Icons / October 2015

Le Philosophe Provocateur

Prolific not just between the sheets but also in terms of his bountiful polemics on the human condition, Bernard-Henri Levy remains, at 65, a uniquely French phenomenon: a modern celebrity…

There are few philosophers famous enough to be elevated to the status of a brand, but Bernard-Henri Lévy - or BHL, as he's affectionately/derisively known as in his native France - is one. He's the exemplar of a uniquely French phenomenon: the preening, pugilistic public intellectual who's as likely to be found in the pages of Paris Match, confirming or denying the latest rumours of an affair with a starlet or heiress, as in more learned journals, refuting the writings of Kant or berating governments for inaction in the face of the Syrian conflict or the renewed impetus of France's right-wing National Front.

'Philosopher, publisher, novelist, journalist, filmmaker, defender of causes, libertine, and provocateur, he is somewhere between gadfly and tribal sage, Superman and prophet,' is how former Editor-in-Chief of Vogue Paris, Joan Juliet Buck, in a Vanity Fair profile, once described the man who has breezily declined to accept the Légion d'Honneur - France's highest decoration - on an almost annual basis. And, although he represents no party and holds no official job or elected office, BHL's visage hovers, omnipresent, over French national and political life: he's embarked on a government mission to Afghanistan; issued written treatises on international affairs (he's authored more than 30 books); defended his friend, the former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, over the accusations of attempted rape brought by a hotel chambermaid in New York; and curated an exhibition, titled, with characteristic immodesty, 'Adventures of Truth - Painting and philosophy: a narrative', at the Maeght Foundation on the Côte d'Azur.

The BHL visage is a chiselled, well-groomed one. At 65, he still boasts a luxuriant, nonchalantly groomed grey mane suited to a polo player, and he favours fitted dark suits over raffishly unbuttoned white shirts, revealing an ample expanse of firm, creamy chest. He's been compared to Charles Baudelaire, Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, André Malraux, TE Lawrence and King David. Arielle Dombasle, his wasp-waisted actress wife, said that the first time she saw a picture of BHL, she thought he was Jesus Christ. But the man himself sort of demurs: 'I am someone who thinks he can influence things and do it with fire and passion and energy, and then the other side of me speaks up and says, 'Just write.'' He attracts adulation and opprobium in equal measure. One of his best friends, the painter Jacques Martinez, says: 'He's handsome, he's talented, he's rich, he has a beautiful wife - of course they hate him.'

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Stuart Husband