BHL as Inspector Clouseau?


Bernard-Henri Levy came to America "in the footsteps of Tocqueville" to study what he calls,

[a] crisis of identity.  The powerful country in the world does not know what it is, it feels itself in a deep trauma, a deep neurosis.  It was interesting to go behind the curtain.

Oh, please.  This is the difference between America and France, isn’t it?  America knows perfectly well that it "does not know what it is," that it cannot know what it is.  There are so many groups, driven by so many ideas, subject now to so many regional, ethnic, lifestyle, gender variations that America is a fountain of cultural invention. 

This causes no "deep trauma."  We all understand that difference breeds difference and we can never catch up.  A few people have lost their courage and run straight into the embrace of orthodoxy of one kind or another.  But most of us are reconciled to the fact that we live in a society of very strange strangers, and we accept this with the equanimity with which we regard the weather and the incompetence of our local baseball team: "whaddayagonnado?"

Second, I think we all understand, and one feels sure that Tocqueville would have grasped this, that there is no "curtain" to go behind.  No one is charge.  No one calls this shots.  I thought for a moment that it might be Ryan Seacrest.  I was wrong. 

One could argue that Tocqueville was particularly well situated to grasp some of the more difficult aspects of an earlier America.  Being a Frenchman of this generation and this intellectual moment, he had an advantage.  BHL, on the other hand, appears to suffer an intellectual deficit. 

France knows too well what it is, and this is a great and grave problem.  French self knowledge hangs like a millstone around the neck of national, economic and cultural aspiration.  To be sure, there is still a curtain in France, and behind, awash in self congratulation, a media green room, filled with politicians, film stars, and not least intellectuals.  (America learned long ago that intellectuals would necessary be the last ones to get the news and took pains fastidiously to ignore them.  Only Robert Thompson is still consulted.)  A visitor can penetrate the curtain in France, but this would be perhaps the worst place to go looking for national, cultural truths. 

Somehow, one feels that Tocqueville is the wrong comparison for Bernard-Henri Levy.  I do not mean to be disrespectful, but it occurred to me that Inspector Clouseau is a perhaps more apt.  And not the version accomplished by Peter Sellers.  ("You’ll catch your death of cold, Clouseau!"  "Yes, yes, I probably will, but…it’s all part of life’s rich pagentry, you kneu.")  M. Levy resembles M. Martin more. 

Yes, I think that’s it.  BHL is to Tocqueville as Martin’s Clouseau is to Sellers’ Clouseau. Not so much an act of deference as a comparison that’s ill advised.   


Levy, Bernard-Henri.  2006.  American Vertigo: Travelling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville.  New York.  Random House. 

Swanson, Carl.  2006.  American Psychoanalyst.  New York Magazine.  January 23-30, p. 78. here.  (the quote comes from this article)

Wood, Gaby.  2003.  Je suis un superstar.  The Observer.  June 15, 20003. here.

For more quotes from Inspector Clouseau, here

3 thoughts on “BHL as Inspector Clouseau?

  1. Auto

    That take-down of BHL in a recent NYT Sunday book review was brutal. A week or so later, Martin Peretz used his New Republic to salvage BHL — to no avail.

    I don’t doubt that we’re all at risk for saying things about foreign countries that no local would ever say, but the French seem to take the cake. Every few years another esteemed French thinker shows up at Kennedy airport to research a book that ends up saying a lot of stupid shit about America.

    The Brits, by contrast, perhaps because they’re native English speakers, often see America in totally unexpected ways. Long ago, when I worked in Washington in political consulting, we subcribed to all the British papers. We wanted to read how their reporters summed up US politics in a single article that ignored the inside baseball and/or horse race quality of American political reporting.

  2. Niti Bhan

    I have tried to lift France out of the mud. But she will return to her errors. I cannot prevent the French from being French. ~ Charles de Gaulle

  3. Grant

    Auto, yes, he’s become a punching bag, one of those blow up Popeyes, and I should be ashamed of myself for taking a swing. Still, I have a blog to get out and I like my targets large and obvious.

    Niti, perfect. Thanks, Grant

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