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
“Incapable of talking about myself? That’s not my reputation, not precisely. And when I do think about it, they reproach me with the opposite: exhibitionism, narcissism, being the type who always says ‘me, me, me,’ the media star and the self-promoter, king of the troublemakers, a total egocentrist, a specialist at drawing media attention … I could go on.”
—Bernard-Henri Lévy, Comédie(1997)
It was a balmy Friday evening in Paris, in early March, and 500 Ukrainians had massed at the corner where rue Apollinaire meets the Saint-Germain-des-Prés Plaza to celebrate the overthrow of their country’s reviled President Viktor Yanukovich. Deposed, despite his sanctioning indiscriminate fire against the crowds, he had fled the capital into Putin’s frigid embrace and offer of sanctuary in the Russian border city of Rostov-on-Don. In between bouts of patriotic song and chanting (“Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!”) they inquired one another’s names and towns of origin. The aura of solidarity was undeniably bewitching, not least for the organizer of the event, France’s most prominent public intellectual, philosophe, journalist, novelist, filmmaker, dandy, libertine, and sometime professional revolutionary, Bernard-Henri Lévy.
Exactly one month before, on Feb. 9, BHL, as Lévy is universally known to the French, had appeared in Kiev to deliver a typically grandiloquent and stirring speech, studded with proclamations of fidelity to the loftiest principles of freedom and solidarity in the face of tyranny. The apex of his oration was the declaration “France is Ukraine! Ukraine is Europe!” It was an axiom that augured the commencement of BHL’s own direct involvement in the Ukrainian political crisis. It has been almost three years since the great coup of his career as a diplomatic/political operator intervening (or if one prefers, meddling) at the highest levels of the French state. With a flurry of beseeching satellite phone calls to President Nicolas Sarkozy from the desert outskirts of Benghazi, BHL helped to engineer the French military intervention in Libya that led to the ousting of the Qaddafi regime—events that confirmed BHL’s unique standing as a freelance statesman who runs his own foreign policy parallel to that of the French state.
With his gifts—the intelligence and good looks, superhuman stamina, money, and connections—it would be almost criminal if BHL did not accomplish something of world historical importance, a thought that seems to animate some good part of his peripatetic engagements. His answer to questions about the oddness of one unelected intellectual pursuing his own foreign policy is that he is forced to take action when the French state fails to do so: “The real deficit is in the actions of the Quai d’Orsay.” The example of his friend Bernard Kouchner’s experience as French foreign minister has also doubtless made BHL cautious about accepting government posts. (Kouchner was thrown out of the Socialist party for crossing party lines, before being sacked in a cabinet reshuffle.) “I told him not to take it!” BHL confided. Sarkozy did offer BHL the culture ministry, which he duly turned down, as he habitually turns down the Legion d’honneur.
Still, not everyone is thrilled by the kindly policy assistance that this unelected patriot offers the French state. Sarkozy’s actual foreign minister, Alain Juppé, once threatened to resign after he was looped into a critical meeting that BHL had freelanced with the Libyan rebels. The response of the current foreign minister, Laurent Fabius (the son of assimilated Jews; BHL has known him since he was 17), to BHL’s meddling with his portfolio has largely been one of passive resistance: According to someone present at the cabinet meeting that BHL had set up for the Ukrainians, Fabius sat silently peering at his phone for the duration of the gathering.
The Ukrainian delegation had arrived in Paris that March morning aboard billionaire presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko’s private plane. After BHL’s intense lobbying for an official reception by the French state and cabinet—throughout the crisis, the French government had shown no interest in meeting with any representatives of Ukraine—the delegation had briefed President François Hollande on Kiev’s options in the wake of the Russian annexation of Crimea. Now they would address an auditorium filled to bursting with their countrymen, as several hundred more waited outside. Stocky Ukrainian men draped in blue-and-yellow flags fraternized with blue-eyed young men in Vyshyvankas. Pretty Slavic blondes with wreaths of flowers in their hair jostled for seats with middle-aged Soviet women with boxy haircuts. The crowd spilled out of the chairs and into the aisles clutching banners and massive flags.
On the stage, our host BHL welcomed us to “Maidan on Saint-Germain-des-Prés” and delivered a rousing speech in defense of Ukraine’s natural place in Europe. BHL is tall, slim, and broad-shouldered and carries himself like a man 20 years younger. The flowing mane of famously sculpted hair is now streaked with gray, but he is still handsome in the symmetric fashion. The signature custom-made white shirt was open to his chest. The beautiful bespoke black suit from Charvet, a knightly suit of armor that has been his uniform of four decades, glittered with a soft sheen. On this occasion it was a single-button continental cut with an Italianate drape, a pinched waist, and billowing trousers. He paced the stage in fiery restiveness and thundered at the grandiose registers demanded by the revolutionary mood. His oratory that night—there are those who think that he might be France’s greatest living orator—was an impassioned, astute, and morally committed denunciation of Russian imperialism. Playing to the crowd, he occasionally ventured too deeply into rhetorical plays on the theme of “Putin is the new Hitler.”
The portly Poroshenko spoke next and began by informing the crowd that he had agreed to say a few words in English. The suggestion was roundly booed, and he switched into his accomplished and fluid Ukrainian to speak about the rule of law and economic reforms. Kiev Mayor Vitali Klitschko, another presidential hopeful, addressed the gathering next. He was grim-faced and stoic, not in the least a natural politician. On the other hand, he is close to 7 feet tall and is by far the biggest person in the room; there is a primordial quality to the intuition that his leadership claim is derived from his sheer size and martial prowess in the same way that primitive tribes would choose their strongest warrior to be their chieftain. Klitschko’s stiff Ukrainian hinted at his Russophone Odessa origins: He noted that “his mother is Russian and father is Ukrainian” and occasionally stumbled while trying to recall a word in Ukrainian. One did not need to be a great political scientist to see which of the two men would become president.
A minute of silence was observed in honor of the “celestial hundred” of demonstrators who had given their lives for Ukraine on and around Maidan Square. A pair of shy, teary-eyed young women, a medic and an activist, softly recounted the horror of watching their friends fall before the bullets. The shorter of the two had thick scar tissue from where a sniper’s bullet had entered her neck. After they spoke, the crowd rose to its feet and cheered them with vigorous cries of Molodzi (good work)! The final speaker was the suave rector of the Mogilev academy, who spoke in impressive French about the need for connections between Kiev and Paris. After the last speech, the crowd stood to sing Ukraine’s mournful national anthem.
Immediately after the rally concluded, Klitschko grasped the opportunity to disappear backstage. Poroshenko dove into the crowd to shake hands, take photographs, and get into an impressive yelling match with a young activist who righteously accused the old-guard politician of not having a reformist platform. My wife and I decided to conclude the evening half a block away at the Café de Flore, where it turned out that we were not the only Champagne socialists to find themselves in Paris’ plushest café at the end of the evening: The maître d’ sat us at a table next to where Lévy was dining with the Ukrainian delegation, the rector of the Mogilev academy, and some of our Ukrainian acquaintances. I would learn later that he had partially planned the French intervention in Libya while hosting the Libyan rebels at the same table.
BHL was pleased with the tremendous turnout that the rally had garnered on only a few hours’ notice. Earlier that day, he had convened the Parisian intelligentsia and political class at his home. Reverence before the natural moral authority of the Ukrainians was the only thing that united a disparate assortment of quarrelsome politicians, journalists, and writers. President Hollande had also received the Ukrainians very warmly. He was confident that on this occasion Putin would make hubristic mistakes that would bring down his regime. “Putin will only remain stronger than us if we choose to be weak. He will lose if, and only if, we stand by our principles,” he explained in his earnestly staccato style. “If we are weak, he will be strong!”
Answering my final question, as to how he saw the responsibility of France or the French intelligentsia to the Ukrainians in their darkest hour, BHL was in his element: “The merit and primary responsibility of France is to ring the bell! Europe currently has no will, no head, and no courage. In Mali, as in Libya and as in some ways also with the case of Syria, France took the lead!” Finishing his dinner, the philosophe bade the table a hasty farewell and then dashed off purposefully into the night. And so, my adventures with the world’s most influential public intellectual—and maybe the last Jewish intellectual of any real global consequence—began.
Several weeks after the Ukrainian rally, I was invited to lunch at the enormous duplex apartment that BHL shares with his third wife, movie star Arielle Dombasle. Ascending a circular staircase to the building’s final floor, one is met at the door by a white uniformed butler. The apartment is a velvety cross between the ancient civilization wing of an art museum and an Oriental palazzo. The long divans are surrounded by extensive collections of curios: reclining golden Buddhas, coffee tables littered with knickknacks and heaps of crystals and statuettes. One can imagine it is the sort of apartment Lawrence of Arabia would have found himself ensconced in at the end of his life if he had survived his motorcycle accident. There is a view of the Palais de l’Élysée out of a window from which BHL can keep a close eye on the seat of power of the French state.
Dombasle greeted me in their dining room and, making my day, complimented my suit as “très élégant.” Extending her smartphone with her thin elongated arm, she corralled me and BHL into a picture along with a mysterious bespectacled person named Françoise. She and Françoise then promptly disappeared, dematerializing as if by teleportation. In the movie-star fashion, the family life is both publicly exposed and carefully protected. In interview after interview, this man renowned for his self-promotion insists that the “right to privacy is one of the highest, most sacred of rights.” That discretion, as well as a talent for misdirection, reveals a capacity for psychological and administrative compartmentalization of the various strands of a complex and manically busy life.
Spending any length of time with BHL, one will become cognizant of the many contradictions that shape both his private life and his public persona. His outraged sense of justice is intertwined with a brazen pursuit of an 18th-century-style world-historical greatness. Like Benjamin Disraeli, BHL is a self-fashioned Sephardic Jew who observed and masterfully replicated the manifold idiosyncrasies of the locals and climbed to the top of the greasy pole by dint of dogmatic tenacity. Like Disraeli, he had to contend with the conflicted relationship to Jews of the native ruling class, which despite its prejudices gives disproportionate power and prestige to intellectuals. Also, much like Disraeli, he accomplished everything despite the liability of an unconventional wardrobe.
An arch-romantic in the classical style, BHL is also a political operator who alternates macho bravado with delicate manners. Flitting between war zones and five-star hotels, habitually surrounded by material opulence, he is seldom caught sleeping or eating. At 65 years old, when most people are tinkering with their pension plans, he is as kinetic as a man half, even a third, his age. “Retire?” he ripostes when I broach the topic. “I am your age!” Responding to a recent query from a Parisian newspaper about the secret of his perpetual youth, his advice was, “Don’t spend time with boring people.” The unbuttoned white shirt—he tells interviewers that he would choke otherwise—is a form of social provocation that he doubtlessly relishes; it also constitutes a dandyish parlor trick, leading otherwise shrewd judges of character and intellectual talent to underestimate his political acumen and Puritan work habits.
Much of the anti-BHL feeling in France is clearly unabashed envy, while some of it stems from veiled anti-Semitism. It is also undeniably true that over the years his work has traded meticulousness of analysis for floridness of expression and the blunt instrumental exegeses of pure rhetorical power. If no longer the most rigorous, he remains the most widely read intellectual in France, whose stream of political journalism, commentary, and first-person participatory narratives frames and drives national political debate to a degree even his staunchest critics grudgingly acknowledge. If he were not already wealthy by virtue of his inheritance, he would have quickly become so from the sales of his books—most of which remain in print.
Born in Bén Siaf, Algeria, BHL and his family emigrated to Morocco when he was a week old; the Lévys migrated to France soon after. His father joined up and fought the Germans with the Brigades Internationales as part of the French Resistance, founded the timber company Becob, and accumulated one of the largest fortunes in postwar France. At 18 BHL matriculated in the exclusive École Normale Supérieure, which marked him as a “Normalian” and as a member of the ruling elite. He studied philosophy under the tutelage of two other Algerian philosophers: the madly rigorous deconstructionist Jacques Derrida and the rigorously mad Marxist Louis Althusser. He was 20 during the tumultuous events of 1968 but is not known to have been active on the revolutionary barricades.
After a very brief stint teaching philosophy, he traveled to Bangladesh in early 1971 to cover the civil war for Albert Camus’ underground journal Combat. With the commencement of the Pakistani army’s ethnic slaughter, André Malraux had issued a call for international intervention in Bangladesh (then known as East Pakistan) and the formation of a new international brigade of the sort that he had led in the Spanish Civil War. While BHL was only one among a hundred volunteers who signed up, he may be the only one to have actually made the trek. (A Pakistani journalist’s hagiographic description of BHL’s incursion as a “one-man international brigade” is not incorrect.) The trip turned into a prolonged stay as well as a stint in Bangladesh’s fledgling economics ministry. It would also culminate in BHL’s first book, Bangla-Desh, Nationalisme dans la revolution (Bangladesh: Nationalism in the Revolution—republished in the 1980s as Les Indes Rouges). Published when he was 24, it remains the only contemporary French account of the Bangladeshi civil war and the genocide it engendered. The book remains untranslated into English.
Returning to Paris from Dhaka, he penned three more books in quick succession that together launched his career as a public intellectual. La Barbarie à Visage Humain (Barbarism with a Human Face) was published to wide acclaim when he was 28. The book constituted a fraternal assault on the lingering Leninist-Stalinist tendencies of the old unreconstructed French left. L’Idéologie Française (1981) predicated that the French are hardwired for fascism—and the metastatic resurgence of the French right that took place soon after its publication seemed to prove the insolent young Jewish dandy correct. Not content to tangle with Marxism and the essential ontological spirit of France, he also picked a brawl with God in Le Testament de Dieu (1978). (BHL is an implacably atheist Jew in the “there’s only one God and we don’t believe in him” sense, as well as being a Zionist.) Collectively the three works managed to scandalize the French reading public, regardless of political persuasion. “I have developed a finely tuned antenna for why any given French person dislikes my work,” he told me. “They will say I like all your work except this one and they will name the book. With one phrase I know if the person is a Fascist, religious, or of the old left wing.”
The French ruling class to which BHL belongs is hermetic, cohesive, and centralized in Paris and also—or therefore—exceptionally incestuous. Anyone who indulges the taste for the intrigues of the French intelligentsia will know that before she married Sarkozy to become the first lady, Carla Bruni had broken up the marriage of BHL’s novelist daughter Justine to the son of his close friend, Grasset publisher Jean-Paul Enthoven. In his relations with the French elite, BHL is both an outsider and consummate insider: He has been chairman of the board of the French-German culture television station ARTE for 20 years (like an oriental potentate, he jokes) as well as directing his own magazine La Règle du Jeu (Rules of the Game). The confluence of politics, culture, journalism, and business relations over which he presides is controversial and unimaginable anywhere outside of France. When I inquired whether he has more or less influence under the socialists—his natural home and fratricidal “family on the left”—he shrugged thoughtfully before replying, “It’s hard to say.” The independence granted by his immense wealth keeps him from lapsing into the role of the court philosopher. His position in the French political firmament is akin to a secular, modern-day variation on the outsize political influence that cerebral churchmen like Cardinal Richelieu or Jean François Paul de Gondi or Cardinal de Retz once wielded over the French throne.
That said, there is also something unmistakably American about the self-fashioned transformation of an immigrant boy from North Africa into a jet-setting playboy-philosopher who advises heads of state on foreign policy. His work has smuggled Anglo-American strains of liberalism into French political thought in the same way that his friend Nicolas Sarkozy’s political swagger brought the American style of brashness to French politics. Novel in a French context, the arch-individualism, swagger, work ethic, frenetic pace, and transparent ambition would all be quite normal in New York City or Washington, D.C. That he is a friend of America and of the postmodernist form of emancipation that it represents against the principled disdain of the unreconstructed old French left is a core driving force of his more recent work. In 2002, he spent a year in Pakistan and wrote a book called Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, about the Jewish Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and beheaded by the Taliban. It was followed by American Vertigo, in which he retraced, through post-Sept. 11 America, Tocqueville’s bemused wanderings across the country. His 2008 book Left in Dark Times is a sort of sequel to Barbarism with a Human Face and identified obsessive anti-Americanism (and the corollary hatred of Israel) as the new totalitarian malady infecting Europe. “If you really care, are really interested in the history of ideas,” he told me, “it is not a left-wing position. Historically, hatred of America is a right-wing position. We have a clear imperialism in the case of Russia and with China toward Tibet. Yet there still exists a weak left that thinks America is the real empire. It’s a joke. But unfortunately it’s also not a joke.”
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.
The afternoon was dominated by a panel discussion at the Alliance Française of the newly published Bengali translation of the Indes Rouges book. Before delivering a lecture or a talk, BHL will size up a crowd and retreat into a small room for around 10 minutes. There he will sketch out some notes on a piece of paper the size of a Post-it note. Upon returning he will speak extemporaneously for an hour while glancing down at it only a few times. He is particularly good at building toward a crescendo of meaning through looping digressions. One wonders if his ornate oratory perhaps comes too easily, whether his speeches and talks would be better if he had to spend more time preparing them.
Dinner that evening at the residence of the French ambassador was an intimate affair, with about a dozen men, and no women, arranged over a long table. Our small entourage was joined by some French embassy staff and a handful of Bangladeshis split evenly between intellectuals and businessmen. The French ambassador was a stern man with an oval face and round architect spectacles over a trim walrus mustache who oozed contempt for the Bangladeshis. A strident conversation about the fractional duopoly dominating Bangladeshi politics ensued; all the Bengalis agreed that a third political party would have to be formed. Throughout, the ambassador made caustic remarks about Bengalis’ capacity for democratic self-governance, what he perceived as a lack of differences between the parties, and the relative merits of army rule in a country with a history of army coups.
BHL sat grim-faced without uttering a word throughout the conversation. He also ate nothing: The food was flaked with large amounts of garlic, to which he is allergic. The embassy staff and BHL’s French friends likewise said nothing. The Bengalis listened glumly to this unspooling litany of their nation’s political sins and their incapacity to govern themselves. Being the American free radical in the room, it fell to me to inquire about the obvious: “Would you really prefer that the army step in and take power again?” I asked the ambassador. “Yes, I would,” came the contemptuous reply. Immediately after coffee was served the troubled BHL politely excused us, citing the exhaustion of travel.
In the car on the way back to the hotel, BHL fumed to his friends. To me he explained that this sort of French ambassador was a very particular type, a “cynical hater of the country he was supposed to look after. A Marquis de Norpois-type character from Proust” that he had met over and over again for 40 years “as if he was a reincarnation of Vishnu, from Cambodia to Ethiopia to Sudan.”
The next morning we had all assembled in the hotel lobby at the ungodly hour of half past six. It was the one-year anniversary of the collapse of the eight-story garment factory at Rana Plaza that had buried more than a thousand garment workers under mountains of concrete. At 15 million souls, Dhaka is one of the world’s most densely inhabited and haphazardly planned cities. After driving for an hour through the rickshaw-clogged roads of the city center, we arrived at a vast, desolate pile of cement studded with metal rods and flecked with pieces of cloth. Dozens of scavengers were crouching over the rubble, still digging through the debris in search of family mementos or iron fillings to sell to scrap dealers. BHL wandered around the rubble contemplatively while Roussel took pictures of him.
After tripping over a metal spoke protruding from the concrete, I spoke with Alliance Française Director Olivier Litvine, who had first come to Dhaka to do his mandatory army service in his twenties. BHL’s books had been formative for him, and he had read the Bangladesh book as young man; he had organized the trip and conferences for months. He could not bear to read the Daniel Pearl book, having become acquainted with Pearl in Pakistan a week before his kidnapping. BHL’s work, he said, was “Jewish in the sense of universal, of being convinced that a shared humanity is profoundly dented whenever human rights are trampled underfoot.” His friend’s confidence in taking such positions, he added, came from his “having satisfied very young all the ritualistic requirements of French society.” Getting back into the car, we received news that one of the major credit agencies was lowering the credit rating of Russian government bonds to a status one level above junk. BHL was thrilled: “Moody’s is a more efficient weapon than NATO! Fitch and Moody’s might now be the greatest guarantors of Europe’s honor.”
Our next stop was the campus of Dhaka University, where we would be joining the French ambassador at the inauguration of a newly opened Malraux Garden—the sort of assignment that is usually entrusted to a traveling cultural or foreign minister. Standing in front of a plaque along with the university rector and a sleepy looking minister of the liberation war affairs, BHL delivered some extemporaneous exhortations to the youth of Bangladesh. This time the tone was closer to peppy than grandiloquent. He concluded by calling for an “enlightened Islam, an Islam that will advocate law and measure, an Islam tolerant, moderate, and respectful of others—of minorities in particular.” It would be the same message that he would deliver in the more complex form of a policy initiative at his next meeting, with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of the martyred Mujibur Rahman. He pronounced her to be “a very great lady.”
On this occasion, BHL had two big ideas. First, the Bangladeshis, with their mild and ecumenical temperament and history of tolerance, should stand up and declare themselves leaders of a progressive and moderate Islam. Second, they ought to begin filling the gap of historical memory and salving the wounds of the genocide that had never been properly dealt with after the end of the war. They should, he suggested, open a Bengali version of Yad Vashem. (The Bangladeshi national museum already relates the story of the civil war genocide using the tropes of the Holocaust and compares the Bengalis to the Jews, something that is difficult to imagine in almost any other Muslim country.)
Just then, I realized that alongside his being an impeccable Frenchman, an unapologetic Jew, and an unabashed bon vivant, BHL also holds on to a deep core of Arab cultural structures. The majority of his life’s political commitments, certainly the most passionate ones, from Afghanistan to Libya and Pakistan to Bangladesh, have been in Muslim countries. He was possibly the greatest champion of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Muslims and their President Alija Izetbegović inside the European Union, while his peers defended the Albanians or the Croats. He speaks about bringing together the sons of Abraham, and during the Libyan invasion he went around making sure the rebels knew he was Jewish. He is comfortable in the Muslim world, and in the east generally, in a way that most European intellectuals who talk about it, or plot to intervene in it, or make excuses for it, are not.
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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