A Tabloid PhilosopheSam Sacks
American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville By Bernard-Henri Levy, Trans. by Charlotte Mandell Random House, 2006, 308p, $24.95
Few reading pleasures compare to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Broad in scope yet precise in detail, modest yet fearlessly opinionated, Democracy has the best qualities of French rationalist thought fired through the prism of the Scottish Enlightenment. Its theme is liberty: The newer world was experimenting with a newer form of government and Tocqueville, leaving rank at home, came to find out if American democracy promised more or less freedom and well-being for its citizens, and whether France could learn anything from this whelp of a nation.
Democracy is redoubtable analysis, uncluttered by prejudice or intellectual fads, and therefore timeless. (It’s in fact possible that the passage of time increases Tocqueville’s relevance: His freak telescopic prescience meant that he could, for example, miss the signs of the Civil War, a mere thirty years ahead, but somehow anticipate the Cold War.) Moreover, Tocqueville presented his prophecies in prose of the highest refinement, jeweled with innumerable contrastive epigrams.
Flipping through my marked-up copy I instantly found two: “In aristocratic ages, science is more particularly called upon to furnish gratification to the mind: in democracies, to the body,” and “A desire to utilize knowledge is one thing; the pure desire to know is another.”
But maybe the most appealing thing about Democracy for the American reader is that Tocqueville applied a hard, critical gaze on Americans and found them: Good!
What he saw was a country amok with noise and activity, in which a guiding passion for equality led to a wider, more fervent involvement in local governing than anywhere in the world. Sure, the hoi polloi were cruder than European aristocrats, their appetites more material, their ambitions more selfishly capital-driven, but the point was they were alive.
Only in the slaveholding South and on certain Indian reservations did he find the torpor and indifference of the disenfranchised lower classes who overpopulated the rest of the world. Small-town Americans were people actively after their own fate; they had freedom. And while Tocqueville was keenly aware of the dangers democratic freedoms--when public opinion bears the most power it’s the dissenting few who can be ostracized and endangered; Tocqueville called it the “tyranny of the majority”--he was exhilarated by the pioneering unity he found.
America still operates one hundred eighty years later and is still, at least nominally, a democracy. But while Tocqueville is timeless, he is by no means the last word. Too much has changed. The momentum of equality has spread the benefits of liberty to women, blacks and minority groups that were not even here in 1831. The moral and religious homogeneity that was such a boon to civic order has ceded to untold diversity. Virtual life-term legislators are not nearly so easy to chuck as Tocqueville thought, nor is the executive at all the subordinate branch of government, as he declared. Instead, the central government has metastasized, engulfing municipal autonomies. The whole country has grown and become an unrivalled empire, at times beyond reproach. Because of these facts, Democracy in America is ripe for reevaluation.
Enter Bernard-Henri Levy.
Fanfare and supernovas of camera flash usually accompany the entrances of this singular Frenchman, a sort of tabloid philosophe for the 21st century. There he is presiding Bono-like as a special appointee on French diplomatic missions; now he’s plunging into the seedy anti-Semitic underbelly of jihadist Pakistan, like a roguish Inspector Dupin, to crack the case of who killed Daniel Pearl; now he’s working the room at his art-movie premiere beside his wife, an actress said to have the narrowest waistline in France. Most recently, he swashbuckled across America, commissioned by the Atlantic Monthly to adumbrate Tocqueville for those of us too accustomed to our country to see it clearly. The final product is American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville, an expanded version of the Atlantic articles, translated by Charlotte Mandell. (Not that anyone would know it was a translation, since some worm at Random House cut Mandell’s name from the title page.)
American Vertigo provides plenty of the exciting blurbs and captions that prop up Levy’s rebel image like plinths: See BHL trade lip with a bossy highway trooper! Cheer as he deplores our city slums! Marvel as he coolly schmoozes Barack Obama and John Kerry! Applaud as he intellectually throws down with Richard Perle and William Kristol! Stare along as he mentally undresses Sharon Stone!
But headline chasing doesn’t necessarily preclude strong thinking, and Levy makes it clear he’s taken his assignment seriously. He admires Tocqueville as a great humanist, and his prefatory remarks on the “philosopher-traveler” are incisive, early flexings of Levy’s intellectual pecs. Here is a man who knows his Time-Life 100 Greatest Thinkers front to back, and can reproduce the great historical transit map of Western thought spanning centuries.
But here is also a man following different footsteps than those advertised in the subtitle. First, because he has more ground to cover, and because he’s generally the kind of guy who has places to be, Levy’s travels are swifter than Tocqueville’s, and his stopovers much more transitory.
(Actually, in a geographic sense he closely patterns John Steinbeck, who road-tripped America in the ’60s with his French poodle, Charley.)
Second, Levy frankly admits he is “too recent an admirer of Tocqueville for this account…to be read as a reply,” and his vision is informed instead by modernists, meaning Nietzsche, Foucault and other hard-to-pronounce theoreticians whose early invocation gave this reviewer an ominous clenching sensation. Surely I’m not alone in dreading the prospect of Foucault Does Nebraska when Baudrillard Does Vegas was more than enough.
For all his bravura, though, Levy appears strangely muted in his early journals; the sheer mass of America has overwhelmed his capacity for confident analysis. (This is understandable: Not even Steinbeck could quite put his finger on all that he saw, though he recorded his confusion with beauty and style.) Levy’s original insights tick off with all the flair of a great-aunt’s Carnival Cruise slideshow.
We learn, for example, that baseball is like a religion, replete with mythology. We learn that Rikers Island is unpleasant and dangerous, that Detroit looks like a “bombed metropolis,” that the Mall of America is “an experience in and of itself,” that shopping is another religion, that the Midwest sells lots of kitsch, and that George W. Bush’s eyes are set too closely together.
These shocking revelations are presented in roiling run-ons that threaten to leave you seasick. (The sentence elided above actually reads, “I myself, once again, am too recent an admirer of Tocqueville for this account, this travelogue, this daily journal, to be read as the reply, the extension, even the continuation or addition, of the prestigious model”—ugh, get out the Dramamine.)
Or else they come in series of clipped one-sentence paragraphs, like Delphic oracles without the mystery. What we have behind all these gussied-up platitudes is a thinker who hasn’t made the time to think.
Things pick up somewhat on the Left Coast, because Levy is more in his element, which is to say amongst celebrities. He can be quite good when discoursing on fame, sex and scandal. His comment that the myriad regulations for lap dances make “Not coitus interruptus but desire interrupted” is funny, and his musings that Hilary Clinton’s presidency might be affected by the apparition of “The Stain” in the Oval Office is funnier.
But the point of American Vertigo was to analyze the current state of democracy and its effect on American character. So what can we think about someone who refuses to go beyond highway rest areas and therefore concludes that middle America is nothing but Potemkin villages of kitschy tourist traps? What can we think of a man with the credulity to write that the Amish have their “gaze fixed on eternity,” when anyone who’s given fifteen minutes to normal conversation with an Amish person knows his gaze is fixed on his accounts, his tools, his Bible and his dozen children? And what can we think of a man who, when assigned to learn what America means, goes and talks to David Brock, Warren Beatty and Sharon Stone?
(The Stone episode stays on my tongue as one of the tastier morsels of hypocrisy in a rather lavish spread. Levy of course patronizes her for being a sex symbol presuming political relevance, but at the same time he notices that “she unfolds her legs, refolds them, pulls at the hem of her skirt.” Whoa, he winks to us, just like in Basic Instinct. How hot is that?)
With few exceptions—his disarming and unexpected panegyric to Savannah, Georgia for one—Levy seeks out emptiness and finds it. And what is his grand conclusion, what, in the chapter “Reflections,” is his final formulation of America?
“America…is nothing else…but a prodigious yet mundane machine whose purpose is to produce more Americans—a magnificent illusion, an Idea again, or, to return one last time to the Nietzsche of Untimely Meditations, one of those ‘useful errors,’ one of those ‘tall tales’ that allows a human being, whoever he may be, to represent what he is and what he has to become in order to survive.”
(Deep breaths, deep breaths—the spinning will stop.)
To put it in plain English: America is nothing, or else it’s whatever Americans think it is. This is what we pay our philosophers for these days?
American Vertigo is itself a Potemkin village of glitzy name-dropping—using the Levy trademark of both movie stars and German philosophers—and aggressive publicity with nothing on the inside. Ultimately, assessing character requires character.
But I wonder if Levy was limited for a reason other than his unquenchable sophistry, if he was already too familiar with America to see it with objectivity. When Tocqueville came here the smell of democracy was fresh and vital. But this odor has been in Levy’s nose all his life. America is no longer epitomized by small-town provinciality; it has grown far beyond its bracketing oceans. Most of globalization is simply Americanization, and as a result there are very few places left from which a writer could employ contrast the way that Tocqueville did. American democracy is no longer an experiment but a de facto law, and because we Americans have taken to fashioning the world in our own image we desperately need more awareness of what it is we’re about.
Amazingly, our best source for understanding might still be Democracy in America.
Sam Sacks' is a freelance arts writer in New York City, and frequent contributor CJAS. His reviews also appear in the Las Vegas Weekly and thefanzine.com.