The Playboy Philosopher

Bernard-Henri Lévy has become an American media superstar. Scott McLemee thinks his fifteen minutes are about up.

October 1, 2008

When introduced to American audiences from the podium or by TV interviewers, Bernard-Henri Lévy is always called a philosopher -- a label that says less about the substance of his work than the efficiency of modern public-relations techniques. Like Sartre, he is a graduate of the École Normale Supérieure. Unlike Sartre, he was formidably good-looking in his prime, and is aging gracefully. His haircuts are as thoughtful as his books are stylish. And in the spirit of Andy Warhol and Paris Hilton, Lévy has always grasped -- more profoundly, or at least more profitably, than any mere philosopher could -- an important truth: the media must constantly be fed.

Ten years ago, Pierre Bourdieu coined a term for certain French intellectuals whose writings counted for less than their TV appearances. He called them “ les fast-thinkers.” Everyone knew who the sociologist had in mind as the prototype of this phenomenon. Long before the American public got used to hearing references to J-Lo and K-Fed, the French press had dubbed him BHL. His books, movies, TV appearances, political interventions, and romances have been a staple of the French media for more than three decades. But only in the past five years has he become as much a fixture in the U.S. media as the French.

His latest opuscule -- called in translation Left in Dark Times -- has just appeared from Random House. Writing about it elsewhere, I failed to note something peculiar about this development. How it is that a volume of afterthoughts on last year’s French presidential election should appear -- in such short order, no less -- from a major commercial publisher in the United States?

It seems counterintuitive, and a matter for concern. Clearly it is time to reinvest in America’s fast-thinking infrastructure. Dependence on foreign sources of ideological methane is just too risky. Besides, as a couple of my far-flung correspondents have recently pointed out, the recent embrace of BHL by the American media is raising questions about just how gullible we really are.

Lauren Elkin, a Ph.D. candidate in English at CUNY Graduate Center and the Université de Paris VII, says that the very occasional links to BHL items on her blog tend to bring out the worst in her readers. One mention can be reliably predicted to yield 10 gripes.

“In Paris, it's just the done thing to bash BHL,” she tells me. “Recently I featured an awesome graphic that went along with a BHL piece on Sarah Palin in New York magazine -- an image of Palin getting bopped on the head with a baguette -- and I included a link to the NY mag article, because hey, I re-used their graphic, I owed them a link. The comments that followed amounted to taking the baguette and turning it on BHL!” (Well, at least it wasn’t a cream pie.)

Usually the expressions of exasperation are “all in good fun,” says Elkin. But one item at her blog -- linking to a BHL piece on Simone de Beauvoir -- provoked an exceptionally pompous display of aggravation from a French journalist.

“You and your fellow Americans,” he wrote, “should realize that BHL is not a philosopher but a clown and a buffoon. You want real French philosophy, read Derrida, Foucault, Badiou, Baudrillard, if you are a right winger, read Aron, but please forget about this pompous arrogant shmuck BHL and his unending and shameless self-promotion. As a Frenchman, I am ashamed of BHL.”

The notion that silly Americans are somehow responsible for Lévy’s prominence is a bit rich. By my estimate, his career has spanned more than a third of a century -- yet BHL, Inc., has had a fully staffed U.S. office for barely half a decade. (Note to Wikipedians: This is a figure of speech. No actual office exists, so far as I know.) And it is the work of a long, ill-spent day at the library to try to track down any discussion of his work by American intellectuals who take Lévy seriously as a philosopher. Our culture has its faults. This is not one of them.

“What really got me, as you can probably guess,” says Elkin, “was the ‘you Americans’ bit and the implication that as such we could not possibly tell Derrida from Aron, much less evaluate BHL for ourselves.” All the more galling, perhaps, given that Elkin has never concerned herself with BHL’s books. “I've been too busy reading Derrida and Foucault, so pat me on the head,” she told her blog’s interlocutor.

Given her own neglect of the playboy’s philosophy, Elkin says she “really can't comment on whether the bashing is appropriate.” But she suspects the strong feelings Lévy’s work provokes is a cultural phenomenon. “The French disdain for BHL is reflective of an inherent distaste for blatant self-promotion; as for the non-French who read my blog and write in with these comments, hating on BHL is as good a way as any to fit in.”

In an incisive review published a couple of years ago, Doug Ireland cited a critical analysis of BHL’s oeuvre, characterizing him as “a philosopher who’s never taught the subject in any university, a journalist who creates a cocktail mingling the true, the possible, and the totally false, a patch-work filmmaker, a writer without a real literary oeuvre....”

Yet Lévy swims in the main currents of European culture, and does not sink. If anything, he belongs on the short list of the world’s best-known intellectuals. How is that possible?

It seemed like a good question to pose to Arthur Goldhammer, a canny observer of French politics and culture who chairs the seminar for visiting scholars at the Center for European Studies at Harvard University. He responded to my inquiry with an e-mail note -- albeit one that amounted to a judicious essay on the mystery of BHL.

“How does he pull it off?” wrote Goldhammer. “First, it must be recognized that he's not a total fraud. Though a wretched scholar, he is neither stupid nor uneducated. His rhetoric, at least in French, has some of the old Normalien brilliance and flair. He had the wit to recognize before anyone else that a classic French role, that of the universal intellectual as moral conscience of the age, had become a media staple, creating a demand that a clever entrepreneur could exploit. He understood that it was no longer necessary first to prove one's mettle in some field of literature, art, or thought. I think that someone once said of Zsa Zsa Gabor that she was ‘famous for being famous.’ Lévy realized that one could be famous for being righteous, and that celebrity itself could establish a prima facie claim to righteousness.”

Righteous or not, BHL is certainly timely. His denunciations of Communism in the late 1970s were hardly original. But they appeared as the radical spirit of May ‘68 was exhausting itself -- and just before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Chinese party’s own denunciations of late-period Maoism. BHL developed a knack for showing up in war zones and sending out urgent dispatches. Last month he did a toe-touch in Georgia following the Russian invasion -- filing an article that was impassioned, if, it seems, imaginative.

“He chooses his causes shrewdly,” continues Goldhammer. “He may not have been the first to divine the waning of revolutionary radicalism, but he made himself revisionism's publicist. He has a knack for placing himself at the center of any scene and for depicting his presence as if it were what rendered the scene important.... His critics keep him constantly in the limelight and actually amplify his voice, and why should a ‘philosopher’ of universal range stoop to respond to ‘pedants’ who trouble the clarity of his vision with murky points of detail?”

And so he has acquired a sort of power that survives all debunking. If the topic of BHL comes up at “a typical dinner party of Parisian intellectuals,” says Goldhammer, seven of the guests will be sarcastic. “But the eighth, enticed by the allure of making a brilliant defense of a lost cause, a venerable French oratorical tradition, will launch into an elaborate defense beginning, ‘Say what you will about the man, and I wouldn't contradict a word of it, but still you must admit that for the Chechens (or Bosnians or Georgians or boat people or insert your favorite cause here), he has not been without effect.’

“The French love their litotes,” Goldhammer continues (rhetoric lesson here), “and of course no one can say that BHL has been without effect, that he has probably done more good for someone somewhere than most of us, so the revilers are reduced to sheepish silence for fear of appearing heartless.”

The role of the intellectual as famous, full-time spokesman for the Universal is well-established in France. It began with Voltaire and culminated in Sartre, its last great exemplar. (Not that other philosophers have not emerged in the meantime, of course, but none has occupied quite the same position.) From time to time, Lévy has mourned the passing of this grand tradition, while hinting, not too subtly, that it lives on in him. Clearly there is a steady French market for his line in historical reenactments of intellectual engagement.

It seems surprising, though, to find the BHL brand suddenly being imported to these shores after years of neglect -- particularly during a decade when Francophobia has become a national sport.

But like the song says, there’s a thin line between love and hate. Lévy has capitalized on American ambivalence towards France -- the potential of fascination to move from “-phobia” to “-philia” -- by performing a certain role. He is, in effect, the simulacrum of Sartre, minus the anti-imperialism and neo-Marxism.

“Lévy plays on both registers,” explains Goldhammer. “At the height of anti-French feeling in the U.S., in the period just before the Iraq War, he positioned himself as a philo-American. He made himself the avenger of Daniel Pearl. Arrogant he might be, airily infuriating in just the right way to confirm the philistine's loathing of the abstract and abstruse that philosophy is taken to embody, and yet there he was, pouring scorn on "Islamofascism" and touring the country with the New Yorker reader's nonpareil Francophile, Adam Gopnik.... Lévy chose his moment well. He insinuated himself into the American subconscious by playing against type.”

This is savvy. Also, convenient for journalists. BHL has now become “the respectable media's go-to guy whenever a French opinion is needed.” Goldhammer cites a recent article in The New York Times in which Lévy, like the presidents of Pakistan and Chile, was quoted as “as an exemplar of what ‘the world’ wants to know from the next American president.” Get in the right Rolodex, it seems, and you are the embodiment of cosmopolitanism itself.

“To those familiar with the sad nullity of Lévy's work,” says Goldhammer, “this is infuriating, but to protest is only to perpetuate the folly. His celebrity is a bubble that must be allowed to burst, but we can be sure that when it does, no crisis will ensue.”


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