I’m not sure America really has an equivalent to Bernard-Henri Levy, the French philosopher, intellectual, author and all-round media personality. I’ve asked Parisians about him: none are lukewarm in their opinions. It’s love him or hate him for BHL.
He writes books, opines on almost anything relevant in French or world politics, takes controversial positions on hot topics, and appears on French television regularly to cut loose on whatever is on his mind at the moment. He also has no qualms about heading to a combat zone or scene of human rights abuses in order to attract attention to what he considers to be (and what often times are) extreme injustices or outright crimes. Equally brave journalists and photographers go with him. Photos are taken. Stories are written. Media attention and subsequent public attention usually follow.
His latest focus is on America’s diminishing role in world affairs.
I’ve read some of his columns on current political topics (translated with mixed results into English). I’d estimate that I agree with probably 50% of what he says. Some of the things he talks about with regards to French current events and culture I can’t understand or relate to because, of course, they’re so very French.
There are a few things about him that I admire. First, he’s stayed with that hairstyle of his even though it’s so very…aerodynamic, I guess is the word. It’s part of his trademark look now, anyway, so he really has to keep it. It is a thick mop that the wind has a hell of a good time with, and that has only gone grey with time.
Another thing I like is his signature look: the white dress shirt and black suit, sans cravate, both bespoke and both by Charvet of Paris, which he wears for dinner out in the 6th arrondissement or touching down by military helicopter in South Sudan. It’s simple and effective: the ensemble and the mane make him instantly identifiable and communicate an individuality, elegance, and gravitas that I believe the public associates with his work. The modern word for this is ‘branding’. I simply call it ‘style.’
The final and most important thing I like about BHL is that he’s pretty much an Old Money Guy. With an inheritance from his family in the 9 figure range, he still keeps working. He knows that to be idle is a waste of time and a waste of life. He has his purpose. He does his thing.
In a recent interview with the New York Times, he was asked if he read, wrote, or watched movies when he traveled. His response was revealing:
“I do not live very differently when I travel and when I don’t, which means I do my duty. My duty is to read, to write and to fight. These are the three things that are my duty. Traveling and not traveling, this is what I do.”
Roll on, BHL.
17 thoughts on “Parisian Profile: Bernard-Henri Levy”
I always enjoy reading your posts. Very balanced, reasonable, and moderate but dare I say with a touch of optimism? (Which I love) Also a sense of duty to do/be better than we are. Thank you for sharing.
Thank you, I always enjoy your posts. They are balanced, reasonable, and moderate dare I say optimistic? (Which I love) Reminders to be better individuals and not forget our duty to others.
Thank you, Jefntrac. Glad you enjoy. I try my best. – BGT
The closest American equivalent I can think of is William F. Buckley, Jr., although I don’t remember him going into any combat zones.
Good comparison, Amy. Thank you. And yes, WFB Jr. was more at home on a boat than in a combat zone. – BGT
I recall seeing him on the Charlie Rose Show once in a while.He is a leftist I assume like 99.9 percent of European commentators.lol
Yeah, the ‘left’ and ‘right’ labels are a little tricky once you leave the US. I think BHL has managed to irritate and offend almost all political parties and politicians. Equal opportunity provocateur, as it were. – BGT
A comment often attributed to BHL is “ God is dead, but my hair is perfect “.
Perfect! So him, so French. Thanks. See you soon. – BGT
I’ve admired BHL for years. I wish we had the equivalent of philosophers on television giving their opinions on current events. It would make a change from the usual windbags. He was one of the first intellectuals to bring media attention to the potential devastation that would be caused at the beginning of the Yugoslavian conflict. Unfortunately, he was proved correct.
Hi Melanie, yes, I think the format of a show also contributes to how a subject is addressed. French television shows allow hosts and guests to go into detail, discuss things in depth, and really address nuances. I’m not sure American TV executives can allow that to play out for audiences. Thanks. – BGT
I didn’t know of BHL. I will look out for some of his work – always interested in another perspective on politics and French culture. I like his hair! I also appreciate more and more the idea of finding the clothing that suits you and sticking with it or playing with slight variations on key pieces. In my case, I’m searching for casual clothing for cooler weather and green utility jackets and white sneakers seem to be everywhere but I’ve realised I just don’t like them. So my sneakers are dark leather and my jackets are blazers in softer fabrics. Worn with dark jeans, I feel like myself in a version of casual that works for me.
Perfect. A little dressier, too. – BGT
Sorry to dissent from the general BHL lovefest here, but the man isn’t much of a philosopher. An attention whore, yes; a former student of philosophy, yes; but to call BHL a philosopher is to insult the many good men and women who do real philosophical work. BHL is no Plato, Aquinas, Kant, or even Rorty. Let’s please be proper OMGs and call out BHL for the foppish little bullshitting philosophaster he is.
No apologies for dissent necessary here, John. We welcome it. While I like his style and his some of his work, I seem to be one of the few with a moderate view of BHL. It’s either love him or hate him with most people. With my French not yet at an acceptable level, I don’t feel qualified to comment on his philosophical credibility. However, both you and JL have made note of his possible shallowness and shortcomings in that regard. Duly noted. Thank you. – BGT
A pleasant surprise to read about BHL on your blog.
That said, I see him as a public intellectual, if not a socialite, rather than a philosopher — who I believe needs to be an independent thinker.
It’s not obvious to separate BHL from his politico-religious bias. Granted, in the light of that bias, he’s consistent and even relevant. But if one questions his positions critically, one may sometimes reach another conclusion.
Perhaps off-topic, I wonder whether you’ve seen the recent debate between Slavoj Zizek and Jordan Peterson. I found it remarkable how, despite being opposed thinkers, they made an effort to find common ground. https://bit.ly/2LvbDA5
Thank you, JL. I think ‘public intellectual’ might be a good term. Philosophy is probably best served in an atmosphere (or at least from a perspective) void of politics. – BGT