Bernard-Henri Lévy: ‘I don’t care much about my image’

Bernard-Henri Lévy, philosopher, film-maker, action man, saviour of Libya, scourge of pithiness, peripatetic paramour and shirt-button revisionist, is afraid of paintings. “They look at me more than I look at them,” he tells me one warm June evening on the botanical terrace of Paris’s Hotel Raphael. “I live under their shadow, their glory, their light and their spell.” I know the feeling. A few hours with France’s most public of public intellectuals can feel like staring at a work of art. But what is it trying to say?

Les Aventures de la Vérité, the first exhibition curated by Lévy, 64, charts the relationship between art and philosophy since the dawn of western thought. It opens at the Fondation Maeght, a museum in Saint-Paul de Vence in the south of France, at the end of June. It is a different project from those that have made BHL, as the French call him, a household name. His last venture saw him drop into Benghazi, meet the rebels and call his “buddy” Nicolas Sarkozy to request intervention. An art exhibition seems a dull choice.

“Why did I choose? Did I choose?” he asks, moulding and sculpting the question. I wait, keen not to peer too intently at his bespoke get-up of dark suit and white shirt. His right hand flits from crotch, to silver hair, to a partially exposed chest, the brown of thwacked leather. When a thought is located, perhaps near the nipple, the fingers emerge. “It was an old, old, old dream,” he says, gesticulating. Now it is realised for all to enjoy the journey, in seven “stations” (yes, like the cross) of art, from a mere shadow on Plato’s cave to the postmodern splash of Marcel Duchamp’s lavatory.

Lévy’s “rendezvous with the question of art” is about who is in control of the cultural debate. From ancient Greece through the Renaissance, the image was the servant of the idea. Then came philosophers who believed that art alone can give glimpses of truth. (It is this power that makes Lévy feel “shy” around masterpieces.) It has been knockabout stuff ever since. The huge sums of money in art have not resolved the fundamental tension, explains the millionaire heir of a lumber fortune. “Damien Hirst, I don’t know him. And I did not try to know him. There might be a reason for that.”

The question of whether philosophy or image has triumphed is also an apt one when it comes to Lévy himself. Few people doubt his smarts or his bravery. He has written dozens of books and thousands of columns. His La Barbarie à Visage Humain (1977), published to acclaim when he was 28, was a fraternal attack on the Marxism of the French left. An account of the murder of the journalist Daniel Pearl was widely heralded. He has been an unremitting supporter of military action against totalitarian regimes in Bosnia, Darfur, Libya and, most recently, Syria. This is no flâneur.

Nevertheless, Lévy has been criticised for vanity and a lack of rigour. There is the dandyism, the playboy lifestyle and the third wife, actress Arielle Dombasle, whose waist is regularly (and I presume unofficially) referred to as the smallest in Paris. (He has two children, a daughter from his first marriage and a son from his second.) Then there is the merry-go-round of television appearances and acts of war-zone showmanship. And then there is the charge that his work is just not very good. In a review of American Vertigo (2006) in The New York Times Book Review, Garrison Keillor wrote for many when he said it was a “sort of book” that had the “grandiosity of a college sophomore”, and that it was “short on facts” but “long on conclusions”.

“The clothes are precise but are his ideas?”, asked one French critic. Perry Anderson, the British historian, has written that Lévy is a “crass booby” and a “grotesque” indictment of the French intellectual. Even his allies suggest that he puts style before substance; BHL before Professor Lévy. Marianne Pearl, Daniel’s widow, described Lévy as “a man whose egoism destroys his intelligence”. Christopher Hitchens, the late journalist and author, defended his friend against “nativist bloviation” from the likes of Keillor but took on the Frenchman’s lack of precision. Not for nothing has an apocryphal aphorism been ascribed to Lévy – “God is dead, but my hair is beautiful.”

So does Lévy still think of himself as a philosopher? A sigh and a sniff later: “A philosopher? I do philosophy? I read philosophy. I spend time with philosophy. Am I a philosopher? I don’t know.” To put it an Anglo-Saxon way, then, where is the beef? “The beef is in the books, my dear,” he says in a tone between endearing and threatening. Lévy speaks excellent English but the vowels are all French, giving his voice a bouncy stochastic sound. “I don’t pay too much attention to the criticism.

“The only time I wrote about [the criticism] was to say I did not care very much.” This was in Public Enemies (2008), his correspondence with novelist Michel Houellebecq. In fact, there is more to Lévy’s recollection. “It’s not because I have a shatterproof, armour-plated ego … but because I get something out of it,” he wrote. Tantalisingly, he suggests that it is to cover up the “deep self” underneath the public image.

Isn’t the perception of not caring about criticism part of the image of the defiant philosopher? “I don’t think I care much about my image, any more than Martin Amis or Julian Barnes.” I try to move on but he asks for specifics about what “does this criticism in England say?” In Public Enemies it is noted that Lévy Googles himself. Later, he gives me an advance copy of Le Point, a magazine which features a glowing article about the exhibition.

“The only thing I can say is that I define my own agenda.” The implication is that others do not and this is a source of jealousy and attacks. “I act as a free man.” Having a fortune helps, I suggest. “Of course, to have money makes things easier.” But Lévy suggests that his critics’ envy is also down to the fact that he lives the way a public intellectual should. “What is the opposite of what we are describing? The opposite is the intellectual that is the voice of the prince or the voice of the people or the voice of the trend, or the voice of the mob.” He creates his own mandate – “I listen to nobody.”

Nicolas Sarkozy, Libyan prime minister Mahmoud Jibril, Lévy and David Cameron, Tripoli, 2011

Unlike Lévy, his home country is suffering from a crisis of confidence. On the evening of our interview, reports surface that France will block transatlantic free trade talks unless its “cultural exceptionalism” is taken into account. Last month, Arnaud Montebourg, industry minister, vetoed Yahoo’s proposed takeover of Dailymotion, a French video site. Aurélie Filippetti, the culture minister, has called Amazon a “destroyer of bookshops”. She supports a tax on smartphones and other measures to ward off the allegedly pernicious influence of a digital, English-language threat.

Lévy takes a different view. “French culture is better protected by the energy and audacity of the writers and the moviemakers than by laws and formal protections.” He is very attached to the French language, of course, but “when a writer needs state protection it is a bad sign”. Efforts to stem the digital tide are also misguided, he says. The veto of Yahoo was “crazy”. YouTube has plenty of French videos, he notes.

This liberal outlook, as well as a close personal friendship that strengthened because of Libya, led Lévy to flirt with the idea of supporting Sarkozy in the last election. But he remained with his “family” on the left and voted for François Hollande. A year into his presidency, however, Lévy is not so sure about the Socialist incumbent.

“He lacks something … he does not create confidence.” The impish, hyperactive Sarkozy had that something. Lévy cites psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s notion of le sujet supposé savoir (“the subject supposed to know”). For Lacan, the idea was that the psychoanalyst was to instinctively and fully understand the analysand. But Hollande doesn’t really understand French society – “le savoir government, savoir decision, savoir the crowd”.

Lévy, a student protester in the late 1960s, predicts more trouble on France’s streets, which recently saw hundreds of thousands of people campaigning against gay marriage. “There is an absence of trust, of confidence in politics that has not happened in France since the 1930s.” Today, it is “not just the despair of the have-nots but the despair of the hope-nots”. He warns that when democracy no longer presents a viable future “there will be some revolutions, or at least some riots”.

France’s elite is seen as the source of the lack of trust, according to several polls. Corruption scandals are splashed across the press. Paris society has a touch of decadence. “The elites did not behave well.” But, says Lévy, “It is not only the fault of the high, it is also the fault of the low,” arms sweeping out towards the twilight grey of Paris from our table on the seventh floor of the five-star hotel.

Often Lévy’s freewheeling thoughts seem unconnected and unfinished. But on France he mixes esoteric musings with occasional insight. In many ways his views, as in other areas, are much closer to the British liberal than his critics may want to admit. “I don’t like revolution myself. I am not a conservative. I am a moderate,” he insists.

The right will benefit from the new populism, Lévy suggests. “The extreme form of populism being fascism.” He forecasts an alliance between Marine Le Pen’s extreme rightwing Front National and the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, the mainstream conservative party. “The right will break into two. This is what Sarkozy believes.” Will he run again for president? “Perhaps. It might be the return of the Count of Monte Cristo.”

Can Hollande do anything in response to the crisis? “He is not a bad president at all. Your country is unfair on him.” The problem is a deep-rooted one. “The population has the feeling that the political class is so corrupted, so cynical, so believing in nothing, that it cannot be better.” Unlike other rich Frenchmen such as Gérard Depardieu and Bernard Arnault, chief executive of LVMH, he supports Hollande’s steep tax rates on high earners. “I am not against. I am one of those touched by it, by this new … ” A 75 per cent income tax, I interrupt. “Whatever it is. But he is right. I don’t go to live in England. I don’t consider Belgium.”

with wife Arielle Dombasle

I ask Lévy whether he feels part of the elite. All the trappings are there – the money, the profile, an education at the Ecole Normale Supérieure and an apartment on Boulevard Saint Germain – but he keeps a certain distance. He has turned down some of the honours of the French government. His wealth is part of the reason, he suggests. He does not need patronage. I also wonder whether being born a Jew in Algeria has something to do with it. His father André came from a poor family, fought on the Republican side in the Spanish civil war and then with the Free French, before founding Becob, the lumber company. “Algeria, I don’t think so.”

He considers whether his Jewish background made him more likely to be internationalist. “But I know so many Jews who are crazy with the national flag, ‘La Marseillaise’, and so on.” No, he insists. “It is my character, my philosophy, which gave me this feeling of non-belonging.” He is a patriot but not a nationalist. “I am proud of my culture. I am proud of my language. I’m not proud of my passport.”

Lévy believes that nationalism is threatening the future of Europe. “Today, the European dream is close to dead,” he says. “Europe has never been in such bad shape,” he adds, perhaps with a touch of overstatement. “When people say that young people are spontaneously European – bullshit!”, the table taking the force of Lévy’s fist.

Only a more federal Europe can save the euro and transcend the rise of nationalism, Lévy argues. He points out that political integration was essential for the success of the US dollar. A collapse of the euro would be a “cataclysm”. But, I say, doesn’t this mean Angela Merkel needs to be both Alexander Hamilton, who founded a strong central US Treasury, and Abraham Lincoln, who united the country? “Exactly, and if she is not able, then Hamilton and Lincoln will have to appear.”

For this to happen Germany will have to be convinced that the costs it is incurring are repaid in structural reforms and greater political union. Lévy seems confident that this will be the case. “When Germany wanted to unify itself it was a high cost, it took a long time.” But it did so for the good of Europe. “I’m not an economist,” he points out, “but I’m sure there are different ways to share the cost.”

The problem, I suggest, is that in saving the euro, Europe may have to jeopardise democracy. The nationalism Lévy worries about is on the rise, from the United Kingdom Independence party (Ukip) to more extreme elements in France and Greece.

In American Vertigo, Lévy wrote that while he detests anti-Americanism, he prefers Europe, since it is “a machine for creating peace and democracy”. Does he still believe that? Yes, but he thinks that a “huge mistake” was made when the countries of eastern Europe joined an “enlarged” European Union. “The very word ‘enlargement’ is an insult. These countries are at the heart of Europe. You should say ‘reunification.’” Such mistakes have diluted the idea that there is a common conception of Europe that transcends national interests.

“When I was a student in May ’67, ’68, ’69, there were students in the streets screaming, ‘We are all German Jews.’” There was “a feeling of non-belongingness” – in the sense that national borders did not matter; a shared human bond was all-important. Here is where Lévy’s philosophy and image seem to come together, in this idea of “non-belongingness”. He wants to be able to define his own path. And he wants others to be able to do so too, unencumbered by anything but “the motto of the French Revolution – liberté, égalité, fraternité”.

A problem with this idea, I suggest, is that the internationalist ideas that he once protested for have now found themselves on a mountaintop in Davos. The French left has forsaken them. Today, the language of common interests and of no borders is one used by free-market liberals and the global elite. “I’m sure you’re right. It is a pity that this language is only used by these people.” Some of them are “great” (and his friends), he clarifies. “George Soros was a disgusting bastard in part of his life and did huge good for humanity in another.”

As the sun goes down, it strikes me that Lévy is like Tony Blair. They share the same views on liberal interventionism, an enthusiasm for both Europe and America, and a tolerance of Israel and moderate Islam. Like Blair, he is still notionally of the left but embraces the language (and lifestyle) of global liberalism. They also share a sense of personal mission, and of being able to define their own destiny. The idea of not wanting to belong too much evokes images of the globetrotting Blair, unloved by Labour and his country. They are both criticised and mocked but seem impervious to reflecting on it too deeply. “Why not?” he jokes, when I suggest the comparison. “Maybe, I don’t know him well enough.” Lévy’s smile widens. He even closes a shirt button.

The subject seems to know.

John McDermott is the FT’s executive comment editor. ‘Les Aventures de la Vérité’, Fondation Maeght, St-Paul de Vence, June 29-November 11

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