Is Bernard-Henri Lévy a hero, an egocentric or both? – The Front

One of the sweetest privileges of living in the United States of America is the ability to go decades without knowing what a “Bernard-Henri Lévy” is. My own honeymoon of ignorance ended a few years ago, when Roman Polanski’s latest storm swept the internet and I learned that someone with the initials BHL had taken up the cause of the old rapist. children.

Forgetting in my nausea that France has different rules for celebrity three-letter acronyms, I jumped to the conclusion that this guy must be a politician or an actor. Shortly after, when I read that he had defended another rapist, Dominique Strauss-Kahn (i.e. DSK), I learned that he was a philosopher, never particularly liked but d somehow impossible to eliminate – an NPH or JGL of the French intelligentsia, if you will.

BHL is so easy to dislike that after a while you may begin to feel an involuntary twinge of affection, much like victims of sensory deprivation begin to hallucinate strange sounds and sights to fill the void. He sometimes seems to get involved in ennobling causes just for the purpose of making himself dastardly once again.

In 1993, he made a high-profile visit to Bosnia to raise awareness about ethnic cleansing. The Serbian fire made it almost impossible to leave the country, which created an international crisis: BHL had to travel to the south of France to marry his fiancée, film star Arielle Dombasle. The crisis was averted when he succeeded in asking the French president to send a jet plane. “What was I supposed to do?” Not get married? he said later. “I did so much for the French government, on behalf of the French government, that it was really the least they could do to help me fly there.” The episode earned him another three-letter nickname: DHS, for “Two Hours in Sarajevo.”

BHL’s career is full of this stuff. He has a Franzenian penchant for saying the perfectly wrong thing at the wrong time. The difference is that Jonathan Franzen is worth perhaps $10 million, all self-earned, while BHL is worth somewhere around $215 million, most of it inherited from his lumber magnate father; looked a lot like Timothée Chalamet; and is still, at 73, fully capable of wearing a pristine white shirt (he also has a full head of thick, wavy hair, salt and pepper, of course he does). At this point, he’s completely immune to hate, which makes it all the more tempting to hate him, which makes it all the more scary to think he might be one of the less detestable intellectual-celebrities that France currently has.

Is it possible to love the world’s most ubiquitous Jewish intellectual as much as he loves himself?

Before being a famous intellectual, he was an ordinary intellectual – one of several dozen self-proclaimed New Philosophers. Like the French New Wave of the 1960s and the French New Extremism of the 2000s, the New Philosophers of the 1970s defined themselves primarily by what they rejected: Marxism; Maoism; Existentialism, and the other grandiose left-wing isms that they believed had paved the way for political tyranny. While BHL’s distrust of the left hasn’t changed much in the past 50 years, the left certainly has: in the 1970s, when an example was needed from the rotten fringe, the Khmer Rouge and the Soviet Union were always at your disposal. Twenty-first century skeptics had to settle for the corpse of Fidel Castro and some students.

BHL insists (with a touch of nostalgia, perhaps?) on the fact that the contemporary left appears harmless: his contempt for universals like the brotherhood of man will be the death of all of us, unless his disregard for Islamofascism gets the job done first. Today’s radicals, he argued in “Left in Dark Times” in 2008, hate US imperialism more than they love peace, hate Israel more than they love Palestine , hate racism more than they love people of color, hate oppression more than they love the oppressed, etc. The psychology is not unreasonable, however – as with so many recent liberal attacks on the left – there is a sense of a Fortune 500 company that thinks its profits are under threat from the local family store.

Because I have never met BHL and never will, I have no way of knowing for sure what he thinks of his fellow man. Judging strictly by “The Will To See,” the latest of several globe-trotting documentaries he’s made over the past decade, he loves the oppressed peoples of the world an order of magnitude less than he does. he loves the sound of his own voice.

Presented as a tour to raise awareness of the humanitarian crises of the 21st century, the film is in reality the idealized self-portrait of a man whose head is matched only by his heart, who will gladly discuss with a group of imprisoned teenagers dawn every time he has to fly to the next place. He travels to Nigeria, Kurdistan, Somalia, Bangladesh, Ukraine, Libya and Afghanistan to address soldiers, students, freedom fighters and protesters, his storytelling seeping on everything like tar. hot, his famous face turning the camera away from the unknown. The pace is so fast and the realization so boring that almost nothing remains in memory except the great philosopher himself.

Is it possible to love the world’s most ubiquitous Jewish intellectual as much as he loves himself?

“The Will To See” is so forgettable that at times I was afraid I was the problem – i.e. the reason I had trouble keeping people and places from mixing is because I’m a spoiled westerner. You can imagine my relief when I heard BHL admit, near the end of his documentary, that he, too, had trouble keeping his destinations clear: walking around Kabul, he whispers, “Sometimes I wonder if I’m really in Kabul or Karachi” – apparently the two cities have “very similar streets”.

The walk reminds BHL of its quest to find out what happened to Daniel Pearl, the American journalist who was murdered in Karachi in 2002. The product of this quest, the book “Who Killed Daniel Pearl”, speculated that Pearl was dead because he had tripped. on evidence of a link between Pakistani intelligence and Osama bin Laden. This theory was quickly torn to shreds by Pearl’s family, journalists, intelligence operatives, Pakistan historians and terrorism experts, more than a couple of whom were puzzled by the number of times BHL described the entire nation of Pakistan as “the devil’s own house”. ”

Every brave and noble thing BHL does reminds him of something brave and noble he has done before; he’s like a continental counterpart to Norman Mailer – another prolific Jewish literary celebrity who excelled at doing it all on his own (although Mailer would have imagined a more interesting comparison between Kabul and Karachi).

A belated visit to Bangladesh recalls one BHL made in 1971, when, at age 22, he joined a volunteer brigade of artists and intellectuals sworn to defend Bengal against the Pakistani army. The reunion would probably be quite touching – he hugs old friends and comrades, some of whom he hasn’t seen in half a century – if the camera weren’t rubbing our faces in the ‘WELCOME BACK’ banner bearing his name , although that’s nothing compared to the previous scene in which he explicitly compares himself to Lord Byron, who died in battle during the Greek War of Independence.

And yet: for all of his current preenings and poses and cautious frowns, BHL has truly risked his life to support Bangladeshi independence. Moreover, he risked his life instead of staying at the École Normale Supérieure, where half of his classmates applauded the Cultural Revolution and the other half regurgitated Jean-Paul Sartre – who, it turns out, also applauded the Cultural Revolution, along with the Soviet purges.

There are a lot of infuriating things about “The Will To See,” but nothing fundamentally wrong; negligent execution should not distract from the fact that other famous intellectuals could, without too much difficulty, travel to distant corners of the world and draw Western attention to the poverty and violence there. Might, but probably not anytime soon. For now, if I had to choose between an egocentric multi-millionaire and a man who supported Mao and Stalin, I would take the egoist.

Is it possible to love the world’s most ubiquitous Jewish intellectual as much as he loves himself?

“The Will To See”, directed by Bernard-Henri Lévy and Marc Roussel, was screened at the New York Jewish Film Festival.

Jackson Arn is the Forward’s contributing art critic.

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