Why is Bernard-Henri Lévy a public intellectual?

BHL at the Carlyle Hotel in New York.
BHL at the Carlyle Hotel in New York.
Image: Olivia Goldhill for Quartz
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Before I picked up Bernard-Henri Lévy’s latest book, The Empire and the Five Kings, all I knew of him is that he’s a “public intellectual.” This phrase is used in nearly every description of Lévy (or BHL as he’s often called) and, along with Slavoj Žižek and Alain de Botton, he’s one of a handful of especially prominent public intellectuals in Europe. BHL’s that rare breed of thinker who is au fait with academic concepts, read by a popular audience, and can shape media conversations with just a few sentences of commentary.

Public intellectuals are often subject to derision from academic philosophers, who tend to view public engagement as a sign of lack of rigor, and so I wasn’t necessarily expecting traditional philosophy from Lévy’s book. But I didn’t expect to find such thoughtlessly pretentious writing.

The Empire and the Five Kings chronicles the decline of US influence abroad, and argues that five powers—China, Russia, Iran, Turkey and Sunni radical Islamism—are poised to rise in its place. Lévy spends most of the book outlining the threat to global order and vulnerable populations, such as the Kurds and the Uighurs, posed by these five powers, only to conclude by admitting that, in reality, the five kings have “major handicaps” in achieving global influence. In a few brief paragraphs, he explains that they’re economically and politically weak, and ill-suited to global rule. “I am reassured by the idea that these dashers of hopes, these sowers of death, have less chance than they think to generate a narrative capable of competing with that of the heirs of Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem,” he writes. The conclusion entirely undermines the 250 or so pages that came before it.

For evidence of Lévy’s shallow thinking, look no further than his brief discussion of the United States’ ills as an empire. In one short paragraph, he acknowledges the “extermination of the American Indian” but says this has “been duly mourned.” And he devotes just a single sentence to slavery: “Likewise, there is the bloody shadow cast for so long by the smug practice of slavery—but then came Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and Barack Obama.” That’s it: The horrors of slavery answered with one legal act and three prominent African Americans.

Over the course of the book, any insight or analysis is obscured by florid jargon or lazy attempts to pack a poetic punch. A segue into the ills of social media, for example, includes the claim that “The banquet has become a farce, a motley bazaar where it is forbidden, under penalty of being hauled before the international court of anti-discriminatory struggle, to defame the Harlequin’s coat of one’s neighbor.” The “banquet,” in BHL’s analysis, is the banquet of “truth” served up by social media; the “Harlequin’s coat” refers to the idea that each of us stitched together a “patchwork of beliefs and certitudes from bloody shards that soon began to rot and stink.” BHL seems to be presenting the unoriginal analysis that social media has led people to develop very fixed opinions that fall in line with their social circle, and that critiquing these views can quickly lead to charges of being offensive. Not only is this interpretation simple, but in this case, it’s obscured by empty, elaborate language.

Philosophers are certainly prominently featured in BHL’s book—he references Heidegger, Hegel, Nietzsche, Plato, and Bentham, among others—but stops short of any meaningful exploration of their ideas. Lévy reminisces about an afternoon in a cafe with the philosopher Jean Hyppolite who was “endeavoring, text in hand, to tell us the story of America according to Hegel, while miming…the thesis, antithesis, and synthesis of Hegel’s and Marx’s dialectics.” He does not, however, bother to discuss details of the thesis/antithesis/synthesis structure of Hegelian and Marxian dialectics. Like many of BHL’s philosophical references, the line reads as though he’s showing off his own knowledge of these buzzwords, rather than sincerely engaging with the concepts.

Elsewhere, BHL recounts how his friend, businessman Jean-Baptiste Descroix-Vernier highlighted the risks of data, revealing people’s “origins, their beliefs, their inclinations” from internet browsing, and adds: “He had put his finger on the triple effect—hedonist, economic, and possibly tyrannical—that Foucault had anticipated in his theory of biopowers but did not live long enough to see put into practice. (The ‘encroachment of death,’ in Nietzschean terms, prevented Foucault from becoming old enough to savor his bitter victory.)” This sentence is not part of a broader discussion of Foucault’s or Nietzsche’s ideas only, again, a shallow reference to their existence.

I’m hardly the first to note that BHL is insufferable. It turns out the thinker is as renowned for his irritating grandiosity as for his public intellectual status. “Pomposity and self-promotion are his vices,” wrote Paul Berman in the New Yorker in 1995, adding: “[H]e ascended into the Parisian heavens of television celebrity and became famous for being smart—or was it for being famous?” A New York Times review of a book of letters Lévy co-authored with French author Michel Houellebecq said that the writing could have been “a brilliant satire on the vanity of writers.” But, alas, wrote Ian Buruma for the Times, it’s “all in deadly earnest.”

How did a man so often described as inane come to be regarded as a public intellectual? BHL first became famous in 1977 when he published La Barbarie à visage humain (Barbarism with a Human Face), which critiqued both far-right and far-left politics. The book quickly sold more than 100,000 copies, and is largely credited with pushing the left in France to be more critical of communist principles.

Lévy became known as the founder of the “New Philosophers,” a circle of male thinkers including André Glucksman, Alain Finkielkraut, and Pascal Bruckner, who were predominantly disavowed former Marxists, eager to critique the Soviet Union. France has a long history of philosophical “schools”; the most famous perhaps is the Jean-Paul Sartre school of existentialism. But, though the self-described “New Philosophers” modelled themselves in this vein, they were critiqued as vacuous. French philosopher Gilles Deleuze accused the New Philosophers of creating “philosophical marketing,” rather than a genuine school of thought.

Many academics and journalists are capable of writing popular books about politics. What sets BHL apart is his ability to court public attention. He inherited both immense wealth (his father financed a newspaper BHL founded, L’Imprévu; it lasted just 11 issues) and connections (his father was close friends with billionaire François Pinault, for example). He’s since made his own connections with politicians and film producers alike. He’s clearly adept at self-promotion and, as with so many famous and controversial men, he delights in creating news by making derogatory comments about women. BHL has stridently defended the French-Polish film director Roman Polanski who was convicted of rape, saying “there are degrees in the scale of crimes,” as well as Dominique Strauss Kahn, the former French director of the International Monetary Fund who was accused of sexual assault, saying the women who accused him sensed a “global opportunity”. It would certainly be appealing, for anyone who holds similarly misogynistic views, to hear them echoed by a man who claims to be an intellectual.

When we met in New York in February, I found BHL less irritating in person than he is in writing. He still showed signs of vanity: He wore his trademark white shirt with the top half unbuttoned, carefully presented his best angles for photographs, and looked into the distance throughout our conversation, as though to a distant crowd. But he’s less prone to lengthy pontifications while speaking. His commentary was far from profound, but came across more bland than pretentious.

For example, I asked him to clarify why he thought China, Russia, Iran, Turkey and radical Sunni Islamism were the nations currently most intent in gaining power—what evidence was he basing his theories on? “It’s what I saw when I was on the battlefield in Kurdistan,” he said, referring to the 2017 referendum for independence. “This is the place where I had the clear vision of this situation, when I saw my beloved French Kurds abandoned by America and delivered to our common enemies—”. Here he paused, and snapped his fingers in front of his face. “I had the evidence of the new geopolitical situation.” It seemed true to him, so why bother presenting evidence to us?

Throughout our conversation, BHL kept his mobile phone on the table, and occasionally picked up his phone and pressed a few buttons before putting it back down. He pocketed it only when he started to critique public infatuation with social media. “I cannot understand how people can mistrust Le Monde or France Television and trust Facebook,” he said. “I would do the opposite. But at least, I would ask my fellow citizen to share the mistrust.”

While Lévy’s ideas are unremarkable, his ability to claim public attention is striking. His lengthy career is a reminder that cultivating a controversial persona to build fame and fortune is hardly a technique invented by reality TV or social media. At this point, barring some unforeseen controversy, there’s little chance BHL will lose his role as as a preeminent public intellectual. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from him in a different way: Lévy is a man immersed in the impersonation of intellect, and a reminder that we should choose our public intellectuals based on their ideas, rather than their performance.