I know that I’m depressed, sensitive, and selfish. I’m just determined to do this thing, which is paint in solitude, and I will burn bridges to do it, including relationships.
This interview is featured, along with 34 others, in our anthology BOMB: The Author Interviews.
The Practice + Theory series is sponsored in part by the Frances Dittmer Family Foundation.
Had never met him before our recent breakfast in New York. Had heard from both my French and American friends many hints about his whirlwind, celebrity-driven, less-than-profound intellectual nature. “He has an agenda,” an editor told me, without naming the agenda. “So do you, so do I,” I answered. “He wants to be famous,” a writer told me. “So do you, I said, and so does everyone else we know.”
What is at the bottom of all the suspicion and calumny, I wondered, and now having read his book, American Vertigo , still wonder. Maybe the problem is that Bernard-Henri Lévy is tireless and broad-ranged in his interests and finally, and worst of all, that he is so passionate and elegant—dreariness being the hallmark of the serious intellectual, Left and Right.
Let him here speak for himself.
Dear Bernard Henri-Lévy,
First, to say what a pleasure to meet you last week for the first time and to be able to tell you face to face how much I had enjoyed of what I had then incompletely read of American Vertigo. I must confess, I was unaware of what complexity of discussion and argument, of provocative analysis of the American experience lay ahead, having assumed the book was much on the order of the opening hundred or so pages: that is, a personal narrative and record of a journey through America more or less in de Tocqueville’s footsteps. I was taken by the energy of your prose, by the vivid cameos of American life along your journey’s path. I thought: This is a passionate journey of a man enamored with America, a journey with hints of Whitman’s and Kerouac’s, above all with their love of the mad originality of this vast and varied place, this circus of America.
A circus with prisons, the prison being the original consideration for Tocqueville’s investigation of American life, and to which you give significant attention and reflection, visiting such disparate places as Rikers Island and Guantanamo, with stops along the way to Angola, Louisiana, a place Kafka would have found agonizingly, spiritually familiar. As you say, prisons everywhere are bad, but there is a unique quality to those privatized ones where the idea of rehabilitation vanishes and the human soul is replaced by its value as profit and loss. Let me digress and add a little item to your survey of prisons. Today a murderer in a wheelchair, blind, with diabetes, age 76, was given a lethal injection in prison. This you may one day cite as an example of the compassion of the penal system and capital punishment, a mercy killing, if you will.
From prison to torture is a natural step. And perhaps nothing in your book did I find so moving as your chagrin at the recent American debate on whether to use torture in the defense of national interest. A debate unworthy of this nation, unworthy of being brought forth as a topic of discussion, let alone one for civilized consideration. You find it noteworthy and symptomatic of the health of our society, however, that revelations about the “extraordinary renditions”—the outsourcing of torture to centers abroad—and other such horrors were revealed in the press and to the public as quickly as they were; unlike, say, the way the French press was kept from revealing the facts of torture during the Algerian war. Yes. But let us not forget that one of our leaders made the case against the torture in Iraq as one of the reasons for our going there. Or that we tacitly approved of torture in Brazil, Chile, and Argentina during the Cold War period—to make democracy safe.
In spite of all the darkness you see around us, you refer to a spiritual spine or line, represented by such figures as Emerson and Thoreau, Washington and Kennedy running through our culture and speaking for the best and most noble of what we have been and what we still may be. But, perhaps, Bernard, what you see is only a spiritual glow from the past, the light of another America, like the light that comes from a distant star long dead.
No, dear Frederic, it’s not a question of “compensation.” And I don’t believe that this lifeline, this light that I have ceaselessly invoked because, in fact, I felt its diffuse and vague presence, I don’t think that it is comparable to the light of dead stars.
I really believe that American democracy is alive. I agree that it is in crisis. I agree that it is being led by poor shepherds. I also think, as Tocqueville said very well, that the margin between democracy and tyranny is narrow and that it is becoming even more narrow and more fragile. But I feel democracy to be alive, nevertheless. Vibrant. I feel it continuing to inspire if not your institutions then at least your civil society, and this famous fabric of “associations” that Tocqueville emphasized, was, in relation to Europe, one of its most original features.
I agree that the system is sometimes defective, but grant me that its wellsprings are healthy.
Some examples are necessary, and not just a declaration of principle.
The Los Angeles women who lobbied to prevent the construction of a Wal-Mart in their neighborhood, and who had, last I heard, succeeded against all odds. Big, bad Wal-Mart, monster, crusher of salaries and creator of commercial deserts. The embodiment of this evil market, this capitalism without virtue, the “sociopolitical obesity” that weighs on American democracy and is a source of the growing hubris of the current administration. Well, it didn’t get the last word. Here were three women who remembered the 1960s slogan that “small is beautiful,” and small won out over the Mall. Here we have a post-Tocquevillian association of women of color, and they beat back the monster—showing that, when the people join forces, and really want it, they still have the last word.
Next, home schooling, to which I devote a short chapter while passing through Texas, and which is unthinkable in France. We have, in France, an educational system that is scarcely faring any better than America’s, but we cross our arms and remain passive. And, in any case, the very idea of educating your children at home, of extracting them from these idiotic mainstream values and saving them from disaster is forbidden by law. Here, in the United States, you have the possibility of citizens taking control of their children’s destiny. In short, you have the option of resistance to programmed idiocy: “The system wants to die; well, let it die, if it wants to, but it will be without us and, above all, without our children.” I at first wondered, with the pathetic remnants of my Jacobin temperament, if this way of doing without the State, of saving oneself by deserting the field of collective struggle, was not a bit reactionary, but today, on the contrary, I think that here we have a real example of democratic vitality. People on the Right and the Left, religious types but also atheists, people of all sorts whose only real line is to not resign themselves to the programmed inevitability of mental stultification are the sign that morale is not broken.
Or take Katrina. It’s one of the book’s chapters to which I attach the most importance. There is this revelation with Katrina of the continent of American poverty, and the fact that the State, whether local or federal, is utterly failing in its duties. There is this idea of an anti-September 11 that, in contrast to the other, chose its dead, striking primarily the poor and the black. But look! There is also the extraordinary spectacle of the people reacting to this institutional deficiency by taking in hand the concrete organization of aid to the refugees fleeing New Orleans. Texas is not a particularly Democratic state, is it? And not a particularly liberal one, either. And yet the happy surprise of Katrina were these Texans opening the doors of their hospitals, schools, homes, opening their arms, their hearts, their wallets, in order to help, without concern for the political, social, religious, or, needless to say, ethnic differences of the poor people seeking shelter and simple comfort. And, say what you will, dear Frederic—that is a spirit of solidarity of the people that I’m not sure we would have had in France if a hurricane had struck Toulouse and the victims had tried to find refuge in Lille or Roubaix—and I won’t even talk about what would happen if a catastrophe struck, say, Germany, and if victims tried to take refuge in France. That, for me, is another incontestable sign of democratic vitality.
There are scores of these examples in the book, and I’ve gathered so many since. But one has to show some restraint.
And it’s not a question of falling into some sort of populist opposition between a “real” America that has remained healthy and virtuous versus an “official” America that, left and right alike, has turned its back on its values: in France we’re familiar with that old refrain, and I certainly do not want to say such a thing. But to recognize that the America of the pilgrims and the Founding Fathers, of Thoreau and Emerson, the America analyzed and celebrated by Tocqueville himself with his glorification of the famous “associations,” to recognize that all that is still alive, that it is the true resource of your system and the chance for your future, what harm is there in that? Is it overly optimistic to point out these features everywhere?
It’s true; I have hope. The American dream seems to me to be of a nature to orient your future and ours.
Here I am again and wondering a few things, actually more than just a few. Your book was commissioned by the Atlantic Monthly, but I wonder why you agreed—or better yet, why you wanted to write about America at all. Some of my older French friends have a tender regard for us no matter what we do here and abroad; they lived through the Occupation and appreciate our role in chasing out the Nazis. Henceforth, America is always the place of the Good and the Just, a zany place, peopled with good intentions. Little can persuade them to feel otherwise. But you come from a wholly different generation, one born to an almost knee-jerk suspicion of America and its motives. To which you have had a counter reaction, and are closer to the postwar generation than you are to your own. Do I assume correctly?
Let me approach you and why you wrote your book in another way. When we met, you asked me if I loved France. Yes, I said, very much. When I was a very young man—until yesterday—when I was a boy in the Bronx, I dreamed of Paris, the one I knew from films like An American in Paris, where, at 15, I learned that I could live above a café and be a painter and meet a wonderful French girl who would live with me in that same little place above the café. As for money, the film and other sources of such myths, showed me that the French did not care for money but cared for, appreciated, love, art, and artists.
The pathetic thing is that against all reality, I still half subscribe to that myth, as well to others based on the beauty of the intentions of the French Revolution and the utopian nobility of the Paris Commune. Are you not a little like me, loving not the place, America, as it is, but loving it—against all realities—as a myth and for its myth?
You’re partly right, my dear Frederic.
I like what you say, so amusingly, about your relationship with France.
And, no doubt, there is an element of myth, or dream, in the way I see the real America of today: a motley assemblage of Kennedy; Ellis Island; Martin Luther King’s dream; the civil rights struggle; Daniel Pearl and Norman Mailer, combined; the Jews of Brooklyn seen as characters out of Isaac Bashevis Singer; the hero Roosevelt; the great president Clinton; the famous American optimism that is perhaps, deep down, nothing more than another cliché that I am swept away by; New Orleans—yes, my love song to New Orleans.
I do not agree with what you assume about my generation—basically, the baby boomers born after the Second World War—and their relationship with the reality of your country. And I would like to make two observations in this regard that are—how should I say it—biographical-political in nature.
First observation. The memory of the Second World War and Nazism. The idea, as you say, of the Americans as liberators of Europe. Of course, this was initially the previous generation’s affair. But how can one deny that it was also ours? How can we pretend that we, the French after Vichy, and especially the French and the Jews born after the Shoah—and thus, in a certain way, miraculously spared from a disaster that had aspired to nothing less than preventing our births—how can we pretend that we escaped the great beneficent shadow of the American army helping to destroy Hitler’s killing machine? My father was liberated early on. At 18, he joined the ranks of the Spanish Republic to fight in the Spanish Civil War, then, immediately afterward, he volunteered to fight against Germany, then, after the defeat, he fought in the Free French Forces—in Africa, Monte Cassino, the liberation of Paris, etc. So this idea of a liberating and antifascist America, that even before the war, starting with the terrible ’30s, had been a refuge for so many antifascists and for Jews fleeing the coming catastrophe, and writers, and artists—that was one of the first things I remember being taught by my father. I grew up with this legend. Not to mention my dear mother, who until the end of her life, left every summer with a girlfriend to spend a few weeks of vacation in America, always a new city, a new state, in order to discover more about the country that she adored and to which she felt she owed everything. You ask me what led me to accept The Atlantic‘s and Cullen Murphy’s proposal. Well, perhaps this, too, a discreet homage (though, now that I’m writing to you about it, a bit less discreet!) to a beloved mother who was crazy about America and who took this journey before me, who in a way “located” it for me, and in whose footsteps I am simply following, as I am following in Tocqueville’s. Anyway, all this to say one can’t simplify generational matters, and contagion, in this case, prevailed over the gap. Don’t forget, by the way, how in even the most leftist among us, in the most enraged, the most radical, and especially in the Maoists, the schema of the fascism-versus-antifascism opposition continued, until May ’68, to structure our vision of the world and the struggles we led within it. Don’t forget how so many of us hallucinated that we were the partisans of a great, new, antifascist war that was the fulfillment of the one our elders had waged. This vision of things, whether we like it or not, could only imply an enchanted vision of America, whether as memory, nostalgia, or, as you say, myth. It could not make us what the modern inheritors of this leftist movement have, alas, become—namely, enraged anti-Americans.
Perhaps you will say that the American army at the time, the army of the Vietnam War and its crimes, the army we see in Chris Marker’s Le Fond de l’air est rouge, napalming the civilian populations, took on, in our ideological bestiary, precisely the role of the armies it had once defeated. Well, yes and no. I think that we had—and this is my second observation—anti-anti-American defenders that are exactly what our heirs on the extreme left today lack. I will take my own case. I don’t know if this will apply to all the young men and women of that time, but for a number of us it was an unimpeachable and precocious certainty. Anti-Americanism was politically to the left, fine. In the political language, it was called anti-imperialism, okay. But for anyone who had not only an ear but a memory, a more specific idea of the ideological history of France, and especially for anyone who had grown up in the familial tradition that I just described, there were cultural sources, ideological and philosophical dynasties, of anti-Americanism that had absolutely nothing to do with the left. It came from the other side. It smelled not only of the right but of the French far right of the ’50s, the ’30s, and even before that. It reeked, if you prefer, of what we hated the most in the world, namely Pétainism—that mixture of racism, anti-Semitism, contorted nationalism, excessive patriotism, hatred of democracy and cosmopolitanism, phobia of the Rousseauist “social contract,” the idea of a community founded on a pure “act of will,” a “credo,” which the Pétainists always vaguely felt that America—real or dreamed, it doesn’t matter—was the first and, moreover, the only incarnation. I wrote that 25 years ago, in a book called L’Idéologie française, whose last pages dealt with this matter of anti-Americanism and its genealogy; I demonstrated that this old French passion had only very belatedly migrated into the discourse of the left and that its real birthplace was to be found rather in Drieu La Rochelle, Brasillach, the Maurrassiens (Eds. note: Charles Maurras, French writer and principal thinker of the reactionary Action Française, counter-revolutionary movement; anti-Semitic monarchist), even Barrès—our long and fetid national tradition of Anglophobia. But all this, which would eventually become a book, was something I always felt in some vague way. I was never really anti-American, just as I was never really anti-Zionist. I belong to a generation who felt, very early on, that anti-Americanism in Europe always had a connection to fascism.
Now that does not prevent me from seeing, or at least trying to see, the America of today as it is. Nor from talking to my American friends about everything in America that is unworthy of this idea that I will never weary of contrasting with antagonistic ideas that the anti-Americans hold. I speak to them of their atrocious prisons. I speak to them of their absurd and deadly malls. Of their dubious gun fairs. I talk to them about the death penalty, unacceptable in a large democracy. I speak to them about Guantanamo, where I had a chance to work for a few days and which I left convinced was, though certainly not the gulag, nevertheless a disgrace. I speak to them, you’re right, of this ignoble debate on the conditions in which the use of torture could be justified. I speak to them about the massacre of the Indians and the fact that a gaping wound will remain in the flank of the nation until a real place of mourning and remembrance, a sort of Yad Vashem of the suffering of the first inhabitants of the country, is dedicated to them. I even talk to them about Mount Rushmore, this monument that is so emblematic of American democracy and about which I would nevertheless say: 1) it seems placed there as a colossal provocation, on a site that, for the Indian communities, was one of the most sacred in the country; 2) the sculptor of these icons is a former member of the Ku Klux Klan who apparently never renounced the ideas of his youth; 3) that it is called “Rushmore” after a filthy lawyer, a thief, employed by the great gold seekers and entrusted with finding legal ways to expropriate Indian landowners of their land at the cheapest cost. But all right. The little detail that changes everything and that I am grateful you have seen is that all of this proceeds from this fundamental love of America and the American people. I think that one cannot criticize America unless one is animated by a sincere love of its people and its Idea.
My dear Bernard,
I’ve read your last two letters. My initial response was to open my window and sing the National Anthem. But now I’m in a cooler mood. Not that I have cooled to the intensity of your convictions or to your warmth for America in principle or America in the person of its generous and open-hearted good people, but I am reminded that there were good people, after all, in Nazi Germany, in Fascist Italy, in Vichy France.
In a passage in your book, you ask why Americans have not responded with a forceful voice to the issue of torture and its outsourcing, to the issue of the systematic encroachments on our civil liberties. Why do Americans not see that allowing these encroachments is “like inserting a worm into fruit, or a virus into a computer program? Who among them is fully conscious that, for America as for any democracy, this is the source of a crisis that could lead anywhere?” A good question and one that strikes at the core of your optimism, your hope that the great progressive American tradition not only shall endure but that it shall prevail.
Allow me for a moment, as you did, to indulge in the autobiographical.
Like yours, my father was an antifascist. He was a radical Southerner, who believed, as many of his Depression-era generation did, that America would one day undergo a great social transformation, in whose wake would come justice and equality. Like yours, my mother—the first-born in a Sicilian family—loved America. Like you, I, too, love this country. Perhaps in no other place in the world but America would I have had the chance to rise out of dire poverty and be allowed to live the life of a writer and a professor. America: The fair shake. America: The ever-evolving to the Good. America: Freedom.
Today, in a country cowed into the acquiescence of the removal of its freedoms because of the fear of an external threat, people do speak out, but there is a sense of pointlessness and futility in doing so. Sadly, the intelligentsia speaks only to itself, as it probably always has. It may have seemed different during the Vietnam period, but I suspect that those protesting voices of the intelligentsia were effective, to the extent as they were at all, because of the popular consensus against the war. I hope, as I am sure you do, that the natural resistance of Americans to tyranny will overcome their fears generated and propagated by official lies.
Let me confess to my chagrin in not finding a way to give voice against the growing darkening of America today.
So, mon cher ami, your book further points to the distance between me and your dreams—our dreams and my reality.
Dear, dear Frederic,
It is my turn, in reading you, to want to rush to the window. Not to sing the American anthem, but to breathe some air after the apocalyptic tableau that you paint of your country. I agree, of course, with what you say about the liberties that this government is taking with liberties. I, too, think this must be taken very seriously—the Patriot Act, wiretapping, the F.B.I.‘s systematic surveillance of the Internet and all the rest. But without playing devil’s advocate, would you allow me to observe that the Patriot Act, as far as I know, is something temporary? That it raised a spectacular collective protest all over the country? That the Administration met with the liveliest resistance when it tried to pass its “Patriot Act II”? Must I remind you that there were Republicans in the Senate, in the name of the libertarian tradition that is theirs, and that, in spite of the diversions, remains alive—who oppose the perpetuation of an arrangement that they know in the long run can only go against the sacrosanct Bill of Rights? Must I remind you that both the big newspapers and the television networks, in principle subject to the big lobbies of Faith, Money, and Authority, reacted with astonishing velocity to Seymour Hersh’s revelations, two years ago, of the abuses of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib? And the matter of special prisons? And the question of Guantanamo? And this real public debate that, whatever we have to say about it, is traversing the country, regarding these rights-less zones, zones indeed of pure illegality, authorized by the “War on Terror”? All that is not the sign of tyranny setting in. We know in France what tyrannical temptation can be. During the Algerian War and afterward, we knew the temptation of stifling freedoms and the truth and the press. And from this point of view, believe me: a country that, to take the case of Abu Ghraib once again and the positive virus of truth that seized the media, including Fox News, a country that was able in 48 hours to take a path that has taken us 48 years to still not take regarding the barbarous acts committed by the French army before General de Gaulle’s return to power—a country like this may be in crisis, unhealthy, seized by vertigo, etc., but it is not a “fascist” country, and it is not a “tyranny.”
I have a hypothesis in the book. I was in Austin, Texas, the day of Bush’s second victory, as a guest in a class that Paul Burka teaches on Tocqueville. I gradually noticed that the majority of students before me, if they were old enough to vote, voted against the president and, on questions like abortion, gay marriage, creationism, indeed, the death penalty, took positions contrary to his. At that moment, it seemed that the wave of conservative moral values that seemed to set souls ablaze in the final days of the campaign, this bizarre and bizarrely desperate fever to advocate the return to a fundamental order that modernity was thought to have beaten and condemned—all of that could perhaps be read completely in the opposite way: as the last hurrah of a very old conservative party that knows that the good old days will never return; that the youth have swung to the good side of the great cultural American revolution; and that it is time, therefore, for the counter-revolutionary forces to load their final salvo. That was my impression, that day in Austin. But it was, even more, the feeling that struck me a few days later as I went across true Southern states like Tennessee, Arkansas, and especially Alabama. Is this the South? The old southern culture, this quail-hunting party whose rituals are still there but are empty, deprived of meaning? Atlanta, this black and prosperous city where there are no longer any traces of Rhett Butler or Scarlett O’Hara? And what about racism? Where did it go, this open anti-black racism that, as a drugged and prejudiced Frenchman, I thought was part and parcel of the most deep-seated mentality of the deep South? I discovered that it had become, as in the rest of the country, if not minor, then at least unsayable—thanks to Morris Dees, who chased fascists from Montgomery, thanks to Jim Carrier, historiographer of the great antiracist struggles of 30 years ago. Something had occurred that cannot be erased. And the current wave of conservatism should not make us forget the much longer wave that started with Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, et al., and that has durably changed the cultural face and landscape of the country.
So now, of course, there is the other question, concerning the lifelessness of public opinion today and especially that of the intellectual and political left, which I willingly agree is not rising to the level of its glorious elders. There is something troubling, for a French intellectual, in this spectacle of a liberal camp so timorous in the face of the great, burning questions that should concern it. I will spare you the most pathetic moments of my submersion into the depths of the supposed new American left, my encounters with these holdovers of the Clinton era, more puritan than the most puritan, or with those Hillaryans who answer the question of how they count on winning the battle of ideas by speaking of the need to first win the battle of funding. What of creationism and the battle that must be led, in the name of the heritage of the Enlightenment, against the crooks who seek to impose the teaching of “intelligent design” as a “second” theory? What of the welfare state? The growth, everywhere, of areas of poverty? What of the pure scandal that is the presence of the death penalty, the keystone of the American penal system? And how can it be that there are no longer any great voices to rise up against this civilized barbarism, unworthy of a great democracy? The most common response is that public opinion would be against it. First of all, that is not an answer. There was a time when the American intelligentsia could take unpopular positions against the current. And, besides, I am not at all sure that the heartland is so definitively set against the idea of revisiting the matter of the death penalty. (Having discussed the topic dozens of times with people I came across in my travels, having spoken with conservatives aware of the numerous legal errors recognized by the courts, having discussed with Christians that it seemed problematic for a Christian to consent to human life’s being at the mercy of anyone but God; I get the sense that America is more or less in the situation we in France were exactly 25 years ago, when a candidate, who then became the President of the Republic, courageously decided to try to abolish it, and did.) It is among politicians terrified by the thought of attempting the least deviation and raising their voices, it is in these think tanks, supposedly suppliers of ideas but who do not seem to know their country very well, it is among the intellectuals that there is, very clearly, a problem, and that problem must be not only raised but resolved. Let’s call it a treason of the intellectuals. Let’s say there is a new treason of intellectuals with American colors. We, the French, know the phenomenon. We are even sort of experts in it. And therefore we’re prepared, if necessary, to share our expertise with you. But then, friends, it’s your turn. And, this time, it’s essential that you play.
Lévy’s responses translated from the French by Jeanine Herman.
I know that I’m depressed, sensitive, and selfish. I’m just determined to do this thing, which is paint in solitude, and I will burn bridges to do it, including relationships.