French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy (born 1948) is one of the best known writers in contemporary France, notable for his sheer celebrity as well as for the range and depth of his writings.
Lévy has a level of public visibility perhaps unmatched by any philosopher outside of France; he is popularly known simply by his initials, BHL. Deeply concerned with political and cultural issues in most of his writings, he has rejected and challenged the extremes of both leftand right-wing philosophies, in France and around the world. Unusual for French thinkers, Lévy has been generally supportive of the United States, and several of his books, including Who Killed Daniel Pearl? and American Vertigo, have brought him a wide readership in the English-speaking world.
Born in Algeria
Bernard-Henri Lévy was born on November 5, 1948, in Beni-Saf, in what was then French-controlled Algeria. His father, André, was a member of Algeria's small French-Jewish population who saw military action both with republican forces during the Spanish Civil War and in the underground anti-Nazi resistance in Italy during World War II. After the war's end he returned to Algeria and started a lumber wholesale business called Becob, which proved spectacularly successful; the father grew up poor, but the son and his two siblings grew up wealthy. The family moved to Morocco and then, in 1954, to the Paris suburb of Neuilly, where Bernard-Henri attended the Lycée Pasteur. Quickly identified as a top student, he was placed in the special yearlong kâgne classes that identify top French students and groom them for elite university studies. As a young man he obtained a black belt in judo.
Lévy attended the Ecole Normale Supérieure, a French university known for the large number of intellectuals it has graduated. Among his teachers were Jacques Derrida and Louis Althusser, two of the most important French philosophers of the twentieth century. Althusser especially was of a Marxist orientation, and Lévy was pushed in that direction as well by the eruption of left-wing French student activism in the spring of 1968. From the start, however, he was uncomfortable with the positions of the far left. He traveled extensively during and just after his student years, visiting Mexico, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent. He received his philosophy degree from the Ecole Normal Supérieure in 1971 and was selected as part of a French government “Groupe des Experts” by Socialist party leader and future French president Franc¸ois Mitterand.
In the 1970s Lévy taught at a high school near Paris and then joined the philosophy faculty at the University of Strasbourg. He tried his hand at fiction and wrote a book about Bangladeshi nationalism. The book that put Lévy on the intellectual map was 1977's La barbarie à visage humain (Barbarism with a Human Face), in which he broke decisively with Marxist thought. Entertainingly written in a polemical style that attracted readers despite the philosophical density of the subject matter, the book sold well in the United States as well as in France, and even landed Lévy on the cover of Time magazine. In France, he became identified with a group of young thinkers, known as the New Philosophers, who rejected leftist thought.
Leftist writers attacked Lévy furiously, accusing him of being a media creation, of lacking originality, and even of being an agent of the American Central Intelligence Agency. But Communism was on the decline in France, and Lévy was ahead of the trend. His writings were treated with equal hostility by the French right wing, which Lévy placed under scrutiny in his 1981 book L'idéology franc¸aise. Lévy argued that France's rightist politics had roots in French collaboration with Nazi rule during World War II. “I put my finger into the wound, and it provoked such convulsions—it was like the Devil convulsing when faced with the truth,” he recalled to Joan Juliet Buck of Vanity Fair. Once again, Lévy proved prescient; his warnings of a resurgent extreme right in France were borne out by the electoral success of the National Front party in the 1980s and 1990s.
Supported Solidarity Labor Union
These twin controversies made Lévy irresistible to the French media, and he was a frequent guest on television talk shows. In 1981 he became a columnist for the left-leaning daily newspaper Le Matin, where he wrote essays supportive of the Solidarity labor union in Poland. Lévy married his first wife, Isabelle Doutreligne, in 1973; that marriage produced a daughter, Justine (named after the central figure in a novel by the Marquis de Sade). Lévy married Sylvie Bouscasse in 1980, and the two had a son, Antonin-Balthazar. Both children have pursued literary careers, Justine as a novelist and Antonin-Balthazar as an editor and columnist.
In the late 1980s Lévy began to express concern at the rise of militant Islam. He was one of the first supporters of Indian-born British writer Salman Rushdie, whose death had been ordered by Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In 1989, acting under the auspices of the French Secretary of State for International Cultural Relations, Lévy began visiting the countries of Eastern Europe as they emerged from decades of Communist rule.
In 1992 Lévy became one of the first writers to raise the alarm over the outbreak of genocidal violence that followed the formation of the new nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, part of the former Yugoslavia. He made two documentaries, Bosna!, about the general chaos in Bosnia, and A Day in the Death of Sarajevo, about the siege of Sarajevo by Yugoslav and Bosnian Serb forces between 1992 and 1996. His persistence in highlighting the breakdown of order in the former Yugoslavia contributed to the European and American military intervention that ended the regional conflict in the Balkans. Divorced from Bouscasse, Lévy married actress Arielle Dombasle in June of 1993.
Lévy and Bouscasse were a glamour couple, dividing their time between France and Morocco, where they lived in an elaborate villa they acquired from French actor Alain Delon. Lévy, with his usually partially unbuttoned white silk shirt, did not fit the public image of an intellectual. He had never learned to drive, and traveled in chauffeured limousines, staying in luxury hotels. Once, in Afghanistan, he was forced to choose between a secure hotel room that had no hot water or a more dangerous building where the water heater was operating. He chose the hot water.
Lévy's 1997 film Le jour et la nuit (Day and Night) was both critically and commercially unsuccessful, and he returned to writing. He took up the cause of his Algerian homeland, now beset by Islamic fundamentalist attacks, and in 2000 his book The Century of Sartre, a biography and evaluation of philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, was critically acclaimed. Among Lévy's most controversial books was Who Killed Daniel Pearl? (2003), which used a mixture of fiction and reportage to explore the world of the Al Qaedaaffiliated terrorists who beheaded Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002.
Visited United States
Through this entire period, Lévy clashed with thinkers on both sides of the political spectrum in his staunch support for the United States. Dombasle had been born in the United States, and Lévy admired the country's strong traditions of democracy and pluralism. Furthermore, he mistrusted the roots of anti-Americanism in France. “I'm not pro-American as much as anti-anti-American,” he told Buck. “When the French begin to feel a mad visceral hatred toward an imagined America, I know the cauldron is boiling and the filthy genie is about to jump out again.” In 2004, at the request of Atlantic Monthly magazine in Boston, Lévy made a tour of the United States, loosely retracing the route of another famous French political philosopher and observer of America, Alexis de Tocqueville.
Lévy's observations were serialized in Atlantic and then appeared in book form as American Vertigo in 2006. Mixing anecdote (he is cited by a state highway patrolman for public urination but then discovers that the officer is well acquainted with Tocqueville's writings) with deeper reflections on such matters as sport as an American religion, the book won wide attention in both the United States and France. I have strong links with the U.S.,” Lévy observed to Donald Morrison of Time International. “Yet I discovered on this trip that I did not know anything. Every single step was a surprise, every moment a paradox, every meeting an education. Europeans have a poor understanding of the U.S., not because they don't spend time here, but because of a smog of cliché and prejudice.”
By that time Lévy had published more than 30 books and, despite ups and downs in his career, had demonstrated a knack for identifying hot topics and making contributions, buttressed by his background as a philosopher, that advanced the debate regarding those topics. Several of Lévy's other books were translated into English in the early 2000s: Sartre: The Philosopher of the Twentieth Century appeared in 2003, and the set of essays War, Evil and End of History followed in 2004. In 2006 and 2007 Lévy was at work on the hottest of all hot topics, the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
Lévy, Bernard-Henri, American Vertigo, Random House, 2006.
Chronicle of Higher Education, October 24, 2003.
Europe, April 1995.
Publishers Weekly, December 12, 2005.
Time International, May 12, 2003; February 7, 2005; March 6, 2006.
Vanity Fair, January 2003.
Bernard-Henri Lévy Official Web site, http://www.bernard-henri-levy.com (February 22, 2008).
"Lévy, Bernard-Henri." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 15, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/levy-bernard-henri
"Lévy, Bernard-Henri." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved September 15, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/levy-bernard-henri
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A French moralist and political philosopher, Bernard-Henri Levy (born 1948) won wide recognition as a social critic (especially of Marxism), an advocate of ethics and justice, a cultured non-despiser of religion, and a flamboyant intellectual maverick.
Bernard-Henri Levy was a French moralist and political philosopher of the late 20th century, one of the leading lights of the New Philosophers (Nouveaux Philosophes) school. This group, disenchanted with communist and socialist responses to the near revolutionary upheavals in France of May 1968, articulated a fierce and uncompromising moral critique of Marxist and socialist dogmas years prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union. In contrast to the "neo-conservatism" of ex-leftist anti-Marxist American intellectuals, however, neither Levy nor the New Philosophers embraced capitalist ideology on the rebound.
Testifying to strong rhetorical skills, timely concerns, and forceful argumentation, Levy's first book, Barbarism with a Human Face, published in 1977, sold over 100,000 copies. This was quite unusual, even in France, for a philosophical treatise. The book appeared in English translation in 1979. Along with Andre Glucksmann's The Master Thinkers, published in the same year, it is one of the central manifestos of the French New Philosophers. "Apply Marxism in any country you want," Levy wrote, summing up the book's thesis, "you will always find gulag in the end. Historical contingencies have not betrayed a pure Marxism still to be tried, they are proof of its essential and real failure."
Without retreating to an ideal world, and without defending either the rule or the values of capital, but arguing primarily and vehemently against the callous (and ultimately cynical) Marxist reduction of meaningful action and belief to realpolitik, Levy insisted positively on the saving autonomy of ethics. "Discredit politics, stick with the provisional, rehabilitate ethics—these are the three orders, the three levels of analysis that must be separated from one another, or else we will sink into the murderous mirages of appearance."
Levy's second book, The Testament of God, published two years later in 1979 (and appearing in English translation in 1980), was equally popular. He again argued for the independence and primacy of ethics over purely political and historical analyses of human affairs. But now, against all the grains of the regnant French intellectual left, he boldly affirmed the foundation of modern ethics in biblical ethics. A list of seven calls to action, which Levy named "commandments," lies at the center of the moral protest that drives The Testament of God: law is superior to events; the world can at all times be judged morally; the moral good must be done now, without concern for the future; undertake only what is immediately worthy of repetition; truth is of another order than politics; resist evil without theory or party; and be committed by first being detached.
In defending ethics and opposing evil, especially the evils of Marxist and anti-Marxist idealism, Levy opposed another strong current of post World War II French intellectual fashion: opposition to the state. "Anti-statism," he wrote, "is once again and unmistakably, a reversal that preserves intact the shape of what it overturns." Levy thus did not oppose the state per se; he opposed the totalitarian state, which, according to a dialect whose contours his analyses trace, is itself an anti-statist institution, appearance to the contrary. The non-totalitarian state, in contrast, is a guarantor of law and justice, and as such is a bulwark of morality. In this line of thinking, including the religious expression of it, Levy was profoundly influenced by the great ethical metaphysics of his French-Jewish senior, Professor Emmanuel Levinas.
Levy's third book, The French Ideology, targeted a wider audience than Marxists and leftist intellectuals. Published only two years after The Testament of God, in 1981, it outraged French sensibilities from left to right by exposing in the French character and in the French world view deep strains of a xenophobic nationalism, tending dangerously, as he saw it, toward fascism. The behavior of an entire generation of Western Europeans before and during World War II—not only the more obvious moral compromises that produced and sustained a Nazi regime in Germany, but also those that produced and sustained Vichy cooperation and lack of resistance in France—left a contemporary heritage of a deep political repression, whose surface twists and turns of self-deception Levy unflinchingly exposed.
Ever vigilant and faithful to the independence and height of a moral perspective, Levy wrote prolifically in pursuit of both negative and positive themes: attacking Marxism and socialism in their theory and practice, as well as in both their crude and sophisticated forms; attacking capitalist materialism; and defending a new appreciation for the redemptive power of ethics, the Bible, and religion in a modern world all too morally adrift. From 1983 to 1991 Levy published one book per year: Questions of Principle, Vol. 1 (1983); The Devil in the Lead (1984); Impressions of Asia (1985); Questions of Principle, Vol. 2 (1986); In Praise of Intellectuals (1987); The Final Days of Charles Baudelaire (1988); Frank Stella: The Difference (1989); Questions of Principle, Vol. 3 (1990); and Adventure of Freedom: A Subjective History of Intellectuals (1991). In 1994, he published Women and Men: A Philosophical Conversation, which was reviewed as fluctuating between perception and provocation in its views towards feminism and the feminist movement.
Levy's choice of media besides books placed him among philosopher icons of popular culture. In 1997, he wrote and directed his first feature film, Day and Night. Levy regarded the film, which starred his wife, the actress Arielle Dombasle, as a beautiful film, despite it turning out to be a critical disaster. Levy often appeared on television and radio shows to discuss philsophy, and was a part of a trend, based in France, popularizing philosophy.
Readers and commentators are usually struck not only by the directness and clarity of his argumentation, but by the trenchant, combative rhetoric Levy put in its service. In an interview published in 1985 Levy said of his own manner of philosophizing: "I do not and would never, it seems to me, philosophize without responding, provoking, perturbing, retorting—in brief, without in one way or another being polemical. Passionate to convince, deliriously logical, obsessed to demonstrate … my books really are less 'treatises' than 'essays.' This does not mean, to be sure, that they are less serious, weighty, or less erudite. But it means that they are books which always take 'positions'."
The same rhetorical flair contributed to Levy often being ignored in "serious" academic discussions of political thought. But there is no doubt a second, deeper reason, one more symptomatic and less self-conscious, for this exclusion. Levy's nuanced but unabashed retrieval of biblical themes and sources for European spiritualism flew in the face of an intelligentsia and an intellectualism whose commitment to atheist secularism had perhaps become, as Nietzsche suggested more than one hundred years earlier in On the Genealogy of Morals, its last and least questioned point of honor.
The best sources of additional information on Bernard-Henri Levy are his own writings, which are listed in the text. □
"Bernard-Henri Levy." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 15, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/bernard-henri-levy
"Bernard-Henri Levy." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved September 15, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/bernard-henri-levy