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
That week, I met with Muhammad Faruk Khan, a member of parliament from the prime minister’s ruling Awami League as well as a former trade minister, in his cavernous parliament office. The Bangladeshi Parliament was out of session, and the exquisite granite halls of Louis I. Kahn’s architectural masterpiece were hauntingly empty. The building was almost completely vacant other than a few guards and aides. Gigantic tropical cockroaches occasionally scurried between the granite pillars.
“We do recognize Mr. Lévy as a freedom fighter, and he did serve in our first government” as a 22-year-old, Mr. Khan told me in a truthful and slightly reverent tone. “In Bangladesh we respect everyone who took direct action in the liberation war. He is also on the shortlist of 300 foreign volunteers who came here who might receive a medal next year.”
These are of course words of immaculate praise from a man who, as a 19-year-old lieutenant in the Pakistani army, crawled all night through gaps in the Indian minefield to defect to the Bengali insurrectionary forces. Lingering memory of honor earned in the liberation war will take one very far in Dhaka—the government is studded with veterans of the war. Asked for his thoughts on Les Indes Rouges, Lévy’s book, the minister admitted that he had had time to read only the first 30 pages. Expressing his firm intention to finish the book, he thought it seemed well-balanced and like fundamental reading for a veteran. He added that “certain passages, not everyone would agree with. He [Lévy] has been quite harsh with the leftists in this book. He is quite harsh in his judgment of Mr. Rashed Khan Menon for example, who is a prominent member of our government. Mr. Menon might not agree with the book.”
We separated for a week and a half after Dhaka. BHL landed in Paris and a few days later took a train to Geneva to argue about anti-Semitism in the works of Wagner. He made a jaunt to his Moroccan palace and gave a talk at a conference in Croatia before returning to Paris again. It was mid-May, a week before the Ukrainian elections, and we were on our way to Kiev. BHL, Hertzog, Roussel, and I were once again boarding an Air France flight, though with a slightly different composition to the entourage: There was a different filmmaker with us as well as an elegant and high-strung woman, Le Monde’s correspondent in the former Yugoslavia. BHL was scheduled to give a talk and to sit on a panel at The New Republic’s “Ukraine: Thinking Together” solidarity conference. Poroshenko, with whom BHL by this time had become close—they spoke several times a week by phone and Skype—had also invited him to fly out for a pre-election campaign rally in Eastern Ukraine.
Arriving at 2:00 in the afternoon and taking an hour to get into the city by taxi, we went almost directly from the airport to the library of the National Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. In the library we were surrounded by glass-enclosed wooden bookshelves and dusty stacks of Russian and Ukrainian volumes. A ring of oil portraits of 17th-century Russian and Polish scholar-noblemen peered down from high above us menacingly. On this occasion BHL spoke in French, a tightly wound and loosely argued riff, ranging from the lessons of World War II to the intellectual composition of the new Russian fascism in its ultra-left-wing (Eduard Limonov) and ultra-right-wing (Alexander Dugin) guises. His discourse included historical comparisons of the annexation of Crimea to the Sudetenland by the Germans as well as a denunciation of the perils of appeasement (Obama would be our Neville Chamberlain). BHL was careful to note that calling Putin the new Hitler was indeed a profanation of the victims of Hitlerism. He glided smoothly from Leo Strauss to Huntington, Roman Jakobson’s linguistics, and Kojeve’s ideas about Hegel before circling back around to Dugin and Limonov.
Immediately before launching into the speech, BHL had texted Hollande from his phone to propose inviting the incoming Ukrainian president, irrespective of which candidate won the election, to attend the forthcoming celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the allied invasion in Normandy. Putin, who—controversially—had been invited by Hollande, would be there, so why not bring the Ukrainian president for parity sake? “It was a Ukrainian battalion that liberated Auschwitz,” he wrote Hollande, reiterating a line from his speech. Arriving back at the hotel and settling in for lunch in its manicured terrace, we received Hollande’s salutary response. “Sure! Good idea. Invite the Georgian and Armenian presidents as well,” instructed the president of the republic.
The moral absolutism that undergirds BHL’s enactment of his world-historical mission is born of an ancien régime conception of honor, but it is deployed using a contemporary political lexicon. The fantasy role of the hero in history is played out in a style so postmodern that it lapses seamlessly into reactionary romanticism. “My enemies say I never created a system, but philosophically speaking I have crafted some concepts for its grounding—such as volonté de guérir”—the desire to heal. His conceptual system “might only have been built by a Jew with the [corollary] intensity of waiting for a Messiah; we have to act as if he comes at any moment.” His work might therefore be said to belong to a particularly Jewish mid-20th-century phenomenological genealogy that runs from Franz Rosenzweig and Bergson to Jean Wahl and Vladimir Jankélévich through Levinas. It is a philosophical tradition that, much like BHL’s politics of intervention, is contingent on a specific European historicity.
While the aesthetics and concerns may be purely 19th century, BHL’s lone-operator’s pursuit of intrastate diplomatic power is a late-18th-century fantasia, based on a system that was predicated on the division of power between cunning European generals, diplomats, and aristocrats like Napoleon, Talleyrand, and Metternich. As Baudelaire wrote, “Dandyism is the last flicker of heroism in decadent ages. … Dandyism is a setting sun; like the declining star, it is magnificent, without heat and full of melancholy.”
That this romantic fantasy has been successfully recreated by an audacious and uncommonly vital immigrant Arab Jew, long after native European elites refuted it (or became too etiolated to carry it out) is either a natural outcome of the historical dialectic, or simply comic, depending on your point of view. There is something either magnificent or bathetic in BHL’s reenactment of The Last Man’s stand against the end of history in the age of post-mass-democratic politics. It’s an age that pins its redemptive hopes on neurobiological determinism, coercive theories of management, or algorithmic analyses of polling data. The feats of collective and historical memory and cultural literacy required for recognizing its trappings and symbols are dissipating, and so BHL will surely be the last man on earth to have played this role convincingly. And for the rest of us misanthropic intellectual misfits, who lack BHL’s energy, connections, brains, and vast financial resources, there is still some pleasure to be had in living vicariously through the spectacle of BHL’s noble insolence.
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