Catalogue


American vertigo : traveling America in the footsteps of Tocqueville /
Bernard-Henri Lévy ; translated by Charlotte Mandell.
edition
1st ed.
imprint
New York : Random House, c2006.
description
308 p.
ISBN
1400064341 (hardcover)
format(s)
Book
Holdings
More Details
imprint
New York : Random House, c2006.
isbn
1400064341 (hardcover)
general note
Includes index.
catalogue key
5695441
A Look Inside
Excerpts
Excerpt from Book
chapter I First Visions (from Newport to Des Moines) A People and Its Flag It was here, not too far south of Boston, on the East Coast, which still bears the mark of Europe so clearly, that Alexis de Tocqueville came ashore: Newport, Rhode Island. This well-kept Easton's Beach. These yachts. These Palladian mansions and painted wooden houses that remind me of the beach towns of Normandy. A naval museum. An athenaeum library. Bed-and-breakfasts with a picture of the owner displayed instead of a sign. Gorgeous trees. Tennis courts. A Georgian-style synagogue, exhibited as the oldest in the United States: with its well-polished pale wood, its fluted columns, its spotless black rattan chairs, its large candelabra, its plaque engraved with clear-cut letters in memory of Isaac Touro and the six or seven great spiritual leaders who succeeded him, its American flag standing next to the Torah scroll under glass, it seems to me, on the contrary, strangely modern. And then, precisely, the flags: a riot of American flags, at crossroads, on building fronts, on car hoods, on pay phones, on the furniture displayed in the windows along Thames Street, on the boats tied to the dock and on the moorings with no boats, on beach umbrellas, on parasols, on bicycle saddlebagseverywhere, in every form, flapping in the wind or on stickers, an epidemic of flags that has spread throughout the city. There are also, as it happens, a lot of Japanese flags. A Japanese cultural festival is opening, with exhibitions of prints, sushi samples on the boardwalk, sumo wrestling in the street, barkers enticing passersby to come see these wonders, these monsters: "Come on! Look at themall white and powdered! Three hundred pounds! Legs like hams! So fat they can't even walk! They needed three seats in the airplane! Step right up!" And, therefore, white flags with a red ball, symbol of the Land of the Rising Sun, hang from the balconies on this street of jewelers near the harbor where I'm searching for a restaurant, to have lunch. In the end, though, it's the American flag that dominates. One is struck by the omnipresence of the Star-Spangled Banner, even on the T-shirts of the kids who come to watch the sumo wrestlers as the little crowd cheers them on. It's the flag of the American cavalry in westerns. It's the flag of Frank Capra movies. It's the fetish that is there, in the frame, every time the American president appears. It's the beloved flag, almost a living being, the use of which, I understand, is subject not just to rules but to an extremely precise code of flag behavior: don't get it dirty, don't copy it, don't tattoo it onto your body, never let it fall on the ground, never hang it upside down, don't insult it, don't burn it. On the other hand, if it gets too old, if it can no longer be used, if it can't be flown, then you must burn it; yes, instead of throwing it out or bundling it up, better to burn it than abandon it in the trash. It's the flag that was offended by Kid Rock at the Super Bowl, and it's the flag of Michael W. Smith in his song "There She Stands," written just after September 11, in which "she" is none other than "it," the flag, the American symbol that was targeted, defiled, attacked, scorned by the barbarians, but is always proudly unfurled. It's a little strange, this obsession with the flag. It's incomprehensible for someone who, like me, comes from a country virtually without a flagwhere the flag has, so to speak, disappeared; where you see it flying only in front of official buildings; and where any nosta
First Chapter
chapter I

First Visions

(from Newport to Des Moines)

A People and Its Flag

It was here, not too far south of Boston, on the East Coast, which still bears the mark of Europe so clearly, that Alexis de Tocqueville came ashore: Newport, Rhode Island. This well-kept Easton’s Beach. These yachts. These Palladian mansions and painted wooden houses that remind me of the beach towns of Normandy. A naval museum. An athenaeum library. Bed-and-breakfasts with a picture of the owner displayed instead of a sign. Gorgeous trees. Tennis courts. A Georgian-style synagogue, exhibited as the oldest in the United States: with its well-polished pale wood, its fluted columns, its spotless black rattan chairs, its large candelabra, its plaque engraved with clear-cut letters in memory of Isaac Touro and the six or seven great spiritual leaders who succeeded him, its American flag standing next to the Torah scroll under glass, it seems to me, on the contrary, strangely modern.

And then, precisely, the flags: a riot of American flags, at crossroads, on building fronts, on car hoods, on pay phones, on the furniture displayed in the windows along Thames Street, on the boats tied to the dock and on the moorings with no boats, on beach umbrellas, on parasols, on bicycle saddlebags—everywhere, in every form, flapping in the wind or on stickers, an epidemic of flags that has spread throughout the city. There are also, as it happens, a lot of Japanese flags. A Japanese cultural festival is opening, with exhibitions of prints, sushi samples on the boardwalk, sumo wrestling in the street, barkers enticing passersby to come see these wonders, these monsters: “Come on! Look at them—all white and powdered! Three hundred pounds! Legs like hams! So fat they can’t even walk! They needed three seats in the airplane! Step right up!” And, therefore, white flags with a red ball, symbol of the Land of the Rising Sun, hang from the balconies on this street of jewelers near the harbor where I’m searching for a restaurant, to have lunch. In the end, though, it’s the American flag that dominates. One is struck by the omnipresence of the Star-Spangled Banner, even on the T-shirts of the kids who come to watch the sumo wrestlers as the little crowd cheers them on.

It’s the flag of the American cavalry in westerns. It’s the flag of Frank Capra movies. It’s the fetish that is there, in the frame, every time the American president appears. It’s the beloved flag, almost a living being, the use of which, I understand, is subject not just to rules but to an extremely precise code of flag behavior: don’t get it dirty, don’t copy it, don’t tattoo it onto your body, never let it fall on the ground, never hang it upside down, don’t insult it, don’t burn it. On the other hand, if it gets too old, if it can no longer be used, if it can’t be flown, then you must burn it; yes, instead of throwing it out or bundling it up, better to burn it than abandon it in the trash. It’s the flag that was offended by Kid Rock at the Super Bowl, and it’s the flag of Michael W. Smith in his song “There She Stands,” written just after September 11, in which “she” is none other than “it,” the flag, the American symbol that was targeted, defiled, attacked, scorned by the barbarians, but is always proudly unfurled.

It’s a little strange, this obsession with the flag. It’s incomprehensible for someone who, like me, comes from a country virtually without a flag—where the flag has, so to speak, disappeared; where you see it flying only in front of official buildings; and where any nostalgia and concern for it, any evocation of it, is a sign of an attachment to the past that has become almost ridiculous. Is this flag obsession a result of September 11? A response to that trauma whose violence we Europeans persist in underestimating but which, three years later, haunts American minds as much as ever? Should we reread those pages in Tocqueville on the good fortune of being sheltered by geography from violations of the nation’s territorial space and come to see in this return to the flag a neurotic abreaction to the astonishment that the violation actually occurred? Or is it something else entirely? An older, more conflicted relationship of America with itself and with its national existence? A difficulty in being a nation, more severe than in the flagless countries of old Europe, that produces this compensatory effect?

Leafed through the first few pages of One Nation, After All, which the author, the sociologist Alan Wolfe, gave me last night. Maybe the secret lies in this “after all.” Maybe American patriotism is more complex, more painful, than it seems at first glance, and perhaps its apparent excessiveness comes from that. Or perhaps it has to do, as Tocqueville saw it, rather with a kind of “reflective patriotism” which, unlike the “instinctive love” that reigned during the regimes of times past, is forced to exaggerate when it comes to emblems and symbols. To be continued . . .

Tell Me What Your Prisons Are . . .

Tocqueville’s first intention was, we tend to forget, to investigate the American penal system. He went beyond that, of course. He analyzed the political system and American society in its entirety better than anyone. But as his notes, his journal, his letters to Kergorlay and others, and the very text of Democracy in America attest, it was with this business of prisons that everything began, and that’s why I too, after Newport, asked to see the New York prison of Rikers Island, that city within a city on an island that is not shown on every map—a place few New Yorkers seem to take much notice of.

A meeting with Mark J. Cranston, of the New York City Department of Corrections, this Tuesday morning at 5:00 a.m. in Queens, at the entrance to a bridge that doesn’t lead anywhere open to the public. Landscape of desolate shoreline in the foggy morning light. Electric barbed-wire fences. High walls. A checkpoint, as at the edge of a war zone, where the prison guards, almost all of them black, greet one another as they come on duty, and—heading in the opposite direction, packed into barred buses that look like school buses—the prisoners, also mainly black, or Hispanic, who are driven with chains on their feet to courthouses in the Bronx and Queens. A security badge along with my photo. Frisked. On the other side of the East River, in the fog, a white boat like a ghost ship, where, for lack of space, the least dangerous criminals are locked up. And very soon, clinging to New York (La Guardia is so close that, at times, when the wind blows from a certain quarter, the noise from the planes makes you raise your voice or even stop talking), the ten prison buildings that make up this fortress, this enclave cut off from everything, this anti-utopian reservation.

The common room, dirty gray, where the people arrested during the night are assembled, seated on makeshift benches. A small cell, No. 14, where two prisoners (white—is that by chance?) have been isolated. A neater dormitory, with clean sheets, where a sign indicates, as in Manhattan bars, that the zone is “smoke-free.” A man, weirdly agitated, who, taking me for a health inspector, hurries toward me to complain about the mosquitoes. And before we arrive at the detention center proper, before the row of cells, all identical, like minuscule horse stalls, a labyrinth of corridors sliced with bars and opening onto the series of “social” areas they persist in showing me: a chapel; a mosque; a volleyball court from which a distant birdsong rises; a library, where everyone is free, they tell me, to consult law manuals; another room, finally, where there are three open boxes of letters, marked grievance, legal aid, and social services. At first sight you’d think it is a dilapidated hospital, but one obsessed with hygiene: the enormous black female guard, her belt studded with keys, who is guiding me through this maze explains that the first thing to do when a delinquent arrives is to have him take a shower in order to disinfect him, later on she tells me—in the nice booming voice of a guard who has wound up, since there’s no other choice, liking these prisoners—that the second urgent thing is to run a battery of psychological tests to identify the suicidal temperaments; prisoners call to her as we pass, insult her because they’ve been denied the use of the recreation room or the canteen, make farting noises at which she doesn’t bat an eye, stop her sometimes to confide a wish to live or die; it’s only when you look at them up close, obviously, that things become more complicated.

This man with shackled feet. This other one, handcuffs on his wrists and gloves over the handcuffs, because just last week he hid eight razor blades in his ass before throwing himself on a guard to cut his throat. These wild-animal glares, hard to endure. These prisoners for whom a secure system of serving hatches had to be invented, because they took advantage of the moment when their scrap of food was slid over to them to bite the guard’s hand. The little Hispanic man, hand on his ear, streaming blood, screaming that he should be taken to the infirmary, under the shouts of his black co-detainees—the guard tells me he has a “Rikers cut,” a ritual gash made to the ear or face of an inmate by the big shots of the Latin Kings and the Bloods, the gangs that control the prison. The shouts, the fuck yous, the enraged banging on the metal doors in the maximum-security section. Farther on, at the end of the section, in one of the three “shower cells,” which open onto the corridor, the spectacle of a bearded, naked giant jerking off in front of an impassive female guard, to whom he shouts in the voice of a madman, “Come and get me, bitch! Come on!” And then the cry of alarm my guard lets out when, dying of thirst, I bend toward a sink in the hallway: “No! Not there! Don’t drink there!” Marking my surprise, she regains her composure. Excuses herself. Stammers out that it’s all right, it’s just the prisoners’ sink, I could have drunk there. But her reflex says a lot about sanitary conditions in the jail. Rikers Island is actually a “jail,” not a “prison.” It accepts those who have been charged and await sentencing as well as those sentenced to less than a year. What would this be like if it were a real prison? How would these people be treated if they were hardened criminals?

On the way back with Mark Cranston, taking the bridge that leads to the normal world and noticing what I hadn’t noticed when I arrived—namely, that from where I am and, most likely, from the volleyball court and the exercise yard and even certain cells, you can see, as if you were touching it, the Manhattan skyline—I can’t dodge this question: Does the impression of having brushed with hell arise because Rikers is cut off or because it is so close to everything? And then another question occurs to me when Cranston, anxious about the impression his “house” has made, explains that the island used to be a huge garbage dump where the city’s trash was unloaded: Prison or dumping ground? A kind of replacement, on the same site, of society’s trash by its rejects? First impressions of the system. First briefing.

On Religion in General, and Baseball in Particular

Leaving the city behind. Yes, leaving New York, which I know too well. Fast, and through a driving rain. We are on the way to Cooperstown, a miniature village in the central part of the state that has managed at least three times to be in the heart of high-tension zones in American history. It was the town of James Fenimore Cooper, and thus of the symbolic responsibility for the slaughter of the Indians. It lies in a region that, before the Civil War, fleeing slaves and their smugglers passed through. And last but not least, since this is the claim to fame to which it seems most attached, it is the world capital of baseball.

I spend the night in a wooden chalet that has been transformed into a bed-and-breakfast, with ceramic rabbits in the garden and a magazine in the bedroom that explains how to “live comfortably at thirty,” how to be “older than seventy and still be in love,” and “six ways to get your daily glass of milk.” The house is run by two commanding women, mother and daughter, who wear identical bloodred canvas aprons and look the spitting image of Margaret Thatcher at two stages of her life. I spend time in the morning listening to these ladies tell me the history of their house. The building was actually created a century ago by an officer in the Civil War, but it has been renovated so as to hide all antique traces. “Are you interested in the bed-and-breakfast business, which is the passion of our existence?” one of them asks. “Is this your first experience? Did you like it? I’m glad you did, since there are as many bed-and-breakfasts as there are owners. Everyone puts their mark on it—it’s an art, a religion. No, that’s not the word, ‘religion.’ We don’t make any difference here between religions—no more than we would with the Yankees and the Red Sox. Who won, by the way?” (She has turned toward a customer in shorts and undershirt who is sitting at the table next to mine. He shrugs as he wolfs down a huge slab of bacon.) “See, he doesn’t know. That means it doesn’t count. And you—what are you? Oh! Jewish. Oh! Atheist. That’s okay . . . Everyone does what they want . . . In this business you have to like ninety-nine percent of your clients . . .”

The breakfast was a little long. But now I’m in the immense museum, completely disproportionate to the dollhouses in the rest of the town, where this great national sport is honored, this sport that establishes people’s identities and that has truly become part of their civic and patriotic religion, which is baseball: isn’t there, in the Hall of Fame adjoining the museum, a plaque devoted to those champions who interrupted their careers to serve in American wars?
Excerpted from American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville by Bernard-Henri Lévy
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.
Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2005-12-12:
Levy's journey through this "magnificent, mad country" is indeed vertiginous as he loops from coast to coast and back, mounting to the heights of wealth and power-interviewing the likes of Barry Diller and John Kerry-and plunging into the depths of poverty and powerlessness, in urban ghettoes and prisons. (In this last, he truly follows Tocqueville, whose assignment in the young America was to visit prisons.) Each scene is quite short, which is frustrating at first, but soon the quick succession of images creates a jostling, animated portrait of America, full of resonances and contradictions. Sharon Stone in her luxurious home, railing about the misery of the poor, is quickly followed by Levy's chat with a waitress in a Colorado town struggling to make ends meet. A gated retirement community in Arizona seems to the author like a prison, while Angola, a prison in Louisiana, has lush grounds that resemble a retirement community's. Levy (Who Killed Daniel Pearl), the celebrated French thinker and journalist, is a master of the vignette and the miniature, whether explaining why he could feel at home in Seattle or pondering whether Diller's apparent amorality is "too flaunted to be completely sincere." In France, where anti-Americanism has been so popular, Levy has been an anti-anti-Americanist, and while he finds serious fissures in this country's social landscape, in the end he is an optimist about the future of a country he admires for the richness of its culture and its political vision. (Feb. 1) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Appeared in Library Journal on 2005-09-01:
French philosopher/activist L?vy treads where his famed compatriot once trod, gauging the success of America's experiment in democracy. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Appeared in Choice on 2007-04-01:
Levy's book is divided into two sections. The first, "Voyage of America," covers seven chapters that describe the author's circular trip around the US. For example, chapter 3 is titled "The Pacific Wall, from Seattle to San Diego," and chapter 4 is designated "Gone with the Wind, from Austin to Little Rock." (It is no surprise that Seattle is Levy's favorite city.) Levy's observations are capricious. Each chapter describes the various forms of US culture that he thought significant--from brothels to baseball to Baghdad. Along the way, he finds vulgarity and hypocrisy. The second section, presenting his thoughts from the journey, is divided into four chapters, the last titled "Has America Gone Mad?" Both sections have little to do with Tocqueville except that both authors are French. Tocqueville used his visit to reflect on all western European governments. Levy's observations are arbitrary and come from a man whose country has a national body of academics to protect the French language. His government is on its fifth republic. This reviewer feels the vertigo. There is nothing here that readers do not already know. ^BSumming Up: Not recommended. S. L. Recken University of Arkansas at Little Rock
Reviews
Review Quotes
" Bernard-Henry Le vy does nothing that goes unnoticed. He is an intellectual adventurer who brings publicity to unfashionable political causes." - The New York Times
"Bernard-Henry Levy does nothing that goes unnoticed. He is an intellectual adventurer who brings publicity to unfashionable political causes." The New York Times
This item was reviewed in:
Kirkus Reviews,
Library Journal, September 2005
Publishers Weekly, December 2005
Booklist, January 2006
Boston Globe, January 2006
Globe & Mail, January 2006
Los Angeles Times, January 2006
New York Times Book Review, January 2006
San Francisco Chronicle, January 2006
Wall Street Journal, January 2006
Library Journal, February 2006
USA Today, February 2006
Choice, April 2007
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Summaries
Long Description
What does it mean to be an American, and what can America be today? To answer these questions, celebrated philosopher and journalist Bernard-Henri Le vy spent a year traveling throughout the country in the footsteps of another great Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, whose Democracy in America remains the most influential book ever written about our country. The result is American Vertigo, a fascinating, wholly fresh look at a country we sometimes only think we know. From Rikers Island to Chicago mega-churches, from Muslim communities in Detroit to an Amish enclave in Iowa, Le vy investigates issues at the heart of our democracy: the special nature of American patriotism, the coexistence of freedom and religion (including the religion of baseball), the prison system, the " return of ideology" and the health of our political institutions, and much more. He revisits and updates Tocqueville' s most important beliefs, such as the dangers posed by " the tyranny of the majority, " explores what Europe and America have to learn from each other, and interprets what he sees with a novelist' s eye and a philosopher' s depth. Through powerful interview-based portraits across the spectrum of the American people, from prison guards to clergymen, from Norman Mailer to Barack Obama, from Sharon Stone to Richard Holbrooke, Le vy fills his book with a tapestry of American voices- some wise, some shocking. Both the grandeur and the hellish dimensions of American life are unflinchingly explored. And big themes emerge throughout, from the crucial choices America faces today to the underlying reality that, unlike the " OldWorld, " America remains the fulfillment of the world' s desire to worship, earn, and live as one wishes- a place, despite all, where inclusion remains not just an ideal but an actual practice. At a time when Americans are anxious about how the world perceives them and, indeed, keen to make sense of themselves, a brilliant and sympathetic foreign observer has arrived to help us begin a new conversation about the meaning of America.
Main Description
What does it mean to be an American, and what can America be today?To answer these questions, celebrated philosopher and journalist Bernard-Henri Levy spent a year traveling throughout the country in the footsteps of another great Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, whose Democracy in America remains the most influential book ever written about our country. The result isAmerican Vertigo, a fascinating, wholly fresh look at a country we sometimes only think we know. From Rikers Island to Chicago mega-churches, from Muslim communities in Detroit to an Amish enclave in Iowa, Levy investigates issues at the heart of our democracy: the special nature of American patriotism, the coexistence of freedom and religion (including the religion of baseball), the prison system, the "return of ideology" and the health of our political institutions, and much more. He revisits and updates Tocqueville's most important beliefs, such as the dangers posed by "the tyranny of the majority," explores what Europe and America have to learn from each other, and interprets what he sees with a novelist's eye and a philosopher's depth. Through powerful interview-based portraits across the spectrum of the American people, from prison guards to clergymen, from Norman Mailer to Barack Obama, from Sharon Stone to Richard Holbrooke, Levy fills his book with a tapestry of American voicessome wise, some shocking. Both the grandeur and the hellish dimensions of American life are unflinchingly explored. And big themes emerge throughout, from the crucial choices America faces today to the underlying reality that, unlike the "Old World," America remains the fulfillment of the world's desire to worship, earn, and live as one wishesa place, despite all, where inclusion remains not just an ideal but an actual practice. At a time when Americans are anxious about how the world perceives them and, indeed, keen to make sense of themselves, a brilliant and sympathetic foreign observer has arrived to help us begin a new conversation about the meaning of America.
Table of Contents
First visions (from Newport to Des Moines)p. 21
Moving West (from Kalona to Livingston)p. 48
The Pacific wall (from Seattle to San Diego)p. 78
Desert vertigo (from Vegas to Tempe)p. 106
Gone with the South (from Austin to Little Rock)p. 136
Eye of the hurricane (from Miami to Pittsburgh)p. 168
The beautiful and the damned (from Washington, D.C., back to Cape Cod)p. 201
What does it mean to be an American?p. 237
American ideology and the question of terrorism (the current state of affairs)p. 256
Has America gone mad?p. 275
Table of Contents provided by Blackwell. All Rights Reserved.

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