The death of meaning. Over the past 15 years, the world has been ravaged by a new kind of purposeless war. on why unending conflict may be what really defines our times
War, Evil and the End of History
Bernard-Henri Levy; translated by Charlotte Mandell Duckworth
For someone commonly derided as a mere populariser of ideas, Bernard-Henri Levy has not gone out of his way to court popularity. In the 1970s, he abandoned the Maoism of his youth and became a militant anti-communist - a bold act for a public intellectual at a time when the Soviet Union and Maoist China were still objects of reverence for large sections of the western intelligentsia. His views were vindicated by history, as the Soviet Union disintegrated and China embraced capitalism, but his prophetic exposure of the reality of life under communism gained him no credit from the left, which has remained bitterly hostile to him.
Despite this, Levy was the ultimate winner. Unable to come to terms with the communist collapse, left-wing intellectuals - in Britain as in France - deliquesced into cultural criticism and became politically irrelevant. Levy, on the other hand, acquired an enormous public following, and became the chief contemporary exponent of a uniquely French genre: philosophy written as journalism.
He is not the first to have combined the two. He has a predecessor in Michel Foucault, who produced a series of articles in the late 1970s analysing the course of the Iranian revolution and speculating on its larger significance. In many ways Levy begins where Foucault left off, taking the mix of genres further than Foucault (whom he admires intensely) ever did. All of Levy's recent writings are exotic hybrids, mixing philosophical musings with autobiographical vignettes and moving without warning from sharp reportage to novelistic reconstruction.
Levy is a fearless intellectual risk-taker, and the results can be brilliantly thought-provoking. Yet his work has inspired suspicion more often than admiration, and it has to be admitted that the mix of genres is not always successful. In Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, Levy presented his theories about the kidnapping and murder of the Wall Street Journal reporter in the form of a "romanquete", a cross between investigative journalism and a novel. He speculated that Pearl was killed because he knew too much about links between Pakistan's intelligence services, its nuclear scientists and al-Qaeda - an unsupported theory whose credibility is not enhanced by Levy's deliberate blurring of fact with fiction.
In War, Evil and the End of History, Levy has produced a more successful hybrid. The book is split into two sections. The first contains reportage, originally published in Le Monde, covering countries, such as Angola, Sri Lanka and Colombia, that Levy sees as being ravaged by a new kind of purposeless war. The second comprises philosophical reflections suggested by his observations. The pieces of reportage are acutely observed and often gruesomely compelling. In one, Levy recounts his interview in Sri Lanka with a woman who had been trained in the jungle as a suicide bomber for the Tamil Tigers. The woman told him she had been drawn to the Tigers' cause by a desire to avenge the death of her father, who had been kidnapped by the army, but she had second thoughts after a period living under cover and working at a restaurant in Colombo. She did not know why her resolution suddenly faltered - perhaps it was just living in the city after a year in the jungle - but when she was given a cyanide pill for use in case the operation went wrong and she was at risk of falling into enemy hands, she decided she wasn't ready, and managed to escape.
The interest of the piece lies partly in the details (such as the importance attached, in training suicide bombers, to ensuring that the head breaks off intact at the moment of the explosion and rolls to a spot determined in advance) and partly in the picture it gives of the normal human psychology that usually underlies terrorism. Large-scale, continuing terrorism cannot be explained by reference to any "terrorist mentality", and it is a mistake to view suicide bombing as the product of any one culture. In the media, it is portrayed as if it were peculiarly Islamic, but actually it was Hindu Tamils who developed it and only later was it taken up by Islamists. Attempts to explain suicide bombing in cultural terms do not take account of the uncomfortable fact that it is a highly effective technique of asymmetric warfare that can be used by anyone.
In the second section of the book, Levy offers some thoughts on the harrowing scenes of war and terror that he has recounted in the first. Densely allusive and flamboyantly rhetorical, his reflections exemplify a style of writing that is all too easy to parody. For example, apropos the meaningless wars he sees going on in many parts of the world, he writes:
The disappearance of meaning is a fact, but it is, still, an idea. And I'm not even sure if this idea, this envisioning of a war capable, without the least sense or reason, without anything at stake, of producing an infinite amount of devastation, is very easy to conceive of. Anti-Hegelian? Yes, of course, anti-Hegelian. Anti-everything Hegelianism has taught us about the economy of evil in the world.
In Britain, a certain laborious dullness is prized as a mark of intellectual seriousness, and passages such as this are sure to be seized on as proof that Levy has nothing of substance to say. Yet they often contain a kernel of vital truth. Grandiloquent he may be, but Levy is trying to make sense of realities that more timorous and conventional writers prefer to ignore. The end of history that was announced when the Berlin Wall crumbled was supposed to be a time of peace. In fact, the world has been wracked by successive wars. Sometimes (as in the first Gulf war) they have been conflicts between states with clearly defined objectives. More typically they have been wars of the intractable, anarchic sort that comes about when states break down or are wilfully destroyed (as in Iraq). In these latter cases, the result has not been to achieve any of the goals the wars may have originally served. Instead, it has been to institutionalise war and make it something approaching a permanent condition. Unending war of this kind may turn out to be what really defines the "end of history" - a state of universal peace which somehow generates, perhaps even requires, chronic conflict.
How has this situation come about? What keeps it in being? Most thinkers contrive to avoid such questions, but Levy makes them his chief concern. He is one of very few struggling to understand the present, and for that reason he is a thinker we cannot afford to be without.
John Gray's latest book is Heresies: against progress and other illusions, published by Granta (£8.99)