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

And then, one last contradiction—a third trail that complicates the preceding one, and makes it more specific: America is skyscrapers, but it is also wide-open spaces and deserts; it is scenes of future life but also (I've seen enough of them, written and talked about them enough!) landscapes of the dawn of the world that are certainly not (see the preceding point) "our" European dawn but that, from Audubon to Baudrillard (along with all those movie westerns), are a kind of reminiscence of it, or a reminder. So there it is; perhaps this journey has the peculiarity, finally, of giving us a taste of both. Perhaps it's one of those very rare experiences capable of offering, in one single bundle of sensations, a whiff of the ultra-modern and another of the extremely archaic. And perhaps the love we feel for the journey stems from the obscure conviction that here, and here alone, the possibility is offered to a human being to see concentrated the materialization of these two dreams, pre- and post-historical, both equally powerful, but which usually we can think of only as separated by thousands of kilometers and, even more, by millennia. The American journey, in one single space (a country), in one short period of time (scarcely three centuries, maybe four), in the scarcely one hundred years, for instance, that sufficed for the first American pioneers who entered the territory of Death Valley and the Grand Canyon to invent the hideous Las Vegas (and, by doing so, to leap from the pre-biblical to the postmodern): the American journey, then, or the endless passage from Eden to Gehenna, the permanent short-circuit of the Bible and science fiction, the journey across humanity's golden age and age of lead …

A Blindness on Tocqueville's Part?

Philadelphia. Eastern State Penitentiary. Probably my last prison, but one of the most important ones, along with the one in Auburn, New York, that Tocqueville and his companion, Beaumont, studied. Everything is the same as it was, Sean Kelly tells me. He is the program director of the office that, since the establishment closed, more than thirty years ago, has been in charge of maintaining it, arranging tours, and every year, for Halloween, opening the site to groups of children short on ghosts and vivid emotions. Everything is exactly as our two missionaries found it on that day in October of 1831, when they were welcomed by James J. Barclay, George Washington Smith, and Roberts Vaux, leaders of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of the Public Prisons, an association of Quakers, human-rights advocates, defenders of the Cherokee Indians, and early opponents of slavery, who conceived, created, and, from 1829, managed this new kind of penitentiary, which was not meant to punish the criminal or repair the damage caused to society by crime, or even, like Alcatraz, Angola, and, later on, Rikers Island, put the criminal in quarantine, get rid of him like trash and banish him. Instead it was to help him, through silence and solitude, to redeem himself, repent, and, in the pure Quaker tradition, elevate his soul, which had been led astray by the devil. The same high walls. The same crenellated towers flanked by fake machicolations. The same moats, drawbridges, dungeons, arrow slits. The same Piranesi architecture, which the prisoner, arriving hooded, couldn't possibly see, but the mere idea of which—whatever was told him—was enough, Tocqueville said, to inspire in him the beginning of a religious terror and of a horror for his crime. And finally, inside this desolate setting, flooded by rain at night, resembling a haunted castle more than anything, the same prison complex, made up of a central tower from which seven galleries of individual cells radiate in perfect geometry, each one with a tiny garden, all of which lie open to the view of the guards. Had Tocqueville read Jeremy Bentham's opus, published forty years earlier, at the height of the prison debates initiated by Beccaria and the French revolutionaries? Did he realize, when he marveled at this system, in which, as he wrote, they "translated the intelligence of discipline into stone," that he was in the first detention center in the world that applied the famous "panopticon" schema that the nineteenth century would use not just for prisons, but as the principle of organization for its schools, hospitals, barracks, and factories? As far as I know, Tocqueville never cited either the book or its author. But it is certain that he perceived this system's stroke of genius. He understood that because it gives guards the ability to see without being seen; because it establishes a surveillance that is at once uninterrupted, invisible, and virtual; because no prisoner ever knows, in other words, whether the eye of power is at any given instant actually directed at him, it has the ability to throw souls into "a deeper terror than chains and blows." And above all, he appreciated this other peculiarity of the system, which is directly linked to the ideology of its Quaker promoters: in order to be absolutely certain of making the prisoners face their villainy; urging them to genuine repentance, which was the goal of their imprisonment; and hastening the intellectual and moral reform for which prison, according to the Quakers, should be the opportunity and the setting, they organized everything so as to isolate prisoners both day and night, and cut off any kind of contact—not just with their fellow prisoners but with the outer world and even the guards. Visits were forbidden; the slightest attempt at speech was punished; any reading other than the holy Scriptures was prohibited. Thus were they put in the situation of caring only about God …

Ten years later, Dickens would proclaim his horror at an organization that was meant to convert delinquents to good but which, as far as he could see, managed only to push them over the line into madness. Learning that everything, from meals to religious services and bimonthly showers, was arranged so that no one ever met anyone else, he would denounce "this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain," which is "immeasurably worse than any torture of the body." Others, many other visitors, throughout the entire nineteenth century, would denounce the insanity of a world in which the phobia of noise was so severe that the wheels of the carts that stopped at the cell doors at mealtimes were wrapped in leather; in which the last trick left to prisoners to hold on to the sound of human presence was to tap gently on iron sewage pipes to send one another secret messages; and in which, when a rebel couldn't cure himself of talking, they put into his mouth a piece of cast iron attached to a mechanism that buried it a little deeper in his throat whenever he moved his tongue or glottis, and, on one occasion, that suffocated a prisoner.

But not Tocqueville. He had no fundamental objection to this Quaker vision of redemption by meditation, prayer, and labor. He visited these little rooms whose only opening was a bull's-eye window carved out of the ceiling, looking onto the sky. He visited the prisoners and, despite the rules of silence, obtained permission to question them and extract vague confidences about their detention. And he found almost no faults with the system. He seemed scarcely moved by the notion that speech was the supposed vector of all contagions and, necessarily, of the vilest of evil spells. Beaumont even talked of these cells as a "palace" that must have cost an "astronomical amount," and which, at a time when the president of the United States had to content himself with a coal burner and pitchers of water, was equipped with central heating and running water. In short, compared with Auburn, where prisoners were isolated only at night and devoted themselves during the day to forced collective labor, and finding that here hygiene, food, and the material conditions of life were objectively better, observing that the jails smelled good and were clean, and also noting that corporal punishment had for the time disappeared, the two friends found enough merit in this model to commend it to their own government. Was that a shortcoming of Tocqueville's, or of his context? Was it the blindness of the time, or—perhaps—a faint shadow on the portrayal, so constantly flattering, that a parallel reading of his masterpiece and the great open book of the living America of today invites us to admire?

Portrait of the Filmmaker As a Musician

Don't tell Woody Allen he's a filmmaker; he thinks of himself as a musician. That must be what went through the minds of the hundred or so fans who saw him perform tonight in the café at the Carlyle Hotel, on the corner of Madison and Seventy-sixth, where he came, as he does every Monday, accompanied by his New Orleans Jazz Band, to play the clarinet. Here was one of the greatest living American filmmakers. Here was the admirable auteur of Annie Hall and The Purple Rose of Cairo. And here he was within arm's reach, sitting on a stool, without any special set, among diners who didn't think it necessary to stop their drinking and eating to listen to him. Here he was, dressed in corduroy trousers and a light-blue shirt; concentrating, eyes half closed or fully shut; defined gestures; confident breath; fingers flat on the open holes of his clarinet; the muscles of his mouth tight, yet not puffing out his cheeks around the mouthpiece; his upper lip surprisingly mobile, at times seeming to inhale and swallow the top of the reed and at times curling back as if to convey its decision to keep its distance, disavow that nasty instrument, and, all of a sudden, with sovereign authority, literally cut off its breath …

In the beginning you say to yourself, That can't be him. You tell yourself that the real Woody Allen wouldn't expose himself this way, in this bar; that this famous little man, the schlemiel with the physique of the eternal loser, heir to Keaton, Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd, epitome of the awkward oaf who has never been seen to take a step, come through the door, pick up any utensil, let alone a musical instrument, without tripping up and getting his feet caught in the rug—he can't be this virtuoso, his technique so flawless, with such an impeccable presence and, when he stops playing and starts singing, such a perfect, well-calibrated voice. And then, after a while, you get used to it. Little by little you recognize him. When he isn't playing—when he gives the floor to Cynthia Sayer, his pianist, or Rob Garcia, his drummer, or Eddy Davis, the fat man with the plaid shirt opening onto a buffalo neck, who accompanies him on the banjo; when he starts nodding his head to the rhythm of the trombone or staring at the tips of his shoes with the look of a punished child, waiting for someone to finish a solo—you rediscover the sad gargoyle face, the furrowed mask, the long nose, and the dazed, "nutty professor" side of the actor in Take the Money and Run.

And then, once more the virtuoso gains the upper hand. And the musician launches into a wild rendition of a Glenn Miller or Benny Goodman tune. Now he's stopped being the director of Manhattan Murder Mystery and becomes the disciple of Gene "Honey Bear" Sedric—the one you had to look for, that night thirty years ago, when Annie Hall won four Oscars, at Michael's Pub, where he was performing in front of an audience pretty much like tonight's. Here he is no longer the world superstar who starts a riot in Paris just by stepping out of his hotel, but only little Allen Stewart Konigsberg, who chose his pseudonym in homage to Woody Herman, who called his last daughter Bechet in homage to the great Sidney, and who has said a hundred times over that the two most desirable destinies in this world have always seemed, in his eyes, to be those of a basketball player (which he had to give up rather quickly) and a clarinetist (to which he continues, here at the Carlyle, to sacrifice some of his desire, his time, and his fame). Oh, the intense joy on his face, this countenance of an old, consumptive adolescent metamorphosed into a semi-athlete, his air of absolute triumph, when he reaches the end of one of those solos and you don't know if that amazing breath comes from his mouth, his body movements, the force of his soul, or all three at once.

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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