Friday, November 5, 2010

Bernard-Henri Lévy: November 5, 1948

Bernard-Henri Lévy was born on November 5, 1948. A French Public Intellectual he appears on ultra-intellectual French TV shows and is so well known he’s just called BHL. He doesn't seem to make it into internationally compiled lists of everyone's favorite public intellectual -- at best this is because he is a kind of a buffoon.

French worship of their BHL hasn’t affected American indifference to him. From Publisher’s Weekly review of his book (now out of print) Who Killed Daniel Pearl?
“The author's moments of gonzo journalism are thrilling, as when he penetrates a forbidden madrasa (seminary) by posing as ‘a special representative of the French president.’ The earlier passages of the book, which take some literary license in describing what Pearl must have felt, is alone worth the price of admission. This book is a controversial bestseller in France, where Levy has long been a leading philosopher and writer. Here, interest in Pearl and the larger issues makes this both fascinating and essential, even if you don't quite buy it all, and a credit to the investigative reporter whose work it seeks to honor.”
So I'd say that most Americans who have heard of him at all don't have much respect for his French pretensions.

I chose to celebrate Lévy's birthday because I was reminded of him when I recently read two Jewish-themed novels about public intellectuals: one British and one American. First is the character Finkler in Harold Jacobson’s The Finkler Question. Finkler has a lot in common with Lévy. Finkler's public reputation was built on a large collection of successful, and pretentious, self-help/philosophy books beginning with The Existentialist in the Kitchen and The Little Book of Household Stoicism. His work-in-progress was The Glass Half Empty: Schopenhauer for Teen Binge Drinkers. BHL's books seem as ridiculous as these made-up titles. Many social phenomena, especially Jewish ones, were parodied in Finkler. The contradictions of Finkler's status as a public intellectual who leads Jewish anti-Zionists and self haters plays a big role in the book.

The second fictional public intellectual who ponders his Judaism is the character Cass Seltzer in Rebecca Goldstein’s 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. Seltzer is a more sympathetic character, but in his role as a public intellectual he also finds quite a bit of contradiction with his personal wish to be taken seriously as a philosopher and philosophy professor. The issues I have with the hollowness of Lévy and his lack of any academic stature whatsoever are more thoughtfully explored in Goldstein's book.

Lévy in sum isn't anywhere near as interesting than these fictitious public intellectuals. For example, Lévy's book American Vertigo described a trip he made to the United States with a translator to interpret our difficult and to-him-unknown language and a chauffer because he can't drive a car. Total immersion, no? I can't tell you how banal and without insight I found this work. (I read the pre-book -publication version in the Atlantic which was one of the reasons I didn't resubscribe to it.) His reputation is described thus:
"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, he is the icon of a media-driven society in which simple appearance weighs more than the substance of things. BHL is thus first and foremost a great communicator, the PR man of the only product he really knows how to sell: himself." From In These Times "The Lies of BHL."

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