Monday, January 30, 2006

What can France teach America? (And must they keep trying?)

As Bernard-Henri Levy joins the ranks upon ranks of French writers who have crossed the Atlantic in Tocqueville's shoes, it's worth looking back at an American master's response to one such forgotten attempt. While Garrison Keillor's take is marvelously cruel, the master I refer to is Mark Twain, from his Essays on Bourget. Twain asks a question I find myself wondering as I read about M. Levy floundering about on topics like baseball: what does M. Levy hope to learn, and what does he hope to teach us?
To return to that first question. M. Bourget, as teacher, would simply be France teaching America. It seemed to me that the outlook was dark --almost Egyptian, in fact. What would the new teacher, representing France, teach us? Railroading? No. France knows nothing valuable about railroading. Steamshipping? No. France has no superiorities over us in that matter. Steamboating? No. French steamboating is still of Fulton's date--1809. Postal service? No. France is a back number there. Telegraphy? No, we taught her that ourselves. Journalism? No. Magazining? No, that is our own specialty. Government? No; Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, Nobility, Democracy, Adultery the system is too variegated for our climate. Religion? No, not variegated enough for our climate. Morals? No, we cannot rob the poor to enrich ourselves. Novel-writing? No. M. Bourget and the others know only one plan, and when that is expurgated there is nothing left of the book.

I wish I could think what he is going to teach us. Can it be Deportment? But he experimented in that at Newport and failed to give satisfaction, except to a few. …

If it isn't Deportment, what is left? It was at this point that I seemed to get on the right track at last. M. Bourget would teach us to know ourselves; that was it: he would reveal us to ourselves. That would be an education. He would explain us to ourselves. Then we should understand ourselves; and after that be able to go on more intelligently.

It seemed a doubtful scheme. He could explain us to himself--that would be easy. That would be the same as the naturalist explaining the bug to himself. But to explain the bug to the bug--that is quite a different matter. The bug may not know himself perfectly, but he knows himself better than the naturalist can know him, at any rate.
It's nice when Mark Twain reviews your book 111 years before you write it.

Compare the modern review of Levy's updating of Bourget:

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."
Garrison Keillor is many things, but I'll take Twain any time. Twain has decided that Bourget has been made the victim of repeated practical jokes:

But one must be allowed to suspect that M. Bourget was a little to blame himself. Even a practical joker has some little judgment. He has to exercise some degree of sagacity in selecting his prey if he would save himself from getting into trouble. In my time I have seldom seen such daring things marketed at any price as these conscienceless folk have worked off at par on this confiding observer. It compels the conviction that there was something about him that bred in those speculators a quite unusual sense of safety, and encouraged them to strain their powers in his behalf. They seem to have satisfied themselves that all he wanted was "significant" facts, and that he was not accustomed to examine the source whence they proceeded. It is plain that there was a sort of conspiracy against him almost from the start--a conspiracy to freight him up with all the strange extravagances those people's decayed brains could invent.

The lengths to which they went are next to incredible. They told him things which surely would have excited any one else's suspicion, but they did not excite his. Consider this:

"There is not in all the United States an entirely nude statue."

If an angel should come down and say such a thing about heaven, a reasonably cautious observer would take that angel's number and inquire a little further before he added it to his catch. What does the present observer do? Adds it. Adds it at once. Adds it, and labels it with this innocent comment:

"This small fact is strangely significant."

It does seem to me that this kind of observing is defective.
Is now the time to ask why it is that France seems to think that America is in desperate need of explaining, and why it is that the French are convinced they are the ones to do it?



On the Road Again

” by

Bob Dylan

from the album


Bringing It All Back Home


(2003, 2:37).

Then you ask why I don't live here
Honey, I can't believe that you're for real.