[Marxism] French "post-Marxist" philosophe pays price of celebrity
ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Sun Apr 9 11:17:07 MDT 2006
Has le philosophe been undone?
Bernard-Henri Levy, the open-shirted media star of intellectual life in
France, has been savaged in a new book, writes Jason Burke
Sunday April 9, 2006
<http://www.observer.co.uk/> The Observer
To his admirers he is a brilliant and committed contemporary
philosopher; to his detractors he is a pretentious charlatan who
incarnates the worst of all contemporary French intellectual life.
Now, after highlighting concentration camps in Bosnia, being a French
envoy to Afghanistan in the aftermath of war and receiving a bombardment
of brickbats hurled by American critics at his most recent work,
Bernard-Henri Levy, France's most popular thinker and media star, is
under attack once again - this time from closer to home.
A controversial new book published in France claims to reveal the real
man behind the dangerously unbuttoned white shirts, the designer suits,
the rhetorical flourishes and the bestselling 'investigative novels'. It
accuses Levy of plagiarism, fabrication, hypocrisy and benefiting from a
network of media contacts who protect him from all criticism.
'BHL', who rarely reacts to attacks, has dismissed all the charges.
Friends and allies of the philosopher call the book 'a scandal sheet'
that is 'ignoble, destructive and inaccurate'.
The book's authors are sticking to their guns. 'We tried to dissect what
we call the "BHL system",' co-writer Olivier Toscer told The Observer
last week. 'We believe the media has created a myth that underpins who
BHL is and what he does.' Toscer, a journalist at a magazine in Paris,
said Levy had become one of France's 'sacred cows' who 'it was no longer
possible to criticise'.
This is not the first time that BHL has run into flak from his
countrymen: a recent media magazine ran a cover story on Levy entitled :
'Why so much hate?'.
Born in 1948 in Algeria, the son of a millionaire timber magnate, his
flamboyant style has brought him both admiration and bitter criticism
down the years.
After studying philosophy at an elite university under luminaries of
French left-wing thought such as Jacques Derrida and Louis Althusser,
Levy became one of the leaders of the so-called 'New Philosophy'
movement, which reacted against the Marxist dogmatism of the French
A series of best-selling books, on topics as varied as wars of
independence in south Asia, violence in the Balkans and Jean-Paul
Sartre, rapidly established Levy as a popular intellectual and incited
rage and jealousy among less well-off and less well-known philosophers.
Last year, a total of four books on BHL were published, though none was
as strongly critical as the most recent. Jade Lindgaard, who co-authored
a book on Levy that appeared in 2004, said he was a undoubtedly a man
'of talent and intelligence', but that he was someone who had 'realised
very rapidly how to use the effect of television on the world of books
and popular culture'.
Philippe Cohen, the author of another critical biography, told The
Observer Levy's success showed everything that was wrong with
intellectual life in France today. 'His thinking is entirely unoriginal.
There is this idea that he is a philosopher when actually he is
representative of nothing other than the pauperisation of French
intellectual life.' He has been also accused of over-simplifying complex
issues for mass consumption.
Levy and his glamorous wife, the actress Arielle Dombasle, certainly
enjoy a high profile. Levy's clothes, his friends (who include Yves
Saint Laurent, Alain Delon and Salman Rushdie), and his homes (a flat on
the Left Bank, a hideaway in the south of France and an 18th-century
palace in Marrakech that used to belong to the oil billionaire John Paul
Getty) have all contributed to a reputation for high living and
narcissism. One article about BHL coined the dictum: 'God is dead but my
hair is perfect.'
However, despite the avalanche of criticism, BHL's success is undoubted
- and unshaken. His most recent book, a philosophical travelogue around
America, was panned by US critics but widely lauded in France. 'An
astonishing odyssey,' said Le Figaro. 'Courageous and stubborn,' said
Bernard Pivot, one of France's best-known critics.
His defenders dismiss the attacks against him as an inevitable
consequence of his success, his strong sympathy for the United States in
a country where anti-Americanism is almost part of the national
identity, and his views on the Middle East.
They point out that he drew attention to Serb concentration camps in
Bosnia, was sent by the French government on a fact-finding mission in
2002 to see how Afghanistan might be reconstructed after the overthrow
of the Taliban, and that he helped set up a newspaper there that
promotes 'moderate Islam'. Levy was also one of the founders of an
anti-racist group to empower Arab and black people in France and
repeatedly warned of the dangers of the recent rise of the French right
Friends claim that much of the more unthinking, and often anonymous,
bile directed at BHL is because he is Jewish. Others say he is attacked
simply because he is successful.
Levy was in California and unavailable for comment this weekend.
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