Sunday, January 29, 2006

Bloviating Frenchman 'learns' about America

The popular French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy has recently published a book about American society he wrote while travelling througout the US. I haven't read this book yet, so I don't really have anything to say. I plan on reading it at Chapters when I have a chance- not sure if this book will be worth the money. I'll post my thoughts on the Levy's book after I take a look. The NYTimes however has posted a review and it's pretty scathing. For those of you who aren't registered at the NYTimes here's some samples:

Any American with a big urge to write a book explaining France to the French should read this book first, to get a sense of the hazards involved. Bernard-Henri Lévy is a French writer with a spatter-paint prose style and the grandiosity of a college sophomore; he rambled around this country at the behest of The Atlantic Monthly and now has worked up his notes into a sort of book. It is the classic Freaks, Fatties, Fanatics & Faux Culture Excursion beloved of European journalists for the past 50 years...

every 10 pages or so, Lévy walks into a wall. About Old Glory, for example. Someone has told him about the rules for proper handling of the flag, and from these (the flag must not be allowed to touch the ground, must be disposed of by burning) he has invented an American flag fetish, a national obsession, a cult of flag worship...

He worships Woody Allen and Charlie Rose in terms that would make Donald Trump cringe with embarrassment. He admires Warren Beatty, though he sees Beatty at a public event "among these rich and beautiful who, as always in America . . . form a masquerade of the living dead, each one more facelifted and mummified than the next, fierce, a little mutant-looking, inhuman, ultimately disappointing." Lévy is quite comfortable with phrases like "as always in America." Bombast comes naturally to him. Rain falls on the crowd gathered for the dedication of the Clinton library in Little Rock, and to Lévy, it signifies the demise of the Democratic Party. As always with French writers, Lévy is short on the facts, long on conclusions.

And good Lord, the childlike love of paradox - America is magnificent but mad, greedy and modest, drunk with materialism and religiosity, puritan and outrageous, facing toward the future and yet obsessed with its memories. Americans' party loyalty is "very strong and very pliable, extremely tenacious and in the end somewhat empty...

America is changing, he concludes, but America will endure. "I still don't think there's reason to despair of this country. No matter how many derangements, dysfunctions, driftings there may be . . . no matter how fragmented the political and social space may be; despite this nihilist hypertrophy of petty antiquarian memory; despite this hyperobesity - increasingly less metaphorical - of the great social bodies that form the invisible edifice of the country; despite the utter misery of the ghettos . . . I can't manage to convince myself of the collapse, heralded in Europe, of the American model."

Thanks, pal. I don't imagine France collapsing anytime soon either. Thanks for coming. Don't let the door hit you on the way out. For your next book, tell us about those riots in France, the cars burning in the suburbs of Paris. What was that all about? Were fat people involved?

Ouch. A very damning review. Actually I can't remember the last time I read such a hostile review in the NYTimes. Interestingly, when their reviewers trash they're usually more dismissive than full of bile. This review is definitely full of bile. Levy obviously hit a nerve, and I'm pretty sure that's what he wanted to do. Not too sure how much I trust the reviewer. While I can see his point on bombast and hyperbole in the numerous examples he provides; the article just seems too incoherent and petty for his conclusions to be taken at face value. Levy's book should be an interesting read.

P.S. Isn't it interesting that Levy, at least by the standards of the French intelligensia, is considered to be somewhat sympathetic to the USA. With friends like these...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This certainly doesn't sound like its worth the paper that its printed on. :)

Thanks for saving me a buck or two.

3:28 PM  
Blogger Lynn Green said...

I wonder if Alexis de Tocqueville got a few Bronx cheers after writing "Democracy in America

3:30 PM  

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