Thursday, September 29, 2011
Bernard-Henri Levy Channels de Tocqueville
(Though the French public intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy made an ass out of himself defending Dominique Strauss-Kahn's sexual assault of a maid in New York City, he gave me a gracious interview in 2005.)
By Dylan Foley
French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy is a literary rock star in his home country, not some stuffy academic. The national papers refer to him by the initials “BHL” and chronicle his expensive suits, his gorgeous Paris apartment, his movie star wife’s tiny waist and his dangerous trips to Pakistan tracking the killers of an American journalist in his international bestseller “Who Killed Danny Pearl?”
In 2004, the Atlantic Monthly recruited Levy to follow the path of countryman Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1831 trip to the United States that formed the basis for Tocqueville’s classic “Democracy in America.” For a year, Levy traveled through dozens of American states, moving from Seattle to Boston, Salt Lake City to Los Angeles, meeting celebrities and common folk. Levy’s witty and observant dispatches were published in the Atlantic Monthly in the time leading up to the Presidential election.
Levy has published “American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville” (Random House, $25), a nuanced travelogue of his journey through United States during a turbulent time of elections and wars.
“I hesitated because I thought the Atlantic assignment might be the most difficult challenge of my life, to put into a book such a complex idea: the reality that is America,” says the 57-year-old Levy, from New York City’s exclusive Carlyle Hotel over lunch. In person, Levy lives up to his image, dressing in a stylish black suit, an immaculate white shirt opened to his breastbone and his mane of black and gray hair brushed back.
“I thought it was worth doing because of the moment and because of the vertigo,” says Levy. “Not the vertigo of me in front of America, but of the vertigo of Americans themselves, in front of their identity.”
With American troops fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a bitter Presidential race descending into mudslinging, the United States was ripe for analysis in 2004. “America was at a point in its history where it was interesting to observe,” he says. “I thought maybe it would be useful for a foreigner and the American people to have an honest and humble exchange of questions, questions more than answers.”
Where Levy’s book truly excels is in his razor-sharp political observations. He catches Senator Tom Daschle a few months before his electoral slaughter, dancing flatfootedly at an Indian powwow in South Dakota. He draws a memorable picture of Senator Rick Santorum, with his wolfish smile fawning over Jewish leaders in New York, begging for cash.
“It’s all Balzac, the human comedy,” says Levy with a shrug of his shoulders as he compared American politics to the 19th century French novelist. “This is universal. Politics is a big comedy. I am sure that I would be able to observe the same thing in my own country.”
Levy examines what he sees as a fraudulent obesity epidemic and America’s shrinking social safety net. Logging 15,000 miles through America with an assistant in tow, he meets with Senator Barack Obama in Chicago and actress Sharon Stone in Los Angeles. Through it all, Levy draws a sympathetic portrait of America, from the contemplative cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy to hardworking men and women he encountered on the road.
“My itinerary consisted of a lot of improvisation,” says Levy. “There was the itinerary of Tocqueville, then the parts of the country that did not exist in his time. Inside that framework, there was the contingency of each day. I left it like that.”
Some of Levy’s meetings were grim, like the one with Russell Means in his dilapidated house in South Dakota. Means was once a hero to the Indian rights movement, but is now a paranoid anti-Semite.
“The way I wound up meeting Russell Means was I was in a Pizza Hut or someplace like that,” says Levy. “I was talking to the fellow at the next table and I told him how the Native American question was still alive for me,” says Levy. “He told me, ‘You should meet Russell Means. He is a hero. I know a friend of a friend of his.’
“Meeting Means was a depressing scene. Means was in despair and he was a desperate man, falling for the most criminal and stupid of ideologies, that of anti-Semitism,” says Levy, who is Jewish. “It is the path of bitterness.”
In “American Vertigo,’ Levy has written that the United States is in crisis, but not on the verge of extinction. “I see it as a time of crisis and hope,” he says. “In spite of Hurricane Katrina and all the dark places I have seen in this country, in spite of George Bush, I see such great ability to overcome this moment. I believe in the capacity of Americans to draw lessons from its experiences. Few countries would have reacted to the Abu Ghraib prison scandal as America did, with such freedom on the part of the press and such a reaction of disgust on the part of so many of its citizens. It’s a book of hope.”
In an epilogue, Levy’s handles the Katrina debacle and America’s views on New Orleans and race. “New Orleans is a fascinating city, but hated by the rest of America, who view it as Sodom and Gomorrah,” says Levy with a sad sigh. “You have to be a European or an American intellectual to love New Orleans. On race in America, progress has been made, but there is not enough integration, and racism is still present, even if it is unsaid.”
Levy noted that France's own racial problems were violently pulled into the spotlight during the Paris riots last November. “The riots were our Katrina,” says Levy. “We had the same revelations, the same questions on race and poverty. It is the same nonreality, an ignored reality.”
Through his wide experiences in America, Levy learned many new things and kept his eyes open. “Every step in this country was surprising, often in the best and the worst ways,” he says. “The brothels, the churches, even the banks were exciting. My sympathy was here at the beginning. It was sometimes put to the test, but it is still there.”
“America was always a mythical country for me,” says Levy. “I hope I have created a cleaner image of what the reality of America is.”
Dylan Foley is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y.
(This interview originally appeared in the Westchester Journal News in February 2005)