Interview with Bernard-Henri Lévy

The philosopher on coming face-to-face with death in Bangladesh, why academics don’t like him, and Brexit

May 24, 2018
Bernard-Henri Lévy
Source: Jean Christophe Marmara/Figarophoto

Bernard-Henri Lévy studied philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure and briefly taught in universities before becoming one of France’s best-known – and often controversial – public intellectuals. He is the author of numerous books, including The French Ideology, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, American Vertigo: Travelling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville and Left in Dark Times: A Stand against the New Barbarism. On 4 June, he will be performing his one-man play, Last Exit before Brexit, at Cadogan Hall in London.

Where and when were you born – and where did you grow up?
I was born in Algeria, then a French département, in 1948, in a village I left immediately afterwards. After that, I was essentially brought up in Paris.

How has this shaped who you are?
I am unusual in having no clear image of my place of birth, since I never lived there. I imagine that must have had an impact on how I conceive the world. I also think it had an influence on the anti-naturalist, anti-organicist philosophy I developed later, which gives no credence to the worship of roots or anything like that.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
Both hard-working and unruly. I tried to be top of the class and yet not to miss out on that marvellous intoxication to be found, for example, in the discovery of love.

What was your most memorable moment at university?
The moment when I escaped and followed the call of [French novelist and politician] André Malraux to go to Bangladesh, which [in 1971] was fighting for its independence and to put an end to a genocidal bloodbath unparalleled since 1945. I had passed the agrégation [competitive examination] in philosophy, but suddenly felt closer to “adventurers” in the mould of George Orwell or T. E. Lawrence than to traditional philosophers such as Sartre or Wittgenstein.

Can you divide your life into a ‘before’ and an ‘after’?
Yes, that time in Bangladesh. I saw things there that a young man should never witness and which mark him for ever: corpses, people dying of hunger, the worst things that man can suffer at the hands of his fellow man. Absolute evil. All my work and publications come out of that.

For how long were you active as a teacher?
Not long. Two years. I taught epistemology at the University of Strasbourg and gave a course on Nietzsche’s politics at the École Normale Supérieure.

Why did you give up university teaching?
There was no particular reason. Chance. A desire for adventure or at least to do something new. And meeting Françoise Verny, the central figure in French publishing, who gave me an opportunity to work alongside her.

Do you still have close links with any particular academic institutions?
No. Some Israeli universities have given me honorary doctorates. But that’s about it. In France, I’m a pure product of the university system, but I am detested by the academy. Why? Because I got away, try to write for a broad readership and write in the first person.

What you feel about academic critics who have drawn attention to errors in your books?
There are no books that don’t contain errors, particularly when one writes a lot and with a sense of urgency. That urgency is not just a personal whim but a response to the suffering and tragedies of the world – and those, alas, don’t wait for anyone.

What is the role of intellectuals in combating the rise of populism?
Showing that there are questions that shouldn’t be asked [because they already have populist assumptions built into them]. The question of Brexit, for example, should never have been asked.

What was your immediate feeling on hearing the Brexit result?
That Great Britain was going to become little England. And that the whole of Europe was inevitably going to lose one of its most powerful engines. Europe is Athens, Rome and Jerusalem, of course. But it’s also a vision of an open, liberal and democratic society that is essentially English in its origins and development.

What has led you to take to the stage and perform a solo show in English?
The insistence of my friend Sophie Wiesenfeld, who runs the Hexagon Society in London. She saw Hôtel Europe, an earlier version of Last Exit before Brexit, in Paris in 2014 and realised that I was predicting the almost inevitable collapse of the European project. [After the Brexit vote], she called me up and said “Voilà, your prediction was right. Now let’s try to reverse the trend and help the democrats of Great Britain fight back against the black tide of populism.”

What do you hope British audiences will take away from the show?
I hope to contribute to reopening the debate about Brexit and to put over my deep philosophical conviction that nothing is ever final, that one can always put right the errors of the past and change course. In other words, I don’t believe Brexit is predestined and, to be absolutely honest, I’m not sure that it is going to happen.

How can intellectuals help shape the future of Europe?
There’s one point we should concede to the honest Brexiteers: a Europe without its soul, an accountant’s Europe so bureaucratic it resembles the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a Europe that accommodates itself to jihadism and [allegedly progressive forms of Islam] – that Europe has had its day. It needs to regenerate itself and go back to the lessons of Dante, Goethe and [German philosopher Edmund] Husserl, of Byron at Missolonghi and Churchill’s speech in Zurich [calling for “a United States of Europe”]. And for that, yes, we need intellectuals.

Tell us about someone you have always admired.
Churchill. His strength of spirit, his courage, his sense of fun. The poetry of his personality. And the fact that, without him, France would not be France, Europe would not be Europe and I might never have been born.

matthew.reisz@timeshighereducation.com


Appointments

Benoit-Antoine Bacon has been appointed president of Carleton University in Ottawa. He will join on 1 July from Queen’s University in Kingston, where he is provost and vice-principal (academic). He will succeed Roseann Runte, who left in March 2017 to lead the Canada Foundation for Innovation. Alastair Summerlee has been interim president since July. Professor Bacon, who has also held leadership roles at Concordia University and at -Bishop’s University, said that he intended to work with “the whole community to leverage Carleton’s many outstanding strengths and to further enhance the institution’s relevance and impact nationally and internationally”.

Frances Bowen will be the new pro vice-chancellor for social sciences at the University of East Anglia. She will join in September from Queen Mary University of London, where she is now dean of the School of Business and Management and professor of innovation. Professor Bowen has previously taught at the University of Sheffield and the University of Calgary, where she served as associate dean for research. David Richardson, UEA’s vice-chancellor, said that Professor Bowen had a “wealth of experience that will help UEA to fulfil its vision and plan in the coming five years”.

Siladitya Bhattacharya is to be the head of Cardiff University’s School of Medicine. Professor Bhattacharya was formerly professor of reproductive medicine at the University of Aberdeen, where he also served as the director of its Institute of Applied Health Sciences.

Patrick Parkinson has been named the head of the University of Queensland’s T C Beirne School of Law. Professor Parkinson, a family law and child protection specialist, joins from the University of Sydney, where he had been head of the law school.

Lucy Hodson has been appointed to the role of director of planning and intelligence at Birmingham City University. She will join from Aberystwyth University, where she is currently director of planning and governance.

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