From Vanity Fair
Sure, there was Rousseau and the Enlightenment. Yes, Lafayette helped oust the British. But it can't be overlooked that one of the greatest advocates of American democracy was another Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, who in 1831 traveled across the nascent United States gathering source material for his landmark work, Democracy in America. Nearly two centuries later, Bernard-Henri Lévy, France's leading contemporary philosopher, repeats Tocqueville's experiment and shares his predecessor's qualified admiration for this still-young country. B.H.L., as he is sometimes known, spoke with VanityFair.com over coffee and croissants at the Carlyle hotel, in New York, to discuss his impressions of that journey and the new book that sprang from it, American Vertigo (Random House).
What do you mean when you talk about "American vertigo"?
I mean it in two ways: it's my vertigo when faced with this sick and magnificent country, and it's the vertigo of Americans themselves when faced with the challenges that lie before them and the problems they are going through. I think America is truly in a moment of Hitchcockian vertigo. But who's the murderer? Now, that's the question.
French celebrity intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy has certain things he wants to say to America, and he wouldn’t mind saying them on The Daily Show. “Jon Stewart for me is the best,” he says. “There is nothing equivalent in France. I often read that in America there is nothing similar to BHL. So it could be a good combination.”
If you’ve never heard the initials BHL, which is what Lévy tends to go by, if you’ve missed his appearances on Charlie Rose or this year’s Vanity Fair best-dressed list, he’s hoping that will change with the publication this month of his new book, American Vertigo. In it, he travels the United States “in the footsteps of Tocqueville.” The trip was the idea of the Atlantic Monthly, which serialized his observations and hired a young assistant to chauffeur him down the open road because BHL doesn’t drive. (“It’s my infirmity,” he apologizes.) The book, his 30th and the first to be published in the United States before France, is a somewhat expanded collection of those dispatches.
“The trip was under three shadows,” BHL explains. “The shadow of the war in Iraq, the shadow of an election, and the shadow of Katrina,” although the hurricane hadn’t struck at the time he wrote the book. “The anti-ci-pated shadow of Katrina, as you see. I was in New Orleans four or five months before Katrina, and I more or less foresee what is going to happen.”
BHL, 57, is not a man particularly encumbered by modesty. When he comes downstairs from his room at the Carlyle—where he’s stayed whenever he’s been in town for the past 30 years—he’s wearing a black velvet jacket and a white shirt unbuttoned, as is his habit, to display his tanned chest. A self-described “Baudelairean,” he is adamantly libertine, with a long history of mistresses. He’s also clearly rich—his father owned a large lumber concern, and BHL owns a palace in Morocco and is married to the extraterrestrially beautiful actress Arielle Dombasle....
This is, after all, a man with many mistresses, and this country is just one of them. But, in the end, what did he like best about the U.S.?
“Everything, my dear. I will tell you. Sometimes in your private life you have a mistress you love, love being with. You spend time to time in a grand hotel, with good room service, great champagne, and you separate—and when you are really in love with her, you inevitably think, Could I wake up with her, near her every morning? And then you try it. This is exactly what I did in America. America was a great mistress. I had a great fuck with America. It was like a weekend in the Hotel du Cap.”