Purim has come early this year for 61-year-old French “public intellectual” Bernard-Henri Lévy (BHL), who just published two new books in France, “De la guerre en philosophie: Essai” (On Philosophical War: Essay) and “Pièces d’identité: Chroniques” (Identification Papers: Articles). The latter consists of over 1300 pages of Lévy’s journalism, around 300 pages of which are devoted to a defense of Judaism and Israel. The former book is a slighter, but more controversial attack on the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, originally presented as a lecture in Paris last year.
To bolster his arguments against Kant, whom BHL calls the “raging madman of thought,” he cites in all seriousness a book by a certain Jean-Baptiste Botul, who proved “just after World War II in a series of lectures to the Neo-Kantians of Paraguay, that their hero was a false abstraction.” Unfortunately, Jean-Baptiste Botul is merely a pen name for French satirist Frédéric Pagès, author of two spoof books, one on Kant (1999) and another on Nietzsche (2004). Perhaps because the French press was slow to notice this gaffe (“Le Nouvel Observateur” picked up on it, whereas previously “Le Point,” “L’Express,” and “Paris Match” had noticed nothing amiss), BHL has been subsequently energetically ridiculed in the French media and online. One commenter to the “Libération” website notes: “It’s as if [Lévy] threw a pie in his own face.”
Another backlash has just begun, of sympathy for Lévy from writers who are well aware that editing, let alone proof-reading, is no longer done even by major French publishers. Notably riding to BHL’s defense is the playwright Fernando Arrabal, founder of the Panic Literary Movement with Roland Topor, a French artist of Polish Jewish origin and Alejandro Jodorowsky, a Chilean writer of Ukrainian Jewish ancestry.
A staunch supporter of Israel himself, Arrabal had a remarkable theatrical collaboration with Israeli theatrical legend Orna Porat who starred in his one-woman play “Love Letter (Like Chinese Torture)” a decade ago in Tel Aviv. Arrabal names a group of artists and writers, including 98-year-old artist Louise Bourgeois; the notorious recluses Milan Kundera, Michel Houellebecq and Thomas Pynchon; and even myself which he asks to defend BHL as someone who fights the good fight and does not deserve such “hatred.”
Even before this polemic broke out, “Le Figaro” called BHL “the most loathed dandy in France.” Great Jewish minds like Raymond Aron and Pierre Vidal-Naquet published early, definitive critiques of BHL, his books, and his method.
More recently, French journalist Mariane Pearl, widow of Daniel Pearl, whom BHL wrote about in a semi-fictionalized 2003 study, called Lévy a “man whose ego destroys his intelligence.” The anti-BHL group has indeed said so much, so convincingly, that further rejoicing over a simple careless oversight is merely gilding the lily.
Watch BHL defend Sarah Palin in 2008 against her “machist” critics below.
Watch a 2009 Israel TV report on a visit by BHL below.