Rich societies were turning inward even before the pandemic, but Bernard-Henri Lévy won’t let them ignore atrocities elsewhere.
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 the terms they use are not kind: “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?