I got off the bus several stops prior to where I normally disembark on my way home from work. I hoofed it about a mile and a half to the University District, snacking on a honey crisp apple and enjoying the sites along the way. I need to spend more time in the U-District, there is much inspiration, in many shapes and sizes, can be found in those environs.
I arrived at the University Book Store about 80 minutes prior to the scheduled start time of Bernard-Henri Levy’s book reading. I’d never been to a reading at this bookstore and my plan was to scout out the book reading area, browse through the merchandise for a spell, and then myself a seat while there was still a seat to be had.
I was surprised to find only a couple dozen chairs sequestered in a corner on the second floor. It was a setup that suggested a gathering far too small for a man of Levy’s fame. It was also odd that those who were assembled in the corner were noticeably greasier, lumpier and less particular about their garments than your average leftist—a couple of baggy black tees with animal prints in the bunch. Stranger still, the table of voluminous fantasy novels penned by an unknown writer. I didn’t know much about this Frenchman I was there to hear speak, but I was pretty certain he hadn’t penned any fantasy novels under a pseudonym.
And then it dawned on me. The Stranger had lied to me. There was to be no Frenchman at the University Bookstore on Monday night. Instead, some second-rate fantasy fabulist was there to entertain his begreased minions. As I scrambled to find the bookstore’s calendar of events my expression no doubt resembled that of a toddler who had dropped his ice cream cone on the ground. Locating the calendar, I saw that in less than an hour Lévy would be speaking at Town Hall, a downtown community culture center a bus ride plus eight blocks away.
I dashed out to catch a bus downtown. Once downtown I did my best Olympic race walk impersonation. Once at Town Hall I discovered that there was a $5 fee to hear the Frenchman speak. I had but $3 in my pocket and this was a cash only transaction. Back outside now. Roaming the streets for an ATM. ATM located. Money procured. Ticker bought. Seat found. Back center. Lights down. Frenchman enters.
A public intellectual of great tabloid fame in France (think Paris Hilton plus intellect and a pair or testicles) Lévy has a reputation as a dilettante, a dandy and an egoist. I saw little Monday night that dissuaded me from taking this opinion myself. He was dressed in his customary designer suit with white dress shirt unbuttoned and, yes, he fixed his hair on at least two occasions.
Throughout his dialogue Lévy he struck me more as a critic of philosophy than a philosopher. To call him a philosopher would be like calling Roger Ebert a filmmaker. There was not a tremendous amount of philosophical substance to his words. He was congenial and animated and to spend ninety minutes in a room with him was to know that you were in the presence of a luminary—pseudo-intellectual other otherwise.
Lévy’s most salient talking points were on the European left’s misguided anti-Americanism, the mistreatment of women in Muslim nations, the increase of anti-semitism in Europe, the inauspicious rise of nationalism and tribalism, the regrettable lack of international aid for Darfur and the left’s fixation on the plight of the Palestinians and total ignorance about numerous other cases of victimhood. He believes strongly that the most important aims for the left must be internationalism (and the dismissal of national boundaries) and to always be on the side of the oppressed everywhere and adamantly in support of human rights.
The largest reaction from the crowd came during a story about Nicolas Sarkozy giving him a call to ask for his endorsement. “In France the politicians actually ask writers for an endorsement,” he said. “This is an advantage we have over you. I don’t think we’re likely to see Sarah Palin call Philip Roth to ask for his endorsement.” Chicken soul for the soul of liberal elites, it was. I laughed.
But there’s more to this Sarkozy chat. According to Wikipedia:
Levy told The Australian that the [his new book, Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism] grew out of a phone call he received from Nicolas Sarkozy on January 23, 2007 asking for his support in the Presidential campaign. Levy responded that, "no matter how much I like and respect you, the Left is my family." to which Sarkozy replied, "These people who've spent 30 years telling you to go (expletive) yourself? Do you really believe what you're saying, that these people are your family?"Lévy rose to fame in 1977 with his book Barbarism with a Human Face, in which he argued that Marxism was inherently corrupt. On Monday he read from his new book, Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism and argued passionately and sometimes persuasively that in the aftermath of the fall of communism the left has lost its way entirely and now posses a threat to liberal values everywhere.
The phone call set Levy thinking, and he concluded that his abiding commitment to the left is rooted in his "adherence to the freedom and dignity of the individual, anti-fascism, anti-colonialism and 'the anti-totalitarianism that is the legacy of May '68 '."
In the middle of a presidential campaign where the enemy is so clearly the right, it was refreshing to take a step back and scrutinize the left on an international scale. I get the impression that Lévy is a polarizing figure, but I left fairly neutral about the man and his views. I agreed with some ideas, disagreed with others. I was thoroughly entertained but a little put off by his foppishness. I’m in no hurry to buy any of his books, but I’d gladly listen to him speak next time he rolls through town.
A Letter to the American Left
Benard-Henri Lévy on Charlie Rose over a year ago
The Lies of Bernard-Henri Lévy
Mediocracy in America