American Vertigo

By Bernard-Henri Lévy

American Vertigo began as a series of articles appearing in The Atlantic, dispatches from Bernard-Henri Lévy’s rambles about America, ostensibly “in the footsteps” of Alexis de Tocqueville, the great chronicler of nineteenth-century America. These travel notes make up the first part of the book (“Le Voyage en Amérique”), which is then followed by a series of philosophical “Reflections” where some attempt is made to tie things together. It is in these reflections that we find Lévy’s diagnosis of “vertigo”: “a certain disorder; a disease; a wavering of points of reference and certainties.”

Yes, it is a little vague, and we can blame it all on the writing. Lévy’s prose is an irritating mix of fashionable French academic writing (the piles of parallel constructions owe something to Foucault, who is as large a presence in the book as Tocqueville), celebrity profiling, obnoxious American punditry (the hysterical, insulting voice of pseudo-intellectual loudmouths like Christopher Hitchens – who actually makes an appearance here, predictably yelling names at people), rhetorical posturing (at one point even managing 11 rhetorical questions in a row), name dropping, and political philosophy for dummies.

What a mess.

This gimmicky, faux-intellectual voice is only an attempt to conceal the desperation of a writer who has nothing particularly new to say. Clichés are habitually dressed up in borrowed clothes to give them extra weight. Do a bunch of crumbling buildings look like they’re “just waiting to be torn down”? This generic bit of description is attributed to something “Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote.” Huh? And then there are the “fish-out-of-water” moments like Lévy’s thinking that “Rushmore” (as in Mount Rushmore) “was some sort of traditional Indian name . . . because the sound of it was unfamiliar to my French ear.” This is incredible, especially coming from someone who is conversant in English. (The book, by the way, is a translation from the French, though no mention is made of that fact anywhere.)

That the political theory remains abstract, even after all of Lévy’s travels, is disappointing but not a surprise. Once you unwrap Lévy’s style all you really have is a collection of platitudes. His reflections upon America as a “Kantian nation” (a nation “without substance . . . without essence or fixed being,” corresponding to Kant’s Idea as “the enlarged concept . . . the projection into the Absolute and Unconditional, to which, however, no object or intuition corresponds”), or as embodying “the entire paradox of Hegelianism” in its resurrection of historical process after the End of History, surely didn’t require so many air miles.

But, of course, if he hadn’t gone on the road he wouldn’t have got to meet so many celebrities.

Lévy’s travels show no sign of being directed by a spirit of scientific or sociological inquiry, at least beyond the handful of prisons he briefly visits (a tip of the hat to both Tocqueville and Foucault). Instead, he goes to see people and places that he finds interesting. The kinds of places he perhaps suspects magazine readers will also find interesting. Unfortunately, this has the effect of making his dispatches superficial and clichéd. The book is filled with generalizations, many of them stupid, about “people in the United States,” but the American people he talks to – aside from local-colour providers like the lap dancer in Las Vegas – are mostly media figures (Bill Kristol, Charlie Rose), movie stars (Sharon Stone, Warren Beatty), public intellectuals (Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington), or politicians (Barak Obama, John Kerry).

In other words, he’s a celebrity hound.

And so he is also the perfect stereotype of a media snob. The cities he falls in love with, for example, are Seattle and Savannah, both affluent and cultured places. The places he sees as Hell on Earth – Buffalo, Detroit, Cleveland – are poor and falling apart. Well, of course. The mayor of Chicago has him pegged right away. “You aren’t going to write us up, like all the visitors who are in a hurry and greedy for the sensational, as just the homeland of Chicago gangs, are you?” As a matter of fact . . . yes. That is exactly what he’s going to do, and what he does. Because he is in a hurry (he burns through most of the stops on his itinerary in a couple of pages), and because he’s looking for a good story.

American Vertigo styles itself a book of political observation, an attempt to interpret the American political scene to the rest of the world. Even here, however, it only raises more questions than it answers. President Bush is a “little man,” a “child,” but Levy can’t explain, or for that matter even speculate or imagine, how such a “loser” ever came to be president. Was he really born again? “Who knows?” Not our French philosopher.

Lévy’s own attitudes and opinions, which don’t seem to be change as a result of anything he sees or anyone he talks to, are usually left-wing. Mainly this is because of his opposition to America’s moral Puritanism, especially with regard to sexual matters (no stereotyping there!). In terms of the larger political picture he is not pro- or anti-American as much as he is anti-anti-American. Anti-Americans, a category deliberately left vague, are repeatedly derided as small people with knee-jerk political views who “rant,” “drivel,” and “scream” a lot.

Lévy is no anti-American. But while not agreeing with a lot of American foreign policy, he sees it as at least being motivated by good intentions. This seems more than a little naive, and forces him into a lot of special pleading. One way he counters the argument that America is an imperial power, for example, is by pointing out that Americans “in the course of their history, have been infinitely [a typically vacuous adverb here] less colonialist” than most European Great Powers were in the course of theirs. He doesn’t mention the obvious point that they have had a lot less history to be colonialist in, or how the nature of imperialism has changed since Europe’s colonial period. In short, his point is simply irrelevant.

The dustjacket of American Vertigo has blurbs referring to Lévy as a “fearless intellectual” and “an intellectual adventurer.” In fact he is the worst sort of intellectual stereotype: the intellectual as snob, player, dilettante, and verbal contortionist. Given the poverty of his observations, his journey was, and is, unnecessary.

Review first published February 25, 2006.


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