Copyright New York magazine
French celebrity intellectual Bernard-Henri LÃ©vy has certain things he wants to say to America, and he wouldnâ€™t mind saying them on The Daily Show. â€œJon Stewart for me is the best,â€ he says. â€œThere is nothing equivalent in France. I often read that in America there is nothing similar to BHL. So it could be a good combination.â€
If youâ€™ve never heard the initials BHL, which is what LÃ©vy tends to go by, if youâ€™ve missed his appearances on Charlie Rose or this yearâ€™s Vanity Fair best-dressed list, heâ€™s hoping that will change with the publication this month of his new book, American Vertigo. In it, he travels the United States â€œin the footsteps of Tocqueville.â€ The trip was the idea of the Atlantic Monthly, which serialized his observations and hired a young assistant to chauffeur him down the open road because BHL doesnâ€™t drive. (â€œItâ€™s my infirmity,â€ he apologizes.) The book, his 30th and the first to be published in the United States before France, is a somewhat expanded collection of those dispatches.
â€œThe trip was under three shadows,â€ BHL explains. â€œThe shadow of the war in Iraq, the shadow of an election, and the shadow of Katrina,â€ although the hurricane hadnâ€™t struck at the time he wrote the book. â€œThe anti-ci-pated shadow of Katrina, as you see. I was in New Orleans four or five months before Katrina, and I more or less foresee what is going to happen.â€
BHL, 57, is not a man particularly encumbered by modesty. When he comes downstairs from his room at the Carlyleâ€”where heâ€™s stayed whenever heâ€™s been in town for the past 30 yearsâ€”heâ€™s wearing a black velvet jacket and a white shirt unbuttoned, as is his habit, to display his tanned chest. A self-described â€œBaudelairean,â€ he is adamantly libertine, with a long history of mistresses. Heâ€™s also clearly richâ€”his father owned a large lumber concern, and BHL owns a palace in Morocco and is married to the extraterrestrially beautiful actress Arielle Dombasle.
As a sort of Parisian amalgam of Susan Sontag and Warren Beatty, heâ€™s sometimes referred to in France asâ€”trailing Nietzsche here, not DC Comicsâ€”â€œSupermanâ€ by admirers and detractors alike. In his daughter Justine LÃ©vyâ€™s 2004 novel, Nothing Serious, the main character, Louiseâ€”a writer who wants desperately to please her father, â€œBHLâ€â€”gets addicted to amphetamines, which sheâ€™d seen him take to write more quickly. On them, she becomes â€œSuperlouise,â€ with â€œdirect access to Dadâ€™s cortex.â€ (BHL denies itâ€™s a tell-all: â€œMy daughter is a writer. The more she reveals, the more she hides.â€)
At 29, Bernard-Henri LÃ©vy took the first major step toward becoming BHL when he published a book, called Barbarism With a Human Face, attacking his fellow intellectualsâ€™ fascination with Marxism. It established the patterns of his life and notoriety: anti-totalitarian, internationalist, atheist, and what he calls â€œanti-anti-American.â€ (He later wrote a book about how the French are â€œwired for Fascism.â€) In 2002, he went to Pakistan and wrote a book called Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, about the Wall Street Journal reporter, which is how he caught the attention of the Atlantic, which was looking for a suitable Frenchman to do a post-9/11 Tocqueville.
â€œIt is not a book of philosophy,â€ BHL says, between digging for cashews out of the bowl of mixed nuts. â€œBecause itâ€™s journalism, it is literature, it is funnyâ€”I hope you laugh sometimes. But it is a philosophical work in spite of being journalistic, comic, and so on. Câ€™est un geste philosophiqueâ€”a philosophical gesture.â€ He set out to uncover Americaâ€™s â€œcrisis of identity. The most powerful country in the world does not know what it is, it feels itself in a deep trauma, a deep neurosis. It was interesting to go behind the curtain.â€ A van full of French filmmakers followed him the whole trip, so thereâ€™ll be a documentary as well. Synergie!
American Vertigo, while somewhat adhering to the â€œfootsteps of Tocqueville,â€ careers around, allowing him to drag the ironies out of Cooperstown (which he describes as a church), a suburban Chicago megachurch (â€œneo-paganistâ€), an anti-Semitic Indian leader, the Mall of America (â€œa church,â€ again), John Kerry (â€œa European at heartâ€), and a big retirement community (it reminds him of apartheid). He visits with clueless Hollywood liberal Sharon Stone (whom he manages to observe crossing her legs) and finds Las Vegas strippers mechanically standoffish (â€œthe wretchedness of Eros in the land of the Puritansâ€). In Michigan, he marvels at the solidity of the American identity among Arab immigrants. (The book was finished before the riots broke out in Paris: â€œWe have our crisis there, sure,â€ he says. â€œYou had your riots in the nineties.â€) In Dallas, at the assassination site of JFK, he wonders, â€œWhat is a myth that you no longer believe in that still functions?â€
And amid all that is what seems to be his conclusion: that America is a curious sort of empireâ€”not at all like Rome at its zenith or declineâ€”with a particular character of individualism that he hopes will cause the country to do the good it could do in the world. Heâ€™s disappointed that we arenâ€™t living up to our noblesse oblige responsibilities. â€œThe reason I am so angry against neoconservatives is that they spoiled the very idea of intervention,â€ says the self-described Wilsonian. And heâ€™s flabbergasted that the American left can be so accommodating to the puritanism of the right. There is, in fact, for a secular blue-stater, little in this book to disagree with: It has, at times, the reinforcement-of-a-worldview pleasures of a well-argued Frank Rich column, or, for that matter, The Daily Show.
So is his goal with American Vertigo to become BHL in America, a branded public intellectual? â€œNo comment,â€ he says, punching my shoulder lightly. â€œWhat I would like is if I could participate in the ideological intellectual debate here and contribute in a slight way.â€
Still, heâ€™s not going to move here. This is, after all, a man with many mistresses, and this country is just one of them. But, in the end, what did he like best about the U.S.?
â€œEverything, my dear. I will tell you. Sometimes in your private life you have a mistress you love, love being with. You spend time to time in a grand hotel, with good room service, great champagne, and you separateâ€”and when you are really in love with her, you inevitably think, Could I wake up with her, near her every morning? And then you try it. This is exactly what I did in America. America was a great mistress. I had a great fuck with America. It was like a weekend in the Hotel du Cap.â€