Stranger in a Strange Land

"Stranger in a Strange Land," review of American Vertigo, by Bernard-Henri Lévi, Wall Street Journal, 27 January 2006.


In the mid-1970s, the “new philosophers” of France, stirred by Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago,” rebelled against the Marxism that dominated Parisian intellectual culture. They made history by doing so, and they made themselves into celebrities — glamorous and shrewd. Bernard-Henri Lévy was among the most prominent of their number.

The thinker who concerns Mr. Lévy today — 30 books and 30 years later — is Tocqueville, not Marx; and the country whose destiny compels his attention is the U.S. “American Vertigo,” much of which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, is a chronicle of Mr. Lévy’s travels through the U.S. “in the footsteps of Tocqueville,” repeating the trip that Alexis de Tocqueville made in the 1830s before writing his great work, “Democracy in America.”

Unlike Tocqueville, always a politic man, Mr. Lévy presents himself pointedly as a writer, an intellectual and a European (once gets the sense that, for him, these are really all the same thing). The reader of “American Vertigo” gets a chance to see how the U.S. looks to a European who speaks with the verve of a journalist and the confidence of a philosopher. Mr. Lévy is not unconscious of his charm and intelligence, nor is he unfriendly to Americans per se. He has his doubts, though.

Mr. Lévy writes brilliantly, if eccentrically, of the places he visited and the people he met: Seattle, with its “wide-openness,” is his favorite American city. Los Angeles, without a center, a border or a “vantage point,” is his least. He regards America’s prisons — à la Michel Foucault — as statements of exclusion rather than as means of self-defense. At Mount Rushmore, he feels indignation at the Great White Fathers and their misdeeds to Indians. In Michigan, he discovers, in the habits of the Arab-American community, the tendency of minorities in America to behave like majorities. He finds obesity everywhere, but the obsession with weight loss — the supposed need for a restrictive regime — disturbs him as much as the dependence on junk food. The Mall of America, near Minneapolis, puts him in mind of Tocqueville’s description of a future democratic people fixed irrevocably in childhood and suffering from a new despotism, enjoying themselves on the condition that they think of nothing but enjoying themselves.