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De Tocqueville, Part Deux

Photo by Thierry Dudoit

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.

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.

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.

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?”

“No.”

“Ha-ha! Look!”

“Agnostic.”

“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.”

“What about the fact that many churches end up being replaced by mosques?” I ask. “Which is the other thing that’s happening in England and Europe, and maybe here, too.”

“Could one say that Islam comes in the place of Christianity? I don’t think so. It’s not the problem of Muslims if we, Christians or Jews, get rid of our own creed. It’s our problem, not theirs.”

“But if man is ‘an adoring creature,’ as you say, something is going to fill the vacuum.”

“Not Islam. [In America] the thing that is filling the vaccuum is the creed of these megachurches, God as a Good Guy and so on. In Europe, what fills it is the [belief] in history, in communism, in racism, in nationhood, in all that. Our idolatric creeds.”

And with that, Lévy, who is coming down with a cold and seems to be growing bored with the subject, loudly blows his nose.

In American Vertigo, Lévy presents sharply etched vignettes of his meetings with, among others, Norman Mailer, Barack Obama, Jim Harrison, Sharon Stone, conservative columnist Rod Dreher and Joan Blades of MoveOn.org. (If it’s in the film version, the sight of Lévy trying out his old-world charms on the ultra-P.C. Blades should make for entertaining viewing.) He meets with Nazi gun-nuts, struggling waitresses, and, in one of the more memorable scenes in the book, a robotic traffic cop who turns out to be a De Tocqueville buff. He also paints a richly detailed picture of the gloomy, rain-ravaged opening of the Clinton Presidential Center just days after George W. Bush’s re-election. But then, most of Lévy’s encounters with the Democrats leave him depressed for the future of the party he identifies with. Though he is surprisingly generous about that ultimate neocon, Richard Perle (perhaps because he keeps a portrait of Rimbaud on the wall), he disses Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol for being an intellectual lightweight. It’s the verbal equivalent of a knife-slashing:

“A neoconservative? No — he is a Platonist bereft of the ideals. An adviser to princes without detachment or reservations. An antitotalitarian who, at bottom, and whatever he may say, has not read enough Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt, Julien Benda — and who, not having done so, deprives himself of the necessary freedom that the status of intellectual induces in Europe.”

Perhaps Lévy’s most provocative observations about America concern the country’s confidence level, which, despite our president’s tendency to affect a Texan swagger, he judges to be low. “Bush is an epiphenomenon,” he says, which would certainly be news to Bush, even if he were armed with a dictionary. “Over-confidence in politics is the natural reaction to under-confidence in deep being. Same for a nation.”

Of course, Lévy has been hanging out with despairing liberals, who are convinced that America is a couple of jackboot steps away from turning into Nazi Germany. But the surprising part may be that Lévy considers the nation’s faltering self-confidence a positive development. In his eyes, it makes us more attractive.

“Self-confidence is not always a virtue,” says this seemingly most self-confident of men. “I like people who don’t know exactly who they are. I like people who are not exactly sure of their place in the world. And you could even say that it is a virtue not to know. Jean-Paul Sartre defined le salaud [the bastard] as the one who is absolutely sure of what he is and the site that he occupies in the economy of the world. A woman who is not absolutely sure of how beautiful she is, who has doubts about the question of knowing whether she is charming or not, is more charming. But you know that.”

And what of those cocksure neoconservatives, now somewhat chastened? Near the end of his book, Lévy half-admiringly defines a neocon as “someone whose enemies are called Saddam Hussein, Mullah Omar, Milosevic . . .” It is tempting, I tell him, to complete that sentence by adding that “a so-called progressive is someone whose enemies are called George Bush, Tony Blair and Silvio Berlusconi.”

“True, true,” Lévy avers. “I am not a neoconservative. I disagree with them on many topics. But I must admit I prefer somebody whose enemy is named Milosevic and Saddam Hussein than somebody whose enemy, who believes that the criminal against humanity, is called Tony Blair or George Bush. This is sure. This is sure.”

Lévy concedes that an unspoken agenda in his book was to report on the America liberals and Europeans passionately abhor — the America of Bush, of Christian fundamentalism, of Wal-Mart capitalism, of the death penalty and the war on terrorism. But that also entailed locking horns with pro-war intellectuals like Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Christopher Hitchens, not to mention doing epic battle in the second half of the book with the philosophers Samuel (“Clash of Civilizations”) Huntington and Francis (“End of History”) Fukuyama. For Lévy, this was inevitable, since he views the rise of the neocons as the most interesting thing to happen in the country in the last 20 years. Had he written about America in the early 1970s, he says, his book would have been about hippies and EST and the radical underground. (In fact, such a book already exists: Jean-François Revel’s Neither Marx nor Jesus.)

But whatever vitality the left possessed back then has since drained away, he believes. “When I attended an AFL-CIO meeting, trying to draw conclusions from the defeat of Kerry and so on, it was so boring. So sad. So ground zero of the thought. I am sad to say that, because I am close to them. They are my family, they are my camp. If I were an American, I would be with them.”

But why would a man with a passion for ideas align himself with people offering “the ground zero” of political thought?

“Because I believe in the welfare state, because I believe in the federal fight against poverty, because I believe the death penalty is something monstrous, because I believe that abortion rights must not be touched, because I believe that the freedom of carrying weapons in private hands is [wrong], and I cannot agree with people who believe the contrary on all those subjects.”

It sounds distressingly pat. Having criticized the American left for being bereft of ideas, Lévy then trots out a laundry list of liberal causes that anyone from MoveOn.org could have replicated word for word. Could it be that Europe’s left is suffering from its own “ground zero of the thought”?

The clock is ticking, and a man from the French Embassy is waiting to take my place at the table. With some trepidation, I ask about Alain Finkielkraut, another French philosopher and contemporary of Lévy’s, who recently caused a firestorm of controversy in France by speaking in bluntly critical terms about last November’s French riots to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. His most pungent remarks were then reprinted in the establishment French paper Le Monde, many of them out of context, which made things even worse.

Reacting to the hatred for their adopted country emanating from France’s Muslim and African minorities, Finkielkraut stated that “The lofty idea of ‘the war on racism’ is gradually turning into a hideously false ideology. And this anti-racism will be for the 21st century what communism was for the 20th century. A source of violence.”

Now that sounded like a new idea in the old Emersonian sense of “neglected thoughts” coming back to us “with a certain alienated majesty.” But Finkielkraut, who once wrote that “Barbarism is not the prehistory of humanity but the faithful shadow that accompanies its every step,” was pilloried and humiliated in the French press for having spoken his mind, his name blackened overnight. There was even talk of putting him on trial for violating one of the EU’s sinister new “hate crime” laws. I look for signs that Lévy will defend him. “He’s your friend, right?” I ask. Lévy responds with an ambiguous hand movement. “We know each other,” he says, “but we disagree on many points.” Much more than that he will not say. He will pronounce on the Finkielkraut affair, he tells me, when he returns to France.

Of course, he is in a difficult position — a political minefield, in fact. Some, like L.A. Weekly contributor Doug Ireland, see no difference between Lévy and Finkielkraut at all. On his blog, Ireland lumps them together as part of a group of Likudnik French neocons “whose demagogy debases the struggle against genuine anti-Semitism, and plays into the hands of extremist manipulators, fundamentalist Muslims and apologists for terrorism.” Aside from the fact that it’s surely impossible to qualify as a neocon if you opposed the war in Iraq, as Lévy did, that’s quite an accusation, and gives one an idea of the kind of political rhetoric he is up against.

Perhaps, now that he has performed his American survey, Lévy will once more focus his attention on Europe, where the real drama of the 21st century West seems to be taking shape. After all, no filmmaker has been murdered on Sunset Boulevard by an Islamic fundamentalist, as the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was in the streets of Amsterdam. American politicians and political cartoonists have not been forced into hiding, as they have been in Holland and Denmark, because of Islamic death threats. No American writers have been tried for “inciting hatred” against a religion whose more rabid practitioners threaten to wipe them off the face of the Earth, as is the case in France and Italy. And if megachurches fascinate and appall Lévy, then the new mosque currently being proposed for London, which is slated to hold 70,000 people, should certainly capture his attention. And though we too had riots a decade ago, in Los Angeles, they did not spread to every corner of the country as they did in France. Nor did they go on for weeks. It is all this that Finkielkraut and others like him are so worried about. In contrast, Lévy can seem strangely insouciant. Either that, or he is simply being very careful not to overreact, not to fan the flames lapping at Europe’s body politic. In short, he is taking the emollient diplomatic line of his friend de Villepin in contrast to the latter’s ideological opponent, the firebrand Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who declared war on the criminal elements of the French suburbs and got a conflagration as a result.

After a few minutes, we stand up to shake hands as the man from the embassy hovers nearby. “Don’t forget, I’m a writer before everything,” Lévy stated near the start of our interview. But by now, I am no longer sure who exactly I have been speaking with. A writer? A philosopher? A politician? No doubt it’s a mix of all three, bound up in that uniquely fascinating and slippery silk-wrapped package marked with the initials BHL.

Brendan Bernhard’s White Muslim?, a study of converts to Islam in the West, will be published by Melville House on February 15.


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