This American Life
In the 1930s a series of articles by the French author Raoul de Roussy de Sales commented on politics, courtship, and identity in American life
This spring The Atlantic launched a multi-part series by French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy who, over the past year, reinvented the journey through America taken by Alexis de Tocqueville. Tocqueville's Democracy in America was a disquisition. Lévy's work feels more like a diary. But with fresh eyes, he, like Tocqueville before him, penetrates the faded clichés and symbols that tend to cloud our cultural understanding, and comments insightfully on the religiosity, the moral and political polarization, the democratic spirit, and the quotidian details that make this country what it is.
Lévy is not the first Frenchman to have commented on the New World in the pages of this magazine; in the 1930s The Atlantic published a series of articles by French journalist Raoul de Roussy de Sales. Born in France in 1896, De Sales was the descendant of two aristocratic families. He completed part of his education in England and in the 1930s moved to New York, where he worked as a correspondent for Paris-Soir, Paris Midi, and the Havas News Agency. De Sales's notes on the city, some of which were posthumously published in The Atlantic, convey his impressionistic style and poetic attention to place:
New York is like a toy city at night. There are no windowless walls. There are no walls—only windows. It is like looking through cages. Only in those deep wells where elevators are rising and descending is there shadow or mystery. A powerful, Sibylline murmur rises from their depths.
The resonance of New York: you can hear pins fall, flies wheeling on steel wings, steel walking.
De Sales's New York perch gave him a long view of the brewing crisis in Europe, and he was able to reflect on the violent shifts in Empire and nation, the nature of warfare and of social consciousness. But it was his fascination with the interior lives of individuals and their relationship to the forces of history that made De Sales an astute commentator on American political and social life.
In the first of his Atlantic pieces, "Notes on the Conventions" (September 1936), De Sales reported on his time spent at the Republican and Democratic presidential conventions. Reporting for the Parisian papers, De Sales faced the challenge of conveying to his French audience the peculiar nature of American political culture. He confessed, "The apparent similitude of principles and the identity of the political terminology used in both countries hindered more than it served my efforts of interpretation." Thus he looked to the general atmosphere of the convention hall as an object lesson. From this he discerned a noisy brashness and lack of substance:
In spite of the delirious and prolonged ovations which greeted certain speakers and references to the candidates, in spite of the pandemonium of patriotic feeling which was let loose on every possible occasion, none of it was very convincing somehow. One could not escape the suspicion that all this tumult was staged and carried on for the sake of making a lot of noise.
He pointed out that whereas in Europe at the time "each political decision, each step in one direction or another, can at any time lead to immediate disaster ... politics in America have not as yet become sufficiently vital to affect the life of the people in an immediate way." For the moment, De Sales suggested, Americans could afford the self-indulgent theatrics on display at the conventions, but he underscored the irony that they were being performed in the name of democracy:
If ... the system of the American convention such as I saw it is best fitted to the regimented expression of mass emotion and the dictatorship of whoever stands on the platform, the 'roar meter' should become the official regulator of modern democracies.
Why vote when you can yell and count your decibels?
In light of the dangerous rise in mass political movements in Europe, De Sales fretted that these American conventions signaled a similar loss of reason—"a regression of the influence of individual intelligence" and an "increase of the power of mass emotion."
De Sales's journals from this period, published posthumously as The Making of Yesterday, illustrate his general pessimism at the shift in political consciousness on both continents. From the United States, he watched the growth of the Hitler regime's physical and psychological power, and he despaired of the political and moral cowardice of the European nations. In America, the ashes of a disintegrating old world were just beginning to cloud the air.
In "Love in America," (May 1938), De Sales turned to the lives of the common man and woman to comment on a very different aspect of life. In America, he observed, love is a national problem:
Nowhere else can one find a people devoting so much time and so much study to the question of the relationship between men and women. Nowhere else is there such concern about the fact that this relationship does not always make for perfect happiness.
He described the experience of a foreigner recently landed in the United States. This visitor first notices, he wrote, that a sugary version of love floods the streets—broadcast over the radio, leering from the billboards, and seeping out from under the doors of the cinema. But this visitor also begins to notice that privately Americans suspect that their lives do not measure up to the commercialized ideal. Instead of questioning the product, however, they feel that there must be some way of identifying what they are doing wrong and correcting the problem so that they might be rescued from their broken hearts and whisked away on cloud nine:
It is as if the experience of being in love could only be one of two things: a superhuman ecstasy, the way of reaching heaven on earth and in pairs; or a psychopathic condition to be treated by specialists.
Elsewhere in the world, De Sales claimed, love is accepted in all its ambiguity and absurdity: "The French point of view [is] that love is very often an exceedingly comical affair." He saw it as evidence of Americans' naïve idealism that they expected perfection in love and saw anything short of the ideal as dysfunctional. Love should not be conceived as a theoretical system, he emphasized, but as an infinitely variable—and valuable—aspect of human experience:
Of course, nothing is lost. The field remains open, and there is no reason to suppose that love in America will not cease to be a national problem, a hunting ground for the reformer, and that it will not become, as everywhere else, a personal affair very much worth the effort it takes to examine it as such. All that is necessary is for someone to forget for a while love as Hollywood—or the professor—sees it, and sit down and think about it as an eternally fascinating subject for purely human observation.
De Sales's most in-depth piece on Americanism appeared a year later. "What Makes An American" (March 1939) anticipated some of the themes of his 1942 book The Making of Tomorrow—an analysis of the war-torn nations of World War II and the forces of nationalism, collectivism, and pacifism. Particularly explicit in the article is his suspicion of nationalism:
There seems to be an increasing desire on the part of all people to assert more strongly what makes them different and even antagonistic to one another ... It may be that modern nationalism is an instinctive defense against a greater peril—a deadly and overwhelming uniformity ... Nationalism as we know it may pass, but for the moment it is more powerful than any other idea or even than any religion.
What, De Sales wondered, characterized the particular character of American nationalism? Even after living in the United States for seven years, De Sales confessed that he still found the answer elusive. But as America's role in the world was becoming more and more prominent, he considered the question to be of particular political and historical consequence.
Americanism, De Sales argued, is above all a set of moral and political beliefs rather than a physical attachment to one's native soil: "The Americans began to be politically conscious of being a nation," he wrote, "before they felt that the land under their feet was really their homeland." Americans have no national language, De Sales pointed out, and they have no history of a peasant class with a long-standing attachment to their particular patch of earth. Thus, since its inception, America has not been so much a place as a commitment to democracy and to the freedom to pursue material comfort and happiness. Paired with scorn for the avarice and tyranny of the "European imperialisms," he went on, these moral and political beliefs imbue American nationalism with an almost religious sensibility. Immigrants who come to America are required to accept the creed:
To become an American is a process which resembles a conversion. It is not so much a new country that one adopts as a new creed. And in all Americans can be discerned some of the traits of those who have, at one time or another, abandoned an ancient faith for a new one.
This, De Sales concluded, helped explain America's wariness toward Europe—a wariness that at the time was keeping the country out of the crisis overseas. The American's "conception of nationality," he wrote, "makes him, in a way, better equipped to resist the degrading forces which are now at work in the world than the citizen of any other country." And yet, De Sales also sensed that the United States was being inexorably drawn, in spite of itself, into the current of world events. He concluded the piece on a portentous note:
Doubt is creeping in very fast ... The question is, however, how much longer can the American maintain the posture of a man who stands on tiptoe on the ground because he feels it is his destiny to keep his head in the clouds?
De Sales, like Lévy, brought the acumen and insight of an outsider to his perspective on American cultural attitudes. Yet, unlike his modern counterpart, De Sales wrote not just as a visitor, but as someone who had long lived between two cultures and two languages. In his posthumously published notes and epigrams (May 1949), one senses his personal struggle to understand how nation and culture shape the individual:
To make a virtue out of loving one's country is absurd. Nothing is more inevitable. You have only to listen to your inward voice speaking your native tongue. Logically, it might be the part of wisdom not to love one's country, but more is lost than gained by such denial. However much I dislike certain stupidities in France, it is better to accept them than to achieve an exile's false impression of impartiality. What are these roots of ours?