In the Footsteps of Tocqueville (Part V)

A twenty-first-century pilgrim ends a year-long journey where the seventeenth-century Pilgrims ended theirs—on the coast of New England, not far from where his travels began

So it's one of those interminable lines, typical everywhere since September 11, which form whenever there's a counter open somewhere. Once again, I find it hard to justify the usual clichés about the impatience, feverishness, agitation, even brutality, of American crowds. Quite the contrary—there's calm, discipline, a mixture of docility and curiosity, gregarious submission and civilization. The opposite of the French type of whining, line-cutting crowd; the opposite of the vicious, stamping herd, in which individuals are determined to tear one another to pieces. Here, when your gaze meets someone else's, when people bump into each other, there's a flurry of "It's okay," "You're welcome," "Enjoy your trip"—friendly commonplaces, outward signs of warmth, especially smiles, yes, those smiles that mean nothing, those affectless, emotionless smiles, smiles that seem to be there only to signify the pure will to smile and, by so doing, defuse any conflict that threatens. All that, once again, so quintessentially American …

And then, when my turn finally comes, the most comical of scenarios, because it's the only one I would never have thought of: having discovered that this passenger Lévy is traveling to Paris to spend a total of two hours there—that the flight approval requested includes another flight on the same day, going in the opposite direction—the company computer panics, blocks the request, and refuses to issue my ticket.

Red alert. Sudden commotion.

The distress of functionaries, first from the airline company, then from airport security, faced with this unheard-of situation.

What's all this about wanting to spend the day on a plane? What can you be up to, as you are proposing to spend seven hours flying one way and then seven hours flying back, with just a few minutes on French soil in between?

Grandfather? Prove it …

Writer? No proof …

I remember—since it gives me hope for a quick resolution—the story of my good Tocquevillian cop back at the start of my journey, on the highway.

Tocqueville? That has nothing to do with such a strange situation …

I remember—somewhat more alarming—the story about Cat Stevens's being sent back to England and, especially, the one about Ted Kennedy, who was prevented five times from getting into an airplane because they had confused his with another name on the "no-fly" list.

I can understand American paranoia. I can understand how a nation at war with enemies skilled at making themselves undetectable must equip itself with sophisticated warning and identification systems. But at the risk of the absurd? At the price of interrogations in which you are constrained to disclose details that have to do only with your private life?

Does every passenger need to become a suspect? Every trip an irksome undertaking? With body searches and frisking? And—something I will definitely never get used to—this way of making you stand shoeless, arms outstretched … Isn't there a way to avoid these scenarios?

In this case everything turned out all right, and I was finally able to board my plane and spend my two hours in Paris. But one fact is obvious, and the country's authorities will need to realize it sooner or later. Here is the sign of real disorder: These new surveillance systems pose as many problems as they pretend to solve. And the brand-new Department of Homeland Security is still a long way from the "smart borders" that have been promised to America and the world.

The Journey to America

In Baltimore, in the poorest neighborhood of the city, in its landscape of empty lots and half-razed buildings, I wanted to see the red-brick house that's one of the few to have been restored, where a plaque tells us—what an irony—that here Edgar Allan Poe lived for several years and that in this city he died.

I wanted to visit Johns Hopkins University (Hopkins: the maiden name of Elizabeth, Poe's mother—is that merely chance?), where my teacher Jacques Derrida lectured, and where Sartre scholars have gathered for a conference, the caliber of which is almost unimaginable in a European university.

But I also wanted to see the waterfront, where, one fine morning in 1791, at the height of the French Revolution, a great writer dropped anchor: François-René de Chateaubriand, who had set sail from Saint-Malo, and who, having passed by the Azores and then Saint-Pierre, invented the literary voyage to America, forty years before Tocqueville (to whom he was, incidentally, distantly related).

It's quite strange, this business of a voyage to America. Strange, when you think about it, this passion writers have had, not just French ones but other Europeans, too, for this particular journey.

Writers have always traveled, of course. Notwithstanding the famous—too famous, perhaps—saying of Lévi-Strauss at the start of his Tristes Tropiques ("I hate traveling"), Europeans have never ceased to love travels and travelers. But I'm not sure there's any destination in the world that—from the author of Génie du Christianisme to that of Oliver Twist, from Céline to Georges Duhamel, from Franz Kafka to Mario Soldati, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and so many others, for better or worse, whether eliciting hatred or reluctant adoration—more continually, intensely, irresistibly summoned them than America has. And although I can see what they were after when they journeyed to the East (the Exote so dear to Segalen, but also to Claudel and Malraux), to Rome or Florence (the beauty of lines, the metamorphoses of art and its forms), to Jerusalem, Persepolis, Lhasa (mirage of origins and sources, cradle of civilizations), it's harder for me to grasp what it is that continues to beat in the heart of this desire to see America, and that can't be reduced to any of those great canonic motives.

A search for sources? Nonsense, since here we have a new world whose sources are in Europe.

Beauty? Harmony? With a few notable exceptions—a handful of free spirits who were able to discern the beauty of skyscrapers and of the new urban landscapes of these great, mad, artificial cities—most of these observers deplored the poverty, the ignorance, the unsightliness of Americans.

The exotic? The cool gaze of the ethnologist, alert to the customs of a foreign civilization? Those aren't viable reasons either. They bear no relevance to the European underpinnings of America, and also contradict this delight in the modern that, after three centuries, continues to haunt, shape, and pull along the nation of Jefferson and Kennedy, and which is still the best antidote to whatever love of folklore or the picturesque the typical fascination with the exotic may be laden with.

No. The journey to America doesn't fall into any of these categories. It obeys none of these traditional motives. And I even wonder if, point by point, methodically, it doesn't take just the opposite course.

First contradiction: not the exotic but the nearby; not the other but the same. Of course, in a sense, it is the other, America is other—but so much less "other" than the Asian, African, or Amerindian other! An other that talks to us about ourselves; an other that teaches us about our most ordinary, common, and, at bottom, shared reality; an other that always, or almost always, has the puzzling familiarity (or, which comes down to the same thing, the unsettling strangeness) of a caricature or a mirror image, a way of changing places whereby you travel a very long route to meet not the other but yourself, once again and afresh. Observe how among the moderns the journey to America always has the structure of a phenomenological odyssey.

Second contradiction: the future. Usually this kind of mirror reflects the past; it says to us, "This is what you used to be, where you came from, who made you." Here it's just the opposite: a mirror that, to use a well-known title, lends us the image not of our past history but of scenes of future life as American anticipation allows us to imagine them. "This is what you will be," it tells us; "this is where you're going and what kind of world you'll give birth to." If the journey to America is, like all journeys, a journey in time as much as in space, the time is not that of our dreamt, nostalgic, or reinvented memory but of a future that, according to your taste, according to each person's temperament, threatens us or is promised to us—a machine not to descend but to mount the chutes of time.

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 last in a series of articles.

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