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So You’re Going To America
A letter to a French friend
October 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 6
Thus it may seem a platitude to repeat that the United States is very large and very varied, but it is a platitude so much and so easily forgoten that there can be no great sin in repeating it. The visitor to America, even if he is no novice in American matters, is always astonished, trapped, by the mere size of the United States. It seems to him extraordinary that so vast, so varied an area should be one country, one nation, one culture. It is, of course, better to be astonished than to fail to notice this highly relevant fact; it is better still to have some idea of the causes and the consequences of the apparent unity, and it is better still to note the limitations of the unity, the survival of the differences.
It is strange that so vast an area should be so unified that the superficial observer, especially if he travels by air, has so few of the normal ways of determining where he is. One city is very like another. … This uniformity that may well seem a deformity is yet a necessity and a political triumph. The uniformity and banality of much of American life, the pressure for conformity that has been feared and lamented since the time of Tocqueville is, as M. Raymond Aron has recently pointed out, the price of a unity maintained without the governmental coercion that holds the centrifugal forces of the Soviet Union in submission to the central power. There is probably no way in which this unity can be preserved without some degree of physical or moral coercion. Every political good has its price and we, in Europe, have certainly paid highly (and made the rest of the world pay highly) for our ferocious pursuit of national differentiation. The Americans have paid the same price—once; and the memory of their civil war, so living just below the surface, accounts for that dislike of the doctrinal position pushed to its logical conclusion, to the complete autonomy of the individual or the region, which makes American politics so unsymmetrical and so irritating to Frenchmen, ready as they have been, and are, to sacrifice so much (of themselves and others) to the one, true, worthy, historically justified doctrine. The Americans tend to think that no political view of life is as certain, as important, as rightly demanding of sacrifice as all that. They are truer disciples of Montaigne than the countrymen of Montaigne.
The American Constitution is brief, elegant, ambiguous, in many ways mysterious. It is very unlike the Constitution that its framers planned; it is highly unlikely that the dominant interpretation of that Constitution, fifty years hence, will be that held by any American political school today. American unity is not a simple, coherent, easily defined, and limited idea; the Constitution is not a simple means of living happily ever after. Institutions of that simple kind are left to the more old-fashioned and romantic novelists. For them marriage is as definable a means to happiness as a political doctrine is to a Frenchman. For the Frenchman who would not, for a moment, think of taking seriously so simple a view of life in a novel will often accept it in a political programme. And the American who may be ready to read a nice, simple story, a “western” if he is a man, a “love story” if the American is a woman, rarely expects these elegant and happy solutions in political life. That things are not what they seem, that persons and problems change, while preserving the same names, that we create the work! of illusions in which we live and love, these are truths about the human situation that the political American does not need to be told. He feels them. The Constitution has undergone as many changes—if you like, as many degradations—as a character in Proust. It is to themes like these that the American devotes his mind and his passions, and one possible price is an obvious simplicity in literature and philosophy. …
You will meet a good many “mandarins” or eggheads, and they will want to weep on your shoulder, lament the barrenness of American culture, the poorness of the bookshops, the horrors of soap opera. Don’t take them too literally. They want sympathy, admiration, the assurance that they are defending the last citadels of culture. Some of the air-conditioned ivory towers you will visit are inhabited by people with persecution mania; some have suffered as much as if they had been French academics telling the truth about Algeria. Others have to have a bad-luck story, like a slightly passée woman lamenting her safely dead loves. Some have been really roughly treated. Some have to live in uncongenial surroundings, to meet on equal terms the professor of Butchering Practice, are forced to coax a board of business-minded trustees to buy a collection of Rimbaud letters or subsidize an avant-garde magazine. But don’t spend too many tears on them. They will all turn up in Paris anyway.
Then reflect that many of the sorest eggheads you meet are lamenting a not very remote past when the professors had a lot of power (more than they have ever had in France). Many of them had what we call in England “a good war.” They regret it, as so many of their French opposite numbers regret the Resistance and the first heady years of the Liberation. “The contagion of the world’s slow stain” is visible in Chicago and in Paris, the nostalgia for the “kingdom, the power and the glory.”
But the average American has no such nostalgia, any more than the average Frenchman has. This is a lot better than the war years, than the Occupation or Iwo Jima.