Benny LÚvy 1991
Source: Globe, 1991;
Translated: for marxists.org by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) marxists.org 2007.
Benny Levy went from the Gauche Proletarienne to the Talmud after a detour as secretary and confidant of Jean-Paul Sartre until his death in 1980. He has published his interviews with the philosopher under the title “Hope Now” with the publisher Verdier. He pleads in favor of Sartrean thought against the “ambient stupidity.”
Globe: In the introduction to your book you say that you didn’t “hear” Sartre’s voice at the time of your dialogue with him. What do you mean by this?
Benny Levy: When I worked with him I was absorbed by problems of several orders. In the first place, I had to try to maintain Sartre’s intellectual life. He was perfectly capable of letting himself go and showing no interest in the surrounding world. Given the state of his health and his physical dependence on others, our work called for a physical struggle to mobilize his strength so he could work on projects. But then, once his intellectual work properly speaking was started, awakened, he put in question all of the previous forms of thought. And so, through our dialogue I had to give him the possibility to explain it in the clearest and most intelligible form possible. It was this monopolizing that prevented me from hearing Sartre, the profound simplicity of his movement, beyond his revision of the “being-for-others,” of “fraternity terror,” or his ideas about the Jews. And I also remembered his voice, that metallic voice that when I was 15 had shaken me and cast me into the political at the time of the War in Algeria.
Globe: At the end of his life, was Sartre aware of having failed more often than he’d succeeded? Did he feel that later on people would say, “Sartre was wrong on everything?”
BL: Yes, he felt that. He thought that he was going to be sent to purgatory. Exactly like Camus before him, for whom, despite it all, he had had much affection. He saw perfectly well the stupidities that were going to be said about human rights. It was inevitable to want to take catch his breath, to speak of human rights in order to leave behind the political view of the world. From this perspective it was clear to him that he was going to be looked on as a dead dog. Just how much he had foreseen this I can’t say.
Globe: Would Sartre have been ready to put his previous positions in question after the collapse of the communist system in Europe?
BL: I don’t see what more he could have said than what he already did say about communism. I suppose he would have been less stupid than most people during the events in Romania. I also think he wouldn’t have succumbed to our intellectuals’ infatuation with Gorbachev. Basically, he had taken account of the collapse of the Marxist horizon.
Globe: According to you, he no longer at all believed in Marxist thought
BL: He never really believed in it. He looked on it as a horizon within which he had to struggle to think about existence. To be sure, he can be reproached for thinking that that horizon couldn’t be surpassed, but it didn’t displease him that it was cleared away. He wouldn’t have experienced this as a catastrophe. This might have been the case for someone who’d been a Stalinist, but not for Sartre. One must be completely intoxicated by the ambient stupidity to imagine anything else. In any event, Sartre didn’t spend his time taking political positions: this was secondary for him. He didn’t like either politics or those who need their daily dose of editorials. That Raymond Aron has been presented as a greater thinker than Sartre because he was “wrong less often” is testimony to the collapse of our era and nothing else. The only ones who have an interest in giving this image of Sartre are those who want to aggrandize themselves by belittling him.
Globe: In your discussions Sartre stresses the need to find “a principle for the Left.” This isn’t very far from the positions that are being held today...
BL: Sartre was perfectly capable of seeing himself in the affective language of the Left, and it displeased him that the Left was destroyed. He already thought this at the time and wouldn’t have waited for the tenth anniversary of “Mitterandia” to say it. This was even more the case in that there were old ideas, transmitted by the New Right’s offensive at the end of the ‘70’s, that were regaining vigor. Incidentally, it was this context that was the precipitating factor in our decision to have these discussions appear in the Nouvel Observateur
Globe: In a way this corresponds to the need to write editorials that you reproach in others.
BL: No, it’s not correct to say this. What Sartre wanted to say is that the Left was destroyed and that there was no question of artificially resuscitating it. In order to do this we had to return to the source, to principles. He asked himself the question: “What is the principle of the Left?” But his answer wasn’t situated in the terms of a political outlook on the world... There remains the misunderstanding, the decision to renew the term, the “Left.” It is certain that he believed it fertile. For my part, today I consider this an obsolete portion of our efforts, for I’m not as attached to this term or the different intellectual and affective meanings it mobilizes as Sartre was. But this is strictly my personal point of view in this regard.
Globe: You attach a lot of importance to Sartre’s discovery of the “real Jew,” the one who is in contact with the texts. How did he become interested in this question?
BL: During the last three years of his life I began to turn to Jewish texts. He began to be interested in this because of me. Sartre saw me being reborn, discovering Biblical texts he only knew in their cathechistic form. He saw here a vigorous way of thought that was disconcerting for him. Before his eyes there appeared a reality of the Jew that was almost completely unknown to him. Up until then all he’d known of Jews is what I would call the “imaginary Jew.” He admirably described these Jews in “Reflections on the Jewish Question.” That this led him to write that the Jew was essentially the invention of the anti-Semite is not an error, it’s a quite correct description since it’s a law concerning the imaginary Jew. In any case, when he found himself in contact with the reality of the Jew of the Book we can only be grateful to him for having recognized this without fearing going back on his earlier declarations or his ideological interests.