BOOKS & THE CULTURE Levy Does America BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville By Bernard-Henri Levy Random House 310 pages, $24.95 Alexis de Tocqueville was not the first French writer to tour the United States and then commit his impressions to print. His illus trious uncle Rene de Chateaubriand preceded him by forty years. Michel Butor, Jean Baudrillard, and JeanFrancois Lyotard came later, clogging American highways with European strangers bearing passports and publishing contracts. But Democracy in America, whose two volumes were published in 1835 and 1840, respectively, is the classic of the genre, canonized in the United States on the syllabi of political science and American history courses. Tocqueville’s own compatriots remain indifferent to him, mirroring the process by which Jerry Lewis is disregarded here but venerated in Paris. However, more than the plays of Jean Racine or the poems of Stephane MaHarm& Tocqueville’s prescient survey is the one work of French literature that American college students are likely to encounter. At least it is more nourishing than freedom fries. Bernard-Henri Levy comes late to the enterprise of retracing Tocqueville’s journey. Among others, Eugene McCarthy, in 1978, and Richard Reeves, in 1982, already revisited the French aristocrat’s famous visit. But what makes Levy’s revision of Democracy in America of particular interest is that he, too, arrives from France; a Jew born in Algeria, he is the most prominent and prolific public intellectual in contemporary Paris. In American Vertigo, he offers an uncommonly perceptive outsider’s perspective on the vastness and fastness of Fortress America, that of an anti-anti-American determined to see beyond the negative stereotypes through which fellow European leftists view the United States. Commissioned by the Atlantic Monthly to repeat Tocqueville’s performance 173 years later, Levy begins, as his predecessor did, in Newport, Rhode Island. The United States was still manifesting its continental destiny when Tocqueville, accompanied by Gustave de Beaumont \(who would later publish an account of what he observed 1831. Michigan was his Western limit. But, while skipping Alaska and Hawaii, Levy touches every corner of the lower forty-eightCape Cod, Miami, Seattle, and San Diegoas well as much that lies between. He even takes in Texas including Dealey Plaza, a gun show in Fort Worth, and an honors class at UT Austin, where students surprise him by preferring John Kerry to George W. Bush. In about nine months, the same time Tocqueville took, Levy covers 15,000 miles and 17 states, though instead of horse and boat, his principal mode of transportation is automobile. Because he cannot handle a car himself, the Atlantic provides Levy with a driver. He surveys the California-Mexico border as well as the Grand Canyon from a helicopter. Tocqueville’s ostensible purpose for visiting the United States during the era of its seventh president, Andrew Jackson, was to study prisons in the young democracy. \(At least one important book besides Democracy in America can trace its origins to research of American penal institutions; Alan Paton, the principal of a reformatory in the Transvaal, wrote much of Cry, the Beloved Country during a tour of when more than a million Americans reside behind bars, it is appropriate that Levy, too, puts in time at New York’s Rikers Island, the Southern Nevada Women’s Correctional Center, Louisiana’s Angola, and Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary. He is dismayed by the fact that 38 states still exact the death penalty, and he is appalled by the American practice of privatizing incarceration; “with the very existence of prisons subject only to the logic of money,” he says, “we have taken one more decisive step on the path to civilized barbarism.” Finally and fittingly, Levy spends three days at Guantanamo, the Caribbean detention center that he finds “a miniature, a condensation, of the entire American prison system” and that offends him by its indifference to human rights and the rule of law. But, like Democracy in America, American Vertigo is not exactly a treatise on penology. A self-confessed metrophiliac, the urbane Levy is in love with the culture of cities. He concludes his visit just as Hurricane Katrina strikes, and, though shocked by the brutality of nature in America, he is not especially interested in wilderness and has nothing to say about environmental protection. However, he mourns the loss of New Orleans, and visits to Buffalo, Detroit, and other moribund industrial cities unnerve him. “That a city could die,” Levy observes, “for a European, that is unthinkable.” Europeans might think about Pompeii, Sparta, Nineveh, and Carthage, as well as the grand metropolises of the Inca and Maya. Levy finds Sun City, Arizona “a gilded apartheid for the old” and observes that “Del Webb, the inventor of this frozen miracle, this paradise laden with all the attractions of purgatory, this kindergarten for senior citizens where life seems to have morphed into a pathology, learned his profession by building casinos, military installations, and internment camps for the Japanese.” Levy falls in love with the beauty, vibrancy, and civic pride of Seattle, Chicago, Savannah, and Boston 24 THE TEXAS OBSERVER FEBRUARY 10, 2006
You May Also Like
The documentary in Falfurrias is sinister and spiritual.