Growing up, I witnessed my grandpa cook frog legs and regale us with stories about his time serving at a US Air Force base in French Morocco. My young mind naturally concluded that he spoke French and had earned the title of Francophile; and so after he died, I decided to carry on that torch for the family by learning French, studying abroad in Paris, and leveraging my French skills to work in southwest France for a year. It wasn’t until after I was an insufferable Francophile that I learned that my grandfather ne parlait pas le francais and liked frog legs for their taste— not due to the culture that surrounded the delicacy.
I became a walking platitude at 20 years old, when studying abroad in France changed my worldview. Paris taught me that a city could affirm life, and that life should be cherished and enlarged— not merely endured or optimized. The world’s finest art collections and exquisite foods, alongside a plethora of public parks and gardens, were all situated in a walkable landscape made even more hospitable by the beautiful skies overhead and the chic, photogenic citizens that populated the sidewalks. One could easily spend a day doing nothing besides what elicited joy: picnics by the Seine, reading at the Luxembourg Gardens, and flaneuring along boulevards so intoxicating that all the city’s history and art seemed superfluous. I had a dandy-adjacent, Nietzschean supercharged aura. But eventually, after three months, I had to leave the navel of civilization, where even basic necessities like bread are raised to the level of excellence, and return to America. Exiting the plane at LAX felt like barging through the door to unhappiness.
I sensed that I had returned to a cultural wasteland, teeming with shopping malls, overly salted foods, and zealots for cheap beer and television. Everything oozed depressed solitude, anxious lassitude, and joyless superficiality. It was easy to see why Jean Baudrillard visited New York and remarked, “This is wall-to-wall prostitution” (Baudrillard, 14). France made America seem derelict and cheap. Returning to UC Berkeley, my undergraduate studies only intensified this feeling by instilling a sense that America, by virtue of its foreign policy, economic agenda, and cultural imperialism, was a blemish on the face of Western civilization and the globe more generally.
Several years passed with me traveling extensively until gainful employment and the COVID pandemic kept me within America’s borders. I spent the last years of my 20s mostly visiting the country’s National Parks: Joshua Tree, White Sands, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Channel Islands, Grand Teton, and Glacier. Trips to the Parks were interlaced with drives up the PCH to the Bay and Big Sur; exploring vast landscapes bound me up in the literary genre of crazy ass white boys driving around the country in search of God and themselves— and always finding neither. But they always discovered something much bigger than God or their true selves: America.
Books like On the Road are only possible in a country the size of a continent, whose land rolls in one unbelievably huge bulge across thousands of miles of diverse landscapes and people. To enjoy that luxury of space, however, we need cars, which, unlike planes or digital media that compress the country into hand-held miniatures, enlarge the country. A traveler on a plane has no power over the route; she is subject to the plans of Air Traffic Control, whereas friends traveling by car can change directions on a whim, roll down the windows and smell the desert air, and, most importantly, by staying on the land, retain the humility of knowing that the landscape — whether it be a desert floor, mountain range, or a cliff— is much, much larger than the traveler. The car lets us keep our bodies as we travel: in a car, our eyes properly seize the surroundings, our noses learn the air, our tongues enjoy stops for food and drinks, and ears embrace the sounds of silence or whizzing air. Hence Jean Baudrillard’s proclamation that you can, “Drive ten thousand miles across America and you will know more about the country than all the institutes of sociology and political science put together” (Baudrillard, 57).
Most Americans — who spend their years trapped in the air conditioned hells of major cities— have no idea how big or empty America is; it is our essential feature and we must keep it at the forefront of our minds. Once we start analyzing America in terms of abstractions or morality, instead of our luxury of space, the analysis is already fucked.
The raw energy of our cities and the vehement landscapes have no need for explanation or justification; it is the defective European mindset that bitches at us for lacking concepts. There is discourse on one side and the waltz of simulacra and immensity of beauty on the other; consequently, “When we look at America, it is the analyses which seem vulgar” (Baudrillard, 111). Our goal is to be wreathed in the energy of America— not to cast nauseated words over the sunrise of our American experiment. Henry Miller said, “I’m a bit retarded, like most Americans,” and it is that retard’s disdain for abstraction that makes this country exhilarating (49). We know we live in a paradise and we are here to enjoy it, which is why we come across as banal or stupid to others. To borrow once more from Henry Miller:
“In Walt Whitman the whole American scene comes to life, her past and her future, her birth and her death. Whatever there is of value in America Whitman has expressed, and there is nothing more to be said. The future belongs to the machine, to the robots. He was the Poet of the Body and the Soul, Whitman. The first and last poet. He is almost indecipherable today, a monument covered with rude hieroglyphs for which there is no key. It seems strange almost to mention his name over here (in France). There is no equivalent in the languages of Europe for the spirit which he immortalized. Europe is saturated with art and her soil is full of dead bones and her museums are bursting with plundered treasures, but what Europe has never had is a free, healthy spirit, what you might call a MAN” (Miller, 240).
Americans are liberated from aristocratic values because we “have an ease that comes from space, the ease of those who have always had lots of space, and this makes up for a lack of manners or noble breeding” (Baudrillard, 102). Our big skies, vast landscapes, and electric cities teach us that intelligence is kinetic and liquid, rather than stationary. Moving around is our natural state. It is expressed by the poetry of our open roads, which eventually bleeds into urban institutions like the New York Stock Exchange whose manic optimism epitomizes the country’s irrational exuberance.
The current set-up of what I’ve written is that America is beautiful, but its culture is soul-sucking— but that’s not quite right. The radical lack of culture is itself a vast landscape, a kind of desert populated with bizarre funhouses of desire and absurdity. Jean Buadrillard’s attitude — which is that of open-mindedness and pensive admiration— is the correct orientation towards America. It is how one attunes oneself to the culture. “This country is naive, so you have to be naive” (Baudrillard, 66). One must experience the country with a healthy, playful sense of admiration, interest, and energy— all without ever being patronizing— which is precisely what makes Baudrillard’s America brilliant.
Poking fun at America is easy. The fact that we have wonderful teeth but no identities. The brutal, unnatural fact of people eating alone. The feigned sense of apocalypse to feel alive. Running to avoid the essential fact of biological aging. The wall-to-wall prostitution and theatricality. The chromosome of banality in the cultural DNA. The mediocrity of our intellect and sexuality that lacks eroticism. Our primitive fascination with technology. The waltz of simulacra. Baudrillard says that to dismiss all of this as stupidity is to evade the challenge of America and that we must, “come to see this whirl of things and events as an irresistible, fundamental datum” (Baudrillard, 71). We must, “accept everything at once, an unchanging timelessness of and wildest instantaneity” that characterizes a country that is able to unify a place like Las Vegas and Death Valley like hidden faces of one another (Baudrillard, 70). The country, for better or for worse — but is its achievement nonetheless— is that it is a giant desert, a deliverance from profundity, “a brilliant, mobile, superficial neutrality, a challenge to meaning and profundity, a challenge to nature and culture, an outer hyperspace, with no origin, no reference points” (Baudrillard, 133).
It’s hard to be America-pilled without feeling weird and dumb, but I submit myself to the same retardation as Henry Miller. If enjoying this country is bad existential manners, then so be it. “Mournful, monotonous, and superficial though it may be, it is a paradise. There is no other. If you are prepared to accept the consequences of your dreams — not just the political and sentimental ones, but the theoretical and cultural ones as well— then you must still regard America today with the same naive enthusiasm as the generations that discovered the New World” (Baudrillard, 107).
I also submit to this country as a young man who is now 30 years old. The trope is that aging men become cranky and irritable, always comfortable with complaining. If that’s the case, then I am not getting older. I have a good body, a Roth IRA, and aging parents, so I have no time to waste bitching and moaning about things. My enjoyment of America does not need to come with an asterisk. Like Nietzsche said, “I do not want to wage war with the ugly. I do not want to accuse. I do not want to even accuse the accusers. Looking aside, let that be my sole negation! And all in all, to sum it up: I wish to be at any time hereafter only a yea-sayer!” (Nieztsche, 157). This is a country where you can do anything. Figure it out.
Baudrillard, J. (2010). America. Verso.
Miller, H. (1991). Tropic of cancer ; Black Spring ; the Colossus of Maroussi. Quality Paperback Book Club.
Owen, W. B. A., & Nauckhoff, J. (2001). Nietzsche: The gay science. Cambridge University Press.