Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Albert Camus / The Silent Men

THE SILENT MEN 

A short story 

by Albert Camus


Translated from the French by JUSTIN O’BRIEN

Albert Camus / Les muets


IT WAS THE dead of winter and yet a radiant sun was rising over the already active city. At the end of the jetty, sea and sky fused in a single dazzling light. But Yvars did not see them. He was cycling slowly along the boulevards above the harbor. On the fixed pedal of his cycle his crippled leg rested stiffly while the other labored to cope with the slippery pavement still wet with the night’s moisture. Without raising his head, a slight figure astride the saddle, he avoided the rails of the former car-line, suddenly turned the handlebars to let autos pass him, and occasionally elbowed back into place the musette bag in which Fernande had put his lunch. At such moments he would think bitterly of the bag’s contents. Between the two slices of coarse bread, instead of the Spanish omelet he liked or the beefsteak fried in oil, there was nothing but cheese.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Susan Sontag / Albert Camus, The Ideal Husband



Albert Camus

THE IDEAL HUSBAND 




Notebooks, 1935-42

by Albert Camus, Translated from the French by Philip Thody
Knopf, 225 pp., $5.00
Great writers are either husbands or lovers. Some writers supply the solid virtues of a husband: reliability, intelligibility, generosity, decency. There are other writers in whom one prizes the gifts of a lover, gifts of temperament rather than of moral goodness. Notoriously, women tolerate qualities in a lover—moodiness, selfishness, unreliability, brutality—that they would never countenance in a husband, in return for excitement, an infusion of intense feeling. In the same way, readers put up with unintelligibility, obsessiveness, painful truths, lies, bad grammar—if, in compensation, the writer allows them to savor rare emotions and dangerous sensations. And, as in life, so in art both are necessary, husbands and lovers. It’s a great pity when one is forced to choose between them.
Again, as in life, so in art: the lover usually has to take second place. In the great periods of literature, husbands have been more numerous than lovers; in all the great periods of literature, that is, except our own. Perversity is the muse of modern literature. Today the house of fiction is full of mad lovers, gleeful rapists, castrated sons—but very few husbands. The husbands have a bad conscience, they would all like to be lovers. Even so husbandly and solid a writer as Thomas Mann was tormented by an ambivalence toward virtue, and was forever carrying on about it in the guise of a conflict between the bourgeois and the artist. But most modern writers don’t even allow Mann’s problem. Each writer, each literary movement vies with its predecessor in a great display of temperament, obsession, singularity. Modern literature is oversupplied with madmen of genius. No wonder, then, that when an immensely gifted writer, whose talents certainly fall short of genius, arises who boldly assumes the responsibilities of sanity, he should be acclaimed beyond his purely literary merits.
I speak of course, of Albert Camus, the ideal husband of contemporary letters. Being a contemporary, he had to traffic in the madmen’s themes: suicide, affectlessness, guilt, absolute terror. But he does so with such an air of reasonableness, mesure, effortlessness, gracious impersonality, as to place him apart from the others. Starting from the premises of a popular nihilism, he moves the reader—solely by the power of his own tranquil voice and tone—to humanist and humanitarian conclusions in no way entailed by his premises. This illogical leaping of the abyss to nihilism is the gift for which readers are grateful to Camus. This is why he evoked feelings or real affection on the part of his readers. Kafka arouses pity and terror, Joyce admiration, Proust and Gide respect, but no modern writer that I can think of, except Camus, has aroused love. His death in 1960 was felt as a personal loss by the whole literate world.
Whenever Camus is spoken of there is a mingling of personal, moral, and literary judgment. No discussion of Camus fails to include, or at least suggest, a tribute to his goodness and attractiveness as a man. To write about Camus is thus to consider what occurs between the image of a writer and his work, which is tantamount to the relation between morality and literature. For it is not only that Camus himself is always thrusting the moral problem upon his readers. (All his stories, plays, and novels relate the career of a responsible sentiment, or the absence of it.) It is because his work, solely as a literary accomplishment, is not major enough to bear the weight of admiration that readers want to give it. One wants Camus to be a truly great writer, not just a very good one. But he is not. It might be useful here to compare Camus with George Orwell and James Baldwin, two other husbandly writers who essay to combine the role of artist with civic conscience. Both Orwell and Baldwin are better writers in their essays than they are in their fiction. This is not true of Camus, a far more important writer. But what is true is that Camus’s art is always in the service of certain intellectual conceptions which are more fully stated in the essays. Camus’s fiction is illustrative, philosophical. It is not so much about its characters—Meursault, Caligula, Jan, Clamence, Dr. Rieux—as it is about the problems of innocence and guilt, responsibility and nihilistic indifference. The three novels, the stories, and the plays have a thin, somewhat skeletal quality which makes them less than absolutely first-rate, judged by the highest standards of contemporary art. Unlike Kafka, whose most illustrative and symbolic fictions are at the same time autonomous acts of the imagination, Camus’s fiction continually betrays its source in an intellectual concern.

What of Camus’s essays, political articles, addresses, literary criticism, journalism? It is extremely distinguished work. But was Camus a thinker of importance? The answer is no. Sartre, however distasteful certain of his political sympathies are to his English-speaking audience, brings a powerful and original mind to philosophical, psychological, and literary analysis. Camus, however attractive his political sympathies, does not. The celebrated philosophical essays (“The Myth of Sisyphus,”The Rebel) are the work of an extraordinarily talented and literate epigone. The same is true of Camus as a historian of ideas and as a literary critic. Camus is at his best when he disburdens himself of the baggage of existentialist culture (Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Heidegger, Kafka) and speaks in his own person. This happens in the great essay against capital punishment, “Reflections on the Guillotine,” and in the casual writings, like the essay-portraits of Algiers, Oran, and other Mediterranean places.
Neither art nor thought of the highest quality is to be found in Camus. What accounts for the extraordinary appeal of his work is beauty of another order, moral beauty, a quality unsought by most twentieth-century writers. Other writers have been more engaged, more moralistic. But none have appeared more beautiful, more convincing in their prefession of moral interest. Unfortunately, moral beauty in art—like physical beauty in a person—is extremely perishable. It is nowhere so durable as artistic or intellectual beauty. Moral beauty has tendency to decay very rapidly into sententiousness or untimeliness. This happens with special frequency to the writer, like Camus, who appeals directly to a generation’s image of what is exemplary in a man in a given historical situation. Unless he possesses extraordinary reserves of artistic originality, his work is likely to seem suddenly denuded after his death. For a few, this decay overtook Camus within his own lifetime. Sartre, in the famous debate that ended their famous friendship, remarked savagely that Camus carried about with him “a portable pedestal.” Then came that deadly honor, the Nobel Prize. And shortly before his death, one critic was predicting for Camus the same fate as that of Aristides: that we would tire of hearing him called “the Just.”
Perhaps it is always dangerous for a writer to inspire gratitude in his readers, gratitude being one of the most vehement but also the shortest-lived of the sentiments. But one cannot dismiss such unkind remarks simply as the revenge of the grateful. If Camus’s moral earnestness at times ceased to enthrall and began to irritate, it’s because there was a certain intellectual weakness in it. One sensed in Camus, as one senses in James Baldwin, the presence of an entirely genuine, and historically relevant, passion. But also, as with Baldwin, that passion seemed to transmute itself too readily into stately language, into an inexhaustible self-perpetuating oratory. The moral imperatives—love, moderation—offered to palliate intolerable historical or metaphysical dilemmas were too general, too abstract, too rhetorical.
Camus is the writer who for a whole literate generation was the heroic figure of a man living in a state of permanent spiritual revolution. But he is also the man who advocate that paradox: a civilized nihilism, an absolute revolt that acknowledges limits—and converted the paradox into a recipe for good citizenship. What intricate goodness, after all! In Camus’s writing, goodness is forced to search simultaneously for its appropriate act and for its justifying reason. So is revolt. In 1939, in the midst of reflections on the war, which has just begun, the young Camus interrupted himself in his Notebooks to remark: ‘I am seeking reasons for my revolt which nothing has so far justified.” His radical stance preceeded the reasons which justified it. More than a decade later, in 1951, Camus published The Rebel. The refutation of revolt in that book was, equally, a gesture of temperament, an act of self-persuasion.
What is remarkable is that given Camus’s refined temperament, it was possible for him to act, to cue into real historical choices, as wholeheartedly as he did. It should be remembered that Camus had to make no less than three exemplary decisions in his brief lifetime—to participate personally in the French Resistance, to disassociate himself from the Communist Party, and to refuse to take sides in the Algerian revolt—and that he acquitted himself admirably, in my opinion, in two out of the three. Camus’s problem in the last years of his life was not that he became religious, or that he subsided into bourgeois humanitarian seriousness, or that he lost his socialist nerve. It was, rather, that he had hoist himself on the petard of his own virtue. A writer who acts as public conscience needs extraordinary nerve and fine instincts, like a boxer. After a time, these instincts inevitably falter. He also needs to be emotionally tough. Camus was not that tough, not tough in the way that Sartre is. I do not underestimate the courage involved in disavowing the pro-Communism of many French intellectuals in the late forties. As a moral judgment, Camus’s decision was right then, and since the death of Stalin he has been vindicated many times over in a political sense as well. But moral and political judgment do not always so happily coincide. His agonizing inability to take a stand on the Algerian question—the issue on which he, as both Algerian and Frenchman, was uniquely qualified to speak—was the final and unhappy testament of his moral virtue. Throughout the fifties, Camus declared that his private loyalties and sympathies made it impossible for him to render decisive political judgment. Why is so much demanded of a writer, he asked plaintively. While Camus clung to his silence, both Merleau-Ponty, who had followed Camus out of the Temps Modernes group over the issue of Communism, and Sartre himself, gathered influential signatories for two historic manifestoes protesting the continuation of the Algerian War. It is a harsh irony that both Merleau-Ponty, whose general political and moral outlook was so close to that of Camus and Sartre, whose political integrity Camus had seemed to demolish a decade before, were in a position to lead French intellectuals of conscience to the inevitable stand, the only stand, the one everyone hoped Camus would take.
In a perceptive review of one of Camus’s books some years ago, Lionel Abel spoke of him as the man who incarnates the Noble Feeling, as distinct from the Noble Act. This is exactly right, and does not mean that there was some sort of hypocrisy in Camus’s morality. It means that action is not Camus’s first concern. The ability to act, or to refrain from acting, are secondary to the ability or inability to feel. It is less an intellectual position which Camus elaborated than an exhortation to feel—with all the risks of political impotence that this entailed. Camus’s work reveals a temperament in search of a situation, noble feelings in search of noble acts. Indeed, this disjunction is precisely the subject of Camus’s fiction and philosophical essays. There one finds the prescription of an attitude (noble, stoical, at the same time detached and compassionate) tacked on to the description of excruciating events. The attitude, the noble feeling, is not genuinely linked to the event. It is a transendence of the event, more than a response to it or a solution of it. Camus’s life and work are not so much about morality as they are about the pathos of moral positions. This pathos is Camus’s modernity. And his ability to suffer this pathos in a dignified and virile way is what made his readers love and admire him.


Albert Camus

Again one comes back to the man, who was so strongly loved and yet so little known. There is something disembodied in Camus’s fiction; and in the voice, cool and serene, of the famous essays. This, despite the unforgettable photographs, with their beautifully informal presence. A cigarette dangles between the lips, whether he wears a trench-coat, a sweater and open shirt, or a business suit. It is in many ways an almost ideal face: boyish, good-looking but not too good-looking, lean, rough, the expression both intense and modest. One wants to know this man.
In the Notebooks 1935-34, the first three volumes to be published comprising the notebooks which Camus kept from 1935 until his death, his admirers will naturally hope to find a generous sense of the man and the work which has moved them. I am sorry to have to say, first of all, that the translation by Philip Thody is poor work. It is repeatedly inaccurate, sometimes to the point of seriously miscontinuing Camus’s sense. It is heavy-handed, and quite fails to find the equivalent in English to Camus’s compressed, off-hand, and very eloquent style. The book also has an obtrusive academic apparatus which may not annoy some readers; it did annoy me. (For an idea of how Camus should sound in English, I suggest that curious readers look up the accurate and sensitive translation by Anthony Hartley of sections of the Notebookswhich appeared in Encounter two years ago.) It is great pity about the translation. Yet no translation, whether faithful or tone-deaf, can make the Notebooks less interesting than they are, or more interesting either. These are not great literary journals, like those of Kafka and Gide. They do not have the white-hot intellectual brilliance of Kafka’sDiaries. They lack the cultural sophistication, the artistic diligence, the human density of Gide’s Journals. They are comparable, say to the Diaries of Cesare Pavese, except that they lack the element of personal exposure, of psychological intimacy.
Camus’s Notebooks contain an assortment of things. They are literary work-books, quarries for his writings, in which phrases, scraps of overheard conversation, ideas for stories, and sometimes whole paragraphs which were later incorporated into novels and essays, were first jotted down. These sections of the Notebooks are sketchy stuff, and for that reason I doubt if they will be terribly exciting event to aficonados of Camus’s fiction, despite me zealous annotation and correlation with the published works supplied by Mr. Thody. The Notebooks also contain a miscellany of reading notes (Spengler, Renaissance history, etc.) of a rather limited range—the vast reading that went into writing The Rebel is certainly not recorded here—and a number of apercus and reflections on psychological and moral themes. Some of these reflections have a great deal of boldness and finesse. They are worth reading, and they might help dispel one current image of Camus—according to which he was a sort of Raymond Aron, a man deranged by German philosophy belatedly converting to Anglo-Saxon empiricism and common sense under the name of “Mediterranean” virtue. The Notebooks, at least this first volume, exude an endearing atmosphere of domesticated Nietzscheanism. The young Camus writes as a French Nietzsche, melancholy where Nietzsche is savage, stoical where Nietzsche is outraged, impersonal and objective in tone where Nietzsche is personal and subjective to the point of mania. And lastly, the Notebooks are full of personal comments—declarations and resolutions, one might better describe them—of a markedly impersonal nature.
Impersonality is perhaps the most telling things about Camus’s Notebooks; they are so anti-autobiographical. It is hard to remember, when reading the Notebooks, that Camus was a mn who had a very interesting life, a life (unlike that of many writers) interesting not only in an interior but also in an outward sense. There is scarcely anything of this life in the Notebooks. There is nothing about his family, to whom he was closely attached. Neither is there any mention of the events which took place in this period: his work with the Theatre de 1’Equipe, his first and second marriages, his membership in the Communist Party, his career as an editor of a leftwing Algerian newspaper.
Of course, a writer’s journal must not be judged by the standards of a diary. The notebooks of a writer have a very special function: in them he builds up, piece by piece, the identity of a writer to himself. Typically, writers’ notebooks are crammed with statements about the will: the will to write, the will to love, the will to renounce love, the will to go on living. The journal is where a writer is heroic to himself. In it he exists solely as a perceiving, suffering, struggling being. That is why all the personal comments in Camus’s Notebooks are of so impersonal a nature, and competely exclude the events and the people in his life. Camus writes about himself only as a solitary—a solitary reader, voyeur, sun-and-sea worshippers, and walker in the world. In this he is being very much the writer. Solitariness is the indispensable metaphor of the modern writer’s consciousness, not only to self-declared emotional misfits like Pavese, but even to as sociable and socially conscientious a man as Camus.
Thus the Notebooks, while absorbing reading, do not resolve the question of Camus’s permanent stature nor deepen our sense of him as a man. Camus was, in the words of Sartre, “the admirable conjunction of a man, of an action, and of a work.” Today only the work remains. And whatever that conjunction of man, action, and work inspired in the minds and hearts of his thousands of readers and admirers, cannot be wholly reconstituted by the work alone. It would have been an important and happy occurrence if Camus’s Notebooks had survived their author to give us more than they do of the man, but unfortunately they do not.





Sunday, January 25, 2015

Camus and Sartre / The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended It



An excerpt from
Camus and Sartre

The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended It

by Ronald Aronson


Chapter 1: First Encounters
Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus first met in June 1943, at the opening of Sartre's play The Flies. When Sartre was standing in the lobby, according to Simone de Beauvoir, "a dark-skinned young man came up and introduced himself: it was Albert Camus." His novel The Stranger, published a year earlier, was a literary sensation, and his philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus had appeared six months previously. The young man from Algiers was marooned in France by the war. While convalescing from an exacerbation of his chronic tuberculosis in Le Panelier, near Chambon, Camus had been cut off from his wife by the Allied conquest of French North Africa and the resulting German invasion of unoccupied France in November 1942. He wanted to meet the increasingly well-known novelist and philosopher—and now playwright—whose fiction he had reviewed years earlier and who had just published a long article on Camus's own books. It was a brief encounter. "I'm Camus," he said. Sartre immediately "found him a most likeable personality."
In November, Camus moved to Paris to start working as a reader for his (and Sartre's) publisher, Gallimard, and their friendship began in earnest. At their first get-together at the Café Flore—where Sartre and Beauvoir worked, kept warm, ate, and socialized—the three started off awkwardly. Then they started talking shop, Camus and Sartre sharing their regard for the surrealist poet Francis Ponge's Le Parti pris des choses. What "led to the ice being broken" between them, according to Beauvoir, was Camus's passion for the theater. Camus had led an amateur political theater troupe in Algiers. "Sartre talked of his new play [No Exit] and the conditions that would govern its production. Then he suggested that Camus should play the lead and stage it. Camus hesitated at first, but when Sartre pressed the point he agreed." They held a few rehearsals in Beauvoir's hotel room for what was to be a low-budget touring production. "The readiness with which Camus flung himself into this venture endeared him to us; it also hinted that he had plentiful time at his disposal. He had only recently come to Paris; he was married, but his wife had stayed behind in North Africa." Sartre was pleased with Camus's work in the role of Garcin, but his financial backer withdrew; this man's wife, who was to be showcased in No Exit, was arrested for suspected Resistance activity. Sartre was then offered the chance to present the play in a professional production on the Paris stage, and Camus obligingly backed out. But the friendship was cemented. "His youth and independence created bonds between us: we were all solitaries, who had developed without the aid of any 'school'; we belonged to no group or clique."
If the friendship seemed so easy at the beginning, one reason was that Sartre and Camus had already gotten to know each other in ways more important than a handshake. Avid readers, each absorbed in shaping his own ideas and styles, the young writers had read each other's books well before they met. Their reviews of each other's early writings are still among the most interesting and enthusiastic commentaries. Although not uncritical, Sartre's and Camus's first responses to each other express the literary and philosophical kinship that underlay their relationship. They also introduce us to one of the most important sites of their interaction for over twenty years—their sometimes direct, sometimes veiled, references to each other. From their first meeting to the last words they exchanged, we will find some of their most vital and charged encounters on paper.
Camus discovered Sartre in October 1938 when he read and reviewed Nausea. The young pied-noir (a Frenchman born in Algeria), was a fledgling reporter and author of a column entitled "The Reading Room" for an Algiers left-wing daily. He had published locally two small books of essays, The Wrong Side and the Right Side and Nuptials, and after abandoning a first novel had begun writing The Stranger. Though only in his mid-twenties, the would-be novelist wrote remarkably self-assured responses in his literary column to the new fiction being published in Paris, including Gide's The Counterfeiters, Nizan'sThe Conspiracy, Silone's Bread and Wine, Huxley's Those Barren Leaves, Amado's Bahia, and Sartre's Nausea and The Wall.
Camus's review of Nausea was demanding and appreciative. He was no dazzled provincial, light-years from Paris's sophistication, but a peer who deeply shared Sartre's purposes and cheered him on, only to be disappointed by what he saw at this early period as Sartre's ultimate failure. Nausea recounts the breakdown of the reassuring daily life of Antoine Roquentin, who is staying in a western port city and working on a biography of a Revolution-era marquis. Roquentin feels nauseated as he experiences the absurdity normally hidden by his routines, and the truth of that absurdity appears ever more sharply as his life slowly gives way around him. It is a dazzling thought-experiment, containing some marvelous characterizations and descriptions. As Camus had told a friend several months before he wrote the review, he had "thought a lot about" the book, and it was "very close to a part of me." He led off his review by asserting that "a novel is nothing but philosophy expressed in images." In a good novel, however, the philosophy becomes one with the images. Camus gave no indication of knowing that the novelist was also a philosopher who had already published a book on the imagination in 1936 and a long article entitled "The Transcendence of the Ego" the following year. He himself had earned the diplôme d'études supérieures (the equivalent of a master's degree) in philosophy with a thesis on Saint Augustine and Plotinus. Sartre, he insisted, broke the balance between his novel's theories and its life. As a result, its author's "remarkable fictional gifts and the play of the toughest and most lucid mind are at the same time both lavished and squandered." Lavished: each of the book's chapters, taken by itself, "reaches a kind of perfection in bitterness and truth." Daily life in Bouville "is depicted with a sureness of touch whose lucidity leaves no room for hope." And each of Sartre's reflections on time effectively illustrated the thinking of philosophers from Kierkegaard to Heidegger. Squandered: the descriptive and the philosophical aspects of the novel "don't add up to a work of art: the passage from one to the other is too rapid, too unmotivated, to evoke in the reader the deep conviction that makes art of the novel."
Camus went on to praise Sartre's descriptions of absurdity, the sense of anguish that arises as the ordinary structures imposed on existence collapse in Antoine Roquentin's life, and his resulting nausea. Sartre's deft handling of this strange and banal subject moves with a "vigor and certainty" reminiscent of Kafka. But—and here Sartre differs from Kafka—"some indefinable obstacle prevents the reader from participating and holds him back when he is on the very threshold of consent." By this, Camus meant not only the imbalance between ideas and images but also Sartre's negativity. Sartre dwells on the repugnant features of humankind "instead of basing his reasons for despair on certain of man's signs of greatness." And the reviewer was also bothered by the "comic" inadequacy of Roquentin's final attempt to find hope in art, considering how "trivial" art is when compared with some of life's redeeming moments.
Though strongly critical, Camus appreciated Sartre's ideas and enjoyed his honesty and his capacity to break new ground. The review's closing words stress his admiration:

This is the first novel from a writer from whom everything may be expected. So natural a suppleness in staying on the far boundaries of conscious thought, so painful a lucidity, are indications of limitless gifts. These are grounds for welcomingNausea as the first summons of an original and vigorous mind whose lessons and works to come we are impatient to see.

Was this merely a reviewer's posture, a way of balancing criticism with just enough praise so as to not sound peevish? The impatient critic did not have long to wait. Less than six months later, Sartre's next book fully satisfied him. In February 1939, in reviewing Sartre's collection of stories The Wall, Camus enthusiastically hailed Sartre's lucidity, his portrayal of the absurdity of existence, and his depiction of characters whose freedom was useless to them. Their negativity—if anything, stronger in The Wall than in Nausea—now troubled him less. Overwhelmed by their freedom, these people could not overcome absurdity as they bumped up against their own lives. They had "no attachments, no principles, no Ariadne's thread," because they were unable to act. "From this stems both the immense interest and the absolute mastery of Sartre's stories." The reader does not know what the characters will do from one moment to the next; their author's "art lies in the detail with which he depicts his absurd creatures, the way he observes their monotonous behavior."
Camus confessed to being unable to put these stories down. They gave their reader "that higher, absurd freedom which leads the characters to their own ends." It was a useless freedom, which "explains the often overwhelming emotional impact of these pages as well as their cruel pathos." Sartre described an absurd human condition, but he refused to flinch before it. The philosophy and the images were now in balance. Camus's conclusion indicated not only his enthusiasm for the author but his sense of common purpose with a writer who,

in his two books, has been able to get straight to the essential problem and bring it to life through his obsessive characters. A great writer always introduces his own world and its message. Sartre's brings us to nothingness, but also to lucidity. And the image he perpetuates through his characters, of a man seated amid the ruins of his life, is a good illustration of the greatness and truth of his work.

"Greatness and truth"—"la grandeur et la vérité." Might Sartre have seen this tribute? On his side, all we know for certain is a literary encounter that took place in fall 1942. Discovering Camus only weeks after sending off the completed manuscript ofBeing and Nothingness, he was moved to devote a generous, detailed, 6,000-word essay to The Stranger. In this striking article, Sartre reads that book alongside The Myth of Sisyphus, the fiction in relation to the philosophy. As he writes, let us listen to the different voices:

The absurd…resides neither in man nor in the world if you consider each separately. But since man's dominant characteristic is "being-in-the-world," the absurd is, in the end, an inseparable part of the human condition. Thus, the absurd is not, to begin with, the object of a mere idea; it is revealed to us in a doleful illumination. "Getting up, tram, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, in the same routine…," and then, suddenly, "the seeing collapses," and we find ourselves in a state of hopeless lucidity.

Here Sartre is approvingly summarizing and quoting from a passage near the beginning of The Myth of Sisyphus, where Camus lays out his basic ideas. Surprisingly, the quoted passage sounds like Camus's paraphrase of none other than Roquentin's experience in Nausea. Sartre continues, in apparent agreement with Camus: "If we are able to refuse the misleading aid of religion or existential philosophies, we then possess certain basic, obvious facts: the world is chaos, a 'divine equivalence born of anarchy'; tomorrow does not exist, since we all die. 'In a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger.'"
Turning directly to the context in The Myth of Sisyphus where this sentence occurs, and reading from this point forward, we are reminded of Nausea: "At any streetcorner the feeling of absurdity can strike a man in the face." And on the next page ofThe Myth of Sisyphus is the Sartre-like passage about daily routine collapsing, which Sartre quotes in his review. As we turn the page, Sartre's novel is mentioned explicitly: "This nausea, as a writer of today calls it, is also the absurd." Whose voice, then, is heard in the original quotation above? In a stunning reflection of kinship, Sartre enthusiastically quoted Camus—whose analysis drew upon Sartre. It is both of their voices at one and the same time.
Beyond this kinship, Sartre compared Camus with Kafka and Hemingway, whom he admired, and praised The Stranger for its "skillful construction."

There is not a single unnecessary detail, nor one that is not returned to later on, and used in the argument. And when we close the book, we realize that it could not have had any other ending. In this world that has been stripped of its causality and presented as absurd, the smallest incident has weight. There is no single one which does not help to lead the hero to crime and capital punishment. The Stranger is a classical work, an orderly work, composed about the absurd and against the absurd.

The author of Nausea obviously admired the imaginative power of The Stranger. The stark simplicity of Camus's language, his ability to evoke the physical, the unforgettable descriptions of the funeral vigil, the next morning's procession, and Meursault's daily routines combine with more disturbing aspects—Meursault's lack of normal human emotion, his mindless murder of the Arab, the prosecutor's outrage at the young man's indifference toward his mother's death, his own defiance of the jury and its sense of propriety, as well the improbability of a death sentence for a white man who has killed an Arab in Algeria—to create the great novel of French Algeria. But how did the author of Being and Nothingness respond to The Myth of Sisyphus? Having just completed one of the most original and profound philosophical constructions of the twentieth century, Sartre showed respect for the philosophical essayist who, "by virtue of the cool style of The Myth of Sisyphus" as well as its subject, "takes his place in the great tradition of those French moralists" regarded as Nietzsche's forerunners. "The turn of his reasoning, the clarity of his ideas, the cut of his expository style and a certain kind of solar, ceremonious and sad sombreness, all indicate a classic temperament."
Just as Sartre must have noticed that The Stranger came alive as fiction in ways that his own Nausea did not—as Camus had astutely pointed out four years earlier—so also he must have seen that for all its appeal as popular philosophizing The Myth of Sisyphus was the work of a dabbler in philosophy and not a systematic builder of ideas. Camus briefly dismissed existentialists such as Jaspers, Heidegger, and Kierkegaard en route to insisting that nothing could overcome life's absurdity. Sartre, on the other hand, had spent years working through the phenomenology of Heidegger and Husserl until he synthesized them in Being and Nothingness into a work that sought to penetrate the very nature of being. Starting with Cartesian individual consciousness, Sartre carefully described basic structures of existence, fundamental human projects, and characteristic patterns of behavior such as bad faith. By the end of the book he was poised to follow his philosophy's implications, as he did over the next several years, into virtually every aspect of existence—from daily life and politics to ethics, artistic creation, and the nature of knowledge. In The Myth of Sisyphus, on the other hand, starting from the premise that "the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions," Camus stayed on the terrain of experience and its frustrations rather than pursuing "the learned and classical dialectic." Thus both The Myth of Sisyphus and Being and Nothingness began with the absurd and exuded the same zeitgeist; yet they were vastly different.
Just how different is conveyed joltingly in a single, nasty "by the way": "Camus shows off a bit by quoting passages from Jaspers, Heidegger, and Kierkegaard, whom, by the way, he does not always seem to have quite understood." The philosopher, agrégéfrom the Ecole Normale Supérieure, puts down the philosophizer, diplôme d'études supérieure from the University of Algiers.
Perhaps this is why Camus was not thrilled by Sartre's article. In a letter to his teacher Jean Grenier, who published his own review of The Stranger in the very same issue of Cahiers du Sud, Camus reacted to Sartre on Camus:

Sartre's article is a model of "taking apart." Of course, every creation has an instinctive element which [he] does not envision, and intelligence does not play such an important role. But in criticism this is the rule of the game, which is fine because on several points he enlightened me about what I wanted to do. I also see that most of his criticisms are fair, but why that acid tone?

Acid dissolves, after all, takes things apart. Perhaps the remark about tone means no more than Camus's discomfort at seeing his work being taken apart and explained. Clearly uneasy with being put under Sartre's microscope, Camus defends himself by opposing his instinctive creativity to Sartre's critical acuity, even while conceding that the latter requires more intelligence.
Sartre's put-down may well have been repayment for a slight the reader will have noticed in a passage from The Myth of Sisyphusquoted above: "this nausea, as a writer of today calls it, is also the absurd." Three years earlier Camus had referred to Sartre the author of novels and short stories as a great writer. Now, relying on the ideas of Nausea, and having mentioned Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Jaspers by name, Camus gives his peer only the most oblique mention. The anonymous "writer of today," thereby placed on a lower level than the named great thinkers, in turn demonstrates his own ability not only to analyze and even cuff a young upstart but also to take the opposite tack, devoting considerable space in his article to generously showing how Camus fits into the aristocracy of literature and ideas.
In addition to revealing a potential for prickliness toward each other, these remarks remind us that the two men's kinship was not sameness. In addition to their mutual praise and sense of discovery, these texts suggest many differences between Sartre and Camus. Sartre had a more negative and Camus a more positive view of both nature and human reality. Merely to openThe Stranger alongside Nausea is to be struck by the contrast between Meursault/Camus's dazzling physicality and Roquentin/Sartre's famous disgust for the physical. Camus reveled in the sensuous world of North Africa, as in Nuptials, and his reader can hardly ignore its intensity and its pleasures. Sartre's writing never embraced the physical world or the body in the direct, unquestioning, and often joyous way so natural to Camus. Indeed, one of the most striking contrasts in modern fiction, as Camus himself knew, is that between the gray, ugly Bouville—"Mudville"—of Nausea and The Stranger's bright, shimmering port city, its beach, and its surrounding countryside, Le Havre and Algiers.
Their reviews of each other point up another key difference. Although both wrote important works of philosophy and fiction and successfully tackled a number of other genres, by temperament the one was primarily a philosopher, absorbed with theories and general ideas, the other primarily a novelist, most comfortably capturing concrete situations—Camus's distinction between "intelligence" and the "instinctive element." The brilliant young philosopher took absurdity as his starting point and slowly, in the five years between Nausea and Being and Nothingness, explored how human activity constitutes a meaningful world from brute, meaningless existence. The philosophizing novelist built an entire worldview on the sense that absurdity is an unsurpassable given of human experience.
Despite these differences, the two writers' initial admiration for each other sprang from the closeness of their starting points and the similarity of their projects. Each was trying make his mark in fields kept quite distinct in French education and culture. Each one immediately noticed that the other was writing both philosophy and literature. And each immediately saw how much they shared. Their writing, with its unconventional plots and seemingly unmotivated characters, stressed that existence was absurd. They faced this absurdity honestly and lucidly, and they agreed that most people (including philosophers) did not do so. They prized living authentically.


Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 9-17 of Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended It by Ronald Aronson, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2004 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.


UCHICAGO


Saturday, January 24, 2015

French literary anniversaries / Albert Camus



11 Octuber, 2013

French literary anniversaries, part 3: Camus

By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
  Camus
In this week’s TLSRobert Zaretsky reviews Albert Camus’s Algerian Chronicles, a collection of the Nobel Prize-winning author’s journalism, both early and late, in a “brilliant translation” by Arthur Goldhammer. Zaretsky writes that Algeria’s right to independence from France was complicated in Camus’s mind by the fact that he was himself one of a million French colonists – “the dilemma he could never resolve”. The book’s publication marks the centenary of Camus’s birth (November 7, 1913).
It’s probably safe to assume that it was mainly Camus’s work as a novelist and playwright that won him that Nobel Prize in 1957, “for his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times":L’ÉtrangerLa Peste and La Chute in particular. (Does anyone concern themselves much with the plays these days? The theatre doesn’t seem to have been his natural medium.)
In common with many readers, I have always found it easier to read (and admire) Camus than Sartre – the two will forever be indissolubly linked, thanks to their active presence on the post-war Left Bank. Camus was the humanist, Sartre the ideologue, Camus the sensualist, Sartre the intellectual and so on. Camus had the better look: the upturned coat collar and the fag stub (although my favourite photo of the author has him wearing improbably high shorts, below, with the poet René Char).
Char
But what of Camus’s fiction now? I for one won’t be readingL’Étranger (The Outsider) again, brief though it is; the last time I read the book it left a rather unpleasant taste, right from its notorious opening two sentences: “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas”. Reviewing a new translation of the book in theTLS last year, Shaun Whiteside mused: “. . . how strange this novel now seems. Camus’s Algiers of seventy years ago is a bizarre non-lieu, a European city peopled by Europeans, where shady anonymous ‘Arabs’ lurk menacingly in the background”. It did, however, inspire a good song by The Cure.
I have just reread La Peste (1947; The Plague). According to its author, “La Peste may be read in three different ways. It is at the same time a tale about an epidemic, a symbol of Nazi occupation . . . , and, thirdly, the concrete illustration of a metaphysical problem, that of evil . . . “. The symbolic interpretation doesn’t persuade me: the allegory is so vague – are we really to believe that the rats bringing the bubonic plague to the Algerian coastal town of Oran are in fact Nazis occupying France? I prefer to read it on a literal level, as an account of human suffering under terrible conditions, but also of the strength of the moral and physical courage of some, as well as the stoicism of others: the saintly doctor, Rieux, who doesn’t have time to worry about his sick wife who has been sent away on a health cure, and who visits an aged asthmatic at 10 at night, and his associate Tarrou who accepts his fate with dignity. It remains a powerful book, and almost painful to read in places: the description of the death from the plague of a young boy in particular. At times it’s as if Camus is presenting a world without the possibility of redemption, while the nature of evil could be said to be explored through the figure of Cottard, a petty crook profiting from the crisis and happy to see its continuation.
  Peste
But again it’s hard not to be struck by the Europeanness of Camus’s Oran: a Jesuit priest delivers a sermon in which he places the blame for the plague on its victims; because of the plague, “everyone” in Oran has forgotten about Christmas this year. Arabs are conspicuous by their absence. This was the world Camus mainly knew.
Camus’s biographer Olivier Todd wrote that “La Peste’s calm and ample style was radically different from the terse and dry tone ofL’Étranger. It was similar to a lake after a torrent”. The book was favourably received, although not in Camus’s own publicationCombat, ironically, where Maurice Nadeau criticized the author’s notions of secular sainthood. Fifty-two thousand copies were sold within a few months (according to Todd, Sartre, on a lecture tour of the US, “publicly praised La Peste and its author’s talent, but privately he declared that Camus was no genius”!)
Against that, Sartre called La Chute (1956, The Fall) “the finest and least well understood of Camus’s works”. Its English translator Robin Buss said that “for many, it is the best and the most original thing [Camus] wrote”. A bleak autobiographical meditation set in Amsterdam, it remains worth reading.
As is the posthumously published Le Premier Homme (The First Man, 1994), a novel reconstructed by the novelist’s daughter Catherine Camus from manuscript pages found scattered across the road after the car crash that killed him on January 4, 1960). In fact, it’s hard not to see it as Camus’s best work, a moving reconstruction of the history of colonial Algeria from 1830, when the French first arrived, seen through the eyes of a poverty-stricken family of settlers (the author drew on his own family’s harsh experiences).    
An exhibition, Albert Camus, citoyen du monde, has just opened in Aix-en-Provence. Writing about it in Le Monde (October 8), Macha Séry explains how the original curator Benjamin Stora was thrown off the project last year because of his critical views about colonial Algeria, which didn’t chime with those of the Aixois old-timers who were nostalgic for French Algeria and happened to be close to the city’s mayor Maryse Joissains-Masini.
Séry writes: “. . . what’s astonishing is the extent to which Albert Camus, the best-selling French author outside France, remains unappreciated in the Hexagon [France]”. She reveals that, unlike his near-contemporaries Sartre, Boris Vian and Guy Debord, he has never been dignified with an exhibition at the Bibliothèque nationale. Which is “incredible, a real mystery”, according to the leading French publisher Antoine Gallimard (another member of the Gallimard clan, Michel, was at the wheel of the fancy Facel Vega when he and Camus were killed).
Complex, combative, morally tormented, Camus, it seems, continues to divide opinion.





Friday, January 23, 2015

Albert Camus by Jeremhy Harding




Albert Camus

The Castaway

Jeremy Harding


December 1938 in a large provincial city. It’s the last chance for the council to agree the municipal budget; in the chamber a reporter from the local paper tries to wring a bit of fun from a drab occasion. As a dignitary ploughs through a lengthy preamble, restless councillors begin to doodle (one makes a paper windmill from the minutes of an earlier meeting). A few days later an inquiry opens into a gas explosion caused by a leak in the mains. The same reporter heads for the scene. Here he’s a stickler for detail: medium-sized pipe, weight forty to fifty kilograms, linking the mains to a pressure valve; width of fissure 323 mm. The gas company blames the burst on subsidence but he thinks they may be trying to swing the inquiry in their favour. In February he delivers a mind-numbing tract on grain and grape harvests the previous year. At the end he announces he’ll be back shortly with more of the same once the session on the citrus harvest opens.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Albert Camus / The Nobel Prize in Literature

Albert Camus
Albert Camus
THE NOBEL PRIZE IN LITERATURA




French writer Albert Camus smokes a cigarette on the balcony outside his friend and publisher Michel Gallimard's office in Paris, 1955. Camus won the Nobel in 1957; in 1960, when he was 46 years old, he was killed in a car crash along with Gallimard, who was driving.








Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Get to know the killer badass Scarlett Johansson is playing next

It's unlikely that the forthcoming remake of Ghost in the Shell starring Scarlett Johansson will begin in the same way as its predecessor, Mamoru Oshii's 1995 anime classic: with the sight of its cyborg heroine, Motoko Kusanagi, jumping off a skyscraper and shooting a target through a window as she falls, all while appearing nude*. Then again, considering that Johansson exhibited a willingness to disrobe for the cameras in last year's masterful sci-fi thriller Under the Skin, it remains possible that director Rupert Sanders's (Snow White and the Huntsman) Americanized redo will mimic even its source material's fondness for skin—an element that, titillation aside, is an integral part of the film's portrait of man's relationship to technology, which in its near-future has progressed to the point of becoming fundamental, and more than a little sensual. Either way, though, the announcement that Johansson has finally signed onto the project is extremely exciting, because in a host of ways, it appears to be an absolutely ideal project for the actress, even if there's a solid argument out there that the studio should've pursued an Asian actress.
Ghost in the Shell began with Masamune Shirow's seminal manga series, which in its native Japan spawned multiple films and a popular TV series (Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex). A domestic adaptation has struggled to get off the ground for years, primarily because Oshii's original animated film remains, 20 years after its debut, a highly influential science-fiction gem, one that broke ground for its synthesis of traditional and computer-generated animation, and which marries action, sex, and philosophical concerns about the nature of self to enthralling ends. Equally excited by and fearful of ubiquitous technology, and rife with government-big-business conspiracies, it's a story steeped in topics still relevant today. And at its center is Kusanagi, a cutting-edge robotic agent in mid-21st-century Japan's Section 9 counterterrorism unit, whom Johansson will now almost certainly play in the update. 




Teamed with her gruff, foul-mouthed partner Batou, Kusanagi is tasked with unraveling a convoluted mystery involving a notorious hacker known as The Puppet Master who can break into not just computer networks but also into minds, since just about everyone in this future-Japan has, physically and mentally, been technologically upgraded. With rare exceptions, the population is now semi-automated, giving citizens enhanced superpowers, as well as the ability to plug into Internet-style databases through wire ports located in the backs of their necks. It's a dystopian future in which the boundary between man and machine has been hopelessly blurred, calling into question what it is that defines life: Flesh? Sentient thought? Reproduction? Something more intangible?
Buxom, unflappably cool, and possessed with a brutal physicality that's augmented by her mecha-brain, Kusanagi is like a brunette version of Johansson's Lucy protagonist, whose extraordinary capabilities are similarly the result of science. Kusanagi's swift, balletic acrobatic fighting skills also recall those of Johansson's Marvel spy Black Widow, whose ass-kickery has a sly self-assuredness that enhances her sex appeal. In other words, Ghost in the Shell affords the actress a chance to meld many of the attributes of her most recent characters, a promising prospect given that Johansson's 2014 output solidified her as an action heroine par excellence.
Even more than her face-kicking, limb-snapping credentials, though, it's Johansson's somewhat detached, inscrutable soulfulness that makes her ideal for Ghost in the Shell. Kusanagi's mechanical body houses an organic brain (i.e., the ghost in her proverbial shell), and much of Oshii's film is concerned with her quest to understand herself: Is she human or robot? Alive or merely operational? Alone or inherently interconnected? The backdrop of The Puppet Master only further shades her narrative with existential questions of identity and alienation. As such, the film requires a leading lady who's not only a formidable physical presence, but one who can convey a deeper, haunting internal confusion and crisis. Johansson brought those very qualities to Under the Skin, in which, as an extraterrestrial hunting for male prey in Scotland, the star wielded her eroticism-as-weapon and an ominous measure of fish-out-of-water solitude, as if her alluring alien was both fascinated by the people around her, and increasingly sorrowful over her inherent difference, and detachment, from them. 
As confirmed by her three high-profile 2014 films (Under the SkinCaptain America: The Winter SoldierLucy), Johansson is a compelling dramatic force dropped into a cacophonous field of CG fireworks. That may, in the end, prove to be her greatest asset when it comes to Ghost in the Shell, since its futuristic tale of cyber-espionage will undoubtedly require more than its fair share of digital wizardry, especially if it seeks to faithfully duplicate the original's stunning imagery of limbs severing, heads exploding, and bodies drifting through the air, water, and digital ether. However, if director Rupert Sanders is smart, he'll realize that his greatest special effect is ultimately his transfixing star, even if, ultimately, she keeps her clothes on.
*Correction: As a commenter points out, Motoko wears a skintight, flesh-colored body suit in the opening scene that makes her appear nude, though she technically is not.
Nick Schager is a New York City-area film critic and journalist who also contributes toThe Village Voice, Time Out New York, Vulture, The A.V. Club, The Dissolve, The Atlantic, SF Weekly, Film Journal International, and Slant Magazine. In his scant spare time, he sleeps.

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