Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Parisian intellectuals: Human, all too human

The guests on BBC radio 4's Midweek programme included ARIELLE DOMBASLE:

"Arielle Dombasle is the American born singer and actress, who's appeared in TV
series including Miami Vice. She grew up in Mexico, where her grandfather was
the French Ambassador, and she now lives is France, with her husband the
philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy."

Dombasie claimed to be a "free spirit", but not only is she married to BHL, as
he is generally known in France, but it seems that he has managed to convince
her that "he is always right" - at least about politics.

BHL came to fame as one of the "New Philosophers" in France:

"... The New Philosophers (French nouveaux philosophes) were a group of French
philosophers (for example, André Glucksmann and Bernard Henri-Lévy) who appeared
in the early 1970s, as critics of the previously-fashionable philosophers, which
would include the post-structuralists, and their own former ideas, which in most
cases were Maoist. The mark of the new philosophers was to cast a general doubt
on the tendency to argue from 'the left' ..."

But more recently he has written a quite admiring biography of Sartre, very much
a philosopher of the left, AND a sympathetic study of the US, whose governments
Sartre regularly attacked.

But then some see him as an attention-seeking and rather vain celeb:

"Lévy has, as his fellow intellectual Pierre Bourdieu once put it, an
'immoderate taste' for television studios, and his ubiquity has become something
of a joke. Lévy is a bestselling writer, philosopher, political campaigner,
pundit and luscious-locked superstud in France; but perhaps his greatest
facility is for fame itself. At any given moment, he might be seen on the cover
of Paris Match magazine, in the windows of numerous bookshops, and on several
chat shows simultaneously. He and his glamorous wife, the indomitably pouty
actress Arielle Dombasle, are the gossip columns' favourite couple.

"...Lévy's reputation for narcissism is unparalleled in his home country, and
he's not unaware of the fact. The headline of one article about him coined the
immortal dictum, 'God is dead but my hair is perfect'. He has been known to say
that the discovery of a new shade of grey leaves him 'ecstatic', and that people
who vote for Jean-Marie Le Pen cannot buy Philippe Starck furniture or Yohji
Yamamoto clothes (as if their aesthetic taste were their greatest offence).",6903,977498,00.html

This has led to him being cream-pied by Noël Godin "a Belgian writer, critic,
actor and notorious cream pie flinger or ‘entarteur’. Godin gained global
attention in 1998 when his group ambushed Microsoft CEO Bill Gates in Brussels,
pelting the software magnate with pies. Godin claims his goal has long been to
‘entarte’ as many people like Gates as possible - people he feels are
particularly self-important and lacking a sense of humor. ... A regular target
is French philosopher, socialite and writer Bernard-Henri Lévy. Levy, married to
the beautiful actress Arielle Dombasle, is known to wear white shirts unbuttoned
almost to his navel and to hold forth on political issues with intense gravitas.
After one attack, in 1994, an enraged Levy was filmed standing over Godin
snarling 'Get up, or I'll kick your head in'."ël_Godin

Not exactly the coolest or most philosophical response.

But, to be British and hence fair:

"Lévy drew people's attention to Serb concentration camps in Bosnia, tried to
rescue Afghan rebel leader Ahmed Shah Massoud just before his death, was sent by
the French government on a fact-finding mission last year to see how Afganistan
might be reconstructed, and now runs a newspaper there that promotes 'moderate
Islam'. He founded an anti-racist group to empower Arab and black people in
France, and warned of the dangerous recent rise of Jean Marie Le Pen. He is
taken very seriously in very high places.",6903,977498,00.html

But the Observer decided to give the article the headline: "Je suis un superstar".

When he was interviewed about his book on America, the interviewer noted that he
had had many mistresses, following the example of his new-found hero, Sartre.
Incredibly (to an Anglo-Saxon like me) he chose to describe his experience of
America in terms that hardly helped his reputation as a serious intellectual :

"Still, he’s not going to move here. This is, after all, a man with many
mistresses, and this country is just one of them. But, in the end, what did he
like best about the U.S.?

'Everything, my dear. I will tell you. Sometimes in your private life you have a
mistress you love, love being with. You spend time to time in a grand hotel,
with good room service, great champagne, and you separate—and when you are
really in love with her, you inevitably think, Could I wake up with her, near
her every morning? And then you try it. This is exactly what I did in America.
America was a great mistress. I had a great fuck with America. It was like a
weekend in the Hotel du Cap.' "

But it is not only Sartre's example that he is following, Camus too was a great

"In December 1959, Camus' womanising reached its apotheosis. On the 29th, he
wrote to his mistress announcing that he would shortly be returning to Paris
from Lourmarin, where he had spent the summer with his wife and children: 'This
frightful separation will at least have made us feel more than ever the constant
need we have for each other.' On the next day he wrote: 'Just to let you know I
am arriving on Tuesday by car. I am so happy at the idea of seeing you again
that I am laughing as I write.' A day later, he wrote: 'See you Tuesday, my
dear, I'm kissing you already and bless you from the bottom of my heart.' There
was yet another letter setting up a date in New York.

Apart from the unremitting ardour, there was one thing remarkable about these
letters: they were all to different women. The first was to Mi, a young painter;
the second to Catherine Sellers, an actress; the third to Maria Casares, an
internationally famous actress with whom he had a liaison for 16 years; and the
fourth was to an American, Patricia Blake.

When, over a period of five years, Olivier Todd got access to all of these
letters [for his book: "ALBERT CAMUS: A Life"], he faced a dilemma. Copyright of
all Camus' letters is invested in his literary executor - his daughter,
Catherine. 'It is one thing for children to know their father was a womaniser,'
Todd says, 'but quite another to show them proof.'

There was one letter written, to an 'Yvonne' with whom he was having a
passionate affair, on the eve of his marriage: 'I'm probably going to waste my
life,' he wrote. 'I mean I am going to marry F' 'That was Catherine's mother,'
says Todd. But Catherine Camus raised no objections.",6121,96450,00.html

After all, this was France, and people are judged for their work rather than their affairs:

"... there are a great many readers for whom Camus has not dated, and their
number seems to grow, not diminish. Whatever their standards of art, many seem
willing to judge Camus on his own terms, not as a philosopher or even a novelist
in the usual meaning of the term, but, in his words, as an "artist who creates

It helps when the writer becomes something of a myth himself, and when he dies
relatively young and dramatically:

"Camus kept none of these planned rendezvous [with the four women]. Driving back
to Paris with his publisher and friend Michel Gallimard, their car hit a tree
and he was killed instantly. He was 46.",6121,96450,00.html

But the sexual exploits of this earlier intellectual super-star had serious
consequences for others, e.g. his wife:

"The Fall (1956) is the confession of a celebrated Parisian lawyer brought to
crisis when he fails to come to the aid of a drowning woman. The 'drowning
woman' was Camus' second wife, Francine, who had a mental breakdown. As mother
of his two children, Camus decided it would be more appropriate if her
relationship with him was that of 'a sister', allowing him erotic freedom
[Sartre gave a more philosophical excuse to De Beauvoir; i.e. that they had a
"necessary" relationship, while his affairs were merely "contingent"]. For years
she appeared to go along with this but then she cracked. Todd says that Francine
said to her husband: 'You owed me that book,' and Camus had agreed.


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