BHL, as he is affectionately and not so affectionately called in France, is a philosopher, writer, publisher, filmmaker, provocateur and general lightning rod. It’s hard to imagine his equivalent in America, an intellectual with a movie star’s celebrity and cachet: We don’t grow them here. But in France, he is everywhere, adored, attacked, derided, applauded; so famous that his fame itself has become the subject of any discussion of him.
A splendid-looking man, he is known for his style: his white shirts, unbuttoned, a black jacket made by Charvet, sweeping leonine hair, dark eyes. He also exudes the brooding thinky je ne sais quoi of French philosophers from time immemorial. Suffice it to say that if you are looking for him in a hotel lobby you will not have trouble spotting him.
He has homes in Paris and Morocco, and is married to the actress Arielle Dombasle. His most recent book, « Public Enemies, » is a spirited exchange of letters between him and the equally infamous novelist Michel Houellebecq. Their debate covers subjects from Kant to drugs, Baudelaire to their fathers, along with speculation on why people hate them, and whether or not they care.
“I have worn the same white shirts, the same person has made my jackets, for thirty years. I get older, but I have the same size hair. I am a man of habits”
I am not writing to be loved. There is as much pleasure to being hated as being loved. I write in order to convince. In order to win. In order to change, even just a little, the world. I recently launched an appeal on Twitter supporting those attacking the official websites of the Tunisian regime. An intellectual calling for hacking doesn’t happen very frequently, and there is a stir. I am happy that it succeeded. I care about being heard.
In the war of ideas, you have to know where your enemies are, where your friends are. You have to know where you are weak and where you are strong. Sometimes a strong attack reveals a weak point. So I always read what is written about me. I take it into account in one way or another. But it does not affect me in a sentimental way.
In France nine or ten books have been written against me in the past four or five years. Nine or ten! The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan speaks about énamoré, which is being in love, seduced. But you can also say it like this: haineamorée, a hatred that is filled with love. Lacan writes it both ways; it is a mix of love and hate.
Why am I different from writers, like Houellebecq, who suffer from being hated? I am loved by those who are important to me. When you have that, you don’t need the other kind of love. Those who are affected are those who, as we say in French, fall from high places.
They believe that they are going to be loved and are disappointed when they are not. It’s Freud who says that what links humanity is not love, but hatred; the bond, the tough stuff is made of hate. I covered wars. I saw societies, whole worlds sometimes, being completely torn apart by hatred. I know how hatred works. I don’t believe in peace and love. The first relationship between men, before the law is given, is automatic murder: Cain and Abel. Why should it be different today, frankly?
I know a writer builds three things of unequal importance: He builds a persona, a life, a work. The three are linked, of course, and linked in conflict. For myself, I am not conscious of creating a persona. I think a little more about building a life, though it is not crucial. All my strength, all my energy, all my love is on the third table, which is the books.
I don’t care much about style or appearance. I have always dressed the same way. No eccentricity. No surprise. Somebody who cares about fashion changes; somebody who cares makes an event of his own style. I have worn the same white shirts, the same person has made my jackets, for 30 years. I get older, but I have the same size hair. I am a man of habits.
I care about physical things. When in New York, I live at the Carlyle hotel, which is not the worst place in the city. I know the difference between beautiful furniture and not. But I can do without. As long as I have my books, a few shirts, my paper to write on and my favorite pens, all is OK. I am a very adaptable person. When I do reporting in Darfur or shoot a movie or documentary on the war in Sarajevo, I can live for days and weeks in conditions where the problem of surroundings does not exist; I can live in very precarious conditions. I don’t feel especially uneasy.
Fashion is a language, and what is interesting about fashion today is that there is no longer fashion. That is, there is an appropriation of fashion by people in the street. There was a time when you saw a woman who was a high-fashion model, who was a caricature, a cartoon of real life. But now people are more free with their fashion. The most interesting people make their own fashion out of what designers offer them. Women on the street have become hackers of the fashion world. They break the code; they undo and redo. It is the democratization of fashion today that interests me.
Fashion communicates a relationship to the world, to one’s body. What is the reply to the old philosophical inquiry between soul and body: Are they at war? Are they in harmony? Are they friends or enemies? There are moments in life, in the day, where the two are at war, moments where they are in harmony, days when you feel at war with your body, and days your body is your friend. Fashion says that. Style says that.
If I were compelled to describe what my own style means, I would probably say: a sense of freedom. At the same time, a mixture of internal freedom and a freedom of movement. If my style says something it is that. But I am not sure.
Photo 1 : LE PENSEUR Bernard-Henri Lévy, photographed in the living room of his suite at New York’s Carlyle hotel. (c) Ben Hoffmann.
Photo 2 : Bernard-Henri Lévy (c) Ben Hoffmann.
Photo 3 : Bernard-Henri Lévy in 1978 after a meeting with then-President Valery Giscard d’Estaing at Paris’ Palais de l’Elysee (c) Reuters/STR New.