American Vertigo, by Bernhard-Henri Lévy
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
I have just finished reading American Vertigo by Bernhard-Henri Lévy, the philosopher and writer whom I heard speak in Paris earlier this month. It made an interesting contrast with the similar (and yet very different) collection of reportage by Ryszard Kapuscinski I read immediately before it.
Levy is famous for rejecting Marxism, but is of the broad anti-capitalist left. Like me, he was a Maoist in his youth (to both our shames). However, he lacks leftist prejudices. In consequence, even when he infuriates me, he does it in a way which makes me reconsider the ossified thinking of my middle age and fret for my youthful (post-Maoist) flexibility of thought. He seems, like many in Europe, to be clambering over the rubble of Socialism to find an ideological position which will give the same mother’s-milk comfort as Marx’s discredited doctrine; the same “one size fits all” answer for which fools have craved and which knaves have peddled since humanity first formed a thought.
He is too intelligent simply to adopt another idol, now that the old one has been proved a fake to all but the most simple-minded. Not for him (at least not yet) the cretinous simplicities of Green thought as a new justification for total state power. Yet, for example when writing of Hurricane Katrina, (which happened on his American journey) he has an instinctive preference for centralisation; observing that the levées maintained or certified by the Federal Government were the ones that held the longest (as if that spoke for superiority of all central power, rather than for the rottenness of a particular local government).
His original idea was to write a book which would be a modern version of de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Toward the end, he confesses that, growing up in a France where “...the last word in fashionable thought was Mao Tse-tung,” he had considered de Tocqueville second-rate.
Time of course, would change. With the collapse of grand political theories, the decline of the materialist visions of the world and their rigid, simple mechanisms, the need, above all, to reflect on the failure of socialism, on the desirability of the idea of revolution itself, and on the possibilities of democratic renewal, French intellectual attitudes would change and grow closer to a form of thinking that was to break our sterile deadlock with the inheritors of the ideas of Auguste Comte and Karl Marx
He carried de Tocqueville’s book on the journey and believes he saw confirmed, in modern American reality, many of the “extraordinarily far-sighted” insights of his precursor.
The triumph - which in his time hadn’t fully played out - of equality over liberty. The tyranny of the majority, which he [de Tocqueville] was the first to point out and which isn’t any less fierce than other forms of dictatorship
Perhaps the passage that resonated most with me, however, was one which caused me to doubt my dream for a freer life there, in retirement, than I can hope for in my almost-lost England. Levy believes he saw, in “malls, mega-churches and leagues of virtue” the social tendency which his precursor observed;
...risks turning into a dictatorship whose immense, protective power, as ‘absolute’ as it is ‘meticulous,’ as ‘ordered’ as it is ‘provident and kindly disposed,’ ‘seeks only to keep them in perpetual childhood’ and eventually removes from them even ‘the bother of thinking’ and ‘the troubles of life’
Perhaps Levy worries too much. Those of us who have seen modern states and churches in action in a number of countries can only smile at the idea of their being “meticulous” or “provident.”
At the end of the book, Levy compares himself to Kerouac (whose On the Road is one of my favourite books). In doing so he, again, displays characteristics which differentiate him from his most comfortable ideological companions. As one who loves the motor car above all other creations of Man (even, pace DK and Mr Jobs, the Macintosh) I smiled broadly to read the following passage;
While flying in an airplane abolishes time and distance, while it puts you in immediate touch with a point of arrival that is never really foreshadowed, while the train itself is, in Proust’s words, a ‘magical’ vehicle that transports you as though by enchantment, with almost no effort or gradation, from Paris to Florence and elsewhere, this journey, this long enduring journey by car, this ground-level journey that spares you nothing of the tectonics of space and hence of time, allows the traveller to experience a mode of the finite that alone can allow him to come to terms with the finitude of landscapes and faces ... Finally by playing remorselessly on this yearning for freedom that, in most modern modes of travel, lingers only as an improbable memory, this kind of journey has the additional merit of offering a reminiscence, a kind of condensation, of the great founding myths of the American nation; land promised and refused, lines of escape, shimmering horizons, the wall of the Pacific, the American dream - the last chance in this world to have even a whiff of the rite-of-passage experience that for centuries was the discovery, by each individual, of America.
Cars are liberty on wheels and one should never trust a man who doesn’t love them. Levy may have made me doubt that I can find my freedom in modern America, but that passage reinforced my dream of spending my retirement exploring its vastness in a delightful little coupé or convertible, with a camera and a MacBook on the back seat to record (and probably blog) my adventures.
I came to love France (rather than just her comestibles, which I cannot remember not loving) by my annual holiday drive to the Cote d’Azur. No-one ever learned to love a country by flying over it or riding its public transport. Levy, for all his criticisms, clearly loves the America he came to know by riding what Kerouac called “the white line in the holy road”. His criticisms should be listened to all the more respectfully for coming from a loving heart that laughs at those people, so well-represented in the blogosphere, namely;
...the monomaniacs who, when war is ravaging Darfur, when hundreds of thousands of men, women and children are dying of hunger in Sri Lanka or Niger, when the neo-Talibans are humiliating the women of their Afghan villages, when the Pakistani Islamic fundamentalists prefer to burn women alive and call it a crime of honour, when the incompetent and corrupt leaders of the poorest countries bleed their own people dry and sacrifice them for their mediocre interests - when confronted with all this, can do nothing but repeat, like mindless machines: ‘blame the United States!’
This is a great book. BHL is no de Tocqueville, but I commend it to you. For a less friendly review, you might like to read this one, by Garrison Keillor, who - missing the point as comprehensively as I miss the point of his humour - concludes petulantly;
Thanks for coming. Don't let the door hit you on the way out. For your next book, tell us about those riots in France, the cars burning in the suburbs of Paris. What was that all about? Were fat people involved?
That may be the first time Keillor has made me laugh.
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