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

Hence I take my time on this occasion. I look for the place on Washington Street where the Marlboro Hotel stood, where Tocqueville went as soon as he arrived. I have dinner at the Parker House, through which the ghosts of Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, and Longfellow hover, as well as Tocqueville's own, of course. I even let myself be led on an informal tour organized by a friend, which, while not the official tour of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, guides me through the city from one site of social activism to another: the house of Roger Williams, apostle of free thought and of the nascent separation of church and state; the first church in New England where the emancipation of slaves was preached; the bronze relief of Robert Gould Shaw, colonel of the first regiment in the state made up exclusively of black soldiers; the street where, at the height of his combat for racial equality and women's rights, a crowd almost lynched William Lloyd Garrison; the hotel where John F. Kennedy announced his candidacy for the Senate; and even—a final avatar of this process of transforming everything into memory and museums that has continued to manifest itself until the very last day!—the house of the Kerrys, on Beacon Hill …

I like this city. There is something about its cheerful Puritanism; its proud, provincial slowness; its hundred-year-old arbor vitae trees; its houses that exude the rich perfume of polished wood, its period parquet floors, portraits of ancestors on the walls, fashionable, well-used furniture. There is, in its slow dawns and its nights slow to end, in the sight of its narrow streets and their too orderly cobblestones, in its reverberations of the past century—there is in all of this the source of a faint ennui but also an irresistible charm that places it, without contest, in that little cluster of cities (Seattle, New Orleans, Savannah …) where I, too, could spend three weeks or more.

With, perhaps, two reservations.

For there were two painful moments during these pleasant days.

The southern sections of the city—Dorchester, Mattapan, Roxbury—are also the poorest neighborhoods, where you suddenly have the sense you're on the threshold of another world. A world of brutality and narcotics. A world of abandoned buildings, squatted in by gangs, their walls covered with immense, multicolored, naive murals. The world of that young, homeless Haitian woman who thought the hospital was for other people and who, ten minutes before I arrived, gave birth here, on the floor of a supermarket, with the help of a cop who was passing by, a feat for which he will be decorated by his unit. The world, a little further on, of Adèle—a very old woman, spitting image of Priscilla Ford, the woman on death row in the Las Vegas prison—who lives in the slums on Blue Hill Avenue, and who is being taken to the emergency room by ambulance … But actually, no—she's not that old. When I talk with one of the neighbors huddled around the ambulance, I discover that she's only forty-five, and that she's just very poor, out of work for ten years, exhausted. "Be careful," the neighbor shouts to one of the stretcher bearers, as she pats her friend's sparse hair; "be careful, she's on cortisone and stress medication." And Adèle, her lips white, sweat on her temples, eyes glazed, already gone: "Is it the good Lord that's taking me away?"

And difficult too, disappointing, although for reasons of an entirely different nature, my meeting with the ultra-Bostonian Samuel Huntington. I knew there was a problem with his last book. Like a number of his readers, I had been troubled by his thesis about Spanish-speaking immigrants whose uncontrolled influx would transform the white Protestant nation of the first pioneers into a bicultural polity. But here, in this elegant restaurant on Beacon Hill, where the food is too good and the wine too heady, now, to my great surprise, he throws all caution to the wind and in a few sentences expresses what his opponents have long suspected him of thinking without daring to admit it out loud. What startling violence wells up in his blue eyes when he says to me, "The big thing, the big problem with Hispanics, is that they don't like education!" The sudden explosion of hostility that disfigures the scholarly face of the professor when, anxious to tell me what, after all, annoys him so much in this rise to power of a hardworking, patriotic Mexican minority, he starts explaining that these people, because they'll have the advantage of bilingualism, will get "preferences for jobs," so they'll be able to "take their jobs away" from the "large majority" of other Americans, and that when these other Americans realize it all, when they understand that they, the whites—in principle the bearers of the old founding "creed" of the nation—will henceforth be the object of "discrimination," they will react with a terrible concoction of "resentment" and "nativistic" racism. And then Israel … His strange anger when, at the end of the interview, I put forward the idea that Israel, along with France and America, is one of the rare countries founded on what he calls a "creed." Oh, no, he says. That's not a creed! Don't associate the fine word "creed" with a country based on "ethnicity and culture," where Arabs and Jews have distinct rights! I answer back. I protest. I argue that talking about "ethnicity" in relation to a people, Americans, whose very essence is to be made up of all peoples doesn't make much sense. And when it's almost time to leave, there's a shadow of doubt in his gaze, a sudden anxiety in his voice: "Did I say some things I shouldn't have?"

Under the Eye of Eternity

Cape Cod. Land's end. Or—but it's ultimately the same—birth, beginning, the very place where, four centuries ago, the 102 Pilgrims landed, with their dogs, from the Mayflower. And today, in Provincetown, three hours away by car from Boston, these dollhouses, these inexpensive art galleries, these fishing shacks with painted clapboard façades gnawed by salt and snow—this typically middle-class seaside resort whose other peculiarity is to have become, over time, a gay town. What on earth is Norman Mailer doing here? How could this boy from Brooklyn, this New Yorker in heart and mind, this supermale with six marriages, this man whom the feminist Kate Millett called the quintessence of the heterosexual, macho pig—how could this man have chosen to live in a small town of 3,500 souls, most of them homosexuals, whose contribution to local culture consists (if I am to believe the waiter in the faux fisherman's restaurant where I wait till it's time for our interview) of a festival of sexy bodies, a week for leather enthusiasts, and a colloquium on the problems posed by adoption by same-sex couples?

Of course I ask Mailer. It's even one of the first things I ask him when he appears in the sun-drenched living room of his house on Commercial Street, short, thickset, all neck and torso, very round in his sweater vest, full mane of white hair, blue eyes that scrutinize me and that have lost none of their irony. But he doesn't answer. Or, rather, he does, but in a roundabout way. He is with the comely Norris, his wife, and they both reply that that's just how it is. Chance. She for her paintings, he for his novels, were both looking for a quiet setting where they could work at their own pace. So here they are. Cape Cod. And on Cape Cod, Provincetown. Don't look any further than that. There aren't any other specific reasons … All right, then. I suppose it's possible, after all. Possible you should forget the Mayflower and the discovery of America. Possible not to ascribe too much meaning to that peculiar book Tough Guys Don't Dance, published in 1984 and set in Provincetown, the hero of which was gay. And possible, too, that Mailer is here simply because this beautiful, light-filled house in the dunes, facing the sea, was the ideal place to lay up a store of solitude and silence. What, he asks me in substance, is the main problem of writers in general, and of writers who know their time is short in particular? How to isolate themselves, seek exile in their own country. Sometimes, like Philip Roth, vanish in the confines of their own city or household? Leave the ranks not of murderers but of idiots, amnesiacs, noisemakers, culture-haters, all those who seem to exist only to turn to ashes a writer's desire to write. And once you're finally set in this cocoon, in this sanctuary of rest, this chapel, then write books mercilessly, books the age wasn't expecting …

Norman Mailer is eighty-two years old. In a certain way he doesn't look it. No, despite the alcohol, the drugs, the excesses of his successive lives; despite his encroaching deafness; despite his legs that have trouble supporting him and give him the deliberate walk of a little stone golem; despite his air of an old boxer who's just left the ring or an old sailor who's come ashore for good, he radiates an eerie, unsettling youthfulness. But the overwhelming impression he gives is of no longer being always or completely of this world. The only real visible mark of age on the face of this great living successor to Hemingway is the look of absence that appears when you try to talk to him not just about his books but about his exploits of long ago. The war in the Pacific? Vietnam? The Nixon and Kennedy years? His open letter to Castro? His candidacy for mayor of New York? The naked? The dead? The battles for civil rights, and the struggles in the culture war? The old sailor responds, of course. But once again, halfheartedly. Without fervor. Without eloquence. As though his energy were elsewhere, reaching out toward the book he's writing now, gathered into the few years that are left to write it. So he is economical, calculating, and has an altogether different intelligence of time, another quality of presence, a kind of colossal now that, unlike the classic diseases of memory, crushes whatever has been experienced and trains its spotlight only on what is actually happening. But he doesn't regret anything. He is not sad, or worried. He is even the type, like Ravelstein in his amiable rival Bellow's book, who willingly tells his visitor that he "loves existence" and is "not in a hurry to die." And yet, he is counting. He keeps counting: The number of days that are left to him. The number of hours an interview steals away from him. The books he'll never read. His eyes, now so frail, need to be saved for writing his own books. The hours—maybe just the minutes—every day when he is truly master of his art. His hand, which needs to be in training for that very time. His breath, which he needs to hold in, so as not to waste it, so that he can keep on creating. He does not, like another of his old rivals, write to keep from dying; he keeps from dying so that he can finish writing. Not for posterity, that immortality of weak souls, but, like the character in Godard's masterpiece, Breathless, to be immortal, immortal right away, and then die. So sometimes, at nightfall, the ghosts of Gilmore, Marilyn, Oswald, Muhammad Ali, return, those icons of an America that seemed to exist only to end up in great books. Sometimes the door creaks open and the image rises up of an evening spent at the Kennedys', in Hyannisport, where he had paid a neighborly visit; of that cocktail party where he got into a fight with McGeorge Bundy, the ridiculous diplomatic adviser to his personal enemy, Lyndon Johnson; or, more recent, of a dinner with the elder Mrs. Bush, who listened to him, with gaping mouth, describe an article he had recently written about her president son's contract with the devil. But by and large all that has faded. His life, when I press him to recall it, is now nothing but a series of pale shadows, long spans of boredom, sterile provocations, misunderstandings. The most secular of American novelists, the inventor of New Journalism, the engaged writer par excellence, the man who covered the Republican and Democratic conventions and won two Pulitzer Prizes, ends up like Proust or Kafka, his eyes fixed on eternity. This world is no longer my own. My most recent dream is not for you. I am facing up, albeit in a different way. My most daring novel. Wait and see. Cape Cod.

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.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open for 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In