Updated at 12:46 p.m. ET on October 27, 2021.
Bernard-Henri Lévy is a French philosopher who wears elegant suits, cites Hegel, and visits war zones. The first part of his new book, The Will to See, references conversations with Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, and Gilles Deleuze, among other French postmodernists; the latter part describes horrific scenes of violence in Somalia, Nigeria, and Ukraine, among other places. We in the English-speaking world are not accustomed to this combination of themes, and our first instinct is to snicker.
Those so inclined should go right ahead, for there is no insult, no criticism, no mockery that you can direct at Lévy that he has not already heard and probably cited, somewhere, in a self-deprecating comment. The list of his detractors is very long, and even his admirers describe him in unsparing terms: “Pomposity and self-promotion are his vices,” wrote Paul Berman, as far back as 1995. In the book as well as a new documentary Lévy has written and co-directed, also called The Will to See—now showing at film festivals in English, and perhaps to be more widely released next year—he makes several wry references to the opprobrium his various engagements have inspired (“There is the war in Libya, of course, for which I have been lavishly criticized”). But don’t let the instinct to insult him overwhelm you, for the book and the film raise questions that are rarely posed so starkly. Do people in the wealthier, more fortunate parts of the world owe anything to those who live in the poorest and unluckiest places? Should we interest ourselves in the fate of people fighting wars that we don’t even know exist? What do we accomplish by describing and filming them? Should we try to help?
Not so long ago, some of these questions seemed to have clear and obvious answers, at least to the people who dedicated their lives to thinking about them: Yes, telling the world when an atrocity is unfolding is always important. But the war in Syria and the immense indifference it provoked, alongside the anger so many Americans and Europeans directed at the refugees it produced, led even seasoned war correspondents to doubt the value of their chosen profession. In 2019, Paul Conroy, the photographer who accompanied Marie Colvin, a celebrated reporter who was killed in Syria, told an interviewer that both he and Colvin had once believed their work mattered: “We thought the world would go, ‘Hang on, this army is going to destroy civilians here … We have a moral responsibility to stop the slaughter.’” No longer. There is, he has also said, “not a single photograph I could take now that would make a difference.”
This change has many causes, starting with the information overload that has led to information apathy—a condition encouraged by the transfer of all reporting and photography from the pages of newspapers and magazines to the tiny screens of phones where they are hardly visible. The aura of failure that both fairly and unfairly surrounds the American and Western interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan has also led some to conclude that we can’t, or shouldn’t, do anything to help anybody anywhere; that to try is either wasteful, cynical, or imperialist. Therefore, this argument goes, we should not interest ourselves at all.
Partly as a result, politicians across the democratic world, on the left as well as the right, have decided that there are no votes in foreign policy. President Joe Biden followed Donald Trump’s lead and exited swiftly from Afghanistan. Recent German elections scarcely mentioned the outside world at all. Thanks to Brexit, the only important political conversations in Britain nowadays are about Britain. The global pandemic reinforced this inward turn in country after country, literally forcing people into their homes. For more than a year, we talked about the coronavirus. We spoke very little about the places in the world where the virus is a secondary evil, a threat to life much less acute than the next bombing run, the next terrorist attack, the next raiding party.
Lévy doesn’t merely object to this new provincialism; he utterly rejects it, even taking risks with the coronavirus to explain why. He made most of the trips described in the book and the film during the pandemic, including one to Moria, a sprawling refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. “All the rest of Europe is obsessing over public health and hygiene and how often we wash our hands,” he observed. “Moria is beset with infection, corruption and stench, with little water to be found.”
In Paris, the virus shut down the city. In Moria, refugees had other things to worry about. Lévy draws further contrasts too. His film switches back and forth between charming vistas of New York and Rome, deserted during the pandemic, and scenes of traffic and chaos in Mogadishu and Tripoli. He shows us a peaceful village in France, almost empty, as well as a village in Nigeria where people are loudly mourning neighbors and relatives who have been murdered by fanatical Islamist raiding parties. He offers himself as a contrast too, and remains solemnly dressed in a black suit and immaculate white shirt even as he is rappelling down cliffs with the peshmerga, the army of Iraqi Kurdistan. Everywhere he goes, he meets people who want contacts, visas, access to the Western world. He finds himself scribbling names and phone numbers on bits of paper. When he comes home, he asks himself: Did I do enough?
Because of his celebrity as well as his persistence, Lévy can sometimes direct public attention to foreign crises and even catch the interest of French presidents. Each one of his interventions requires its own assessment—did it succeed, did it fail, or (in most cases) is the result somewhere in the middle? He isn’t delving into those questions in his new book and film, so I won’t either. Besides, each one of these stories should prompt separate arguments. Any outside response to the civil war in Libya should be very different from any outside response to the killings of Christians in Nigeria, even though both deserve thought and attention. If one lesson is to be drawn from Western and American interventions in other parts of the globe, it is that treating each of them as one-size-fits-all terrorism operations was the wrong way to go about it. Military intervention, especially if it involves drones and bombs rather than boots on the ground, is not the only answer, even if it seems the simplest.
But do the failures of the U.S. military in Afghanistan mean that the rich world should withdraw altogether? Lévy argues vociferously that it should not. He is not calling for specific interventions, let alone military interventions, just public interest and attention: Whatever the solutions are, we should strive to be part of them. This is not a popular argument. On the contrary, at the moment we are heading rapidly in the opposite direction—toward isolationism and disengagement. “Never in the modern age,” he writes in his book, “has humanity been so separately from itself, so divided.” It’s almost as if the quantity of information theoretically available about the world expands at the same rate as our interest in using that information declines.
This is a disaster, not just for the poor, but for the rich world too. Lévy points to the “incivility, cruelty, racism, and anti-Semitism” now rising in Europe and America—all sentiments born of indifference to the fate of other people. When we harden our hearts to refugees or to victims of genocide, then we reduce our ability to empathize with people who live next door to us too. When we stop caring about what happens to faraway members of the human race, then we also stop caring about those closer to home. Ambivalence, nihilism, and cynicism are part of this package too.
Lévy believes this trend is reversible. That’s why he keeps traveling, despite the criticism he faces, and that’s why he keeps writing books and making documentaries. And he does have a large audience, a following among people who are not indifferent to stories from far away. When The Will to See was shown on the French channel Canal+ last summer, and then again on French public television, it drew robust viewership. Lévy’s belief is that connection between people is possible, that bad stories can be changed to good ones, that engagement does matter.
So much is working against the return of empathy to the public sphere that it is easy to be skeptical of this message, to respond with sarcasm or scorn. But before anything can change or improve, someone has to believe that change and improvement are possible. Pessimism is easy but irresponsible, because it implies that nothing can or need be done. Optimism is much more difficult and risky, but without it we can’t see a better future. The Will to See offers precisely that kind of difficult optimism: Both the book and the film call on people not just to see the world, but to be moved and interested by what they find there, and to do something about it.
This article has been updated to clarify Paul Berman's view of Bernard-Henri Lévy.