I’d never read any of the books by Bernard-Henri Lévy (BHL), but a friend recommended to me an interview he gave on his new book The Virus in the Age of Madness—and the interview was enough to inspire me to read the book, which is short and can be read in less than two hours. BHL writes entertainingly with great swagger, switching with ease from Plato to the Torah to Youtube.
His book is a rant, a polemic. His central argument is that those of us in the rich world have been driven made by Covid-19, allowing the virus to take over our lives. The world seems to have stopped while we indulge ourselves with the virus.
There is, he insists, nothing positive about the pandemic. He rails against people rediscovering nature, delighting in empty cities, burrowing deep into themselves, and particularly those who see the pandemic as a warning, a wake-up call to achieve a better balance with nature, and argue that positive developments can emerge from the pandemic.
I’m guilty of all those crimes and don’t wholly agree with BHL.
But I’m more sympathetic to the idea that we have become too preoccupied with the virus, allowing the world’s dictators—Xi Jingping, Putin, Erdogan, Orban, Bolsanaro, and the like—to advance their particular forms of madness unhindered. More broadly he argues that we have allowed the virus to take us away from action and all that matters in life.
He ends the book with this long scream:
“A life in which one accepts, with enthusiasm or resignation, the transformation of the welfare state into the surveillance state, with health replacing security, a life in which one consents to this slippery slope: no longer the old social contract (where you cede a bit of your individual will to gain the general will) but a new life contract (where you abdicate a little, or a lot, of your core freedoms, in return for an antivirus guarantee, an “immunity passport,” a “risk-free certificate,” or a new kind of get-out-of-jail-free card, one that lets you transfer to another cell).
In the process, a profound break has been made with what all the wisdom of the world, notably but by no means exclusively Jewish, has striven to say: that a life is not a life if it is merely life.
It is the wisdom of every philosophy, truly, every one. Though they may disagree on everything else, philosophies are in accord on the idea that humanity is never identity in and for itself, never reducible to itself, but that it thrives only if—whether by action, contemplation, Spinozan effort to increase its power to be, or the divine spark—it leaves the confinement that is life in its native state. It is the message of every human adventure.
It is the message of art.
It is the message of literature
What is most intimate will be revealed to us in the blinding light of the city, the crowd, the world.
A world of dog-masters—that is, masters who are dogs and train a race of beings that has the right only to bark when reminded that it is made up of people, to whine when it catches a virus, and to yap when Corona, our king, arrives to give us its lesson, using carrots and sticks. The world is made for us to huddle up in, says King Corona. It is made to lie down in. And if sleep is slow in coming, one must count sheep, or one’s money, if one has any, or one’s viruses.
Life isn’t beautiful yet?
Can’t we get everything we need with a couple of clicks—basic necessities but also, ultimately, sex, imagination, death? Remember the other meaning of mundus . . . clean, neat, tidy, and, as we say in French, net. That is the lesson of the virus.”
Quotes from The Virus in the Age of Madness Bernard-Henri Levy (BHL)
This boils down to more Father Paneloux (from Camus’s The Plague), ending his sermon on the victims of Oran’s epidemic with a peroration on the virtues of suffering: “This same pestilence which is slaying you works for your good and points your path.”
And I, too, dream of seeing the ecological principle become a permanent part of our legal codes.
But not like this. Not all of a sudden. Not through this catastrophic, even apocalyptic interruption, with its incalculable consequences.
As Canguilhem taught us, the questions of immunity, recovery, and biological innocence, the relations between the normal and the pathological, health and illness, and life and death, are, epistemologically, much murkier than we have been led to believe over the past few months.
What is interesting about a given subject is not what he is but what he does and, in doing what he does, how he inhabits the world, shapes it, takes from it, and gives to it. Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology,
Humanity, for Levinas, begins with an injunction that is exactly the opposite: others first.
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?” Hillel the Elder
A strange saying from the Talmud that I heard long ago from the lips of Emmanuel Levinas on one of the last visits I paid to him: “The best of doctors are destined for hell.”
Death itself. The right to die and to live one’s own death. That moment for each of us, as Michel Foucault said, the most private and secret of our entire existence, the very last instant, the limit, when power no longer has any hold over us and when we call out (as Foucault did, with his last breath, “Call Canguilhem, he knows how to die!”) for the one who will help us cross over. All of that, all that knowledge, that immemorial and decisive scene, yanked away for a period of weeks in a gesture of prophylactic impatience that you never thought could happen that way—bodies wrapped in white plastic, like letters dumped in a mailbox; corpses found decomposing in trucks outside a funeral home in Brooklyn, where the director said “bodies are coming out of our ears”; cursory funerals; goodbyes on WhatsApp.
For the first time in a century, the world is going through a grave crisis and yet expects nothing from the United States. Worse still: the country’s enemies, which are the enemies of freedom, are crashing through the world as if America no longer counts for anything, carries no weight, no longer exists. We are entering a strange, pre-Columbian universe.
Portrait du philosophe Bernard Henri LÈvy ‡ Paris le 21/03/2018 Photo Jean-Christophe Marmara / Le Figaro