Sunday, April 10, 2011

Garrison Keillor Gets It Right

Or, The Not-So-Telling Detail.

Bernard-Henri Levy is one of the few French intellectuals who excoriates his countrymen for their Anti-Americanism (the other would be Jean-Francoise Revel). He likes Americans. Garrison Keillor is an Upper Midwestern sentimentalist who has over the years come to have contempt for more and more of his fellow citizens. So when GK reviews a book by BHL, the first thought is I'm going to be cheering for the latter and annoyed at the former, right? No way. Not this time, anyway.

I missed the review when it came out, but Steve Sailer just reprinted it, and it's worth noting. Authors like to find the telling detail, the artful little bit that they noticed and you didn't that sums everything up. Levy has a bunch of telling details about American culture - and he gets them wrong. He notices an important little something that he believes will just speak volumes to Europeans about what we are like. Keillor skewers:
At the stock car race, Lévy senses that the spectators "both dread and hope for an accident." We learn that Los Angeles has no center and is one of the most polluted cities in the country. "Headed for Virginia, and for Norfolk, which is, if I'm not mistaken, one of the oldest towns in a state that was one of the original 13 in the union," Lévy writes. Yes, indeed. He likes Savannah and gets delirious about Seattle, especially the Space Needle, which represents for him "everything that America has always made me dream of: poetry and modernity, precariousness and technical challenge, lightness of form meshed with a Babel syndrome, city lights, the haunting quality of darkness, tall trees of steel." O.K., fine. The Eiffel Tower is quite the deal, too.

But every 10 pages or so, Lévy walks into a wall. About Old Glory, for example. Someone has told him about the rules for proper handling of the flag, and from these (the flag must not be allowed to touch the ground, must be disposed of by burning) he has invented an American flag fetish, a national obsession, a cult of flag worship. Somebody forgot to tell him that to those of us not currently enrolled in the Boy Scouts, these rules aren't a big part of everyday life.

He blows a radiator writing about baseball - "this sport that contributes to establishing people's identities and that has truly become part of their civic and patriotic religion, which is baseball" - and when, visiting Cooperstown ("this new Nazareth"), he finds out that Commissioner Bud Selig once laid a wreath at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington, where Abner Doubleday is also buried, Lévy goes out of his mind. An event important only to Selig and his immediate family becomes, to Lévy, an official proclamation "before the eyes of America and the world" of Abner as "the pope of the national religion . . . that day not just the town but the entire United States joined in a celebration that had the twofold merit of associating the national pastime with the traditional rural values that Fenimore Cooper's town embodies and also with the patriotic grandeur that the name Doubleday bears." Uh, actually not. Negatory on "pope" and "national" and "entire" and "most" and "embodies" and "Doubleday." ...

Bombast comes naturally to him. Rain falls on the crowd gathered for the dedication of the Clinton library in Little Rock, and to Lévy, it signifies the demise of the Democratic Party. As always with French writers, Lévy is short on the facts, long on conclusions. He has a brief encounter with a young man outside of Montgomery, Ala. ("I listen to him tell me, as if he were justifying himself, about his attachment to this region"), and suddenly sees that the young man has "all the reflexes of Southern culture" and the "studied nonchalance . . . so characteristic of the region." With his X-ray vision, Lévy is able to reach tall conclusions with a single bound.

And good Lord, the childlike love of paradox - America is magnificent but mad, greedy and modest, drunk with materialism and religiosity, puritan and outrageous, facing toward the future and yet obsessed with its memories. Americans' party loyalty is "very strong and very pliable, extremely tenacious and in the end somewhat empty." Existential and yet devoid of all content and direction. The partner-swapping club is both "libertine" and "conventional," "depraved" and "proper." And so the reader is fascinated and exhausted by Lévy's tedious and original thinking: "A strong bond holds America together, but a minimal one. An attachment of great force, but not fiercely resolute. A place of high - extremely high - symbolic tension, but a neutral one, a nearly empty one."

And what's with the flurries of rhetorical questions? Is this how the French talk or is it something they save for books about America? "What is a Republican? What distinguishes a Republican in the America of today from a Democrat?" Lévy writes, like a student padding out a term paper. "What does this experience tell us?" he writes about the Mall of America. "What do we learn about American civilization from this mausoleum of merchandise, this funeral accumulation of false goods and nondesires in this end-of-the-world setting? What is the effect on the Americans of today of this confined space, this aquarium, where only a semblance of life seems to subsist?" And what is one to make of the series of questions - 20 in a row - about Hillary Clinton, in which Lévy implies she is seeking the White House to erase the shame of the Lewinsky affair? Was Lévy aware of the game 20 Questions, commonly played on long car trips in America? Are we to read this passage as a metaphor of American restlessness? Does he understand how irritating this is? Does he? Do you? May I stop now?
These telling details - playwrights like them, novelists and filmmakers and poets and comedians all like them. They are so delicious, to both writer and reader, that we forget they are often wrong. Insanely, wildly wrong. Because we want that sort of thing to be true, the wise nod of the head and the efficient summary, we will swallow almost anything.


Paul_In_Houston said...

Were I to write...

"America is a land of contradictions -- So?!!!"

Would that essentially capture it?

Gringo said...

In my tourist days in the 1970s I hung out for 2-3 weeks with a bunch of French tourists in Colombia and in Ecuador. We communicated with each other in Spanish, so the issue of linguistic chauvinism didn’t come up much.

I learned that French and Americans don’t always see things the same way. One French woman informed me that when some of her paisans had been tourists in the US, they had hitchhiked. Some Americans had invited these French hitchhikers into their homes. At the time, there was still a fair amount of hitching done in the US. In my hitching around the country, I had also been invited into the homes of those who had picked me up. The French woman informed me that there was something SICK about the US, that we should be so friendly to strangers.

I made no reply. No point in arguing with that. In retrospect, perhaps I could have stated that it shows not that Amis are SICK, but that we don’t see everything the same way as the French.

As a result of this and of direct and indirect experience with French companies in Latin America, and of French-US encounters here in the US, I have a definite opinion of the French.

I would say that the differing attitudes towards strangers is not just a US-France difference, but an American (both Continents)- European issue. During my tourist/worker days in Latin America, I was also invited into homes. Many times. Similarly, I worked with two South Americans of European background (German, Italian) who had gone to Germany: one to work, the other to study. Both told me they found the Germans rather cold to someone who had no longstanding roots in the area.

Dubbahdee said...


Sounds like New Hampshire.