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De Tocqueville, Part Deux 

Bernard-Henri Lévy on American sex, American religion and American Vertigo

Tuesday, Jan 17 2006
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As vaguely famous-looking people walk by our table, Lévy smiles at some, waves at others and calls out an endearment in French (“Ma petite”) to a woman on her way to the adjacent bar. He always stays at the Carlyle when in New York, and he seems immensely comfortable there. Is that Newsweek’s Middle East sage, Fareed Zakaria, head down, listening intently to someone at a table in the corner? It is. From the bar comes tinkling piano music. Lévy glances at his BlackBerry and lays a pair of dark glasses on the white tablecloth.

American Vertigo will be published by Random House on January 24 to a blizzard of media attentiveness, at least in New York City, where six appearances are planned, including a conversation with Tina Brown at the New York Public Library. Although Lévy is said to sell better in Los Angeles than anywhere else in America, his handlers have yet to line up one appearance here, opting instead for San Francisco’s more storied literary outlets.

Lévy has been an intellectual star in France since 1977, when he published his best-selling Barbarism With a Human Face, a work that moved him to the forefront of a group of young French philosophers, including Pascal Bruckner, Alain Fienkielkraut and André Glucksmann, who broke with the extreme leftism of Jean-Paul Sartre and other French thinkers with a soft spot for mass murderers such as Stalin and Chairman Mao. The book earned him a Time magazine cover and even a slot on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, but he was a largely forgotten figure in America until the publication in 2003 of his riveting Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, a bold and sometimes wildly speculative investigation into the gruesome death of the Wall Street Journal reporter beheaded by Pakistani jihadists.

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Who Killed Daniel Pearl? was followed up in 2004 by War, Evil, and the End of History, a collection of journalistic dispatches and philosophical reflections on “forgotten” civil wars in Burundi, Colombia, Angola, Sri Lanka and Sudan. It made less of a splash but added to his growing American profile and helped define his current literary methodology: Start with daring, solid reportage, then follow with a French intellectual’s version of Rumsfeldian “shock and awe,” dazzling the reader with a mad fireworks display of philosophical abstractions, theories, deductions, counterdeductions and counter-counterdeductions that, were the average American to pursue them to their (presumably) logical conclusions, would likely leave him feeling giddy and possibly even faint. American Vertigo, which is divided into two main sections, “Le Voyage en Amérique” and “Reflections” adheres to the same pattern.

While the research for his two previous books required considerable physical courage — as a Jew probing Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan, for instance, or adrift in some of the more terrifying hellholes of Africa or the Colombian jungle — American Vertigo represents a very different kind of risk. Intellectual, reputational risk. This is a book about the United States originally written in French (the excellent translation is by Charlotte Mandell) but aimed primarily at an American audience. And as Lévy is no doubt aware, reading a foreigner’s impressions of your own stomping grounds can be irritating and apt to provoke hostility.

Take his observations on Los Angeles, for instance. Citing Barthes — “A city is like a text” — he pronounces L.A. an “illegible” scrawl of freeways lacking any discernible center, border, heart or visual vantage point from which it can be embraced in a single glance, and thus an “anti-city.” While the proposition is arguable, it’s hardly fresh and likely to raise native hackles. (His favorite American cities are Savannah, Seattle and New Orleans.) Lévy also suffers from the fact that he is not only — as the title has it — traveling “in the footsteps” of Alexis de Tocqueville, whose Democracy in America, written in the 1830s, remains one of those books that everyone refers to even if few have read it, but also trailing the scorched skid marks of flashy compatriots like Jean Baudrillard, whose thesis that American consumer society merely presents us with a “simulacrum” of choice formed the theoretical basis for the Matrix movies, and who argues that Disneyland is just a ruse to disguise the fact that all of America is in fact Disneyland.

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