Bernard-Henri Lévy deserves, more so than any other public intellectual of this age, our admiration. I’ll go as far as to say that Lévy and not Voltaire, Rousseau, Camus, Sartre, de Beauvoir or Althusser, is my favorite French philosopher. A pronouncement despite the fact that I’ve only managed to read from cover-to-cover one of his books, 2006’s American Vertigo. In that tract, fancying himself a 21st century Tocqueville, the dashing BHL crisscrosses our beautiful nation, meets some interesting people and uses the opportunity to make didactic pronouncements about a land of 300 million based on anecdotal encounters with Las Vegas prostitutes, San Francisco swingers, attendees at the Adult Video News Awards and… the Amish. In his usual masturbatory grandiloquence:
No matter how many derangements, dysfunctions, driftings there may be. No matter how fragmented the political and social space may be; despite this nihilist hypertrophy of petty antiquarian memory; despite this hyperobesity – increasingly less metaphorical – of the great social bodies that form the invisible edifice of the country; despite the utter misery of the ghettos . . . I can’t manage to convince myself of the collapse, heralded in Europe, of the American model.
Hemingway might have honed his terse, athletic prose in Paris, but it never caught on in La Rive Gauche. Later in the book Lévy amends even the “pinkest” among us to finer attributes of firing squads and reeducation camps:
[Bill Kristol] a neoconservative? No — he is a Platonist of belief of the ideals. An adviser to princes without detachment or reservations. An antitotalitarian who, at bottom, and whatever he may say, hasn’t read enough Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt, Julien Benda — and who, not having done so, deprives himself of the necessary freedom that the status of intellectual induces in Europe.
A review from the normally far-from-polemical New York Times:
Any American with a big urge to write a book explaining France to the French should read this book first, to get a sense of the hazards involved. Bernard-Henri Lévy is a French writer with a spatter-paint prose style and the grandiosity of a college sophomore; he rambled around this country at the behest of The Atlantic Monthly and now has worked up his notes into a sort of book. […]
You’ve lived all your life in America, never attended a megachurch or a brothel, don’t own guns, are non-Amish, and it dawns on you that this is a book about the French. There’s no reason for it to exist in English, except as evidence that travel need not be broadening and one should be wary of books with Tocqueville in the title.
Nouveaux philosophes is a term that refers to a group of French philosophers, of disparate intellectual merit, including André Glucksmann, Pascal Bruckner, Alain Finkielkraut and our well-groomed protagonist. Incidentally, Bernard Kouchner, founder of Doctors Without Borders, followed a similar political trajectory. Like most of those who would preach the “God That Failed” gospel these figures came out of not the Trotskyist Left, but out of a milieu sympathetic to the dominant strands of “official Communism.” Especially influential to segments of a French Left, bereft in all quarters with rotten politics, was the 1973 publication of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. Yet in 1975, in stark contrast to his later accounts, Lévy was launching defenses of the Soviet Union. He went as far as say that many dissidents were spun out of a “perfectly reactionary cloth” (a fair assessment of Solzhenitsyn). But in a matter of months he came to write the cleverly entitled Barbarism with a human face.
Lévy had concluded that the Soviet Union was not quite like any other state after all. The case of its tyrannical nature lay in an “original sin,” not any corruption, “and the sin is Marx.” The Gulag Archipelago was “the finally blinding proof that terror in the USSR is everywhere” (Seymour, 167).
Outfitted with his usual contrived prose, Lévy rehashes the critique of the former Stalinists of The God That Failed fame:
Far from being one of many responses to profound social inequity, Marxism was “fanaticism,” a “ghostly prophecy”, and paradoxically a form of “counterrevolutionary thought” dedicated to sustaining a given “end of history.”
It is an undeniable trend that those who were prone to harboring illusions about the emancipatory possibilities of Third World nationalism, Stalinism or its Maoist derivatives, were also the most easily acclimated to accepting another given “end of history,” the intractability of bourgeois society. Serious critiques of Marx have been made, notably of his vision of a post-scarcity “full communism” that would transcend the need for politics, but there isn’t a shred of original thought in Lévy’s opportunistic screed.
His latest, Of War and Philosophy, picks up where Barbarism with a human face left off — the part about Hegel and Marx being architects of the gulag. This time he goes even further back and puts his manicured hands on Immanuel Kant. He attacks Kant as “raving mad” and a “fake” and leans heavily on the scholarship of Jean-Baptiste Botul’s opus The Sex Life of Immanuel Kant. As a fan of both sexual life and Enlightenment thought, Botul sounds like my kind of academic. Too bad he doesn’t exist. He was invented by Le Cancard Enchaîné, a French version of The Onion, which made no attempts to conceal the satire. Botul’s own Wikipedia entry labels him as the “fictitious writer” of such gems as La Métaphysique du Mou (The Metaphysics of the Flabby). This didn’t stop BHL from citing a series of lectures Botul supposedly gave to “the neo-Kantians of Paraguay” after the war, in which he said that “their hero was an abstract fake, a pure spirit of pure appearance.”
To come full-circle, I wasn’t being cute when I said that I admire BHL. Though his personal riches, freakishly sexy hair, prodigious writing output and willingness to speak the truth of their power to power has made him a darling of the international media circuit, BHL has never been respected in academia. Indeed, he was somewhat of a laughing stock even before this incident. They seem to be missing the point.
A vapid charlatan of a philosopher devoid of any actual philosophical propositions, as much of an intellectual as Christopher Hitchens, but without the wit and lyrical acumen, despised by his contemporaries, his narcissism is still completely justified. He’s married to an actress and has carved out of huge niche for himself in French public life. It was easy for Sartre and Foucault. It’s easy to be a thinker when you have thought, far harder to thrive without talent and only inner-reserves of savvy and self-confidence. That’s why U-God is my favorite member of the Wu-Tang Clan and Bernard-Henri Lévy is my favorite intellectual. The gig may be up now, but who can say that BHL isn’t exactly the type of philosopher that late capitalism deserves?