Seattle, Mon Amour: Thoughts on the Post-American Metropolis

Thus begins Chapter Three, “The Pacific Wall,” in Bernard-Henry Lévy’s 2006 memoir of movement entitled American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville.

In a memoir in which nearly every other city — and most personalities and social institutions — are savaged subtly by the author, Seattle is an oasis of worship for the French philosopher-author.  (San Francisco, apparently, was too debauched for his taste, too beholden to angry debates of the 1960s.)

With great jutting optimism, Lévy writes of Seattle:

“I loved the air of freedom, of nonconformism, that reigns…And I loved the fact that this city that, in a distant past, endured the most savage anti-Asian riots in the history of the United States is the one that coninues to welcome the greatest influx of  people from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Seoul, Beijing. I loved the fact that this post-American metropolis — where, if it has to invent itself somewhere, the American civilization of tomorrow will invent itself — remains, despite everything so obstinately European.” [p. 79]

and further still, in an outpouring of prose:

“I liked absolutely everything about Seattle.

If I had to choose an American city to live in — if I had to pick a place, and only one, where I had the feelign in America of rediscovering my lost bearings — it would be Seattle.  But all in all…If I had to choose one moment in this discovery — if I had to say at what instant everthing was settled and, in the blink of an eye, the genius of the place was revealed to me — it would be the moment when, arriving from Spokane on Highway 90, having stopped at a motel in Moses Lake for a late-afternoon sandwich, having crossed the orchards of Wenatchee, having passed Mercer Island and then the Homer M. Hadley Bridge, I saw, floating like a  torch between two motionless clouds, in a dark-pink sky entirely new to me, the tip of a skyscraper, the Space Needle, already completely lit up, which in my imagination suddenly condensed 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.  Ever since I was little I’ve so loved saying “gratte-ciels” — “skyscrapers.” [p. 80-81]

Next time I see Bernard — which is to say, the first time I see him  — I am going to kiss him rapidly and then we can get to the lamentations of location (would that we could be in Pike Place, secretly tattooing copies of his books, hopped up on espresso and dim sum or some vague crepes!) and then disparage whereever we have chanced to meet up  as helplessly crushed by Prussian structure (Berlin), atrophied by its own legend (Paris), or savagely caught up in rivalries with Anglophone goalies (Montreal).

Or L.A., which is a “post-metropolis metropolis,” where we could shake through the quakes of time and debate if his book was really, as one uncredentialed Seattle critic said, “a dreadful collection of self-conscious and self-indulgent travel blogs.”  (For a more pungent critique of the book and its critics, Christopher Hitchens takes apart Garrison Keillor’s review of American Vertigo in the New York Times.

Travel writing ain’t easy, and drive-by analysis, quick, penetrating anecdotes, seem to be the way of the game.

French travel writers tend to be dependably sociological, that is, tuned into things and social relationships and philosophical roots and unconscious actions of the observed.  But sometimes they are capable of great upswells of generosity, tinged with naivite, but thrilling nevertheless.  Levy was following Toqueville, but he was also following Simone du Beauvoir, whose 1947 Sejour en Amerique is an unexploited gem of critique of an America newly mobilizing for the Cold War.
Her naitvite would emerge full-bore less than ten years later, with her trip to the PRC, the vision of the future.

Thank be for Seattle, in spite of its foibles and quirks, and thanks further still that visitors to the United States remain capable of having visions of an American future in post-American metropolis.

New decade, folks!  Time to look for some new models.


  1. Wow, what’s the travel-writing equivalent of a hagiography? Maybe I’ll have to try Seattle again, since my last visit convinced me it was the West Coast’s drippy, claustrophobic version of the rust belt. Then again, I grew up on the east side of the state, where we joked about west-siders webbed feet (while we glowed in the dark — yes, I was within biking distance of the Hanford nuclear reservation).

    1. Beijing Sheng’r, You must have been spending time on the south side of town, which Levy was steered away from, like, down underneath the Spokane Ave. bridge, the grit between the stadiums and the Starbucks HQ. And the industrious docks beyond to the south….But hell, maybe he would love Hanford, too.

      And I like the “webbed feet” analogy about we folks in the Sound — the fishing is commencing, and the kayak commute is next. Having grown up as a “river rat” in Marine on Saint Croix, MN, I’m not adverse at all to the water, no matter the direction in which it is moving.

      I’m still wondering what Levy would say about, say, Tianjin. “Tianjin, mon amour?” Eh, maybe Shanghai…fortunately Simone du Beauvoir’s memoir lit. encompasses both US and PRC. Come to think of it, I need to find out if her work “La Longue Marche” (the title really defies translation, don’t you think?) has yet appeared in Chinese.

      To my knowledge, Chinese readers have a good sense of the French 20th century intellectual currents (although maybe less as regards the Petainist enablers like Celine), and even obscure writings by Sartre (such as the Chemins du Liberte WWII trilogy) have been translated and are in libraries. Since Levy is a heavy hitter, I would suppose there are some Douban fan clubs of the man.

      But since netizens aren’t jumping all over this stuff, should we really care? You do recognize, I hope, if some angry 22-year-old unemployed blogger in Shijiazhuang posts some anti-foreign screed on a Huanqiu BBS, that I need to respond to that and translate it immediately, so as to add to a globally harmonious society, whereas French intellectuals, in general, have little that is genuinely controversial or important to say. Jefferson? Tocqueville? John Yoo? Who? Vs. the excitement of another variation on “The Diaoyu Islands belong to China forever,” the whole “Seattle is the future of America if America has a future, and it’s all because of independent bookstores and hipster jeans” lacks a little punch.

  2. When I was stationed at Ft. Lewis I really liked going to Seattle. It was a good place to go to escape the weirdos in the Lakewood-Tacoma area. 😉

    The views of the Olympics and Mt. Rainier are stunning when it isn’t cloudy. For people who like outdoor activities the Seattle area is one of the best places to live in the country.

    1. Thanks, GI, that’s cool you know the area — at some point I am hoping to do a kind of online feature of the Koreatown that has sprung up just north of McCord Air Force Base, since that has some lasting connections to Ft. Lewis, too. Of course I think I will mainly be writing about FOOD, but some other stuff will probably come up. Tacoma has a new mayor, Marilyn Strickland, she was born in Seoul (her dad was African-American, mom Korean), and she is helping to bring some more visibility to all the Koreans in Lakewood

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