By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Bernard-Henri Lévy, author of the new book American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville, is dissatisfied with the state of sex in America. According to the suave, 56-year-old French philosopher with the big hair and gently fading matinee-idol looks, puritanism is rampant in this country. Paradoxically — and how a French philosopher loves paradox! — he claims it can be found in its purest form in those neon-lit fleshpots specifically devoted to thongs, pole-dancing and the flaunting of the erotic arts.
“Nothing is more sad than the brothels and the lap-dancing palaces of Las Vegas and elsewhere,” says Lévy, speaking with the authority of a man who not only has a French accent but has just been paid good money to investigate the matter thoroughly. “It’s really so gloomy. I would prefer to be a monk than to be a client of a brothel of Vegas. If I had to choose, in an Inferno choice — the brothels of Vegas or pure asceticism, pure abstinence — I would choose abstinence. There would be more excitement in abstinence than going in the brothels of Vegas!”
Perhaps Lévy (popularly known by his initials, “BHL”) is merely rediscovering what his late compatriot Roland Barthes wrote in that old campus favorite, Mythologies: “In America, sex can be found everywhere except in sex itself.”
Lévy does not disagree, allowing that the relative frostiness of American male-female relations is one of the things that disappointed him during the year or so he spent here researching his book. Nor, he emphasizes, is he persuaded by our apparent sexual freedoms — the brazen sidewalk displays of naked flesh, the post-midnight Cinemax couplings and all the rest of it. He even goes so far as to claim, somewhat tentatively, that despite all appearances to the contrary, Muslim women in Moroccan cities such as Tangiers and Casablanca and Marrakesh (where he owns a palace) may be more “deeply” free than their American counterparts.
“I think what is superficial is the freedom in America. The puritanism is deep, and nakedness, liberty, is superficial,” says this admirer of Bill Clinton who is still indignant over the Republican efforts to impeach the former president over the Monica Lewinsky affair. “In America, gallantry in some circles is forbidden. A joke can be very badly taken — a sexual joke. A compliment can be badly taken. No,” he says sternly, breaking into rapid, molten French. “Le puritanisme est un des grands problèmes de cette société.”
The idea to write about this country was not Lévy’s own. The suggestion came from Cullen Murphy, editor of The Atlantic, who felt that in the post-9/11 era Americans needed a cold foreign eye to take their measure. And so, rather like a celebrity physician, Lévy was called in to palpate our stomachs, listen to our hearts and search for any signs of disease — particularly of the cerebral kind. (A 24-page section near the end of the book is titled, “Has America Gone Mad?”) Murphy ended up serializing five lengthy articles under the Frenchman’s byline. Lévy, who does almost everything in the grand style, brought along young French graduates from France’s most elite college, the École Normale Supérieure, as assistants, and his old friend Gilles Herzog was hired to make a documentary film of the trip that will be released later this year. It was, by all accounts, something of a media circus.
In general, the time Lévy spent traveling through America, filing lengthy dispatches for The Atlantic on everything from prisons to megachurches, from giant shopping malls to neocons, from MoveOn.orgers to homeschooling conservative journalists, increased his well-advertised fondness for the U.S. (In France, he is known for being an “anti-anti-American.”) Not that there weren’t some bumpy moments — revulsion for the savagery of our prisons, distress at the sad lot of our millions of social outcasts, outrage over the death penalty and Guantánamo Bay.
There were even times when he wondered why Americans would pay such a well-disposed Frenchman to peer into their country’s most shameful corners, and therefore run the risk of losing an important ally. But an ally he remains, if not quite as staunch a one as he sometimes claims to be. (If you’re looking for French “anti-anti-Americanism” at its most forthright, try Jean-François Revel’s witty screed, Anti-Americanism. What Lévy offers is a more finely shaded, diplomatically cautious defense of the U.S., its culture and its role in the world.)
“If I had to sum up,” Lévy sums up, “I would say: ‘I loved this country before; I loved this country after; and in between, I had sometimes to fasten my seat belt.’ ”
Lévy, who comes West in early February, is holding forth in the sumptuous Gallery of the Carlyle Hotel on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. In his trademark black suit and white tuxedo shirt, partly unbuttoned to reveal a tan and austerely hairless chest, he is a familiar and instantly recognizable figure. As France’s most mediagenic philosopher-reporter, occasional government emissary and friend of French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, there must be enough secrets behind his jet-black eyebrows and penetrating brown eyes to fill several government dossiers. But the strain shows, too. Once a five-pack-a-day smoker, he now confines himself to light meals and endless cups of tea. When he grows tired, there is a twitchiness to his mouth and eyebrows that threatens to get out of control. Being BHL, one realizes, is a demanding, full-time job.