Riffin’ Jazzy Jukin’: Bernard-Henri Lévy Scourges Mad King Corona

“I used to be Deleuzenal, but now I’m not Saussure.”

– Paris toilet stall wall where the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore used to be

“And the parting on the Left / Is now the parting on the Right”

– The Who, Who’s Next, “Won’t Get Fooled Again”

You have to wonder sometimes if Bernard-Henri Lévy (BHL) ever got past May 1968. Paris. Riots. Fires. A Communist revolution. Over in Praha, they were having themselves a Spring, even a halloween party, and calling it “Socialism with a Human Face.” In America, they were busy assassinating moral and political leaders and the left was on trial for its thoughts in Chicago. Baeder-Meinhof and Black Panthers and the Weather Underground were on their way. Ideological gangs of the Cold War rumbled — chain-smoking and tired ironies in cities everywhere, the old Left-Right shuffle. Lévy was having none of it. “Marxism is the opium of the people,” he declared in Barbarism With A Human Face (1977) and Socialism, he said, always ends in the Gulag.

Now, we could add, Capitalism always ends with a Trump, chump or (drum roll) worse.

Lévy’s still at it, like Dylan, who just keeps on keeping on, another Wandering Jew condemned for his intellectual apostasies to tour the earth until the Second Coming of Marx, and the Anti-Cap. Heads will roll. But in the meantime, as far as Lévy, and many other thinkers, are concerned, socialism is bullshit (see Gulag above), more bland pie in the overcast sky, unevenly distributed. This has not made him the darling of the Right, except by co-optation, but it has not enamored him with the Left either. He’s tricky, like Dylan, that way.

Lévy’s back our way again with a new short tract, The Virus in the Age of Madness, wherein the profligate son of Hegel takes on the Corona phenomenon and how the world, especially Americans, have dealt with the pandemic’s effect. The context of his response is encapsulated in the presumption of title — we live in an age of madness. This recalls Nietzsche’s oft-cited observation from Beyond Good and Evil, that “Madness is rare in individuals – but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule.” Lévy’s The Virus is propelled by this underlying, philologically-informed Nietzshean notion. Look at the language we use around Covid-19 and the collective false consciousness it evokes.

Imagine you’re hunkered down, settled into your self-isolation, Internet access gone, curfew in place, arrogantly literate, and you discover yourself with one dega book in the house, just one — Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization. You always meant to get around to finishing it, having stopped with the Ship of Fools description, ships as asylums for the medieval mad roving from port to port, and you thinking: I wonder if this is what happened to Hamlet on his way to exile in England; the ship fools caught on to an evil ruse and hoiked Rosencrantz and Guildenstern into their own spittoons, and, the next thing you know, It’s alas poor Yorick time. You always wanted to finish M and C, but not really. And now, it’s read or die, really literate motherfucker: You choose.

The Virus is like an abridged version of M and C — and you wonder if the two didn’t get a room together to consummate their love of each other’s, um, epistemes — free, thoughtful streams of phenomenological riffing, which like abstract all-night jazz sessions in otherwise empty churches of the 70s, took time, and some doobies, to reach in and shake you. But when it did, you could never go white nationalist again. (I miss the 70s.) Some jukin’ Foucault, Lévy on a roll. Not everybody likes the free flow of phenomenological writing — quippy allusions; relevant name-dropping; deep end-of-the-pool thinking (or sinking); really, a kind of intellectual improv you need to groove on to appreciate, like Faulkner or Joyce or Coltrane.

BHL can’t believe how the world has responded to the coronavirus pandemic. He ponders aloud, soliloquizing stage left and right, pleading with his memory, rhetorical questions out the yinyang (to be or not to be, or both at the same time, ala Heisenberg who’s displaced Einstein as BHL’s bunkmate in the panopticon), coming at the reader now like Brecht (in your face, loud), now like Beckett (fey and alienated), now like Genet (surreal, ironic). Lévy wants to know — from you, from me, from the Canon — what’s going on? Because we’re all working this out together, in his mind, like at a bebop TED talk.

He writes/says/poses:

I, too, was shocked. But what shocked me was not only the pandemic. That sort of disaster has always been with us.

BHL cites the Spanish flu that killed 50 million, the “Asian flu” of ‘57 that killed a million, and the “Hong Kong flu” of his beloved, still-troubled 1968, which killed up to 4 million people, which is nothing to sneeze at.

No, the most striking thing is the very strange way we reacted this time around. It is the epidemic of fear, not only of Covid-19, that has descended upon the world.

He just can’t get past our reaction. Like Ginsberg’s howlers, “hardy souls” have become paralayzed; he’s “heard thinkers who lived through other wars embracing the rhetoric of the invisible enemy”; he’s surfaced from the depths and seen that New York and LA have become “ghost towns”; Hong Kong’s demonstrators have “disappeared,” leaving him gobsmacked. (Which is not a good thing in the Corona era.) How is this?

He petty paces, he struts and coils, he sounds and furies, comparing yesterday and yesterday and yesterday with tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. Damn, he’s upset. He questions, questions, hands wringing like Antonin Artaud (“Des anges qu’aucune obscénité n’invoque…”):

Could it have been viral propagation—not just of the virus itself, but of talk about the virus?

Or the triumph of the masters of the world, who see in this great confinement…a rehearsal of sorts for a new way to arrest, oppress, and detain a mass of people?

Was it a Reign of Terror, akin to the one born after 1789, with its explosion of fake news, conspiracies, frantic flights, and, soon enough, dark uprisings born of hopelessness?

Or perhaps it was the opposite of that opposite: a collective panic, aggravated by [endless] news..reporting to us…herding us into a parallel universe …[driving] us quite literally mad.

Theatre of Cruelty stuff at existentialism’s end.

To help him “think through” this crisis, Lévy carries with him, Étienne de La Boétie’s Discourse on Voluntary Servitude. (This, the reader absorbs as a deliberate put down of the hoi polloi in the Land of the Free.) Conjuring up Jacques Lacan, BHL posits two possible explanations for the global capitulation, the prostration before the spiky feet of “King Corona.” BHL thinks, like Lacan, that “humanity can choose between denial and delirium, neurosis and psychosis.” And this is where his gain-of-gumption anxiety becomes more riveting, as performance:

Examples of the denial and neurosis are Donald Trump’s boneheaded, unspeakably irresponsible attempts to deny the pandemic, his subsequent call to “Liberate Michigan,” and the striking tweets in which the lunatic U.S. commander-in-chief promotes conspiracy theories about the birth and propagation of the virus.

That’s right, our president has a birther complex, first Obama, now Corona (both linked by ACA coverage).

The second Lacanian choice, which BHL seems to prefer, if the title is any indication, is the proposition that we’ve all gone quite mad. (This is all the more believable, for reasons we’ll get to later.) He projects to the nosebleeds in the balcony,

[T]he second choice—psychotic delirium—is the spectacle of leaders so terrified by the threat of a Corona Nuremberg that they deemed it more prudent to put the world on hold, caring little for the outbreaks of hunger, violence against the poor, and authoritarian takeovers that were sure to follow.

Out of nowhere, BHL is writing this book as a “midpoint review” to catalogue and to un-haruspicate, to stuff the guts back into the omen bird, and to tell of “the blows dealt to our innermost metaphysics during this strange crisis.” Hmph.

The five chapter event is full of delightful, often enlightening surprises, especially if you play your reader-response cardsright. In the first chapter Lévy trotskys out the aforementioned Foucault for a macro-micro archeological dig at power. He reminds us of the ruminations in M and C of the rise of the medical model and its close proximity to the prison model, both requiring constant surveillance and “care” meted out by our jailers and nurses. He writes, “Discipline and Punish, yes, but first The Birth of the Clinic and its archaeology of a ‘medical gaze’ that would go on to become the ‘power/knowledge’ of the present day.” Lévy sees our astonishingly quick taking-to the pandemic protocols, such as they were, under Trump, with happy-seeming memic “lockdowns” and expressive decorative masks, and Zoom sessions where we shared our isolation stories, a Brady Bunch sleepover where we gleed for hours, high on each other’s heroism. America was united again.

At least that’s the way Lévy wants to see it, if I was reading it properly, mon lecteur. He goes,

Never had one seen, on every screen on the planet, the image of commentators yielding the spotlight to hospital spokespersons, newcomers to the forum, sometimes knowledgeable, sometimes less so, but always enveloped in a continuously expanding aura, like Tintin’s mysterious star—or a video game in which Dr. Fauci’s steely eyes slay the fearsome coronavirus dragon.

What could be the meaning of this? Ship of Fools syndrome? Or maybe a mania pushed by the media to further hate on the science-illiterate Trump. In other words, a deft political maneuver to shape thinking before the election. Or maybe we’ve all gone quite mad, and have taken over the asylum and not known it. WTFK. But there’s no sign of the discipline. A lot of mouths moving at the same time, though.

But, lo, what rock through yon window breaks: there’s a new king in town — no, wait, that’s the old king’s jester, “Middle Class Joe,” with his vampy Veep Kamala, who has a look in her eyes, a madwoman shaking a dead water lily, as Eliot would have said if he’d seen her. Time to wake up and smell the power coffee.

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Lévy, already with jitterbugging, has one more cup of coffee for the road, before going back down to the valley below, and concedes of the medical class:

All doctors have at least this in common: they all take the side of rationalism against the imbecilic obscurantism of those who prefer superstition and magical thinking to reason and thinking.

But what Lévy sees in play is magical thinking, blame-gaming, nostra culpa, punishment by illness and pestilence for our sins, and he ain’t having any of this backsliding in a postmod world in which we went through so much trouble killing God — we don’t need to aggravate the pandemical situation with some old new testament fantasy about globalization and the terrible swift sword.

Fuck, howsa bout we do something about it instead, he seems to say, if I resd him right, mon lecteur. Imbecilic. Like we becoming an Idiocracy under Trump, eating lead paint, and chasing it with the Kool Aid of fast-talking heads saying, “This was the most perfect election in history,” as if, again, mocking what Trump’s would have said, had he won. Crazy shit. And Lévy wants to get at the heart of it:

…the rapt remarks I heard, both in conversations among friends and in print, on the theme: “I saw a deer crossing the Champs Elysées; a hummingbird was at my window; the sky has never been so blue, nor nature so pure, nor New York so beautiful, as during the time of the coronavirus.”

These ruptures and raptures and new-fangled rituals are driving Lévy quite mad. And you must take precautions yourself, mon lecteur.

All day long he paces back and forth along the shock corridors of the echoic asylum, free-jacketed, spirited, crying, “Hep, hep me,” invoking geists poulter or morbid — Sartre, Camus, Canguilhem, Lacan — hep him understand. Voltaire famously noted, amidst the chaos all around him, that if God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him. Lévy’s become unglued:

…this world happens without cause or intention, this particular virus, this coronavirus, this virus with spikes and a crown, this king of a virus, must be secretly invested, like a cunning ruse of Hegelian history, with a part of the spirit of the world and thus with a mission: to reorchestrate the fanfare of All against the Government; to function as an unsparing critic of failed globalization…

And now, mon lecteur, it appears no psychoanalysis or phenomenology can reach him. There is no “Day After” here, we needn’t reflect on how we “mistreated Gaia whose patience had worn thin.” No, he won’t have it.

[This is a commercial break: Watch and answer the multiple choice questions.]

Oh, man, he hates this stuff. This supernaturalizing, anthropomorphizing, this Kafkaequing in the morning — ego all bruised over apples. Hmph. He rants, he raves, he fights off the orderlies, he fights off the nuns, he won’t take the Thorazine in the bum. And can you blame, mon lecteur? Listen to his voice-hearer’s sagacity:

Since my early days, when I wrote Barbarism with a Human Face and first read Lacan, I have maintained that assigning a sense or meaning to something that has none and putting words to the beyond-sense that is the inexpressible fact of human suffering is one of the sources of psychosis at best, and totalitarianism at worst.

There it is again, that Paris flashback, that PTSD of failed revolutions, nightmare sweats of false freedoms.

Listen to me, he stomps up and down the corridor, shaking ‘self-isolated’ inmates by the jingle-jangles, listen — I’m going starkers — listen:

I will repeat, first, that viruses are dumb; they are blind; they are not here to tell us their stories or to relay the stories of humanity’s bad shepherds; and consequently there is no “good use,” no “societal lesson,” no “last judgment” to be expected from a pandemic, nothing to be drawn from it except simple, unemotional observations on the state of a health system (for example) and the fact that we never spend enough, anywhere, for research teams or hospitals.

Listen! But, no, they shuffle on and get in line for their meds. The Triffids have come, minds hang limp. Tics of life duly noted.

Lévy is full of fun. He’s nuts. Or is he a genius having a go at himself in an absurd world? I don’t have enough separation to know, mon lecteur. In a chapter titled, Delicious Confinement, he snarks about the misuse of Blaise Pascal’s famous quotation (“spouted ad nauseum,” Lévy shouts, as he’s dragged away): “All of man’s misfortune comes from one thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room.” Lévy goes cageshakingly monkey. These navel gazers, these inward-looking peeping toms, these horizontal verticals,

they don’t know how to read a sentence all the way to the end. They ignored two things. First, for Pascal, “sitting quietly in a room” was not an indulgence but a struggle, a test, an almost intolerably painful metaphysical experience, one that confronts us with our finiteness. Second, that test consisted of doing nothing, strictly nothing.

The orderlies have to stop him now from a lip-doodling frenzy; there’ll be no self-stim in this abstract jungle. No selfies, no being “focused squarely on themselves and on what is good and precious within them.” Nothing!

Then he consults Maharal of Prague. And one has a flash of The Metamorphosis again. Lévy is revising, in light of the late break-dancing around King Corona. What is Hell? he climbs the walls. Let me tell you about my mother, he says:

Hell, for the Maharal of Prague, is not the self, as it is for Blaise Pascal. It is not other people, as for Jean-Paul Sartre. It is not the dark room of Jean Genet, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Edward Bunker, and others. Hell is the body. Solely the body, and the body alone.

Chemistry. Biology. Consciousness. Life can be a Living Cell. And when King Corona comes knockin’ to put his dirty monkey paw on you, have your gun, filled with monoclonal buckshot, ready, and let him know it’s Miller Time.

He attacks Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple, who he describes as our “plagues prior to the current plague,” now “transformed into benign purveyors of tele-work, tele-teaching, teleconsultation, tele-transport, tele-exercise, tele-health, and tele-surveillance…” All that data ka-ching-a-linging along like a mountain data stream. He laments “the absence of deep debate over the digital tracing proposals.” (I took the free Johns Hopkins Contact Tracer course and can vouch for Lévy’s concern regarding the intrusiveness of these collections. I smelled Stasi cheese; Muenster, in fact. As in, who cut the cheese?) Who’s the monster? Who’s the monster? Who’s the monster? I’m the monster. I’m the monster. I’m the monster, the soliloquy goes, Lévy locked into a grudge match with the master-slave dialectic, like that rugged individualist, Crusoe. who rescued Good Friday from cannibals. Hmph.

Lévy won’t stop strutting the boards until he has a go at America’s abrogation of their leadership in fixing the world. Recently, Lévy has put out two books on this power vacuum, this lost casus belli, his de Tocqueville re-enactment, American Vertigo, and his more recent, rather self-explanatory, The Empire and the Five Kings: America’s Abdication and the Fate of the World. Lévy is disgusted:

America doesn’t even show up for the virtual vaccine summit attended by Germany, France, Israel, the United Kingdom, Japan, and others…for the first time in a century, the world is going through a grave crisis and yet expects nothing from the United States.

He paints a picture of China’s Xi taking inscrutable advantage of the chaos sown by the pandemic and the feeble global response. He tells an imaginary Horatio, “While we were waging our war on the virus, he was waging another war, a real one, with the title of being the world’s leading power as the prize.”

Meanwhile, he says, we laze around in our lockdown undies thinking about our universal chastisement and our newly realized soul-earnestness of the world (those of us who can afford to so luxuriate in the soapy suds of our cleansing protocols), and streaming Life is Beautiful, absorbed in its myriad redemptions and poignancy. Lévy is shaking his head:

That is the lesson of the virus.

That is the reason for my anger.

And that is why it was important to resist the wind of madness blowing over the world.

It’s 1968 all over again. Barbarism at the gate, trick-or-treat.

And don’t even get Lévy started on Climate Change. No asylum could hold him.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.