Two engrossing articles from Arts & Letters Daily; the first a consideration of French intellectuel and rockstar-like media darling Bernard-Henri Levy and his new book, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, the second a review of the rather limp contributions made by writers and intellectual types in the aftermath of 9/11.
From the first:
"I am someone who thinks he can influence things," he says. "France, as Karl Marx said, is the country of politics, of the revolution and of universalism. It's these factors that maximise the role of the intellectuel and which maybe explain why there is such a large place given to these bizarre personnages, intellectuals, who proclaim 'le vrai, le juste et le bien', and who see a great nobility in political causes. It contrasts with the empiricisim, pragmatism and intellectual modesty of the Anglo-Saxon world, where there's a caution when it comes to the universal. There is no mythology about politics as there is in France. In England, politics is not a noble calling. It's a normal social activity - perhaps it's better like this."This is precisely the kind of thought process that I find so perplexing in the French--is this really the best they can do? This is the best their educated elite can come up with? Hussars? And just what the hell are the values of 1789, apart from lopping the heads off the people who don't agree with you and dictating the price of bread?
In February 2002, his diplomatic role was made official when President Jacques Chirac and Lionel Jospin, his socialist prime minister, agreed - itself a rare enough event - to appoint him their special envoy in Afghanistan with a brief to advise them on the role French culture could play in a future aid programme. The idea of France sending a philosopher to a war zone was greeted with amusement internationally. At a time when the US was deploying combat aircraft, missiles and special forces to eradicate Taliban forces sheltering al Qaeda terrorists, Levy's arrival in Kabul captured the very essence of all the deep and longstanding differences in the way the world is viewed in Washington and in Paris.
But on Paris's Left Bank, where Levy and Dombasle maintain one of their sumptuous residences, his recommendations were received in deadly earnest. Le Monde, the pre-eminent newspaper of the French establishment, devoted more than 3,000 words to extracts from the 100-page report, which Levy submitted to the president and the prime minister in early April 2002. Its somewhat surreal proposals included training Afghan army officers at Saint-Cyr, the French military academy; the creation of an "Afghan ecole Nationale d'Administration" to imbue the civil service with Cartesian rationality ("We did it in Algeria, why not in Kabul?"); the establishment of a French cultural centre in Kabul; and the formation of a crack team of "hussars to spread the values of 1789" through the Afghan towns and villages.
Anyway. The second article is interesting for slightly different reasons, as a general reminder of the response of the international intelligentsia to 9/11, which ranged from the merely stupid (Alice Walker: "I firmly believe the only punishment that works is love.") to the outright offensive (Karlheinz Stockhausen: "the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos.") It seems harsh to say that no creative types rose to the occasion, but I'm damned if I can think offhand of any who did.