Returning to the Forgotten Horizon
By Laurent Cohen | 12/09/2010
According to Benny Lévy, who grew up on a political ideology that saw itself as European, the foundations of the Jewish state display a failure to remember its “Eastern and messianic” – that is, its Hebrew – past. Laurent Cohen provides us with the profile of a philosopher who wandered ilustration: Udi Gingi
from the French Maoist world, through the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre, to Emmanuel Levinas and the return to Judaism
Benny Lévy's biography is a tale of alienation and wandering, revolution and return, an identity that was lost and then later recovered. The story begins in Egypt, where Lévy was born in 1945 and from which he was banished with his family when he was 11. It traverses the sea of events that changed the face of Western Europe after the Second World War: the adventures of revolutionary gauchisme (leftism), also known as ultra-leftism; the students' revolt of 1968 in Paris; counterculture and underground activity; the works of Jean-Paul Sartre; and the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas.
It would be no exaggeration to say that on the “planet of radicalism” – namely, in the physical space of the 1960s and 1970s that Alain Finkielkraut has termed “more leftist than any leftist movement” – Benny Lévy earned himself a place that became legendary, even “mystical.” However, apparently, political mysticism did not meet his anticipations because, from the late 1970s onwards, it made way for another mysticism, one that is rooted in Mount Sinai and in God's word. This existential route, which led Lévy “from Mao Zedong to Moses” – to paraphrase a common saying used by French sociologists – can be perceived as a change in thinking that characterized an entire generation, which abandoned the red flag and leftist rigidity and opted instead for the text of the Torah and for religious observance.
A brilliant scholar who lost his way
Benny Lévy's political activity began in 1966, when he joined the UEC (Union des étudiants communists, Communist Students Union). A year earlier he had discovered the philosophy of Marxist theorist Louis Pierre Althusser, who influenced him profoundly. During that period, Pierre Goldman was responsible for the UEC's security services; Goldman's book, Souvenirs obscurs d'un Juif polonaise né en France [Dim Memories of a Polish Jew Born in France, trans. Joan Pinkham (New York: Viking Press, 1977)], which has attained the status of a cult book, is scheduled to appear in my Hebrew translation (Reuven Mass is the publisher). At the time, Goldman was known to be a dedicated anti-Fascist activist and an ardent supporter of violent, protracted struggle in Paris' streets and in the universities against rightwing, anti-Semitic and “anti-revolutionary” groups. In an interview he gave in 1999, in which Lévy recalled his first years of political activity in Paris, he continued to emphasize the formative importance of his friendship with Goldman, saying that he was only a friend of Goldman, who clenched his fist in a determined fight against the Fascists. Stormy testimony about those years – a period that is now called the “leaden years” because of the violent opposition to the bourgeois state that flourished in France, Western Germany, and Italy during the decade that began in the late 1960s – can be found in Goldman's memoirs. Goldman says that his good friend Lévy, referred to in the book as N., was a Jew and that Goldman consistently regarded him as a Talmudic scholar who had lost his way in the doctrinal exegesis of Maoist texts (Pierre Goldman, Souvenirs obscurs d'un juif polonaise né en France [Points Seuil], p. 100).
Two years later the events of May 1968 broke out in Paris' Latin Quarter and plunged all France into a period of civil havoc. Parallel to the revolution of members of France's younger generation – which was joined in by various groups of anarchists, Maoists, and revolutionary Communists – laborers began to protest their inhuman working conditions in French factories, which were labeled as symbols of the blind, aggressive capitalism that was sacrificing the proletariat on the altar of its economic interests. Today, it is a well-known fact that, from the middle of May onwards, the French authorities were afraid of losing control altogether and they even contemplated the deployment of commandos against the revolutionaries. The demonstrators demanded greater freedom and more rights, and, in line with the slogan that appeared on Parisian walls during the disturbance, their rallying cry was “Bring your imagination to power.” However, Goldman considered the May riots to be a childish outburst, a form of what he termed “collective masturbation,” and proof that French youth was incapable of rising to the higher level of serious, genuine violence, such as opening fire on French police officers in order to avenge the rape of female university students (ibid., p. 70). Goldman said goodbye to the Latin Quarter, where the young demonstrators, as he put it, imagined themselves in the thick of the violence, in the very heart of the revolution, when they were throwing only stones, instead of hand grenades (ibid.). He traveled to Latin America where he joined an armed underground.
Lévy as well began a new chapter in his life – a chapter that, in the opinion of commentators on that period, was central in revolutionary activity in France. Behind the seemingly innocuous name, Gauche Prolétarienne (the Proletarian Left), stood a dedicated, highly obedient Maoist organization that regarded itself as a vanguard of the war that had been declared on the so-called bourgeois state. The organization was headed by an individual who, as testified by all who came in contact with him, inspired fear and a sense of lofty feelings. That leader was Pierre Victor, which is what Benny Lévy now called himself. Many texts talk about Victor's leadership style and they range from hero-worship to disgust. In his book, Le siècle de Sartre, Bernard-Henri Lévy describes Victor as an individual who has what he defines as dry power in addition to absolute authority and as a leader who is enigmatic and learned, laconic and passionate (Bernard- Henri Lévy, Le siècle de Sartre (Grasset, pp. 633, 364).
French author Olivier Rolin was in charge of the Proletarian Left's “military activities.” In his book, Paper Tiger (trans. William Cloonan), where Pierre Victor is referred to as Gideon, Rolin writes that Victor was able to deliver an entire speech for a whole hour without having to rely on notes. His words would flow without even the slightest hesitancies and without even the most marginal of syntactical errors. Victor's voice was balanced and maintained a steady pitch, and it was impossible to note any change in topic, any flaw in his tone of voice or any disruption of rhythm. His speeches were never marred by any slip of the tongue or by any joke, and his balanced voice decidedly had an hypnotic effect.
On May 27, 1970, the French authorities declared the Proletarian Left to be an illegal organization. Pierre Victor suddenly became a refugee without any status and without any documents; however, despite his new position as a hunted criminal, he continued to operate from the shadows, maintaining responsibility for every initiative of the organization and for every public statement it issued.
At this stage, one could ask what connection was there – if at all – between, on the one hand, the revolutionary utopianism expressed by the Proletarian Left and by the other extremist organizations during those years and, on the other, Jewish messianism, which seeks to mend the world but within the context of God's dominion over the universe. In a fascinating book, Le Livre et les livres, which includes a profound, sometimes tense, dialogue with philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, Victor/Lévy addresses this issue, which has been the subject of many essays and conferences. Recalling the days of “imaginary Maoism,” when he prepared his organization for the final battle that would change history, Lévy has no problem distinguishing between Mao and Abraham the Patriarch. According to Mao, notes Lévy, it is possible to challenge the very concept of the “I.” Somehow, at the intellectual level (Lévy does not refer to experiential depth) and in intellectual terms, this radicalness enabled him to draw closer to the authentic image of Abraham, the iconoclast (Benny Lévy, Alain Finkielkraut, Le Livre et les livres. Entretiens sur la laïcité. Verdier, 2006, p. 114).
In that book, Benny Lévy talks about the artificiality of his Pierre Victor image as well as about the deceptiveness of identity and the illusion and self-negation that characterized that period in his life. He was a Jew, but the expression of his Judaism was dismal; in this self-description he alludes to the fact that, in those days, he denied his Jewishness. Anti-Zionism occupied a central place in the Proletarian Left's ideology. From 1970 onward, the organization took an active role in the establishment of “Palestine committees,” which operated on university campuses and in factories. The goal of these committees was to promote a direct link and mutual recognition between local activists and the various Palestinian organizations in the Middle East. Only after two years did a change take place in the Proletarian Left's doctrine, in the wake of the murder of the Israeli athletes at Munich. Lévy recalls how the members of the organization signed an official statement condemning the terrorist attack. This condemnation was the first step in a process that ended with the Proletarian Left's death certificate.
Despite his status as an outlaw, Pierre Victor continued to be active in many arenas in France. He is considered the architect of the Libération newspaper, which, in its early days, was a Maoist publication in the landscape of French media.
Sartre's personal secretary
In 1973, the Proletarian Left announced the demise of its organization. The new era in Victor/Lévy's life centered around his friendship with Jean-Paul Sartre, the philosopher who attained a public status that few thinkers have ever enjoyed. The professional revolutionary and the author of La Nausée (Nausea) had met several years earlier, when the French authorities had threatened to ban the printing of La cause du people (The People's Struggle), the Proletarian Left's official publication. Victor thought that, if Sartre agreed to edit the newspaper, the police would not dare arrest him. As things turned out, Victor was right. Simone de Beauvoir describes the printing of the first issue of La cause du people on May 1, 1970 with Sartre as its editor. Although the authorities took no measures against him, the interior minister ordered that all copies be confiscated at the printing press before distribution. Fortunately, the owner of the press managed to get out most of the copies before the authorities arrived. Sartre, de Beauvoir and many of their friends sold the newspaper in the center of Paris without any harassment from the authorities. One day, the authorities grew tired of this silly game and La cause du people was once more distributed to the various bookshops (Simone de Beauvoir, La cérémonie des adieux, suivi de Entretiens avec Jean-Paul Sartre. Août septembre 1974. Gallimard, 1981, p. 17).
From the mid-1970s onwards, Victor was Sartre's personal secretary. However, Victor was much more than a secretary, because the two conducted an incisive, intellectual dialogue and fruitful philosophical collaboration developed between Sartre and Victor. A book attesting to that dialogue, Pouvoir et liberté (Power and Liberty), recently appeared in France. The book, which begins in 1975 and ends with Sartre's death in 1980, systematically documents those conversations (which were initially taped) and their attempt to chart new courses of thinking; one of those courses was the path to Jewish philosophy. Sartre was convinced that the result of these recordings would be a totally new way of thinking. In the book, he says that this work produced by two authors was something very substantive in his eyes because it contained a paradox, the paradox of life; he found that fact fascinating (ibid., p. 142). Undoubtedly, the intellectual friendship between Victor/Lévy and Sartre belongs to the category of the great intellectual friendships of Western European culture, which include such friendships as those between Franz Kafka and Max Brod and between Gershom Scholem and Walter Benjamin. The following dialogue, which appeared in Libération on January 6, 1977, gives us some idea of the close relationship that developed between the Pope of existentialism and the Jewish refugee:
Sartre: I had lunch with you in the spring of 1970 …
Victor: … Whom did you think you were going to meet?
Sartre: A strange individual … I was rather curious to see you that morning because what I had been told … a mysterious figure.
Victor: So you saw me …
Sartre: I saw you and what immediately pleased me was the fact that you looked much more intelligent than most of the political activists I had seen up until then, especially the Communists, and you also looked freer than them. I must say that you did not refuse to handle topics that were not so political. All in all, you engaged in the kind of conversation that is outside the main subject, the kind of conversation that I like to engage in with women. You talked about the event itself, something that is rare when one talks with men.
Victor: You did not really see me as a leader or as a man.
Sartre: Nonetheless, you were certainly a man, but a man with female qualities. And that is what I really liked.
Victor: What did you find of interest in our fundamentally theoretical conversation?
Sartre: It moved along slowly. My relationship with you gradually changed. There was true freedom between us: the freedom to risk one's own position.
From 1978 onwards, Jewish philosophy became an increasingly important element in their discussions, as they tried to formulate a new, alternative way of thinking that would be free of the entanglements of revolutionary thinking (but which would not deny it).
Two more important events occurred during this period. After Sartre turned to President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and asked him to arrange his secretary's legal and civil status, Pierre Victor became Benny Lévy once more and emerged from his underground existence into the open air. In 1978, Benny Lévy began to devote a considerable portion of his philosophical studies to the works of Emmanuel Levinas. At the time, the philosophy of the author of Nine Talmudic Readings was known only to a small group of religiously-oriented readers – both Jewish and Christian – and to young writers who had been profoundly involved in the revolutionary events of the previous decade.
Thanks to Levinas' inspiration, Lévy returned to Jewish texts and Jewish life. He did not accompany Lévy in every stage of the latter's return to Judaism but definitely promoted that process. When he began reading Levinas, he began to feel, in his conversations with Sartre, that the existentialist philosopher was speaking from another direction entirely. This feeling became more and more troublesome and Lévy explains why: There is a horizon, a special horizon, the horizon of Judaism. This, says Lévy, is what Sartre understood and what he revealed to him. Sartre was telling him that Judaism is not a fossilized religion; instead, it is a philosophy that is explained in another fashion and which stems from another horizon (Les Livres et les livres, p. 146).
It is no secret that some of the people in Sartre's close circle considered the growing presence of Judaism in his intellectual concerns problematic, if not bizarre. The opponents were headed by de Beauvoir, who was astonished by Lévy's religiosity and feared the “harmful effect” of that religiosity on the elderly Sartre. She sensed that Victor had changed considerably since his first meeting with Sartre. Like many former Maoists, he was turning to God: the God of Israel, because he was Jewish. She felt that Victor's outlook was becoming more spiritual, more religious.
De Beauvoir's anger and that of the many members of the Sartrean “family” reached its peak when, for three weeks, in March 1980, the Le Nouvel Observateur weekly published a dialogue between Sartre and Lévy. Through this dialogue, which was entitled, “Hope Now,” the French nation and Sartre's students throughout the world discovered a new individual, who “thought against himself.” The new Sartre came out with phrases that have produced a scandalous controversy that has not died down to this very day. In a calm, cold tone of voice, Sartre declared that his works were a failure, that he had never said what he really wanted to say and in the manner that he wanted to say them. He proclaimed that he had never felt despair; that he had only been joking when he talked about feeling despair. The only reason why he talked about despair was that everybody was talking about it; it was simply fashionable, he noted.
In his Le siècle de Sartre, Bernard-Henri Lévy writes that what Sartre wanted to tell the stunned readers of Le Nouvel Observateur was simply this: If philosophers study Plato, there is no reason why they should not study the Bible, and, if they study Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Edmund Husserl, there is no reason why they should not study Rabbi Akiva. Furthermore, philosophers can merge the two sources, the two ethical systems with the two religions. They can align the biblical text with Greek thinking and they can align prophetic discourse with logocentric discourse. This, says Bernard-Henri Lévy, is what Sartre wanted to urgently say in the time that God still allotted him (p. 639).
The publication of these dialogues is regarded as one of the most decisive moments in the stormy history of Sartreanism. Some of the readers, who simply could not believe that Sartre was saying such things, talked about “satanic manipulation,” “exploitation,” “distortion,” and “silliness,” although, before publication, Sartre had approved the text. For example, Le Nouvel Observateur's Jean Daniel recalls that Sartre himself contacted him in order to verify and approve every word in “Hope Now.” According to Daniel, Sartre knew the text by heart.
A single call
A few weeks after the dialogues were published and after the debate had already assumed a noisy public character (some people event talked of establishing a “Sartrean courtroom” to judge the “controversial interview that had become the center of the dispute”!), Sartre passed away. After so many years of dedicating himself to revolutionary activity and to philosophical study, Benny Lévy left Paris and its wars and found a new spiritual home in an Orthodox yeshiva in eastern France. The book Pouvoir et Liberté can help us to understand how Judaism managed to penetrate his ideational field. We can see, for instance, how concepts like the Exodus from Egypt, place and kingdom flourish in his texts, sometimes taking the form of esoteric sayings: “Metaphysics: or the revelation of Otherness. History, like the history of Israel. Otherness as immigration” (p. 157). The book also attests to the way that led Sartre from the period of his article, “Reflections on the Jewish Question,” where he referred to Jews as people without any cultural context except for the negative images that the anti-Semites have labeled them with, to his much later position on Jewish identity. According to Lévy, Sartre considered Jewish identity a command, a single call (which might or might not be heard fully or partially) to a child. In effect, says Sartre, Jews simply know that they must be Jewish. Judaism is a command to be, to do.
Between the late 1980s and his death in 2003, Lévy published a series of philosophical essays that have attracted the attention of commentators, especially Gilles Hanus, who propose introductions to and analyses of his hermetic thought. His works include essays on Philo of Alexandria, Levinas, Jewish existence as a reality rooted in the world of the book, the world of endless reading of the Torah text that reveals its meanings as one delves more and more deeply.
Benny Lévy's moving to Israel and his creating the Institute of Levinas Studies in Jerusalem marked the final chapter in his life. A point that bears thinking about is the fact that the Israeli public discovered Levinas only after he was already considered one of the chief philosophers of the postmodern era. Benny Lévy's work, his lectures and the meetings he arranged between the local public and the leading representatives of contemporary French thought have contributed to the immense interest that is now being expressed in Levinas' thought in Israel today.
According to Benny Lévy, who grew up on a political ideology that saw itself as European, the foundations of the Jewish state display a failure to remember its “Eastern and messianic” – that is, its Hebrew – past. A year before his death, Lévy published his diary for an entire week in Libération. On February 28, 2002, he summarized his confusion, his hopes, in the face of the Israeli reality: Would people understand him better if he were to talk about returning to himself? He hears – because, unfortunately, one has to turn on the radio – that Peace Now demonstrators in Tel Aviv are calling on people to return to themselves. If only their Jewish ears could hear what their political mouth is saying!
Laurent Cohen is a writer and journalist
Translated by Mark Elliott Shapiro