I’ve admired Lévy’s writing before. I admired much of his writing in The Atlantic about this exploration, now compiled into his new book, American Vertigo. Yet I’m left wondering if he felt that fear as he traveled. For in trying to do a Tocqueville, in reading America in every experience, every moment, I think Lévy overlooks the value of the mundane. Why should everything be mined for meaning?
But I will come back to that.
Lévy is an open-minded and observant traveler. He has some provocative insights into 21st-century America, more valuable because of his willingness to let his experiences question his own beliefs. He takes a wide-ranging and eclectic look at a country that deserves no less. Lévy spends time with politicians, at car races, at strip bars, in prisons (the original purpose of Tocqueville’s journey), with writers and activists, and also just driving about.
On the Mexican border south of San Diego, Lévy learns about the perennial battle against illegal immigrants. He is surprised by a certain half-heartedness in this battle. Why is the border not sealed completely, for example with a wall? Could it be because of “… an unconscious perversity in the current arrangement … an implicit, and cynical, way of saying to the Mexican prey, ‘Go on, give it a try.’ … [Or perhaps] the hypocrisy of a system that, as everyone knows, needs these illegal immigrants and uses them as fuel for its economy.”
In India, this strikes an instant chord. It brings to mind the way our municipalities crack down on hawkers: get rid of them, let them return, repeat ad infinitum. Don’t leave them alone, but don’t keep them firmly away either. Either of those would be more humane than the current situation: the hawkers are always there to be harassed, always good to be squeezed for money. And not just that: even as we harass them, we know they form a crucial part of the city’s economy. So the hypocrisy Lévy writes of applies in India too.
And there’s this that stopped me in my tracks. America, Lévy observes, “is nothing else, when all is said and done, but a prodigious yet mundane machine whose purpose is to produce more Americans.”
The rest of us, we work hard to define nationhood in meaningful, profound terms. What does it mean to be American, or Indian, or Senegalese? Yet here it is in a nutshell remarkable for its very ordinariness. It may not be to everybody’s taste, yet the more you think about it, the more it grows on you. Nation as citizen-producing machine: something there, alright.
And Lévy’s own mention of the mundane brings back to mind what I think he makes of it. For example, early in his journey, Lévy watches a car race in Knoxville, Tenn. Here’s his reaction:
Theater of cruelty. Waiting, as in duels or at public executions, for the moment of first blood. This ferocity, this violence, which had been commonplace in American society but which has been on the whole eliminated over the centuries and to which it yields nowadays only through marginal ceremonies like this one. Knoxville, or the memory of the accursed share of the American past.
Oh boy! “The accursed share”? “Theater of cruelty”? Come on, Bernard-Henri, it’s just cars running around a track, for god’s sake, with excited hordes cheering them on! Enjoy the spectacle, or scoff at it if you like—but then move on, won’t you?
Some years ago, I visited a massive cock-fighting festival in West Bengal. All men, of course. They fitted these wicked-looking little knives to the legs of the roosters before sending them into the ring to do battle. They gathered around to gawk and cheer as the birds ripped each other. A gory experience, alright. But what would it serve to call this the “memory of the accursed share of the Indian past”? What would it do for understanding the way we are today?
Should I really make a connection between, for example, Gujarat 2002 and these men screaming at a cockfight?
This is the kind of thing that makes me wonder about Lévy’s task. There is nothing that he reports as simply something that he saw, or that happened. And so I think: Tocqueville was the monkey that Lévy had to carry on his back through his travels. Thus the need to extract significance from everything, and I mean everything.
So what must it be to follow in the footsteps of someone who held up a mirror to an entire country? What must it be to feel compelled to produce a modern mirror that’s as potentially influential?
I don’t know of anyone who has written about India as Tocqueville and Lévy have done about the States. But perhaps somebody should. There would be plenty to chew on, because India is a country every bit as maddening, yet fascinating, as the United States. Then and now.
But whoever does it, I hope they will also give us an occasional stick of chewing gum: to chew on, spit out, and forget.
A computer scientist by training, Dilip D’Souza now writes for his supper in Bombay. His main interests are social and political issues in India.