Lévy on the Kennedy assassination

bernard henri levy

These days I’m reading American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville, (Random House, January 2006). A great book on the US, written by Bernard-Henri Lévy, a French public intellectual and author who travelled through the US in 2004 and 2005. You should all read it – it’s been a while since I read such a great book on the United States. Off course he visits Dallas, and the Texas School Book Depository. “It is, more precisely, contained in this rare – perhaps unique – emotional reaction, whose equivalent I have experienced in no other situation or museum or memorial in the world.” Below the full text on the assassination and in particular the sentiments.


The Sixth Floor

– Bernard-Henri Lévy

In Dallas now; the real Kennedy mystery is here.

It’s not about knowing whether Oswald acted alone. It’s not about the endless discussions of whether there were three bullets or more, if the shots came from behind or in front. It’s not about the interlacing theories that blame the loading of the most famous 6.5mm Mannlicher-Carcano rifle in history on Castroites or anti-Castroites, on the Mafia or the CIA, on the Russians, on Johnson, on the far left, on the far right, on the military-industrial complex and the casino lobbies, on China or Israel, on the Jews or the Protestants, on rich Texans, on the FBI, on the Vietnamese, on J. Edgar Hoover, on Howard Hughes.

It’s not even about the pathetic and tireless “JFK assassination researchers” I see this morning opposite the Texas School Book Depository, in Dealey Plaza, on the very site of the crime, haranguing their meager public, desperate to sell paraphernalia. One has his “Real JFK Facts,” proving the existence of the second shooter, another his “Never Seen World Exclusive Interview” demonstrating that the president’s wounds were faked at the autopsy. A third offers a new “Eyewitness Video,” whose dramatized freeze-frames, paranoid zoom-ins, blurred faces circled in red, are supposed to shatter the Warren Commission’s conclusions. The last has “the missing thirteen seconds” that Abraham Zapruder didn’t film, which establish without the least possible doubt that his film was doctored.

No. The mystery, if there is one, is lodged here, on the sixth floor of the book depository, in this emotion that overwhelms me (and I see it overwhelming nearly everyone around me too) as I face these black-and-white images, these films and stills that all of us know by heart.

It is, more precisely, contained in this rare—perhaps unique—emotional reaction, whose equivalent I have experienced in no other situation or museum or memorial in the world. I can only describe the paradox this way:

1. These images are clichés. We’ve seen them over and over. Nowhere in all these photos of Kennedy’s life, or in the short films that run in an endless loop, showing for the nth time either the assassination or the funeral—nowhere does there appear anything even the slightest bit unusual or even mildly unfamiliar. It’s not the comic but the tragic aspect of repetition, and the Americans who are here, all the devotees of the myth who came, as I did, into the small projection room to see again, indefinitely repeated, the scene of the last turn, or the one of the motorcade leaving, sirens wailing, for Trauma Room No. 1 at Parkland Hospital, know these sequences by heart.

2. The Kennedy myth itself. For a long time now the Kennedy myth has ceased to be a myth. Or, to put it another way, few myths have for forty years been the subject of a demystifying rage so radical, so unbridled, and in the end—scandal after scandal, best seller after best seller—so overwhelmingly effective. I question the people around me. I talk to these fetishists of memory and legend who have come from all over the United States. All of them, or almost all, know that the spectacle of family happiness with Jackie was a made-up publicity representation. All of them, or almost all, know that the tanned young hero, exuding optimism and health, was a sick man, drugged with testosterone and cortisone, whose air of vitality was an illusion. All of them have at least heard talk of the “sins of the father”—Joseph P. Kennedy’s anti-Semitic or pro-Nazi leanings, the suspicious origins of the family fortune, even the shabby tricks that got JFK into the White House. No one can manage to ignore completely that this “great president,” this “visionary,” this official incarnation of an America that wins and dictates what’s right and wrong, had the time in a thousand days to send the first military advisers to Vietnam, to launch the disastrous invasion of the Bay of Pigs, and, one year before the beautiful “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, to let the shameful Berlin Wall be raised.

3. Despite all that, despite the stock of information available to anyone who wants it, despite the concealed face that is no longer concealed from most people, despite the methodical disenchantment to which the Kennedy myth has been subjected, one image of this man in his glory is enough. One of his photos as a young, beaming Prince Charming, American tabloid, from Washington to the moon, opulence, happiness, New Frontier, insouciance. One image of Jackie, in an Oleg Cassini gown during their great mediatized lie, is enough. Another one, on the day of the tragedy: pink suit stained with blood, legs splayed, on all fours, all care for image forgotten, leaning over the rear seat of the Lincoln, gathering together the pieces of her husband’s brain. Yet another one: Jackie again, in the same bloody suit she didn’t want to change out of, next to Lyndon Johnson as he takes the oath of office. Or another: black crepe veil over her face, next to Bobby in tails, or with her two children, climbing the steps of the Capitol on their too-short legs for a final farewell to their father. That’s all that’s needed, just one of those vignettes, and you are overcome with a malaise that I’m not sure has an equivalent—not even in the images of September 11.

What kind of cliché makes you cry?

What is a myth you no longer believe in but that still functions?

There it is. It’s the question asked by lovers of antiquity when they wonder if the Greeks believed in their myths or not—to which they reply, as André Gide did, that it was a matter less of belief than of assent.

And the fact is that in the great, simple sentiments that the Kennedy saga mobilizes; in this live death we are given to witness over and over again without ever tiring of it; in this proximity of suffering and love; in this nexus of power and misfortune, fall and redemption; in this story of youth struck down; in this true story of a glamorous and cursed family, blessed by the gods and pursued by a fate perceived as both inconceivable and necessary, it is the eternal form of Tragedy—”terror and pity,” Aristotle said—that is played out and that makes us tremble.

The Kennedys are not, as is often alleged, an American royal family. They are the brothers in fate of Oedipus, Achilles, Theseus, Narcissus, Prometheus. They are the tragic side of a nation that thought it could do without tragedy. They are America’s Greeks.

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