Not So Ludicrous After All

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
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

So the number of flags you saw is a manifestation of
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.


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