"L'affaire Botul" continues

Bernard Henri-Lévy, Balkany and Ségolène Royal.

I blogged a couple of weeks ago about the delight of the French intellectual class at the ridicule to which Bernard-Henri Lévy (aka "BHL") had exposed himself when he was caught quoting the "work" of a fictitious philosopher, Jean-Baptiste Botul, in one of his two newly published books. BHL's extraordinary media profile in France (think Alain de Botton attracting Katie Price-style column acreage) has ensured that l'affaire Botul won't be expiring any time soon.

A week after BHL's working practices were first impugned by Aude Lancelin in the weekly Nouvel Observateur, Delefeil de Ton, who writes a column in the magazine every Monday, compared BHL to Patrick Balkany, mayor of the Paris suburb of Levallois-Perret, and an intimate of Nicolas Sarkozy, who claimed in a recent book to have slept with Brigitte Bardot when he was 18 -- a boast that attracted a furious rebuttal from Bardot herself.

At the same time, Le Nouvel Observateur issued a communiqué congratulating itself -- with some justification, it must be said -- for its "independence" during the whole affair, which contrasted favourably, it claimed, with the "servility that most of the French press had displayed towards Bernard-Henri Lévy".

BHL's reaction was immediate and ferocious: in an appearance on the France Inter radio station (a video of which you can watch here), he expressed his dismay at such an august journal ("the paper of Foucault and of Sartre") engaging in a "manhunt".

And, in the latest twist in the tale, one of BHL's powerful friends, the former Socialist presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, has come to his aid. In a piece in Le Monde entitled "BHL, François Mitterrand, the mob and me", Royal complains about the "incredible manhunt" launched against Lévy, deplores the tone of the debate, and points out that the newspaper Libération was forced to close the comment facility on its website after it was polluted by the ravings of anti-Semites (BHL is Jewish).

She ends by quoting something Mitterrand said about the book that made Lévy's name in the late 1970s, Barbarism With a Human Face: "It is, in the image of its author," the former president wrote, "a book at once superb and naive." Royal concludes with this extraordinary paean to a man whose lack of professionalism ought to have made him persona non grata in polite circles:

The Bernard-Henri Lévy I know, whose advice I have sought, the upright and engaged man whom I admire profoundly, is, at bottom, exactly the one François Mitterrand had sensed. That surprises you? It doesn't surprise me.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era