[Marxism] [Three Way Fight blog] Defending My Enemy's Enemy

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Aug 5 06:36:01 MDT 2006

Sayan wrote:
>Does anyone know more about Levy and whether he has an agenda? Is his
>characterization, above, accurate?

I think that Levy has about as much concern for Palestinian rights as does 
George W. Bush. He is using this as a cudgel against Hizbollah.

Chronicle of Higher Education, Oct. 24, 2003
An Intellectual Superstar in France Gains an Audience in the U.S.

COGITO ERGO ZOOM: In the late 1990s, the French sociologist Pierre
Bourdieu published a scathing critique of public intellectuals who not
only spoke in sound bites, but thought in them as well. It was such a
noxious development that it could only be named in Franglais: Bourdieu
called them "les fast-thinkers." He did not explicitly name
Bernard-Henri Lévy as an example; but then, he didn't have to. The man
widely known as BHL has been a fixture of French life for the past
quarter century, commenting in newspapers and on talk shows about
Marxism, ethics, cultural history, and current affairs.

The intellectual substance of BHL's work may be open to debate, but his
status as a celebrity is not. His wife is a movie star. He looks
marvelous on television. His books are all best sellers, and his haircut
is a national monument. But BHL has never had much of an audience in the
United States, until now.


Besides his charisma, Mr. Lévy offers the interesting spectacle of a
French intellectual who considers anti-Americanism a serious political
problem. "We had a lot of invitations from universities for him to
appear on panels on whether Europe and America are drifting apart," says
Mr. Johnson. The author spoke at such an event in Washington, D.C., that
was sponsored by the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced
International Studies and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for

full: http://chronicle.com/free/v50/i09/09a01701.htm


The Observer
June 15, 2003

Review: Interview: Je suis un superstar: With his movie-star lifestyle,
celebrity friends and best-selling books, writer-philosopher
Bernard-Henri Levy is the darling of the French chattering classes. But
can 'BHL' be serious?

BYLINE: Gaby Wood

WHEN I arrive at Bernard-Henri Levy's sumptuous apartment in the centre
of Paris, a film crew is just packing up. There could hardly be a more
fitting introduction: Levy has, as his fellow intellectual Pierre
Bourdieu once put it, an 'immoderate taste' for television studios, and
his ubiquity has become something of a joke. Levy is a bestselling
writer, philosopher, political campaigner, pundit and luscious-locked
superstud in France; but perhaps his greatest facility is for fame itself.

At any given moment, he might be seen on the cover of Paris Match
magazine, in the windows of numerous bookshops, and on several chat
shows simultaneously. He and his glamorous wife, the indomitably pouty
actress Arielle Dombasle, are the gossip columns' favourite couple. His
clothes (open-necked white shirts and designer suits), his friends (Yves
Saint Laurent, Alain Delon, Salman Rushdie), his homes (the flat in
Saint Germain, a hideaway in the South of France, an eighteenth-century
palace in Marrakech that used to belong to John Paul Getty) are
endlessly commented on. He is rarely referred to by his full name, and
is known instead as a brand: BHL. He is like an unfathomably French
combination of Melvyn Bragg, J.K. Rowling and David Beckham. If
Bernard-Henri Levy didn't exist, you couldn't possibly invent him.

For a moment, though, it seems I might have to. Despite the recent
departure of the TV crew, Levy is not at home. I am greeted instead by
Harry, Levy's Sri Lankan butler (he also has a chauffeur, a Daimler, and
several maids in Morocco). Harry is dressed immaculately, in a white
Nehru-collared jacket and black trousers, and, after asking me what I'd
like to drink, he ushers me into a vast and musty room that looks like a
relic of several empires at once.

The place is crammed with Orientalist trinkets - hundreds of onyx eggs
in an ancient cabinet, two heavily embroidered Chinese silk lampshades,
Moroccan bowls overflowing with exquisitely wrapped chocolates, three
enormous reclining Buddhas, a stuffed cockatoo perched beneath a
boundlessly funereal arrangement of white lilies, another strange item
of taxidermy in a cut-crystal cage, and a divan so overstuffed with
pillows as to suggest that Levy may be some sort of sultan of the Left Bank.

Levy has still not arrived, and Harry is too discreet for extended
conversation, so I find myself peeking at the books. A good few of them
have been thrown, with studious abandon, about the room. Can they tell
us anything about the mind of the philosopher? I'm not sure. I spot
something odd about the gargantuan volume of Pascal on the floor. The
pages look wrong, as if they've been painted over. And sure enough, on
closer inspection it turns out not to be a book, but a fake - a trompe
l'oeil drawer carved out where the words used to be.

At that very moment, Levy sashays into the room. He is wearing the
foundation required by his televisual activities, and this clearly
bothers him enough to affect his manners. As I go to shake his hand he
says: 'I don't usually wear make-up, you know.'

Levy's reputation for narcissism is unparalleled in his home country,
and he's not unaware of the fact. The headline of one article about him
coined the immortal dictum, 'God is dead but my hair is perfect'. He has
been known to say that the discovery of a new shade of grey leaves him
'ecstatic', and that people who vote for Jean-Marie Le Pen cannot buy
Philippe Starck furniture or Yohji Yamamoto clothes (as if their
aesthetic taste were their greatest offence). Maybe it's the make-up,
but Levy seems a little tense. He's keen to get me out of the sultan's
salon and into his far more austere study, where a modern sculpture of a
deliberately empty-headed Lenin provides an unwitting reminder of Levy's
own relationship to Pascal. He sits down, furrows his brow, makes a few
bossy demands about how the interview is to be conducted, and proceeds
noisily to inhale substantial amounts of phlegm at regular intervals.

LEVY IS in the news because his twenty-ninth book, an investigation into
the murder of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, has been at
the top of the bestseller list in France since it came out just over a
month ago. Levy's discovery, or contention, is that Pearl's death was a
'state crime' committed in effect by the Pakistani government, because
Pearl knew too much about the links between its secret service, nuclear
scientists and al-Qaeda. The book led Levy on a year-long quest he
admits became something of an obsession. 'That part of the world,' Levy
explains, 'is where I have been, since my adolescence, most irresistibly
drawn. Not the Middle East, despite the fact that I am Jew ish, not
China and the Far East, despite the fact that I was once very close to
what in the Sixties was called Maoism, not Africa, though I know it
well. So in writing about Pearl I often had the sense that I was
retracing my own steps.'

It's not unusual for Levy to insert himself into his writing, but this
book takes a new form he terms 'roman-quete', or 'investigative novel',
indicating that where the facts run out, he has gone ahead and made some
up. He allows himself some dramatic musings, for example, on what might
have passed through Pearl's mind in the last moments of his life: 'He
thinks of Mariane, that last night, so desirable, so beautiful - what do
women want, deep down? Passion? Eternity?'

Whether or not these imaginings are to everyone's taste, there is a more
unsettling doubt raised by the fusion of genres. Some of Levy's critics
have long considered even his most solidly non-fictional books to
contain elements of untruth. Twenty years ago he was taken to task by
Pierre Vidal-Nacquet for gross factual errors, the most patent of which
was having Himmler stand trial at Nuremberg, when he had already
committed suicide. Others have simply assumed that Levy's books are
veiled forms of autobiography anyway.

This view couldn't be further from Levy's own since, as he explains,
'I'm not trying to be devious or coy here, but I am curious about
everything - except myself. All of my books are turned to face others,
not inwards towards myself. Half of my contemporaries have already
published autobiographies - Martin Amis has, and he's younger than me.
But I have no desire to do that.'

Levy is something of a conundrum. On the one hand, he is such a po-faced
laughing stock that the famed anarchist pie-thrower Noel Godin has hit
him a record five times. On the other, huge numbers of peo ple buy his
books. He is not the most serious thinker the French have, but he is
charismatic and accessible and constantly in demand. It would be
churlish only to laugh at him, since to dismiss much of what he's done
would amount to a kind of conservatism. Levy drew people's attention to
Serb concentration camps in Bosnia, tried to rescue Afghan rebel leader
Ahmed Shah Massoud just before his death, was sent by the French
government on a fact-finding mission last year to see how Afganistan
might be reconstructed, and now runs a newspaper there that promotes
'moderate Islam'. He founded an anti-racist group to empower Arab and
black people in France, and warned of the dangerous recent rise of Jean
Marie Le Pen. He is taken very seriously in very high places.

Still, it's perhaps not essential to take him quite as seriously as he
takes himself. I ask him what it means to be a public intellectual when
much of what is public about him is his private life. His wedding to
Arielle Dombasle 10 years ago was attended by Alain Delon, Yves Saint
Laurent, Francois Pinault (the tycoon who owns Gucci and Christie's)
and, by Levy's own count, 20 or 30 international photographers.

'That,' he says, 'had nothing to do with my being an intellectual. If
Paris Match was interested in my wedding it was because I married an
actress.' But they were interested in you before your wedding, I
suggest. He smiles to himself a little: 'Yes,' he says, 'it's true.'

Levy claims to have no explanation for this, and is exasperated by the
way in which his designer suits and unbuttoned white shirts have been
fetishised by the press. 'If I wore green-and-red checked shirts, I'd
understand,' he says, 'but white shirts? There's nothing more banal,
more idiotic than a white shirt!'

But, I ask, would he say he was interested in fashion? He sighs. 'I was
interested once, 15 years ago, in one designer, about whom I wrote one
or two pages, and whose name was Yves Saint Laurent. But what interested
me about him was the semiology of his draughtsmanship.'

'So he didn't give you any clothes?'

'No. Never.' Levy opens the jacket of his blue suit to show me the label
- Charvet, a deliberately unrecognisable brand. 'You see?' he says.
'It's absurd.'

Levy says he just gets on with his work 'without wondering whether the
fact that I am a star might get in the way'. He insists that he does
nothing to encourage his fans. 'People,' he says, 'don't know that much
about my life.'

BERNARD-HENRI LEVY was born in Algeria in 1948. His mother was the
daughter of a rabbi, and his father had fought in the Spanish Civil War.
During the Second World War, Levy pere joined the Free French, and
afterwards founded a lumber company that made him a millionaire.
Bernard-Henri has a sister, Veronique, and a brother, Philippe, who was
run over by a car in 1968 and about whom he will not speak except to
confirm that he is still in a coma.

He studied at the Ecole Normale Superieure under the tutelage of the
great Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, who was later committed to an
insane asylum after murdering his wife. The news about the murder came
to Levy as a terrible shock, but he still considers the man his mentor:
'After wards,' he says, 'I came to reinterpret the silences I had taken
to be philosophical and the gaze I had thought meditative as expressions
of his mental disarray. It's one of the great mysteries of the French
intellectual scene how this man of unbridled insanity could have taught
us rigour and rationality.'

There is some debate over what exactly Levy did in May 1968. Many assume
he was leading demos, like other student radicals. Others have suggested
that he watched the entire revolt on television, thereby learning an
important lesson about the power of the media. He himself wrote 30 years
later that he was not on the barricades, but with a girlfriend who was
in hospital (or might this be a veiled reference to his brother?). When
I ask him about the period, he offers the BHL version of solidarity: 'I
was ideologically quite aligned with the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist
movement of the time, but in my own way,' he says, 'my own very
individualistic and not very team-spirited way.'

At the age of 28 he published Barbarism with a Human Face , and became
the most famous member of a group called the nouveaux philosophes who
turned against Marxism. He was hailed as the new Camus, mistaken for the
new Rimbaud. Levy became such an overnight success he was dubbed a
'publicity philosopher', and the group was suspected of being, in one TV
commentator's words, 'an intellectual marketing coup'. An article in the
New York Review of Books reported that metaphysics had been 'resurrected
as media hype'.

Soon after that, he met Arielle Dombasle, who has said that when she
first saw him she thought Levy was Jesus Christ. He was on his second
marriage by then, and had two children. Levy and Dombasle embarked on a
seven-year secret affair before he made her his third wife in 1993.
Dombasle is regularly voted one of the most beautiful women in the world
by her countrymen, is rumoured to have the smallest waist in Paris, and
has recently found success with an album on which she sings techno
versions of Faure and Handel. In public, she still addresses Levy,
formally, as 'vous'.

Five years ago, Levy directed his wife in his first feature film. She
starred opposite Alain Delon, who played a writer clearly based on Levy
himself. The film was universally panned, not least for the final scene
in which the writer dies in a ballooning accident, exploding, as it
were, in his own hot air. Levy is still proud of the film, which he says
is 'a lot like me'.

Since he thinks no one knows anything about his life, would Levy say
that BHL is a character, a construction?

'Yes,' he admits, 'but a character constructed partly by myself and
partly by others. It's a puppet, and there are times when it can turn
against you.'

'But is there any of you in it - are you pulling the puppet's strings?'

'Yes, of course. He's not a stranger to me. But I can hide behind him,
and through him I can fight - against Islamists, fascists, bad guys. BHL
is a good soldier. BHL is a good mask. . . When one attacks BHL one does
not attack Bernard-Henri Levy. And BHL is a caricature. He is all of
those things.'

'So,' I conclude, after this barrage of third person proclamations, 'you
don't feel personally attacked when people criticise you?'

'No,' Levy says, 'Often, I feel - with good reason - that they are
aiming at someone else.'

Qui a tue Daniel Pearl? is published by Grasset 

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