Road Trip: Part II

What would Tocqueville say? A journey continues, from Seattle to San Diego via Alcatraz and an obesity clinic
On the Road to L.A.

Highway 101. Then Highway 1, the legendary highway that follows the seacoast; I've seen it so many times in books that I feel I know it before I even take it. Warmth and speed. Desert. Sea sky. That Pacific Wall that Jean-François Lyotard spoke of, about which I no longer know if the mountain is the wall, or the cliffs over the sand, or even the immense, towering white waves that crash onto the beach. In Monterey the landscape suddenly shifts to rounder hills, a coast of deep red, then green, then yet again red because of the kelp—a kind of deep-rooted seaweed, spread out over hundreds of feet, of which we see only the tips. But mostly one notices steep hillsides; sharp bends winding through the hillsides; well-defined cliff ridges, dotted with dwarf cacti in some places and giant redwoods in others; grandiose, jagged contours; huge masses and overwhelming skies; a scenery not of the end but of the morning of the world, where man may still be absent; and down below, in the other direction, more waves, the sun glittering in the waves, seals, the new, limitless luminosity of this inhuman desert that has thrown itself into the ocean. Lunch stop in Carmel Valley, at a bikers' restaurant, where we eat bad tacos and boiled corn on the cob that remain leaden in the stomach. Another stop, at a campground for RVs, where, in the torrid heat, a colony of white youths are playing. Everything about them—their trousers with the crotch falling down to their knees, the backwards baseball caps, the shape of their T-shirts, their slang, their tone of voice, their disaffected look—is trying hard to imitate black kids in American movies. A gas station in the middle of nowhere. A McDonald's, at a turn in the road, where an American flag is flying listlessly and a billboard urges, Support our troops. A farm where a roaming pack of coyotes was reported yesterday. A providential phone booth: after Monterey, cell phones can't get any signal. Needless to say, the least sign or detail of this sort, the least billboard (like the one in front of the phone booth, Jesus saves, come to us), the least Greyhound bus (all of which bring Ginsberg and Kerouac to mind), seems in this desert landscape miraculous, almost like a mirage. In Big Sur I discover, set back a little from the highway, in the woods, the humble memorial set up to the glory of Henry Miller by a literature buff: library; little museum; bookstore where anything that has to do, however remotely, with the author or his work can be found; in a clearing a movie screen on which a documentary will be projected in a few days; a platform, also out in the open, where the best "Miller scholars" in the country sometimes give lectures before a tiny audience of literature-loving locals; an old guitar-playing hippie; beneath a canopy of greenery and low-lying trees, on a pedestal of television screens artistically crushed and piled, a big crucified Jesus, made of wire intertwined with branches, and meant, I imagine, to incarnate the suffering of the author of Sexus, Plexus, and Nexus.

And then, farther down the road, the Hearst castle, set on an arid mountain facing the ocean: San Simeon, bombastic kitsch, as big as half of Rhode Island, where I arrive full of emotion (wasn't this, after all, the model for Citizen Kane's Xanadu, the fortress of solitude where Orson Welles brought to life, and enclosed, his character?) but which I leave, an hour later, torn between irrepressible and contradictory wishes to laugh, to vomit, and yet at times to applaud.

Why laugh? The crazy image of those sleuths sent all over Europe to flush out an altarpiece the owner was mad about, or the 212th piece of a mosaic that was shattered ten centuries ago but that he wanted to restore, or, finally, a Greco-Roman temple he caught a glimpse of in a book and decided to buy, dismantle, number stone by stone, pack up, transport, and rebuild exactly as it was before.

Vomit? The predatory aspect of it all, the caprice of it, the almighty dollar, the cave-of-Ali-Baba side of it—the fruits of one of the most formidable enterprises of contemporary pillaging all stored in a jumble, your culture and mine. This is what I make of your memory: I buy and I stockpile, I steal and I heap up, move and possibly remodel as I please, as a world-renowned art lover. The world (of yesterday) was created in order to end up in my house; the most sumptuous collections (of artworks, objets d'art) are destined to find their way here, to this nowhere land, this temple of bad taste erected to my glory and to the glory of my mistress, the actress Marion Davies. On his good days William Randolph Hearst must have thought he was making these works live again, that he was offering them a new baptism. On his bad-humored days he must have told himself that the Europeans were dwarfs, subhumans, and that he had the supreme right to walk over, sit down, shit on all that heritage they were so ridiculously proud of.

But why in the world do I feel like applauding, too? Just once won't hurt; there's virtue in mixed feelings—for despite everything, he had a love of these works. There's still a dream of civilization, and—in the very act of placing on the same level an ancient marble bust and a fifteenth-century statue, an Italian Venus from the twentieth century, a Moorish Spanish ceiling, and the Venetian glass tiles in the pool—a desire (pathetic certainly, but touching, and which could have borne a certain nobility) to make the beating heart of Europe, the archive of the Old World, live again here, in the wild heart of America. The ark of another Noah saving all these things from who knows what obscure disaster: perhaps—who knows?—the great European catastrophe. But the animals have become objects, and species have been changed into masterpieces, each one unique.

At nightfall, the coconut palms of Santa Barbara. The cascades of flowers in Santa Monica. Melancholy palm trees in a Riviera-like landscape. And very quickly, without forewarning, a scene of wide rectilinear avenues, lit up like nowhere else in the United States, phosphorescent, from which I deduce that I have entered Los Angeles.

Presented by

Bernard-Henri Lévy

Bernard-Henri Lévy is a writer and philosopher who lives in Paris. He is the author of many books, including Barbarism With a Human Face, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, and War, Evil, and the End of History. This is the second of several articles.

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