The Genius of Bernard-Henri Lévy
by Bernard-Henri Lévy, translated by Steven B. Kennedy
Random House, 256 pp., $28
The French have called Bernard-Henri Lévy simply by his initials, BHL, since the 1970s. They also call him a philosophe, which, even today, is no ordinary thing. In America, a philosopher is someone explaining that “Socrates is a man; all men are mortal; so Socrates is mortal” to an audience of bored 19-year-olds scrolling through their iPhones. In France, a glossy color magazine called Philosophie appears on news-stands—which France has in abundance. A philosophe is heir to the great figures of the Enlightenment, expected to be possessed of effortless learning and culture, a part of the country’s rich literary tradition, who is “engaged,” as well, in public affairs.
When BHL first appeared on the scene, more old-fashioned philosophes envied or looked down upon him for his big, broad, flexible approach to public affairs, not to mention his very public private life. To this day, BHL is as likely to appear in the glamorous pages of Paris Match as in Philosophie. In his new book, The Genius of Judaism, he recalls the lesson an old, rich, and cultivated Jew of his acquaintance once gave him about how to combat anti-Semitism: “have nicer teeth than they do; get their women to love you . . . Live in castles as big as theirs.” A promise kept.