August 2004

John Detrixhe

nonfiction

War, Evil, and the End of History by Bernard-Henri Levy

Bernard-Henri Lévy writes on many fronts and in many theaters. His book, War, Evil, and the End of History, has elements of a philosophical treatise, a literary criticism, and a memoir. Though self-conscious to a fault, the best of War is sustained by Lévy's curiosity: "...it's 'the very enigma of uprising'; it's the mystery of this 'naked will that says "no" to a sovereign'; it's this moment, so strange, and for a philosopher haunted by the question of power and social cohesion, so fascinating to observe ..."

What is the end of History? Lévy discusses it frequently. For men like Francis Fukuyama, C.W.F. Hegel, and Karl Marx, History is an evolutionary process, directional and moving toward the most stable, appealing form of government. The end of History is the final, victorious result of this evolutionary process. Lévy embraces these ideas, though with a different approach. Unlike Fukuyama, Lévy is more concerned with the countries that are forgotten, that have no History and no institutional progress.

As such, War is divided into two sections. The Damned -- gleaned from Lévy's reporting in places like Sudan, Sri Lanka, Columbia, Angola, and Burundi and originally published in Le Monde in May 30 to June 5, 2001 -- is often a reference, or a bank of evidence, for the text that follows. The other section is titled Reflections, which is comprised of diary-like entries, notes on text, philosophical arguments, and a short, scattered autobiography. Stylistically, the bulk of War is precise; most every sentence is crafted as a carefully developed argument. However, the sheer articulation often stifles any natural rhythm within the narrative.

Lévy's War is somewhat experimental, but it isn't without precedent. Lévy is an admirer of Michel Foucault, who, like Lévy, is a philosopher who fancies himself a journalist. Foucault advanced his style of journalism when he wrote a series of articles in the 1970's about the Iranian revolution, and Lévy has in some ways mimicked those articles -- especially Foucault's willingness to contradict his own ideas. Lévy calls Foucault's articles "... a lengthy and sustained intellectual adventure, complex, intense, with advances, retreats, and painful questions, doubts, and personal and philosophical emotions, many journeys, encounters, contradictory portrayals, things seen." This is a sneaky way of describing his own work, but Lévy is successful in exploring History, or the lack thereof, with his own reporting.

Lévy does not consider himself a war correspondent -- at least not in the traditional, Hemingway-esque sense. Lévy's rendering of the victims and leaders of these conflicts is stark. There's little discussion of strategy, of machines and weapons, no romanticizing of the masculinity of warfare. The word "Kalashnikov" -- mentioned in every CNN description of an Iraqi wedding celebration, prominent in every picture released by Osama Bin Laden -- is inconspicuously missing from the text.

But Lévy is always present in his narrative, and his need for self-discussion is suspect. As Daniel Swift wrote in The New York Times (June 20, 2004), "[Lévy] was cited in Vanity Fair's Best-Dressed List of 2004. He bathes in the light of press coverage, and fashions himself as 'B.H.L.,' the libertine-philosopher-journalist-adventurer." Even Lévy never seems convinced of his aspirations, but perhaps the reader shouldn't care. At worst Lévy is a cowboy, a voyeur, a narcissist; at best he is an active philosopher whose agenda is to record the stories of those who would otherwise be forgotten.

As Lévy says, the event of historicizing "is a revolutionary idea for two-thirds of humanity."

War, Evil, and the End of History by Bernard-Henri Lévy
Melville House Publishing
ISBN: 0971865957
371 Pages