But Lévy and the journalists seem to be talking past one another. Pulvar and Polony grow visibly annoyed. Each time the camera moves away, they wave their hands furiously, trying to get the host to call on them again. Lévy is undeterred, in full allusive mode, summoning the spirit of the International Brigades, the volunteers who once flooded Spain to fight the dictator Franco, until Polony finally cannot contain her impatience any longer and cuts in.
“The big difference,” she says, “is that they committed only themselves. You committed nations.”
When a reporter calls an American philosopher for an interview, the reporter is made to feel as intrusive as an alarm clock—you sense the stillness of the office, the vague unease about the telephone. French philosophers are the opposite. The French philosopher will respond to an e-mail eagerly, and in English, and remind you of the time difference, and then he will not only give you his phone number but explain the logic behind his phone number (“You press plus-three-three, which indicates France, yes? And then one, which is for Paris …”), and then he will buttress his account with episodes ripped from the recent headlines. You soon wonder if communicating with the American media is not a distraction at all for the French philosopher; perhaps it is his essential act.
Forty years ago, this space was occupied by giants—Sartre, Derrida, Foucault. “Of course, it is what everybody talks about: There is no Sartre anymore,” says Bruckner. But their place in French culture still exists, and Lévy has come to fill it. His grandfather was an Algerian-Jewish cowherd, but his father built a business empire, and Lévy grew up in the cordoned-off, dignified Paris suburb of Neuilly. He ascended with the speed of someone who assumed he had a big place in the world; he won entrance to the École Normale Supérieure, studied under Louis Althusser, tried to join the Israeli Army during the Six-Day War, and in his late twenties helped to define the new anti-Soviet stance of the French left. In 1971, moved by the heroism of Third World liberation fighters, Lévy traveled to Bangladesh and presented himself at the headquarters of the revolutionaries; he watched in Dhaka’s central square as a group of loyalists to the Pakistani government were hanged. By 1977, he had his first appearance on the iconic cultural television program Apostrophes. His look and features were already fixed. So were his ideas.
“In the back of his mind, I’m sure, was the idea that I might be delusional.”
Lévy was only on the fringes of the great revolutionary protests of 1968—he was still a teenager, and the line you hear is that while the French were rioting, he was consumed by his exams—but their failure shaped his world. Lévy abandoned orthodox Marxism for the more modest project of humanitarianism. If intellectuals were not competent to rearrange societies, at least they could recognize the moral atrocities of deprivation or genocide. “Lévy is really quite explicit,” says Julian Bourg of Boston College. “Politics have culminated in totalitarianism. All we have left is ethics.” The philosopher became an unusual, freelance conflict activist—camping out on the front lines and helping to focus the West’s attention on mass violence in Afghanistan, Sudan, Rwanda, and especially Bosnia. Lévy has always remained resolutely independent, with contacts but without political affiliations. He has become, the essayist Paul Berman says, “a one-man human-rights movement.”
Lévy’s great gift as a media figure is his willingness to play the devil, to make the most extreme case. “I like his incaution,” says Lévy’s friend Tina Brown, the editor of Newsweek and the Daily Beast. “He has the instinct to make everything into a stand.” Lévy’s is a sweeping-gesture politics. “Lack of care—maybe sometimes yes,” Lévy admits.
His friends and defenders like to distinguish between Lévy the philosopher and “BHL,” as he is referred to in the press—the frequently, almost consciously outlandish society persona Lévy has adopted. Though over time, the latter has almost completely swallowed the former. There is the costume and the weakness for bombast (he’s described his two great passions as writing and women). Eight years after writing a well-received 2000 book on Sartre, he confessed in print to retaining almost nothing on the subject. Lévy’s third and current wife is the famous French actress Arielle Dombasle, for whom he co-wrote, directed, and produced a widely derided movie in 1997, Le Jour et La Nuit; the mockery was so intense that he produced a book in response to it. Lévy’s affect is easily Muppeted, and one of the French comedy shows features a pretty credible BHL doll. “French egalitarianism is a real illness,” says Lévy’s close friend the publisher Jean-Paul Enthoven in explaining the disdain. The philosopher himself is more forward. “They have no effect on my narcissism,” Lévy wrote in 2008 of his critics. “In the face of assaults, my ego is fireproof, shatterproof.”