Bernard-Henri Lévy: the thinking woman's crumpet

The great thinker, strides into the café, with his white shirt open to the waist. But he's so dishevelled and studiedly studenty that the idea of talking about anything other than politics seems out of the question. Deborah Orr meets the French writer and philosopher whose new book travels to the heart of America today.
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I'm in a nameless café, in a nameless square, in a nameless north African country. I'm waiting to interview a man who, so the received wisdom goes, absolutely rejoices in a soubriquet that renders him close to nameless as well. BHL may sound like a parcel delivery service, or a government quango, but it is the French nickname - ironically affectionate in the main - for Bernard-Henri Lévy, the nation's most visible, telegenic, and - so his detractors maintain - most narcissistic intellectual.

Certainly, at this point in time (which presumably must remain a secret), I'm happy to believe the latter. Lévy's "people" in London have informed me that I must not mention the part of the world in which we are meeting, because Lévy is sensitive for reasons of "security". Who is this fool, who considers himself so terribly significant, that a little harmless colour in a British newspaper could jeopardise his existence? Is he a charlatan, a mountebank, a hypocrite lecteur? The French have words for frauds, the unkind might say, in the manner that the Inuit have words for snow.

When the great thinker strides into the nameless café, white shirt open to the waist in the tic of vanity that tout le monde finds so absurd, I find I'm grateful that his mode of attire is so distinctive. Because all other signs of 21st-century narcissism are entirely absent. The most groomed individual I've ever been up close to is Tony Blair. Smoothed, buffed, moisturised and ironed, Blair is so well presented that you want to ask him to lie down so you can eat off him, instead of talking politics (but only after you've asked for the number of his manicurist). Lévy, on the other hand, is so dishevelled, unshaven, crookedly bespectacled and studiedly studenty, that the idea of talking about anything other than politics with him seems entirely out of the question.

I must confess to disappointment on this score. Lévy's glamorous good looks are legendary, and his aura of sexiness is not hampered in the least by his left-bank credentials. He was great friends with Sartre and has written a biography of him. He studied as a young man under Derrida and Foucault, and enjoys shamelessly his celebrity status among the Parisian demimonde today. He is ostentatiously wealthy, living in some style and opulence with his third wife, the actress and singer, Arielle Dombasle. He is, notoriously, the regular victim of the cream-flan flinger Noël Godin, who targets celebrities with a poorly developed sense of irony. The rest of Lévy's time is filled amply by trolling round one war zone or another, as he has done for more than 30 years now, or bashing out another in his long series of big-in-France philosophical or journalistic tomes.

All this is plenty to reinforce his image as the thinking woman's crumpet. To me though, he just seems crumpled. His brow, perhaps from all that thinking, has such an impressive pair f of furrows in it that I have to resist the temptation to reach out and see if I can use it as a penholder. A botox needle would simply curl up and sob if confronted with such impregnably leathery gullies of frown-evidence. Perhaps Lévy's vanity is expressed in his presumption, at 57, that he doesn't have to make an effort in order to look presentable. If so, it's a relaxed and friendly vanity, rather than the competitive, obsessive sort.

And relaxed and friendly is what Lévy indeed seems to be. We're not, it turns out for a start, in a nameless anywhere. "How absurd," he says. "Being in Marrakesh. That is no problem, of course. Being in Marrakesh? Just my home - I don't want people to know where my home is, or what it is like." Which is fair enough.

So we're in the Café de France, in Place Djamal Afna, the biggest, most vibrant square in the city. Hawkers are hawking, tumblers are tumbling, beggars are begging, and the souk is gearing up for the evening's business. Our business, Bernard's and mine, however, is not in Morocco. We're here instead to talk about his latest book, American Vertigo, which has found itself nestling of late - rather improbably for a French writer whose work remains, more often than not, untranslated into English - high in the US bestseller lists.

Given his rarefied lifestyle, and his intellectual ambitions, it's refreshing to learn that Lévy appears to have harboured one or two normal, or even clichéd, dreams. Like countless frustrated suburbanites and endless romantic bohemians, he has undertaken a pan-American road trip. Not for him, though, the camper-van with the kids in the back, or even the pastel convertible with his girl by his side. Lévy's year-long perambulations followed a rather more cerebral pattern. He retraced the 1831 journey of the French social-scientist Alexis de Tocqueville, which formed the basis for the latter's prescient, two-volume masterpiece Democracy in America, to see how many of Tocqueville's observations and predictions remain valid in the US today. The result is his strange and satisfying new book, part travelogue, part meditation on what it means to be American, and part disquisition on the perils of post-September 11 US foreign policy.

The book was inspired by Lévy's frustration with his own country's rabid anti-Americanism, which grated with him before the New York and Pentagon atrocities, and grates more now. Above all, what he wanted to understand was how the US manages to promote so successfully its myth of itself, and confer on its inhabitants, no matter how diverse, a sense of belonging. For his theories, such insight is important, because he also accepts that no matter how much it is feared or resented by the French and many others, it is the US, with its massive political and cultural influence, that is the mother-lode today for Western identity of all stripes (so to speak).

For Lévy, the very fact that he was commissioned by the US magazine Atlantic Monthly to undertake this project, is proof of the nation's munificence. "I do not think that a French magazine would ask an American writer to do this," he says grandly, "or even an English writer, such as Salman Rushdie, or Martin Amis." This, he contends, is a function of European chauvinism, which he despises.

America's embrace of this Frenchman is perhaps less surprising than it might appear. First, Tocqueville is big in America, far more so than in Europe, with his seminal work studied routinely in schools and universities. Even a traffic cop, at first entirely hostile to Lévy who has committed the crime of stopping for wee on the highway, breaks into enthusiastic sympathy when Lévy explains in obscure defence of his bodily needs that he's writing a book based on the Frenchman's journey.

Second, Lévy is anti-anti-American, to a degree that drives his countrymen to apoplexy and drives Lévy himself to adopting some rather tortuously untenable defences. This tendency to refuse any simple US stereotypes, at its most crude, emerges in Lévy's insistence in the face of all statistics, that the Americans are no fatter than the French.

His broader point, though, about the retreat into simplistic oppositions on a liberal left he still claims himself a diehard member of, is overstated but valid. "There is a tendency on the left in Europe to believe that anti-imperialism means hatred of Western values, means hatred of the enlightenment, means so-called respect of every identity whatever its dark or bright aspects," Lévy asserts. "And there is a sort of chain from anti-imperialism to identitarian thought.

"The left of yesterday would say that any identity, the Western one, the Muslim one - but also, say, the Libyan one, whichever - has to be criticised, has to be compelled to criticise itself, in the light of enlightenment thought. The left of 20, 30, 40 years ago believed that there is no identity that has to be respected as sacred, they believed that critical examination of all identities was a political duty.

"When I was a true anti-imperialist - which I still am! - I criticised of course the Western identity, in the name of which totalitarianism was practised. Of course! But you can't just say, I hate the Western identity, so every other identity is blessed."

Even so, Lévy is mischievous enough to start his journey into America with a few restatements of European prejudice. Within the first paragraph, in Newport, Rhode Island, he is mocking "a Georgian-style synagogue, portrayed as the oldest in the United States" as "strangely modern". By the next he is mocking "the omnipresence of the Star-Spangled Banner". He is tempted to agree with Tocqueville that this ostentatious nationalistic fervour is a symptom of "a kind of 'reflective patriotism', which unlike the 'instinctive love' that reigned during the regimes of times past, is forced to exaggerate when it comes to emblems and symbols."

This early observation of an over-stated (because shallow) sense of identity, is built up, layer after layer, as Lévy's journey continues. What becomes an obsession with him is the ability of the US to manufacture myths about itself, often with wilful disregard for the facts of any matter. This tendency he finds touching rather than absurd. He reports himself as moved almost to tears at the Book Depository in Dallas, not because he or anyone else believes any more in the Kennedy myth, but because of the enduring strength, in the face of logic, of the idea of Kennedy as a hero.

"The Kennedys are not," he argues, "an American royal family. They are the brothers f in fate of Oedipus, Achilles, Theseus, Narcissus, Prometheus. They are the tragic lining of a nation who thought it could do without tragedy. They are America's Greeks." So, we have manufactured myth-making here, at its most ambitious.

He's good on individual vignettes as well as grand narratives. His meeting with the darkly obsessive crime writer, James Ellroy, at a reading in Miami, offers a portrait of a profoundly, merrily, damaged man. "In a country where everyone wants to be connected to everyone else, in an America where the height of earthly wretchedness has become the 'bowling alone' of the postmodern dissocialised subject, he offers us the unique case of a man alone, desperately and resolutely alone, locked up in his territory of books and graves, cut off from everyone - but happy."

Yet sometimes Lévy is startlingly naïve. He is disappointed by his meeting with Bill Kristol, seen as the intellectual godfather of neo-Conservatism because ... well, because - guess what? - he's a neo-Conservative. Lévy, with logic familiar in Britain from the machinations of Blair and many others, embraced neo-Conservativism because it appeared to offer an alternative to US isolationism or self-interested intervention. He finds it hard to accept that the creed is a package that inexorably includes a rich stew of moral-majority anathemas - the death penalty, penal cruelty and humiliation, anti-abortionism, and a blithe tolerance of such dangerously idiotic stances as creationism. Kristol, Lévy sighs, "deprives himself of the necessary freedom that the status of the intellectual induces in France." Yet for all his diligent researches, and for all his insightful conclusions, Lévy sometimes seems not free, but merely unanchored.

Somehow, though, he manages to remain in love with his idea of America, while bearing witness to its illusions and its inadequacies. "I myself want to say that it is nothing else, when all is said and done, but a prodigious yet mundane machine whose purpose is to produce more Americans - a magnificent illusion ... one of those tall tales that allow a human being, whoever he may be, to represent what he is and what he has to become in order to survive."

Somehow, though, he manages to hang on to the idea that the US is a machine that can not only produce Americans, but also drive a juggernaut packed with liberal democracy to all corners of the world. He sees the more contingent, more plastic, idea of nationhood that he finds in the US to be far preferable to the kind of nationalism that so many in Europe are at such pains to defend.

American identity, he declaims with passion, "is malleable and light". The heavy weight of identity, "of nationalism of the roots, the ground, the blood, that we have in Europe - in France and in England too," is destructive, and militates against the idea of universal citizenship that Lévy cherishes. Even so, one of the problems he identifies in the US is what he calls - in a neat elision of Tocqueville's great prediction that US society would inevitably develop a "tyranny of the majority" - a "tyranny of the minorities", in which society becomes atomised not just by racial ancestry, but by age, class, and even leisure activity. He is appalled by gated communities of all kinds, whether purpose-built physically to contain a self-selecting population of keen golfers, growing organically out of marginalisation or refusal to engage (he visits a number of appallingly debased and abandoned ghettoes in the US), or purpose-built to contain the members of the population who prove most "problematic" (like Tocqueville, whose book grew out of an initial survey of the US penal system, he goes to a lot of prisons, including spending three days in Guantanamo).

"But this again is not a problem for the minorities - it is our problem. The less it is faithful to this nationalism of the blood, the ground, the race, the better it is. The more this is leavened by the counsel of the social contract, the better it is." He agrees that this is a project that in fact is being more purposefully embraced in Europe than in the States, declaiming with some fervour that: "This is why I am European. Europe is a machine and engine creating democracy and peace, lightening the heavy feeling of belonging that is the old chauvinistic nationalism."

Nevertheless, he clings to the idea that the very lightness of being American, the chimerical quality that he so comprehensively identifies as inherent to nationhood across the Atlantic, is something that can be exported and adopted. He was appalled by the views he heard expressed by English Muslims at the notorious Finsbury Park mosque, which he visited during his research for his controversial "investigative novel" about the abduction and execution of the journalist Daniel Pearl. He is appalled too by the attitudes of some Muslims in France, who "shit on the flag and hiss at the national anthem". A US number-plate spelling TALIBAN though, he's oddly indulgent of, as he is of the town in which he spotted it.

"In America what is very interesting and what should make us all - English and French - think, is precisely that in a moment when citizenship is in bad shape - wrath of minorities, and so - one of the most American communities, one of the most citizen-like is a Muslim one. In Michigan, for example, in Dearborn - you have not many more American communities than this - in relationship to the flag, in relationship to the pride of being American, even approval of the war in Iraq and so on.

"There you have a case of a truly Muslim community absolutely sharing the values of citizenship in a democracy. Which is proof, at least, that there is no constitutional problem, there is no natural divorce between being faithful to Islam and being faithful to democracy. The problem is Mr Blair, Mrs Thatcher, Mr Mitterrand - the problem is our policies." The problem, he admits, is Mr Bush as well, who is another person Lévy professes naïve disappointment in. He is appalled by the revelation in Bob Woodward's new book, that Henry Kissinger has become a trusted advisor to the president. "The Bush of the old days - yes," he exclaims, brow furrowing magnificently. "But the Bush of today? It's hard for me to figure out." And hard for his friend, Christopher Hitchens, who combines his lasting hatred of Kissinger with an unyielding support for the War on Terror, to figure out as well? "He will be more than surprised. I don't know what he will make of this."

In truth, Lévy knows that Bush is an ersatz f political figure too, as insubstantial as much of the other ephemera that the US embraces, a childlike leader for a nation that Tocqueville predicted was in danger of becoming childlike en masse, in its pursuit of the tyranny of the majority. Lévy admits that Bush's so-called conversion to enlightened intervention, and professed desire to spread happy inclusive democracy, may not have been all it seemed. "In his case, I'm not sure that the process is genuine. I don't think that the conversion is sincere. So I don't know."

I like Bernard-Henri Lévy's stubborn quest for "lightness", and his comfort with "I don't know". I also like the way he insists on paying the bill - in a shocking inversion of standard journalistic transaction - and I like the way he guides me through the dark streets of Morocco, and makes sure my bed for the night is sufficiently grand and beautiful and comfortable. I like the way he touches my elbow for emphasis as he talks, a reflex of intimacy that a lifetime of flirting has turned into a warm but affectless gesture.

He lollops, relaxed as ever, through the alleys of Marrakesh, this anti-imperialist with a holiday home in a former French protectorate, often portrayed as anti-Arab, but in fact just quite reasonably anti-fundamentalist, and waves expansively and enthusiastically at the life and the bustle around us.

Lévy likes Morocco, not just because of the obvious qualities that make it a favoured playground for the wealthy of France, but because it follows his model for Muslim democracy. "In this country where we are speaking, the Muslims who can reconcile Islam and secular democracy are winning," he enthuses. "There is a real political fight here. There are some fundamentalists in the game, of course, but look at this country, look at the women, their freedom, the equality in the family, this was unthinkable 20 years ago."

He remains, throughout the disillusionment he has witnessed since 9/11 without quite acknowledging it, an optimist. "The bad implementation of the goal does not invalidate the goal itself," he says, still captivated by his dream that "anti-totalitarianism" can be a blueprint for action, rather than a comfortable knoll on the moral high ground. "I hope that democracy will work in America, and that first in a few weeks and then in a couple of years, they will have new leaders." The trouble is, for true Tocquevillians, that the new leaders will be very much like the old ones.

'American Vertigo' is published by Gibson Square, £17.99. To order this book at a special price call 0870 0798897 - free p&p on all UK orders