Crazy Frenchman on the Road: Catching Up With BHL

In my frequently relenting quest to get caught up on the pile of Atlantic magazines  that looms accusingly over my desk, I went back to May 2005 because it began a series by the French writer and philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy. The cover story last May was “In the Footsteps of Tocqueville”, a wonderfully affecting and effective look at America a century and a half after Alexis de Tocqueville, another son of France, wrote the famous Democracy in America. (I wrote about this here.) This, of course, was long before the United States had caught the imagination (and inspired the resentment) of much of the rest of the world.  Well, good news, friends! I’m now up to June 2005, whose cover carries the provocative title “How We Would Fight China” and which includes articles like “Managing China’s Rise” (Holy hubris, Batman!) and “The Next Cold War” (more erudite apocalyptica from the gloom-meister, Robert Kaplan).

But the best and most telling writing in the issue belongs to BHL (Lévy’s superstar nom de célébrité in Europe; it sounds quite zippy when the letters are pronounced as in French) and his “Road Trip, Part II”. His favourite American city? Seattle mon amour. “If I had to choose an American city to live in – if I had to pick a place, and only one, where I had the feeling in America of discovering my lost bearings – it would be here, in Seattle.” The Space Needle, the docks, the Sound, the intellectual ferment – he loves it all.

From Seattle, BHL goes on to the queerly conservative, even geriatric ambience of “Gayland”, the heart of the homosexual district of San Francisco. He also has an unusual and characteristically thoughtful take on “one of the most significant and innovative American political movements in recent times”, (If this is unfamiliar to you, think Clinton, Lewinsky, and the hungry Republican effort to impeach the Prez.) While in California, of course, Lévy is obligated to meditate (in the spirit of Tocqueville’s investigation of American prisons) on the myth and the meaning of Alcatraz, the long-closed island penitentiary from which none, famously, could escape. His conclusion on the latter obsession: maybe America’s prisons aren’t even really about the usual debate between “rehabilitation or rectification” but more about banishment, exclusion from the “sacred circle” of power. In California, he also ponders the “anti-city” of Los Angeles and the “bombastic kitsch” of San Simeon, the Hearst mansion that inspired Orson Welles’s depiction of “Xanadu” in the immortal film Citizen Kane. It also inspired in BHL the “irrepressible and contradictory wishes to laugh, to vomit, and yet at times to applaud”. (This last may be a microcosm of Lévy’s response to his entire American odyssey, but it’s too soon to say.) He investigates America’s suddenly legendary obesity, and draws some interesting and contrary conclusions regarding Europe’s exaggeration of it but also of its necessity. He wanders along the California/Mexico border, tries to explain the uneasy paradox between the States’ desire to exclude migrants and the undoubted economic need for them, and concludes that “I don’t like any of these explanations….[But] in America, newcomers take nothing for granted. For them, America is a place that must be earned.”

What I offer here, as you can probably tell, are the tiniest snippets from an involved, digressive but coherent 11-page article, pages of text with only tiny flourishes of illustration. (Don’t mean to discourage anyone, but the Atlantic is a magazine for people who read, which is not as redundant a statement as I wish it was.) One of these days, Bernard-Henri Lévy’s series will become a book, and you’ll no doubt thank me for this prescient and forward-looking advance review, even as you now snicker at how far behind I am in my reading.