An Existentialist Tocqueville? Beauvoir against America

31 January 2020

Americans have made a kind of civic cult out of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Perhaps it was hoped that praising to the skies one Frenchman’s opinion of our country would relieve us from having to listen to any others. But the French have not stopped giving opinions or writing books about the US. One of the least-cherished of these is Simone de Beauvoir’s America Day by Day. Published in French in 1948 (Amérique au jour le jour) and translated into English four years later, the book has never been taken to America’s bosom. Mary McCarthy attacked it in a memorably shrill review (“Mlle. Gulliver en Amerique”) as a litany of Marxist platitudes. In his forward to the 1999 reedition of the “forgotten gem,” Douglas Brinkley’s earnestness becomes almost cruel. Brinkley encouraged readers to see America Day by Day as a chance “to experience vicariously Jack Kerouac’s open road with less macho romanticism and more existential savvy.”


Who would not rather be damned by McCarthy than saved by Brinkley? But both are, in a limited sense, correct. America Day by Day does include Marxist cant and clichés about the scenic highways of the untamed West. It also contains penetrating judgments on the limits and failures of democracy, of which America is for Beauvoir the paradigm. In an analysis that echoes Tocqueville but also Nietzsche and Allan Bloom, Beauvoir fears that America’s democratic egalitarianism makes it impossible for Americans to be philosophers and (therefore) individuals, to know the truth or (therefore) themselves. As the Cold War began, and America revealed the planetary scale of its ambitions, Beauvoir wondered if democracy could be made safe for philosophy.


Beauvoir begins with false modesty, disclaiming any pretentions to mastery of such a vast subject as America. She will not be giving readers a “serious study” of the country, she insists in the preface, but merely a “faithful account” of her own experience in the form of a travel diary. In 1947, Beauvoir had traveled an impressively representative portion of America during a four-month speaking tour, giving lectures on the latest currents of French thought to American undergraduates (who struck her as ‘nice’, ignorant and disturbingly chaste). Portions of the book do in fact read like postcards from a vacationing aunt. Readers are told at great length about Beauvoir’s delighted slumming in Chicago’s dive bars or her acquisition of souvenirs in Santa Fe.


But, as Beauvoir immediately alerts the attentive reader, America Day by Day should not be taken for what it seems. It is not a diary, but was “written in retrospect” with a falsely improvisational air. This literary form, Beauvoir suggests, is a means of keeping the reader aware that we should distrust definitive judgments and remember that discoveries are always tied to the “unique personal circumstances” in which they were made. In the spirit of Montaigne (one of the writers she most admired), Beauvoir will give us a kaleidoscope of “indecisions, additions and corrections.” Her “opinion” is to be found not in any particular moment of the text, but in this wobbling motion by which she circumambulates the geography and topic of America.


In a telling passage recounting Beauvoir’s final days in New York, readers are given another reminder that an author’s intention reveals itself to the perspicacious without being self-evidently present on every page. Beauvoir is at the circus in Madison Square Garden, watching an acrobat treading precariously above the crowd. There is no net. Here is the truth of human life: our utter vulnerability, our proximity to death. Rather than being delighted at this practical example of existentialist teaching, Beauvoir is outraged. The acrobat is revealing a fundamental aspect of the human condition in a vulgar and trivial manner, for vulgar and trivial onlookers. “Who is worthy of such a truth here?” she demands. Truth, then—in this case the most important truth, the truth about what it is like to be a human being—has a proper setting, a here. It also has a proper audience, a who, distinguished by its worthiness from some other segment of humanity.


America is a particularly poor here, and Americans a particularly poor who, for truth-telling. This is so, in a disturbing paradox, because America is such a ‘free’ country, one in which “the reign of man is affirmed with such magnificence.” Americans have escaped traditional forms of unfreedom, from overt structures of ecclesiastical domination and social rank to subtler bonds of place and past. They are able to think of themselves both as instances of universal humanity and as “unique individuals,” rather than as members of particular groups or traditions. Like the Madison Square Garden tightrope walker, they lack a “net”—their personal adventures have nothing beneath them, no secure identities into which the failing, mortal individual can fall. For Beauvoir, America reveals the truth of human life: individuals are free to define themselves and their values, and therefore radically responsible for what they do and are, with no alibi or salvation to catch them.


Far from experiencing this truth as a bracing, perilous challenge, Americans deny it. It is as though they have made a tacit agreement to pretend there is after all a net—a set of common values that grant meaning and dignity to everyone, automatically. Because these values must apply to each person on the mere basis of that person’s being human, because they have no reference to history or culture,  they are shallow and abstract. Free from history, Americans do not live individual lives that disclose and are justified by chosen values; they delude themselves with feelings of benevolence, attention, and well-being.


Beauvoir develops this analysis of America’s self-deception in a series of apparently off-hand complaints. As one taxi driver after another tells her his life story, Beauvoir observes that Americans are unfailingly friendly to everyone, flattening differences between strangers and friends. As she works through the New York Times Sunday Edition‘s reportage on ‘ordinary Americans’, she notes that we work hard to convince themselves that each American is potentially fascinating to everyone else, “that all of America is interested in the special case of each citizen.” As people at parties drone on about what their nutritionist or therapist told them, Beauvoir discovers that Americans pursue well-being—just as they pursue being ‘nice’ and ‘interesting’—as a way of escaping the radical responsibility that democratic freedom always threatens to reveal.


Well-being, Beauvoir argues, is a regime of normalcy, motivated by an ideal vision of a generically healthy body and adjusted ‘mind’. One is not working towards one’s own particular form of flourishing (which might look like sickness to others). The ideal of wellness is not only an ideal of someone (anyone) else’s wellness as opposed to one’s own—it is an illusory dream of integrity and holism. Excoriating American psychology, Beauvoir insists that people are full of “questions” and “doubts,” hesitations and limitations. This is the consequence of their being free. Becoming free in a conscious way would require Americans to see their anxieties and depressions as internal “debates” between opposing projects and values, as incitations to make fateful choices about their lives. Instead Americans seek to soothe their symptoms. In doing so they turn their unhappinesses—which might, if truly listened to, have opened for them one or another of the essential and perennial dilemmas of human being—into technical “problems.” Therapists promise us indeed that our unwellness is their problem. Rather than being a summons to face our own “risks, decisions and responsibilities,” it is an “objectively defined case” that, for a reasonable fee, can be managed by an expert.


Such experts rule America, Beauvoir argues. In every domain that calls for responsibility, from addressing personal anxieties to conducting foreign policy, America’s apparently free and self-governing citizens turn authority over to experts. The people who most value freedom are the most eager not to exercise it. The rule of experts can be so powerful in America precisely because Americans appeal to experts in every aspect of their lives, not merely in the political. Nor is this rule understood as a kind of power over souls like that exercised by authoritarian regimes. Because Americans do not recognize foreign policy or depression as situations that call for essentially moral choices—decisions about what the right kind of life for a human being is—they do not even understand them as domains in which freedom might meaningfully be exercised. These are simply problems, technical issues to be solved in the most efficient way possible.


The American university is no refuge from the constant temptation to flee the responsibility of freedom and its continual, painful demands for thought. As she spoke at one American school after another, Beauvoir began to despair: “they do not form minds.” Students train to become ‘experts’ in a particular set of ‘problems’, whether in electrical engineering or in literature. Outside their small domain of competence, from which questions of value (the only questions that truly provoke thought) have been banished, they must helplessly appeal to other specialists. Even the philosophers pretend to be experts, dividing their field into “completely independent branches… like the exact sciences,” imagining that their technically correct papers on language, metaphysics, ethics etc. are contributing to some larger edifice of knowledge (a house everyone is building but in which no one lives). “Afraid of the dizzying void that the slightest question would carve around him and within him,” the American student defers to experts in the hope of becoming an expert himself.


In America the basic questions of philosophy—which must be confronted by each person who wishes to live their freedom consciously—appear only as technical ‘problems’ intellectualized out of existence or as internal ‘debates’ psychologized into quiescence. This seems to be for Beauvoir the inevitable consequence of democracy. By promoting equality, such a regime liquidates historical traditions that had concealed from most people their natural freedom and its inherent need of philosophy. At the same time, democracy generates gregarious, universal values that conceal the “dizzying void” anew. This new concealment seems more powerful and far-reaching than the old, since it now reaches even into the souls of those who call themselves philosophers.


This is not to suggest that Beauvoir is an explicit or coherent opponent of democracy. Indeed she uses the language of democratic values in her searing criticisms of inequality in America. Particularly caustic are her remarks on anti-black racism in New York and the South, informed by conversations with Ellen and Richard Wright (to whom America Day by Day is dedicated). In her discussions of the condition of African Americans, women and the poor, Beauvoir insists that America fails to live up to its democratic promise, denying many of its citizens the opportunity to participate in its “reign of man.” And yet this reign itself is not conducive to the best kind of life. Democracy is inhospitable to philosophy.


In the years immediately following the publication of America Day by Day, as the Cold War divided the world, Beauvoir aligned herself with the Soviet Union. After the latter tarnished its image even among many Western communists by invading Hungary in 1956, she supported socialist and decolonial movements such as the National Liberation Front of Algeria. In her writing on a wide variety of topics, criticisms of America were clear and strident, criticisms of the Soviet camp soft and nuanced. Her neglected (and profound) study La Vieillesse (1970; in English as The Coming of Age), for example, exposes the miserable conditions of the elderly in America, while keeping comments on the Soviet Union confined to the appendix.


Beauvoir’s politics were perhaps misguided, but they must be understood as an expression of something much deeper than credulous attachment to propaganda from Moscow and Algiers, or the faddish self-flagellations of a privileged Western intellectual. She warns that the victory of America, of democracy, means the annihilation of philosophy, individuality, responsibility and self-conscious freedom. That these four things are in fact one thing, the most precious of things, is what Americans cannot know.


Photo Credit: William P. Gottlieb, 52nd Street, New York, N.Y. (c. 1948), Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress.


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