On a recent afternoon, the French celebrity philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy strolled around Manhattan’s Upper East Side, trying to summon the spirit of Alexis de Tocqueville, the brilliant French chronicler of 19th-century American society. Mr. Lévy was having a hard time; perhaps the knot of S.U.V.’s and yellow cabs and women pushing baby strollers around upper Fifth Avenue didn’t inspire him.
“You should have come with me six months ago!” said Mr. Lévy, 56, a touch petulantly, referring to his recent whirl around the United States. “Now it’s too late. Too late to have any striking things. No! I will not.” He was wearing his signature slate-gray jacket and trousers, black snakeskin-tipped loafers, sunglasses and one of his custom-made white Charvet shirts, which was unbuttoned to his navel to expose his speckled, hairless chest. His graying mane flared out dramatically to the sides.
For the past year, Mr. Lévy has sported this same theatrical outfit on the dusty byways and in the cavernous shopping malls of Middle America. Monsieur Lévy, or “BHL,” as he is known in many circles, just completed a wild ride around the United States, courtesy of The Atlantic Monthly magazine. In a sort of co-branding experiment, the magazine’s editors asked Mr. Lévy to travel “in the footsteps of” Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th-century thinker who spent nine months observing America before offering his seminal Democracy in America to France and its crumbling monarchy in1835. Mr. Lévy’s endeavor comes at a time when Europeans are newly fascinated with the mysterious nether-regions of red-state U.S.A, and Mr. Lévy is never one to miss out on the hot topic du jour.
Admittedly, Americans might need a fresh-eyed Tocqueville-type character right now-or at least Mr. Lévy’s grand project suggests as much. In exchange for The Atlantic’s largesse-putting him up in hotels, supplying him with assistants and a driver who ushered him through every state in the Union (except for Hawaii)-Mr. Lévy is writing 70,000 words for the magazine, to appear as a series of five or so articles, the first of which is the cover story of the May 2005 issue.
For his dénouement, the modern-day Tocqueville spent the past week in New York City, participating in the democratic process known as the American media circus. There were television and radio interviews, an editorial about the Pope penned for The Wall Street Journal and a sold-out mind-meld with the conservative columnist David Brooks at the New York Public Library that was crowded with French pseudo-aristocrats, cerebral young New Yorkers and the likes of Anna Deveare Smith, Elizabeth and Felix Rohatyn, Princess Firyal of Jordan, Richard Dreyfuss and the consul general of France. The hoopla represents a major bid for recognition and acceptance in the United States-the final frontier of celebrity for a public intellectual who is increasingly more public than intellectual, and who is already a superstar in France.
“I prefer 100 times a good review in TLS, like there was a few weeks ago, or in Le Monde, or in Corriere della Sera, than the-how do you say it in English? The one more paper saying ‘rock star’ and so on,” Mr. Lévy said of his demigod status in Europe. “Sometimes I feel this sort of article a little repetitive, and I don’t know really who they interest. But what I like is that when my book about Bosnia and Sarajevo, or about Sartre or about [Daniel] Pearl, the great review in a newspaper, when somebody read it, liked it- this is great.”
Clearly, Mr. Lévy’s calculated sense of style has something to do with those “sort of articles” he says he dislikes. Mr. Lévy’s get-up even landed him on Vanity Fair’s 2005 International Best Dressed List in April, where he appeared smirking in his Paris apartment. But he insisted that the honor meant nothing to him.
“Bah! I don’t care about that!” said Mr. Lévy, strutting east on 76th Street towards the Carlyle Hotel, where he stays when he’s in New York. When asked why he agreed to be photographed if he didn’t care, Mr. Lévy said, “I don’t know.”
Although he has insisted publicly that he experienced no Francophobia in the land of Freedom Fries, the reaction to his naked chest was another matter. He recounted an incident in a small town in Texas, where he was walking around with his shirt open, and two “dedicated moms” shouted something he couldn’t understand. Then one of them spat at him.
In New York, his reception was a bit different. A young woman with shiny brown hair and black spandex jogged past during his uptown promenade.
“I think you’re great!” she screamed, turning around and pulling off her headphones. “I’m crazy about you!”
Mr. Lévy smiled, his eyelashes fluttering.
Did he appreciate this kind of attention?
“Of course. C’est gentile,” Mr. Lévy said.
How Mr. Lévy will be received stateside is the subject of some debate. The media-celebrity complex has already embraced him-he has been profiled gushingly in Vanity Fair; he counts Charlie Rose, whose studio he has visited multiple times, as a friend; and Tina Brown invited him over for dinner and on her talk show Topic A, where she let him free-associate on life in America (President Bush is like “a humiliated child” and Condi Rice is “beautiful” and “sexy” were among his revelations).
“I have no idea, really, whether he’ll be too French for them,” said Ms. Brown, speaking about BHL by telephone. “He’s very dashing and very passionate. He’s a fabulous performer and speaker. I think his passion communicates, even if you can’t get through the accent. But I think that even with all those things in America, he would still not be the star that is he in France, because French people have a huge reverence for debate and letters and the life of the mind.”
The joint appearance with Mr. Brooks at the library was an entertaining study in contrasts, and of the challenges Mr. Lévy faces in conquering the New World. The conservative Mr. Brooks, looking preppy and well-fed in a navy chalk-stripe suit and lavender tie, played the perfect self-deprecating American interviewer to the angular Frenchman, whose shirt was gaping open obscenely.
“If I was thinner, my shirt would be open down to here,” joked Mr. Brooks.
Mr. Lévy didn’t laugh. BHL seemed programmed to aim the right angle of his visage towards the audience-the same angle from which he is photographed for magazines, book jackets and on TV. He was almost turned completely away from his interviewer for most of the discussion; at times, he gave the impression that he was ignoring Mr. Brooks altogether. He spent the first 15 minutes fixated on the six paparazzi-seemingly imported from a Fellini movie-furiously snapping pictures of him from the front row.
Occasionally Mr. Brooks would pose a question, punctuated with some ironic tidbit, and then sit back and watch the performance unfold. Mr. Lévy would lean forward excitedly in his chair and launch into a long, circuitous response, gesturing wildly in front of him, sometimes stabbing the air with his folded eyeglasses. His bushy eyebrows, which seem to operate independently of the rest of his face, would dance around above his dark, gleaming eyes, arching and jerking up and down in sequence; meanwhile, the crease in his forehead became ever more red and profound.
In his cute, imperfect English, he said that the rise of creationism was the greatest threat to American democracy: “There is a progress in the worse, since that very famous trial of the monkey!” (a.k.a. the Scopes trial). He recalled his foray into the “patriotic” brothels of Nevada, with American flags and video cameras in the bedrooms and where “nothing inappropriate can come.” “I visited a place of lap dancers,” he continued, where rules govern “the way the note of 10 dollars is put in the string of the girl.” He was the Friendly Frenchman, and the audience ate it up, although it wasn’t always clear if they were laughing at him or near him.
Afterwards, there was a dinner of lobster and fine wine at an elegant French restaurant called Tocqueville on East 15th Street, hosted by The Atlantic and attended by Ms. Deveare Smith, Eliot Spitzer, Atlantic Monthly editor in chief Cullen Murphy and a clutch of French amis de BHL. After the meal, Mr. Lévy announced that the next time around, he would interview Mr. Brooks, and everyone applauded at the proposition.
In France, Mr. Lévy has fashioned himself into the sort of public intellectual who doesn’t really exist any longer in the United States-although if one did, it was probably the late Susan Sontag. Like Sontag, Mr. Lévy has varied interests and a talent for working the press that seems almost intuitive.
“I think there’s a kind of ambition in this guy that Paris can no longer satisfy,” said Tony Judt, a professor of European studies at New York University who studies French intellectual culture, adding that he was no great admirer of Mr. Lévy. “Paris is a small, provincial city in a way. I think someone like BHL feels that if you really want standing on the international stage, then you’ve got to be in America. You’ve got to be in New York. It’s not enough just to be very visible in Paris.”
His legacy within the canon of ideas is another question. Born in Algeria to a Jewish family and educated at the elite Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, Mr. Lévy came of age in the 60′s and was formed (as many French people seem to have been) by the political turmoil of 1968. He was part of the movement called the New Philosophers, who in the 1970′s declared that communist regimes could be as ruthless as fascist ones, sending ripples of outrage through left-loving French society. Mr. Lévy wrote a book called Barbarism with a Human Face in 1977, outlining these ideas at the age of 28. According to many, this remains his seminal work, despite the fact that he has produced 30 books on topics ranging from French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, Bosnia and, most recently, the murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan (the controversial Who Killed Daniel Pearl?). His critique of Islamism endeared him to the neocons as well as to the liberal-hawk crowd; his fictionalization of Pearl’s gruesome death in the book infuriated many critics. Born into family wealth, Mr. Lévy also fell naturally into a glamorous lifestyle. He dabbled in movies and even directed one starring his wife, the film actress Arielle Dombasle. He has written plays and was sent as an envoy to Afghanistan by the French government. In France, everyone recognizes him on the street.
It’s easy to be distracted by the performance aspect of Mr. Lévy’s character. David A. Bell, a professor of French history at Johns Hopkins who organized a recent conference on Jean-Paul Sartre-where BHL swept in at the last minute, tailed by a camera crew-said he was startled by Mr. Lévy’s intelligence.
“He comes in, and he’s listening to the other talks, and he scribbles down maybe three index cards’ worth of notes on little scraps of paper,” said Mr. Bell. “And then he gets up and, off top of his head, gives a kind of brilliant, hour-long, perfectly composed lecture in French on Jean-Paul Sartre. I was very impressed, because I hadn’t always taken him completely seriously.”
A strong current of anti-BHL sentiment exists in France, where he is sometimes portrayed as a dilettante and where his wealth and political connections are scrutinized; it seems to be reaching its apex at the moment. A series of biographies about him have just appeared, the most devastating of which is called BHL-an attempt at a personal and ideological takedown by an investigative journalist named Philippe Cohen.
“How important are his intellectual contributions? This is a hugely controversial question,” said the critic Paul Berman, the author of Terror and Liberalism, who attended the Sartre conference with Mr. Lévy as well as the evening with Mr. Brooks. “My guess is that every intellectual in America will want to prove his bona fides by showing how BHL is inferior, and so it’ll bring out the snob in every American intellectual. No one will have the courage to say, ‘This guy might be intelligent.’ I think he’s a very smart guy, and he’s a very playful guy, and he does a number of silly things-but you would be making a mistake to conclude that he should be treated dismissively.”
Back at the Carlyle, Mr. Lévy was plumping himself up on the red brocade cushions of the hotel dining room, surveying the area like a proud king.
“To put oneself in the footsteps of a great thinker as Tocqueville, it would be … très audacieux. Comment est-ce qu’on dit ‘audacieux’? Bold!” said Mr. Lévy. “No, it was the idea of [ Atlantic editor in chief] Cullen Murphy. I hesitated because of that. It seemed to me a little heavy to pretend to do that-in the footsteps of Tocqueville. And then, I suppose, I accepted partly because we were at the peak of the mutual dislike between France and America, and I liked the idea of contributing, even slightly, to open the bridges again.”
For some, Mr. Lévy’s reputation is that of someone with a bright mind weakened by a curiosity that has him shifting topics with the headlines of the moment. “He has become someone who wants to be seen as engaged with the American question, because that is the question of the day,” said Mr. Judt. “It would absolutely make sense that he would literally as well as figuratively present himself as reliving, rereading, reinterpreting and, to some extent, re- being Tocqueville. He is a marvelously talented chameleon. I would bet you large sums of money that in five years’ time, he’ll have abandoned the American issue altogether-Tocqueville and everything else-and will be doing something altogether different.”
The first of Mr. Lévy’s Atlantic pieces bears little resemblance to Tocqueville’s writing on America other than in concept; it reads as a stream-of-consciousness narrative and brings to mind a feverish prose poem. He is no V.S. Naipaul, either, whose essay “Among the Republicans” brought to life the 1984 Republican convention, and the American political climate of the moment, in The New York Review of Books. Rather, Mr. Lévy makes observations that sound almost sweetly naïve, and rooted in a sort of nostalgia that seems curious for someone who didn’t grow up here. (He is known to be quite pro-American back home.) He is impressed, for example, by all the American flags flapping around Rhode Island and finds predictable phenomena such as shopping malls and mega-churches almost exotic. The Deep South absolutely blows his mind. It might be new and interesting to Mr. Lévy’s French fans, but seems unlikely to surprise The Atlantic’s domestic audience.
What is surprising is that for all his Frenchness, Mr. Lévy is reluctant to verbally express any personal opinions about what he experienced in America and can be infuriatingly circular on almost any subject. For example, when The Observer asked Mr. Lévy how he liked the food in the United States, he seemed baffled.
“How was the food? American food? You know American food?” said Mr. Lévy. “One of the problems of America today is that, with this big business of alimentation, this big-food business, it tends to be the same food everywhere. Everything is organized in order that, when you go from New York to anywhere in the country, you don’t feel too much out of your territory. Same food, same hotels …. “
But did Mr. Lévy like it?
“Did I like what?”
“It’s interesting,” said Mr. Lévy, “because I discover that I never ask myself the question. Eh … I don’t know. I don’t care a lot about it. Liking food or not is not … my real purpose in life.”
Follow Sheelah Kolhatkar via RSS.