April 22, 2005

I come not to praise Bernard Henri Levy

The Atlantic Monthly has embarked upon an ambitious and wonderfully conceived project to send celebrated French intellectual Bernard Henri Levy around the United States to emulate, sort of, the journey taken by my all time favorite Frenchman, Alexis de Toqueville. As I hope you already know, Toqueville was the young French nobleman who traveled across our fair land and penned the incomparable classic, Democracy in America. This book, to me, is the most important book ever written about America. I cannot praise it enough or overstate its importance. If you've never read it, well, go get a copy and check it out.

So, anyway, here's the Atlantic Monthly with this fabulous idea. The first report has just come out in the most recent issue and I rush to the news stand to buy it. I read the entire installment. Its very long. It, how shall I put this, really, really sucks.

Let me count the ways in which I was so cruelly disappointed. First, M. Levy doesn't seem to have the first clue about America. Second, his travels, like his writing (more on this in a moment) are disjointed and disorganized. He flits from place to place, never seeming to linger very long, with no apparent reason for going to a place or leaving a place. Third, some of the political biases he brings with him about America seem stuck in decades long since past. The war in Vietnam is over, Sir. I hope I am not the first one to clue you into that fact. Fourth, no one likes being condescended to. Just saying. Fifth, the writing style is suggestive of his entire approach. He writes in a staccato fashion, full of sentence fragments, as if to suggest great energy or urgency, that his observations are coming so fast and furious that it is impossible to get them down on the page fast enough before they are gone. Also, the style suggests a lack of calm reflection, a want of consideration and mulling over of the observations he purports to make. But I do think that the style of writing correctly reflects M. Levy's skimming over the surface approach.

The best part of the essay so far? The most impressive interchange? A policeman in rural West who, after stopping to tell M. Levy he needs to move along and discovers that Levy is following in Toqueville's footsteps, asks Levy if so far he feels that Toqueville's observations about America are still valid. Levy, I regret to report, writes of this encounter with wide eyed astonishment, as if to say that he is astounded to discover a cop with an education, but never gets around to furnishing an answer. I think that the police officer got the better of this exchange and I am proud to say so.

I hold out little hope for the next installment, even if I am going to read it anyway.

Posted by Random Penseur at April 22, 2005 10:17 AM

In my AP American History class in high school we had two books of primary source materials which corresponded with our textbook. Passages from Democracy in America made up a large portion of the first book and made quite the impression on me. I'm curious and may pick up the Atlantic, even despite your poor review. Thanks.

Posted by: Angie at April 22, 2005 03:05 PM

I agree. I happened to catch an interview with Levy on NPR -- it was even worse.

Posted by: Tulip at April 23, 2005 07:54 PM

I agree with your observations. I started the BHL piece and couldn't come near to finishing. Tocqueville was was great, Levy isn't even good. I look forward to the letters to editor!

Posted by: Amy at April 29, 2005 10:54 AM

Couldn't agree more. Reads like a parody of the superficial, self-absorbed, condescending European intellectual. Read halfway through, gave up after failing to find a single interesting idea. This isn't writing -- it's twittering.

And oh my god: there's more to come.

Posted by: MB at May 6, 2005 12:11 PM
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