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You Kant make this up: Bernard-Henri Levy falls for hoax

The famous French philosopher is contrite after it emerges that a work he cites in his rant on Immanuel Kant is a tongue-in-cheek hoax. Apparently the school of 'Botulism' wasn't a giveaway.

February 12, 2010|By Devorah Lauter

Reporting from Paris — A self-inflicted case of Botulism has claimed a prominent victim: the debonair, silver-coiffed French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy.

Known here simply as BHL, Levy is a veritable rock star of philosophy in a nation where the covers of weekly glossies have posed leading thinkers in superhero, v-line formation, looking as if they are ready to attack or to take flight.

Levy usually leads this pack in terms of media attention, in part for his controversial political views and in part for his looks. (His hair flows back in waves, and he tends to be seen in public in starched-collar dress shirts left generously open to chest level.)

On Thursday, Levy's new tome, "On War in Philosophy" ("De la Guerre en Philosophie"), hit the stands, amid the usual widespread public attention.

But this time, for an unusual reason.

On Page 122, in making a negative point about 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant, Levy cites the research of French philosopher Jean-Baptiste Botul.

Trouble is, Botul is not real (a fact that even Kant can agree on).

Rather, Botul is the well-known creation of Frederic Pages, a philosopher himself and journalist for the satirical weekly, the Canard Enchaine.

Said to have lived from 1896 to 1947, Botul has spurred a school of thinking known among knowing Parisians as Botulism. There is also a Friends of Jean-Baptiste Botul Society, which has debated such subjects as "For or Against the Year 2000?"

"Philosophy," says the group's website, "is something far too serious to be abandoned to professional philosophers."

The fact that Levy actually cited the non-existentist has attracted widespread media attention, spurring questions about his work methods, and making a mockery of perceived intellectual elitism.

"It's possible that in a few centuries Botul will exist, and BHL will no longer exist," said Herve Le Tellier, a member of the Botul association. "After all, we don't really have proof of the existence of Socrates or Plato."

"An atomic blunder that raises quite a few questions about the BHL'ian work method," read a headline in the daily Nouvel Observateur.

Levy's new book, according to early reviews, is largely about how to be an active, "engaged intellectual" today. Levy argues that in between Marx's call to revolution and Kant's inactive theorizing, philosophers can find a middle ground by trying to "repair" society with their ideas and involvement in humanitarian causes.

According to Pages, Levy's reference came from Botul's "The Sex Life of Immanuel Kant."

In that fake account, Kant is said to have an obsession with masturbation, while arguing for a "race of single people," such as philosophers, who "refuse the doubtful joys of marriage in order to consecrate themselves to the transmission of knowledge, that is to say, to culture."

Levy, in his own Kant rant, refers to a series of conferences Botul supposedly held with neo-Kantians in Paraguay after World War II.

Then, in perhaps the ultimate irony of the ignoble episode, Levy writes that Botul made it clear in those long-ago meetings that Kant (yes, Kant) was actually a "philosopher without life and without body . . . a false abstraction, a pure spirit of pure appearance."

In a column Thursday in the weekly Le Point, Levy appeared to be both enlightened and contrite, shouting a "hat's off" to "the artist" who tricked him.

"Chapeau," wrote Levy. "I admit even feeling a certain pleasure in letting myself get tricked . . . by such a well-rigged hoax."

The headline to the column: "Long Live Jean-Baptiste Botul!"

Lauter is a special correspondent.

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