American Vertigo, by Bernard-Henri Lévy, trans. Charlotte Mandell

A Parisian pundit on the campaign trail
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The Independent Culture

There's a great moment of epiphany in Bernard-Henri Lévy's American travel book, on John Kerry's campaign plane in the run-up to the last Presidential election. One of his fellow scribes decides to tell Lévy why his interview requests are being stonewalled with the continual excuse that the candidate is sleeping. "It's like the story of the Hermès ties Kerry replaced with Vineyard Vines ties, made in the USA, out of fear that Bush's handlers would leap at the chance to support their 'Kerry as agent of the French' business," the television journalist gleefully confides. "Or it's like the affair of the Evian bottle he had taken away from the hotel room where he was being interviewed by the New York Times Magazine... You're French. You're as French as a bottle of Evian water or an Hermès tie. And their real fear... is that a Frenchman might suddenly claim eight days before an election that the candidate picked him to confide his secrets to."

"BHL" saves the day by telling Kerry's minders that if he gets an interview, it won't appear until the election is over, but that if he doesn't, then he'll run a piece saying that the man who wants to be the 44th President of the US spends all his time unconscious. He gets his one-on-one, and is able to report that Kerry is "a nice man". Much good it did him.

Lévy feels it crucially important for him to immerse himself in the political process, because his book is an attempt to recreate the journey by Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831 that resulted in the classic study of emerging US capitalist society, Democracy in America. It's not so likely that Lévy's book will be a key set text on US campuses getting on for 200 years from now. But as an energetic exploration of what makes contemporary America tick, it has its not inconsiderable charms.

Chief among them is the approach of Lévy, keen from the off to expose the anti-Americanism of his fellow French as shallow and ignorant, and the Francophobia of the US as a figment of someone's fervid imagination. As a prominent - yet much ridiculed - French public intellectual, Lévy followed a post-September 11 path familiar in conversions of former foreign-policy lefties from John Lloyd to Christopher Hitchens, and tied his flag to the anti-totalitarian mast.

Somewhat bizarrely, he didn't quite extend his new-found enthusiasm for regime change to the war in Iraq, and didn't quite grasp that anti-totalitarianism doesn't cut the mustard as a practical philosophy for running the world. Part of the charm of the book is in Lévy's attempt to find an America that reflects his own firm ideas about what the world's most powerful state ought to be ("an enlightened, antitotalitarian, modern left"), when clearly he's on a hiding to nothing. Which is just as de Tocqueville predicted in his warnings about the "tyranny of the majority".

Nevertheless, as Lévy travels from gang-ridden project to retirement community, from "libertine and conventional" sex clubs to the "museographic delirium" of the country's faux-historical village-theme parks, the great American collage he cobbles together is complex and enlightening. His intellectual claims are much scorned in France, and because relatively little of his philosophical writing is available in translation, it's hard for the English-language reader to tell whether this is justified. I do know that he is a good journalist and a good writer, who is engaged in his own attentive and naïve way with the world and its challenges. What he has to say about America is worth hearing.

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