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Bernard-Henri Lévy — The Public Intellectual Past His Prime

What does life in the United States look like through the eyes of a modern French intellectual?

April 27, 2006

What does life in the United States look like through the eyes of a modern French intellectual?

If you really want to understand your homeland, ask a stranger. Outsiders see better and further than natives.

Historians studying 16th century France or England today depend on the observations of sophisticated Venetian ambassadors.

Unusually talented travelers, from Marco Polo to Patrick Leigh Fermor, supply insights about countries they have visited that few"locals" can match.

The very best of them all, of course, was the work of another French aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville. His "Democracy in America", was the two-volume by-product of his 1831 visit to the United States to study its penitentiary system.

The shadow of this French aristocrat, who spent just nine months in the United States and published his account 170 years ago, falls across every modern attempt to "map" the American way of life.

When, in 1978, former U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy wanted to describe his country to his contemporaries, he did so in the form of a book entitled "America Revisited: 150 years After Tocqueville."

Twenty years later, the public television channel C-Span — it too seeking out the underlying realities of contemporary American life — produced a 65-hour series entitled "Travelling Tocqueville's America."

The latest person to travel in the footsteps of Tocqueville — or ride on his coattails —is another Frenchman, Bernard-Henri Lévy. "BHL", as he is known in France, is something of a modern aristocrat himself.

A graduate of the elite lycée "Louis le Grand" and of "Normale Sup" — the "école Normale Supérieure", France's ultra-selective "grande école" and intellectual forcing house — Lévy is his country's best-known and most prolific public intellectual (or philosophe, as the French misleadingly have it).

Ever since 1973, when he published his first book at the age of 24, Lévy has turned out books at a rate of nearly one per year (30 to date).

One or two of his publications — notably "L'Idéologie Française and Qui a tué Daniel Pearl? [Who Killed Daniel Pearl?]" — attracted attention (and criticism) in France and elsewhere.

The rest, notwithstanding the grand ambition of their titles "(Questions de Principe", "Impression d'Asie, “Eloge des Intellectuals", "Réflexions sur la Guerre, le Mal et la fin de l'Histoire" etc), were extended essays with a shelf life not much greater than the time it took to write them.

Such a chequered publishing history might have been the undoing of a lesser man. But Lévy, blessed with gorgeous looks, boundless energy and considerable inherited wealth, has always shown a healthy indifference to his shortcomings — and his critics.

And he has by no means confined himself to the serial output of more or less unsuccessful books. In the spirit of Jean-Paul Sartre (of whom he once wrote a biography), Lévy has founded a number of distinctly ephemeral journals and periodicals.

He has published novels, one of which — "Les Derniers jours de Charles Baudelaire" — won a prize (though in France, where annual baubles are distributed among publishing houses on a formulaic basis, this means less than it sounds).

He has also written and produced forgettable plays and documentaries.

Bernard-Henri Lévy is a very public intellectual. He is also — at least in the eyes of his fellow intellectuals — something of an embarrassment. They feel he gives their calling a bad name.

In recent years, however, Lévy has preferred to present himself not as an intellectual, but as an eclectic political activist and self-assigned foreign correspondent and "independent diplomat."

And it is true that ever since the late 1970s he has been at the forefront of French public concern for a series of worthy causes — from domestic racism to the destruction of Afghan Buddhas.

Indeed, few international moral crises in recent decades have passed without Lévy jetting in to investigate — rather in the manner of a charismatic, photogenic, francophone improvement upon Doonesbury's Roland Hedley.

A biography of him by Philippe Cohen, published in 2005, has a nice picture gallery of the French "philosophe" in a variety of exotic locales: Lévy giving a press conference in a Thai refugee camp; Lévy tramping the Cambodian frontier (with Joan Baez); Lévy in a Sarajevo trench; Lévy with freedom fighters and a cell-phone on an Afghan plateau — and so on.

However remote and ostensibly spontaneous or sensitive the expedition, there seems always to have been a professional photographer on hand.

There is no doubt that Lévy's irrepressible energy, his considerable vanity and his many worldly connections have occasionally served greater ends.

It was Lévy who helped bring the tragedy of the Bosnian Muslims to French public attention — notably at a much-publicized dinner in June 1993 for Lévy and Alija Izetbegovic, the Bosnian President, hosted at the Elysée Palace by François Mitterrand.

And there have been other initiatives — on behalf of women threatened by Islamists, or in support of the French activists of "SOS Racisme" — for which Lévy can claim some responsibility.

But the same attention-deficit disorder that discredited so many of his books has led commentators to discount his public commitments as well.

Mention his name in Sarajevo, for example, and you are likely to elicit a snort of contempt. Many Bosnians feel Lévy betrayed them, taking up their cause for a while, but losing interest as soon as the Balkans went off the front page.

Why has Bernard-Henri Lévy now turned his attention to America? "American Vertigo. Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville" is the first book he has written about the United States — as well as the first time he has shown any interest in Tocqueville.

To be sure, the "condition of America" question is very much on the European mind these days. And Lévy has always had a Zelig-like talent for putting himself in the right place at the most opportune moment.

And then there is his curious need to reproduce both the life and the works of illustrious predecessors.

At various times, this man has "been" Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, André Malraux (hence the Afghan Buddhas, an unmistakable echo of Malraux's obsession with Angkor Wat) and Jean Renoir.

Then, last year he was invited by the Atlantic Monthly — to play Alexis de Tocqueville. But there is more to it. BHL's star is waning in France. So where do French intellectuals go in their sunset years? To America!

The cult of Sartre — whose European reputation has never fully recovered from his totalitarian flirtations — still flourishes in certain American quarters.

The late Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault remained celestial fixtures in the U.S. academic firmament long after their luster dimmed in Paris.

Louis Althusser, another of Lévy's celebrated professors in 1960s Paris, is a forgotten man in his own country, as defunct as the peculiar brand of "structuralist Marxism" that he espoused.

But Althusser and his "ideological state apparatuses" have pride of place on graduate reading lists in many U.S. colleges.

This probably says more about the blinkered provincialism of a certain academic left than it does about Sartre and his successors — but it may illuminate Lévy's new trajectory. There are illustrious precedents. In the twilight of his career, he is looking, instinctively, west.

Lévy does not have Sartre's intellectual firepower. He quite lacks Foucault's dialectical playfulness. He does, however, have his own distinctive line in Gallic charm.

Unwary American interviewers have been quite bowled over by the delphic pronouncements of the latest Parisian oracle: "I have the writer's need for secrecy", he advised "Vanity Fair" in January 2003.

"I fight for the freedom of others, but my own is incommunicable." Transfixed in Lévy's rhetorical beam, the hapless reporter could only burble her admiration: "He is a unique figure, an action-driven intellectual who moves fast — writes fast, and is listened to with respect.”