THE NEW FRENCH PHILOSOHERS
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TAKING ON MARX
Newsweek, August 22, 1977
When Jean-Paul Sartre pronounced Marxism “the unsurpassable philosophy of our time,” he merely confirmed a philosophical fashion that has dominated French intellectual life since ‘30s. Although France has produced brilliant existentialists, neo-Thomists and structuralists, Marxism continues to pervade sophisticated discourse at elite French universities and to fire political passions in Parisian salons of thought. But now a group of nine brash young philosophers – most of them disillusioned graduates of the abortive student riots of May 1968 – have mounted an erudite assault on the foundations of Marxism. In fourteen books, all published since 1975, and in a recent round of angry exchanges in the media, these nouveaux philosophes have made their anti-Marxist polemics the topic of café conversation. And their critique of Marxism may have a significant effect on the fortunes of the country’s emergent leftist coalition of Socialists and Communists in next year’s elections.
The young authors have yet to construct a new social philosophy, but their passionate defense of personal freedom, their photogenic good looks and especially their sense of intellectual betrayal by older Marxists and student anarchists, they represent the first wave of intellectuals to emerge from the 1968 riots. Citing Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s exposé of the Soviet prison system, they argue that French Marxists purposely have refused to acknowledge Communist repression in Eastern Europe or to admit that oppression itself is the logical result – and not merely a Russian aberration – of Marxist – Leninist principles. From this position, each author elaborates his own critique of socialist thought, and raises fundamental philosophical questions that their university mentors considered solved by Marxist dialectics. “This is not an anti-left philosophy”, says Bernard-Henri Lévy, 28, the movement’s progenitor and chief publisher. “It’s anti-socialist – a way of saying to the French left that it is making a gigantic and historic error.
In his current best seller, “Barbarity with a Human Face”, Lévy blames the philosophers of the French Enlightenment for making reason the religion of the modern state and justifying the subsequent use of force to raise the consciousness of the unenlightened masses. He is especially critical of the Enlightenment’s faith in inevitable human progress and its later expression in Marx of the historical inevitability of state socialism. Communists, he argues, have transformed state-enforced progress into “a reactionary machine that leads the world to catastrophe”. Lévy concludes that power is the mechanism by which society orders itself and the state will never wither away.
Anti-semitic: By contrast, André Glucksmann, 40, perhaps the most seminal thinker in the group, locates the origins of both Marxism and Nazism in nineteenth-century German philosophy. In his best seller, “The Master Thinkers”, he claims that Hegel, Fichte, Marx and Nietzche each developed philosophical systems to forge the creation of a German state. Each called for a revolution each elaborated a science of government that separates rulers from the ruled and each looked to the state as the crucible fro the transformation of humanity. Glucksmann contends that French Marxists imported this intellectual tradition from the U.S.S.R. and, if given political power, they would crush spontaneity and personal freedom just as the French Communists shut factory doors against sympathetic students rioters in 1968. He also believes that Marxism, like Nazism, is inherently anti-Semitic. “The Jew is a merchant who ignores frontiers”.
Much to their own surprise, the new philosophers’ rejection of Marxism, nationalism and progress has provoked the liveliest intellectual debate since the advent of Sartre himself. French magazines have featured the handsome young authors on their covers and a 90-minute debate in the new philosophy last spring drew 4 million television viewers.
“Mayonnaise”: In reaction, the left has mounted a counterattack. The Communists have denounced the movement as “The New Right”. Marxist revolutionary Régis Débray finds the authors “inexperienced “ in tarring French socialism with the excesses of the Soviet gulags. On the other hand, structuralist Michel Foucault, probably the most respected intellectual in France, has praised the upstarts for reminding philosophers of the “bloody” consequences that have flowed from enlightened social theories. Catholic theologian Father Raymond-Léopold Bruckberger recognizes in the new anti-Marxists ideas that religious thinkers Jacques Maritain, Georges Bernanos and Simone Veil put forward a generation ago. “Now suddenly, the same things said at a different times by others… are understood and welcomed”, Bruckberger wrote in Le Journal du Dimanche. “It’s the miracle of a mayonnaise that curdles twenty times and suddenly… takes”.
What concerns French politicians is whether this fashionable movement will help tip next year’s elections away from the presently favored Socialist-Communist coalition. Socialist Party chief François Mitterand, the left’s likely candidate for Premier, has promised an assessment of the movement’s views. President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing has capitalizes on the anti-Marxist vogue by entertaining some of the new philosophers at the Elysée Palace. Among themselves, however, the philosophers profess to see little difference between the political left and right. In time, says Lévy, “a new idea for the management of society – other than socialism – could be born”. Meanwhile, like the young Albert Camus, Lévy and his colleagues counsel their generation to abandon the search for a new ideological system and to resist oppression as best they can through personal ethics and moral duty.
KENNETH L. WOODWARD with JANE FRIEDMAN in Paris
Les nouveaux philosophes français:
Site sur Bernard-Henri Lévy (BHL)
BHL écrit sur Sartre – Le Monde Diplomatique Février 2000
Cinquante ans de philosophie française
Entretien avec Luc Ferry
Entretien avec André Comte-Sponville
Entretien avec Edgar Morin
Entretien avec Jacques Le Goff
The André Glucksmann File
Reviews of Dominique Lecourt, The Mediocracy: French Philosophy Since the Mid-1970s
International Socialism Journal
Jacques Derrida recebe um premio na Alemanha
Derrida, Death, and Forgiveness - review of the book by Derrida, The Gift of Death
site italiano sobre filosofia e filósofos
SULLA DECADENZA DEI NOSTRI TEMPI, di Antonio D’Alonzo
"France: Those Magnificent Marx-Haters"
The Economist, August 20, 1977
It was 30 years ago that existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre's introverted black-sweater philosophy, became the intellectual rage in Paris and much of the western world. The Sartre creed had a good long life, but it faded some time ago without being replaced. Now a successor may have arrived, making an explosive entry because of its potential influence on France's general election eight months hence. The new movement is unashamedly anti-communist. It represents the soul-searching of half a dozen youthful ex-Marxists who have been named (mainly because it sounds good) the "new philosophers".
There is something conspicuously modish about them. But what most intrigues France is their philosophical somersault from adoration of Karl Marx to total rejection of the German thinker. They were Maoist rebels many of whom manned the barricades in France's May, 1968, student uprising against the government. Now President Giscard d'Estaing invites them to cocktails at the Elysee presidential palace.
The "new philosophy" seems to have been steadily gaining momentum since its breakthrough in the spring, when two books were published which have become roaring bestsellers - an extremely rare event for philosophical works which make no concessions to man-in-the-street reading appetites.
On the strength of Andre Glucksmann's "Les Maitres Penseurs" (master thinkers) and Bernard-Henri Levy's "Barbarie a Visage Humain" (barbarity with a human face), a set of ideas which grew out of bewildered disappointment with 1968 has hit the jackpot. These two books have sold around 80,000 copies each in a few months, more than any but the most successful novel in France. They have also drawn attention to other recent books in the same mould, including Jean-Marie Benoist's "Marx est Mort" and Guy Lardreau's and Christian considered to be the gospel for the entire school. The new philosophers ahve received lavish exposure on the state-run television. France's leading newspapers and magazines have analysed, praised, scorned but above all publicised them. They drew more people (an estimated 2,000) to an open philosophy meeting at the new Georges Pomipidou cultural centre in Paris last month than a front-rank politician would expect to attract to an election meeting. Glucksmann, at 40 the long-tressed, volatile "old man" of the group, recently donned a grotesque Giscard maskt to interview three eastern block dissidents on national television. The curious joke seemed to signal contempt for the French president's kid-glove approach to Mr Brezhnev on the human rights issue.
Yet M. Giscard d'Estaing and the government majority are justifiably gratified by the "new philosophy".Its central theme is what Levy and his friends call "the master". This key word stands for power, the system, the state - and, by logical extension, the world. There is no way of beating the master. To tell people that socialism, communism or revolution can get rid of the master is to delude them. This chain of argument reflects the numbed disenchantment of the new philosopher with the left rebellion of May 1968, which Levy writes off as a disaster. At his holiday home on the French Riviera the handsome 30-year-old spokesman for the group explained: "It showed the impossibility of revolution. For us it became the bankruptcy of socialism."
The beleaguered forces of President Giscard d'Estaing are keen to hitch this anti-socialist force to their creaking wagon in the coming election campaign. The president's only regret, having invited Levy and Benoist to the Elysee with other esteemed intellectuals, is his failure to conscript them into pre-election service. For despite their indictment of socialism, they are wary of taking active political sides. Nevertheless, their example has shattered the general assumption in France that any intellectual worth his salt will support the Socialist-Communist left.
The Communists have decided to strike back at the renegades. The party newspaper, L'Humanite, commented scathingly that they are "neither new nor philosophers". It compared the Levy and Glucksmann books with communiques put out by the Pechiney company, a French industrial giant which the Communists equate with classical capitalism. A hostile volume called "Against the New Philosophy", written by two Marxists, is now selling briskly in its own right in Paris bookshops. The issue is far more complex for Mr Francois Mitterrand's Socialist party, which sees itself as the party of enlightened progress. The Socialists are hoping to ride to power next year on the votes of millions of yound people, now aged around 30, who actively or tacitly supported the 1968 uprising. In the heat of discussion on the new philosophy, some Socialist leaders have betrayed their irritation by dubbing it "the new right". But Mr Mitterrand himself, who once invited the sharp-minded Levy to help him shape party policy, has been more circumspect. He says the trend deserves far more than an off-the-cuff response, and has promised his assessment in writing. Levy is the image-maker of the group. It was he, as a publishing executive, who coined the name for their overlapping ideas. When he became head of the philosphy section at the Grasset publishing house two years ago, he started rounding up likeminded intellectuals to write for Grasset too. The house has put out all the recent bestsellers. With the exception of Glucksmann, whose German Jewish parents fled to France from Hitler in 1936, the new philosophers are strikingly similar in background: middle class origins; mostly graduates of the distinguished Ecole Normale Superieure; smitten by communism while studying under the French Marxist philosopher, Louis Althusser; then forced to review their attitude not only by the 1968 events but also by the work of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. "Gulag", the title of the Russian author's most famous work, is constantly used by the new philosophers to denote Marxist failure. Gluckmann claims that the French left has ignored Solzhenitsyn, or cast him as a crazy reactionary, to keep its hands clean. Andd Levy, who admits that he first saw the red army intervention in Czechoslovakia as a necessary move to crush counter-revolution, has undergone his own revolution.
Some French critics claim that the new philosophy is just another example of time changing youthful attitudes, and dismiss the movement as merely the latest fashionable literary cult. This is partly because the school has no real answer for the problems it raises. Its emphasis on individual responsibility and the importance of acting for oneself is somewhat vague.
Yet the new philosophy could be viewed as the first western attempt to build a philosophy around the sort of human rights position taken by President Carter. Levy says it has not only aroused publishing enthusiasm in other west European countries but, so he hears, clandestine interest in eastern Europe.
Harper and Row, 210 pp., $3.95 (paper)
Grasset, 308 pp., 52 francs
Hallier, 298 pp., 45 francs
Copernic, 626 pp., 150 francs
"Almost two thousand years, and no new god!"
Nietzsche, The Antichrist
Voltaire said that if God did not exist, man would have to invent Him. If we are to believe the French press, 1979 may be remembered as the year when two very different Parisian intellectuals applied for their respective patents on their own brand of deity.
With Le testament de Dieu, Bernard-Henri Lévy, thirty-one years old, ex-Maoist, ex-journalist, and self-proclaimed "New Philosopher," has become the latter-day prophet of a God who, though now deceased, was kind enough to leave behind His last will and testament, the Bible, as a bulwark against totalitarianism. With Les idées à l'endroit Alain de Benoist, ex-Catholic, ex-reactionary, and self-proclaimed "theoretical journalist," has presented a compendium of essays that attempts to lay the sociobiological foundations for a new paganism, a new aristocrat, and what is called the "New Right." "The debate between monotheism and polytheism," de Benoist writes, "is a truly essential discussion." But strangely enough, neither man actually believes in the deity or deities he proposes: they are merely convenient foils to help man muddle through the mess of the modern world. Nietzsche was right after all. You can take your pick: the barren heights of Mount Sinai with Lévy, or the misty haunts of Celtic forests with de Benoist—a dead Yahweh or a vitalistic Wotan. In either case, to adapt a phrase from James Joyce, these are very posthumous gods.
For all their differences, Lévy and de Benoist have a lot in common. Each declares himself a moralist in philosophy, a nominalist in world view, and an antitotalitarian in politics. Both are skillful Parisian publicists (Lévy is an editor at Grasset, de Benoist at Copernic), and both have written much-acclaimed books (Barbarism with a Human Face won the 1977 Prix d'Honneur de l'essai, and Vu de droite won the 1978 Grand Prix de l'essai from the Académie française). Each has set flame to his recent past (for Lévy, Maoism, for de Benoist, the "Old Right") and risen like a Phoenix from the ashes to go on to condemn Marxism and modern liberalism, the Gulag and Coca-Cola, fascism of the left and right, the Inquisition, the Enlightenment, and the rule of the masses.
Yet as we might expect from these heralds of monotheism and polytheism, they have spent much energy excommunicating each other. There they were last July in the offices of France-Soir for a round-table discussion, glaring at each other uncivilly from their respective worlds, only a few days after Sartre and Aron had managed to shake hands over the issue of the Vietnamese boat-people. In the course of the exchange Lévy declared himself "shocked by the ideological and theoretical poverty" of de Benoist's writings, while de Benoist found Lévy's books "not worth a trifle." "I am filled with hatred for you," Lévy hissed. "I hate no one," de Benoist replied, for the sixteenth maxim of his code of aristocratic ethics (Les idées…, p. 52) enjoins: "Never hate, but despise often." It was the best show since Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley went after each other on television over a decade ago. The nouveau philosophe and the nouveau droitier, the prophet and the druid, seemed to deserve each other.
It is not easy to place Lévy and de Benoist in recent French philosophy, not least of all because it is stretching the word to call either of them a "philosopher." To be sure, Lévy studied under the Marxist Louis Althusser at the Ecole Normale Supérieure and claims to be a Lacanian. De Benoist, who studied law and letters at the Sorbonne, is an autodidact in the works of Nietzsche and Heidegger. The range of books that they cite is immense (but de Benoist, unlike Lévy, seems actually to read them), and the urgency with which they press their points would have you believe that the fate of the West hangs on the result of their debate.
Lévy, unlike de Benoist, is a child of the student revolution of 1968. After structuralism's Gang of Four—Lévi-Strauss, Foucault, Lacan, and Althusser—had "displaced" the human "subject"—the individual thinking consciousness—in favor of the linguistic code, and that subject's alleged history-making in favor of invariant structures,the revolt of May 1968 was a made-to-order structuralist's delight. More a cultural than a political crisis, more a synchronic liturgy than a diachronic historical event, it could be seen as reenacting the myths of the French tribe (1848, the 1870 Commune) around a transpersonal hero (the Eternal Child, le révolté) within neat classical unities of time and place (the Left Bank, May 3 through June 16). Although its political consequences were practically nil, this modern ritual did appear to prove what the structuralists had argued at some length: the supremacy of the code—in this case, the media—over the message to be codified. As cameramen freely crossed the barricades, ministering to both sides like priests in medieval wars, the essential point became clear: it is more important to faire la une ("make page one") than to win. The coverage of the event is the event.
The point, we may imagine, was not lost on the then twenty-year-old Bernard-Henri Lévy, who followed the action not in the streets but in his room, by television and radio, with a map of Paris across his lap. Without his skillful use of the press and television some seven years later, the so-called "New Philosophers" would never have been launched. In fact, Lévy, who is dramatically handsome and remarkably fluent, seems to have been made for television from the start (he acted in a TV film between writing his two books), even if it took him some years to get there.
After the debacle of May 1968, Lévy, then a Maoist, heeded André Malraux's call and went off to Bangladesh. There he awakened from his dogmatic slumber and discovered that there was no difference between "progressive" and "reactionary" corpses. After spending a week posing as a journalist in a group of lackadaisical "guerrillas" (they never fought), he took off to India where he got rolled by a junkie and, though the son of a millionaire, financed his way home by running booze between Bombay and Goa. Such enterprising skills, combined with his facility with words, served him well once he was back in Paris. One day he walked into Grasset publishing house, discussed some projects off the top of his head, and, mirabile dictu, got himself hired as an editor and, a few months later, was appointed the director of two new series of books. He corralled some manuscripts from old friends at the Ecole Normale, rushed them into print, and in 1976 took to the television screens to announce the birth of the "New Philosophers." A year later he crowned these efforts by publishing his own Barbarism with a Human Face. At that point he had more requests for newspaper interviews and TV appearances than he could conveniently handle, and he earned himself the title pub-philosophe, "publicity philosopher." Metaphysics, having long been dead and buried, was resurrected as a media hype.
The mood of the French press and public contributed to their success. The appearance of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago in 1974 severely undermined residual sympathies for the Soviet Union, just as the later revelations about communist behavior in Cambodia shook liberal sympathies for Third World socialism. Moreover, the emergence of France's brand of Euro-communism—permitting the alliance of communist and socialist parties in the Union of the Left—made many Frenchmen uneasy. The Common Program of the two parties, for example, called for government control over banking and credit. Since newspapers had been suffering the burden of rising costs since 1974, this was seen as an implicit threat to an independent and critical press. The collapse of the Union of the Left before and during the elections of March 1978 seemed to point up the hypocrisy of this uneasy marriage. As the Left's dominance of political discourse in France was increasingly shaken, the New Philosophers found a ready audience, not least among editors and television producers.
It is impossible to discuss the New Philosophers as if they represented a unified viewpoint on anything. While they were all deeply affected by Alexander Solzhenitsyn's work, their only point in common may be that they have recently been issued by the same publisher. Some but not all were Maoists in 1968; one, Jean-Marie Benoist (not to be confused with Alain de Benoist), sat out the revolution as a diplomat in London, while another, Jean-Paul Dollé, fancies himself a Heideggerian. André Glucksmann, who publishes with Grasset but not in Lévy's series, refuses even to be grouped with them. Therefore, in discussing Lévy's two books (they have to be read together), I have no illusions that I am commenting on the other writers who are popularly associated with him.
Springtime, O. Henry once wrote, is the season when young men discover what young women have known all winter long. Lévy's bitter springtime, his discovery of the Gulag that other intellectuals, including Sartre, had known about for over twenty years, has engendered the purple prose, alternately threnodic and dithyrambic, that we find in Barbarism with a Human Face and The Testament of God. "If I were a poet," he writes, "I would sing of the horror of living and the new Gulags that tomorrow holds in store for us. If I were a musician, I would speak of the idiot laughter and impotent tears, the dreadful uproar made by the lost, camped in the ruins, awaiting their fate." This is pretty heavy stuff, but, as Husserl observed at the turn of the century, one is most vehement against those errors that one recently held oneself. "If I were an encyclopedist, I would dream of writing in a dictionary of the year 2000: 'Socialism, n., cultural style, born in Paris in 1848, died in Paris in 1968.' " But Lévy is no easier on his young self: he confesses, with a straight face, "I will soon be thirty, and I have betrayed the dream of my youth at least a hundred times." Such earnestness is enough to make cynics weep, and it just might sustain some of them through the two hundred pages of narcissistic prose that one finds in his philosophical Bildungsroman called Barbarism with a Human Face.
Lévy is like the man in Paddy Chayevsky's film Network: he insists he is mad as hell, that he's not going to take it any more. He has discovered, in a mood of "the darkest and most tragic pessimism," that the Marxism he once believed in is a lie: "No socialism without camps, no classless society without its terrorist truth." Not that capitalism is any better. No, socialism is the face and capitalism the body of the same inevitable nihilism toward which the West is stumbling like a drunken Dimitri Karamazov. In fact, reality itself is radically evil, held in the clutches of an impersonal Power or Master or Prince or State (all in capitals and all equal to each other), as Plato and Schopenhauer, those "melancholy experts in absolute evil," knew. There is no Rousseauan nature that antedated the state and no revolutionary paradise to be found after the supposed "withering away" of the state. Nothing escapes the dread equation: World = Power = State = Barbarism. Misery will last as long as the social bond does, and that will go on forever. "Rebellion is unthinkable inside the real world."
But that leaves the "unreal world" and "the impossible thought of a world freed from Mastery." Thus, "the antibarbarian intellectual will be first of all a metaphysician, and when I say metaphysician I mean it in an angelic sense." In Barbarism with a Human Face, however, we come to the end without being told just what that might mean. Enter: The Testament of God. Its first principle is that politics must be restricted to make room for ethics and for an individual who can resist barbarism. Second principle: such an individual can not be found in classical Greek thought, where the individual is subsumed by the general and where the notion of "conscience" was unknown. It can only (third principle) be found in classical Judaism's "wager" on a Totally Other who is never incarnate in the world, in fact is now dead, although somehow goes on living, or partly living, in that "book of resistance" called the Bible.
The choice, then, is the same as it was for Tertullian in the third century: Athens or Jerusalem. Lévy's response is "Forget Athens." In place of its supposed humanism (which in fact is the root of totalitarianism insofar as it subsumes the individual under the general) Lévy proposes "seven new commandments." 1. The Law (Lévy's stand-in for God, but not to be confused with any specific laws) is outside time and more holy than History. 2. There is no eschatological future; rather, every moment is the right moment for manifesting the Good. 3. The future is none of your business: act now. 4. Undertake no act that cannot be universalized for all men. 5. Truth, one's own truth, is extraneous to the political order. 6. Practice resistance, without a theory and without belonging to a revolutionary party. 7. In order to engage yourself you must first of all disengage yourself. If we ask Lévy what all this might entail for day-to-day politics, he comes down on the side of a "liberal-libertarian" state, which would govern best by governing least.
Little can be said about Lévy's position precisely because so little of it is ever argued. He makes his points by rhetorical tropes, wide-ranging historical references ("Consider the Middle Ages," he advises, or the span of history "from Epictetus to Malraux"), or by citations from books that he evidently hasn't read or has poorly digested (a reference to a work by Stalin in the Russian, which Lévy does not read, a reference to all of Clement of Alexandria's mammoth Protrepticus, which he has not studied, and so on).
He was taken to task in the pages of Le Nouvel Observateur last spring by Professor Pierre Vidal-Naquet of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales for gross factual and historical errors: claiming that in Genesis Adam and Eve committed their Original Sin on the seventh day of creation (when God was resting), placing the action of Sophocles' Antigone in fifth-century Athens when in fact it deals with Thebes in the second millennium BC ("This," says Vidal-Naquet, "would be like using Racine's Phèdre as a document on Crete in the time of Louis XIV"), taking an 1818 text by Benjamin Constant as a commentary on an 1864 text by Fustel de Coulanges (Lévy in fact lifted both texts from a footnote in another work, but absolved himself of citing the source), and having Himmler stand trial at Nuremberg when in fact he had committed suicide on May 23, 1945. Lévy's sense of history is, to say the least, vague. When asked what he meant by saying that "the West was Christian even when the Scriptures were not read in the countryside"—and analogously—"The Greek world was Homeric even if, outside the Mycenaean palaces, the Iliad and the Odyssey were literally dead letters," Lévy confessed that he hadn't known that the Greek epic poems were written some centuries after the events they recount.
All this may be unfair. There is a long tradition of young scholars carrying out their education in public—Schelling enriched nineteenth-century philosophy by doing so. But it can be annoying when, instead of arguing his case, the young Dr. Lévy invites us, as he constantly does, to correct our intellectual errors by "reading" or "rereading" one or another major figure of Western thought, a task we might undertake if we thought Lévy had done as much. A rough count of his ABC of Reading includes: Lenin, Blum, Jaurès, the early Sorel, Plato's Republic, Marx's Capital, "the rules of the medieval convents," Rimbaud, Carl Schmidt, "the historians of the decline of the Hellenic world," Mein Kampf, Augustine's Retractiones, Nietzsche's The Dawn, St. Just, and Ernst Jünger. We are also encouraged to "go and see The Night Porter, Sex O'clock, A Clockwork Orange, or more recently L'Ombre des anges" in order to understand what harm has been wrought by Deleuze and Guattari's L'Anti-Oedipe. This makes one recall the quip attributed to Abraham Lincoln, "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt." In France, however, Le testament de Dieu was at or near the top of the best-seller list throughout last summer.
Alain de Benoist is a better writer, a clearer thinker, and a much more dangerous figure. He followed the events of May 1968 in the streets, but he saw them not as ushering in Year One of the New Order of Things but as a futile spectacle that announced "the end of the postwar period." While Lévy was off seeking adventure in Bangladesh, de Benoist stayed in Paris, tirelessly reviewing hundreds of books for the rightist publications Valeurs actuelles and Le Spectacle du monde (125 of these reviews were published in 1977 as Vu de droite) and seeing to the birth of the New Right.
De Benoist claims that the central issues of the traditional right, among them genetics, race, and inequality, have been discredited by their association with Nazism, and he tries to give them new life by grafting them on to such subsciences as sociobiology and ethnology. De Benoist is particularly attracted to sociobiology, which has recently gained an enthusiastic hearing in France. But he has a tendency to present the hypotheses of sociobiology as proven conclusions and then to extend these "conclusions" to far-ranging fields. For example, he writes, "all politics today implies a biopolitics." And he cites with enthusiasm the words of Professor Robert Mallet, the chancellor of the Universities of Paris, that some day "the genetic code will help inform the civil codes."
Although the French press and television woke up to the New Right only in March 1978, when Gilbert Comte ran a series of articles entitled "Une nouvelle droite?" in Le Monde, its origins reach back to March 1968, when the journal Nouvelle Ecole first appeared (de Benoist became its editor-in-chief in 1969) and to the founding, a few months later, of the study club called GRECE, an acronym for "Research and Study Group for European Civilization" (Groupement de recherche et d'études pour la civilisation européenne).
Although de Benoist heralds these events as the beginning of a "new culture of the right," purged of the obscurantism, racism, individualism, and "father complex" of the reactionary right ("The Old Right is dead," he writes, "and deserves to be"), nonetheless the rosters of GRECE and Nouvelle Ecole read like a high-school reunion of old reactionaries and fascists. Jean Mabire, alleged collaborator in World War II and former editor of the extremist magazine Europe Action ("the magazine of Western man"), is now on the editorial committee of GRECE's newspaper Eléments. (De Benoist, who used to write for Europe Action, favorably quotes Mabire's paean to kamikaze pilots on page 227 of Vu de droite.) The comité de patronage of Nouvelle Ecole includes—besides such notables as Mircea Eliade, Konrad Lorenz, and Arthur Koestler—half of the editorial staff of the racist Mankind Quarterly of Edinburgh (R. Gayre, Robert Kuttner, and the late Henry E. Garrett) and at least two members of its Honorary Advisory Board (Bertil Lundman, a former contributor to the Nazi racist journal Zeitschrift für Rassenkunde—as well as H. J. Eysenck ). De Benoist himself is on the Advisory Board (and Arthur R. Jensen is an "Honorary Adviser") of the neo-fascist German magazine Neue Anthropologie, whose editor, Jürgen Rieger, has condemned the "bastardizing" of races and has announced, in all seriousness, "The white giants are coming!" Neue Anthropologie, Mankind Quarterly, and Nouvelle Ecole all carry advertisements for one another.
GRECE and de Benoist have a strange penchant for the demimonde of right extremism. On May 28, 1978, the Washington Post reported that representatives of Nouvelle Ecole participated in the eleventh annual conference of the allegedly anti-Semitic World Anti-Communist League in Washington DC (its chairman, Roger Pearson, was formerly on the comité de patronage of Nouvelle Ecole) and met with William Pierce, a former spokesman of the American Nazi Party. The Spring 1979 issue of Nouveile Ecole carried an article on pages 62-69 by one "Robert de Herte" (a collective pseudonym) on the inherited nature of musical talent. Footnote three on page 65 and footnotes six and eight at the end cite some thirteen works published in Nazi Germany on the topics of the "physical type" of great musicians and the relation between music and heredity. On May 29, 1973, GRECE sponsored a lecture on the theme of Europe by the self-declared fascist writer Maurice Bardèche, and de Benoist, in a chilling essay on "Les corps d'élite" in Vu de droite, approvingly cites Bardèche's remarks on "the exaltation of courage and energy" in Spartan education, followed by a rhapsodic description of the US Marines by the rightist François d'Orcival.
The very powerful French publisher Robert Hersant—a former Pétainist who is currently the owner of one-fifth of France's newspapers—got into the picture when he bought up Le Figaro in 1975. He appointed Louis Pauwels—a well-known conservative editor who wrote an admiring book on Gurdjieff and was identified with the Gurdjieff movement—as the director of the spin-off weekly, Le Figaro Magazine, and Pauwels hired de Benoist to write a regular column on "the movement of ideas." Pauwels is also on the comité de patronage of Nouvelle Ecole.
Just what this all amounts to so far as de Benoist is concerned is still something of a mystery. Raymond Aron, himself Jewish, cautiously affirms that "Alain de Benoist defends himself from being [an anti-Semite], if not from having been one," but others have detected more than a whiff of racism in Nouvelle Ecole's fascination with the purity and strength of the Indo-European race. De Benoist, for example, finds it hard to conceal his enthusiasm for the French theorist of racial determination Arthur de Gobineau (1816-1882), whose Essay on the Inequality of Human Races asserted that different races have "very unequal destinies." Gobineau warned that Aryan society should resist mixing with the black or yellow races lest it lose its vitality and sink into corruption. De Benoist tries to salvage the Essay, which deeply influenced such French rightists as Charles Maurras, by calling it a work on the "diversity" rather than the inequality of races.
This much is sure: the one thing Alain de Benoist does not like is egalitarianism—not equality, which he takes to be an impossibility, but the myth of equality, the very idea that men should be equal and should build societies on that notion. Not that he wants inequality per se. Rather, he wants diversity, "the right to difference," especially in racial matters, and with that a hierarchy, an elite, and a corresponding order, and, inevitably, then, relative inequality.
De Benoist does not believe, as Bossuet did not, that "some men are more men than other men," but he does agree with his colleague Pauwels that "equality is an injustice done to the capable." Nor is he a racist: all races, he says, are superior, and he is willing to go so far as to say that "all men of quality are brothers, regardless of race, country, or time." Although it is a fact, he says, that relative inequality comes with diversity, not all inequalities, especially of an economic sort, are just. De Benoist favors equality of chances (Nixon's Olympic metaphor of "an equal shot at the starting line"), and after that everyone is on his own.
Reading de Benoist's works, I had the clear impression that he did not arrive at his notion of inegalitarianism by induction from the data but that he began with it and then started collecting all the information that could support his conviction and attacking everything that might militate against it. The French have a pun: Dis-moi que tu aimes, et je dirai qui tu es (hais): "Tell me what you love, and I'll tell you who you are (whom you hate)." According to the sixteenth maxim of his code of ethics, de Benoist is not allowed to hate, only to despise (even though he delivers himself of the opinion that "one learns to love to the degree one learns to hate").
Nonetheless we can find out where his heart lies. De Benoist adores pagan polytheism because its many deities are made in man's image, consecrate his diversity, and guarantee his freedom. De Benoist despises monotheism because "its intrinsic totalitarian character" has engendered reductionism (where all knowledge can be led back to unity) and egalitarianism (which declares all men equal before God). De Benoist loves the Indo-Europeans and especially the Celts for "their specific mental character," their physical characteristics, and perhaps (he cites Ernst Renan on the point) "the purity of their blood and the inviolability of their character." He despises Judaism (not Jews) for its intolerance and fanaticism, for consecrating a master-slave relationship before God, and for its "moral justification for killing the other." He likes biology because it affirms the diversity of species, and he despises Christianity, that "bolshevism of antiquity," which formed a counterculture of rootless slaves and Orientals who hated the very idea of fatherland, preached class warfare, and wrought "the progressive homogenization of the world" with their doctrine of universal love.
But fortunately for him the doctrine of equality has run through the three stages of its cycle—the mythic stage of Christianity, the philosophical stage of the Enlightenment, and the "scientific" one of Marxism—and the time is ripe to "raze the ground" and to start building the new myth of inegalitarianism. "We have something like a century in which to succeed," he writes, "which means that there isn't a moment to lose."
Preparing the ground for the new inegalitarianism entails educating an aristocratic elite of "supermen," not the muscular blond giants of Nazi fantasies, he says, but an elite of character. In a world that is intrinsically chaotic and meaningless and that gets its meaning only from the force of man's will, what are needed are "heroic subjects" who can create themselves and their own laws and who will remain faithful to norms they set for themselves. He cites examples from the motto of the Marines, Semper fidelis, as well as that of the SS, Meine Ehre heisst Treue ("My honor is called fidelity"). Such heroes will neither offer nor demand reasons, but will stick to their pledge and "keep silent." "Soldiers who, in order to fight, need to know why they are fighting are mediocre soldiers. And worse than them are soldiers who need to be convinced that their cause is good" (seventeenth maxim of the code of ethics).
In politics this translates into the "Organic State." Whereas today the state is no more than the sum of its inhabitants, de Benoist imagines a state that would be more than such a sum, and this "more" is called the raison d'état and is the basis for what he calls the "transcendence of the principle of authority." Precisely because America, dedicated as it is to "homogeneity" and "prosperous communism," does not understand these concepts, it "submitted the executive to the judiciary" and toppled President Nixon. And no wonder! "The very word 'fatherland' does not exist in the American vocabulary." No wonder, too, that America was defeated in Vietnam. "The moving force in politics is not morality or philanthropy, but only energy. The essence of politics is energy. The destiny of peoples is not shaped by 'interesting' cases or 'just' causes but by the energy and force that are put at the service of these causes—and at the service of others, to be sure." What might motivate a nation to "serve others" is never specified.
It is not clear in de Benoist's case what is "new" about the "New Right," any more than it is clear in Lévy's case what is "philosophical" about his "New Philosophy." De Benoist tinkers here and there with the familiar model that calls for an elite based on the superiority of the white Europeans and is contemptuous of Christian tolerance and political democracy; but basically he serves up the same old stuff. He styles himself a "raciophile," that is, one who wants each race to preserve its own heritage and purity, as contrasted with a "raciophobe," one who wants to blend races into a hodgepodge. But behind this semantic subterfuge we still know who's not coming to dinner. "We see some ideologues taking positions on respect for all races—except one: ours (which by the way is also theirs)," he writes. And citing Professor Raymond Ruyer of the University of Nancy, de Benoist writes, "If one denounces, correctly, the ethnocide of primitives by Europeans, then Europeans cannot be prohibited from protecting their own proper ethnicity (ethnies)."
Such protection has a long history in France, and it should not be surprising to find these sentiments coming to the surface at a time when the rich and poor nations of the third world may seem to impinge on Europe more ominously than ever before. What is troubling is to find de Benoist getting a serious hearing and being awarded a prize by the French Academy in the country of Montaigne, who said, "Every man bears in himself the whole human condition."
 The "New Philosophers" include Jean-Marie Benoist, Marx est mort (Paris: Gallimard, 1970); André Glucksmann, Le Discours de la guerre (second, expanded edition, Paris: Grasset, 1979), La cuisinière et le mangeur d'hommes (Paris: Seuil, 1975), and Les maîtres penseurs (Paris: Grasset, 1977); Jean-Paul Dollé, Voies d'access au plaisir (Paris: Grasset, 1974), and other works; Guy Lardreau and Christian Jambet, L'ange (Paris: Grasset, 1976), and others. For a (not very helpful) critique see François Aubral and Xavier Delcourt, Contre la nouvelle philosophie (Paris: Gallimard, 1977).
 Quite a separate phenomenon is the Club de l'Horloge, composed of some 120 young technocrats, most of them graduates of the Ecole Nationale d'Administration and the Polytechnique. Their spokesman, Yvon Blot, says, I believe correctly, "We have nothing to do with the New Right or with GRECE." However, M. Blot says, "Sociobiology is making spectacular progress. It cannot be ignored just because it is close to certain Nazi themes." On the Club de l'Horloge and the New Right, see Le Matin (Paris), July 25, 1979, pp. 15-17, July 26, 1979, pp. 10-11, and July 27, 1979, pp. 12-14.
 On Eysenck see Peter Medawar, "Unnatural Science," The New York Review of Books, February 3, 1977, pp. 13-18. Eysenck is always careful to insist he opposes racial discrimination, but he also insists that "the contribution of genetic factors to variations in intelligence is something like 80 percent, compared with that of environment, which amounts to something like 20 percent." Books and Bookmen, September 1979, p. 48.
 On the World Anti-Communist League, see Michael Billig, Psychology, Racism and Fascism (Nottingham: The Russell Press Ltd., 1979), pp. 25-26. Concerning Konrad Lorenz's early connections with Nazi ideas, see Bruce Chatwin's recent review, The New York Review of Books, December 6, 1979.
 L'Express, July 21-27, 1979, p. 49.
Friday, May 10, 2002
By SCOTT McLEMEE
When French President Jacques Chirac announced his new cabinet on Tuesday, reporters scrutinized his choices to estimate their possible effect on the forthcoming parliamentary races. But one of his appointments is as likely to influence the world of ideas: The new minister of youth, education, and research is Luc Ferry, 51, a professor of philosophy at the Sorbonne. Mr. Ferry is best known for his criticism of several French thinkers who have exercised considerable influence on scholarship in the United States. The University of Chicago Press has published a number of Mr. Ferry's books in translation -- including, earlier this month, Man Made God: The Meaning of Life, which originally appeared in 1996.
A prolific author, Mr. Ferry might be called a "public intellectual" -- if that expression were not redundant in a country where paperbacks on philosophy can be found in drugstores. He has debated the legacy of Martin Heidegger, argued against the philosophical underpinnings of the radical ecology movement, and written for mass-circulation journals such as Le Point and L'Express. In the 1980s, he published a four-volume study of modern political philosophy. He also has some experience of politics in practice -- having served under both Mr. Chirac and Lionel Jospin as president of the national council overseeing revision of the standard curriculum in higher education.
Mr. Ferry is sometimes identified as one of the "New Philosophers" -- a group of young thinkers who, in the late 1970s, challenged the hold of Marxism and other radical currents on the French intelligentsia. In 1986, in a collaboration with Alain Renaut, Mr. Ferry published an influential critique of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Pierre Bourdieu, and Jacques Lacan, treating them as manifestations of what the book's title called "68 thought." (The reference to the mass protests by students and workers in May 1968 is unfortunately lost in the volume's English translation as French Philosophy of the Sixties: An Essay on Antihumanism, published by the University of Massachusetts in 1990.)
At least part of the book's provocative effect came from treating four iconoclastic -- and presumably subversive -- thinkers as embodying a new intellectual orthodoxy. For each, according to Mr. Ferry and Mr. Renaut, the entire Western philosophical tradition from Plato to Hegel was "exhausted of possibilities ... and must be done away with." Earlier concepts had been more or less subtle disguises for domination -- even (or perhaps especially) when philosophers spoke of freedom, universal reason, or human rights. Against this, radicals conforming to "68" principles treated language or power as forces that created human beings (rather than vice versa).
While offering a thoroughgoing critique of society, "antihumanist" theoreticians left it unclear on what grounds one could protest any given instance of domination. Foucault himself was an activist in the prisoners'-rights movement and a militant supporter of dissidents in the Eastern bloc. But given his understanding of all societies as essentially totalitarian, it was difficult to know how he recognized an injustice when he saw one, or why he should care.
Against such radical criticism, Mr. Ferry and other thinkers argued that the Western philosophical tradition, far from being exhausted, remains essential to the task of developing a notion of human rights adequate for modern society. (Nor, implicitly, had there been some great leap forward, hurtling mankind into "postmodernism.") While a certain apocalyptic tone and high-flying literary quality often accompanied "68 thought," Mr. Ferry's philosophical writings have tended to be rather more dry.
That has not kept them from being controversial. In May '68 and Its Afterlives, published this month by the University of Chicago Press, Kristin Ross, a professor of comparative literature at New York University, treats Mr. Ferry's work as a triumph of advertising over analysis. His work, she argues, reflects "the transposition of the marketing concept of 'generation' and other journalistic techniques into the field of philosophy, such that the new generation emerges fully formed to render the previous one obsolete." She says the implicit message is, simply, "Get out so that we can take your place."
Mr. Ferry's "generation" has not sold that briskly in the United States, where the poststructuralists have created a surprisingly durable brand loyalty in academe. His book on "68 thought" appeared in France at about the time Allan Bloom was bemoaning the role of radical ideology in The Closing of the American Mind. Many scholars assume Mr. Ferry to be a neoconservative, if they have heard of him at all.
An exception is Charles E. Larmore, a professor of philosophy at Chicago, who discussed Mr. Ferry's work in his book Modernité et morale (Presses Universitaires de France, 1993). Mr. Larmore, who has known Mr. Ferry for nearly 20 years, dismisses the neoconservative label as inaccurate. "Politically, I would say that he is simply a liberal democrat," he says. His rapport with Mr. Ferry began because the French author "talked about the fundamental problems of political philosophy in terms akin to those current in the Anglo-American world."
The earliest notice of Mr. Ferry's work in the United States came in 1989, in essays for The Village Voice and Dissent by Paul Berman, the author of A Tale of Two Utopias: The Political Journey of the Generation of 1968 (W.W. Norton, 1996). "Once you've read Ferry and Renaut's book," says Mr. Berman, "you really can't turn back to the postmodernists with the same eager enthusiasm as before. ... He comes with a bullshit-detector. Americans like to make fun of the French, but when have we had anyone like that in our own government?"
Commenting on the new cabinet appointment by e-mail message, Mr. Berman writes, "A philosopher who did join an American administration would get denounced instantly as a traitor to intellect. But it's not like that in France. Malraux worked for de Gaulle, and Regis Debray worked for Mitterrand, and here is Luc Ferry working for Chirac, and guess what? France is none the worse for the experience. On the contrary."
Im Teich der Zeichen
Süddeutsche Zeitung, 21.9.2001
Die Frankfurter Schule und ihre Gegenspieler in Paris: Eine Verkennungsgeschichte aus gegebenem Anlass
Dies ist eine Geschichte von Freundschaft und Feindschaft, von großen Emphasen und kleinen Bosheiten. Sie spielt im letzten Drittel des 20. Jahrhunderts. Es ist die Geschichte zweier Schulen von Philosophen, der bedeutendsten ihrer Zeit. Ihre Bücher wurden zu Bestsellern, ihre Namen zu Markenzeichen, ihr Prestige überstrahlte die halbe Welt. Aber die Mitglieder dieser Schulen, scharfsinnige und brillant argumentierende Männer, konnten nur mit den Angehörigen ihrer eigenen Familie reden, für die Worte der anderen waren sie taub. Die Rede ist von der Frankfurter Schule, die damals, in den Anfängen der Geschichte, schon seit vier oder fünf Jahrzehnten existierte, und von der noch jungen Schule oder besser: von der Gruppe der französischen Strukturalisten und Poststrukturalisten, die seit den sechziger Jahren in Europa und in Amerika von sich reden machten.
Ein Denkerkrieg? Davon kann nicht die Rede sein, von einem Wettkampf allenfalls und von Polemik. Und dann und wann kam man zusammen, um nach Indianerbrauch – alle Philosophen waren in ihrer Jugend Indianer – zu palavern und eine Friedensgauloise zu rauchen. Schwer zu sagen ist nur, wo alles begonnen hat. Wo liegen die Anfänge einer dreißigjährigen Verkennungsgeschichte?
Man könnte in der Gegenwart einsetzen und den Fluss der Zeit zurückschreiten bis zu den Quellen im Dunst der Zeit. Eigentlich könnte man sogar in der Zukunft beginnen – das ginge so: Am Samstag wird der französische Philosoph Jacques Derrida in der Frankfurter Paulskirche den Theodor W. Adorno- Preis entgegennehmen. Mit diesem Preis wird einer der einflussreichsten philosophischen Schriftsteller unserer Zeit ausgezeichnet. Zugleich wird ein Zeichen der Versöhnung gesetzt zwischen zwei philosophischen Schulen und Denkstilen, die das westliche Denken der zweiten Jahrhunderthälfte geprägt haben.
Von diesem friedlichen Parnass in der Paulskirche würde man hinabsteigen in die Täler der Vergangenheit, in die Abgründe der Ignoranz, auf die Holzwege der verpassten Gelegenheiten. Wo würde der Weg wohl enden? Bei Madame de Staëls gelindem Entsetzen über den Diskursstil im Hause Goethe? Bei Victor Cousins vergeblichen Versuchen, die Hegelsche Philosophie in Frankreich auszubreiten? Oder bei Lucien Herr, der Hegels Lebensgeschichte schreiben wollte und am Einspruch Karl Hegels, des Sohnes, gegen einen französischen Biographen scheiterte? Ah, les vieux spectres, die alten Gespenster, sie geistern bis heute durch den Diskurs.
Oder soll man mit dem Jahr 1980 einsetzen, als Jürgen Habermas den Adorno-Preis erhielt, einundzwanzig Jahre vor Jacques Derrida? Von einer bemerkenswerten – und auch in Frankreich nicht unbemerkten – Dankesrede wäre dann zu berichten, in deren Verlauf Habermas als eine der Strömungen, die die Moderne untergraben, auch den „Postmodernismus der Neukonservativen“ heftig attackierte. „Mit modernistischer Attitüde,“ so der Redner, „begründen sie einen unversöhnlichen Antimodernismus...und setzen der instrumentellen Vernunft manichäisch ein nur noch der Evokation zugängliches Prinzip entgegen, ob nun den Willen zur Macht oder die Souveränität, das Sein oder eine dionysische Kraft des Poetischen.“ Und es folgen Namen: „In Frankreich führt diese Linie von Georges Bataille über Foucault zu Derrida. Über allem schwebt natürlich der Geist des in den 70er Jahren wiedererweckten Nietzsche.“ Ecce inimicus, dort verläuft die Feindschaftslinie. Da war viel Porzellan zerbrochen.
Man könnte auch mit Theodor W. Adorno beginnen. Ende der fünfziger Jahre tritt er zum ersten Mal an der Sorbonne auf, eine große Ehre, wie er findet. 1958 hält er einen Vortrag über „Erfahrungsgehalte der Hegelschen Philosophie“. Doch schon bald erkennt Adorno, dass ihn in Frankreich andere Aufgaben erwarten als die Vermittlung der Hegelschen Philosophie (die unterdes dank Jean Hippolyte, Jean Wahl und Alexandre Kojève sehr vorangekommen ist). Es gibt jetzt Wichtigeres zu tun. Man muss den Feind in Gestalt des eigenen Bruders bekämpfen. Bruder Heidegger heißt der Feind, der zu siegen nicht aufgehört hat – bis auf den heutigen Tag.
1961 hält Adorno am Collège de France auf Einladung von Robert Minder drei Vorträge über Heidegger und die neuere Ontologie, denen eine Vorlesung aus dem vergangenen Wintersemester über „Ontologie und Dialektik“ zugrunde liegt. Fünf Jahre später werden sie in den ersten Teil der „Negativen Dialektik“, Adornos philosophisches Hauptwerk, eingehen.
Der Kampf gegen Heidegger geht weiter, der „Jargon der Eigentlichkeit“ entsteht – eine Schrift, von der Adorno selbst 1964 meint (im Brief an Joseph Breitbach) dass sie „für Paris eine gewisse Bedeutung haben müßte wegen der dort herrschenden Heideggerei, der ja die unwahrscheinlichsten Leute verfallen sind; vorgestern hörte ich, daß sogar der alte Breton von der Heidegger- Begeisterung angesteckt ist.“ Deshalb würde Adorno gern in Paris aus seinem Buch lesen, gibt aber sogleich zu bedenken, dass „gerade diese Lesung nur auf deutsch Sinn“ hätte. Der Dämon, den der Exorzist austreiben will, hat sich in der eigenen Sprache festgekrallt.
Die „Heideggerei“ in Frankreich war eine Sache, der Strukturalismus eine andere. Die eine musste man bekämpfen und in ihrem Einfluss zurückdrängen, die andere bot Anregungen für die Soziologie im eigenen Land. So empfand es jedenfalls Adorno. Ob er über Gewährsleute in Paris wie Lucien Goldmann oder über seine zweite Heimatstadt Wien, wo der russische Phonologe Nikolai Troubetzkoy lehrte, von der neuen Schule Witterung bekommen hatte, sein Interesse am Strukturalismus war geweckt. In seiner Vorlesung zur „Einleitung in die Soziologie“ im Sommer 1968 erwähnt er den neuen Forschungsansatz, „der vor allem mit den Namen Lévi-Strauss und Lacan verbunden ist und der das soziologische Denken sehr stark beeinflusst“. Und kündigt im selben Atemzug „für das übernächste Semester“, also den Sommer 69, „ein Seminar über Strukturalismus“ an. Das dann – als „Probleme des Strukturalismus“ – im Frankfurter Vorlesungsverzeichnis firmierte. Über seinen Verlauf ist nichts bekannt, stand es doch im Schatten der mehrfach gesprengten Vorlesung „Einleitung in das dialektische Denken“, in der sich auch die bekannte „Busenaktion“ ereignete.
Wie weit wäre Adorno, wäre er nicht im August 1969 verstorben, auf den späteren, sich selbst ironisch übersteigenden Strukturalismus von Derrida, Lacan und Foucault eingegangen, fragt sich Sam Weber heute. Ende der sechziger Jahre studierte der Doktorand aus Cornell, ein Schüler Paul de Mans, in Frankfurt bei Adorno, bevor er weiterwanderte zu Peter Szondi nach Berlin, mit dem er die zweite, entscheidende Phase der Strukturalismus-Rezeption in Deutschland initiierte.
Wäre Adorno selbst in der Lage gewesen, die untergründigen Verwandtschaften zu erkennen, die seine „negative Dialektik“ – eine rettende Zerstörung des deutschen Idealismus – mit der „Dekonstruktion“ der Poststrukturalisten verbanden? Sam Weber sah die „direkte Beziehung, die Adornos Begriff des ‚Nichtidentischen‘ und Derridas Konzept der ‚différance‘ verband“. Für ihn lag im Übergang zur semiotischen Sprachanalyse „kein Verrat an den kritischen Impulsen der Kritischen Theorie“, sondern ein Ausweg aus der Sackgasse der ausschließlich begrifflichen Kritik Adornos an Hegels Erbe: eine Wiederentdeckung der rhetorischen Dimension in der Philosophie, von Friedrich Nietzsche vorbereitet.
Wäre unter anderen Himmeln ein wechselseitiges Verständnis, eine intellektuelle Freundschaft zwischen Frankfurter und Pariser Philosophen, zwischen Kritischen Theoretikern und Poststrukturalisten möglich gewesen? Die Frage lässt sich nur im Irrealis der verpassten Begegnungen beantworten. Verheißungsvoll sind alle Anfänge, versöhnlich die Enden, nur die lange Zeit dazwischen ist kriegerisch und blind.
Die Anfänge: Sind nicht Adornos „Minima Moralia“, die 1951 erschienen, reich an Einsichten, die unmittelbar zur Machtkritik des späten Foucault zu führen scheinen? „Zwischen der Erkenntnis und der Macht“, heißt es dort, „besteht nicht nur der Zusammenhang des Lakaientums, sondern auch einer der Wahrheit. Viele Erkenntnisse sind außer Proportion mit der Kräfteverteilung nichtig, mögen sie auch formal zutreffen.“ Und das Stück endet mit der „fast unlösbaren Aufgabe, weder von der Macht der anderen, noch von der eigenen Ohnmacht sich dumm machen zu lassen.“ So ähnlich hätte auch der Autor von „Überwachen und Strafen“ formulieren können.
Die Enden: In den letzten Jahren vor seinem Tod im Juni 1984 hat Michel Foucault verschiedene Male laut über sein Verhältnis zur Frankfurter Schule nachgedacht und beklagt, dass ihre Schriften ihm nicht früher zur Kenntnis gelangt waren. „Heute habe ich begriffen“, so Foucault 1980, „dass die Repräsentanten dieser Schule – früher als ich – Thesen vertraten, die auch ich seit Jahren geltend zu machen versuchte...Ich glaube, dass die Philosophen dieser Schule Probleme gestellt haben, mit denen wir uns noch immer abmühen: insbesondere das der Machteffekte in Verbindung mit einer Rationalität, die sich historisch, geographisch, im Abendland vom sechzehnten Jahrhundert an, definiert hat.“ Und Foucault fährt fort, die Verdienste der Frankfurter Schule hervorzuheben „mit dem schlechten Gewissen von jemandem, der ihre Bücher früher hätte lesen, sie früher hätte verstehen sollen. Hätte ich ihre Bücher gelesen, so hätte ich eine Menge Dinge nicht sagen müssen, und mir wären Irrtümer erspart geblieben.“
Mit ähnlich charmanter Übertreibung äußert sich Foucault 1983 gegenüber Gérard Raulet: Zwischen der Frankfurter Schule und der französischen Philosophie habe es Berührungspunkte in der Wissenschaftsgeschichte und somit beim Problem der Geschichte der Rationalität gegeben; die Verständigung darüber sei indes nicht zustande gekommen: „Wir stehen hier vor einem merkwürdigen Problem der Nicht-Durchdringung zweier Formen des Denkens, die einander sehr nah waren, und vielleicht erklärt gerade diese Nähe die Nicht- Durchdringung. Nichts verbirgt eine gemeinsame Problemlage stärker, als zwei eng benachbarte Weisen, sie anzugehen.“
Schon 1978 hatte Foucault mit Blick auf Kants Schrift „Was ist Aufklärung“ davon gesprochen, dass das Problem der Aufklärung „uns“ – die französischen Denker – „in eine Position der Brüderlichkeit gegenüber der Frankfurter Schule setzt“. Aber zwischen den Brüdern kam immer wieder Zwist auf. Die Schätzung, die Foucault einzelnen Früchten der Kritischen Theorie – etwa dem Buch von Georg Rusche und Otto Kirchheimer über die Geschichte von Strafvollzug und Gesellschaft – entgegenbrachte, galt nicht sämtlichen Mitgliedern der „Schule“. Für Habermas scheint sich Foucault, wie sein Biograph Didier Eribon plausibel vermutet, nie wirklich interessiert zu haben – was bei einem ziemlich katastrophal verlaufenen Abendessen im März 1983 in Paris unübersehbar wurde. Irgendwann zwischen Suppe und Salat, éclair und éclat zog Foucault sein gefürchtetes Haifischlächeln auf und fragte den Deutschen, ob er ihn für einen Anarchisten halte. Vermutlich hätte er eine positive Antwort als Kompliment genommen.
Dennoch muss es Habermas an diesem Abend gelungen sein, Foucault seine politisch motivierte Ablehnung Heideggers verständlich zu machen. Umgekehrt scheint die Persönlichkeit Foucaults, seine schneidende Intelligenz, sein akutes politisches Sensorium ihren Eindruck auf Habermas nicht verfehlt zu haben. Davon zeugt der emphatische Nachruf, den Habermas ein Jahr später Foucault widmete. Auch die Lesart Kants, die Foucault praktizierte –– die Entdeckung einer „Ontologie der Aktualität“ im Herzen der Aufklärung – faszinierte Habermas, der die Machtanalyse mitvollzog, aber vor dem Angriff auf die Vernunft zurückschreckte. Axel Honneth, damals Habermas‘ Assistent, später sein Lehrstuhlnachfolger, hält es für ein fatales Erbe der Philosophie und ihrer hegemonialen Stellung in Deutschland, dass sich damals die Diskussion an so „großflächigen“ Reizbegriffen wie „Vernunft“ und „Subjekt“ festgefressen hat. Wieviel fruchtbarer wäre das Gespräch geworden, hätte man Foucaults Fragen nach der Materialität der Macht und der Vermächtigung des Körpers mit der Rationalitätsgeschichte und der Anthropologie Max Webers verbunden! Aber die Chance wurde vertan.
Die Geschichte Derridas in Deutschland ist länger und kurvenreicher. Sie beginnt im Jahr 1968, als der junge französische Philosoph zu Gast im Seminar von Peter Szondi an der FU Berlin ist. Auf diese Einladung, die zwei Jahre später wiederholt wird, gehen die Übersetzung der „Grammatologie“ durch Hanns Zischler und Hans-Jörg Rheinberger sowie eine erste, heftige Welle der Derrida-Rezeption zurück. Am Institut für Komparatistik bildete sich eine „Derridisten-Sekte“ (Elisabeth Lenk), der Sam Weber, Rodolphe Gasché, Werner Hamacher und Anselm Haverkamp angehörten. Szondi selbst zeigte sich von Derridas Lektüren fasziniert und abgestoßen zugleich, das „fluide, quecksilbrige Denken“ Derridas sei ihm unbehaglich gewesen, erinnert sich Hanns Zischler.
Trotz den rhetorischen Kriegstänzen Alfred Schmidts, eines der keepers of the flame, gegen die französischen Denker nahm deren Prestige im Lauf der Siebziger rapide zu. Das lag an der Proselytenmacherei junger Missionare wie Friedrich Kittler und Jürgen Hörisch, es lag aber auch an der Publikationspolitik des Suhrkamp Verlags. Obschon Hausverlag der Kritischen Theorie, entwickelte sich Suhrkamp in den Siebzigern zum publizistischen Hauptimporteur des Strukturalismus. In kurzer Folge erschienen hier die Werke Foucaults, Derridas und Roland Barthes‘; Lévi-Strauss war schon seit langem im Programm. Erst nach 1980 erlitt die schöne Parallelaktion einen Einbruch, der vor allem Derrida betraf. Zur selben Zeit war er – nach dem Erscheinen seiner umstrittenen „Postkarte“ – auch in Paris unter Beschuss geraten und musste schließlich seinen Posten an der Ecole Normale räumen und zur Ecole des Hautes Etudes wechseln.
Derridas „Postkarte“ist eine sonderbare Mixtur aus philosophischer Reflexion und Liebesbriefroman. Wer schon vorher irritiert war durch seine „Dekonstruktion“ der philosophischen Tradition, die als Kritik des Ursprungsdenkens auftrat – brillant durchgeführt am Lehrer Lévi-Strauss – und gleichzeitig selbst immer ursprünglicher fragte, indem sie Heideggers Zeitphilosophie in die Terminologie der linguistischen Textkritik übertrug, der sah sich nun in seinen bösesten Erwartungen bestätigt. Die Grenzen zur Literatur, zur fiction, schienen endgültig niedergerissen, alle Kriterien der rationalen Diskurskontrolle außer Kraft gesetzt. Bei Suhrkamp, so heißt es, sollen sich Jürgen Habermas und Manfred Frank vehement gegen die Übersetzung des Werks ausgesprochen haben.
Es ist viel gemunkelt worden über einen angeblichen Einfluss von Habermas auf die Publikationspolitik von Suhrkamp. Das meiste davon, wissen Kenner des Hauses, ist Phantasie. In Wahrheit regierten, wie fast immer in Verlagen, Zufall und ökonomischer Zwang. Außerdem waren Anfang der achtziger Jahre Siegfried Unseld und Jürgen Habermas vier Jahre lang zerstritten und redeten nicht miteinander. Ersichtlich ist nur, dass Derridas Stern bei Suhrkamp sank und der Autor für mehr als zehn Jahre unter die Kleinverlage fiel. Und dieser Sturz ereignete sich zu einer Zeit, als auf deutscher Seite der Kriegsgesang gegen den Irrationalismus der französischen Philosophie anschwoll.
Auf dem Höhepunkt dieses Geisterabwehrzaubers schrieb Manfred Frank einen Artikel in der Frankfurter Rundschau, in dem er Deleuze, Guattari e tutti quanti in die Nähe von Spengler, Moeller van den Bruck, der Konservativen Revolution, ja des Nazismus rückte. Derrida schickte ihm eine Kopie des Artikels zurück, auf deren Rand er mit Filzstift geschrieben hatte: „Mit Dir ein Stelldichein – Nein!“
Die Kriegstrompete gegen die Franzosen klang freilich ein wenig gestopft. Zunehmend breiteten sich um 1980 in den Seminaren und den Feuilletons die Texte der französischen Denker und ihre schillernden Begriffe aus. Die Lufthoheit der Kritischen Theorie, die Positivismus-Streit und Luhmann-Kontroverse heil überstanden hatte, schien ernstlich in Gefahr. Als Jürgen Habermas Anfang der Achtziger aus Starnberg nach Frankfurt zurückkehrte, fand er eine Studentenschaft vor, die sich täglich mehr dem süßen Sang der Franzosen ergab. In Amerika, wo Habermas häufig auftrat, war es nicht anders. Die Franzosen hatten die literaturwissenschaftlichen Departments erobert, die zuvor dem Frankfurter gefolgt waren (in die Sicherheitstrakte der US- Philosophie drangen lange Zeit weder Kritische Theorie noch Dekonstruktion vor). Als auch noch seine Tochter Rebekka, die in Konstanz studiert hatte, akute Anzeichen fiebriger Dekonstruktion aufwies, gab Habermas nach, verschlang alles, was ihm in deutscher oder englischer Übersetzung in die Hände kam und las über den „philosophischen Diskurs der Moderne“.
Aus den zwölf Vorlesungen, die 1985 bei Suhrkamp erschienen, spricht sowohl die große Schwierigkeit, mit Derrida zurande zu kommen, als auch die Faszination durch Foucault und Bataille. Sie waren in Habermas‘ Augen der Wissenschaft treu geblieben und hatten genuin ästhetischen Sinn bewiesen. Derrida aber erscheint als der Sophist, der die Wissenschaft an die Literatur verkauft und die Philosophie der Rhetorik ausliefert. Eine der Pointen des Buches lag darin, dass Habermas in die Genealogie der Modernitätskritiker und - zerstörer von Nietzsche über Heidegger bis Derrida auch Horkheimer und Adorno mit der „Dialektik der Aufklärung“ aufnahm. Gewollt oder ungewollt machte er so auf deren Nähe zum dekonstruktivistischen Denken aufmerksam.
Es gab auch Versuche, die unmögliche Freundschaft doch noch zu stiften. Oder wenigstens den Austausch im Diskurs. 1986 fand im Centre Pompidou ein großes Treffen deutscher und französischer Philosophen statt, auf der einen Seite Habermas, Wellmer, Bubner, Frank und Apel, auf der anderen Derrida, Bourdieu, Bouveresse. Habermas blieb im Publikum, während auf dem Podium Apel und Bubner gegen die Franzosen polemisieten und ihnen einschärften, dass richtige Politik rationaler Grundlagen bedürfe. Derrida saß daneben und putzte mit einem feinen, großen, weißen Taschentuch seine Brille, hielt sie prüfend ins Sonnenlicht und putzte weiter, so als sähe er noch nicht den Punkt. Dann hub er zu sprechen an: „Auch in der Philosophie, meine Herren, braucht man ein wenig Takt.“ Im Saal brach der Tumult aus.
Ende Juni vergangenen Jahres, drei Wochen vor Derridas siebzigstem Geburtstag, kam es in Frankfurt, im Hörsaal 6, in dem Adorno schon gelehrt hatte, zu einem neuen Treffen der Protagonisten Habermas und Derrida und einiger ausgewählter Eleven. Die Öffentlichkeit war ausgeschlossen, ebenso das Thema Heidegger. Worüber man sich nicht verständigen kann, davon muss man schweigen. Aber auch in diesem Treibhausklima wollte der Diskurs nicht gedeihen. Unsichtbar saß der Alte von Todtnauberg im Saal und behinderte das Gespräch. Sein Schatten war es, über den die Kritische Theorie nicht springen konnte.
Die Frankfurter und ihre Freunde, die den Franzosen einen ähnlichen Irrationalismusprozess machten, wie ihn einst Georg Lukács ihnen gemacht hatte, konnten nie begreifen, wie es den Strukturalisten und Dekonstruktivisten möglich war, unmissverständlich auf Heideggers politischen Irrweg hinzuweisen und gleichzeitig seine Texte einer fruchtbaren differentiellen Lektüre zu unterwerfen. Genau dies Kunststück hat Derrida mit wachsender Virtuosität vorgeführt, von seinem Heidegger-Buch Ende der Achtziger bis zu der jüngst auf Deutsch erschienenen „Politik der Freundschaft“. Dagegen stand in Deutschland eine Autor- oder Subjektkonzeption, die sich solchen Aufsplitterungen verweigerte: Vielleicht ein Grund dafür, weshalb es in Deutschland, anders als in Frankreich, nie eine „linke“ oder republikanische Rezeption von Autoren wie Ratzel, Heidegger und Carl Schmitt gegeben hat. Aber nicht der einzige Grund.
Es gibt in der deutschen Philosophie ein tiefsitzendes Sekuritätsbedürfnis, das sich aus Erfahrungen der politischen Geschichte im 20. Jahrhundert speist und die Autoren dazu treibt, stets auf die sichere, die richtige Seite des Diskurses zu streben. Für die aus sicheren Schultraditionen kommenden Franzosen stellt sich eine solche Notwendigkeit nicht, ihre Freude am denkerischen Risiko ist ungebremst; sie stören sich an dem, was sie für die Rechthaberei der Deutschen halten. Anders gesagt, sie können durch Feindesland gehen und dabei überraschend neue Freunde machen – während die deutschen Denker es vorziehen, unter Freunden zu bleiben, aber eine ausgeprägte Feindwahrnehmung zu pflegen. Gerade die Denker der Kritischen Theorie, allesamt geschworene Gegner Carl Schmitts, haben oft die Welt in den exklusiven Kategorien von Freund und Feind wahrgenommen: ein Habitus, der im vorphilosophischen Bereich angesiedelt ist.
Feindschaft besteht auch unter französischen Philosophen, aber sie kann momentlang überwunden werden. 1991, zur Zeit des Golfkriegs, fand in Paris ein Geheimtreffen statt, an dem zwei französische Philosophen und fünf deutsche Gäste teilnahmen. Jacques Derrida und Paul Virilio wollten nicht gemeinsam in der Öffentlichkeit auftreten. Das Gespräch drehte sich um die Amerikaner und ihre Feinde in der islamischen Welt, Reguläre und Partisanen. Was stand für jene auf dem Spiel – und was für diese? Da ergriff Jacques Derrida, der in Algerien geborene Jude, das Wort und sagte: „Moi, comme Arabe, ich als Araber weiß, wie diese Menschen sterben können.“
Je suis un superstar
With his movie-star lifestyle, celebrity friends and best-selling books, writer-philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy is the darling of the French chattering classes. But can 'BHL' be serious?
Sunday June 15, 2003
When I arrive at Bernard-Henri Lévy's sumptuous apartment in the centre of Paris, a film crew is just packing up. There could hardly be a more fitting introduction: Lévy has, as his fellow intellectual Pierre Bourdieu once put it, an 'immoderate taste' for television studios, and his ubiquity has become something of a joke. Lévy is a bestselling writer, philosopher, political campaigner, pundit and luscious-locked superstud in France; but perhaps his greatest facility is for fame itself.
At any given moment, he might be seen on the cover of Paris Match magazine, in the windows of numerous bookshops, and on several chat shows simultaneously. He and his glamorous wife, the indomitably pouty actress Arielle Dombasle, are the gossip columns' favourite couple. His clothes (open-necked white shirts and designer suits), his friends (Yves Saint Laurent, Alain Delon, Salman Rushdie), his homes (the flat in Saint Germain, a hideaway in the South of France, an eighteenth-century palace in Marrakech that used to belong to John Paul Getty) are endlessly commented on. He is rarely referred to by his full name, and is known instead as a brand: BHL. He is like an unfathomably French combination of Melvyn Bragg, J.K. Rowling and David Beckham. If Bernard-Henri Lévy didn't exist, you couldn't possibly invent him.
For a moment, though, it seems I might have to. Despite the recent departure of the TV crew, Lévy is not at home. I am greeted instead by Harry, Lévy's Sri Lankan butler (he also has a chauffeur, a Daimler, and several maids in Morocco). Harry is dressed immaculately, in a white Nehru-collared jacket and black trousers, and, after asking me what I'd like to drink, he ushers me into a vast and musty room that looks like a relic of several empires at once.
The place is crammed with Orientalist trinkets - hundreds of onyx eggs in an ancient cabinet, two heavily embroidered Chinese silk lampshades, Moroccan bowls overflowing with exquisitely wrapped chocolates, three enormous reclining Buddhas, a stuffed cockatoo perched beneath a boundlessly funereal arrangement of white lilies, another strange item of taxidermy in a cut-crystal cage, and a divan so overstuffed with pillows as to suggest that Lévy may be some sort of sultan of the Left Bank.
Lévy has still not arrived, and Harry is too discreet for extended conversation, so I find myself peeking at the books. A good few of them have been thrown, with studious abandon, about the room. Can they tell us anything about the mind of the philosopher? I'm not sure. I spot something odd about the gargantuan volume of Pascal on the floor. The pages look wrong, as if they've been painted over. And sure enough, on closer inspection it turns out not to be a book, but a fake - a trompe l'oeil drawer carved out where the words used to be.
At that very moment, Lévy sashays into the room. He is wearing the foundation required by his televisual activities, and this clearly bothers him enough to affect his manners. As I go to shake his hand he says: 'I don't usually wear make-up, you know.'
Lévy's reputation for narcissism is unparalleled in his home country, and he's not unaware of the fact. The headline of one article about him coined the immortal dictum, 'God is dead but my hair is perfect'. He has been known to say that the discovery of a new shade of grey leaves him 'ecstatic', and that people who vote for Jean-Marie Le Pen cannot buy Philippe Starck furniture or Yohji Yamamoto clothes (as if their aesthetic taste were their greatest offence). Maybe it's the make-up, but Lévy seems a little tense. He's keen to get me out of the sultan's salon and into his far more austere study, where a modern sculpture of a deliberately empty-headed Lenin provides an unwitting reminder of Lévy's own relationship to Pascal. He sits down, furrows his brow, makes a few bossy demands about how the interview is to be conducted, and proceeds noisily to inhale substantial amounts of phlegm at regular intervals.
Lévy's in the news because his twenty-ninth book, an investigation into the murder of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, has been at the top of the bestseller list in France since it came out just over a month ago. Lévy's discovery, or contention, is that Pearl's death was a 'state crime' committed in effect by the Pakistani government, because Pearl knew too much about the links between its secret service, nuclear scientists and al-Qaeda. The book led Lévy on a year-long quest he admits became something of an obsession. 'That part of the world,' Lévy explains, 'is where I have been, since my adolescence, most irresistibly drawn. Not the Middle East, despite the fact that I am Jewish, not China and the Far East, despite the fact that I was once very close to what in the Sixties was called Maoism, not Africa, though I know it well. So in writing about Pearl I often had the sense that I was retracing my own steps.'
It's not unusual for Lévy to insert himself into his writing, but this book takes a new form he terms 'roman-quête', or 'investigative novel', indicating that where the facts run out, he has gone ahead and made some up. He allows himself some dramatic musings, for example, on what might have passed through Pearl's mind in the last moments of his life: 'He thinks of Mariane, that last night, so desirable, so beautiful - what do women want, deep down? Passion? Eternity?'
Whether or not these imaginings are to everyone's taste, there is a more unsettling doubt raised by the fusion of genres. Some of Lévy's critics have long considered even his most solidly non-fictional books to contain elements of untruth. Twenty years ago he was taken to task by Pierre Vidal-Nacquet for gross factual errors, the most patent of which was having Himmler stand trial at Nuremberg, when he had already committed suicide. Others have simply assumed that Lévy's books are veiled forms of autobiography anyway.
This view couldn't be further from Lévy's own since, as he explains, 'I'm not trying to be devious or coy here, but I am curious about everything - except myself. All of my books are turned to face others, not inwards towards myself. Half of my contemporaries have already published autobiographies - Martin Amis has, and he's younger than me. But I have no desire to do that.'
Lévy is something of a conundrum. On the one hand, he is such a po-faced laughing stock that the famed anarchist pie-thrower Noël Godin has hit him a record five times. On the other, huge numbers of people buy his books. He is not the most serious thinker the French have, but he is charismatic and accessible and constantly in demand. It would be churlish only to laugh at him, since to dismiss much of what he's done would amount to a kind of conservatism. Lévy drew people's attention to Serb concentration camps in Bosnia, tried to rescue Afghan rebel leader Ahmed Shah Massoud just before his death, was sent by the French government on a fact-finding mission last year to see how Afganistan might be reconstructed, and now runs a newspaper there that promotes 'moderate Islam'. He founded an anti-racist group to empower Arab and black people in France, and warned of the dangerous recent rise of Jean Marie Le Pen. He is taken very seriously in very high places.
Still, it's perhaps not essential to take him quite as seriously as he takes himself. I ask him what it means to be a public intellectual when much of what is public about him is his private life. His wedding to Arielle Dombasle 10 years ago was attended by Alain Delon, Yves Saint Laurent, François Pinault (the tycoon who owns Gucci and Christie's) and, by Lévy's own count, 20 or 30 international photographers.
'That,' he says, 'had nothing to do with my being an intellectual. If Paris Match was interested in my wedding it was because I married an actress.' But they were interested in you before your wedding, I suggest. He smiles to himself a little: 'Yes,' he says, 'it's true.'
Lévy claims to have no explanation for this, and is exasperated by the way in which his designer suits and unbuttoned white shirts have been fetishised by the press. 'If I wore green-and-red checked shirts, I'd understand,' he says, 'but white shirts? There's nothing more banal, more idiotic than a white shirt!'
But, I ask, would he say he was interested in fashion? He sighs. 'I was interested once, 15 years ago, in one designer, about whom I wrote one or two pages, and whose name was Yves Saint Laurent. But what interested me about him was the semiology of his draughtsmanship.'
'So he didn't give you any clothes?'
'No. Never.' Lévy opens the jacket of his 000042 suit to show me the label - Charvet, a deliberately unrecognisable brand. 'You see?' he says. 'It's absurd.'
Lévy says he just gets on with his work 'without wondering whether the fact that I am a star might get in the way'. He insists that he does nothing to encourage his fans. 'People,' he says, 'don't know that much about my life.'
Bernard-Henri Lévy was born in Algeria in 1948. His mother was the daughter of a rabbi, and his father had fought in the Spanish Civil War. During the Second World War, Lévy père joined the Free French, and afterwards founded a lumber company that made him a millionaire. Bernard-Henri has a sister, Véronique, and a brother, Philippe, who was run over by a car in 1968 and about whom he will not speak except to confirm that he is still in a coma.
He studied at the École Normale Supérieure under the tutelage of the great Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, who was later committed to an insane asylum after murdering his wife. The news about the murder came to Lévy as a terrible shock, but he still considers the man his mentor: 'Afterwards,' he says, 'I came to reinterpret the silences I had taken to be philosophical and the gaze I had thought meditative as expressions of his mental disarray. It's one of the great mysteries of the French intellectual scene how this man of unbridled insanity could have taught us rigour and rationality.'
There is some debate over what exactly Lévy did in May 1968. Many assume he was leading demos, like other student radicals. Others have suggested that he watched the entire revolt on television, thereby learning an important lesson about the power of the media. He himself wrote 30 years later that he was not on the barricades, but with a girlfriend who was in hospital (or might this be a veiled reference to his brother?). When I ask him about the period, he offers the BHL version of solidarity: 'I was ideologically quite aligned with the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist movement of the time, but in my own way,' he says, 'my own very individualistic and not very team-spirited way.'
At the age of 28 he published Barbarism with a Human Face, and became the most famous member of a group called the nouveaux philosophes who turned against Marxism. He was hailed as the new Camus, mistaken for the new Rimbaud. Lévy became such an overnight success he was dubbed a 'publicity philosopher', and the group was suspected of being, in one TV commentator's words, 'an intellectual marketing coup'. An article in the New York Review of Books reported that metaphysics had been 'resurrected as media hype'.
Soon after that, he met Arielle Dombasle, who has said that when she first saw him she thought Lévy was Jesus Christ. He was on his second marriage by then, and had two children. Lévy and Dombasle embarked on a seven-year secret affair before he made her his third wife in 1993. Dombasle is regularly voted one of the most beautiful women in the world by her countrymen, is rumoured to have the smallest waist in Paris, and has recently found success with an album on which she sings techno versions of Fauré and Handel. In public, she still addresses Lévy, formally, as 'vous'.
Five years ago, Lévy directed his wife in his first feature film. She starred opposite Alain Delon, who played a writer clearly based on Lévy himself. The film was universally panned, not least for the final scene in which the writer dies in a ballooning accident, exploding, as it were, in his own hot air. Lévy is still proud of the film, which he says is 'a lot like me'.
Since he thinks no one knows anything about his life, would Lévy say that BHL is a character, a construction?
'Yes,' he admits, 'but a character constructed partly by myself and partly by others. It's a puppet, and there are times when it can turn against you.'
'But is there any of you in it - are you pulling the puppet's strings?'
'Yes, of course. He's not a stranger to me. But I can hide behind him, and through him I can fight - against Islamists, fascists, bad guys. BHL is a good soldier. BHL is a good mask... When one attacks BHL one does not attack Bernard-Henri Lévy. And BHL is a caricature. He is all of those things.'
'So,' I conclude, after this barrage of third person proclamations, 'you don't feel personally attacked when people criticise you?'
'No,' Lévy says, 'Often, I feel - with good reason - that they are aiming at someone else.'
· Qui a tué Daniel Pearl? is published by Grasset.
The kitsch queen
of the Left Bank
Beautiful, earnest and decadent - singer Arielle Dombasle and her intellectual husband could exist only in Paris. Philip Delves Broughton meets her
The voice cascading down the worn corridors of Paris's Opera Comique leads you to believe some operatic battleship is entering port, all wobbling chins, heaving bosom and tenor-crushing embrace.
Instead, a birdlike blonde bounces into view on the tips of her mules, with sugar-pink pillow lips and a white silk robe tied at the waist - the smallest in Paris, according to her admirers. She has marine 000042 eyes which, for the past few weeks, have been staring out of every bus stop in the city, and a wide, friendly smile, less dumb and pornographic than it appears in posters.
Arielle Dombasle leads me back to her dressing room, festooned with congratulatory notes and heavily scented with orchids and lapsang souchong tea, the only thing she drinks. A large bowl of chocolate sits on her overcrowded vanity table.
A couple of weeks ago, all of Paris was packed in here: Alain Delon, François Pinault, the department store king and owner of Christie's, Yves Saint Laurent and his partner and a gaggle of princesses and politicians, here to see Arielle in a kitschy new production of Beauty and the Beast, in which she sings in see-through frocks and falls in love with a hairy dwarf. Catherine Deneuve, Sophie Marceau and Audrey Tatou may be better known internationally, but in Paris, no one pulls a crowd like Dombasle.
An extraordinary book came out last year, consisting of nothing more than glossy photographs and tributes to her looks, her body, her brilliance and her charm. Roman Polanski adores her "passion", Omar Sharif her "subtlety", Jean-Paul Belmondo her "soul", Christian Lacroix her "incandescence", Tom Ford her "spirit" and John Galliano her "femininity". The photographs show her as nun and whore, bare-breasted Statue of Liberty and nymphomaniac aristocrat. It is a supermarket of sexual fantasy.
On her mirror is a photograph of her and her husband, Bernard-Henri Levy, writer, thinker, philosopher, stud. He is famous enough in France to be known simply by his initials, BHL. She is holding a cigarette and turning in towards him on a restaurant banquette. He is looking sheepishly towards the camera from beneath his thick brown hair.
They are wildly rich, weirdly beautiful, earnest yet decadent in all the right places and could exist nowhere but Paris. At a time of Franco-American discord, it is hard to imagine a couple more alien to the cultural conservatives of George Bush's Washington than Dombasle and BHL. They fit almost every Anglo-Saxon stereotype of the depraved French elite.
They entertain in Oriental splendour in a flat off the Boulevard St Germain, staffed by grave-looking Sri Lankan footmen, and at a sprawling palace in Marrakesh. In the summer, they head for La Colombe d'Or, one of the chicest hotels on the Riviera, once patronised by Picasso, where they own a flat.
When they met, Levy was already married but a prodigious philanderer, with an intellectual reputation as the biggest thing to hit the Left Bank since Albert Camus's Gauloises. He would see three different women a night in successive shifts, cruising from knee-trembler to knee-trembler in his chauffeured Daimler. The money came from his father, a lumber magnate.
Dombasle was also married, to a much older society dentist. She had family money and artistic connections through her grandmother, a grand Bohemian figure who translated Rabindranath Tagore into French and entertained artists and writers at her home in Versailles. Her acting career was taking off under the tutelage of the director Eric Rohmer. But she saw Levy's photograph on a book jacket, "full of pain, femininity and gravity", and the mojo was irresistible. She wriggled into her tightest pair of white jeans and introduced herself to him at a book signing. Soon, they were lovers.
"When I heard of this figure, this writer, a thinker, a master-thinker, when I heard about his courage, his boldness," she says, sweeping her arm upwards, "this absolute thinking machine. And a connoisseur of women, too! Now that, I found very, very attractive. I think I've always been attracted by danger. I wanted to be the only one to seduce him. It was a very dangerous challenge. But it worked."
To call someone a "connoisseur of women", says Dombasle, is a great compliment. It was said of President Mitterrand and is a way of elevating womanising, adulterous or not, to an art. Connoisseurs are not interested in mere notches on the bedpost. They crave women, love and sex in all their variety, mixing scholarly and voluptuary intensity.
Levy still calls himself a libertine, which, I suggest, sounds hard on a marriage. "Not when he adores, adores you," says Dombasle. "Then, he is a libertine but only with me. Voila. Society in France allows you to be a feminist without abdicating your femininity. So it also allows you be a connoisseur of women while being devoted to the greatest causes and a defender of the greatest ideas."
Levy came to attention in 1977 as the 28-year-old leader of the New Philosophers, a band of young thinkers who rejected Marx, then still a deity among French intellectuals. He has produced 18 books since then and used his money and connections to support Bosnian Muslims, Chechen rebels, Afghan dissidents and to take flamboyant, contrary positions. In the Eighties, he opposed giving aid to Ethiopia, on the grounds that to do so condoned the ruling dictatorship.
Dombasle grew up in Mexico where her father, a Burgundian silk manufacturer, chose to settle. She had a charmed youth, "like Tintin among the Mayans", until the age of 11, when her mother died from cancer. She was, says Dombasle, a charming, happy, musical woman who tolerated her husband's wild infidelities. Her daughter was inspired to follow her example and to be sweet, patient and cultured.
During the Eighties, Dombasle found work in American mini-series such as Lace and had a recurring role in Miami Vice. But it was France and the cinema that attracted her. She took almost any role she could - costume dramas, bikini girl parts. She once played a deviant Uzbeki mute. But now, at 45, it is by doing a bit of everything that she has found success. She has made two albums, whose success has confounded the record industry. The latest, released last year, featured her singing techno versions of Faure, Gounod and Handel and sold well over 100,000 copies.
"It is difficult to be like this," she says. "People like to put actors in boxes. But I have a great sense of freedom, which pays off. It is a kind of dandyism, a universal aesthetic."
For seven years, she and Levy conducted a secret affair, meeting in hotel rooms, travelling abroad. "Elevator men and doormen were our best friends," she says. "Our private life was very secret, the most secret of secrets. But then, afterwards, when I married the man I loved, we could do things together, work in theatre, in cinema. So then our artistic life could relate to our private life."
Dombasle insists that, for the French, "love still rests on the 14th-century idea of courtly love, the idea that one earns one's love, one passes tests and through the attempt you find something wonderful". And all love, extra-curricular or not, is illicit. "Life, society, does all it can to keep people apart. So when love does arise, it's fate."
Each night, she says, she goes home and finds Levy writing. "He writes, he writes all the time. When he's at the end of his books, he writes all night. I love that. It's so reassuring for me, because he's there, creating something so important and fundamental." Recently, BHL has stood up for America's reputation in France, against overwhelming criticism and taunts that his Jewish roots incline him to support Israel and America against the Palestinians and Arab countries.
Reading French magazines, you get the feeling that there is a Parnassus in Paris, chez Levy and Dombasle, where the best of brains and bodies meet. She laughs at the idea. "We have friends we love but we're very private. There are always Afghan dissidents, Latin-American revolutionaries, Chechen resistants at the flat. I am engaged in my heart. I listen. But I'm not as involved as my husband."
Looking at all the photographs of Dombasle in her dressing room, I ask if she is a narcissist. "A narcissist is someone who ultimately needs no one else, because he is obsessed with his own image and he falls into the water," she says. "He doesn't look at anyone else or show an interest in anyone else. Looking at myself doesn't interest me one bit. These photographs I do, they're not me. They're roles I play, little plays in themselves."
Her philosophy is simpler than her husband's dark, complicated world view. "One must put love at the command post of life," she says. "But excuse me, now I must sing." And more of those improbably rich notes come tumbling out.