Celebrity doesn’t always travel well. The conditions it depends upon can be too local, too conditional. Try explaining Kim Kardashian to the Germans; try asking the Germans to explain David Hasselhoff to us. Still, the case of the famously self-regarding, righteous, impeccably coiffed French philosopher and media personality Bernard-Henri Lévy is singularly strange. The events of the past year—in which Lévy, operating freelance, seemed to prompt a broke and crumbling Europe into a humanitarian war in Libya—so obviously belong to a different era that Lévy has left in his wake a torrent of historical analogies: Perhaps he is Lawrence of Arabia, as a friendly French review recently suggested. Or perhaps he is Don Quixote.
One year ago, influence like this appeared far beyond Lévy’s reach. He has long been France’s most famous living philosopher, and was once an important one, but his media and social profile eclipsed his intellectual reputation. He was still suffering from the highly embarrassing Botul episode of 2010, in which Lévy had happened upon a philosophical spoof and, assuming it to be serious, cited its arguments as part of a critique of Immanuel Kant. (He had missed the crucial clue, which was that the fake philosopher, Jean-Baptiste Botul, was elaborating a philosophy called Botulism.) His journalism was often called glib, and his big 2006 book on America had been panned on the front page of the New York Times’ Sunday book review. When I called scholars of European ideas at Harvard and Columbia to talk about Lévy, they dismissed him as overhyped and irrelevant, respectively. At the beginning of 2011, Lévy was most frequently in the French press for his New York mistress, the heiress Daphne Guinness, who kept up a public theater of pining for him on Twitter.
But, as Lévy told me recently, “sometimes you are inhabited by intuitions that are not clear to you.” On February 23, the philosopher was in Cairo watching television images of Muammar Qaddafi’s retribution against the rebel towns around Benghazi, which the dictator and his sons had threatened to drown in “rivers of blood.” Lévy is most fully himself in stark humanitarian crises, when defending what he calls “the memory of the worst.” He is also the heir to a vast timber fortune, wealth that allows him a license to act on his instincts, and so he promptly found the name of rebel leader Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, arranged for a cameraman and for a private plane to fly him near the front, and within a few hours was in a hired car, driving off to war.
Lévy was a veteran of mass killing; he had seen it in a half-dozen conflicts, maybe, and driving through the desert towns east of Benghazi, he detected its early signs: blood-smeared walls, passersby wrapping themselves in hoods to keep their lungs free of contaminants. He foresaw a “crawling tragedy. Thirty, 40 dead a day. Maybe worse.” In Benghazi, Lévy spent the hour before their meeting frantically Googling Abdel-Jalil and leaping up to greet anyone walking past who might be the Libyan. When Abdel-Jalil did arrive (“short with a modest smile and the look of a stunned falcon”), Lévy had prepared his speech. “The world is watching,” he began. It was pompous, he realized, but “you have to say something.” He compared Benghazi to the Warsaw Ghetto, to Sarajevo. “Benghazi is the capital not only of Libya but of free men and women all over the world,” Lévy told the rebel leader.
“In the back of his mind, I’m sure, was the idea that I might be a fly-by-night,” Lévy wrote in his diary, “or delusional.” Indeed. Lévy told Abdel-Jalil that he could fly a rebel delegation to Paris on his plane and get them an audience with French president Nicolas Sarkozy. The rebels were badly outgunned, and Abdel-Jalil did not at this moment have a ton of other suitors. He agreed.
The philosopher had barely spoken with Sarkozy in three years and had rather loudly opposed the president’s election. Lévy got so stressed thinking about the call that he developed a migraine, but he phoned the presidential palace anyway and was promptly put through. The call dropped three times; it wasn’t a great connection. But the president agreed to meet with the Libyans, and the next Thursday they were all in his office in Paris, ringed by Sarkozy’s advisers.
Everyone was awkward. The Libyans asked Sarkozy to assassinate Qaddafi. This was impossible. Lévy sensed that the rebels misunderstood their own case: “So maladroit, so not skilled, did not know the cause.” Lévy had sat down privately with Sarkozy the previous day and, grappling for a line of argument, wound up with rhetoric; if there was a massacre in Benghazi, he said, “the blood of the massacred will stain the French flag.” Sarkozy seemed to buy it. At the meeting with the rebels, the French president pledged a bombardment if he could secure the cooperation of the allies. In Lévy’s account, as the meeting emptied, Sarkozy said to him, “Feel free to, uh, say what you saw and heard.” Outside, Lévy told reporters that France would recognize the rebels as the Libyan government; he mentioned that “targeted operations” would come soon. Le Monde, bewildered, noted that the philosopher seemed to have taken the job of governmental spokesman. The man officially in charge of French foreign affairs—Alain Juppé, the foreign minister—was in Brussels at the time; he would later reportedly threaten to resign over the end run.