France’s Cerebral Celebrity
The most recognizable initials in France today are probably BHL.
In France, as in America, high-powered monograms are few and far between. Americans reserve such iconic status for an elite of presidents (JFK), entertainers (J. Lo) or athletes/defendants (O.J.).
BHL, in contrast, stands for Bernard-Henri Levy: philosopher, author, journalist, filmmaker, diplomatic envoy, world traveler, political activist and all-around celebrity intellectual.
Levy’s omnipresence here reaffirms a French tradition that may seem odd in countries where philosophers don’t exactly dominate prime time. The French revere intellectual achievement and celebrate “grandeur,” a concept that combines excellence and glory. Not only do certain French authors and academics become institutions, Levy is the latest to show that they can be stars too.
And for someone trying to conjure up a mental image for the phrase “French celebrity intellectual,” Levy’s got the look: dark suit over open-collared white shirt, lean and unshaven, solemnly and sleepily cool. He’s also got the address: the stylish Boulevard St. Germain, the paradise of Left Bank intellectuals of yore, a stretch of concrete and cobblestone where flesh-and-blood writers and thinkers tread among the ghosts of Albert Camus, Ernest Hemingway and Jean-Paul Sartre, with whom Levy used to cross paths at the venerable Cafe de Flore.
During the last 25 years, Levy has written 30 books along with countless essays, columns and articles. His 2001 book, “War, Evil and the End of History,” a quintessentially BHL melange of war reportage and erudite “reflections,” has just been published in English. His latest book in French, a greatest-hits collection of essays, dispatches and interviews titled “Recidives” (Repeat Offenses), tips the scales at 989 pages.
Levy delights, infuriates and fascinates the French. They bombard him with e-mail praising and cursing his commentaries; someone even posted a sarcastic poem about him on the Internet. They follow his words in the serious Le Point magazine and his pictures in the glitzy Paris-Match. They get excited when they spot him on the street.
Thanks to his ability to stake out turf where highbrow and lowbrow cultures converge, Levy finds himself in the crosshairs of three unauthorized biographers. The voracity of the BHL-ologists stems partly from his swashbuckling personality and lifestyle. Levy inherited a family fortune in a country that is more puritanical about money than morality. His wife is a popular movie actress, Arielle Dombasle; it is his third marriage. He rubs elbows with presidents, Cabinet ministers, tycoons and jet-setters such as actor Alain Delon, who co-starred with Dombasle in a 1997 film directed by Levy. It flopped, to the glee of his foes.
“He’s one of what Edith Wharton called the ‘happy people of the world,’ ” said Gilles Hertzog, an old friend and editor of the journal the Rule of the Game, which he co-founded with Levy in 1989. “He’s got a great life, he’s rich, he’s married to an actress, he knows everybody. It creates a kind of exasperation for people for whom life is tough. To see a guy who doesn’t need to do what he does, like the trips to war zones, it seems to them like a provocation. A kind of super-luxury dandyism.”
Beyond the accusations of narcissism and self-indulgence, though, there’s another reason for the resentment. Levy goes against the grain of certain stereotypes and prevailing ideologies. He’s an ardent foe of anti-Americanism, one of the driving forces of intellectual activity in a Europe where it has become fashionable to trash America for such things as the death penalty, fast food and Hollywood movies.
Although Levy criticizes President Bush and the Iraq war, he still sees the United States as “a model of democracy, an exemplary democracy.”
“Anti-Americanism is a horror,” Levy said during a recent interview in his study, where books lined the walls and were stacked on the floor. “It is a magnet of the worst. In the entire world, and in France in particular, everything that is the worst in people’s heads comes together around anti-Americanism: racism, nationalism, chauvinism, anti-Semitism.”
Levy, who is Jewish, also breaks ranks with the European intelligentsia when it comes to Israel. Europe’s political and media elite are resolutely pro-Palestinian, he said, and tend to portray Israel, although it is a rare democracy in a region full of strongman regimes, as a dangerous partner of a supposedly imperialistic United States.
A fixation with the plight of the Palestinians, Levy asserts, diverts attention from suffering in forsaken corners of the world such as Sudan, where he wrote three years ago about combat in the Darfur region that has now become a focus of international concern about slaughter and famine.
“The Palestinian ‘victimocracy’ has a tendency to hide wars that are infinitely longer and more murderous,” Levy said. “Because we all have our eyes locked on one war alone -- well, two, the war in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian war. And this emphasis has the terrible effect of hiding, of silencing, of erasing from our memories and our mental map the other wars that are thousands of times more lethal.”
Around here, those are fighting words. And Levy, 55, has relished a good brawl of ideas since he was a brash prodigy at 29 and led the “New Philosophy” movement that challenged France’s intellectual establishment by condemning the abuses and authoritarianism of the Soviet Union.
“We were very violently denounced as traitors, as dangerous people, as bad philosophers,” Hertzog said. “We were accused of being rightists disguised as leftists. But Bernard still considers himself a man of the left.”
Levy also sees himself as a man who combines action with ideas. He was among the founders of SOS Racisme, one of France’s most prominent civil rights groups, in 1984. He has been an occasional behind-the-scenes advisor to politicians and went to Afghanistan as a special cultural envoy of France’s foreign minister in 2002.
But most of all, his career has been a restless writer’s odyssey among combat zones. It began in 1971 when he responded to a call by aging writer Andre Malraux for an international brigade to aid the nascent nation of Bangladesh. The brigade never materialized, but Levy stayed to chronicle the country’s turmoil as a fledgling correspondent.
Levy later became a champion of the cause of war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina, filming a documentary there in 1994. In Afghanistan, he interviewed Ahmed Shah Massoud, the anti-Taliban warrior assassinated two days before the Sept. 11 attacks. And a series of harrowing, semi-clandestine research missions took him to Pakistan for his book last year about the shadowy politics of terrorism surrounding the kidnapping and murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl.
The front-line globetrotting makes it hard to accuse Levy of being the typical cafe pontificator. Few pundits venture into the killing fields of Sri Lanka or Burundi. Few war correspondents use rough-terrain interviews with warlords, guerrillas and peasants in Colombia to riff on the relevance of Hegel and Nietzsche to “forgotten wars” and their silent victims.
“Returning their names to people, identifying their lives and faces, was already a way of coming to their aid,” Levy writes in “War, Evil and the End of History.” “We sent doctors to Colombia.... It would be almost as useful to send [nongovernmental organizations] of archivists and historians there. To save the past and the present, that’s what’s urgent. To save the events swallowed up by the black hole, swallowed up by the whirlwind, that’s the idea.”
Nonetheless, Levy’s exploits generate ferocious backlash. One can almost hear his critics snarling over their keyboards as they accuse him of superficial self-promotion.
“BHL is an intellectual whose most accomplished work is the construction of his own biography,” Pierre Assouline of the literary magazine Lire wrote in his review last year of Levy’s “Who Killed Daniel Pearl?” Assouline chided other reviewers for treating Levy with a “unanimity of genuflection and abdication of critical sense [so] extreme that one could well evoke a North Korean-style literary climate.”
Then Assouline unleashed an indictment that is familiar to BHL-watchers: “The only subject that interests BHL, that he has addressed since 1977, driven by a perseverance that merits praise, is: Me against the problem of Evil.”
The attacks seem driven partly by ideology. The leftist Le Monde Diplomatique journal stands out among the most scornful critics. In recent years it has called him frivolous and amateurish, mockingly compared his travels to those of the cartoon character Tintin, and associated him dismissively with “French journalists and editors who so often present the U.S. as a model.”
Like a literary duelist, Levy does not flinch from the fray. He fired off a lengthy rebuttal last year to an article in the New York Review of Books that savaged his Pearl book as “simplistic and badly documented.” And although Pearl’s parents disagreed with Levy’s theory that Pearl was killed because he was investigating Al Qaeda’s alleged ties to Pakistani nuclear experts, they wrote a letter in Levy’s defense in response to criticism in a review in The Times.
The strength and weakness of Levy’s work probably emanate from the same root: It is neither traditional journalism nor traditional philosophy. Unlike conventional reporters, he says he does not hesitate to use pretexts or undercover identities to get stories in high-risk environments or to blur fact and fiction by imagining a protagonist’s thoughts.
There’s no doubt about Levy’s taste for danger, adventure and righteous political causes. He’s inspired by the writer-adventurer mystique and, Hertzog says, a more personal example: Levy’s father volunteered to fight against the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War and joined the Free French against the Nazis.
In France, Levy’s high profile brings him a flood of e-mail from everyday readers, what he calls a “laboratory” of man-on-the-street sentiment. He recently spent several days answering dozens of readers in an Internet chat. The correspondence sometimes alarms him, particularly when it comes to “the visceral, total hatred for Israel” that some readers express.
Not all of the readers, however, harangue him about cultural or geopolitical issues. Their unabashed curiosity about his personal life reflects the star status that France affords its literary figures. The questions these days echo the buzz about the three simultaneous unauthorized biographies of BHL that he says are being written -- very much against his wishes. Two of the authors have written unflatteringly about him in the past.
As much as he may be the protagonist of his own work, as much as he has contributed to the aura of his acronym, Levy says the tradition of the celebrity intellectual should be balanced by another French trait: respect for privacy. It’s not contradictory, the inveterate crosser of borders says, to insist that some frontiers remain unbreached.
“I’m not interested in this,” he said. “I don’t want this. I am too young for this. I don’t want my private life touched, even if I’m a public personality. In France this separation is very common. For me, this border exists.”