April 09, 2006

American Vertigo

DNA carries my review of Bernard-Henri Levy's new book, American Vertigo, today. Can't locate it on the Web, though no doubt it is there, so here's the review, pasted below. It appeared under the title Two steps behind.


You're asked to "follow in the footsteps" of a legend. It's a great honour, sure, and that can energize you. But there's also the constant fear of whether, and how, you'll fill those footsteps.

I've read and admired Bernard-Henri Levy's writing, but this book leaves me wondering if he felt that fear.

Though it's understandable. Alexis de Tocqueville's classic "Democracy in America" is as much a part of Americana as McDonald's, or college basketball, or the strange way they elect their President. Two centuries later, Tocqueville's French-eye view of the States is still studied and discussed, his opinions still the window into the American psyche they were then. So when that excellent Boston magazine, The Atlantic, invited a modern Tocqueville -- Levy -- to do a modern Tocqueville -- travel the country and report his impressions -- it was a remarkable opportunity.

Yet in trying to do a Tocqueville, in trying to read America through every experience, I think Levy overlooks the value of the banal, the mundane; of what they say without needing to be mined for meaning.

Still, Levy is an open-minded and observant traveller. He has some provocative insights into 21st Century America, valuable because of his willingness to let his experiences raise questions about his own beliefs. The America he finds is a country of confidence tinged with post-9/11 self-doubt. More than that: free of the baggage of the Cold War, it has its occasional "imperialist temptations", it shows signs of being dominated by those infamous "neocons", it is accused of "decline" -- all that, sure. But as always, those form only part of the picture. It says something about Levy that he challenges his own assumptions on these lines, even crediting the very Americans he has criticised before -- notably, for the Iraq war -- for some of their ideas and direction, for their steadfastness.

America, he writes, "is neither Rome at its height nor the conquered Rome of the last days."

So this is a wide-ranging and eclectic look at a country that deserves no less. Levy spends time with politicians, at car races, at strip bars, in prisons (famously, the purpose of Tocqueville's journey), with writers and activists, and also simply driving about.

Just a couple of examples of his insight. On the Mexican border south of San Diego, Levy learns about the constant battle against illegal immigrants from that country. But he also finds a certain half-heartedness -- if that's the word -- in this battle: why is the border not sealed completely, for example with a wall? Could it be because of
    ... an unconscious perversity in the current arrangement ... an implicit, and cynical, way of saying to the Mexican prey 'Go on, give it a try.' ... [Or perhaps] the hypocrisy of a system that, as everyone knows, needs these illegal immigrants and uses them as fuel for its economy.
Brings to mind the way Bombay civic authorities crack down on hawkers from time to time. Never quite severely enough, though, to keep them off the streets. So they return, and are there to be harassed some more.

And this, as he reflects on his wanderings; America, observes Levy,
    is nothing else, when all is said and done, but a prodigious yet mundane machine whose purpose is to produce more Americans.
Leave aside the attempts so many of us make to define nationhood in profundity -- here it is, in a nutshell remarkable for its very ordinariness. And yet ... you think about it, it grows on you.

But speaking of the mundane ... early in his journey, Levy watches a car race in Knoxville, Tennessee.
    Theater of cruelty. Waiting, as in duels or at public executions, for the moment of first blood. This ferocity ... had been commonplace in American society but [has been] eliminated ... and [is now seen] only through marginal ceremonies like this one. Knoxville, or the memory of the accursed share of the American past.
"The accursed share"? "Theater of cruelty"? Come on, Bernard, it's just cars running around a track, with excited hordes cheering them on! Enjoy the spectacle, or sneer at it if you like -- but then move on, won't you?

This is the kind of thing that makes me wonder about the Tocqueville monkey that Levy carried on his back: the felt need to extract significance from everything, and I mean everything. What must it be to "follow in the footsteps" of a man who told an entire country about itself, who held up that kind of mirror? What must it be to feel the pressure to produce a mirror for the 21st Century that's as clear, as potentially influential?

And that's where I think this book stumbles -- under the weight of that monkey, the search for import as lasting as Tocqueville.

Much to chew on in this book. But by the end, you wish Levy had also given you the occasional stick of chewing gum: to chew on, spit out and forget.

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