Tocqueville Pop

August 25, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Right now, I’m reading Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville. It’s pretty heavy what he says about America. It could be an album.” – Iggy Pop quoted in Rolling Stone, July 29, 2010.

De Tocqueville as a rock album? I haven’t followed Iggy Pop’s career closely, so I won’t even guess as to what such an album might be like. But why not? Democracy in America is the basis for a recent novel, Parrot & Olivier in America by Peter Carey.

Carey takes liberties with Tocqueville’s biography, which is why he renames him – Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Garmont. His traveling companion is not Beaumont but Parrot, hired by Olivier’s mother to be his servant and secretary but also to spy on the young Frenchman and report to her. Parrot is an Englishman, older than Olivier and far less aristocratic. So Tocqueville/Olivier’s reactions to his circumstances are personal, not just abstract.
My intuitions and sympathies were limited by the circumstances of my birth. A person like my servant was a foreign land.
Olivier is almost a caricature of a nobleman – overly delicate (he gets frequent nosebleeds) and effete. His relations with people (notably Parrot and an American girl he falls in love with) provide plot. They also, along with a detailed painting of the scenery – New York streets, shops, and houses, rural farms – provide the background for the more general observations. Carey seems to have lifted these directly from Democracy in America. For example:
No matter how strong their religious sentiments, or their passion about the reform of criminals,* the Americans quickly revealed themselves to be obsessed with trade and money and beyond the walls of that particular cell they simply could not see anything that diminished their enthusiasm for self-congratulation. . . . The energy put into this quest for wealth left little room for anything one might think of as culture. (p. 161)
No doubt, Iggy Pop will do something similar, maybe tracking down what Tocqueville had to say about raw power.

*Like the real de Tocqueville, the fictional Olivier has come to America ostensibly to report on prisons, though Carey makes it clear that his mother was spiriting him out of France as a political precaution. Olivier’s grandfather, like Tocqueville’s, had been guillotined, and in 1830 there are rumblings of revolution.

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