Bernard-Henri Lévy: Death’s Siren Song, Life’s Noble Rhythm
The rhythmic litany of deaths chanted out in the press in recent weeks has had a strange effect.
David Bowie is dead.
Pierre Boulez is dead.
Michel Tournier is dead.
And André Courrèges. And Michel Delpech, Ettore Scola, and Alan Rickman. And René Angélil. Not to mention Silvana Pampanini, the first of the sex symbols. And Robert Stigwood, the last of the producers. And cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who had no idea how mythical he was. And Roger Gouzy, the oldest man in France. And others, many others, almost too numerous to count, which seems to bear out the comment of the late lamented Ronald Reagan when leaders in the Kremlin were falling one by one, as if mown down by an invisible machine gun: “They keep dying on me.”
Sometimes you just want to yell, “Wait!”
You wish you could freeze the dance, stop the loop, long enough to find the right words to express the grief and sorrow that overwhelm you when someone dear to you dies.
You are asked by a 24-hour news channel to comment on the disappearance of a great figure, a great writer, a great friend whose voice you already miss. Detached but rich, that voice will be missed at the lunches of an academy that it kept, right up to the end, from falling into self-satisfied somnolence.
But no. No time. Because we’re off again! The reaper is churning. The scroll of names is hastily converted to black before being made to crawl across the screen before our astonished eyes. Sometimes, cruelly, the scroll is accompanied by a montage in which the departed seem to be taking a last lap around the track before being pushed quickly and unceremoniously into the grave so as not to miss a cycle in the new circus of death.
Does this mean that people are passing away in this first month of the year at a rate faster than in other years?
Of course not.
But we seem to take pleasure in the idea.
To feed on it with growing delectation.
To take a perverse pleasure in shedding tears for this “giant” who has died, that mold that has been broken, the last of this, the last of that — including actor Michel Galabru, whom I heard described solemnly on the radio as “the last of the southerners.”
Never mind that the same words have already been used for somebody else.
Never mind that Julien Gracq was, ten years before Tournier, “the last of the writers.”
And never mind that the same people had written, on the death of Dutilleux, that “the last genius” in music had just died.
In the face of this necrophiliac passion, coupled with the no less morbid fascination with endings, I think of Renan’s tirades on love of country being stoked by the great examples of its elders.
Of Barrès, of course, and his worship of the dead.
I think of Fustel de Coulanges, the great nineteenth-century historian, whose The Ancient City revealed the secret upon which the self-consciousness of the modern western world be built: Everything, absolutely everything, that is held sacred by societies, their ritual practices and their rituals of faith, their drama and their truth, begins with family gods — that is, with the dead, our dead, and with the libations we pour out to make of them our new Chthonic deities.
But I am tempted to object that nothing great ever came from this religion of death.
I want to argue that civilization, real civilization, begins by holding at a distance the regrettably incontestable fact that the dead are more numerous than the living (Auguste Comte) and that death does indeed always win in the end (Joseph Stalin).
I want to say, and then say again, that the Chthonic — that is, the idolatry of the earth and its worms — is the name not only of bygone barbarism but also of the poisoned spring from which flow, like dead water, most of the political and social vices of our societies.
And I long for a burst of propriety and pride, of respect for self and others, to make us aware that although there is virtue in homage there is another virtue in weaning ourselves from the hard drug being peddled by the new thanatocrats and in choosing to remain among the living.
We have a choice.
We can wallow melodramatically and hypnotically in permanent mourning. This is the distinguishing feature of a sick country, an unsteady society that cedes its power to its dead. It is the sign that gnosticism has won, that destruction has indeed become our Beatrice, that our children no longer have a voice, that our countryside no longer has beauty, that our cities have lost their spirit.
Or we can remember that everything truly human that has ever been done has been done in the face of the despotism of death, that great literature, music, art, and thought have always handed the victory to life and its noble rhythms, sometimes despite the attitudes and doctrines of the creators of those works.
And so, yes, we will celebrate those who have passed from among us.
Yes, we will give the magnificent Edmonde Charles-Roux the honor she is due both for her novels full of unusual characters and for the generosity that took her away from own work to guide the first steps so many young writers.
But, as we mourn, we will persist in our task — for our task it is — to live fully as individuals and as members of our society.
Bernard-Henri Lévy is one of France’s most famed philosophers, a journalist, and a bestselling writer. He is considered a founder of the New Philosophy movement and is a leading thinker on religious issues, genocide, and international affairs. His 2013 book, Les Aventures de la vérité—Peinture et philosophie: un récit, explores the historical interplay of philosophy and art. His new play, “Hotel Europe,” which premiered in Sarajevo on June 27, 2014, and in Paris on September 9, is a cry of alarm about the crisis facing the European project and the dream behind it.
This article was translated from the French by Steven B. Kennedy.