The self-proclaimed French public intellectual Bernard-Henry Lévy, who was born into great wealth, once reportedly said, “I knew when I was 20 that I’d never have to suck up to anyone.”
He often associates himself with other notable men, such as Charles Baudelaire, Andre Malraux and T.E. Lawrence. Anointing himself the successor to Alexis de Tocqueville, Bernard-Henry Lévy toured America as if it were a freak show. The result became his book American Vertigo, where he spends a great deal of time interviewing drag queens and lap dancers as if they are the bedrock of American culture. As always, Lévy is known for being short on the facts, long on bombastic puffery.
Being wealthy and a self-proclaimed public intellectual is a big cross to bear for someone who might just be an average guy. While Lévy fancies himself an erudite thinker in the same vein as Victor Hugo or Emile Zola, his tireless social antics make him cheap fodder for the gossip columnists on both sides of the Atlantic. He once boasted that his sexual prowess makes him take as many partners as possible in one night. He’d attend a dinner party with one woman only to end up in bed with another woman that evening, and, by morning he’d visit the bed of still another woman. You know what they say about a man who brags about his sexual escapades? It usually means something is quite small, but it’s probably not his ego.
In an attempt at being iconic, Lévy brands himself with his initials of BHL and claims to be known everywhere far beyond his native country of France. He frequently compares himself as charismatic as Jesus Christ and sports crisp, white shirts and an immaculately groomed gray mane that is clear evidence of a legion of on-call stylists, makeup artists and wardrobe professionals.
There is a French term that quite succinctly captures this sort of person: poseur. And money can buy a whole lot of pontification, preening and punditry, also known as publicité.
Lévy’s most important works are often described as inaccurate and sophomoric. Take his book Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, based on the Wall Street Journal reporter who was captured in Pakistan and murdered in 2002 by Islamic extremists. In a moment of sheer disrespect, Lévy wrote a fictionalized version of what Daniel Pearl was thinking just moments before he was beheaded.
One can hardly imagine the perils and horror of Lévy’s war coverage trying to get to the bottom of Who Killed Daniel Pearl? Did he ride embedded with the troops in Afghanistan, or did he travel far above the hoi polloi with French President Jacques Chirac’s special envoy? It is important to note that one benefit of Lévy’s wealth has meant that he has never bothered to learn how to drive and is frequently chauffeured around Paris in a Daimler sedan.
Everyone is entitled to their quirks, and Lévy is no exception. While it’s true he was born into great wealth, that is not a reason to lambast him. What is unforgiveable is his passionate defense of his friend, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), after Strauss-Kahn’s physical assault on a hotel employee, Nafissatu Diallo, in 2011. Lévy proclaimed he couldn’t believe that a simple chambermaid would have the audacity to step forward and make a formal complaint against such an important man.
“And what I know even more is that the Strauss-Kahn I know, who has been my friend for 20 years and who will remain my friend, bears no resemblance to this monster, this caveman, this insatiable and malevolent beast now being described nearly everywhere,” Lévy stated at the time. “Charming, seductive, yes, certainly; a friend to women and, first of all, to his own woman, naturally, but this brutal and violent individual, this wild animal, this primate, obviously no, it’s absurd.”
Lévy gives rich new meaning to Mahatama Gandhi’s version of the “Seven Deadly Sins”: Wealth without Work, Pleasure without Conscience, Science without Humanity, Knowledge without Character, Politics without Principle, Commerce without Morality, and Worship without Sacrifice.
A recent search for Bernard-Henri Lévy on the New York Times site reveals 672 results, as the subject of feature articles, or the source of quotes, references and other mentions – and this is only in the Times. Lévy has not done anything substantial enough to get so much ink in top-tier legacy press.
His social media also boasts big numbers. To date, he has 19,367 likes on Facebook and 12,000 followers on Twitter, but we all know anyone can buy social currency. It can only be a matter of money stoking the P.R. machinery to buy publicité on both sides of the Atlantic. So Bernard-Henri Lévy, indeed, will never have to suck up to anyone.