Mediocracy in America

Last April, when everyone else was sick of post-election punditry, it seemed to the New York Times like "a stroke of genius" for the Atlantic Monthly to hire "distinguished French philosopher, journalist and gadfly" Bernard-Henri Lévy to follow Tocqueville's journey through America, writing a reflective essay in each issue of the magazine "for several months."

Lévy Runs Dry

  • American Vertigo. Bernard Henri-Lévy. Random House, 2006.

Last April, when everyone else was sick of post-election punditry, it seemed to the New York Times like “a stroke of genius” for the Atlantic Monthly to hire “distinguished French philosopher, journalist and gadfly” Bernard-Henri Lévy to follow Tocqueville’s journey through America, writing a reflective essay in each issue of the magazine “for several months.” Saner critics might have seen it as a kamikaze mission. To repeat—or, to use a forboding movie word, to remake—is not very often to renew; imitation may sometimes be flattery, but it is more often desecration. A French philosopher? In an American magazine? Remaking Democracy in America?

For “several” months? Even after the third and fourth installments, the magazine called each new entry “part x of several.” In a medium where words are counted by the dollar, this carefree allotment seemed to gesture toward eternity: BHL could go on searching our vast desert for years, it seemed to say, un juif errant, a witness to our ignorance of history…

Looking back in 1850 at the collapse of the ancien régime, the Constitutional Monarchy, the Republic, Napoleon, the Bourbon Restoration, the July Monarchy, and the revolutions of 1848, Tocqueville remembered how, after each pause, it seemed that the French Revolution was finally over. “Mentally I reviewed the history of our last sixty years and smiled bitterly to myself as I thought of the illusions cherished at the end of each phase of this long revolution; the theories feeding these illusions; our historians’ learned daydreams, and all the ingenious false systems by which men sought to explain a present still unclearly seen and to foresee the unseen future.” Revolution had broken out just before his birthday in July 1830, and he began to plan his trip to America “under the impulse of a religious dread,” as he famously put it in the introduction, “inspired by contemplation of this irresistible revolution going forward amid the ruins it has itself created.” He was not interested in America as such—”America was only my framework,” he wrote to Mill—he came here looking for the future of Europe. He was turning twenty-five.

At roughly the same tender age, Bernard-Henri Lévy was inspired by the “dismal ruins of the aftermath of May ’68” to write his own, slimmer book, Barbarism with a Human Face. If Tocqueville, the son of a count, was an orphan of the ancien régime—”the aristocracy was already dead when I began to live,” he wrote—Lévy, the son of a timber baron, saw himself as “the bastard child of an unholy union between fascism and Stalinism.” Whereas Tocqueville died still trying to discover the original causes of revolution, Lévy was restless with history’s predictable repetition and inevitable corruption: “Revolution in the true sense,” he wrote, “is an impossibility.” He put to bed each of the leftists of his generation—including Althusser, Deleuze and Guattari, Derrida, Foucault, and Lacan—in a sentence or a paragraph. The book was both contrarian and paradoxical, bombastic and subtle, nostalgic and merciless, pessimistic but not ironic. Against an epigone Marxism at best bankrupt and at worst murderous, Lévy stood firm on a shaky, post-humanist brand of ethical humanism. “I don’t believe in man,” he wrote in his epilogue, “but I simply believe that without a certain idea of man the State soon surrenders to the whirlpool of fascism.”

Barbarism with a Human Face was a bestseller in America, which seems surprising at first, given the prominence inside of so many big names, almost unheard of here then, and so many little names too—Alain and Artaud, Bachelard and Bataille, Bakunin and Bukharin, Pericles and Pinochet, Sade and Saussure, Carl Schmitt, Joseph Schumpeter, Sir Walter Scott, and the justly neglected nineteenth-century egoist Max Stirner, who is listed in the index as “Steiner.” It would be one thing to find a crew like this on a sophomore’s bookshelf—but on the cover of Time magazine? At first it seems inconceivable. On reflection it seems just about right. Like Allan Bloom’s more grown-up and less benign Closing of the American Mind, which it preceded by a decade, Barbarism suited perfectly the jittery mood of the late Cold War—that untimely and schizophrenic idealism that could make former Troskyites support a dreamy B-movie actor for president.

The French Left, who pounced on the bloody red-bait like a cartoon coyote, called what Lévy did mediocratie, meaning first that it was middling, and second that he was only a media construct. As one of his many vicious critics noted, Lévy “has not invented a single concept. He has not formulated any theory. He is not a man who has made any intellectual discovery.” It was true, but it is beside the point now. Theory is dead, and Lévy lives, still reveling in being a pariah, making senseless allusions to Bohumil Hrabil in a bar in Montana, or to J.G. Fichte in an obesity clinic. Once Lévy could be read as anti-intellectual; now he almost seems like an homage to old days when public intellectuals read the same books as real intellectuals, when they worried with the same seriousness about the human condition—days when Americans bought books like Being and Nothingness by the cartful, in pocket-paperback format.

Lévy is a great admirer of Sartre. But the respect was not reciprocal; an aged JPS thought BHL was CIA. Lévy’s bio notes that his career began as a writer for Combat, “the legendary newspaper founded by Albert Camus during the Nazi occupation of France”—but Camus was already dead, and there were precious few Nazis left, when Lévy began his own one-man resistance movement in the mid-seventies. A better comparison was made years ago in the New York Review of Books. Like the newscaster in Network who says he’s mad as hell and isn’t going to take it anymore, Lévy is the media-savvy sixties conscience reduced to a lingering trace, a tic. Deep down, he seems to know it—his pathos and nostalgia come out especially in interviews—but knowing it is not enough to carry prose so often void of insight, style, and conviction.

Near the beginning of their trip, Tocqueville’s travel mate Beaumont wrote home that the French “have no word to render the idea that the English express by the word wilderness.” The best he could do was sauvagerie. As if by centripetal force, the two friends were drawn to this fast-receding place. Working by process of elimination, pretending to want to buy land and noting carefully where there was still none for sale, Beaumont and Tocqueville found their way from “a small town of two or three thousand souls, which was founded in the middle of the woods by the Jesuits”—a young Detroit—up through the virgin forests of Michigan, toward Saginaw Bay on Lake Huron. It was on this two-week hike that Tocqueville found a place beyond sauvagerie that he called le désert.

The little story Tocqueville wrote about this part of his trip, “Quinze Jour Au Désert,” with its echoes of Exodus or something more pagan, a visit to the underworld, is at root not about nature but about destruction, progress, and democracy. A word often found near désert in Tocqueville is débris; in le désert, Tocqueville is stunned by the lack of foraging peasants. Emblematic of America are these places where no one picks through the trash. “With us there is no region so little peopled … that the trees, after having calmly lived out their life, finally fall of decrepitude.” The woods symbolized for him the palpable anarchy of America, the weird big void that ruled outside the townships and joined them in lieu of a king. As he put it even after having split a bottle of Madeira with President Jackson: “The authority exists, but one does not know where to find its representative.”

This absence of authority—political, religious, or literary—lay at the source of Tocqueville’s American vertigo. There were no “great parties” in America; our thinking had gone from corrupt to safe. “Public opinion is broken up ad infinitum about questions of detail,” so that “to a foreigner almost all the Americans’ domestic quarrels seem at the first glance either incomprehensible or puerile.” Comparing our intellectual scene, an amalgam of ranting and advertisement, to that of France, Tocqueville concluded that the more newspapers there were, the more inane and politically harmless the news would become. Europe’s revolutionary partisanship tended to make systematic hypocrites, not principled thinkers. Our mediocrity was part of the secret of our success.

But le désert was something else. This vast untended mortuary provided Tocqueville with a counterpoint to the cumulative ruin of European history, but it was hardly a comforting one. “In whatever direction one looks, one sees only a field of violence and destruction…. Everything proclaims that the elements here make perpetual war, but the struggle is suspended, the movement is suddenly arrested.” When the sun starts to set—it happens early in the woods—and their Indian scout signals to them that it is time to camp, the Frenchmen refuse. They are scared to stop moving.

“One saw about one only confused piled-up masses, without order or symmetry, forms bizarre and disproportioned, incoherent scenes, fantastic images which seemed borrowed from the sick imagination of a man in fever. The gigantic and the ridiculous were as close together there as in the literature of our age …” Tocqueville’s language, usually butcherly precise, becomes flamboyant and vague. The unexpected reference to modern literature suggests that America has become for him only some torrid climax from a Gothic novel. In a writer of Tocqueville’s calibre, this recourse to cliché suggests not sudden dullness but trauma.

Later, at the edge of the woods, at a hot plain guarded by “a hawk which, motionless on one leg and calmly sleeping in the sun’s rays, seemed sculptured in the very wood he had made his perch,” Tocqueville seems almost delirious. “It was in the midst of this profound solitude that we suddenly thought of the revolution of 1830, whose first anniversary (29 July 1831) we had just reached … The cries and smoke of combat, the sound of cannon, the rolling of musketry, the still more horrible tolling of tocsin, this entire day with its enflamed atmosphere seemed suddenly to rise out of the past and place itself a living tableau before me. This was only a sudden illumination… But never had the silence of the forest seemed colder, its shades more deep, or its solitude so complete.”

For a moment, the farthest extremes of civilization, the beginning and the end, seem to touch; in le désert, Tocqueville sees the ruins to which, should the experiment of democracy go awry, civilization is threatening to return.

Seventeen years later, in February 1848, not long after seeing Parliament invaded by workers with bayonets, Tocqueville retired to his family estate and found that the wilderness of Detroit had followed him back to the ancient château in Normandy. The grounds still had reminders of the first Revolution, when the local peasants had broken into the pigeon house and strangled all the birds because keeping them was an aristocratic privilege. “Poor, dear Tocqueville,” Tocqueville thought when he arrived; no one seemed to have kept up the property while he was gone. “The empty rooms with no one but my old dog to welcome me, the uncurtained windows, the piles of dusty furniture, fires gone out, clocks run down, the mournful look of the place, the damp walls—all these things seemed witnesses of neglect and prophets of doom. This little isolated corner of the world among the fields and hedges and woods of our Norman landscape, which had often been the most delightful retreat for me, now seemed a deserted wilderness … Believe me, it was then and there that I most fully understood the utter bitterness of revolutions.”

“What I call the literary spirit in politics consists in … judging by impressions rather than reasons. I need not say that this peculiarity is not confined to Academicians. To tell the truth, the whole nation shares it a little, and the French public as a whole often takes a literary man’s view of politics.”

That’s Tocqueville, of course, describing Lévy’s problem to a tee. If there is genius in hiring BHL to repeat Democracy in America, it is an evil genius: he is Tocqueville’s nemesis, the passive consumer of political spectacle, too stimulated by what he sees to try to figure it out.

Lévy catches, in American Vertigo, a few details that deserve landmark status: the picture of Rimbaud [sic!] on Richard Perle’s wall, connoting the mute angst of American policy; the score of “Für Elise” open on the piano at MoveOn headquarters, waiting for some dogged amateur to practice again that grating theme. One of the finest scenes in the book, a scene that has haunted me since I read it, is set at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, where BHL comes face-to-face with Barack Obama, who has just given the speech that made his a household name:

“Bernard-Henri Lévy,” he repeats, mocking me a little…”With a name like that, you would have been a big hit at the convention.”… I ask, “And what about ‘Barack Obama’? With a name like that, and with the success you had last night, you should be able to become president of the United States in five minutes.” He laughs. Thumps me on the chest, pulls away a little as if to gather momentum to land a better punch, gives me a hug, laughs again, and repeats, like a nursery rhyme, “Barack Obama, Bernard-Henri Lévy …”

The embrace is paranoid, the familiarity grotesque. The two unheimlich homeboys, two mere names hugging like boldface refugees from Page Six, seem captured for a moment in a celebrity feedback loop. It portrays vividly the eerie absence in American public life that for Tocqueville was our specialty, the lack at the heart or the head that makes us so carefree yet so potentially scary.

BHL is at his best at moments like this, when he clings to the surface and is accidentally caught in a reflection; he is insufferable when he tries to rake muck. He poses absurd moral dilemmas such as (seriously) whether or not schizophrenic Native Americans can be anti-Semites, or whether Amish people should use battery-operated calculators. He visits malls and megachurches and historical simulacra and decries their fakeness, like some renegade Barthes without a gay man’s sense of kitsch. Reminding us that the official reason for Tocqueville’s trip was to research American penal reform, he visits prisons, and discovers that they are very bad indeed: “These wild-animal looks…The shouts, the fuck yous, the enraged banging on the metal doors…” As they say in eighteenth-century France, si le roi le savait! If only the king knew!

In Detroit, where Tocqueville saw an apparition of the future of the West, Lévy just sees a ghetto: “an immense, deserted Babylon, a futuristic city whose inhabitants have fled: more burned or razed houses; collapsed facades and roofs that the next big rain will carry away; trash heaps in former gardens; prowlers; dumpster divers; nature reasserting rights; foxes, some nights… At times you’d think it was a plague, at other times Dresden or Sarajevo… But no, it’s just Detroit. It’s just an American city whose inhabitants have left…” Never mind that there are still people in Detroit, more than in any French city besides Paris. Where Tocqueville saw more than America, Lévy invariably sees less: mere absence here of Europeanism. Americans just never had that “certain sentiment (essential to Europe’s civility, consubstantial with Europe’s urbanity)”, the “love of cities.” One might well wonder, particularly after last year’s riots, whether the right word for that certain sentiment is “nostalgia.”

After Detroit, Tocqueville and Lévy never meet up again. Lévy takes Route 94 to Chicago, then follows the campaign trail to Boston; Tocqueville, who saw the campaign season as a senseless fever of propaganda that had little to do with politics as such, made his next stop Quebec. Tocqueville heads down the Mississippi; Lévy is off to San Francisco, L.A., San Diego, and Seattle. He really, really, likes Seattle—a city literally built on top of the ruins of history. He likes the Space Needle, which reminds him of—a skyscraper. He likes Microsoft, where the engineers radiate “imagination, youth, chic and atypical bohemianism, irreverence, cosmopolitanism, civilization, intelligence …” When he gets to Savannah, where the sitting-on-a-bench scenes of Forrest Gump were filmed, he likes that too: “the feeling you have of drifting in a greenhouse, almost a bubble, a minuscule and fragile island protected from barbarian invasions …”

“Repetition,” writes Kierkegaard, “has not the disquietude of hope, the anxious adventuresomeness of discoverers, nor the sadness of recollection; it has the blessed certainty of the instant.” Tocqueville was a disquiet hoper, an anxious adventurer, a sad recollector—what is Bernard-Henri Lévy? God only knows. Tocqueville would have had ready some brilliant epigram, but BHL is more furtive and less self-aware. There are lots of questions in American Vertigo—I counted forty in the first twenty pages—but only sentence fragments for answers. If I had met BHL near the start of his trip, I would have asked him a few unanswerable questions of my own. Why aren’t you our Tocqueville? Could you ever have been? Could anyone write Democracy in America today? If not, why not? If so, who? And where? America or France? Nigeria? Iran? What would a closer follower of Tocqueville’s footsteps call our past sixty years of revolutions? And where would he or she go to look for our future?

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