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And then there are the great eccentrics, like Louis-Ferdinand Céline, who in his spellbinding 1932 novel-cum-travelogue, Journey to the End of the Night, lavished rhapsodic praise on the beauty of American women, particularly their muscular, Rockette-style legs (which he spent every spare minute covertly admiring). Céline, of course, was not on assignment for an august magazine, and was in no danger of having to present a formal report to Tina Brown at the end of it. Which could be why his portrait of America is etched with a wild, delirious sense of freedom American Vertigo could do with a bit more of.
Unfortunately, the author of Journey to the End of the Night was also a Fascist and an anti-Semite so virulent he could make Ezra Pound look like a pleasant old duffer. Sartre, who included sections about the States in his great trilogy of novels, The Roads to Freedom, made totalitarianism chic for generations of bourgeois hipsters, a poisonous legacy we’re still stuck with today. Baudrillard is widely regarded as a nut job. Michel Foucault, whose theories about incarceration Lévy invokes in his lengthy ruminations on American prisons, publicly welcomed Iran’s theocratic revolution of 1979 in rapturous, near-mystical terms. It’s a difficulty one tends to run into with French writers. From Rimbaud on, so many of them seem to be either brilliant but crazy or obsessed with theory and achingly dull.
In keeping with his position as unofficial spokesman for the French elites, Lévy is a much more circumspect, sober observer. The first part of the book, he says, taking a sip of Earl Grey, “is really observations, choses vues [things seen], humble, preventing myself from concluding too quickly, suspending my judgment. And the second part is as I am always — affirmative, not dogmatic but theoretical. It is so different, and I really wanted that. There was the time for the uncertainty — hypotheses, only relating things — and there was the time for conclusions, deductions and so on. And I’m glad to have separated the two. It is really a double rhythm, a double breathing, a two-time respiration.”
The resurgence of religious feeling in the U.S. — an obsession in Europe and in blue-state America — is a major theme. But Lévy detected it not just in the megachurches he explored in places like Willow Creek, Illinois (attendance, 17,500), where few coastal urbanites ever set foot, but also in those very same Bush-hating secular coastal havens themselves.
“I think that even in New York or Los Angeles, what surprised me is that it’s not so frequent to meet someone who dares to say that he is atheist, for example. In France, nearly everybody is [atheist] today. In America, even in New York City, it’s not so frequent. Le sentiment religieux est fort toujours, non, non. You would qualify yourself as atheist, for example?”
“Ha, agnostic,” he says, dismissing such spiritual dilly-dallying with a lordly wave of his hand. “I could quote you very surprising cases of American people, beautiful people, very up-to-date, à la mode people, if I ask them, ‘Are you atheist?’ ‘No!’ ”
Lévy’s critique of America’s megachurches largely boils down to their grotesque banalization of religion — a long tradition in the U.S., what with our Pat Robertsons, Jim Bakkers and other assorted televangelists, but going back at least as far as Aimee Semple McPherson, the charismatic preacher who mesmerized huge congregations in L.A. during the 1920s. His principal objection is that they transform Christ into an All-American “good guy,” a friendly CEO-type guaranteed to dispense massive Christmas bonuses to all good worshipers, etc. The contrast with Europe is sriking. There, far from supersizing themselves, many churches are shrinking into nothingness, abandoned by their congregations. In England, for instance, some have been turned into apartment buildings, spas, and even — in a perfect confluence of postmodern body-consciousness and ingenious leisure capitalism — into gyms and rock-climbing centers, because of the high walls.
Lévy agrees that there is something slightly shame-inducing about the thought of fitness enthusiasts in pricey adhesive sneakers (“The Right Rubber for Your Sole!”) clambering up walls dotted with climbing holds instead of portraits of saints and virgins. But given the choice between a banal Christ and the church as jungle gym, he prefers the latter.
“I’ll take atheism over a caricature of religion, which for me is worse. I prefer the absolute freethinker to Tartuffe,” he says, referring to the celebrated Molière play about a religious hypocrite.
But why does an atheist automatically qualify as a freethinker? Surely an atheist can be as close-minded as anybody.
“Of course, of course. Freethinker does not mean a free man. I think one of the big achievements of Judaism and Christianism is freedom. I think you are more free when you adore the God of Jews, or the God of Christianism, than when you don’t. Because when you don’t, you adore something else. Man is an adoring creature. Either he adores the distant God of religion, or he adores the God of class, of the people, of history, of the market, of merchandise, or whatever. So I think it is preferable, because it makes you more free, to adore this creature whom Jews and Christians called ‘God,’ than to adore all the Gods of Substitution which modernity invented. Of this I’m sure. But the God of the new American religions has less and less to do with the God I’m talking about. The God of the megachurches no longer makes you free. The God of Willow Creek and the God of the Market are the same.”