"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Since he began his career 35 years ago, self-described leftist, philosopher and journalist Bernard-Henri Lévy has never been caught without a cause or opinion. He has flamboyantly articulated these in more than 30 books (including the much discussed “American Vertigo”), countless television appearances, articles and even films that he’s written, produced, directed and/or narrated. Lévy is a kind of intellectual Robin Hood, going where there is totalitarianism and/or war. He has been a passionate advocate of Bosnia, smuggled himself into Darfur to report on the Sudanese genocide and followed the perilous trail of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl into Pakistan to write the New York Times bestseller “Who Killed Daniel Pearl?”
Lévy is a showman — his narcissism is legendary — which adds fuel to the fire of his critics, who accuse him of lacking original ideas. Known in France as BHL, Lévy is his own wildly successful brand. He wears the mantle of polarizing intellectual quite happily along with made-to-measure clothing from French house Charvet, which also made shirts for JFK and Marcel Proust. He was recently quoted in the New York Times’ T Magazine men’s fall fashion supplement saying he had no interest in his bespoke apparel or even talking about it — though he had clearly agreed to this fashion profile, which was set in Bosnia, where he was screening two documentaries he had shot there and attending a children’s festival partly financed by his family foundation.
At home in France, Lévy is treated as something of a god (which is not lost on him), known for his good looks and family wealth as much as for his intellectual output. It doesn’t hurt his glamorous profile that he is married to provocative actress and singer Arielle Dombasle, who is sometimes uncharitably compared to a Barbie doll. The couple share an apartment with a chic address on the Left Bank, a house in the South of France and a Marrakech palace.
Lévy’s latest literary publicity blitz coincides with the publication of his newest book, “Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism.” When Levy wrote “Barbarism With a Human Face” 31 years ago, his sworn enemy — the barbarism he spoke of — was Marxism. In the new book, the author has focused on his own intellectual autobiography, examining his ideological and political history and identity. He believes a segment of his political family (the left) is being led astray and he rakes his extended kin over the coals for becoming too tolerant — especially on issues like Islamic radicalism — and letting their anti-imperialistic attitudes and loathing of America cloud their vision and damage their democratic values. He is unusual in French terms, because he’s pro-American when a lot of Europeans think the U.S. behaves like it owns the world. Lévy has a fondness and understanding of American culture. He gets us, and attempted to prove it in “American Vertigo,” his report on the state of the USA.
Lévy answers the door to his Paris apartment himself, a tall, lanky man wearing his signature white shirt, unbuttoned almost to the navel, underneath a sleek suit. In his large, blond-wood-paneled office, there is an enormous metal sculpture of a man’s head with a panel opening half of it. Inside, the figure is empty — the complete opposite of the man who owns him.
The subtitle of your new book is “A Stand Against the New Barbarism.” Can you explain what you mean by that?
What I mean by the new barbarism is great ideas having bad effects. Great ideals turning out to be the stem cell of big crimes, big injustices, unfairnesses, brutality and so on. The barbarism 30 years ago when I wrote “Barbarism With a Human Face” was Marxism, which pretended to be a fight in favor of justice, social equality, freedom, eradication of slavery, and which was exactly the contrary. And you have today a new barbarism in the case of these women and men who pretend to fight in favor of tolerance, in favor of anti-imperialism, in favor of anti-colonialism, and actually plead for slavery of the women, massive violation of human rights. Or when they don’t plead for that, they tolerate them, refuse to denounce them.
You have a new mechanism today … for example, where in the name of anti-Americanism the crimes in Darfur are not denounced. The crimes in Bosnia were accepted. And so many wars in Africa or elsewhere are just forgotten.
Are there specific kinds of people you’re talking about?
Those, for example, who pretend to be anti-mondialist … I don’t know if you have this in America? Anti-mondialists fight against globalization. Anti-globalization … They are the dark side of the left of today.
Now, in my family, which is the left progressive camp — in this family, I observe that there is a tendency which can reach the same results … the same blindness of the right. The same indifference to the real suffering of the real people, and so on and so on.
So you are saying that you believe the left can end up committing the same sins as the right? Because I think in the United States we have been fighting for tolerance in so many ways — tolerance for gays, civil rights …
These battles, of course, you fought. I fought … And it is won. It is achieved. Barack Obama being a candidate for the presidency and maybe — I hope — elected means that the fight is won, more or less. Frankly a country where racism is sued in front of lawyers, a country where the women won the power of preventing discrimination and so on, this is great. This is a huge cultural revolution, which America led.
But in the name of tolerance there can be also some crimes — not committed but veiled … For example, those who tell us that we have to be tolerant of the radical Islamist movements. Those who tell us that being tolerant means trying to understand their reasons and their justifications. Those who tell us that, about women, to veil the face of a woman is just a customary habit, which we Westerners are not allowed to judge according to the standard of human rights. This is a very bad thing.
This idea that every habit should be respected, every custom should be accepted because it belongs to a whole and that if we take a piece, we break the whole — this is one of the counter-effects of tolerance. And you have in America a lot of people who said, why should you ask the Indian people to resign the pattern of the castes that belong to their culture? Why should you oblige this or that tribe, people in Africa, to resign the excision of the clitoris of the little girl? It belongs to their culture …
You framed the new book around your telling Nicolas Sarkozy that you would not support or vote for him for president. Even though you two had been friends for 25 years, you told him in a phone call that you’d never voted for the right, and you had no intention of changing that. What is your relationship with Sarkozy now?
I don’t know. I did not see him again since the book … He does not believe in ideas, so he does not understand somebody who was a sort of buddy — I would not say a friend but a buddy — not to vote in favor of him. He still did not understand, I think, so he interprets these sorts of stories in terms of betrayal, fidelity. I don’t believe in that. The only fidelity you have to have is to ideas, truth, and there are some circumstances when an intellectual has a duty of infidelity — if he’s a friend, and if you are against his ideas.
What does it mean to be a leftist? Does it mean to be faithful to a family, whatever the family does? Whatever the family says? I don’t think so. There is a duty of unfaithfulness also to the family in question — to the left when the left is embodied by Noam Chomsky, or when it is embodied by Naomi Klein.
Would you define for an American audience what you mean by a leftist? I’d like to try and get at what the difference is between someone on the left in Europe and the U.S.
In the two countries, I think it is the same definition: to have freedom and equality, the two dreams of freedom and equality walking at the same pace. To refuse to choose between the two. This is written in the motto of the French Republic, as you know, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.” And it is also written in the DNA of the best of America. The real dream of equality, which fed the battle, for example, for the civil rights, Martin Luther King and so on, and the battle for individual freedom. Those who ask to choose between the two — if you have freedom you do not have equality, if you have equality, you do not have freedom — for me, they are not leftist. This is a good definition of the left.
If there were three main differences between the left and the right, right now, what would you say they are?
To believe or not to believe that equality and freedom can be combined, as I told you, is one difference. [Another is] to believe or not to believe in politics. A classical rightist or leftist-rightist does not believe in politics; he believes in the invisible hand of the market in one case, of history in the other case — the invisible hand being able, herself and alone, to promote the change and the reform and so on. For me, a leftist is somebody who believes a democracy has to be built with time, patience, real meaning and so on.
And the third difference for me is not to choose the victims. When you are a rightist, you decide, for example, that you have some privileged blood baths, some privileged wars of which you take care and others of which you don’t take care. You also have some people in the so-called left who [do that] — for example … Kosovo. You had a racist, neo-Fascist dictator [there], Milošević. You had a civil population guilty of nothing, which was displaced, raped, killed and so on. And you had some people who, because America was against Milošević, decided to be in favor of Milošević and against the American intervention to stop the thing, and so on and so on. This is the false left.
In this book, you write, “Since the French Revolution, the word ‘revolution,’ the pure signifier, was, in France at least, the most serious political dividing line. The Left wanted it; the Right feared it.” What is the state of revolution in the world right now?
It depends on what you mean by revolution. If you mean by revolution the dream which was on the top of the clock when I was 20 years old [in the 1960s], I hope this dream is over — the dream of rebeginning the human gender. To remake it. To remold it completely … This was the old way of being a revolutionary.
Now, if you mean by revolution changing the world in favor of the have-nots, of the less gifted, and so on — if you mean by revolution, more and more democracy and liberal democracy and not to choose between liberty, freedom and equality, this is still going on. Not enough. I hope it will be more.
I think that if Obama is elected, it will be a revolution in the United States.
In a way, you can understand it like this. I am in favor of that myself. I hope, if I could pray I would pray, for Obama being elected.
Why do Europeans love Obama?
I don’t know. I can’t tell you why. I don’t love him, by the way. I wish him to be elected. It’s not a question of love or hate … This is not the best way to make politics.
Why Obama should be chosen, in my opinion: No. 1, because it would mean really the end — and the complete victory of the battle begun in the ’60s. No. 2, because it will mean the end of a new American evil, which is the dividing, the Balkanization of American society. This is another counter-effect of a great idea, which was tolerance. You so much tolerate that you tolerate the American society to be in separate bubbles having their own peculiarities, and so on. Obama as president will mean all these bubbles submitted to a real ideal of citizenship. This is his message. McCain will not be able to do this. If McCain is elected, I can tell you the Iranians will close themselves in the Iranian identity. The Arabs will coldly, freezingly imprison themselves in the Muslim identity. The African-Americans will believe that the American society is more and more built against them. You will have an increase of the Balkanization.
And No. 3, you have another ideal in the America of today, which I call the competition of victims. Competition of memories. If you are in favor of the Jews, you cannot be in favor of the blacks. If you remember the suffering of slavery, you cannot remember too much the suffering of the Holocaust, and so on and so on. The human heart has not space enough for all the sufferings. This is what some people say. Obama says the contrary. It will mean the end of this stupid topic, which is competition of victimhood.
If McCain is elected, then how will the world react?
The only way America can get out of the current crisis is a minimum of welfare state, of a Rooseveltian New Deal. It will not be tax cuts and so on … So America will react badly. The world will react also badly. McCain may not be a bad guy, but he will mean — his victory will mean — the revenge, freezing, frightened, shy, rear-guard America. Rear guard. Not vanguard. Not victorious. Not optimist America.
A lot of Americans do not understand why it even matters what the rest of the world thinks about who the American president is.
Because you are the most important, the most powerful country in the world. But don’t be too narcissistic, you Americans. Everything matters to everybody. The next president of Iran matters to everybody. Who is president matters to everybody. Who presides over one of the most little states in the world, which is Israel, matters to everybody. The entire world matters. Even more little — Gaza. Hamas or not Hamas? Everybody has the eyes on that. So it is a principle, a rule in this time of globalization: Everything matters to everybody.
Beth Arnold is a journalist who lives in Paris and writes about politics, culture and the media. As a screenwriter, she was a semi-finalist for a Nichol Fellowship through the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.More Beth Arnold.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)