Alexis de Wannabe
Bernard-Henri Lévy is no Tocqueville.
Apr 17, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 29 • By MARTHA BAYLES
ONE THING TO AVOID, if you are not Sharon Stone, Charlie Rose, or Norman Mailer, is having lunch with Bernard-Henri Lévy.
By all accounts he merely picks at American vittles: The Wall Street Journal reports him ordering nine raw clams and leaving them on the plate, which would be more impressive if they were oysters--or perhaps not, since this is a man accustomed to living, and lunching, in Paris. What he does devour, though, is American conversation. He gulps it down, can't seem to get enough of it--a consequence also of living in Paris? The trouble is, he sometimes takes home a doggie bag without paying for it.
This is what he does to Samuel P. Huntington, whom he meets in Boston and then caricatures as nuttily xenophobic: "What startling violence wells up in his blue eyes when he says to me, 'The big problem with Hispanics, is they don't like education!'" The caricature also includes a hand-wringing retraction on the sidewalk outside the restaurant, one of those mini-calumnies that can never be disproved. Then, 20 pages later, Lévy unleashes a tirade against American "minority-rights movements," including Hispanic, on the grounds that they "result in countless demands for unlimited rights, thus gnawing at public law and running the risk of dissolving the social bond."
This exchange reflects Lévy's ambivalence toward America's extreme and (to most Europeans) disquieting ethnic diversity. His starting point, not surprisingly, is the French ideal of foreigners being ennobled and transformed by citizenship in la République. And he is not entirely free of the French prejudice that sees the United States as an agglomeration of undigested lumps that "has never really been a nation-state." Yet Lévy also marvels at the surprisingly strong bonds that hold America together. And while his effort to explain the patriotism of recent immigrants (including Arab Americans in Dearborn, Michigan) and to defend the mysterious alchemy of e pluribus unum may be the intellectual equivalent of a soufflé (a thin batter of ideas puffed up to unnatural size), it tastes pretty good, compared with the anti-American junk food recently topping the French bestseller list.
Granted, it is hard to get too excited about Lévy's grudging admission that, come to think of it, the United States is not really the most evil, grasping, fascist/imperialist colossus ever to bestride the earth. But here, at least, he pays for his doggie bag. He confesses to having studied some (not all) of the American debate about U.S. foreign policy in the post-Cold War era, and while he does not give the dreaded neocons the final word, he makes it quite clear that he respects them, and their fellow conservatives, for actually thinking about problems like terrorism and radical Islamism--as opposed to most liberals and leftists, who seem to him to think only about Democratic party fundraising.
On two contentious questions, then, multiculturalism and foreign policy, Lévy does a good job of cutting through the merde. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of his observations in three other areas: arts and letters; custom and public morality; and (most egregiously) religion.
Regarding the first, Lévy is, at best, a name-dropper. Rather than write perceptively about American music, he drools over Woody Allen playing trad-jazz at the Hotel Carlyle. About classical music, popular music, and that ubiquitous American phenomenon, rap, his silence is curious, given that his wife, the actress Arielle Dombasle, is a pop singer in France. He visits no art museums, or indeed serious museums of any kind, preferring to reduce America's cultural riches to beetle-browed antiquarianism and (echoing Eco) the theme park approach to history. About literature, he manages to be shallow, gossipy, and pretentious all at once. In Asheville, North Carolina, he speculates about how F. Scott Fitzgerald passed his days while his wife Zelda was in the insane asylum there.