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The Will to See

Bernard-Henri Lévy—

     Reporting . . .

     The first thought this word always brings to mind is universel reportage and the disdain in which France’s most exacting poet held it.

     For I belong to a generation that viewed Stephane Mallarme (1842–1898)—the aristocratic poet who detonated the prose of the coming twentieth century—as one of its most incandescent masters.

     I was twenty years old when the author of Vers et Prose joined the band of “theoretical anti-humanists” who, with their proclivity for grand thought, their fetish for science and pure criticism, their love of a language already too heavy with mysteries to weigh itself down with those of the world, seemed to reject “taking the side of things,” the worship of “native soil,” and, to speak like another poet, Victor Hugo (whom Mallarme called “Mr. Verse”), the religion of “seen things.”

     And the idea of putting language to a use other than literature, the idea that it might leave the pure, breathless space where “nothing takes place but the place”—a role that Mallarme famously as-signed to the Book (the only bomb the poet knew of was the Book)—the idea of a literature of reality, wedded to the real and moving modestly to meet it—well, that idea did not sit well with my classmates and me, appearing as an affront to the lofty notions we held
of words and their proper uses.

     Of course, a text could be like the “devices” that the early anarchists, forerunners of the far left, had begun to explode, devices that Mallarme felt lit up the world with a pale but persistent glow.

     It could be, as it was for the surrealists interpreting Arthur Rimbaud in a manner unfailingly grandiose and exaggerated, the “white ray” falling from the sky to annihilate the human comedy. Or, as with Paul Valery on his last visit to Mallarme (“the pope of the Rue de Rome”), it could come at the “stroke of noon” to match “fireworks” with “silence replete with dizziness and dealing.”

     But we left to others the triviality of real things, the humble task of observing them, of traveling to the four corners of the earth under the most inhospitable circumstances, and of trapping the concrete and true (the truth of names and faces, not the version that triumphs today in digital illusions and their data tracks). We left to others the challenge of striking out and seizing wars at their most messy, suffering at its most unthinkable, and fleeting details that capture destinies bound for insignificance. In short, the simple, ordinary, and ugly immediacy of seemingly meaningless events seemed to us devoid of interest.

     Why is that?

     What more reason did I need at the time to turn quickly and decisively to reporting?

     In making that personal choice, what possessed me to ignore the counsel of those who believed my purpose in the world was to lead a life of words and thought?

     Was it solely out of love for the United States that I ultimately chose Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, and the “New Journalism” over “French theory”?

     That is a question I have never asked myself.

     I want to ask it here and now, on the threshold of this collection of pieces that appeared in French in Paris Match, the fine magazine that is also the consummate mass-circulation, mass-retail magazine of sensational human-interest stories, and in English in the world’s leading business daily (the Wall Street Journal)—twin exemplars of Mallarme’s “universal reporting.”

     At my age, the time has come.

     Though I have so far avoided the temptation to memorialize my years, and though I do not believe in acquired wisdom any more than in inexorable aging, it is time, to paraphrase Rimbaud, to recount the history of my follies.

From The Will to See: Dispatches from a World of Misery and Hope by Bernard-Henri Lévy. Published by Yale University Press in 2021. Reproduced with permission.

Bernard-Henri Lévy is a philosopher, filmmaker, activist, and author of more than thirty books, including The Virus in the Age of Madness. He is widely regarded as one of the West’s most important public intellectuals.

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