In 2006 Bernard-Henri Lévy addressed an open letter to the American left in the pages of The Nation. He had recently toured the country while writing a book called American Vertigo and mentioned, in passing, that he had lost count of “how many times I was told there has never been an authentic ‘left’ in the United States, in the European sense.” With a command of dialectical contradiction perhaps acquired during his days as a Maoist ’68er, Lévy proved generous with advice for his “progressive friends” in the United States, despite our virtual nonexistence.
He described the left here as suffering from a sublime desolation. We were trapped in “a desert of sorts, a deafening silence, a cosmic ideological void.” But this was a wasteland of our own making, it seemed. We did not call for abolition of the death penalty, or speak out against creationism, or Guantánamo Bay. Nor was there any passion in the opposition to George Bush, who was denounced “mechanically” and “ritualistically.” Worse still–and Lévy was really very shocked by this–American progressives had somehow overlooked “the sheer scale of the outrageous poverty blighting American cities.” Evidently it went unnoticed by the left until Hurricane Katrina.
The essay offered much to chew on, once you picked your jaw up off the floor. It raised important questions. Subtle questions. Questions verging on the metaphysical. Did Bernard-Henri Lévy comprehend that “the American left” and “the Charlie Rose television program” are, in fact, distinct entities? Might there be aspects of social and political life that do not impinge upon the consciousness of Sharon Stone or Warren Beatty (who, to judge by American Vertigo, are among the American left’s most important figures)? Can a thing be, and yet not be, well publicized?
I frame these questions with all due seriousness, for they touch on something one must always keep in mind while reading Lévy’s work–his new book, Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism (Random House, $25), most emphatically included. For BHL (as he is known in France and, increasingly, the United States) is not simply another pundit. He brings to current affairs a certain philosophical method, which he succinctly unpacked not many years ago in his book War, Evil, and the End of History. There Lévy explained that he found it impossible to recognize as valid any political movement “about which I could not have the feeling, even if illusory, that it began, ended, and found its reasoning in me alone.” And so while “the American left” may or may not exist, what Charlie Rose so lovingly calls “this table” certainly does–for BHL has sat at it. Hence certain rigorous deductions are possible.
The interest of Lévy’s latest book comes from watching him apply his version of phenomenology to something grander than our provincial struggle between being and nothingness. Published in France following the election of Nicolas Sarkozy last year, the book opens with BHL receiving a phone call from the candidate. We eavesdrop on Sarko angling for an endorsement and are given a quick tour of the grounds for abundant mutual admiration between philosopher and politician. But, hélas, Lévy must withhold his support, for, as he says, “the Left is my family”–a remark that surprises, not to say unhinges, Sarko.