Published November 21, 2008
“people are always saying that we must remain faithful to tradition, to family, to our class, to our ideas. Of course not! that would be equivalent to zero brain activity. if you really want to think . . . you must turn your back on cliches.”Bernard-Henri Levy
In an ideal world, the greatest thinkers would be treated like celebrities. In reality, very few intellectuals ever manage that kind of popular appeal (and, ironically, the ones who do take a lot of heat for it). French philosopher, writer, journalist, filmmaker, and activist Bernard-Henri Lévy, the 60-year-old prophet of the Left, may come from money, be married to a beautiful actress (Arielle Dombasle), and show up at rather chic events sprinkled around the world, but that doesn’t mean BHL (as he’s often called) is afraid of speaking up, speaking out, and speaking against. He has spoken vehemently against the genocide in Darfur; he has followed slain journalist Daniel Pearl’s footsteps through Pakistan; and, in his recently translated book Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism (Random House), he calls the bluff of a liberal Left that has confused-among other things-equanimity with blind acceptance. Olivier Zahm catches up with BHL to discuss why America isn’t so bad after all, what it really means to be radical, and how Lévy got to his own wedding with a little airlift out of a war zone from the French president.
OLIVIER ZAHM: You are one of the most well-known figures on the intellectual scene, both in and outside France. Is that an asset or a liability?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY: An asset. When you believe in what you are doing, when you are seeking justice for the killing of Daniel Pearl, when you want to alert public opinion to the plight of the massacred people of Darfur, or in the recently martyred [former Soviet republic] Georgia, it makes more sense to use the media than to work in silence.
OZ: Does the fact that you found success so quickly and that you inspire so much controversy somewhat diminish you in the intellectual world?
BHL: Yes, of course! Success is frowned upon in France. In America it is a virtue. In Paris, success is suspect, even abhorrent. From the age of 30 on I had the entire French intellectual class against me.
OZ: Too much visibility?
BHL: Exactly. France is a country where thinking is supposed to be furtive, invisible, almost clandestine. France is a country of cliques and sects.
OZ: These days, you can be found more in New York. To what do you attribute this relatively rare success for a French intellectual in the United States?
BHL: I don’t know. Perhaps the fact that I really like the country, its relationship to space and time, its interest in mobility, its cosmopolitanism.
OZ: Are you saying that America could be the country that might suit the wandering philosopher-reporter that you are, incapable of settling down in one place?
BHL: You could say that. This love of contradiction, of rootlessness, of infidelity-if there is one place where all of that makes sense, it’s in America. Do you know the Sartrian definition for the words bourgeois and salaud [bastard]? For Sartre they meant “someone who is fixed in place”-who is stuck, who believes he is there because of some natural, fateful decree, who does not doubt his ontological legitimacy for one second. Well, in America, it’s the opposite. This is a country where no one is ever in his place.
OZ: Perhaps what annoys us in France is more appreciated in the United States: a high-ranking intellectual living a glamorous life—a wife who is an actress, five-star hotels, constant traveling, a personal fortune, etc.
BHL: Perhaps. It’s true that in France there is always this ridiculous complex about money. Money is cursed, shameful, money disqualifies you . . . In America, even though it is a Protestant country, it’s the opposite.
OZ: In France they call you anti-anti-American.
BHL: You can think what you like about America. You can be horrified by the state of the prisons, the misery in certain neighborhoods of its cities, or their level of poverty. Anti-Americanism, by which I mean a hatred for America as such-its transformation into a metaphysical category, which incarnates all the evil in the world-is one of fascism’s favorite themes. Look at [writer and political theorist] Charles Maurras in France. [The philosopher] Heidegger in Germany. The radical Islamists of today!
OZ: Let’s talk about your personal life. How do you manage to combine your many lives—the dangerous life of the adventurer and then, the other side, the privileged life of hotels and villas? Is there a schizophrenic side to your personality?
BHL: Probably. And why not? Why should an intellectual have to renounce the pleasures of life? I am not a hermit. I am a man of flesh and blood. In fact, if you look at my name in French, that schizophrenia, that aspiration to several lives is contained in my name. Lévy is also les vies [“the lives”].
OZ: But you go from one extreme to the other, sometimes overnight . . .
BHL: I do not deny that it sometimes is a dizzying experience. In Bosnia it lasted four years. And each time I emerged from that hell—my head full of unspeakable images, unforgettable scenes, my friends wounded or dead—I went back to my life of privilege with enormous guilt, a feeling of everlasting debt and redoubled rage. There’s a story—I don’t know if I should tell you.
BHL: It was June of 1993. I was getting married in Saint-Paul de Vence, at the enchanting La Colombe d’Or [hotel]. And a few weeks before that I was in Sarajevo. As luck would have it, at the very moment I thought about going back to France, the Serbs closed the airport, which was the only minuscule cordon linking Sarajevo to the outside world. It was the 12th, the 13th, the 14th . . . and finally it was the day before the 19th, the day I was supposed to get married. I realized with horror that I was going to be stuck in this city of nightmares. Guess who saved me? [Then French president] François Mitterrand. We had quarreled over Bosnia, in fact, but I decided I had no other choice. I called him to ask him in the name of our friendship to help me find a solution. And he did.
BHL: An exceptional humanitarian flight was arranged—I do not know how-on the morning of the 18th, which somehow was authorized to take off, and landed in Toulon [France].
OZ: Is it true you sleep only four hours a night?
BHL: Yes. I work even when I am on vacation. You know that line by Stéphane Mallarmé, “All earthly existence must ultimately be contained in a book”? I am the kind of person who finds life interesting only if it is translated into writing, if it is parsed into words.
OZ: You had the perspective of being a student in the early ’70s, when philosophy was being revitalized, especially in France.
BHL: Yes, I was there through the end of that moment—with Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, Jacques Lacan, the deconstructionist movement—in which France took over from Germany the role of the authority on absolute knowledge. Moments like those were rare and inspiring, especially when one was young and in the middle of it all.
OZ: You were a brilliant student, attracting a great deal of attention from the professors. Yet while still very young you did not choose to go the university route, you deserted . . .
BHL: I did not desert, I stepped slightly to the side. People always think that loyalty is laudable. People are always saying that we must remain faithful to tradition, to family, to our class, to our ideas. Of course not! That would be equivalent to zero brain activity. If you really want to think, to seek truth, to advance intellectually, you must turn your back on clichés, on preconceived ideas—even those belonging to your spiritual family. For an intellectual, his true duty is not to fidelity, but to infidelity.
OZ: You went to the most dangerous and evolving conflict zones in Afghanistan and Bangladesh, then in Bosnia and the different war zones of Africa. Why?
BHL: Because of my instinctive revolt against suffering, despair, and injustice. Because of my father’s legacy, I think: When my father was 18, he went to Spain to join the International Brigades against fascism.
OZ: What are the shameful reasons?
BHL: My love of adventure. A desire to do things that other intellectuals don’t do.
OZ: Wasn’t it somewhat suicidal to follow in the footsteps of Daniel Pearl, for example? I have the feeling you didn’t take very many precautions.
BHL: On the contrary, I think it is a duty-to oneself as well as to others—to take precautions when you do something like that. I was able to undertake that investigation in Pakistan only because I hid its true objective, disregarding the codes of ethics so dear to American journalists. The day the Pakistanis understood what I was really doing there, I stopped.
OZ: It seems you want to be an eyewitness to the dramas of today’s chaos, its unending barbarism.
BHL: What is the use of thinking if it is not to see what the world is trying so hard to hide from you?
OZ: What’s an example of that?
BHL: What I call the forgotten wars, wars in which people die in bulk, en masse, indifferently. The inequality between men who have the right to their own deaths and those who do not, between those who have the right to a burial and those who die without their deaths even being recorded! It is the most scandalous of inequities! I say this to my friends who are fighting for the Palestinian cause. Each time a Palestinian or an Israeli dies, it is terrible. But they have the right to have a funeral, to be buried, to have a place in the memory of the survivors. And then you have these other places—Darfur, Rwanda, even Colombia—where the dead have no faces and literally cannot be counted. Theirs are minuscule lives moving toward imperceptible deaths. For me, it is the essence of tragedy.
OZ: You investigate from the side of the victim, but what strikes me as unique is that you are also willing to meet with the terrorists. Even though, these days, terrorists do not have the right to speak out, much less to speak—they are considered to be outside the world of politics, as outlaws.
BHL: I also think they are outlaws, that they have no legitimacy. But at the same time, the terrorists exist, and I think we must speak to them, not to establish a dialogue-since for serious terrorists that is unfortunately out of the question—but to learn how their brains work, to be better able to fight them. There is, if you don’t mind, a true weakness in American thought today: their incapacity to be interested in the intelligence of evil.
OZ: Do you consider your main subject to be evil?
BHL: Perhaps, yes. For me it is about going to see from up close how fascism works-how a brute like [Russian Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin thinks when he decides, almost gratuitously, to destroy the city of Gori, in Georgia. To go inside the head of not only Daniel Pearl but also the other “hero” of that book, Omar Sheikh, this British citizen who studied at the best schools and somehow became this abject criminal.
OZ: What is the role of the intellectual today?
BHL: There are two roles. The first is to give a face and a name to the victims of torture, especially when they are anonymous. But it is also about taking that other trip, the longest and craziest, which brings me into the brains of the butchers.
OZ: Understanding the terrorist’s reasons does not justify the barbarism of his actions, but it brings a humanity to it, and that’s not how democratic states like to see terrorists.
BHL: Again, they are wrong. This is something that drives me to despair when I am speaking to an American conservative. I always say to myself, “My poor friend, you cannot win against people you do not even recognize as humans. They will fuck you!”
OZ: You’re never afraid. You go straight to your adversary and you speak to him.
BHL: I fight him most of all. I don’t really believe in dialogue; I am too Nietzschean for that. We need to have a warrior conception of philosophy.
OZ: In your latest book you attack the Left, calling it a “great backward-fallen corpse.” Why go after them?
BHL: Because the Left is my family. And it is threatened by terrible demons, like differentialism.
OZ: What do you mean by “differentialist Left”?
BHL: People who have learned nothing about tolerance. Or justice. People who, hiding behind a backward sense of tolerance and justice, explain to us that we must accept all the actions of all civilizations, including the stoning of adulterous wives or the mutilation of little girls.
OZ: Do you have another example?
BHL: Darfur. You have in the United States and Europe a group of progressists, who, in the name of our anticolonialist legacy, in the name of the rule that a recently decolonized state cannot be a criminal one, are refusing to condemn Sudan.
OZ: I have the impression, listening to you, that to be a Leftist today is to be interested in what happens far away-not so much the problems that affect us, like the price of a barrel of oil, our purchasing power, or security . . .
BHL: Being interested in security and purchasing power-there are a lot of people doing that and doing it very well—but speaking about what is happening right now in Sri Lanka or seeing the Colombian Nazis in their lair, no one’s lining up to do that. What am I to do? I am 60, and I am as much an internationalist as when I was younger, when I was a Marxist-Leninist.
OZ: You were a Marxist-Leninist?
BHL: Yes, of course. And internationalism is one of the rare pieces of that heritage to which I remain loyal. That is [Barack] Obama’s strength. A politician has finally understood that politics is not only about the closing of a mine in Ohio-it is also about the will to reach out, to embrace the world of today’s young Americans. That way, young Americans may eventually reconcile with politics.