Grandes chausseurs, petits pieds

OK, this is a book review. But it contains a reference to the French director Eric Rohmer! I cannot resist sharing my review of American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville, by Bernard-Henri Lévy, owner of the small feet. The big shoes belong to Tocqueville.

ONE THING TO AVOID, if you are not Sharon Stone, Charlie Rose, or Norman Mailer, is having lunch with Bernard-Henri Lévy. By all accounts he merely picks at American vittles: The Wall Street Journal reports him ordering nine raw clams and leaving them on the plate, which would be more impressive if they were oysters--or perhaps not, since this is a man accustomed to living, and lunching, in Paris. What he does devour, though, is American conversation. He gulps it down, can't seem to get enough of it--a consequence also of living in Paris? The trouble is, he sometimes takes home a doggie bag without paying for it ...

This is what he does to Samuel P. Huntington, whom he meets in Boston and then caricatures as nuttily xenophobic: "What startling violence wells up in his blue eyes when he says to me, 'The big problem with Hispanics, is they don't like education!'" The caricature also includes a hand-wringing retraction on the sidewalk outside the restaurant, one of those mini-calumnies that can never be disproved. Then, 20 pages later, Lévy unleashes a tirade against American "minority-rights movements," including Hispanic, on the grounds that they "result in countless demands for unlimited rights, thus gnawing at public law and running the risk of dissolving the social bond."

This exchange reflects Lévy's ambivalence toward America's extreme and (to most Europeans) disquieting ethnic diversity. His starting point, not surprisingly, is the French ideal of foreigners being ennobled and transformed by citizenship in la République. And he is not entirely free of the French prejudice that sees the United States as an agglomeration of undigested lumps that "has never really been a nation-state." Yet Lévy also marvels at the surprisingly strong bonds that hold America together. And while his effort to explain the patriotism of recent immigrants (including Arab Americans in Dearborn, Michigan) and to defend the mysterious alchemy of e pluribus unum may be the intellectual equivalent of a soufflé (a thin batter of ideas puffed up to unnatural size), it tastes pretty good, compared with the anti-American junk food recently topping the French bestseller list.

Granted, it is hard to get too excited about Lévy's grudging admission that, come to think of it, the United States is not really the most evil, grasping, fascist/imperialist colossus ever to bestride the earth. But here, at least, he pays for his doggie bag. He confesses to having studied some (not all) of the American debate about U.S. foreign policy in the post-Cold War era, and while he does not give the dreaded neocons the final word, he makes it quite clear that he respects them, and their fellow conservatives, for actually thinking about problems like terrorism and radical Islamism--as opposed to most liberals and leftists, who seem to him to think only about Democratic party fundraising.

On two contentious questions, then, multiculturalism and foreign policy, Lévy does a good job of cutting through the merde. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of his observations in three other areas: arts and letters; custom and public morality; and (most egregiously) religion.

Regarding the first, Lévy is, at best, a name-dropper. Rather than write perceptively about American music, he drools over Woody Allen playing trad-jazz at the Hotel Carlyle. About classical music, popular music, and that ubiquitous American phenomenon, rap, his silence is curious, given that his wife, the actress Arielle Dombasle, is a pop singer in France. He visits no art museums, or indeed serious museums of any kind, preferring to reduce America's cultural riches to beetle-browed antiquarianism and (echoing Eco) the theme park approach to history. About literature, he manages to be shallow, gossipy, and pretentious all at once. In Asheville, North Carolina, he speculates about how F. Scott Fitzgerald passed his days while his wife Zelda was in the insane asylum there.

Actually, Lévy's account of Fitzgerald moping around Asheville reads like a treatment for one of those arty French films in which handsome people idle their time away instead of engaging in good healthy sex and violence. In this connection it is intriguing to note that Dombasle (who was born in Connecticut and raised in Mexico, where her grandfather was French ambassador) got her first big break from the New Wave director Eric Rohmer. Perhaps this is why Lévy's prose style resembles one of those Rohmer (or Godard or Truffaut) films in which the flow of images and sounds is mercilessly explicated by a hyper-articulate male voiceover: "Aren't road and language, after all, siblings in humanity? Isn't it when both roads and languages are invented that commerce, mediation, civilization, begin?"

Please, couldn't we just look out the window?

About education, especially higher education, Lévy seems clueless. The only campus he visits is the University of Texas, in Austin, where he is astounded to find "here in . . . the capital of Texas, a state that is supposed to be a conservative stronghold," a class on Tocqueville taught by Paul Burka, executive editor of the Texas Monthly, in which a student approves of presidential candidate John Kerry's waffling on abortion, because "to believe one thing but refuse to impose it on other people; to have your convictions but leave other people to act the way they want--isn't that good policy? Isn't that the definition of democracy, in Tocqueville's sense?"

We don't get to hear Burka's response to this inanity, because Lévy goes into transports of delight at this glimmer of enlightenment "on the edge of the South that I'm about to dive into."

After diving, he meets Rod Dreher, a Roman Catholic journalist in Dallas who, Lévy is happy to report, home-schools his children but wants nothing to do with "those absurd fundamentalists." Here, in a nutshell, we have Lévy's tortured perception of American religion. Basically, his stance is that of an old-fashioned anthropologist intent upon sniffing out only the purest and most authentic version of an indigenous culture. He delights in a genuine Amish village in Iowa, a meeting of Orthodox rabbis in Brooklyn, and a convention of black women from the Church of God in Christ in Memphis, whose fancy clothes and gospel singing ("eyes rolling upward") suggest to him "an intensity of piety that has nothing to do with what can be observed in the megachurches of the North."

Lévy bases this pronouncement on a visit to the Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, where he learned from a couple standing in line with him that (in his paraphrase), "We're a living church. Our ministers are of our time, just as Christ was of his time. And we make a point of honor to have a useful religion." This brief exposure to what is known in the pastoral trade as "seeker-sensitive methodology" sets off a violent reaction in our anthropologist. What we have here, he sputters, is "a religion whose secret is, perhaps, to get rid of the distance, the transcendence, and the remoteness of the divine that are at the heart of European theologies."

Perhaps this would be a good time to mention my French Huguenot ancestors, who came to America back in the good old 17th century, when you had to travel coach and the grace of God was not cheap. They did not want to leave France but had to, on account of the unpleasantness on St. Bartholomew's Day. And since then, many others have come to these shores hoping to worship God in their own way, and the good folk of Willow Creek are hardly the first to water down the wine.

Lévy's defense of the Old Time Religion would be more persuasive if it weren't bound up with nastiness toward America's born-again president ("an overgrown daddy's boy") and socially conservative believers ("the harpies of neo-morality"). Plus, it is curious to see Lévy the anthropologist morph into Lévy the missionary when, at Willow Creek, he stops accusing these Christian fellow travelers of over-adapting to the modern world and starts accusing them of under-adapting to it. On the day of his visit, the senior pastor (Bill Hybels, one of many names Lévy fails to catch) is absent, so minister-author Lee Strobel shows up to flog his latest book, God Proven by Science and Scholars, and show a video called In the Heart of DNA. This sends Lévy into a paroxysm of indignation, unmitigated by Strobel's inscribing a copy of his book--"Hi, Bernie!"--and reciting "the atheist's prayer . . . God, if you are there, show yourself!"

Damned if we do, damned if we don't. Our religious wine is either too diluted or not diluted enough. Our war paint and feathers are either too authentic or not authentic enough. American religion is a thorny topic, even for Americans. For modern Europeans, it is "baffling," as Lévy himself admits. But the topic is not made less baffling by distinctions without differences. Those "European theologies" Lévy is so fond of were rather given to theories of intelligent design, if I recall correctly. And were Lévy to ask those rustic Amish, wizened rabbis, or elegant black church ladies what they thought of Charles Darwin, their answers might set his own eyes a-rolling.

Do some more homework, BHL, and then come back and see us again. And in the meantime: "Tocqueville, if you are there, show yourself!"

First appeared in the Weekly Standard, 04/17/2006, Volume 011, Issue 29

April 10, 2006 8:50 PM |



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