'New Philosopher'; Bernard-Henri Levy

Philosophers don't giggle. They stand aside, frown, and say ''however.'' ''I wanted to be a philosopher,'' the old vaudeville gag goes, ''but cheerfulness kept breaking in.''

Bernard-Henri Levy, one of France's greatest contemporary philosophers, breaks that lugubrious mold. Occasionally he even breaks into belly laughs. More on his sense of humor in a moment.

First meet the photogenic enfant terrible and born-again anti-Marxist, who has helped turn modern French philosophy on its head, and in the process detonated one of the most explosive intellectual debates since Sartre's existentialism hit the Left Bank cafes in the '30s.

Jean-Paul Sartre, novelist-playwright-philosopher, reigned uncontested for nearly a quarter-century as the dominant force in the Parisian intellectual establishment. Today French magazines like the monthly Les Nouvelles Litteraires have bequeathed the throne to maverick Bernard-Henri Levy, ''Sartre's only true heir'' because he ''knows how to take ideas and shake them up.''

Levy is perhaps the best known and most iconoclastic of France's ''Nouveaux Philosophes,'' a group of nine young leftist Parisian intellectuals who, disillusioned by the abortive worker-student riots in May 1968, were brash enough to do battle with France's old Marxist mandarins. During the last six years, Levy has personally waged war against socialism in three controversial best sellers.

His first book, ''Barbarism With a Human Face,'' was published in 1977 and sold over 100,000 copies, a rare accomplishment for a philosophical treatise. Levy's highly charged polemic labels Marxism ''the opium of the people,'' and concludes that the inevitable result of socialism is totalitarianism. ''Apply Marxism in any country you want, you will always find Gulag in the end,'' he wrote.

The young Turk's second book, ''The Testament of God,'' not only sparked a revival in Judaic studies but confounded French intellectuals by citing the Bible as the foundation of modern ethics. His most recent volume, ''The French Ideology,'' had the impudence to notify the French they were not only nationalistic and xenophobic but ripe for fascism.

Echoing the old Moscow street joke ''Under capitalism, man exploits man; under communism, it's just the opposite,'' this philosophical gadfly has unleashed virulent attacks on most large institutions or ideologies standing in the path of personal freedom, be it Communist Party or multinational corporation. Understandably, he has made enemies Left and Right.

Levy's prose grates most particularly on European socialists from Paris to Madrid who, at the moment, are feeling their political oats. Le Matin, Paris's socialist daily newspaper, accused Levy's ''elegant despair'' of being ''naive'' and ''a banal form of dandyism.'' Le Nouvel Observateur called the New Philosophers ''disc jockeys of ideas.'' In a book ''Against the New Philosophers ,'' two Communists, Francois Aubral and Xavier Delcourt, labeled Levy as part of the ''New Right'' and chided his ideas as ''obscurantism.''

''The reason they detest him, fight him, criticize him,'' surmises critic Bernard Clavel, ''is because he's so good-looking, with that romantic neck, that Raphaelesque haircut.'' Whether or not his coiffure has actually raised the ruckus, Bernard-Henri Levy certainly cuts a striking figure.

One monsoonish fall morning, Levy, sopping wet, strode into his small, stark office at the Bernard Grasset publishing house on the Rue des Saints-Peres. He was dressed in burnt umber corduroys, a gray wool scarf, black leather boots, and the intellectual's inevitable worn white shirt. Its sleeves were rolled, accentuating the philosopher's slender pianist fingers. A lamp-black mane of hair framed his pale but handsome Byronic features.

Born in Oran, Algeria, Levy came to France when two months old and is Parisian to the core. He studied philosophy at the prestigious L'Ecole Normale Superieure (Sartre's alma mater) under the renowned Marxist Louis Althussen. From the writings of Althusser, Camus, Foucault, and Lacan, Levy learned the rigors of analysis and cultivated his taste for provocation. In addition to serving as an editor at Grasset, he spent a year as a journalist in Bangladesh, traveled with guerrillas in Afghanistan, and was recently detained by Argentine police in Buenos Aires for interviewing civil rights leaders.

During Socialist Francois Mitterrand's 1974 presidential campaign, Levy, then only 26, was installed in Mitterrand's ''Le Groupe des Experts,'' a 20-member brain trust that included Jacques Delors, now minister of finance, Michel Rocard , now minister of regional development, and Jacques Attali, one of Mitterrand's advisers.

For years after, Mitterrand consulted Levy. But the two parted company in the late '70s when Levy publicly leveled his elephant gun at Marxism. Last May he met with the new French President. ''It was like running into someone you haven't seen for 10 years and waving across a crowded room,'' Levy recalled, sitting sidesaddle at his desk, his boots kicked up on a mound of manuscripts.

Distant friendship aside, what does one of France's leading philosophers see as the the future of Mitterrand's government? Was Buckminster Fuller right when he said socialism is nothing more than ''a boring way to speed up the mess''?

''Socialism is dead!'' Levy said, pounding out an exclamation point with a clenched fist. ''This government is dead. Sure, it might last another 20 years, it might be in power until the year 2000, but as an ideology, socialism is dead.''

More than two decades ago, American sociologist Daniel Bell wrote socialism's obituary, unintentionally foreshadowing the emergence of France's Nouveau Philosophes in his book ''The End of Ideology.'' '' . . . (For) the radical intelligentsia,'' Bell wrote, ''the old ideologies have lost their 'truth' and their power to persuade. Few serious minds believe any longer that one can set down 'blueprints' and through 'social engineering' bring about a new utopia of social harmony.''

Levy registered his protest against social utopias six years ago when ''Barbarism'' was published. ''We are realizing,'' he said then, ''that the 20th century's great invention (i.e., socialism) may prove to be the concentration camp, which is generalized murder for reasons of state. Mine is not a theory of sadness, but rather a recognition that one cannot institutionalize happiness.''

''Nevertheless,'' he admits today, ''Marxism continues to be the ruling ideology of half the planet. The Soviets are more solid than us because they have an iron ideology. The West is weak because it takes democracy for granted, like furnishings in a house. My hope is in the resistance of dissidents everywhere, in men like Valladares.''

Armando Valladares is a Cuban poet whom Castro imprisoned for 22 years for disagreeing with Cuba's pro-Soviet stance. A week before Levy granted this interview, Valladares had been released, the result of a long diplomatic effort by Mitterrand. Valladares flew to Paris, where he joined his wife, Marta, and spoke with Levy. Levy had edited for Grasset ''Prisoner of Castro,'' Valladares's account of his two decades in Cuban jails, including his 40-day isolation in which he was deprived of food. Before this autumn, Levy and Valladares had never met.

''The manuscript was smuggled out of prison on toilet paper,'' said Levy. ''That's the way I got it. What I respect about him is that all his life he said 'No.' The Cubans couldn't buy him off. They tried. A few years ago they told him he could leave on the condition that he signed a paper saying the book we published was a forgery. He said, 'No, I will stay all my life in jail if necessary.' ''

''The blind optimism that history gets better and better leads to totalitarianism. Valladares did not believe that Cuba had gotten better and better, so Castro put him in jail for 25 years,'' said Levy, slipping his left hand, Napoleon-style, into his shirt to scratch at his chest. ''I attack not only Stalinism, but Marxism and socialism for its blind view of progress, and furthermore . . .''

The philosopher halted mid-sentence. About to pound out another exclamation point with his fist, Levy realized his hand, snared between two buttons, was trapped inside his shirt. He blushed slightly and tried to continue. ''And furthermore . . .'' Feigning the sort of insouciance one might with a bee buzzing about your head, Levy began gently tugging at his sleeve. His nonchalance was getting nowhere. At last he interrupted the conversation, stared disdainfully down at his hand as one might at a soup spot on a necktie. The philosopher's scowl then fractured into a grin, the grin into a snicker and finally a guffaw. Fortunately Levy, who makes his living roasting the world's dogma, can crow at himself.

''If history must go this way and not another,'' said Levy, smiling, picking up where he left off, ''anyone who is not going in the right direction is treated as a reactionary. If you think, like Hegel, that the real is rational, then someone who is not reasonable, by your standards, can be treated as an illusion, a non-being. That's how you rationalize concentration camps in Cuba and Cambodia.''

Does he put capitalism in the same category as socialism, another one of those stale ideological ''isms''?

''You Americans must understand,'' said Levy with a frown of forced patience, ''that capitalism is not an ideology. It is a fact! Capitalism is the condition and support of all ideologies, even in the East, which has capitalism without the right to strike.''

Levy once wrote that capitalism is ''the most formidable death machine that history has ever produced,'' but the lion's share of his ammunition is reserved for socialists. ''My target is the Left in its passions for delusion and ignorance,'' he wrote in ''Barbarism.'' ''They are the ones I want to disturb, or at least question, for they will soon have our fate in their hands.''

Added Levy during the interview: ''What was new about the Nouveaux Philosophes was our critique of Marxism, was that the old Right said Marxism was despisable because it was revolutionary. On the contrary, we said, Marxism is despisable because it is despotic, reactionary, and prevents revolution. In May '68 it was the Communist Party who stopped the movement. Marxism is like a cop in every oppressed man's head.

''French intellectuals are taking note of what's happening in the Soviet Union and Poland, and you won't find many of them who are Marxist anymore. The freshest ideas here may seem quite strange, old, and insignificant to you Americans. It is the return to the idea of democracy. Not like the new American Right and the Libertarians. But around democracy is where most of today's important French intellectuals join.''

Has the ''new democracy'' of the '80s in France upstaged political movements of the last decade, like feminism and ecology, for example?

'Feminism is strong but certainly not the best thing we have in France. Ecology is the worst thing we have. It is pacifist and neutralist. Its implied ideology is very suspect because it is linked to the back-to-the-earth idea that formal democracy is not sufficient. Ecologists think only the earth does not lie and are ready to say: 'Better Red Than Dead.' ''

The citified Levy, according to friends, believes the countryside begins at Paris's 14th Arrondissement; he is most wary of nature-lovers. ''To me,'' said Levy, ''the idea that man is the salt of the earth is a tradition of slavery. As if men were stuck to the rocks like mussels. I believe man is the son of the sky , the son of ideas and values. He is not bound to the earth, but free.'' For our second meeting Levy showed up late - two days late. He was in Florence attending the centennial celebration of the city's synagogue. The day Levy returned his eyes were bloodshot, betraying the fact he had ridden the train all night. Levy entered his office carrying a black satchel and explained he was on his way to the airport. If we needed more than a hour for the interview, he said, ''we could finish talking next Saturday - in New York at the St. Regis.''

The speech Levy had just given in Florence was a response to the bombing of the Rome synagogue weeks earlier. The subject of anti-Semitism was still hot on his mind. ''At the end of the 19th century in France,'' he said, ''there was a big wave of anti-Semitism. People couldn't just say 'I hate Jews.' They said, 'We are leftists and very sorry, but we cannot but hate Jews because they are the bourgeoisie oppressing poor people.'

''Again the taboo has been lifted. Now leftists are saying, 'We love the Palestinians because they are the most persecuted people on the planet today. And who is responsible for that? Not just Israel and Begin and Sharon but all Jews and Judaism itself.' I am not a Beginist. I have always favored a Palestinian state. That is not the issue. What I object to is the attempt now to transform Jews from victims into murderers, and legitimize anti-Semitism.''

France has the world's fourth-largest Jewish community, and has been the target of repeated terrorist attacks. In October 1980, a bomb exploded in front of a synagogue on Rue Copernic, killing four people and seriously wounding 15 others. Last August several terrorists with machine guns opened fire in Jo Goldenberg's restaurant on Rue des Rosiers in the Marais - Paris's oldest Jewish quarter. They left six people dead, 22 more wounded.

That France remains ''one of the most anti-Semitic countries in the world,'' says Levy, is not surprising. The New Philosophers maintained all along that Marxism and Nazism have common origins in the 19th-century German philosophy of Hegel, Fichte, Marx, and Nietzsche, all of whom viewed the state as the foundation of social transformation. Their philosophical thrust was essentially anti-Semitic, says Levy's friend, Nouveau Philosophe Andre Glucksmann, who writes in his best seller ''The Master Thinkers'' that ''The Jew is a merchant who ignores frontiers. The strong state closes the frontier.''

Levy suddenly looked distracted. Unfinished business was ricocheting around in his head. He needed flowers sent to a woman, and called his secretary. ''Roses, I think, but I never know what color. Pick out something nice. About 300 francs' worth.'' He paused. ''And don't forget my money.'' Moments later, a knock at the door. A secretary in a pink dress appeared with an inch-thick stack of 100-franc notes. Like a scene from an old James Cagney movie, Levy wadded the bills and stuffed them in his leather jacket. Then the philosopher gazed up to field the next question.

As a culture, are the French becoming more, or less, moral?

''Less ethical and more cynical, I think,'' Levy said.

His greatest concern?

''What I fear most is barbarity, a world in which the thin film of civility cracks and everyone is against everyone else. A few days ago I was roughed up in the street. Three men recognized me, yelled 'You Jew, can you sleep at night with the memories of the children of Lebanon?' They could have killed me. It was the third time in five years. The others were not directly anti-Semitic. I am hated in France not only as a Jew but as an intellectual. I criticize both the Right and Left and they both hate me.''

Who are his friends?

He smiled, and with a certain pride again pounded his fist, this time on a copy of ''The Testament of God.'' ''I suppose my friends are the 100,000 people who bought this book.''

Levy concluded: ''I am not a man of faith, but I think if we are looking for a new foundation of ethics, the best ground is the old biblical tradition. These old manuscripts contain the principles of human rights, the idea of individuality, the idea of exile and cosmopolitanism. Marxism maintains there is no absolute ethics, truth, evil, and good; it all depends on the circumstance and the class which is expressing it. If you want, however, to escape this relativity of ethics you'll find the tools and inspiration in the Bible.''

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