BHL III: The American Odyssey Continued

Yes, continued, as did (and does) my asynchronous meandering through stale-dated magazines. I’m an Atlantic subscriber, and I can’t keep up. Well, I don’t, at any rate. But I have completed the July/August issue (from 2005), which I went back to because it contained the third instalment of the French writer Bernard-Henri Lévy’s study tour of the United States, “In the Footsteps of Toqueville”. Great stuff, and of a nearly timeless quality that makes it more interesting and more useful than any number of contemporary news bites. (I wrote about the first two instalments here and here.)

I’ll try not to go on and on, but I probably will. BHL’s observations are quirky and smart and engagingly written. He’s good. He returns, as his 19th-century countryman repeatedly did, to American prisons. He muses on questions like public versus for-profit incarceration of criminals and the death penalty. Consider this image from his visit with the only woman on death row, having passed by her “’girlfriends’…the hundred or so women, almost all of them black, in the ‘segregation’ section you need to go through to get to her cell – genuine raging beasts, all dressed in the same brightly coloured jumpers, and shouting behind their bars that they haven’t done anything, that they can’t bear it anymore, that they want to be allowed to exercise, that they screw visitors, that I should go to hell.” The travelogue resumes.

He tours the “obscene nether side” of American puritanism at the Chicken Ranch, a legal Nevada brothel in the boondocks that services Las Vegas customers. A flight over the Grand Canyon yields the “two theories” of its creation, and gives the bemused Parisian a close-up view of modern creationism and “intelligent design”. (He finds it alarming, the “most cunning and at bottom most dangerous ideological maneuver [sic, American spelling] of the American right in years…” Lévy is not generally so dogmatic in his views, and for the most part is quite refreshingly non-partisan. For example, when he goes to Salt Lake City, he is fascinated by the Latter-Day Saints’ spectacular obsession with genealogy, based on their belief in retroactive baptism of the dead. “I hesitate between two sentiments. One is a certain respect owed to this relentless interest in one’s ancestors, this homage made to the dead….But then there’s also the idea that these Mormons…have found the absolute weapon. How can you possibly fight a church that reigns not just over the living but also over the dead?”

Midwestern miners and social security; U.S. Air Force cadets (motto: Integrity first, service before self, excellence in all we do), conversations with whom impel BHL to vow that he will “think twice before allowing myself to talk glibly, like too many of my fellow citizens, about the imperial American military…[or] the imperial calling of the country itself”; the wealthy, white, Arizona “city of the old” that puts him in mind of “casinos, military installations, and internment camps for the Japanese”; his frustrated efforts to interview the campaigning John Kerry, and his impressions once he finally does (“a European at heart”); liberal-minded college students in the heart of Texas (he was surprised); the bizarre carnival of the Great Western Gun Show and its “morbid flirtation with horror”; the Kennedy mystique in Dallas (“What kind of cliché makes you cry? What is a myth you no longer believe in but that still functions?”); the Memphis national convention of the Church of God in Christ, a Pentecostal movement that forces him to weigh the “ostentatious display and calculating stagecraft” against “this joy, this fervor, this spirit of communion which I haven’t yet seen in any white church”: these are the people and things he has seen through those public intellectual eyes.

Lévy concludes with a mournful description of the storm-drenched opening of the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock. Clinton himself is a bit frail after his surgery, and the Democrats after the Kerry defeat. It rains and rains. “It’s not an apotheosis; it’s a debacle…[a] lugubrious ballet…His famous legacy suddenly seems altered by the reflected light of this gloomy, twilit, graceless day…this eclipse…this disaster.” This entry has no proper ending, and neither does the article. Sometime this summer, I’ll get to Part IV. This is me walking along with some good and intriguing writing (don’t you think?).

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