Absurd Man

by A. Jay Adler on January 20, 2010
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January 4th was the 50th anniversary of the death of Albert Camus in a car crash, an end all too facilely characterized and diminshed as “absurd.” He was 46 years old, and he had already won the Nobel Prize for Literature. If you missed it, and care to, you can read about the meaning of Camus in my own life in the Writer’s Choice, from this past December, over at Normblog.

The Economist has some thoughts on Camus in light of four new works on his life released in France. When he died – because he had separated himself from the rationalizations and justifications of the ascendant European Marxist left, and been ostracized by Sartre and his intellectual coterie – he was at the low point of his public life. Today, as The Economist points out, his star is risen again.

History finds Camus on the right side of so many of the great moral issues of the 20th century. He joined the French resistance to combat Nazism, editing an underground newspaper, Combat. He campaigned against the death penalty. A one-time Communist, his anti-totalitarian work, “L’Homme Révolté” (“The Rebel”), published in 1951, was remarkably perceptive about the evils of Stalinism. It also led to his falling-out with Sartre, who at the time was still defending the Soviet Union and refusing to condemn the gulags….

The public recognition that Camus achieved in his lifetime never quite compensated for the wounds of rejection and disdain from those he had thought friends. He suffered cruelly at the hands of Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and their snobbish, jealous literary clique, whose savage public assassination of Camus after the publication of “The Rebel” left deep scars. “You may have been poor once, but you aren’t anymore,” Sartre lashed out in print.

“He would remain an outsider in this world of letters, confined to existential purgatory,” writes Mr Lenzini: “He was not part of it. He never would be. And they would never miss the chance to let him know that.” They accepted him, says Mr Tanase, “as long as he yielded to their authority.” What Sartre and his friends could not forgive was the stubborn independent-mindedness which, today, makes Camus appear so morally lucid, humane and resolutely modern.

These qualities praised in Camus can be found everywhere in his writing, most directly in his essays, from those he wrote for Combat, as editor of that underground French Resistance newspaper, to those on Algeria, to his Nobel acceptance speech. This following excerpt is from a collection of essays written for Combat after the war, translated by Dwight McDonald, and published in 1947 as “Neither Victim nor Executioner” (a theme pursued further in The Rebel, to come) in Politics.

And it is sociability (‘le dialogue’) the universal intercommunication of men that must be defended. Slavery, injustice and lies destroy this intercourse and forbid this sociability; and so we must reject them. But these evils are today the very stuff of History, so that many consider them necessary evils. It is true that we cannot ‘escape History’, since we are in it up to our necks. But one may propose to fight within History to preserve from History that part of man which is not its proper province. That is all I have to say here. The ‘point’ of this article may be summed up as follows:

Modern nations are driven by powerful forces along the roads of power and domination. I will not say that these forces should be furthered or that they should be obstructed. They hardly need our help and, for the moment, they laugh at attempts to hinder them. They will then, continue. But I will ask only this simple question: what if these forces wind up in a dead end, what if that logic of History on which so many now rely turns out to be a will o’ the wisp ? What if, despite two or three world wars, despite the sacrifice of several generations and a whole system of values, our grandchildren – supposing they survive – find themselves no closer to a world society? It may well be that the survivors of such an experience will be too weak to understand their own sufferings. Since these forces are working themselves out and since it is inevitable that they continue to do so, there is no reason why some of us should not take on the job of keeping alive, through the apocalyptic historical vista that stretches before us, a modest thoughtfulness which, without pretending to solve everything, will constantly be prepared to give some human meaning to everyday life. The essential thing is that people should carefully weigh the price they must pay.

To conclude: all I ask is that, in the midst of a murderous world, we agree to reflect on murder and to make a choice. After that, we can distinguish those who accept the consequences of being murderers themselves or the accomplices of murderers, and those who refuse to do so with all their force and being. Since this terrible dividing line does actually exist, it will be a gain if it be clearly marked. Over the expanse of five continents throughout the coming years an endless struggle is going to be pursued between violence and friendly persuasion, a struggle in which, granted, the former has a thousand times the chances of success than that of the latter. But I have always held that, if he who bases his hopes on human nature is a fool, he who gives up in the face of circumstances is a coward. And henceforth, the only honourable course will be to stake everything on a formidable gamble: that words are more powerful than munitions.

If that end may seem to veer toward the excessively idealistic, let’s consider that Camus had just, with his life, opposed Nazism. He gambles that words are more powerful than munitions. He knew as well as we might think we do that for long periods of time that may not be so. But if we of the free and democratic societies that are products of the Enlightenment ever believe our intellectual and human achievements, which we hope will transcend our many failings, prevail in the right not with the aid of our might, when necessary, but because of it, then we must know that it is not right at all.

AJA


5 comments

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

russell January 21, 2010 at 6:15 am

I’m sympathetic; I’m virtually a pacifist. But it’s easy to say ‘let’s take a gamble’, when you’re rich. It’s only when you’re poor and crying in the gutter that you think “was it wise to gamble”. I say this as a Zimbabwean who is still waiting peacefully for Mugabe to be proved wrong in his assertion that the gun is mightier than the pen. In the long term, of course, words might be immortal, but even there, the stories that survive celebrate the conqueror. Vanquished cultures have to conceal their myths in poetry.

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A. Jay Adler January 22, 2010 at 2:18 am

Russell,

It’s easy, of course, merely to say anything. But Camus, who was hardly rich and hardly a pacifist, did more than just say. He committed his actual life to resistance – both to murderous oppression and ready excuses for taking the lives of others for an idea. Mugabe is not an idea, anymore than any other tyrant: he is the brute among us. I am not an optimist. Why should I be? I don’t know what wins out in the end. I don’t know what the end is. But if the world, for all its horrors, is a better place now, and strives for greater things, than it was three centuries ago and any time before that, then we have to ask how it came to be so and if it is might that makes it so. I don’t think vanquished cultures conceal their myths in poetry. I think they sing them in poetry, and other peoples hear that song and sing it again, and the world is better for that singing.

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Maureen January 20, 2010 at 1:13 pm

Ack. I guess I was wishing to see that your poem in BloodLotus was rather a book of your poems. My mistake confessed. Do you have a collection for a book?

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A. Jay Adler January 20, 2010 at 11:40 pm

Maureen, not as many yet as I would like even for a chapbook, wanting enough to create a pool from which to confidently choose my best. Thanks much for your interest.

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Maureen January 20, 2010 at 1:08 pm

Jay,

Thank you for this and the link to your other piece on Writer’s Choice. I haven’t read Camus in years, and these pieces of yours took me back into his writings.

I didn’t know about your book of poetry. I’ll have to go find a copy.

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