The French Really Like Us

American Vertigo expands upon Tocquevilles territory

. . . In reality no large modern nation is as uncertain as [the United States], less sure of what it is becoming, less confident of the very values, that is to say, the myths, that founded it; it's a certain disorder; a disease; a wavering of points of reference and certainties; a vertigo . . .

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Those French. With their big pronouncements spoken through (and sometimes down) their noses, with those dazzling sonorous sentences going on for days, with that cool brashness that keeps them crossing to our shores (first Chateaubriand, then Tocqueville, then Sartre, de Beauvoir and Baudrillard) to tell us who they think we are. We don't do that to them. Our guys don't go over there, glide through the country for a while avec un stylo en les mains and then write big definitive books called Democracy in France, or, worse (in imitation of Baudrillard's egregious America), just France. But they've got a whole tradition of doing it to us. Like they think they own the place. Like, maybe, they're jealous we had our little revolution before theirs. Like they resent just a little bit the fact that we saved their asses, twice, from the Germans, and so they can get back at us by condemning our gross materialism, our know-nothing fundamentalists, our dumbed-down mass media, our cowboy foreign policy, our bullying cultural imperialism and the fact that more than half our population is, well, fat.

The only trouble is, some of these French are right. Not Jean-Paul Sartre, maybe, who branded America as the seedbed for a new kind of totalitarianism (when Sartre was almost blind to the old-style one still wreaking havoc in the Soviet Union and China). And not Jean Baudrillard, who came over here with preconceptions so hysterical that he made the whole country out to be as prefabricated and unreal as Disneyland. (So, okay, he's 20 percent right. But we shouldn't concede much to the man who looked at the burning towers on 9/11 and said that he—and the whole non-American world—secretly felt we deserved it.) But Tocqueville: here's a man who nailed back in the 1830s much of what endures in that hoary old phrase "the American Character": the leveling effects of our devotion to equality; the dangers of the "tyranny of the majority"; the vast lonelinesses attendant upon our devotion to individualism; the compatibility here between religion and free thinking; the overwhelming pressures to conformity—all of which, together, tends to turn Americans into a "crowd of men, all alike and equal, turned in upon themselves in a restless search for those petty, vulgar pleasures with which to fill those souls . . ." Which, come to think of it, is also a way of explaining why we're fat.

Bernard-Henri Lévy, one of those French intellectuals we just don't get much of stateside (brilliant thinker, agile writer—he wrote American Vertigo in beautiful flowing English—elegant dresser, married to a model, politically engaged enough to go to Sarajevo and film a war documentary), is also one of those French intellectuals Americans don't have to be afraid hates us: he doesn't. Liberal but not leftist, deeply critical but not wearily (or hysterically) postmodern about it, he's fascinated, intrigued, impressed by America: he likes us, and doesn't have to condescend to do it. Yes, he thinks we were wrong to go into Iraq (which, by now, you hardly have to be liberal to think), and he, like most Europeans, can't believe a self-proclaimed Christian country could still embrace the death penalty, and he thinks Guantanamo is a horrific gash in America's image that won't soon heal, and he's baffled that something like Hurricane Katrina still can't convince Americans of the need of a powerful welfare state to protect its most vulnerable citizens. But he, like Tocqueville, remains impressed by our vigor, our optimism, our faith—in the country, in a God in heaven, and in the God we seem to find in ourselves.

A couple of years ago, The Atlantic Monthly contracted Lévy to pull a new Democracy in America: they asked him to trace the journey Tocqueville took when he wrote Democracy in America, and to write about it for them. Subtitled "In the Footsteps of Tocqueville," American Vertigo vastly expands on those articles, published in 2005, taking Lévy from the mountains to the prairies, from the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters, from sea to shining sea. On the way, he visits prisons (including ghastly Guantanamo) and cities (mourning Detroit, falling in love with Seattle and Savannah, Georgia), hires both a lap dancer and a hooker in Vegas (just to interview them, mind you, though you'd sort of think one would be enough to declaim about the "wretchedness of Eros in the land of the Puritans"), investigates coal mines in Utah, the Mayo Clinic in St. Paul, Mt. Rushmore (noting that its sculptor was a Ku Klux Klan member), a Church of Christ megachurch in Memphis, a MoveOn.org meeting in Berkeley, an Amish community in Des Moines, the Dallas street where JFK was assassinated. He contemplates the nuts who think creationism is science, the phenomenon of home-schooling, stock car races in Knoxville, Tennessee, and the spectacle of Sharon Stone pontificating about politics. He interviews neocon thinkers (Richard Perle, Bill Kristol), actors (Warren Beatty, Woody Allen), tycoons (Henry Travis, Barry Diller, George Soros), writers (Jim Harrison, James Ellroy, Norman Mailer), pols (Barack Obama, Hillary, John Kerry), and big-time intellectuals (Frances Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington). It's a dizzying, heady itinerary, with Lévy gamely writing short thousand-word essays on everything he experiences, and though much of what he writes is familiar enough—his essay on Los Angeles keeps harping on the fact that the city doesn't have a center—the cumulative effect of reading the book through is like taking a crash course in American studies in the back seat of a Chevy screaming down Route 66.

And it's certainly not all familiar: Lévy many times rides a perception till it swells, phrase by phrase, into a sublime idea, as he does when he contemplates the Kennedy assassination. In the indelible image of the Zapruder tape, he writes, "in this live death, we are given to witness over and over again without ever tiring of it; in this proximity of suffering and love; in this nexus of power and misfortune, fall and redemption; in this story of youth struck down; in this true story of a glamorous and cursed family, blessed by the gods and pursued by a fate perceived as both inconceivable and necessary, [we recognize] the eternal form of Tragedy—'terror and pity,' Aristotle said—that is played out and makes us tremble." In the end, America itself makes Lévy tremble, this nation whose wrestling with its identity gives itself (and the rest of the world) vertigo, this country in a state of "perpetual construction," this "magnificent illusion" that is "nothing else, when all is said and done, but a prodigious yet mundane machine whose purpose is to produce more Americans"—a fat but perpetually hungry people who, as Percy Shelley once wrote (about romantics like himself, though it applies to us too), "Hope till hope creates/Out of its wreck the thing it contemplates."

AMERICAN VERTIGO BY BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY; RANDOM HOUSE. HARDBACK, 320 Pages, $24.95.

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