Seattle Mon Amour
"In the Footsteps of Tocqueville" (May 2005)
A Frenchman hits the road and takes our measure. By Bernard-Henri Lévy
Nothing is more striking about Seattle than the moment of arrival.
I loved the city itself, of course.
I loved that feeling of wide-openness on the Sound, the current of brisk air that touches you despite the summer heat.
I loved Seattle's delicate, sun-speckled docks. Its pulsing, heterogeneous marketplace, where highly specialized bookstores, shops selling collectible posters, myriad bars, are all wedged between two shimmering fish markets. During the day I loved the breeze that rises from the water as if to widen the streets, and in the evening the summer mist, wispy, a little gray, which stops, mysteriously, at the waterfront. I loved the city's hills and its interminable steps, the floating bridge over Lake Washington, the boats leaving for Alaska or Panama. I loved those "boulevards without movement or commerce" around First Avenue, and I loved the "drunkenness of a big capital" that soars over Capitol Hill and its sidewalks inlaid with bronze dance steps. I loved the Jimi Hendrix museum—or is it the Paul Allen museum? Or the Frank Gehry museum? I don't quite know what to call it. What can you say, really, when the most generous patron helps the greatest architect build the most extraordinary rock-and-roll museum? I loved the air of freedom, of nonconformism, that reigns over the economic capital of this state about which they said, during the time of the great strikes after World War I, "There are forty-seven states in the United States, plus the Soviet of Washington." And I loved the fact that this city that in a distant past endured the most savage anti-Asian riots in the history of the United States is today near the top in welcoming the influx of people from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Seoul, Beijing. I loved the fact that this post-American metropolis—where, if it has to invent itself somewhere, the American civilization of tomorrow will invent itself—remains, despite everything, so obstinately European.
I liked Frank Blethen, a man with a white beard, imitation Hemingway and genuine publisher and part owner of the Seattle Times, who is fighting against the Hearst empire for the survival of his paper, and through his paper for the survival of the family press, whose fate, by his lights, is linked to that of democracy.
In Redmond I visited that city-within-a-city, surrounded by pine trees, green lawns, little lakes, that is the headquarters of Microsoft. I met some of the engineers, from Mexico, France, and India, who are inventing the language and social fabric of the future. And here, too, I loved the feeling of imagination, youth, chic and atypical bohemian-ness, irreverence, cosmopolitanism, civilization, intelligence, that this strange group of people radiated. All this recent research, for instance, into graphic recognition. And the enthusiasm when the idea arose to apply the method to the manuscripts of Joyce, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Hugo, and to encourage the writers of today to go back to the tradition of handwriting. The uplifting wind of elation that rose in the tiny room, empty and white, aseptic yet warm, at the mere idea of having in their hands—they, the offspring of Bill Gates, prodigies of science and culture—the means of thus crossbreeding the wildest modernity with the very symbol of archaism.
I visited the Boeing factories. I spent half a day in a landscape of girders and giant winches worthy of a larger-than-life Fernand Léger; of mini-buildings inside cavernous hangars; of walls of monitors, monstrous pipes and chrome caterpillars, immense jetways, colossal scaffolding, open bellies and steel guts, fuselages and armor plates, where occurs that miracle of high technology that is the assembling of a new plane. And I loved the fact that the officiants at this miracle, on whose shoulders rests a responsibility made twice as pressing by security issues and terrorist threats, looked like hippies with ponytails as they worked coolly to a Rolling Stones riff.
I loved, on the corner of First Avenue and Virginia Street, the bistro Le Pichet, whose sign says in French that it's "a bar during the day and a café at night" and serves "regional specialties all day." I met Ron Reagan there, son of Ronald and Nancy, whose speech on stem-cell research was one of the two big events of the Democratic convention (Barack Obama's speech was the other), and I liked seeing him this way—in a jean jacket and a khaki T-shirt, looking unkempt and sleepy, improvising a dance step in the morning sun (for, he told me, he was once a dancer, a professional ballet dancer). I liked seeing him again that morning, relaxed and joking, imitating President Bush's diffidence on the day of Reagan's funeral. "Come on, George," Nancy whispered to Bush when she caught sight of him, completely terrified, arms dangling, as un-presidential as could be, faced with the circle of the Reagan family that so impressed him. "Come on, George, say something to us!" And he, petrified with timidity, his Adam's apple quivering, could find nothing to say other than a little strangled "How are you?" And I also liked hearing Ron Reagan tell me about what was behind his Boston speech, and how that very morning the Democratic speechwriters had tried to unload on him a ready-made speech, full of clichés—No, thanks, can't say that, it'll be my text or nothing, and if it's nothing, no problem, I'll go back to Seattle, where I'm happy …
I liked absolutely everything about Seattle.
If I had to choose an American city to live in—if I had to pick a place, and only one, where I had the feeling in America of rediscovering my lost bearings—it would be here, in Seattle.
If I had to choose one moment in this discovery—if I had to say what the instant was when everything was settled and, in the blink of an eye, the genius of the place was revealed to me—it would be the moment when, arriving from Spokane on Highway 90, having stopped at a motel in Moses Lake for a late-afternoon sandwich, having crossed the pine forests of Washington State and then the orchards of Wanatchee, having passed Mercer Island and then the Homer Hadley Bridge, I saw, floating like a torch between two motionless clouds, in a dark-pink sky entirely new to me, the tip of a skyscraper, the Space Needle, already completely lit up, which in my imagination suddenly condensed everything that America has always made me dream of: poetry and modernity, precariousness and technical challenge, lightness of form meshed with a Babel syndrome, city lights, the haunting quality of darkness, tall trees of steel. Ever since I was little I've so loved saying "gratte-ciels"—"skyscrapers."