portraits by MILAN VUKMIROVIC
interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
To better understand BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY, one of France’s most ardent intellectuals and most fearless investigative journalists, we asked him to talk about significant people and philosophical figures he’s known. We felt a portrait gallery would be the best way to unravel his controversial reputation as a celebrity intellectual and to demystify the oversimplified “New Philosopher” label he’s been defined by. His has been a life intensely devoted to the defense of freedom, for which he uses everything: his brillant style, his political influence, his media savvy, and his passion and ethics, which compel him to venture into the world’s danger zones, where people are left to suffer and die, alone and forgotten.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I read in an interview with you that you detest optimism. I would therefore like to begin our discussion with your thoughts on the absolute pessimism of Cioran. Did you know him?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — Yes. We weren’t close, but I did meet him. It was back when I was preparing Les Aventures de la Liberté [Adventures in Freedom], my documentary television series, and my book on the history of intellectuals. What immediately struck me was his — how should I say it? — desire to please. What I mean is that he did not really seem to be as extremely pessimistic as he claimed to be. I have nothing against that, of course, nothing against the fact that great writers sometimes exaggerate the feelings they affect. Indeed, according to Diderot, there is a writer’s paradox, analogous to the actor’s paradox, which says that he never performs better than when he is able to distance himself from the feelings he is supposedly experiencing. But there it is. His pessimism, his despair over having been born, his apologia for suicide, the way he would place himself beyond suicide, as if he had already gone beyond that point, was all choreographed, staged, the result of a real literary montage. This is what struck me the day we met in his small studio, which was on the top floor of a handsome building without an elevator on the rue de l’Odéon.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you visit him at the hospital during his final days?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — No, I only saw him once, that one time.
OLIVIER ZAHM — As far as I know, you’ve never mentioned MAURICE BLANCHOT.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — Yes, I have. In fact I wrote about him in Les Aventures de la Liberté, and in my magazine, La Règle du Jeu [Rules of the Game], after which he wrote me a rather strange letter about the Rushdie affair, and in Comédie, in which I made fun of his “great silent” pose. Twenty-five years ago I was one of the first people to speak of Jeffrey Mehlman, the American writer whose book exposed the radical Right wing, and the anti-Semitic past of this man who, after the war, became one of the consciences of the moral Left. The whole thing is riveting, of course. What I mean is that it’s fascinating when someone commits a crime early in his career, and then to see a man like Blanchot retreat into invisibility and silence. There are those, like Cioran, who switched languages. There are those, like Günter Grass, who tried to go too far in the opposite direction. And then there is Blanchot, who, in order to whitewash his original crime, deliberately chose a blank, stiff, silent style of writing. That is what I said 25 years ago. At the time I was writing a column for Le Matin de Paris. In it I explained the way he de-personalizes his work, his way of disappearing behind his words, his obsession with erasing his own tracks, of somehow leaving himself out of it, and that all of this is because of the terrible error of his youth, the crime for which he cannot atone, which remains inexpiable, not only for the crime itself, but because, even if you examine its internal logic, since the War anti-Semitism had few adversaries more determined than Blanchot.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Alain Delon is the quintessential French actor. What do you remember about him?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — He is an essential character in the film we made together and in my life. We’re still close. We probably disagree about a lot of things but we absolutely agree about friendship, about life…
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you feel the same way about solitude?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — Yes, perhaps. About how we can be alone, away from the apparent sociability, the noisy community that sprung up around us. In any case, this is how it is. For this and other reasons, I have stayed close to Delon. When the film we did together [Day and Night, 1997] didn’t do well, he remained impeccably loyal, which is rare. I know so many other actors who would have bailed out in a similar situation, whereas he stuck around. He never varied his reasons for participating in the film, nor what he personally thought of it. I can still see him sitting next to me at the press conference we did at the Berlin Film Festival, facing the insults, the spitting, and the media uproar. So Delon gets up and hurls this at the wolf pack: “Mesdames, messieurs, I have had three masters in my life, Visconti, René Clément, and Joseph Losey. But from now on I can add a fourth master to my list, the young director you have before you.” What nerve. What courage. What style. That’s the least that I can say. That film was an important adventure in my life. And he let me believe that it was also important in his. When you share something like that, such a secret, such a great memory, when you have shared such an intense artistic adventure, it’s a thousand times more important than whatever political disagreements you might have. And let me add one other thing we have in common: he is above all an actor and I am above all a writer. And we share that strange disease which consists of believing that, at the end of it all, true life does not happen during our lifetime.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Continuing with film, you’ve met Francis Ford Coppola, haven’t you?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — Yes. I loved The Godfather and The Cotton Club. But the man? I don’t know. I don’t have an opinion of the man.
OLIVIER ZAHM — TOCQUEVILLE?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — An aristocrat and a democrat. A true perfecta.
OLIVIER ZAHM — ALAIN BADIOU?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — An adversary, but someone I somehow cannot bring myself to hate. Probably because of Mallarmé. For the idea of the revolution being founded more on Mallarmé than on Marx or Lenin. For his style.
OLIVIER ZAHM — BENNY
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — Ah, now that’s different. He’s the figure who has impressed me the most in my life. He was the political head of the French Maoists. After that he was personal secretary to Jean-Paul Sartre. Then there was the wonderfully romantic rise toward Jerusalem and the Talmud.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Isabelle Doutreluigne, your first wife, was a model when you were still a student at the Ecole Normale Supérieure on the rue d’Ulm. When did you meet her?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — December 19, 1967. I was not yet a “Normalien.” I was still in my second year of preparatory studies at the ENS. But a young intellectual hanging out with Marxists dating a model who was on the covers of the Purple magazines of the time was considered a provocation. I accepted that discrepancy. For my entire life I have accepted it. That being said, let me correct something. This so-called provocation was entirely relative because, in reality, before Isabelle became a model she was the last Surrealist woman, a sort of second cousin to Nancy Cunard, Denise Levy, or Dali’s wife, Gala. That’s the kind of woman she was. It was as if she stepped right out of a Man Ray photo, at once luminous, tormented, extremely beautiful, whimsical, nonconformist, answering to no master, no law, someone who felt she had the right to define her own moral code, to be judged only by that code, categorically refusing the judgment of society, and taking terrible risks, which ended up costing her a great deal, putting her in real danger. There. I have met few women as beautiful, as unpredictable, as Isabelle Doutreluigne — so determined to risk the liberty that would eventually bring her to disaster.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you know Jacques Lacan?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — Yes, a little. I followed his Séminaire, back when he was at the Ecole Normale Supérieure. I can still see myself walking from the Lycée Louis le Grand on rue Saint-Jacques to the Ecole Normale on the rue d’Ulm as one might go on a great pilgrimage. I wouldn’t have missed a class for anything in the world. I used to get there two or three hours in advance in order to be sure of getting a seat. When I couldn’t be there, because I was stuck in a class at Louis Le Grand, I would send a friend over with a tape recorder, which he would put alongside a lot of others on a table in front of Lacan, or onstage at Lacan’s feet. He was a great thinker, a master, and probably a genius psychoanalyst. An unparalleled clinician, but also a tremendous philosopher. A great thinker of the 20th century. Someone who, along with Althusser and Foucault, constituted the founding trio of my generation. If in France there was ever a philosophical moment comparable in importance to the Greek moment of Socrates, or to the Germans during the time of Hegelianism and post-Hegelianism — well, Jacques Lacan was the pivotal person in that moment.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You were 17 or 18 years old. How did you know that it was important not miss the classes of this somewhat marginal figure?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — Because I had read his Ecrits, that’s why. In fact, I may as well tell you, I stole that very book from the bookstore of the Presses Universitaires de France on the Place de la Sorbonne the year I began my preparatory studies for the ENS. It was a very thick book, almost a thousand pages long – rather hard to hide. I was wearing a sort of military parka and I managed to stuff the book into an inside pocket. I had to have it! I knew it was more important to read that book than to master the Metaphysics of Aristotle or the dialogues of Plato. But the book was so big that of course I was caught. I can still see the mocking face of the guard who stopped me as I was about to flee with my treasure. They made me fill out a form and then they took me down to the local police station. And of course this set off a major family drama. So the question for me is not why I attended his classes, but why I decided to risk stealing that book, to risk getting caught and being dragged back to my parents’ house by policemen.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Lacan still isn’t recognized as one of the great philosophers, but you, at the tender age of 17 or 18, were fully aware of him.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — Of course I was. I wouldn’t say that there were millions of us who thought of him that way, but we were a good-sized group. And for someone like me, hanging out in revolutionary circles with the Maoists and pre-Maoists, the UJCML [the Union of Communist Marxist-Leninist Youth], and the Proletarian Left, Lacan’s importance was incontrovertible. You would have had to have been an imbecile or clueless not be aware of him.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What were his classes like?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — They were open, public, and, at the same time, strangely private. The students included Normaliens, beautiful women, journalists, writers, and, of course, psychiatrists. A very mixed crowd. And that forest of tape recorders set out in front of him. His arrival was always a big deal, a grand theatrical entrance. Because, as well as being a great thinker, he was also a skilled actor: imaginative, creative, a joker. We must never forget that Lacan’s birth, his primal scene, was Surrealism — or the crypto-Surrealism of Georges Bataille. His “original ground” was that area of Surrealism which runs from Breton to Bataille and Leiris and the College of Sociology. He did have a Surrealist side to him, manifested in his interest in exhibition and provocation, his vague relationship to Salvador Dali, the way he would arrive at his Séminaire wearing extravagant fur coats, smoking giant cigars, and ferociously disdaining those who did not make the effort to follow him, to understand him. And his Mallarméan taste for darkness, the idea that darkness was necessary to shut off the background noise of the doxa [popular opinion], and therefore a strategic, programmed difficulty of language. I have always believed the opposite. I have always thought that to force the attention, the greatest simplicity, the greatest clarity of style, and the maximal neutralisation of the effects of parasitic senses were necessary. But this was not Lacan’s opinion.
Meeting Massoud, 1998
OLIVIER ZAHM — If you don’t mind, let’s move on to a figure from the financial, economic, and fashion worlds, François Pinault. He’s a quiet person, one of the richest men in France, and he plays a significant cultural role with his contemporary art foundation in Venice. He has also had a role in your life, having run a business that was in direct competition with your father’s.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — The fact that he is one of the richest men in France doesn’t really interest me. The fact that he has put together one of the most beautiful modern art collections in the world interests me slightly more, but it doesn’t comprise the essence of my relationship with him. In truth, the whole thing is more personal. It’s true that in business François Pinault was an adversary and a competitor of my father, but he was also his friend. And the fact is that when my father died, 13 years ago, he assumed a small part of my father’s place in my life. That’s how it is.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And then?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — François Pinault is also the man my father called one day, a year before he died, at the time I was getting ready to shoot Bosna!, my documentary on the war in Bosnia. I wasn’t able to secure the financing for the project, which was judged unrealistic by all the French producers. So my father called Pinault one Sunday night. He said, “Bernard wants to shoot a film about the Bosnian war. Primo, I have forbidden him to go; secundo, he is going to disobey me; tertio, to save time, since he’s going to disobey me, I’d rather he do it quickly and well, that he make a beautiful, great, film useful to the martyred people of the besieged Bosniac capital; quarto, let’s meet tomorrow at the little bar on the rue Saint Ferdinand where we sometimes go and, if you’re willing, we’ll set up an ad hoc production company in order to help him make the film.” And Pinault, without asking for more information, without any objection, said he’d be there. They met the next day at the bar, and we were able to make our film quickly, in exemplary conditions.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What is your link to the writer Paul Bowles? Is it the city of Tangiers?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — Yes, but not in the way you might think. It wasn’t that Tangiers brought me to meet Bowles. It was Bowles who showed me Tangiers. I had read Tea in the Sahara. In fact the reason I went to Tangiers was to prolong in reality the experience I had had with his admirable book. At every corner, at every outdoor café, I saw the shadows, the ghosts, and the real characters in the novel. Eventually I went to see him to tell him this. I said, “I wanted to get to know this city because of you. As often happens to me with great artists, since I have been here I have discovered the incarnation of your chimeras. I wanted to meet you to see what the author and creator of these chimeras and this city looks like.” For me, he was the inventor, the creator of Tangiers. And it was with the inventor and creator of Tangiers that I became friends.
In any case, we saw each other until the very end.
OLIVIER ZAHM — When your name is Bernard-Henri Lévy, how do you go about disturbing a writer in his Moroccan retirement home? Do you get his home phone number? Do you just ring his doorbell?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — We had two friends in common. First, an old friend, Boubker Temli. We’re the same age, and I’ve known him since the late ’60s. He’s an antique dealer, a major expert on Orientalism, and my first connection to Bowles. I made a little film, photographed by my wife, Arielle — a one-hour conversation with Bowles, two years before he died. We filmed it at Boubker’s place. Bowles and I had another mutual friend, also a friend of Boubker’s, Joseph McPhillips. He died not long ago. He was American, born in Alabama, and he and Paul Bowles arrived in Tangiers at the same time, in the ’60s, along with Johnny Hopkins, the author of The Tangiers Diaries. He was an incredibly romantic character and the Director of the American School in Tangiers. He was also a major theater lover and at the beginning of every school year he would choose a great repertory piece by Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams or someone like that. He would rehearse it all year long with his students and perform it at the diploma ceremony in mid-June. It was therefore both an ordinary and an ultra-chic event. I mean, one year Mario Testino designed the set. Yves Saint Laurent would create the costumes. And for each production Paul Bowles would write an original score. It’s nearly unimaginable when I look back at that time, but it happened, it really did. Bowles really thought he’d made a mistake, that he was a better composer than he was a writer, and that the only venue in the world he could prove this in was the end-of-the-year gala at the American School of Tangiers. So that’s how we became friends, via Joe McPhillips and Boubker Temli.
Meeting Massoud, 1998
OLIVIER ZAHM — You bought, or you built, a house in Tangiers. Do you still own that house?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — Yes, I do.
OLIVIER ZAHM — A writer can make you fall in love with a city.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — Indeed. And my love for this city inspired me to ask Andrée Putman to imagine for me this house, which is perched on a cliff like a docked white ship made of glass, metal, and plastered concrete. In fact, Andrée sometimes says that the house, in its genre, is her greatest success.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You named your son Antonin, perhaps in homage to Antonin Artaud? Is Artaud a secret passion of yours? I don’t see the link between his universe and your interests.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — Ah, but our ideas do change through the various stages of our lives. And more so for a writer. Life is a sedimentation of different universes, superimposed layer by layer, and in my life there is one layer that belongs to Antonin Artaud. In the summer of 1967 I went to Ireland, to Galway, then to the Aran Islands, following in the footsteps of Artaud, who had gone there in search of St. Patrick’s staff. Two years later, still tracking him, as well as the Tarahumaran people, I began my first extended stay in Mexico, at the age of 20. I stayed there for three months. For me, Artaud’s work represents a major milestone in the creation of modern literature — the Artaud of The Theater and its Double, without a doubt, the man who created the “Theater of Cruelty.” Except that it was not the theater that interested me. What interested me, what still interests me, is the way Artaud, in his life and in his thinking, put the foundation, the knowledge of the human being, at risk — his way of questioning the overly simplified image that men have of themselves, which is called humanism. At that time I was engaged in a great critical reflection about humanism. I was a theoretical anti-humanist along the lines of Foucault, Lacan, and Althusser. I was close to all these thinkers who shattered, who destroyed, the traditional image of the subject in the way it was formed in traditional philosophy. So I would say that Artaud attacked on the north face while others were ascending the south face — or the other way around. He who Sartre called “the bastard,” he who is sure of his place in the world, sure of his rights, sure of his legitimacy, the space he occupied, the air he breathed, his assets, the guy who thinks all of it is normal, part of the natural order — this guy was seeing his very foundation shaken up on one side by the masters of the structural moment, and on the other by the absolute “anti-bastard,” the radical, metaphysical deconstructionist, Antonin Artaud (along with Bataille). Yes, that’s it: you had Bataillan materialism, a sort of reverse Surrealism, a Surrealism not of ideas or ideals, but of the flesh, even of its refuse. In fact, Bataille mentioned it in his famous piece about the big toe, the most interesting part of the body, according to him. Then there was Artaud’s Pèse-Nerfs [Nerve Scale], this flaying of the being, this reversal of subject, this cutting into deepest bedrock — its methodical destruction, all this metaphysical experience, was completely new, for the body and the flesh, culminating in a revolutionary vision of the mutating subjects that we were. It was a time when we were not satisfied with being who we were. The greatness of that time was that we took seriously the idea of aspiring to be greater than the single individual. And Artaud agreed with that.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Having lived as you did, adhering to this radical criticism of humanism, how is it possible that you became the standard-bearer for human rights you are today?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — The positions are not necessarily contradictory! In fact, who was it that inaugurated the human rights policy in France? It was Michel Foucault, the anti-humanist par excellence. And there is the GIP, the Information Group on Prisons, that he founded with Serge Livrozet, Jean-François Lacombe, Claude Mauriac, Henri Leclerc, and others; his fight for Solidarnosc in Poland; and finally, his invention of the minimal, modest, yet reformist policy we today call the policy of human rights.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Does the deconstruction of the subject bring out militantism and localized action, on a case-by-case basis?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — Yes. Because, in the end, what is it really, the Declaration of Human Rights? Certainly it is not a revolutionary policy. It is not like one of those great speeches that claim to change, to reach Man and speak to him, directly to his soul. And it’s the opposite of the great speeches that have only held up because there is something essential in man, and because this essence must be found again and restored to its rightful place. So it’s very simple. When you no longer believe in the idea of the essence of man, when you have rejected the humanistic idea of the truth of man and its restructuring, then you will have to be satisfied with a much more modest policy, which is what the Declaration of Human Rights is. One cannot align oneself with a human rights policy which is merely a vague spiritual complement, a charitable action, until one has deconstructed essentialism, substantialism, and traditional humanism, which is based on the theorem of lost purity which one must find again, no matter what the cost. For this reason, traditional humanism connects to catastrophe, as does the cloud to the rising storm. On the other hand, as soon as one admits that a human being is more complex, as soon as we admit that we do not have simple identities, that we are a mix of inside and outside, that there is no permanent nucleus, nor a perfectly delineated boundary which defines itself more as a perpetually unstable compromise between that inside and outside, the only possible policy is a true, practical Declaration of Human Rights, applicable on a case-by-case basis. This is why the same Foucault could be at once a theoretical anti-humanist and a hard-nosed advocate for human rights.
OLIVIER ZAHM — A word or two about MICHEL LEIRIS?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — I met him at his home on the quai des Grands Augustins, at the very end of his life. I speak of it in my book, Adventures in Freedom. We had a long conversation in which I only asked him, as I should have, about the tiniest details: a line by Breton, a piece of Aragon’s clothing, a character trait of Nancy Cunard. I no longer remember it all exactly, but the text is there; feel free to read it. It’s an extraordinary interview, an unprecedented piece of literary history. Oddly, it hasn’t been reprinted much since then, which is a shame.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Bernard Kouchner is someone in the French political world who cannot be categorized. He is one of your political comrades, one with whom, I have heard, you are supposedly upset.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — We’re not upset with each other. Why would we be? If he had asked my opinion I would have advised him not to become a cabinet minister under Sarkozy, because I think we’re always wrong to not trust our own biographies, our pasts. And in his case it’s even more of a shame, because he is not only an exceptional person but also the inventor of a concept, one of only a few contemporaries of mine who can claim to have invented a concept like it, the concept of “the duty to intervene.” So it made no sense for him to become Foreign Affairs Minister. Not for Nicolas Sarkozy, nor for anyone else. Nonetheless, we are not angry at each other.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Françoise Sagan was an iconic figure in the literary world and in Parisian nightlife. I imagine that you were very fond of her.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — I have so many memories of her, of our meetings, of our dinners — including one with François Mitterrand, who really enjoyed being with her — of our projects, and our plans. Sagan was someone who spent a lot of time looking for magic formulas, a way to double her bet, to earn more money. For example, at one point she had the idea — one she really wanted to work out, although it never did — of setting up a sort of writing workshop for films and telefilms. And toward the end of her life, when she was being pursued by the tax people, harassed and reduced to poverty, several friends, including Nicole Wisniak, and I tried to help her. But that’s not what’s most important. What is essential — and here I choose my words quite carefully — is that she’s the most underestimated French writer of recent years. She deserves so much more than the status lately attributed to her, that of “minor writer,” with which she had the grace to be satisfied.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Another writer, an American one, whose portrait you created in American Vertigo, was Jim Harrison. You went to meet him at his home in Montana.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — What I found interesting about Jim Harrison is quite simple: he’s the exact opposite of me. If I were to look up in the literary compendium of beasts the animal the most contrary to myself, it would be Jim Harrison. His way of living, his vision of the world, his relationship to nature, his relationship to the novel form — there is no point where I am not in opposition to this man, and that is what fascinates me, what interests me. That is why I wanted to meet him and why I hope to meet him again.
Black suede embroidered jacket KENZO
OLIVIER ZAHM — What is the nature of your disagreement with him?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — He loves nature and I’m wary of it. He loves the country and I love the city. He believes we write in a state of intoxication whereas I believe we write in a state of complete lucidity. He probably loves to make love in the morning, when he is half-awake, whereas for me physical love is never more intense than when I’m most awake, my senses honed and alert. He’s an optimist and I’m a pessimist. He thinks that writing comes from the gut whereas I think it comes from the brain. He loves the concrete and I love the abstract. He is wary of intellectuals and I respect them. There it is, word for word. And I could keep going. Meeting Jim Harrison was for me almost the philosophical equivalent of meeting my exact opposite.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Another not-to-be-missed American writer is Norman Mailer.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — I feel that I am very close to him.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Because of the way the both of you write?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — Yes. But there’s more. For me, he is an absolute master. I borrowed from him the concept of the romanquête [the nonfiction novel], for example. Not the term, which I made up, but the idea, the genre, the principle of literature being in the service of an investigation. An investigation which, when it comes up against what cannot be known, gives way to literature. I’m thinking of The Executioner’s Song, Armies of the Night, and his book on Lee Harvey Oswald, Kennedy’s assassin. All of which shows a relationship between literature and reality, how literature seizes reality and absorbs it. That is what I had to do in the few pages of Who Killed Daniel Pearl? — in only a few pages, carefully defined and laid out — where I write in a fictional voice. I think perhaps Mailer gave me one of his last interviews, if not the very last one. It was when I was working on American Vertigo, a few months before he died. I was coming to the end of my voyage and I didn’t want it to end without having at least a conversation with him. He was old and frail. It was hard for him to get around and his vision was failing. He told me he knew he only had a few useful hours a day in which to work. He knew he was going to die soon, to go into that darkness. Yet he took some of his all-too-precious time to give me the magnificent interview that closes American Vertigo. The full interview is printed in La Règle du Jeu.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did your visit with him take place in New York?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — No, in Province-town, a charming but rather strange town inhabited almost exclusively by gays — an odd place for the living incarnation of the macho American to have chosen as his final home.
Bosnia, 1994, Photo Alexis Duclos, Gamma
OLIVIER ZAHM — We cannot continue this portrait gallery without evoking the name of Louis Althusser, who was your teacher, as well as a friend with whom you spent a certain part of your life. He’s an enigmatic character, someone who was at the center of intellectual life but was then completely pushed aside. He later suffered from mental illness and depression. It was like the end of an intellectual tradition to which you were both a witness and the last spiritual son.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — Althusser was a beacon — in the literal sense, having had an intense, blinding light that lasted for only a short time. A bright light coming out of the night and then going back into darkness. And, at the end, into tragedy, with the murder of his wife, Hélène.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What was it that he liked in you? How did it happen that, all of a sudden,
he became the friend of a young man from the middle class, a young man with a contradictory relationship to orthodox Marxism? I imagine he was not an overly friendly person.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — Really? Well, that would be a mistake, because he was very cordial, very friendly. With, moreover, the added dimension of suffering and, therefore, humanity. Of course, with the knowledge we have today we can better understand what happened, better understand his mental instability. He was perceived as a chilly theoretician. We understood his anti-humanism to be like an inability to hear excitement and passion. We thought he was the incarnation of his theory, of the spirit of theoreticism in general. And then, at the end, we discovered that he was in fact a sort of Dostoyevskian hero, one of the brothers Karamazov, perhaps: ending his life on the crime blotter, strangling his wife, and being locked away forever.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And you, how did you see him?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — I didn’t imagine any of that. None of us believed that our master could be this lunatic who, when he would disappear for months at a time, without explanation, was in fact hidden away in a psychiatric hospital, where he spent his days and nights, a towel in his mouth to stop him biting his tongue, being given electroshock therapy, which shattered him completely.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Was he friendly to you when you were a student?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — Yes, absolutely. I remember one summer in the south of France, near Gordes, where he had a house. I had rented a house in a neighboring village, Cazeneuve, in part to be closer to him. I had just returned from Bangladesh, and we spent that summer, the summer of my return, together. What did he see in me? I have no idea. Perhaps it was just the fact that I was the last of the “Althussériens,” the last serious one. The great Althusserian generation was the one just before mine; it included Etienne Balibar, Pierre Macherey, Régis Debray, and others. I was five or six years younger than they were and, chronologically, I was the last one, his last disciple. Perhaps it was because of this, only this, that he was so attached to me when he saw me.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What about Jacques Derrida, your other teacher on the rue d’Ulm?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — He was not on the same level, at least not in my opinion. But he was a great teacher and also — how to explain this? — someone I have stayed so close to that I transformed him into a character in one my books, Comédie.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Another public figure and friend who was part of your student and militant youth was the young Moroccan, Ahmed Mohamadialal.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — He’s the godfather, along with Gilles Hertzog, of my daughter Justine. He’s another victim of the end of the ’60s. Another one of “society’s suicides,” as Artaud called them. He’s still alive, thank heavens, but still a suicide, in a certain way. He was not up to keeping the promises of which he was the bearer. He was one of those people who took very seriously the words of the revolutionary orders dating from the end of the ’60s, and who, faced with the dashing of that hope, acted as if the conclusion was, “Go on without me! This horrible society against which we all fought will go on, yes — but without me.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did he behave with elegance?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — Yes, a great deal of elegance.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, a young Moroccan man decides to come to France…
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — He was a student of the Jesuits and a switchboard operator at the Ecole Sainte-Geneviève de Viroflay, near Versailles, where I was also a teacher. I was 18 or 19 and he was 17. We became friends, inseparable friends. He was a major charmer. We would cruise girls together and we would challenge each other. You know, “The first guy to bring in a 5’2’’ redhead with a mole on her knee wins.” And he always won! He would find the philosophic woman! Especially since he thought — we thought — that society, the way it was organized then, was not worthy of our respect. I changed. In the end I thought there was no alternative, that the idea of a good society was a dangerous chimera. I don’t think he changed; he decided not to adapt to this society. And that’s why he ended up saying, like Melville’s hero, “I’d prefer not to.” Go on, if you like, but without me.
OLIVIER ZAHM — In Tangiers he fell in love with a Frenchwoman from the jet-set aristocracy, Diane de Beauvau Craon.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — Yes, they had a child, a son. And after that things got really complicated. And private.
OLIVIER ZAHM — GILLES HERTZOG?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — He’s been my colleague for thirty years, and he’s been a companion on most of my reporting trips. Along with Jean-Paul Enthoven, my other incomparable friend, we make up the three musketeers.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you like Jean-Paul Enthoven’s portrait of you in his novel? Is it the best we have?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — Naturally! The novel is magnificent. And of course I do like my portrait, without reservation. Anyone who doubts this doesn’t understand the kind of alchemy that happens when the living are assimilated into literature.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Let’s talk about your daughter, Justine Lévy, a writer who lives in Paris. What can you say about her?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — That she is the best novelist of her generation.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Could it be exaggerated paternal tenderness that makes you think this?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — No, it is my considered opinion as a reader, writer, and editor. I think that she would be in the “Durasian” family of writers, due to her refusal to write “beautifully,” to write with “white gloves and majesty,” due to the way she writes the way she breathes, the way she holds onto her own rhythm, her innate, essential lightness of spirit, treating life as it were fiction. I think that, since the death of Guillaume Dustan, she really is the best. I’m sorry, but that’s how it is.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You named her Justine Juliette – a double reference to Sade!
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — Yes. I’m sure I thought I was placing her in the gravitational center of human passions. A Juliette who would have the soul of a Justine. Or the other way around — a Justine who would no longer be the victim she was to Sade. In giving her these two extreme names the idea was to invoke the double trap of virtue and vice, inoculating one with the pure antidote of the other, and vice versa. The idea was to encourage her, from a distance, to draw from these deposits of passion that which was apt for conjuring, which at that time — the beginning of feminism — seemed to me to be like a feminine curse.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You wrote a book about CHARLES BAUDELAIRE. We were not expecting that. What was it that brought you to Baudelaire?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — His metaphysics. It may seem bizarre, but it is nonetheless true: there is a metaphysic of Baudelaire, and it’s the true subject of the book I dedicated to this man — the Baudelaire who was a disciple of Joseph de Maistre, the anti-naturalist Baudelaire, the Baudelaire who praises artifice and make-believe over spontaneity, the Baudelaire who only liked women who were wearing make-up, the Baudelaire who believed that those who said they were friends of the human race had a good chance of becoming its assassins, the Baudelaire who despised Robespierre, the Baudelaire who did not believe in community, the Baudelaire who knew that men are born alone, they die alone, and they go through life almost alone as well. This is the Baudelaire who fascinated me. It is he who, 20 years after I put myself inside his skin in order to feel his agony, accompanies me still today.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I believe you interviewed BARACK OBAMA during your American travels.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — Yes, it’s true. This may sound pretentious but, honestly, I must have been the first European to print his name, or at least to speak of him as a possible American President. It was four years ago to the day, at the same time we are speaking now. I can see him leaping onstage in that hall in Boston where the previous Democratic Convention was held, the one they nominated John Kerry at. The room was nearly deserted because it was so late. He was one of the last speakers, since he was at that time nearly unknown. And there was, in the way he stepped onstage, the way he had of personalizing a text he probably had not written, and in the sheer radiance he gave off, something which impressed me so profoundly that I came back to see him the next day. I immediately wrote a piece for Atlantic Monthly, the magazine I was writing for — it later appeared in American Vertigo — a piece entitled “A Black Clinton.” Not bad! And the truth is that the first title I chose for that piece was “A Black Kennedy.” But my American friends were so surprised, so shocked, and came down so heavily with “write what you want but don’t go too far; the memory of John F. Kennedy — now there you’re pushing it,” that I accepted the compromise and changed “Kennedy” to “Clinton.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — I’d like to talk a little about Daniel Pearl. You wrote a book investigating his assassination. Is there anything you’d like to add to what you’ve already said, now that the investigation is over, now that the book is a success?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — I don’t know. Perhaps my pride in having undertaken the investigation, having carried it through, and thus contributing to what Jews call the “celebration” of his name. Beyond that, I wrote that book years ago, but the fact remains that not a day goes by that I don’t think of him, without him being a little with me and me being a little bit with him.
It’s strange, but it’s true.
OLIVIER ZAHM — For those who did not know him and have not read your book, how would you describe this man?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — A man who was martyred, excruciatingly, because he was a Jew, a journalist, and an American.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Because of his identity, then?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — For that specific identity, yes. He was American in a country where America is perceived as the house of the devil. He was Jewish in an area of the world ravaged by anti-Semitism. And he was a journalist about to discover — this was my thesis — a truth which was not supposed to be known: the fact that the inventor of the Pakistani atomic bomb, endorsed by a fraction of Pakistani secret services, was in the process of selling his secrets to a certain number of rogue States and, probably, to Al-Qaeda. The facts — I mean the arrest, for the reason I gave, of this man, Abdul Qader Khan, a few months after my book was published — confirmed my hypothesis. And it is why Daniel Pearl died.
OLIVIER ZAHM — BENAZIR BHUTTO?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — The other Pakistan. An admirable woman and the other Pakistan. I never met her. But we wrote to each other, waved at each other. She read my book on Daniel Pearl. And I heard from one of her friends, the Pakistani businessman, Amer Lodhi, that one of the last books she read before her death was my American Vertigo. And the great journalist from California, Nathan Gardels, has one of her last messages on his Blackberry, in which she reacted to the interview I had just given him in which I explained for the nth time, but with new arguments, how the Pakistan of Musharraf had become the most dangerous place on earth, because of the alliance made between the Islamists and the secret services.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Have you met Vladimir Putin?
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY — No! Putin is the man who declared that the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century was the collapse of the Soviet Union. He really believes that this “collapse” — meaning, to be clear, the liberation of the Polish, the Czechs, the Hungarians, the Ukrainians, etc. — is a phenomenon which is comparable to, but worse, more serious, than Hiroshima, than the First World War, than the Second, than Auschwitz, than the genocide in Rwanda. And I could go on and on…
OLIVIER ZAHM — Someone who is rarely mentioned now is Heiner Muller, the dramaturge from Berlin.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY —
[Table of contents]
Sam GuelimiRead the article
John McWhinnieRead the article
Marike Thunder NussRead the article
Adam McEwenRead the article
Hudson FurnitureRead the article
Ryan McGinnessRead the article
Brigid BerlinRead the article
Maria CornejoRead the article
BEST of the SEASONRead the article
by Olympia Le-Tan
by Olivier Zahm
by Olivier Zahm
by Olivier Zahm
by Olivier Zahm and Dash Snow
by Shamim Momin
by Miltos Manetas
Maryna, Magdalena, Paz, Karmen, and Anne
by Mario Sorrenti
by David Lynch
by Ellen von Unwerth, Magnus Unnar, Mark Borthwick, Vanna Sorrenti, Theo Wenner
A New GenerationRead the article
Vincent Darré & Elie Top
by Max Farago
by Ari Marcopolous
Cairo Dezaldo Marcopoulos
by Ari Marcopolous
by Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin
by Mario Sorrenti
by Bernard-Henri Levy
by Steven Klein
by Noritoshi Hirakawa
by Glenn O'Brien
by Olivier Zahm
Terry Richardson’s Life Story Episode 2
by Olivier Zahm
by Dash Snow
A taste of the Spring Summer 2009 collections
by Camille Bidault-Waddington
by Paola Kudaki
by Patrick Demarchelier
by Terry Richardson and Olivier Zahm
by Leigh Ledare