Tag Archives: Albert Camus

The Path of Sympathy

“But you’re capable of dying for an idea; one can see that right away. Well, personally, I’ve seen enough of people who die for an idea. I don’t believe in heroism; I know it’s easy and I’ve learned it can be murderous. What interests me is living and dying for what one loves.” 
—Albert Camus, The Plague (162).


Last week I was talking to a friend who lives as far away from me as is possible while still sharing the planet. We got to talking about Camus and he asked if I had read The Plague. I hadn’t. He said, “Do read it. It is why we must see eachother again.” The Plague is about exile and separation, it is about the resignation of despair, the banality of evil, and the capacity for endurance, but at its heart there is also: friendship.

“But, you know, I feel more fellowship with the defeated than with saints. Heroism and sanctity don’t really appeal to me, I imagine. What interests me is being a man” (255).

The story, told by a slowly revealed narrator, is related in a kind of detached expository manner. With the help of a detailed diary kept by a man named  Tarrou, the hellish months of the plague-stricken town Oran are calmly related. The story is neither unnecessarily ghoulish nor gory. After all, everyone knows that plague is ghoulish and gory. The question Camus seems to want to ask is: is it any worse than the plague, the inner plague, that infects humanity?

One the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being  that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill (131).

The capacity to murder one another for whatever well-thought-out logic, law, or Supreme decree is the truly disturbing plague. All others are mere “natural” microbes doing their thing, running their course. At least with microbes the evidence of their malfeasance is indisputable. Or one likes to hope. Camus does spend the first third of the novel describing the inertia of the human mind when faced with unpleasant evidence. Our confirmation bias runs strongly in both directions towards good or bad—it’s an addiction to being right, I suppose…but I digress…

True, one could always refuse to face this disagreeable fact, shut one’s eyes to it, or thrust it out of mind, but there is a terrible cogency in the self-evident; ultimately it breaks down all defense (172).

Pockets of the virulent inner-form of plague pop up with unsurprising and depressing frequency. The history books and current news are bursting with examples. In Camus’ tale, the microbial plague stripes away much of what keeps societies occupied and largely sedated: the petty dogmas and concerns of daily life.  The friendship between Dr. Rieux and the stranger to town, Tarrou, reveals the profound beauty of friendship and simply joys, but also the un-heroic yet, human response of sympathy to others. The ties of love that bind us and make us terrifyingly vulnerable to a world in which microbes and other natural events wreck havoc, are are also what give us its deepest pleasures.

Perhaps I am being optimistic, but it seems to me we have made some small advancements as far as recognizing and dealing with “natural” menances. Very small perhaps. But in comparison to acknowledging what Camus was really talking about—the inner plague—there is no contest. And it’s wearying.

I know I have no place in the world of today; once I’d definitely refused to kill, I doomed myself to an exile that can never end. […] All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences (253-54).

Love serves nothing if it cannot serve each other. Friendships are unique in that they describe a love that is not based on birth or affiliation. That is the kind of love, expanded, which shows the way of sympathy to all of our fellow humans. Let’s follow it.

*Title from p. 254

** A Vintage Books Publication, translated from the French by Stuart Gilbert


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).








Kismet’s Kettle

“After marriage arrives a reaction, sometimes a big, sometimes a little one; but it comes sooner or later, and must be tided over by both parties if they desire the rest of their lives to go with the current.”   – Rudyard Kipling, Three and – an Extra

What an unexpected delight these short stories by Rudyard Kipling are. Plain Tales From the Hill begins with the story Lisbeth in which a broken heart is a broken life is a broken culture is a broken world, all told in a plain and sincere voice. In ‘Yoked With an Unbeliever’ after letting a love affair pass with exaggerated regret:

From an artistic point of view, it was a very neat work, but an ordinary Philistine, who knew the state of Phil’s real feelings, -not the ones he rose to as he went on writing,-would have called it thoroughly mean and selfish work of a thoroughly mean and selfish weak man. But this verdict would have been incorrect. Phil paid his postage, and felt every word he had written for at least two days and a half. (37)

Oh Mr. Kipling- you are a droll one.

I took the recommendation of the wonderful blog Wuthering Expectations to read this book: his blog is a rich source of literary inspiration and celebration of the reader.

Kipling’s stories are very good, Cupid’s Arrow was a highly satisfying tale of a woman’s triumph of sensibility. The Other Man a sad but typical Kiplin’ian example of the crappy hand dealt to most and, interestingly for a man of his era, the crappy hand dealt to women in particular. Many of these stories center around a woman, admired equally whether it be for her cleverness – both good and ill, or for her ability to carry the burden of a cruel and twisted fate.

India is very much at the center of each story, but where Camus places Algeria at the heart of his writing, Kipling’s India comes from his brain. Perhaps it is his Englishness, class, or basic outsiderness that keeps him slightly removed and wryly observant.

In most ways we live in an age far beyond Kipling’s, but some things stay the same. Beyond the Pale is initially one of the more dated pieces, but in the end, as with most of Kipling’s sarcastic and ironic leanings, what is beyond the pale really? It is the reaction rather than the reactants that Kipling highlights and we should really abhor.

I recently watched the film The Blue Angel with Marlene Dietrich. At the climax of the film the professor is deliriously in love with Lola Lola, and the man is happy. It’s quite lovely. His colleagues chastise his choice of love and tell him that they will “have to report him.”

The choices the professor faced were his continued “esteemed” existence as “Professor Ratshit,” an alone and loveless pedagog, or a man whose heart has been touched by a straightforward warm love. I thought to myself, is this a trick question?

But how does this “morality tale” end? The broken and brokenhearted professor returns to his former school room and dies clinging to his desk. Forgive me, but there is something seriously wrong with that picture. There was nothing flawed in the professor’s morality, rather it is the reaction  of a society that does not allow simple love and feeling. The man was striped of his livelihood and therefore his freedom, collapsing the charming love story under the pressure of convention- not by his choice of love, but by a warped society that punished him for choosing a woman outside polite social conventions. On top of which his weakness of true character allowed his false notion of “pride” to destroy the man that he could have been- the man that Lola Lola adored. And we are suppose to call that morality? Not me.

I think Kipling would agree. Life that is “manifestly unfair,” is the flavor Kipling casually leaves in ones mouth at the end of each tale. His commentary is subtle,  and full of cheek, but the tone only emphasizes the hypocrisy that so many swallow whole.

You may have noticed that many religious people are deeply suspicious. They seem – for purely religious purposes, of course – to know more about the iniquity than the Unregenerate. – Watches of the Night (87)

Plain Tales From the Hills  are like little dispatches from another age and another country: our endearing narrator of all the tales makes for a wonderful correspondent.

But these things are kismet, and we only find out all about them just when any knowledge is too late.  – Bitters Neat (125)

Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose

“He was cold; he wanted to go back down. What was there to see here, after all? But she could not take her gaze from the horizon. Over yonder, still farther south, at that point where sky and earth met in a pure line- over yonder it suddenly seemed there was awaiting her something of which, though it had always been lacking, she had never been aware until now.” – Albert Camus, The Adulterous Woman

After reading The Fall I went on to read Exile and the Kingdom as Camus had desired. A compilation of the “critical moments” of  the lives of the introspective. And the short stories are lovely and thoughtful and true. But, I sometimes  really wish I was the type of person who could enjoy a Ring Ding. What are you talking about Jessica? A Ring Ding: those cupcake things that one purchases at a supermarket. I’ve never had one. Because they are kind of disgusting. But that is not the point. The point is, does an introspective life enhance ones life? I can’t enjoy a Ring Ding because I know they are chemical laden frank-o-food. Food is perhaps too strong of a term, let’s use my all time least favorite word to describe ingested sustenance – product. Oh, that hurt. But what if I didn’t know? What if thinking about our empty lives is the cause of an empty life. Camus! Help me.

What would she do there henceforth except to drag herself toward sleep, toward death? (174)

Yeah; that’s not really helpful. Anyway. This story is interesting because the adulterous woman in question is not really adulterous. She merely acknowledges herself, suddenly feeling herself in the mystery of the world. That is her adultery. But I love the use of the word- she is an adulteress to her facade.

Since the beginning of time, on the dry earth of this limitless land scraped to the bone, a few men had been ceaselessly trudging, possessing nothing but serving no one, poverty-stricken but free lords of a strange kingdom. Janine did not know why this thought filled her with such a sweet, vast melancholy that it closed her eyes. (172)

I went to church this weekend. I was filling in a work shift, accompanying my client, who is a dedicated church goer. I was transported to my youthful self because the denomination that we attended was the very same that I attended in my youth. No one else in my family ever went or was even affiliated with this church. I went so that I could sing. I attended a church for years, by myself, to sing in the choir.

Retrospection sent me further into my lonely meditative funk.

It was All Saint’s Sunday and the pastor spent a good amount of his sermon talking about the saintliness of us all- seen through our love of one another. But I got tripped up on the program which featured humble, normally unacknowledged, saints- aka, decent people. The depressing part, to me, was that unless the woman was a spinster, her identity was buried underneath her husband. It’s not just the last name, I did that too – it seemed simpler at the time (ah what we sacrifice to the God of convenience!). But these titles were all the husband’s name: Mrs. John Doe, or, the husband’s family: the John Doe family. What does that do to us? If we have no name, instead we are the Mrs. so and so’s…do we disappear? Where do we go? Plus, I just wanted to know what the names were because the spinsters had such cool old fashioned ones like: Mildred and Edith.

Wasn’t that what she lacked? She did not know. She simply followed Marcel, pleased to know that someone needed her. The only joy he gave her was the knowledge that she was necessary. Probably he did not love her. (175)

I sometimes feel lost between the half of my life lived as one name, and the half lived as another. Well…maybe I am just over thinking it. Damn it. I’ll never enjoy a Ring Ding this way!

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.

-William Shakespeare

*Title from  Sacred Emily by Gertrude Stein. Sacred who? Emily.hmmm.

Our Fettle

Are we not all alike, constantly talking and to no one, forever up against the same questions although we know the answers in advance? – Albert Camus, The Fall

This book ran its course through me over the long, weary, on-going (hence my photo free posts) days of the post-hurricane camp out. We started out trying to fortify ourselves against what was coming. We tackled it cheerily, even with some measure of fortitude. I laughed along with M. Camus:

I confess my weakness for that mood and for fine speech in general. A weakness that I criticize in myself, believe me…my consolation is to tell myself that, after all, those who murder the language are not pure either. Why yes, let’s have another gin. (6)

Oh Let’s! Why not? But as the long, dark, weary hours passed it became increasingly difficult. Nothing to do but contemplate the fettle we are in: something I normally work very hard to avoid.

After all, my dream had not stood up to facts. (54)

Camus’ charm and pithy summations of the state of the world and the truth in people’s hearts goes down easy. He is never too cynical for a little self-deprecating humor at any rate.

You know what charm is: a way of getting the answer yes without having asked any clear question. (52)

The protagonist in The Fall has simply come face to face with his own disappointment of who he is as opposed to who he imagined himself to be. His fine rhetoric, good deeds and pretty words disguised from himself his true self, and the disillusion is ripe. When he is truly put to the test, to stand up for the love of his fellow man that he prided himself on, he fails. Where his words act as a sort of subterfuge, his actions cry out the truth, and he knows it. That is his fall.

But I will admit to saving my deepest pity for the girl on the bridge that he ignores.  She knows the answer. Whatever test she confronted has brought her to the brink. The confirmation of her answer is felt in the empty air streaming through her fingers as she finds herself alone, falling. How profoundly sad her feeling must have been, because the truth is, at least at that moment, she is truly  unloved. And that is worse than not loving.

Pellucid Prose

“Two thirsts that cannot be long neglected if all one’s being is not to dry up, the thirst to love and the thirst to admire. For there is only misfortune in not being loved; there is misery in not loving.” – Albert Camus, Return to Tipasa

Lyrical and Critical Essays by Camus, translated by Ellen Conroy Kennedy, is a book that sheds a limpid, lovely light on the world. Camus, the “sad and pessimistic” philosopher is really not after all, as anyone who has read The Myth of Sisyphus can attest. The first half of this book is comprised of lyrical essays on travel. Camus’ ability to recover one’s deepest feeling of love and admiration for the environment, city or country, is unsurpassed. In particular his love of Algiers expresses a universal passion of place that strikes the core:

When Algeria is concerned, I am always afraid to pluck the inner cord it touches in me, whose blind and serious song I know so well…No, you must certainly not go there if you have a lukewarm heart of if your soul is weak and weary! But for those who know what it is to be torn between yes and no, between noon and midnight, between revolt and love…a flame lies waiting in Algeria.” – A Short Guide to Towns Without a Past

The effect that Camus’ writing has is to reawaken a passionate love of love and passion. As he writes, “It is futile to weep over the mind,” and “Too many people confuse tragedy with despair. ‘Tragedy,’ Lawrence said, ‘ought to be a great kick at misery.'” Of course my heart always perks up at any mention of D.H.Lawrence, but the point is – the absurdity of pertinacious pessimism. We can despair at the state of the world only when we truly love the world simultaneously. If all of one’s sensibilities are dead – that is tragedy.

The second half of the book consists of critical essays and interviews. One of the books Camus critiques is Bread and Wine by Ignazio Silone. I happened to read this book a few years ago right after I read The Stranger, and was well into it when I noticed the back cover describing it as a book considered as a trio of sorts along with 1984 and The Stranger. I had inadvertently read them all back to back and taken as a group there is much to consider about the state of the world then and now. What authors such as Orwell, Camus and Silone try to tell us, warn us, remind us of…is the preciousness of feelingBread and Wine is a wonderful book in its own right as a novel with an anti-fascist heart that breathes with a humanitarian’s sorrowful love of the world.

“The anguish that grips the Italian revolutionary is precisely what gives Silone’s book its bitterness and somber brilliance.” – On Ignazio Silone’s Bread and Wine

For Camus, the beauty of the world is what holds us to it. Although he grew up in poverty, he acknowledges his advantage of spending those years under the sky of the magnificent Mediterranean sun. As an adult he sees with perfect clarity that poverty is never as debilitating as when it is accompanied by a lack of beauty, “Everything must be done so that men can escape from the double humilation of poverty and ugliness.”  

Most of the essays in this book were written at the inception of Camus’ career as a young man, but this edition compiled in 1958, proves the inspiring passion and simple truth of his philosophy. It shines through, and remains –  true.

“Once you have had the chance to love intensely, your life is spent in search of the same light and the same ardor. To give up beauty and the sensual happiness that comes with it and devote one’s self exclusively to unhappiness requires a nobility I lack.”  – Albert Camus, Return to Tipasa