Breaking Down Bernard-Henri Levy
by Sam Kornell
“Ludicrous … amateurish … deeply flawed, riddled with major factual errors,” is how his last book was described in the New York Review of Books. His new book, American Vertigo — Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville, a travelogue of six months spent crisscrossing the country, was described in the New York Times Book Review as “Tedious … childish … irritating … short on the facts, long on conclusions … bombastic.” Yet he is France’s biggest intellectual, the man so famous he is known in Europe only by his initials: BHL, for Bernard-Henri Levy. BHL — who comes to UCSB next week to discuss rising anti-Semitism in Europe — recently spoke to me from Paris.
What do you mean when you talk about American vertigo? I mean two things. I mean my own vertigo in front of America, and I mean the vertigo of American folks themselves. You have that vertigo when the soil moves under your feet. And I had the feeling sometimes crossing America that the ground was moving under their feet very often.
One of the dominant themes of your book is the theatricality of American culture — the ubiquity of American flags, the homogeneity of mass advertising, what you call the “museumification” of the country. What does this artifice mean for American self-identity? It is an identity of substitution, when you don’t know who you are. When a man, an individual, and also a people, has lost his own sense of his self, he has a tendency to forge some sort of substitute fingerprints. When you are experiencing vertigo, you are holding on to a rail to support yourself. All the things you mention are like that, something that a man has to hold on to when he feels he is losing his own shadow.
So the number of flags you saw is a manifestation of insecurity. Yes. You have two ways of seeing this overwhelming number of flags. You can say, like all those stupid French anti-Americans, that it is proof of imperialistic, chauvinistic arrogance. But this is not how I feel. I feel that it is proof of uncertainty, proof of fragility. It is just like in life, when you have a buddy who brags too much. It means there is something broken in his identity, and he overstresses his strengths, he overstresses his successes, he overstresses his pride in order to hide his secret fragility. Garrison Keillor wrote a now-famous pan of your book on the front of the New York Times Book Review. Among other things, he said, “There’s no reason for [American Vertigo] to exist in English, except as evidence that travel need not be broadening and one should be wary of books with Tocqueville in the title.” I did not know it was a crime to write for a French audience. Moreover, it is not true. The book was published in America, as you know, and it has been rather well received by the American audience — it is a bestseller in your area, and on the East Coast, and also in the center of America. … I am very happy to have contributed modestly to the fame of this Garrison Keillor. And good for him. I gave him some good publicity, and he gave me some good publicity too. This is very good deal between Garrison and me.
4•1•1 Bernard-Henri Levy gives a free talk, The Resurgence of Anti-Semitism in Europe, at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Monday, April 10, at 8 p.m. Call 893-3535.