"I will admit this to you," he says frowning beautifully. "When I see myself on TV - and I have been on 100 to 150 programs - when I read my interviews, I disgust myself. I have an incredible nausea . . ."
A glance of incomprehension prompts a gesture appropriate to a sudden and violent attack of food poisoning, . . . Nausea. It is as if this person I see who resembles me is yet a stranger. A diabolical and slightly exotic brother.
"And I HATE myself. I HATE everything that has recently happened to me in one sense. Believe me, this is not coquetry."
The words you may believe or disbelieve as you choose. But the face . . . Well, that face you simply must believe.
All olive-toned and prominently boned, delicate and framed in long black hair, it is the face of Bernard-Henri Levy, the philosopher-prince, who looks like he belongs in the latest Truffaut movie and talks in the histrionic French (his English being flawed) of a Sartre play.
The French are, naturally enough, mad for him - or made at him, depending on which French we're talking about. "You can't imagine how I've been attacked in France," says Bernard-Henri Levy, wearily closing coal-dark eyes, burning with the lively fires of purgatory. "It's been very hard."
And not only in France, either. In Mexico, students at the Che Guevara amphitheater threw bags of ammonia and rotten tomatoes at him. In Turin, Italy, the graffiti promised him a bullet through the mouth. In America, he breakfasted Tuesday with Kissinger, lunched last week with journalistic heavies like Bill Safire and speaks to students. And there are those who greet him with the respectful caution the devout always tender toward the new convert. Bernard-Henri Levy is, after all, French. He was, after all, a Maoist.
And the question is - what is he now? He was much too left to be right. He is much too pretty to be smart. And of course, he is much too famous to be esoteric.
At 29, Bernard-Henri Levy has managed to enrage the intellectuals, "most of whom are liars, fools and cowards," he announces firmly. "Most of the intellectuals of Italy and France have dissimulated for 30 years the horrors of Stalinism."
So there you have it. Bernard-Henri Levy has become a best-selling author, a true media star, an adored and loathed spokesman simply by writing a book in which he says, in effect:
Marxism is evil - inherently so.
Capitalism leads to great evil; that too is inevitable.
Both ideologies are dangerous.
Individual rebellion is important and desirable . . . but ultimately a lost cause, providing only temporary benefits.
The French who could listen to this sort of thing for hours, have in fact done so. At this moment there are about eight similarly-minded new authors running around Paris. And they call themselves "the new philosophers."
Of them all, Bernard-Henri Levy is neither the most experienced nor necessarily the best thinker. But he is the star. And he is the star for two reasons. First, because as an editor at the Paris publishing house of Grasset he was smart enough to bring out all the books of the New Philosophers.
And second . . . because he's gorgeous.
"I am very obsessive about death," says Levy, the long cigarette dangling from his lips. "Well . . . not death. But I'm obsessive about old age."
He smiles ruefully. "Every day before the mirror, I check . . ." The Problem of Evil
"I will tell you something about myself I could not say in France," he confides around midnight in his hotel room "For me, there were two May '68s in France. There was the May '68 of storming the barricades where I threw stones at the police - that was the political May '68.
"And then there as MY May '68, when the woman I loved was dying. And the hospital was on strike and the nurses were not working and the doctors were out demonstrating with the students."
A small grimace of disdain. "So there was the revolution, and there was the woman I loved . . . suffering. Fortunately she survived because we fled from France. But it was as if May '68 - all of it - was organized to make her suffer, to make her die. That's how it seemed to me."
After May '68, Bernard-Henri Levy mingled still with "vaguely leftist groups." He had studied philosophy at the Ecole Normale Superieure, economics at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. In 1971 he went to Bangladesh to report the war - but shortly after his arrival he became an economic adviser to the new government. In 1973, he became part of Francois Mitterrand's brain trust. . . .
And then he read Solzhenitsyn's "Gulag Archipelago."
And that was the end. That was the end for Levy and a number of his other fellow new philosophers. And in that sense (although the precipitating causes may have differed) it was also the end of the New Left here in America.
Or, as Levy puts it, "In the name of a classless society (Soviet Union) has produced concentration camps. And in the same way, the United States, which also has this dream of a classless society, a nation without history and without depth, has produced and justified the massacre of the Indians and the fate of the blacks."
Now you may say - as someone in fact did the other day at a luncheon thrown by Marty Peretz of The New Republic - that Bernard-Henri's fresh discovery about the evils of communism is "like discovering an elephant in your bedroom after 30 years." But Levy has an answer for that. The left, says Levy, had traditionally explained away the evils of the Soviet Union by claiming that Russia was simply a perversion of true Marxist ideals. Well, it's not, says Levy. "There is no difference between the real and the ideal implementation."
Are you depressed by all this? Mired down in pessimism by the futility of struggle?
That's nothing compared to the way Bernard-Henri Levy felt while he was writing his book, "Barbarism With a Human Face," which has not yet appeared here, much to the author's annoyance.
My book was riddled with this insoluble problem," he says mournfully. "It was a bitter, raging pessimism, a sort of black jubilation over the inevitability of misfortune. It was a slightly crazy sort of pessimism. Eh?
"On the other hand, it contained a kind of irrepressible bet. Yes, a wager on an impossible revolt, an impossible resistance and rebellion. And that was the contradiction that gave this book its dynamism."
Since the emergence of his book, Levy has not exactly cheered up. That would be going too far. He is, however, trying to make some sense out of life by writing a commentary on the Old Testament. The age-old problem of evil, which he believes Western philosophies (including Marxism) tend to rationalize, finds no such refuge in the Book of Job.
"I finally figured out why the Jew is one of the exemplary figures of revolt," he says triumphantly. "And why anti-semitism is indicative of all forms of repression. It is because the Jew is the figure who won't settle; he escapes from the state and is not controlled politically by the state. The Jew is the person who must be excluded by the state."
Bernard-Henri Levy, if you let him will extrapolate from personal experience into generalized theory for an entire evening; he produces the reverse only on demand, and then never for very long. He was born in Algeria (which, he feels gives him an automatic affinity with Albert Camus; although the Levy family left for France within months of his birth) to a rich industrialist father.A rich Jewish family.
"I discovered my Jewishness late," he says slowly, and deliberately. "I discovered it on self-hate and guilt and shame - and a terrible incident. I was 10. Our family was non-practicing. I mean we celebrated Christmas with gifts and a Christmas tree.
"And I had a close friend - a pretty French boy, all blond." The corners of his lips turn down. "I tell him what I got for Christmas - trains, soldiers.
"And he makes a face - a frozen face: 'YOU celebrate Christmas? YOU don't have the right to celebrate Christmas! You're Jewish.'
"Ah oui. . . ." whispered Bernard-Henri Levy. And he left silently.
He did not return home all night. By the time he returned home at 5 a.m. his parents were out of their minds with worry. He was to fall sick for eight days, saying nothing to anyone.
"I was brought up in a family where the word 'Jew' was uttered in a low voice. The servants had to leave the room before it was pronounced out loud . . .
"And I didn't hate my little friend for the great wound he inflicted on me - perhaps the greatest wound of my life. No, my friend became even more dear to me.All I wanted was to convince him that I had the right to celebrate Christmas. That I was a good Jew."
His voice grows cold with sarcasm. "I now realize what assimilation is for a Jew. . . . It is the ability to love one's oppressor." An Affair of the Memory
He mingles fluidly at Marty Peretz's luncheon for him at II Giardino, a dark, exquisite woman named Sylvie by his side. Over the asparagus, the guests murmur among themselves. Aren't they beautiful together? Just like movie actors. "A real media personality," says Peretz, who has become his recent friend.
Bernard-Henri Levy expands volubly on his pessimistic philosophy in a flood of imperfect but understandable English.
It is as if he revels gloriously in all the contradictions he has assigned to himself. He is anti-Marxist, but his is not the comfortable anti-Marxism of Nixon or the CIA. He is an intellectual who disdains intellectuals (with a few exceptions, Sartre among them). He is for individual rebellion, knowing full well that rebellion only produces "an interruption - a provisionary interruption: a little less torture, a little more liberty."
He hates his publicity and yet he finds fame agreeable.
Late, late at night in his hotel room he sums it up. "My pessimism is not a pose. It is idiosyncratic."
But Bernard-Henri - he is told - you're a very lucky man. You were born rich, handsome, smart. You live with the beautiful Sulvie and your child (by a former liaison). You live in Paris. Why are you so pessimistic?
Wearily, gravely, he replies, "I don't know. I don't know. I don't know. It goes to the heart of being Jewish. Pessimism is an affair of the memory." The Goal of Life
Bernard-Henri Levy is asked if it isn't an act of foolish pride to present himself to the wrath of the students of Italy and Mexico.
Especially since at the Che Guevara amphitheater they shouted him down for more than two hours until they ran out of rotten vegetables to throw.
Bernard-Henri Levy simultaneously arches his back and his neck. "After 2 1/2 hours of shouting, I finally got a vote from the students. Half were for my debate, half against. And so I debated. I stayed all the time.
"I was the last to leave that place."
He smiles to himself. "I am never scared of death, and that was also a way of defying oneself. It was pride - the capital sin. If one dies, one should die on one's feet.
"Be sure to die on your feet, I always say that the goal of life is to prepare your own funeral. That is - " he shrugs gallically - "one of my little aphorisms: that the goal of life is to prepare your own funeral.
"But look. If you're going to print that, be sure to say that I'm saying this with a smile."
And Bernard-Henri Levy smiles - mockingly, resignedly, and most beautifully - for his audience.