10
Optical Illusions

AT THE CLOSE OF the 1920s, Georges Duhamel, an eminent French writer, made a sojourn to the United States. Like Alexis de Toqueville a century before, Duhamel wished to survey the state of American society, imagining that in the United States Europeans might discover "scenes from the life of the future" that awaited them.

Published in 1931--under the title America the Menace-- Duhamel's narration of his visit portrayed modern America as a "devouring civilization," motored by a torrential apparatus of publicity. Wherever one turns, he told his readers, publicity beckons with "the serene persistence of machines," seeking to ensnare "the bewildered gaze of the passer-by." 1

American "civilization," as Duhamel described it, was overwhelmingly visual. Having forsaken all fidelity to truth, the publicity machine was generating a ceaseless riot of optical stimulants, "flashes, repetitions, and explosions," that were "conceived to excite the reflexes of a sedentary mollusk." Aimed at titillating the nervous system, more than educating the mind, here was a culture that "presents to the people only images that are elementary, powerful, and seductive." For Duhamel, American publicity was "a triumph of disharmony and disorder," a "charivari of light," a provocation intended to induce what he termed "a kind of masturbation of the eye." 2

Overwhelmed by these seductions, Duhamel felt his sense of reality, his liminal sense of his own existence, slipping away.

Everything was false. The world was false. I myself was perhaps no longer anything but a simulacrum of a man, an imitation Duhamel. . . . My thoughts were no longer under my

-191-

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