Fishbowl is dizzy with delight: rock-star philosophe Bernard-Henri Lévy loves us! Well, actually, he signed our book but that’s good enough for us. Ever since he rocketed to the top of the NYmag charts two weeks ago (via Carl Swanson‘s wildly popular review of “American Vertigo”), the city’s been ga-ga for all things BHL (plus he was lionized by Tina Brown last Thursday at the NYPL). Fishbowl sent a super-special correspondent to his talk with Adam Gopnik at the 92nd St. Y on Sunday: supa-FishFriend™ “Magnus,” who is ridiculously smart and ridiculously opinionated (and ridiculously…never mind. But, his nickname is “Magnus”). This is his report. If you’re looking for a quick summary, you won’t find it here. If you wished to God you could attend and want to feel as though you’re living the dream, pull up a chair and stay awhile. Love him, hate him, BHL is certainly entertaining. Magnus, the floor is yours.
You really don’t have to have read any of Bernard-Henri Lévy’s (BHL)’s books in order to have a negative opinion about him. That’s why I couldn’t wait to crack the virgin seal of Sunday’s NYT to read Garrison Keillor‘s smackdown of BHL’s new book “American Vertigo”. After I tell her all about it, Fishbowl makes me her “super-special correspondent” and sends me to BHL’s talk at the 92nd Street Y that very evening. Before heading out, I quickly tear through the first 230 pages of “American Vertigo” that make up his “Voyage en Amerique”. (I guess they figured “Voyage through America” sounded a tad corny). This is no book report, so I’ll leave it to the real critics to divine how a people might “become not intoxicated by their autonomy but drunk on their independence.” Suffice it to say: it takes a lot of brass to accuse Henry Kissinger of uttering “a litany of self-satisfied platitudes” after you’ve spent almost two hundred pages spewing banality with the kind of abandon I haven’t seen since I was freshman in college.
92nd St. Y, BHL — it’s reasonable to assume that there will be a fair number of Jewish people in attendance, but I totally forgot BHL’s other main constituency: Euros. Air kisses abound. Heading into the lobby, I run into two friends whom I last saw at La Goulue and the Neue Galerie benefit back in December. (Ed. Magnus is a FANCY FishFriend!) It dawns on me that the upperclass twits that pop up in the party pages of Tatler must be the English acolytes of BHL, what with their open shirts and all. To top it all off, who sits down three seats next to my balcony seat but Gilles Amsallem from French Tuesdays. I recall Liesl Schillinger‘s deadpan take on that whole scene in the Talk of the Town a while back. It turns out their website is shilling a BHL appearance at the Barnes and Noble in Union Square on Monday. But that’s another story.
Adam Gopnik, Francis Fukayama and more, after the jump!
The lights go down and some lady does an intro spiel on Adam Gopnik. She spends a good thirty seconds talking about “The King in the Window”, a children’s book ostensibly starring Gopnik’s son. I’m reminded that Fishbowl stood up for him back in June when his baseball skills were impugned on Gawker (“Come on, dude, he’s nine.”). I no longer feel so bad for him now that he’s a literary hero.
Gopnik comes onstage and does his intro spiel on BHL: “One of France’s greatest men of action,” etc. etc. Out comes BHL. From a distance, he looks taller than I expected, but I figure that’s probably because Gopnik is short. After getting seated, Gopnik gets things going by lobbing BHL a softball: compare and contrast the “idea of identity” in France and the United States. College, anyone? BHL takes the opportunity to first thank Gopnik, “whom I admire so much”, and then the 92st St. Y, the “beating heart of Judaism”. Gopnik concurs. Gesturing to the crowd, he talks about how “Judaistic humanism” is reflected in the Y. It seems to take him a second find the right section of the audience to gesture to because he can’t spot anyone who isn’t a Euro. Before turning to the essay question at hand, BHL does his buddy a solid and throws in a plug for “Paris to the Moon”. BHL likens it to “American Vertigo in reverse”. Of course, he means it as a compliment.
France, it seems, is marked by a kind of Catholicism that “negates Jews and Greeks” (i.e., Arabs) and forces people to “resign their former identity and adopt French citizenship” (but which is still “great”, insists BHL). But in America, BHL was “surprised and pleased” to find a “dialectic” at work that allows for a “double allegiance”. I guess by now I should be used to such stock terms as “dialectic”, but it’s still a bit jarring hearing it live. Still, on the whole, A+.
Gopnik and BHL are now talking about Franz Rosenzweig. Apropos of his conversion, they turn to BHL’s own Teshuvah, his “return” to Judaism. BHL, it seems, was raised in a secular household. His father, like many French Jews who survived the war, had decided that the joy of being a Jew was no longer worth the suffering his children would be bound to endure. BHL’s conversion to Judaism came upon reaching the “deadends of philosophy”. In the Torah he found “philosophical tools” for “building an ethics and introducing it into politics”. Gopnik then asks BHL to explain the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas in fifty words or less. Seems Levinas was “not a humanist of solipsism”, whatever that means. Gopnik interrupts with a clumsy play on the cogito ergo sum of Descartes. BHL indulges him, then goes on to talk about something called ” déplacement ontologique “. When he drops “ontological totalitarianism”, I find myself in immediate disagreement. To me, the precursor to fascism is not some weird-ass conception of the completeness of man. It’s being a total jerk. But what do I know.
We’re on to Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington. For those of you who don’t get their political philosophy from Newsweek, Fukuyama is the end-of-history guy and Huntington is the clash-of-civilizations guy. (FYI, at this point, my notes say “exaggerated sense of self? yes”.) Fukuyama, the poor shmuck, is made to stand for the claim that 9/11 was a mere accident of history. I understand that since 9/11 he’s revised his original views on the end of history, but no matter. BHL goes on to accuse Huntington (pronounced, ” üntington”, remember the umlaut) of creating “false oppositions”. There is no Western civilization “as a whole”, just as there is no Islamic civilization “as a whole”. to insist that there is is “absurd and insulting” to all those Muslims who fight and die at the hands of fascist Islamicism. Now this seems like a nuanced and eminently reasonable criticism. It’s made all the more cogent by the fact that BHL speaks from experience as he surveys the many divisions within the Arab and Islamic worlds. A surprisingly compelling listen, altogether. But then BHL starts resorting to Republican truisms: Islamic fascists hate us “not because of our crimes” but because of our “freedom of speech”, etc., etc. To me, the problem seems a bit more complicated than that. But then again, I’m no French philosopher.
On to Iraq. “Do it right”, says BHL, taking a page from Bill Kristol. “Neocon cop-out”, says I.
On to the biggie of the night: anti-Semitism. BHL takes us through the various historical justifications of anti-Semitism: from the age-old canard about Christ-killers through the Enlightenment switcheroo that would have us believe that Jesus was some sort of Jewish trap. We end up with the today’s “negation of the Shoah,” the Holocaust as a “screen” for today’s suffering, especially that of the Palestinians. (Paging Norman Finkelstein!). BHL ends up accusing those who are fed up with the Holocaust of being anti-Semites, all to much applause.
On to current events: the election of Hamas. It’s no surprise, says BHL, that President Ahmadinejad of Iran and President Al-assad of Syria congratulated Hamas immediately after the election results were announced. No speculation on whether Syria or Iran helped orchestrate the election sweep. BHL thinks little of Hamas’s promise to install a “government of technocrats”. After all, says BHL, didn’t Adolf Hitler appoint Albert Speer to his cabinet in order to convince the world that his would be just such a “government of technocrats”? (Ed. Eek, Godwin’s Law. You can’t go back from that.) BHL ends up expressing his hope that the Palestinians will sort things out eventually. In the meantime, he one-ups Bush and calls for an all-out boycott. (Though he ignores the possibility that this would drive Palestine straight into the hands of Syria and Iran, I have to admit I’m sympathetic. Hamas has been calling for the destruction of Israel for years, and it’s hard to take the decision to revise its charter just days before the election at face value, especially now that Palestine is so tight with Iran.)(Ed. Don’t be afraid to use the “T” word. Terrorists. Hamas are terrorists.)
Whew! We’re back. It’s time for the Q&A. The first person (some guy with a T-shirt and a bald-spot down on the right hand side of the stage, if you need to know) asks whether it is naive to impose democracy on a people who are not ready for it. BHL: “a democratic regime cannot have the face of Hamas”. Next. The second question considers the possibility that, just as it took a Sharon to force Israel to withdraw from Gaza, maybe Hamas is the only party that can force Palestine to make the concessions necessary for a viable peace with Israel. (I swear I read this in a letter to the editor in Sunday’s New York Post. Anyone?) BHL: “Israel had leaders who offered peace to Palestine”, so one cannot speak of Israeli ” intransigence”. BHL struggles for the English translation. Gopnik: “intransigence”. The audience laughs. BHL goes on: “Arafat was obsessed with the idea of being the embodiment of Arab revolution” rather than a true statesman. More Ché than Castro. Cute, those alliterations. BHL then takes a stab at Arafat’s taste in headwear. Though I agree wholeheartedly, I find it a bit rich of BHL to accuse anyone of being image-conscious. But then again, I’m not French.
The final person gets up in the balcony close to where I’m sitting and goes on about giving up “Frenchness” in order to become more American or something like that. Then there’s some back and forth on the “idea of Frenchness”. I, for one, prefer “Frenchiness”, but to each their own. Then it’s on to the anti-imperialist roots of America and the consequent absurdity of American imperialism. We close with a cute little analogy of ancient Carthage to America’s military power, all by way of Flaubert. I am glad not to be in college anymore.
Down in the lobby, I get in line behind the two tall blondes (who turns out to be sisters. Score!) to get BHL to sign my copy of “American Vertigo”. Gilles, the guy from French Tuesdays, is getting his picture taken with BHL. The girls in front of me primp themselves just before stepping up to his table. While BHL is working his charm, I get nervous that my copy will flip open to the pages scattered with question marks and words like “silly,” “intellectual mush,” and “On being a pompous French intellectual” (my substitute title for the subchapter “On feelings about nature in America”). I’m up. Just as I muster the gumption to shake his hand, he turns to one of his people and demands a new pen. He’s good enough not to leave me hanging for too long. As he signs my copy, I ask if he would have any interest in speaking to a group of Republican anti-imperialists I happen to know the next time he’s down in Washington. “Why not?”, he answers, telling me to speak with his publisher. And I’m off.
I spend the rest of the evening in an East Village bar letting the events of the day sink in, taking notes as thoughts come to mind. They are jumbled, contradictory, much like BHL I suppose. I’m trying hard to allow myself to take him seriously in the face of all this hype. Back at home, I read about him boasting of having had “a great fuck with America” in the pages of New York magazine. But things aren’t going so well for BHL stateside, so now he’s pretending back home that he never said anything so “absurd” (by way of http://superfrenchie.com/?p=476). I guess he’s getting wiser to the ways of America, after all.