Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Bookplanet: reviews of French philosopher's book about America

Here are two reviews of Berhard-Henri Levy's American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville. The first one is nasty and funny, the second one not.

1. On the Road Avec M. Lévy -- by GARRISON KEILLOR

Any American with a big urge to write a book explaining France to the French should read this book first, to get a sense of the hazards involved. Bernard-Henri Lévy is a French writer with a spatter-paint prose style and the grandiosity of a college sophomore; he rambled around this country at the behest of The Atlantic Monthly and now has worked up his notes into a sort of book. It is the classic Freaks, Fatties, Fanatics & Faux Culture Excursion beloved of European journalists for the past 50 years, with stops at Las Vegas to visit a lap-dancing club and a brothel; Beverly Hills; Dealey Plaza in Dallas; Bourbon Street in New Orleans; Graceland; a gun show in Fort Worth; a "partner-swapping club" in San Francisco with a drag queen with mammoth silicone breasts; the Iowa State Fair ("a festival of American kitsch"); Sun City ("gilded apartheid for the old");a stock car race; the Mall of America; Mount Rushmore; a couple of evangelical megachurches; the Mormons of Salt Lake; some Amish; the 2004 national political conventions; Alcatraz - you get the idea. (For some reason he missed the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, the adult video awards, the grave site of Warren G. Harding and the World's Largest Ball of Twine.) You meet Sharon Stone and John Kerry and a woman who once weighed 488 pounds and an obese couple carrying rifles, but there's nobody here whom you recognize. In more than 300 pages, nobody tells a joke. Nobody does much work. Nobody sits and eats and enjoys their food. You've lived all your life in America, never attended a megachurch or a brothel, don't own guns, are non-Amish, and it dawns on you that this is a book about the French. There's no reason for it to exist in English, except as evidence that travel need not be broadening and one should be wary of books with Tocqueville in the title.

In New Orleans, a young woman takes off her clothes on a balcony as young men throw Mardi Gras beads up at her. We learn that much of the city is below sea level. At the stock car race, Lévy senses that the spectators "both dread and hope for an accident." We learn that Los Angeles has no center and is one of the most polluted cities in the country. "Headed for Virginia, and for Norfolk, which is, if I'm not mistaken, one of the oldest towns in a state that was one of the original 13 in the union," Lévy writes. Yes, indeed. He likes Savannah and gets delirious about Seattle, especially the Space Needle, which represents for him "everything that America has always made me dream of: poetry and modernity, precariousness and technical challenge, lightness of form meshed with a Babel syndrome, city lights, the haunting quality of darkness, tall trees of steel." O.K., fine. The Eiffel Tower is quite the deal, too.

But every 10 pages or so, Lévy walks into a wall. About Old Glory, for example. Someone has told him about the rules for proper handling of the flag, and from these (the flag must not be allowed to touch the ground, must be disposed of by burning) he has invented an American flag fetish, a national obsession, a cult of flag worship. Somebody forgot to tell him that to those of us not currently enrolled in the Boy Scouts, these rules aren't a big part of everyday life. He blows a radiator writing about baseball - "this sport that contributes to establishing people's identities and that has truly become part of their civic and patriotic religion, which is baseball" - and when, visiting Cooperstown ("this new Nazareth"), he finds out that Commissioner Bud Selig once laid a wreath at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington, where Abner Doubleday is also buried, Lévy goes out of his mind. An event important only to Selig and his immediate family becomes, to Lévy, an official proclamation "before the eyes of America and the world" of Abner as "the pope of the national religion . . . that day not just the town but the entire United States joined in a celebration that had the twofold merit of associating the national pastime with the traditional rural values that Fenimore Cooper's town embodies and also with the patriotic grandeur that the name Doubleday bears." Uh, actually not. Negatory on "pope" and "national" and "entire" and "most" and "embodies" and "Doubleday."

He worships Woody Allen and Charlie Rose in terms that would make Donald Trump cringe with embarrassment. He admires Warren Beatty, though he sees Beatty at a public event "among these rich and beautiful who, as always in America . . . form a masquerade of the living dead, each one more facelifted and mummified than the next, fierce, a little mutant-looking, inhuman, ultimately disappointing." Lévy is quite comfortable with phrases like "as always in America." Bombast comes naturally to him. Rain falls on the crowd gathered for the dedication of the Clinton library in Little Rock, and to Lévy, it signifies the demise of the Democratic Party. As always with French writers, Lévy is short on the facts, long on conclusions. He has a brief encounter with a young man outside of Montgomery, Ala. ("I listen to him tell me, as if he were justifying himself, about his attachment to this region"), and suddenly sees that the young man has "all the reflexes of Southern culture" and the "studied nonchalance . . . so characteristic of the region." With his X-ray vision, Lévy is able to reach tall conclusions with a single bound.

And good Lord, the childlike love of paradox - America is magnificent but mad, greedy and modest, drunk with materialism and religiosity, puritan and outrageous, facing toward the future and yet obsessed with its memories. Americans' party loyalty is "very strong and very pliable, extremely tenacious and in the end somewhat empty." Existential and yet devoid of all content and direction. The partner-swapping club is both "libertine" and "conventional," "depraved" and "proper." And so the reader is fascinated and exhausted by Lévy's tedious and original thinking: "A strong bond holds America together, but a minimal one. An attachment of great force, but not fiercely resolute. A place of high - extremely high - symbolic tension, but a neutral one, a nearly empty one." And what's with the flurries of rhetorical questions? Is this how the French talk or is it something they save for books about America? "What is a Republican? What distinguishes a Republican in the America of today from a Democrat?" Lévy writes, like a student padding out a term paper. "What does this experience tell us?" he writes about the Mall of America. "What do we learn about American civilization from this mausoleum of merchandise, this funeral accumulation of false goods and nondesires in this end-of-the-world setting? What is the effect on the Americans of today of this confined space, this aquarium, where only a semblance of life seems to subsist?" And what is one to make of the series of questions - 20 in a row - about Hillary Clinton , in which Lévy implies she is seeking the White House to erase the shame of the Lewinsky affair? Was Lévy aware of the game 20 Questions, commonly played on long car trips in America? Are we to read this passage as a metaphor of American restlessness? Does he understand how irritating this is? Does he? Do you? May I stop now?

America is changing, he concludes, but America will endure. "I still don't think there's reason to despair of this country. No matter how many derangements, dysfunctions, driftings there may be . . . no matter how fragmented the political and social space may be; despite this nihilist hypertrophy of petty antiquarian memory; despite this hyperobesity - increasingly less metaphorical - of the great social bodies that form the invisible edifice of the country; despite the utter misery of the ghettos . . . I can't manage to convince myself of the collapse, heralded in Europe, of the American model."

Thanks, pal. I don't imagine France collapsing anytime soon either. Thanks for coming. Don't let the door hit you on the way out. For your next book, tell us about those riots in France, the cars burning in the suburbs of Paris. What was that all about? Were fat people involved?

(Garrison Keillor is the host and writer of "A Prairie Home Companion" and the author of 16 books. He is the editor, most recently, of an anthology titled "Good Poems for Hard Times.")

2. Loving, Latter-Day Tocqueville Takes Democracy’s Temperature – by Glenn C. Altschuler

As Bernard-Henri Lévy strolled along the edge of a field in Michigan abutting Highway 94, a police car pulled up. Told by the cop that “it is forbidden to stop on highways, to hang around, to dawdle, to piss,” Mr. Lévy identified himself. The cop was unimpressed. But his face lit up when Mr. Lévy said he was following the path of Tocqueville. Really? the cop exclaimed. Alexis de Tocqueville? The Frenchman who traveled across the United States and in 1831 wrote Democracy in America ? Francophobia, Mr. Lévy concluded, is more prevalent inside the Beltway than in the nation’s heartland.

That’s the kind of challenge to conventional wisdom that Bernard-Henri Lévy has mounted since his book, Barbarism with a Human Face , created an international sensation almost three decades ago. “BHL” is a cultural icon in France. An activist-philosopher-filmmaker-journalist, author of 30 books, a liberal critical of the left with access to power, Mr. Lévy, according to Vanity Fair , is “somewhere between gadfly and tribal sage, Superman and prophet.” The perfect choice to take the temperature of democracy in America in the 21st century.

American Vertigo takes its title from the “wavering of points of reference and certainties” that Mr. Lévy has detected in a nation increasingly unsure of itself—“less confident of the very values, that is to say, the myths, that founded it.” The wavering is most evident in the cities of the United States: in Buffalo, Cleveland and Detroit, whose white inhabitants have left, “forgetting to close the door behind them”; in Los Angeles, a city with no center, no border, no historical neighborhood, no pulsating heart; and in New Orleans, where neither music nor dance can dispel the “haunted, slightly morbid” feeling “that “someday the water will win out.” Only in Seattle, the city he’d choose to live in, does Mr. Lévy find a place where he can recover his lost bearings.

This perceptive, pugnacious, passionate book—exquisitely written—also reveals Mr. Lévy’s love affair with the United States. “In the sheer fact of being American,” he writes, “there is a gentleness, a lightness, an element of freedom and, in a word, of civilization, that makes this country one of the few countries in the world where, despite everything, you can still breathe freely today.”

It’s tough love, of course. In visits to a lap dancer, a Chicago mega-church and the Great Western Gun Show in Dallas (where a vendor will not sell Osama bin Laden memorabilia because it “wouldn’t have the aesthetic quality of these Nazi artifacts”), Mr. Lévy learns that if America is magnificent, it is also mad, “greedy and modest, at home in the world and self-obsessed, puritan and outrageous.”

America’s greatest shame is in its poverty and prisons. In Harlem, Boston and Washington, and just outside the marked perimeters of Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Francisco, Mr. Lévy saw “battered human wrecks” living in dumpsters. They seemed to have “cut loose the moorings that tied them to the American Way of Life.” A tad behind Russia as the world champion of imprisonment, the U.S. condemns to invisibility another huge population, its poor people, “who are turning into zombies, troglodytes—a physician would say ‘foreign bodies.’” Whatever the justifications for it, Mr. Lévy writes, the “detention center” at Guantánamo “is a miniature, a condensation, of the entire American prison system.”

Tocqueville worried about a “tyranny of the majority”; Mr. Lévy worries that minority groups are becoming “a dominant component in American discourse and institutional practices.” Americans should not mourn a model—the melting pot—that never existed. Nor should they forget “the vigor and fervor of patriotic sentiment” among the nation’s hyphenates. But, he warns, Balkanization “carries in its wake, by mimicry, thanks to the familiar mechanism of rivalry for victim status,” the demands of other groups, like the Hispanics, who “have no metaphysical wrong to deplore, no transhistoric outrage that demands expiation, but … covet a piece of the identity pie as well.” If “dignity and legitimacy” continue to be bestowed on “this masquerade of Untouchables,” then the institutional edifice built at Philadelphia in 1787 might come “crashing down, once and for all.”

Mr. Lévy’s disdain for identity politics begins to betray his dependence on neoconservative discourse. His assessment of American foreign policy lays it bare. To be sure, Mr. Lévy often sounds like an unabashed liberal. He sees George W. Bush as “a provincial narcissist and a frustrated dilettante, a bad businessman and an overgrown daddy’s boy,” “lover of backfiring cars and drinking bouts with his buddies”—“born to lose”—who somehow mustered the discipline to capture the Presidency. He issues an acid indictment of America’s war on terrorism, at home and abroad, and of the ways in which the administration is playing “faster and looser” with international law, criminal courts and the Kyoto Protocol.

But he defends the war on Iraq as morally right, even if the U.S. “aimed at the wrong target at the wrong time.” The choices Mr. Lévy presents are filched from Dick Cheney’s play book: Would we rather return to an era when the United States cozied up to every tyrant who opposed the Soviet Union? Is it not better to capture “Chemical Ali,” architect of the poison-gas attack on the citizens of Jalabja, than to invite the Kurds and Shiites to rise up against Saddam Hussein and then abandon them? Mr. Lévy reproaches the neocons for backing Bush’s domestic agenda; he wishes an authentic liberal, faithful to the Enlightenment and revolted by Abu Ghraib, headed the State Department; but he won’t morph conservatives “into paragons of immorality and vice.”

Mr. Lévy’s heroes—his friends, the people he identifies with—include Barack Obama (“The first black man to understand that you should stop playing on guilt and play on seduction instead”), Hillary Clinton and Norman Mailer. But the serious conversations in American Vertigo , the conversations about philosophy and policy, are with conservatives such as Richard Perle, Samuel Huntington (the Cassandra of “the clash of civilizations”) and Francis Fukuyama (oracle of “the end of history”). As for his time on the left bank, Mr. Lévy spends it mostly with Woody Allen, Sharon Stone and Warren Beatty (about whom he goes into “ludicrous ecstasies”).

At the opening of the Presidential library in Little Rock, Ark., Mr. Lévy noted that Bill Clinton looked frail and fragile, his voice thin, his step awkward, his gaze melancholy. By contrast, the Bushes, père et fils , appeared robust, strutting their stuff in “insolent health, seemingly modest but actually triumphant smiles, thick brown or navy-blue wool coats, belted carefully at the waist, upturned at the throat.” Equally fragile, it seems, is the liberalism in American Vertigo , as it reacts to the agenda-setting, shock-and-awe thunder on the right.

(Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.)


Post a Comment

<< Home