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The accidental tourist

American Vertigo Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville Bernard-Henri Levy Random House: 308 pp., $24.95

January 22, 2006|Marianne Wiggins | Marianne Wiggins is a professor of English at USC. Her most recent novel, "Evidence of Things Unseen," was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

BERNARD-HENRI LEVY -- or "BHL" (bay-ash-elle), as he is known in the Parisian media -- commands rock star status among French intellectuals. Think Yves Montand channeling Sartre. He's tall. He's rich. He's handsome. He's married to a former model. As France's preeminent philosophe, he's a permanent fixture on that country's talking-heads TV, as well as an accomplished journalist and documentary filmmaker in his own right. Little wonder, then, that flashes of divine inspiration erupted in the minds of the editors at the Atlantic Monthly when they decided to commission Levy to retrace Alexis de Tocqueville's 19th century odyssey through our toddling nation, a journey that resulted in the revered classic "Democracy in America."

How smug was this conceit? Other than the fact that both De Tocqueville and Levy are French, they have almost nothing in common. De Tocqueville was a magistrate, a jurist seeped in pragmatism and the moral causes of a just society. Levy is a media savant, a lofty huckster in the modern world of sound bites. Nevertheless, the idea of sending a French philosopher forth in 2004 -- an election year -- seemed compelling, especially at a time when French fries had been renamed "freedom fries" on congressional cafeteria menus.

Levy's dispatches, originally published in the Atlantic last year as a series of essays, were intended as a kind of "Democracy in America" redux, an inquiry into how our national experiment had, or had not, gone awry. Now they have been turned into a book, "American Vertigo," which aspires to be a disquisition into not only our culture, but also the very essence of contemporary American life.

How bracing to have one's native land examined by a philosopher -- a job description all but abandoned in the United States when, we might conjecture, we need philosophers more than ever. We have economists, evangelicals, jurists, theologians, pop psychologists. But philosophers? Name one.

This was never going to be like Peter Mayle's "A Year in Provence." This was, presumably, going to be a serious endeavor, a modern text to rival an existing classic.

And therein lies its failure.

Levy's temperament, his motivating interests and his focus are worlds away from De Tocqueville's. He admits, in his introduction, that only this commission made him read his predecessor (considered by the French to be a minor writer) and that "times have changed too much, the country has become too different from what it was when America ended at the shores of the Mississippi" for "this travelogue, this daily journal, to be read as the reply, the extension, even the continuation or addition, of the prestigious model." Nevertheless, he cites De Tocqueville as "the prototype of those 'philosopher-travelers' " and begins where "Democracy in America" began, with an investigation into the American prison system.

Of course, one doubts whether, left to his own devices, Levy would have chosen Rikers Island as a starting point, because very soon he's off, searching out an American milieu more comfortable to him: an A-list of stars and headliners at home and at work in privileged, white America.

Although he fondly admits to keeping Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" by his side during the journey, his second-most-referred-to texts must be the complete back issues of Vanity Fair. Here is his list of "typical" Americans to interview: Barry Diller, Norman Mailer, Woody Allen, Warren Beatty. De Tocqueville met and talked to John Quincy Adams, Sam Houston, Daniel Webster and Andrew Jackson, but he also interviewed farmers, craftsmen and local merchants, and he discoursed passionately about the state of American schools, American poetry, American language -- even American marriage.

Writing in 1835, he opens "Democracy in America" by declaring, "Among the new objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, none struck my eye more vividly than the equality of conditions." This notion of equality of conditions was a freedom call in the post-monarchal Europe of that time, and it must have been thrilling to see it at work in towns and villages in the young United States. But the egalite et fraternite observed by De Tocqueville was limited to a European-descended white majority.

Appalled by the enslavement of Africans on American shores and by the virtual extinction of American Indians, he warned of a "tyranny of the majority" -- the power of a ruling majority to impose tyrannical practices against nonwhite minorities. Believing that such tyranny might pollute pure democracy and its future governance, De Tocqueville railed against "the hypocrisy of luxury" and threw himself into energetic visits with all types of Americans.

Not so for the less intrepid Monsieur Levy.

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