Sometimes, it takes a foreigner to remind you of America’s promise and potential. This is certainly one of those times.
Watching Bernard-Henri Lévy perform his one-man, one-night-only show Looking for Europe Monday night at the Public Theatre, I thought I witnessed a flash of Thomas Jefferson. It wasn’t (only) the perfectly coiffed bouffant permanently sported by the celebrity French intellectual which precipitated this momentary sense of synthesis with the most Francophile of the American founders. Over the course of an hour and 45 minutes, Lévy made the case for America—its meaning, its values, its purpose in the world—better than most Americans ever do.
“With their way of coming together around the love of a flag, of a Constitution, and, basically, of an idea,” Lévy proclaimed, “the Americans represent everything that the European advocates of the nation rooted in soil, race, and blood, detest.” Alas, there are many Americans who share this Blut und Boden conception of the nation, and they happen to be in power.
Looking for Europe is the latest version of a show Lévy originally performed at Sarajevo’s National Theatre in 2014 called Hôtel Europe and has since presented in Odessa, Venice, Paris, and London among other places. While the text changes from city to city, with Lévy adapting his monologue to the latest news and location and adding personalized shout-outs to members of the audience—Tablet included—the format remains the same: Invited to deliver a speech in the Bosnian capital about the past, present and future of Europe, Lévy anxiously ruminates in his hotel room. What follows is a stream of consciousness ode to the classical liberal values of individualism, pluralism, secularism, and openness.
With the Monday performance falling on the eve of the American midterm election, (which happened to be Lévy’s 70th birthday), the night’s disquisition touched upon the Greek roots of American democracy, the Mayflower, the anti-Semitic massacre in Pittsburgh, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (aka “Mr. Bone Saw,”) “the world’s new Puritan mania,” the firing of Ian Buruma from The New York Review of Books, and of course, the putative leader of the free world, whom Lévy each and every time referred to as “baby Trump.”
Lévy, who in 2006 barnstormed across our fruited plain to produce the rollicking travelogue American Vertigo, describes himself as “anti-anti-American.” But it is not sufficient to characterize his perspective on America in the double negative. He is unabashedly pro-American in the best sense, in that he admires the idea of America, even when the country fails (as it often does, and is doing) to live up to its promise. “America is an improved version of Europe,” Lévy declared. “America is Europe saved and relaunched.” In a beautiful formulation, he describes the relationship between Europe and America as, respectively, one of fate and redemption, “the tragic destiny of which it is the cure.”
An inveterate name-dropper, Lévy recalled his relationship with the socialite and former American ambassador to Paris, Pamela Harriman, in whose residence he watched (alongside NATO Supreme Allied Commander Wesley Clark and the diplomat Richard Holbrooke) “the NATO planes saving Sarajevo at last.” (He was also with her, entirely by coincidence, when she died: swimming her daily laps in the pool of the Paris Ritz.) Continuing with the theme of momentous occasions in five-star hotels, Lévy found a way to insert an anecdote about urinating next to Henry Kissinger in a bathroom of the Hay Adams.
If Lévy cannot countenance the nationalist, xenophobic right, (“the radiation given off by the words of ‘America First’ is in the Nazi spectrum”), so too is he fed up with an increasingly illiberal and parochial left. When Lévy and his comrades manned the barricades of Paris in 1968, “We are all German Jews” was their cry of solidarity with the world’s oppressed. “Today,” he bemoans, the agenda of the Western left is “all about terroir and local cheeses.” Envisaging a morally upended future where a President Marion Maréchal Le Pen entombs the ashes of Vichy collaborator Philippe Pétain in the Hôtel des Invalides, Lévy asked, hypothetically, why the remains of De Gaulle, Lord Byron, and Winston Churchill should not be removed from their places of national honor, and whether America ought not “return John McCain to Hanoi?”
Next spring, in the run-up to the European Parliament elections, Lévy plans to take his show on the road to 20 European cities. It will be challenging territory: Hoping to capitalize upon the recent advances they have made in national parliaments, right-wing populist parties across Europe are expected to increase their presence in the body. At their side will be Steve Bannon, freed from Trump’s employ to wreak his mad vision upon the old continent. If Lévy sticks to custom and rewrites the script for each locale, addressing the local personalities and idiosyncrasies of Berlin to Budapest, it will be an impressive feat.
The play’s most inspired moment comes at the end, when, envisioning a political union of America and Europe (dubbed “Euramerica”), Lévy lists the members of his dream cabinet. John Locke and Rosa Parks would be placed in charge of human rights, Lin-Manuel Miranda to head the Department of Education, Jan Karski and Woodrow Wilson take the ministry of foreign affairs while Pussy Riot and Sylvia Beach (the American expat who founded the world-famous Shakespeare and Company bookshop along the Seine) assume the women’s rights portfolio and Salman Rushdie is put “in charge of secularization.” Yes, a fantasy, but these are fantastical times.
James Kirchick, a visiting fellow with the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, is a columnist at Tablet magazine and the author of The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age.