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Daphne Merkin

The Genius of Judaism by Bernard-Henri Lévy

THE GENIUS OF JUDAISM By Bernard-Henri Lévy Translated by Steven B. Kennedy 240 pp. Random House. $28.

What is one to make of Bernard-Henri Lévy? He poses a bit of a problem, like the exasperatingly contradictory Maria in “The Sound of Music.” For anyone who has observed the cultural scene over the past three or four decades, the question of who this 68-year-old peacock of a public intellectual really is — and how seriously we should take him — must inevitably arise. It is difficult, if not impossible, to come to Lévy (hereafter referred to, in the abbreviated French manner, as B.H.L.) without preconceptions formed from seeing images of him, carefully coifed and wearing one of his studiously unbuttoned Charvet (so I gather) shirts as he gives interviews, or from reading one of the many, alternately fawning or vilifying articles about him.

We know that he, an Algerian-born Jew who first came to notice in the early 1970s as one of the Nouveaux Philosophes who repudiated Marxism, has taken unfashionable positions, especially on Israel, that have alienated others on the French left of which he considers himself a part. But we also know that along with three successive wives (the last a famous French actress) he enjoys the attentions of a mistress, the clotheshorse Daphne Guinness; that he inherited a family fortune that allows him to live baronially when not wandering the hot spots of the world; and that he has spoken up in defense of Roman Polanski and Dominique Strauss-Kahn. In France, B.H.L. has been compared to Albert Schweitzer and André Malraux — when he is not being mocked as a buffoon — and has persistently turned down the Legion of Honor. He comes, that is, in a blaze of press, which would be the envy of anyone who thinks for a living except for the fact that the pursuit of glamour, per se, has never sat well with an impression of intellectual gravitas. The total effect is of a paradoxical and Janus-headed character — of a man torn between a need for narcissistic display and the demands of a vigorous intellect, between his hedonistic impulses and a contravening passion for active engagement on behalf of the ideas he believes in...

The New York Times | February 10, 2017.


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