raped by Pakistani soldiers.

Mr. Lévy’s account of his intellectual formation is littered with the names of French philosophers, poets, historians and economists, many of whom will be unfamiliar to Anglophone readers. Alongside this flurry of intellectual exotica, readers must grapple with such assertions as: “to those who would ask what an inner voice might mean, I recommend reading Kant”; or “the only worthwhile philosophy is one that places ethics over ontology.”

Mr. Lévy was persuaded to hurl himself into the Bangladesh maelstrom by two works that resonated with his youthful romanticism: Franz Fanon’s “scathing, seething, incendiary” book “The Wretched of the Earth” (1961)—a call for the violent overthrow of the world’s colonial order—and “Portrait of the Adventurer” (1950), by Roger Stéphane, a minor thinker who enjoyed some cachet after World War II, including the admiration of Jean-Paul Sartre. Stéphane urged the educated young of France to be men of action, and Mr. Lévy writes that his book “was in my pocket like a viaticum at the time of my departure for Bangladesh.”

Although Mr. Lévy is a prolific writer for Paris Match—which he describes as “the consummate mass-circulation, mass-retail magazine of sensational human-interest stories”—and an occasional contributor to The Wall Street Journal, he insists that he is not a journalist. His slant, he writes, “is the inverse of the journalist’s: I never set out on a reporting trip without the firm intention of intervening in what I see and changing what I show.”

. . . .

His dispatch from Bangladesh, which he revisited in March 2020, is a powerful essay that wastes no time on sterile objectivity. He describes the country, for which he professes enduring love, as the “front line of the planetary war against radical Islam, poverty, migratory chaos, and ecological cataclysm.”

. . . .

Mr. Lévy declares himself to be an “internationalist,” and this calling leads him “time and again to leave my family and embrace the cause of a people not my own.” Justice, he says, is “no different on one side of a border than on the other.” The title of one of his chapters is “Man Is Not a Local Adventure,” which is his way, one senses, of taking a kick at Jean-Marie Le Pen, the French politician of the nativist right who has said: “I prefer my daughter to my cousin, my cousin to my neighbor, my neighbor to my countrymen, and my countrymen to Europeans.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (This should be a free link that gets you to the article, but, if not, PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out another way around it.)

3 thoughts on “The Will to See”

  1. Mr. Lévy declares himself to be an “internationalist,” and this calling leads him “time and again to leave my family and embrace the cause of a people not my own.”

    Internationalists are awful at managing their own countries, but consider themselves experts at managing other countries. Calling for world peace is easy. Managing the public works in a medium sized city is hard.

  2. The story about Levy, who happily leaves his family to stick his nose into other nations’ problems, immediately brought to mind G. K. Chesterton’s “The World State” (1925):

    Oh, how I love Humanity,
    With love so pure and pringlish,
    And how I hate the horrid French,
    Who never will be English!

    The International Idea,
    The largest and the clearest,
    Is welding all the nations now,
    Except the one that’s nearest.

    This compromise has long been known,
    This scheme of partial pardons,
    In ethical societies
    And small suburban gardens—

    The villas and the chapels where
    I learned with little labour
    The way to love my fellow-man
    And hate my next-door neighbour.

  3. “the only worthwhile philosophy is one that places ethics over ontology.”

    My naive understanding of philosophical jargon restates that as “he prioritizes what he wishes existed (ethics) with what really does exist (ontology)”. Though it can result in good results sometimes, it strikes me as a fanatical way of looking at life, that produces more harm than good overall.

    While it is true that “Is does not imply ought”, it is also true that “ought does not imply is.”

Comments are closed.