When France’s most dashing philosopher took aim at Immanuel Kant in his latest book, calling him “raving mad” and a “fake”, his observations were greeted with the usual adulation. To support his attack, Bernard-Henri Lévy — a showman-penseur known simply by his initials, BHL — cited the little-known 20th-century thinker Jean-Baptiste Botul.
There was one problem: Botul was invented by a journalist in 1999 as an elaborate joke, and BHL has become the laughing stock of the Left Bank.
There were clues. One supposed work by Botul — from which BHL quoted — was entitled The Sex Life of Immanuel Kant. The philosopher’s school is known as Botulism and subscribes to his theory of “La Metaphysique du Mou” — the Metaphysics of the Flabby. Botul even has a Wikipedia entry that explains that he is a “fictional French philosopher”.
But Mr Lévy, a leader among the nouveaux philosophes school of the 1970s, was unaware. In On War in Philosophy, he writes that Botul had proved once and for all “just after the Second World War, in his series of lectures to the neo-Kantians of Paraguay, that their hero was an abstract fake, a pure spirit of pure appearance”.
The blunder was seized on with glee by a literary world fiercely jealous of BHL’s success. His credulity was spotted by Aude Lancelin, a journalist with the Le Nouvel Observateur, the left-leaning weekly that is de rigueur for the thinking classes. The Botul quotes were “a nuclear gaffe that raises questions on the Lévy method”, she wrote.
Mr Lévy admitted last night that he had been fooled by Botul, the creation of a literary journalist, Frédéric Pages, but he was not exactly contrite.
Appearing on Canal+ television, he said he had always admiredThe Sex Life of Immanuel Kant and that its arguments were solid, whether written by Botul or Pages. “I salute the artist [Pages],” he said, adding with a philosophical flourish: “Hats off for this invented-but-more-real-than-real Kant, whose portrait, whether signed Botul, Pages or John Smith, seems to be in harmony with my idea of a Kant who was tormented by demons that were less theoretical than it seemed.”
Ms Lancelin told The Times she was surprised that none of the journalists who had been giving Mr Lévy the celebrity treatment had noted that he spent two pages using a non-existent philosopher to prove his argument. “I came across the quotes from Botul and burst out laughing,” she said.
On the internet, where the affair took off yesterday afternoon, many others questioned why the reviewers and interviewers who have been filling pages and air time with Mr Lévy’s new book had failed to spot the blunder.
Mr Lévy’s slip was far from his first. His career as writer, moralist, occasional war correspondent and media commentator has been punctuated by claims that he cuts corners.
In his television interview last night he called philosophy a combat sport, insisting: “It’s the role of the philosopher to land blows.”
in Times, 09 fev 10