Live Without Appeal

The only question for us was whether  or not to accept a world in which there was no choice possible save whether to be victim or executioner (Albert Camus quoted 271). 
– Sean B. Carroll, Brave Genius

IMG_2405It is difficult to assign a genre to Sean Carroll’s book Brave Genius. Ostensibly about the friendship between Albert Camus and Jaques Monad, like life, the book is quite a bit more complex, enormous, and interlaced than the simple premise would suggest.

Camus, famously, was the moral voice of an amoral age, writing anonymously for the French Resistance paper Combat during the Nazi occupation, he also wrote his manifesto, Myth of Sisyphus during that time. I find that astounding. But I suppose it really underlines the message of his profound essay – the revolt is against the absurdity of the world, the revolt is actively rejecting the blinding  copout of ideology or suicide – to live! to feel joy or pain, but to feel! To be authentic to the vitality, the humanity, the passion – to the only thing we have – life.

Jacques Monad was a Resistance fighter, and Carroll gives an account of those years with frightening clarity. The terror is palatable. But Monad was also a biologist trying to understand, through science, the same questions Camus was deeply engaged in – what is the meaning of life – what is life? Monad would go on to discover what happens in between DNA and the creation of protein, and he too would win a Nobel Prize for his contributions to humanity through his work.

Monad admitted that, of course, “this fundamental scientific result is also the most unacceptable” to most people, as it overturns all previous, long-cherished notions of human’s special significance in the universe (487).

It is more than halfway into the book before Camus and Monad even meet, and by then their friendship is a logical conclusion of their individual work, perspectives and proximity… yes, the friendship was meaningful and true, but…it is the steadfastness of their humanity that is raison d’etre of their individual importance and importance to each other. The consideration of their bravery in the face of absurd cruelty and a devastatingly frightening  absence of kindness is profound and deeply moving. The book is really equal parts history, science, and philosophy. Carroll takes the near inevitable friendship between like-minded intellectuals as a baseline for what is really an exploration and history of all travellers on the same journey.

“We are living in nihilism….We shall not get out of it by pretending to ignore the evil of our time or by deciding to deny it. The only hope is to name it, on the contrary, and to inventory it to discover the cure for the disease…Let us recognize that this is a time for hope, even if it is a difficult hope” (267, Camus quoted) 

The confluence and yet beautifully related questions concerning the meaning of life, whether it be through philosophy , politics, science, or any other mode of thinking,  is at the heart of the book. None are possible without intellectual freedom and Carroll’s focus on the horrors of the infringement upon intellectual freedoms is the cris de coeur of the book.

In the act of refusal, the rebel thereby defines a value, a value that Camus alleged “transcends the individual, which removes him from his solitude” and thus joins him to others, and so establishes “the solidarity of man in the same adventure.”
The first philosophical secret of life for Camus was the recognition of the absurd condition. This instinct for positive rebellion–against death, oppression, suffering, or injustice– was the second secret of life, the path to humanity (308).

As much as Albert Camus was, and is,  an inspiration for all of the open-hearted and sincere populace, I have a feeling that this book was written to expose the truth that there are many amongst the true-hearted. Jacques Monad’s story is every bit as riveting and moving as Camus’ or any other of the countless unsung heroes of humanity. And yes, Monad is not exactly unsung, having won a Nobel Peace prize and what not, but still, Carroll’s purpose is to invigorate that which is universally graspable- freedom, and human dignity. The choice between executioner and victim is exactly the hell Monad and Camus gave their lives’ energy to combat. And yet…the world remains what it is…it is enough to make one weep in futile rage.

What Camus could not abide were ideologies that sacrificed life in the present, the one fundamental value above all, for some promise of future justice (310).

Brave Genius, while not really about a friendship per se,  makes the history, science, and humanitarian interest of that time so compelling that one hardly notices. It is simply inspiring that such people existed. Camus is well known, Monad less so, but there are many other heroic, beautiful people intertwined in the story and that is the moving heart and soul of this history. Good people existed then. They exist now. There has never yet been a system designed to put them down permanently. Never.

The question (and striking down) of adaptation (in enzymes) was key to Monad’s work, and in another way, Camus’ as well. To adapt to evil is true suicide. To adapt to fear and the fettering of intellectual freedom is the death of humanity. The acute crisis of WWII was horrific, but the chronic crisis of existence is another, and for Monad, Camus pointed a way out of the despair that the cosmos’s indifference or the scientific evidence of mere chance and necessity being the sole arbiters of all existence seemed to make inevitable. After all, what does any of that matter when we have life within us now?

In the middle of winter  I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer (322 Camus quoted from Return to Tipasa).








6 responses to “Live Without Appeal

  1. This is certainly one of your most profound and compelling posts, written with clarity and insight. Camus and Monad were like two men tunneling in the darkness who break through the shale of ignorance to discover they share a truth — a humanist and a scientist both attempting to define existence while simultaneously confronting the absurdity of a war which reduces humanity to a meaningless stain. How can one believe in God when faced with such nihilism?

    The answer is perhaps in Lawrence Durrell’s Justine: “God did not create us, nor did He wish us to be created. We are the work of a lesser deity, a demi-urge, who wrongly believed himself to be a God.” All religions begin with an egotistical assumption that Man was created by an omnipotent and perfect God who has fashioned Man in his own image and likeness. But what if god were a clumsy, imperfect bungler? Would not that provide a much more logical explanation of the evil, the senseless violence and atrocities that surround us?

    If one tries to explain the absurdity of human existence and God’s silence in the face of evil’s endless ability to arbitrarily destroy all that is beautiful and meaningful, one is faced with a contradiction. If God is good and created all things including Man, how can he cast a blind eye on the atrocities of war and the millions of innocents who died so senselessly in WWII? However, if god is imperfect and capricious and thoughtless, everything becomes clear.

    And therefore, by accepting the absurdity and inevitability of death, we are able to emerge with the understanding that this immediate moment is all we have and all we can know for certain.

    Thus in L’Etranger, Meursault rejects the prison chaplain entreaties to embrace God by saying: “…Yet not one of his certainties was worth one strand of a woman’s hair…” (Part 2, Chapter 5 — Gilbert Stuart translation).

    • I love that quote. The Stranger was the first Camus book I read – he is a favorite of mine and I have read much, but not all, of his work. This Spring I re-read both The Myth of Sisyphus and The Fall. I find his work very moving, but more importantly extremely positive. A few years ago, in days that were very dark for me, I read my father’s copy of Myth of Sisyphus, with all of his marginalia…I found it…well I credit it with getting me through that time of my life.
      Your comment above nicely sums up much of what CAmus strove to communicate through his fiction and non-fiction alike. The wonderful thing about Brave Genius is that it really places his work temporally, which makes the timeless message that much more compelling. It was a terrifying age, which, needless to say, many people did not survive. The scope of the book, (Brave Genius) is enormous with long segues into early scientific experiments in DNA research, Communism in France and without, the Hungarian Revolution, Fascism, and much more. The excerpts of Camus and Monad’s writing (both personal and professional) are tremendous – tender, intelligent, beautiful…I did not, could not, undertake my attempt to write how the book moved me lightly, so I particularly thank you for your kind comments.

  2. How wonderful your father was able to reach out across the years and help you when you needed him. His notes on Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus provide a touchstone — the two of you connecting in a metaphysical embrace. The essay is one of Camus’s most brilliant for it helps us come to terms with the frustrations of modern life. Indeed, Sisyphus learns to love the rock for it defines him as nothing else can.

  3. Amazing they had time for all this. Most people were worn out just surviving. Puts our so-called problems into perspective.

  4. Pingback: Sins of Denial | so very very

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