Adam Ash

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Saturday, February 25, 2006

Bookplanet : BHL wears his shirts unbuttoned to his navel, but that doesn't mean he's an A-HoLe

Tough thinking
Review by A.C. Grayling of

It is the fashion, as much in France as in Britain, to focus on Bernard-Henri Levy’s celebrity lifestyle and friends, his designer clothes, his “sumptuous” apartment in Paris, his palace in Marrakech, his celebrity, his beautiful girlfriends, even the immortal headline to an article about him which began “God is dead but my hair is perfect” - and so endlessly on, because neither country (how different from the US) can tolerate anyone who is simultaneously too clever, too successful and too good-looking.

But all the snideness and mocking cannot alter the fact that Levy is alone among contemporary “engaged intellectuals” in doing what their 1930s forerunners did when Spain collapsed into civil war, which was to put themselves in the way of bullets. Levy has done this with courage, going into the heart of darkness in Colombia, Angola, the Sudan, Burundi and Sri Lanka (and later, Afghanistan) to talk to all sides in the conflicts that have raped those countries for decades.

Levy’s reports of these experiences form the first third of this book. Earlier experiences of visiting Bosnia and Bangladesh in times of conflict figure too, when he is reminded of them by the ruins, the amputees, the pathological rebel leaders. His aim in searching out places and people central to these conflicts was to make sense of them; his implicit assumption is that to help change things one must seek to understand them, contrary to the false opposition introduced by Marx between these two tasks.

The main bulk of Levy’s book consists of long footnotes to the essays on the desperate countries he visited. The essays appeared in Le Monde during the summer of 2001, before the atrocities of September 11, so Levy was ahead of the game in trying to understand the psychology of the new style of conflicts racking the world. Some of the footnotes are long meditations invoking Hegel, Nietzsche, Stephan Zweig, Proust, Karl Kraus, Cocteau, Apollinaire, indeed the entire pantheons of several cultural traditions, seeking their aid in examining the bitterness and inhumanity of today’s frightful civil wars and terrorism.

Many of these footnote-essays were written in the aftermath of September 11, which Levy (and here, I think, hyperbolically - but in common with many others) regards as a watershed in the world’s current agonies, a quantum increase in their horror. But he does not fall into the trap of simplifying and generalising matters into a “clash of civilisations” or blaming any one thing (still less, “Islam” considered monolithically) as the cause of the problem. In this he is right, and his essays capture the ambiguous nature of the struggles that have long lost touch with the rights and wrongs supposed to be at their root and have become their own self-sustaining reality.

Among the pictures of devastation, none could be more poignant than that of the overgrown road and railway that no longer link a city in Angola’s interior to anywhere accessible from the capital. The bougainvillea-hung verandas of colonial days, the basic amenities then available, have given way to ruins, landmine-infested fields, checkpoints on the fluctuating frontiers between rival factions where bribes or arbitrary death are the common currency.

Levy had the courage to go into the heat, dust and danger to interview some profoundly unsavoury characters, to ask hard questions, and to come out wanting to fathom the reasons and unreasons that lay behind it all.

In Sri Lanka he penetrated Tamil Tiger territory to talk to one of their leaders, after first interviewing a defected “torpedo-woman” who had trained for a suicide mission.

In Colombia he risked his neck to ask questions about the massacres of Quebrada Nain, where first the paramilitaries of drug lord Carlos Castano murdered 20 people as punishment for helping the Marxist guerrillas of FARC, and then FARC killed 10 more for fraternising with the paramilitaries. There is a chilling account of Levy’s interview with the murderous drug lord: “Carlos Castano becomes heated. Almost gets carried away. Beads of sweat are forming on his face. He makes large gestures. Rolls his glaring eyes. He uses a considerable amount of energy to make me understand that he is responsible for this road and that he is a man of justice.”

In Burundi he crossed the front lines in a theatre of genocide to try to see its face, and to talk to the people whose lies and self-interest make the heatwaves dancing on the interior’s lakes a metaphor for all mirages and evasions. “This broken fountain. This other one, five kilometres further on, where a hundred or so poor people stand in line, holding plastic cans, watering cans, gourds - patience of the blind, immobility of corpses. A Hutu cemetery. Another one, Tutsi, with its graves overturned... “

At no stage does Levy impose interpretations or final answers. That does not mean he is equivocal in his reactions to inhumanity and dishonesty: his anger and compassion are vivid. “Who kills better?” he asks, “a fascist, or a Marxist guerrilla?”

But as the long footnotes - themselves mini-essays - in effect argue, such reactions are not the end of the matter, but only the beginning. In some of them Levy revisits the action-hungry, excitement-thirsty young man he used to be, as when he visited Bangladesh in its time of trouble in the early 1970s to be a volunteer, hoping to imitate the intellectual-activists of 1930s Spain. As a student he heard a call for the formation of an “international brigade” for Bengal, “and I took, one October morning, the path of my ‘Red India’, arriving at an astonished French consulate in Calcutta to volunteer and to be met with the first disillusionment”.

He tells this story in order to provide a contrast with the sober spectator he has become, nauseated by the “warrior aesthetic” and the foolish romanticism that leads young men into senseless games of death over abstractions.

No doubt Levy’s harshest critics will say that he has made the world’s strife a mere backdrop to his egoism. And true enough, this is not quite the way Orwell did it. But I do not think such criticism justified. Levy’s book is a genuine effort by a thinker to confront dire situations, hard to fathom or accept, and to bring the resource of philosophy to bear upon them. Look beyond the manner to the matter and there is a great deal that is moving, informative, and deeply thought-provoking there.


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