On the Road With Bernard-Henri Lévy, the Planet’s Last Superstar French Intellectual
From Paris to Benghazi to Dhaka to Kiev, France’s most prominent, and tireless, public philosopher is also its de facto statesman
By necessity the anti-totalitarian and anti-colonialist pillars of BHL’s political ontology are in continuous tension, although he denies ever uttering that piece of loveliness attributed to him by the English Jewish Chronicle: “The burqa is an invitation to rape.” Still, he is very much an Arab Jew who lived in Morocco until he was 6 and now owns a palace in Marrakesh to which he flies often to relax. Of UNESCO’s bowing to Arab state pressure to cancel a show about Israel being the land of the Jews, he is quite scathing: “UNESCO is the most harmful organization in the world,” he said. Is that on the record? I asked. “Of course!”
BHL sees the anti-Zionism that has swept across Europe as being of a recent, confused vintage. For him, the European elites who embrace the position are “falling into a terrible trap.” If the idea that “anti-Zionism is the new anti-Semitism” is not a new one, he does draw a conceptually neat armature of its modern foundations: “It is not a question of feeling, but one of mechanics.” If one can’t be an anti-Semite today in France using the old political vocabulary of Charles Maurras or Hitler, one can do so by synthesizing tropes from the extreme right and extreme left: “It is a denial of the Holocaust linked to the competition of victimhood coupled with the idea that Jews exaggerate their suffering in order to overshadow the martyrdom of others,” he said. He sees Dieudonné’s involvement in the popular mobilization of this symbolic logic as accidental rather than generative. “He is a stupid man,” runs his careful dismissal, “but sometimes stupid men have intuition. He was the first person to put all the pieces together.”
At the end of our lunch, he invited me to join the small and tight-knit entourage that he routinely brings along on his escapades on his upcoming return trip to Bangladesh. At the end of April he would be returning to Dhaka after a 43-year absence, on the occasion of the translation of Bangla-Desh, Nationalisme Dans la Revolution into Bengali. A camera crew filming a made-for-TV documentary about BHL’s life for a French channel would be coming along as well. I immediately accepted.
During every trip of BHL’s life for the last two decades he has been accompanied by his best friend, Gilles Hertzog, whom he has referred to as “L’homme de ma vie.” The impeccably elegant, white-haired and long-faced Hertzog is a retired book editor and an aesthete, an expert on 15th-century Venetian art; he is also the grandson of the founder of the French Communist party, Marcel Cachin. An urbane French intellectual bon-vivant in his late 60s, he says exceedingly wise and penetrating things that are also outrageously hilarious. He is as self-contained as BHL is expansive, and one gets the sense that he serves as a de facto exteriorization of BHL’s conscience.
After a daylong Air France flight from Paris, the three of us arrived at the New Delhi airport at around midnight. Traveling with BHL one quickly learns that patience is not one of his many virtues. When we got to the Air India check-in counter, we saw a harried-looking young woman in a full-length orange stewardess uniform being harangued from all sides by a crowd of passengers demanding to be checked in to their connecting flights. She passed over us sternly to deal with other customers, since we were not to fly out until the morning. “You must wait, sir!” she snapped at BHL, after he impatiently asked to be checked in. He then recalculated and switched tactics into debonair older-European gentleman-of-a-certain-age flirtation mode. “You have such beautiful eyes and smile!” he cooed smoothly. “I can only say that in France or India. I am not allowed to say it in America!” Hertzog, who was standing next to him, joined in adroitly. “Yes, look at that beautiful smile!” The blushing stewardess could barely suppress her delighted giggling. She immediately ceased working on the flight registration of a large Indian family to print out our boarding passes.
After registering a room for the night at the transit hotel, BHL found that the air-conditioning in his room was not working and went to the front desk to complain. After the hotel staff fixed his AC, he went around to Hertzog’s room, and then to my own, to make sure ours worked as well. It was to be the first of many glimpses of the man beneath the dandy mask: In his private relations Lévy is an exceedingly warm and considerate man who takes territorial care of his pack. He is affectionate in the Mediterranean manner: He will walk up to his friends and put an arm around their shoulders, and he picks up everyone’s lunch checks and bar bills reflexively. If it were all not so matriarchal and nurturing, it would be easy to conflate all this with the controlling gestures of the monomaniacal patron. This observation would be confirmed by Marc Roussel, BHL’s official photographer, whom we would meet in the Dhaka international terminal. The affable and thrice-divorced father of five daughters had filmed the 2012 Qaddafi documentary The Oath of Tobruk with BHL. “He inspires confidence and extreme loyalty, because he is himself very loyal, not only to people but to ideas,” Roussel explained. “He could have taken any number of photographers with him, but he has always stuck with me.”
Leaving my hotel room at 5:00 in the morning, I heard the soft tapping of the keyboard emanating from behind BHL’s door. We boarded another Air India flight to Dhaka. Arriving in Bangladesh at 9:00 a.m., we were met at the arrival hall of the airport by the camera crew and Olivier Litvine, the director of the Dhaka Alliance Française, who was brandishing a copy of that morning’s Dhaka Tribune that included a long adulatory article about BHL’s return to the city. The weather was a sweltering 110 degrees, and I began to shed my jacket only to be shamed by Hertzog: “The heat has begun the decivilizational process already, my dear Vladislav?” he inquired. I slid my jacket back up. For the next three days BHL, Hertzog, and I were doubtless the only three men in the country wearing jacket and tie. BHL stared with wonder out the window of the car. The city, which had been little more than a sleepy town when he had lived here, had been transformed into a sprawling megalopolis, and he recognized almost nothing. He had returned to a different country.
While on a mission, BHL comports himself in the manner of a competent ambassador. He gazes at his interlocutor with a probing display of febrile curiosity, asking short and simple questions, and listens intently to the answer. While someone gives him new information or provides an insightful perspective, a look of unfaked curiosity crosses his eyes; he listens intensely. (This in itself admirable—the ability to stop talking and listen has escaped most intellectuals.) On the other hand, his attention and spirit lag when someone tells him something tedious or obvious. “I know, I know,” he will hurry his interlocutor along, politely but firmly. He has also mastered the politician’s skill of making people feel special by intimating/imputing great importance to very brief encounters. He gives strong handshakes, clasps shoulders, and gives people short bursts of attention before fluidly switching his attention to someone else.
After the rickety-looking Russian-made helicopter was readied, we flew to the dusty village of Tungipara, the home village of the nation’s founder, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. After the hourlong flight over the dusty fields and stunning nature visas, flocks of children and dignitaries surrounded us at the helicopter pad. A convoy of black jeeps and police cars whisked us away to the family compound. BHL had worked under Mujibur Rahman directly before having been deported from the country, and this was the first time in 40 years that he had a chance to pay his respects to an early mentor. Hundreds of Bangladeshis gathered to watch BHL as he stood serenely motionless in front of the marble tomb, like a head of state paying public homage to his peer, with his hands clasped in front of him. We then spent half an hour looking at the photographs in the personal library, now converted into a museum, and having lunch with the village and regional elders before taking the helicopter back to Dhaka.
How an academic field—marked by petty fighting, misguided ideological debates, and personal proximity to tragedy—doomed itself