French letters

A European thinker travels across America

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In scholarship, in journalism, in literary nonfiction, to exhume the wisdom of Alexis de Tocqueville is a trope all its own. Usually the 19th century historian is resuscitated to support some broad allegation about an American political tendency. The first outsider to "objectively" assess American democracy in the 1830s and the first to assess our institutions, Tocqueville is almost like a national Zagat or a Nostradamus with intellectual heft.

The Atlantic Monthly decided we needed to see our country through the eyes of one more Frenchie, so they retained Bernard-Henri Lévy, or BHL, as he's known, to retrace and expand upon Tocqueville's Democracy in America with American Vertigo, a series of articles for the magazine that has recently been published in book form.

While America has few celebrity intellectuals, BHL is just that in his native country. Here, one might remember him from his 1979 book Barbarism with a Human Face, which took fellow lefty intellectuals to task for not condemning the totalitarianism of Mao, Castro and the rest. More recently, he's raised eyebrows in Europe by staking out a position called "Anti-anti-Americanism." This is not to suggest American Vertigo is some sort of love letter. BHL is opposed to the war in Iraq and the disgraceful presence of Guantanamo. He believes George W. Bush is unqualified to be president and sees little good about Christianity in public life. However, with stridency, if not charm, he defends America against a more pervasive critique made popular, in part, by its recent adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. America is not a cauldron of imperialism and cultural decadence. It's something else. ...

One can make lots of criticisms of American Vertigo — that it bites off more than it can chew and that our tour guide is smitten with kitschy tourist clichés, but this guy gets around. Here's an abbreviated list of the places and people visited on two trips: Cooperstown, the Mall of America, Barack Obama, Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Warren Beatty, William Kristol, John Kerry, the founders of moveon.org, historian Frances Fukuyama, Seattle, Las Vegas (come for the titty bar, stay for the brothels), gay clubs in San Francisco ("a museum of successful liberations"), a gun show in Texas and the United States Air Force Academy, as well as prisons in Louisiana, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Guantanamo.

Our author doesn't commit the sins Francophobes might expect. His observations, though often unoriginal (Los Angeles has no unifying center? Who knew?) are rarely knee-jerk or condescending. What grates, however, are the non-conversations he carries out with celebrities. Seldom does BHL even bother quoting his source, preferring instead to expound upon their personae. In interviewing Barack Obama, David Brock or Woody Allen, the subjects become launching pads for his musings.

American Vertigo is as much an intellectual travel diary as it is an exercise for readers in sifting granules of insight from a haystack of hyperbole. I mean, is there really an excuse for this sentence? (Keep in mind it's just one not atypical sentence.)

What I have observed and what seems quite undeniable upon investigation, at the risk of confusing what the entire Christian and Jewish traditions beseech us to distinguish from each other, at the risk of putting these two opposite notions of the sacrality of an origin or a source and the possible sanctity of a constitutional Text or charter of fundamental rights in the same bag of vague, ill-formed "religiosity," is this: in the dialectics of the two, in the vital and complex symbolic exchange that continues to occur between the possible sanctity of the Idea and the weighty sacrality of the communities, the Idea is in the process once again of becoming, slowly but surely, the liberating principle that it had been for the Founding Fathers.

In short, ideas are making a comeback. If only brevity would.

It's impossible to know whether BHL will command the same prescience as his predecessor. And that's to say nothing of what it will add up to in a generation or so. If it does become a part of our history, it will surely irritate the long-dead BHL. But since writers (much less foreign ones) rank well below athletes or even famous pets in the hierarchy of American memory, BHL need not lose sleep over his legacy.

John Dicker reviews books for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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