Benny LÚvy 1982

Interview With Salomon Malka

Source: Radio-CommunautÚ Juive, Jan 16, 1982;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2007.

For Radio CommunautÚ Juive Benny Levy, alias Pierre Victor, who was the leader of the Gauche ProlÚtarienne and then Jean-Paul Sartre’s secretary – almost blind, the latter could no longer write normally – has just broken a two year long silence. After the publication of a series of interviews of Sartre by Benny Levy in the Nouvel Observateur (March 10,17, and 24, 1980) a violent polemic was unleashed against the latter, emanating from what is called the “Sartrean family,” which accused him of having betrayed the master’s ideas. Levy decided to remain silent. Sartre’s death was to fix, harden, and obscure even more a debate that was nevertheless indispensable and capital for all concerned. In December 1981, in the “Ceremonie des Adieux,” where she describes Sartre’s final years, Simone de Beauvoir returned with bitterness to the affair of he “Interviews” in the Nouvel Observateur, rudely separating herself from Benny Levy. Here then, in a condensed version, are the arguments of the latter in response to the questions of Salomon Malka for Radio-CommunautÚ. Born in Egypt, having emigrated to France while still young, after May 1968, Maoism, and seven years alongside Sartre, Benny Levy today participates in a group that studies texts from the Jewish tradition. His name is associated with some of the best publications of the collection “Dix Paroles” from Verdier publishers, in particular the magnificent translation of the Zohar by Charles Mopsik. He is preparing a book on Jewish thought.

Salomon Malka: When did you meet Sartre?

Benny LÚvy: First there was the meeting with Sartre’s books. When I arrived in Europe after 1956, my problem, as for many Jews in my situation was to find myself there where I was, to know what France was for me. This was the period of the War in Algeria; I was obviously on the side of those who opposed the war, so it was all the more difficult to determine my relationship to France. The one who permitted me to do so was Sartre. That is, when I was 14, 15 years old it was with Sartre that I truly felt myself “inside the French language.” It was my mother tongue, but in a fashion that was a tiny bit curious, twisted: that of a mother tongue in a landscape that was not in the least French. But with Sartre I was really, authentically in France. During the period of my leftist political commitment Sartre was a bit far from my preoccupations. And then, within the framework of the activities of the Gauche ProlÚtarienne, in 1970, we found ourselves in great difficulty. The group was beginning to suffer from repression, and every editor we placed at the head of our newspaper was arrested. A dozen of us got together and we said: what should we do? The answer burst out: We have to ask Sartre.

SM: You were immediately seduced?

BL: On my side there was absolutely no question of this. On his side, he later said, the question I asked him had struck him. Two months before, in an interview in the Nouvel Observateur, he had called Mao Tse-Tung’s ideas “little stones.” Obviously this had wounded my dignity as the leader of a group that followed, in an out of the ordinary way, said Mao Tse-Tung. So I asked him the following question: “Don’t you think that the forty volumes of Lenin are oppressive for the popular masses?” By which I meant: Too much is too much for people who don’t have a relationship to culture. The Little Red Book, in my mind at the time, was destined to place Marxist theory within the grasp of the popular masses, precisely in order to resolve this difficulty. But what had struck Sartre, what had resonated with him, was the question of the relationship to the idea, to thought, for even if he’d remained faithful since the beginning to the idea that ideas couldn’t be “little stones,” that ideas couldn’t be made of rock, he was very very sensitive to the phenomenon laid bare in 1968: the relation of the deprived classes to the idea. How to expand freedom of thought in such a way that it not be the freedom of an elitist group. This was the starting point of or meeting.

For two or three years, insofar as our group, the Gauche ProlÚtarienne, continued to carry out actions, I only saw him when it was a mater of straightening out important tensions. He was our privileged ally. When there were things he thought exorbitant he called me, sent me a message and we spoke. Very dryly, incidentally. For example, I remember that in the affair of Bruay-en-Artois our attitude had been a bit comical. He made this clear to us and this then led to an exchange of texts. And not a bad one, by the bye. He wrote a letter on popular justice that’s still worthwhile.

SM: Did the fact that he’d loaned his name mean that he had joined or simply that he was a fellow traveler?

BL: Certainly not a fellow traveler. Obviously at the beginning he did it for the defense of ideas, even if they were revolutionary. But quickly, very quickly, without our having to ask him, he didn’t feel at ease in simply that attitude, and the content of our actions increasingly interested him. What struck him was what he himself called the attempt to locate morality at the level of direct action, of action itself. And he even said this, that this was the only place where he knew political friendship, a very important dimension in relation to the political question, and one he’d been asking since the beginning, since his first article in 1927 on the question of right: how to find this reciprocity in politics. He felt there something he’d never known with the Communist Party.

SM: Raymond Aron tells in his latest book – Le Spectateur EngagÚ – that after the war Sartre was astonished that there was no one who greeted the return of the Jews to the national community. Was the publication of “Reflections on the Jewish question in 1946 in a certain way this greeting?

BL: Yes. I think that its relation to the Jews is much more profound than the simple greeting to the community in 1946 or after. In “The Words” he says: “If I had been told that a Jew is someone who lived amidst books, then I am more Jewish than the Jews.” We can take this for a manner of speaking, but we’d be wrong, there are many things that sink their roots here. When in his principal and first philosophical work he characterizes being within consciousness as “diasporic,” and so places it in direct relationship with the figure of the Jew, we could also think this is just a manner of speaking, but we’d be wrong here, too. When you see the insistence, the regular repetition of these philosophical “manners of speaking” you have to suspect a true depth, that is something that doesn’t only have to do with solidarity with the Jew as victim.

SM: In any case, this proximity to Judaism, this intuition of Jewish thought, or the Jewish attitude, isn’t immediately visible in the book that is “Reflections on the Jewish Question.” In the first place, it’s more a pamphlet than anything else, a pamphlet against what remained of anti-Semitism in post-war France.

BL: This is partially true, and it’s what I said to him. “Reflections on the Jewish Question” supported me in my counter-violence to anti-Semitic France; it gave me a strength I didn’t find elsewhere, since I wasn’t part of the Jewish community, since I was also rootless in relation to that community.

SM: Sartre himself has pointed out this ambiguity in the Nouvel Observateur interview when he said to you: “Deep down, up till “The Jewish Question” I was above all else hostile to anti-Semitism, and “The Jewish Question” is a declaration of war against the anti-Semites and nothing else.” Nothing positive about the Jew.

BL: Yes, but a little bit later he says – and this information is capital – that when he described the Jew he was doing a self-portrait. I remember my shock and I asked him, ‘But what materiel did you us for this?” He answered me, with his well-known tone of serenity: “None, I didn’t read any books. – But how did you do it, then? – I described myself.” For him, philosophizing in the first instance was describing, it meant going directly to the things themselves. And the “thing itself” that he had built up as the Jew was nothing but his self-portrait, a kind of identification of the intellectual he was, living through writing, with the Jew.

Now it’s clear that the gross affirmations of the type: “There is no Jewish history,” “the Jew is the product of the gaze of the other,” all of this was later negated by Sartre himself. I reproach a few “patented Jews’ for dining out on these ancient formulas of Sartre’s... To get back to my relationship with Sartre, in about 1975 he proposed that I become his secretary, for a simple reason: for a number of years I had been absolutely without any papers and couldn’t get a work permit. Every three weeks I had to present myself to the commissariat. A mutual friend told Sartre. Two weeks later I had my work permit and afterwards it was even better, since he asked for my naturalization and I had it without any problems. Which means that I became French through Sartre.

So we started to work together. At first he thought of proposing to me the finishing of volume IV of L’Idiot de la Famille, but he quickly realized that this wouldn’t work because in this case I would be strictly a secretary, and this didn’t interest him at all, it didn’t excite him.

Perhaps the readers of La Ceremonie des Adieux will have a medical idea of Sartre’s state – I don’t know what other idea they could have after reading this book – but one must see that it wasn’t obvious that he would “project” himself, “to live” with a future.

At first, for two years we read books on the French Revolution, and we progressively saw that we had to go further back, so we read books on religious heresies. For example, for a few months books on the Gnostics. At this time I knew nothing at all about Judaism.

And then we arrived at the really serious thing, that is, ontology. Sartre, when he wants to speak seriously returns to freedom, to consciousness, and thus to all the problems that he tried to bring to light in “Being and Nothingness,” in particular concrete relations with others. We returned to this. I constantly re-read these texts, we spoke about them, discussed them. These were fights, we came to blows on paragraphs of “Being and Nothingness.” A little of this is translated – a bit ponderously in our opinion – in the discussions in the Nouvel Observateur and yet, despite this ponderousness, this caused the celebrated scandal.

Progressively I searched elsewhere. I re-discovered Emmanuel Levinas and with this as a starting point a whole series of discussions began with Sartre, very long, very precise, and sometimes stormy. And then I continued on my merry way.

SM: Sartre had read Levinas around 1949. Had he continued since?

BL: It must be said that Sartre had a curious relationship with his contemporaries. One is amazed to learn that Sartre didn’t read [Foucault’s] “The order of Things” and only some of Heidegger after “What is Metaphysics?” But it’s true that as soon as he no longer found anything in one of his contemporaries he no longer read them. I’m not saying that this was a good thing, I even think it was a bad thing, but that’s how things were. The way in which Levinas relocated the question of concrete relations with others was irreversibly present during our discussions. Dialogue had finally been established for me between the men I consider the two philosophers whose discrete articulation dominates these last four years.

SM: But the difference between the two, to put it crudely, is that Sartre “was wrong” politically.

BL: You have to know how to pick out Sartre’s profound coherence and fidelity to a political question he has posed from his first article in 1927 till his final interviews: how do we continue or complete what began in 1789. Because of this question’s constraints, for a few years he found himself close to the communists. One day he had to allow to be said in his name that in the Soviet Union there were freedoms, etc.: this was a flagrant lie and Sartre knew it. Here his manner of forcing himself took on an immoral side. And we note from 1952 to 1956 a series of interventions like this one, which went beyond those things in conformity to the ethical inspiration that always characterized him. But all in all, it didn’t amount to much.

As for Camus, it can’t be said that “The Rebel” is a philosophical event of great importance and that we must all drop what we’re doing and grab it up to “re-appreciate” this work. I also had much friendship for Camus’ books, but the way we have today of trying to hold an a posteriori match...I find this a bit frivolous, denoting collapsing intellectual mores. We have to re-think for ourselves these questions that agitated them, and it is here that an oeuvre like that of Levinas is a breakwater much more important than this kind of hasty re-reading of the polemics of the ‘50’s.

SM: Simone de Beauvoir reproaches you for having published the interview of a man of diminished intellectual and physical capacities, who was unable to re-read them, and from who you were able to draw statements in line with your own preoccupations.

BL: In the first place, it wasn’t an interview, but discussions, with Sartre constantly stressing the equality of our positions in these discussions. I was bothered because I knew full well that as far as the readers were concerned I wasn’t his equal, and in fact I misunderstood the great importance he attached to this reciprocity of position. He even wanted the very, very active part I played in our common labor to be better reflected than it is in these discussions.

Despite all this, they present these things as an interview that I had decided on and had done to Sartre a few weeks before his death. Look at how things are written, how history is written! We had been having discussions for five years and these discussions are only the visible portion. Five times a week I went to his house. And then to present this as an interview done a few weeks before his death! Simone de Beauvoir should remember this, since she was the one who insisted I carry out this work. She tried to dissuade Sartre from publishing them, in a lively, if not violent manner, she and other elements that are known as the “Sartrean family.” Personally, this had so shaken me that my tendency was to flee as far away as possible. It was Sartre who forcefully and firmly insisted that this text be published. Jean Daniel, the editor of the Nouvel Observateur, incidentally, was a partial witness to this. He had been surprised by Simone de Beauvoir’s reaction and he thought that in the end he would make her understand, that it would pass, but he was very affected.

SM: There had already been a quarrel upon your return from Israel.

BL: We undertook this voyage with Sartre after Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem. It was extraordinary. We had brought back discussion materials from the Israelis and the Palestinians and we wanted to do an article in the Nouvel Observateur leaning in the direction of the Israeli Peace Now movement. But our text was censored by the “Sartrean family.” I reacted forcefully and violently, but Sartre felt ill at ease, it was delicate... Later, when it was a matter of publishing the discussions we said to each other, “watch out.”

The immediate pretext for the discussions in the Observateur was a pronounced disgust for the French political and intellectual landscape of the period: the rise of the New Right, the falling apart of the ideologies of the Left, but without any reaction, any jolt coming from the Left, and Sartre couldn’t stand this. That the Left should prostitute itself, Sartre was used to this since 1945, but he was also used to being a technician of its resurrection. It was a question of establishing a principle of the Left, to re-attempt the act of jolting. We imagined that this would be a first part of our work in common, that we called “Power and Liberty” we did this patiently, we deciphered, we recorded tapes; if we weren’t satisfied we did everything over... afterwards there were corrections, and this was the most important point.

Warned by the scene at the Nouvel Observateur after the return from Jerusalem, we decided that each of us would make corrections on his own part. Sartre very slowly corrected with Arlette, his adoptive daughter. For example, certain passages that caused a scandal, passages of a great depth, when Sartre, just like that, off-handedly says: “ I spoke of anguish, of despair, but really, I was a bit the victim of fashion!” Arlette said to him, “Are you sure you want to put that in? It’s going to provoke reactions.” And this passage, about which much ink has flowed, is precisely the one that Sartre insisted upon the most.

Another example: When Sartre spoke about what struck him the most in Judaism, that is, the theme of the resurrection of bodies. For my part I was amazed. And when we re-corrected it I tried to have him take out this passage. But it was he who wanted to mark this point...

SM: What does the polemic around this interview inspire in you?

BL: I have barely gotten over the disgust. But I’m not going to lose my soul in all this. The affair is much more serious, because this question of a posterity, of an estate is a veritable malaise. For three generations of intellectuals Sartre represented a whole series of ideological interests, fixed a certain landscape. That Sartre should disengage himself from these interests, pull the rug out from under these people, and that he should move it in this direction, i.e., in pointing to a “beyond Hegel,” and beyond universal history, here is the malaise. This is a very, very serious affair for the culture.

SM: What does it mean that this very great French philosopher... who, in the end points out an old road?

BL: In the “Sequestered of Altona” there is in the background a central character, who is the murdered rabbi. We forget him, but the whole story of the play revolves around this murdered rabbi. It’s as if at the end of his life Sartre was pointing at him. There’s something that palpates: he doesn’t seem to be completely dead, this rabbi we had thought to be definitively murdered.

SM: Emmanuel Levinas said to me, “I am one of those who believes that the Sartre of the discussion with Benny Levy is the real Sartre.”

BL: The remarkable text that Levinas wrote in Le Matin when Sartre died touched me very much. Levinas is a reader of Sartre, not a member of the “corporation of ideological interests.” Levinas read and entered into dialogue with “Being and Nothingness”: he didn’t place himself in that impossible position the Sartreans find themselves in, that of a disciple, which is meaningless with Sartre. The opinion of a Levinas, of a Maurice Blanchot, or of a Michel Foucault counts much more for me than that of a member of the “family.”

SM: What can we make of Sartre’s unwavering fidelity to Israel? I don’t think he ever went back on this.

BL: Sartre often had radical positions on Third World questions, but his position on the Middle East was extremely complex. This enormously struck me and precipitated my own evolution. It can’t be said that in his last period he had great sympathy for the phenomenon of the Israeli state. I think this was the when I read the texts he wrote when Israel was created. There was a vibration then, but afterwards, no. Obviously he very much preferred a “diasporic” Jew to an Israeli Jew.

SM: I met one of your friends who, like you, came from Maoism and who followed you in the study of Jewish texts. To see this boy, coming from the Catholic bourgeoisie, bent over the Talmud seemed a bit unreal to me...

BL: I feel it coming on, a new accusation from the Jews: Jews studying the Talmud along with non-Jews. But Jewish history shows that quite regularly prestigious non-Jews have turned to the rabbinic tradition...I’m not interested in folklore, and this is perhaps wrong. The only thing that interests me is the metaphysical character of the Jew. This was very much connected to my dialogue. I had to resolve questions that weren’t resolved in “Being and Nothingness.” At a decisive moment Sartre was the one who, through positive incitement and through the difficulties I met in his texts, pushed me to turn in this direction. I recall the important part Levinas’ texts played in this “turn” – to avoid using the detestable word of “conversion.” There was no reason that this person or that person – even a non-Jew – couldn’t share this questioning. The Torah was not an indigenous product for the Jews.