The debonair Bernard-Henry Lévy, travelling across America in the footsteps of Tocqueville, comes face to face with a Michigan cop while taking a leak on the side of I-94. Don't worry, all turns out well for Franco-American relations:
You don't have the right to piss."
"What do I have a right to, then?"
"Nothing: it is forbidden on highways to stop, hang around, dawdle, and piss."
"I didn't know …"
"I don't give a damn what you know—keep moving."
"I'm French …"
"I couldn't care less if you're French—the law's the same for everyone.
Keep moving."
"I wrote a book on Daniel Pearl."
"Daniel who?"
"And a book on the forgotten wars."
"What kind of wars?"
"I'm writing about following the path of Tocqueville …"

And suddenly, as the name Tocqueville is uttered, a sort of miracle occurs! The cop's face goes from suspicious to curious to almost friendly.

"Tocqueville—really? Alexis de Tocqueville?"

And after I tell him yes, Alexis, I'm following in the footsteps of this great compatriot who, 170 years ago, must have passed somewhere near here, this awkward customer, red with rage, who for all I knew
was getting ready to book me for inappropriate behavior, for sexual display on a public highway, or, in any case, for "loitering with intent," looks at me with sudden affability and begins to ask me what, in my opinion, continues to be valid in Tocqueville's analysis.


The extract from Lévy's forthcoming book appears in the latest edition of the Atlantic. I've skimmed through it on-line (it's very long and I prefer to wait for my copy of the magazine to arrive in the post). I'm not sure, from what I've read, that he comes up with any amazing insights, but it's at least good to be reminded that there are still some French intellectuals who haven't sold their souls to anti-Americanism. (Jean-François Revel is another of that dwindling band.) If you're in the neighbourhood, Lévy will be
discussing his book with David Brooks in Manhattan on Wednesday. There's also a useful interview with the Left Bank pin-up in Figaro's "France-Amérique" . Lévy turns in a good, even-handed performance, laying into left-wing fellow-travellers while dismissing US pundits' claims that France is on the verge of its own Kristallnacht. He's also refreshingly honest about how his own preconceptions about, say, the Deep South turned out to be wildly off-target.

No doubt the book will win him a whole new set of enemies in his native land. Phillipe Cohen's deeply unflattering biography, published recently, is reviewed here (subscriber-only link) by Francophile George Walden:

In non-French eyes and even in France itself, this biography could backfire. What strikes us is not so much Lévy's chutzpah and self-promotion, as his phenomenal energy and the fact that, politically, he was mostly right. To have helped to break the stranglehold of the Left on French intellectual life long before the Soviet collapse was a service to the nation. And though his output is to say the least uneven, and his prose often affected, some of his writing, notably in his biography on Sartre, is brilliant.

Levy's media personality may grate, but French television is in permanent need of livening up, and his vivacity and versatility make a welcome change from the incantation of anti-American clichés by drab mediocrities with neither his intellect, his quick wit nor his style. To them and their admirers, Cohen's book will greatly appeal.

|||Clive|||http://clivedavis.blogspot.com/2005/04/philosopher-caught-in-act-debonair.html|||4/01/2005 11:44:00 am|||||||||