EVERYTHING has been said about the United States. But a person who has once crossed the Atlantic can no longer be satisfied with even the most penetrating books; not that he does not believe what they say, but that his agreement remains abstract.
When a friend tries to explain our character and unravel our motives, when he relates all our acts to principles, prejudices, beliefs, and a conception of the world which he &rinks to find in us, we listen uneasily, unable either to deny what he says or entirely accept it. Perhaps the interpretation is true, but what is the truth that is being interpreted? We miss the intimate warmth, the life, the way one is always unpredictable to oneself and also tiresomely familiar, the decision to -get along with oneself, the perpetual deliberations and perpetual inventions about what one is, and the vow to be “that” and nothing else–in short, the liberty. Similarly, when a careful arrangement of those melting-pot notions–puritanism, realism, optimism, and so on–which we have been told are the keys to the American character is presented to us in Europe, we experience a certain intellectual satisfaction and think that, in effect, it must be so. But when we walk about New York, on Third Avenue, or Sixth Avenue, or Tenth Avenue, at that evening hour which, for Da Vinci, lends softness to the faces of men, we see the most pathetic visages in the world, uncertain, searching, intent, full of astonished good faith, with appealing eyes, and we know that the most beautiful generalizations are of very little service: they permit us to understand the system but not the people.
The system is a great external apparatus, an implacable machine which one might call the objective spirit of the United States and which over there they call Americanism-a huge complex of myths, values, recipes, slogans, figures, and rites. But one must not think that it has been deposited in the head of each American just as the God of Descartes deposited the first notions in the mind of man; one must not think that it is “refracted” into brains and hearts and at each instant determines affections or thoughts that exactly express it. Actually, it is something outside of the people, something presented to them; the most adroit propaganda does nothing else but present it to &cm continuously. It is not in them, they are in it; they struggle against it or they accept it, they stifle in it or go beyond it, they submit to it or reinvent it, they give themselves up to it or make furious efforts to escape from it; in any case it remains outside them, transcendent, because they are men and it is a thing.
There are the great myths, the myths of happiness, of progress, of liberty, of triumphant maternity; there is realism and optimism–and then there are the Americans, who, nothing at first, grow up among these colossal statues and find their way as best they can among them. There is this myth of happiness: black-magic slogans warn you to be happy at once; films that “end well” show a life of rosy ease to the exhausted crowds; the language is charged with optimistic and unrestrained expressions-“have a good time,” “life is fun,” and the like. But there are also these people, who, though conventionally happy, suffer from an obscure malaise to which no name can be given, who are tragic through fear of being so, through that total absence of the tragic in them and around them.