May 17, 2014


Entranced by Reality : a review of A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning, Robert Zaretsky (IAN MARCUS CORBIN, May 15, 2014, American Conservative)

[A]s Zaretsky demonstrates, the interwoven beauty and violence of Camus's Algerian childhood made an indelible mark on the whole of his wide-ranging thought. It is a signal achievement of Zaretsky's book to show how the different parts of Camus's thinking cannot be neatly compartmentalized. They all flow from Camus's singular commitment to concrete reality, forged beneath the hot Algerian sun. The determination to not just think, but also to look, is key to Camus's greatness.

There is no way for a thinker--or indeed, a user of language--to eschew abstraction entirely, of course, but Camus was deeply attuned to the dangers of excessive abstraction. This may not sound particularly heroic, but it can be, and it certainly was in Camus's day. Camus's peers, mid-century French intellectuals, were all too susceptible to the raptures of abstraction. The Left Bank bien pensants were, with few exceptions, stalwart armchair Marxists, obliquely aware that the divine dream of the worker's paradise was exacting a brutal toll on the actual humans of the Soviet bloc, but blissfully unmoved by this fact. Camus publicly, angrily, charged that their fixation on beautiful ideas made them insensate to the ugly cost such ideas imposed on the much-beloved proletariat. And indeed, it is now difficult--impossible--to think Camus wrong.

Zaretsky quotes the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who writes of the Stalinist horrors with chilling coolness, explaining that only the unfolding of history will "give us the final word as to the legitimacy of a particular form of violence." Camus righteously fumes in response that "man has been delivered entirely into the hands of history ... because we live in a world of abstraction, a world of bureaucracy and machinery, of absolute ideas and of messianism without subtlety." Camus's rejection of blood-draining Stalinist abstraction put him far out of favor with his peers, most notably his once-close friend Jean Paul Sartre, who publicly denounced him for his political apostasy.

It was not only the neat certainty of Soviet ideology that Camus resisted. During his lifetime, his native Algeria was torn in a long and bitter struggle between French colonizers, who flagrantly oppressed native Algerians, and Algerian nationalists, who took up arms against civilian pied noirs. On the Left Bank, this was understood to be a clear-cut, one-sided battle between virtuous freedom fighters and vicious colonial oppressors.

Having grown up on actual Algerian soil, Camus simply didn't recognize the black and white situation described by comfortable French intellectuals. He condemned the violence on both sides, and called for a peaceable coexistence between the pied noirs and the native Algerians. While in Stockholm in 1957, accepting the Nobel Prize for literature, Camus was confronted by a young Algerian nationalist who demanded to know why Camus had not taken an unambiguous pro-Algerian position. Camus famously responded: "People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother." [...]

In an essay titled "The New Mediterranean Culture," he describes a deep spiritual connection between Mediterranean people and "the courtyards, the cypresses, the strings of pimentos" that mark their land. He concludes that "There are, before our eyes, realities stronger than we ourselves are. Our ideas will bend and become adapted to them." This "fidelity," to mere reality, Zaretsky explains, is the source of Camus's "measure"--his stubborn refusal, or perhaps inability, to trade the finite real for visions of some infinite ideal.

This stubbornness is the key marker of Camus's perspicacious political vision, and it is buttressed by his deep love for the beauty of his native landscape. He was not just an important political polemicist, but also a beauty-seized rhapsode, susceptible to being carried away by the raw sensuality of his homeland, and then capable of writing prose that takes his readers along with him.

In one of his most lyrical essays, "Nuptuals at Tipasa," Camus exults in the stark beauty of an Algerian mountain town on the verge of the Mediterranean Sea: "Deep among wild scents and concerts of somnolent insects, I open my eyes and heart to the unbearable grandeur of this heat-soaked sky." Caught up in the rapture of reality, this professional man of letters, a perceptive commentator on Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky and Kafka, seems almost ready to renounce the life of reflection: "We walk toward an encounter with love and desire. We are not seeking lessons or the bitter philosophy one requires of greatness. Everything seems futile here except the sun, our kisses, and the wild scents of the earth." One could very sensibly argue that the pleasure and vibrancy of his aesthetic experiences served as a vital counterbalance to one of the most common and dangerous pitfalls of professional thinkers: the temptation to float off into the cool, exhilarating ether of abstraction, leaving messy, mundane realities behind.

The eldest is taking a class on modern literature, nearly all of which the kids, quite rightly, hate.  And they've taken to reading our review for a counter-point after reading the books.  So when the teacher said she had nothing to say about The Stranger, they asked if I could teach the class that day instead.  

Rather than boring them with a lecture, we had a discussion in which I suggested possibilities for them to consider.  Among them, that one can not simultaneously believe that Camus was an effective writer and that Merseault is intended to be a heroic figure.  Rather than understanding the novel as a vindication of Existentialism/Absurdism/Nihilism/etc., we might want to read it as a repudiation of these ideas (whether conscious on Camus's part or not).   

Several of the kids--chiefly those who are still struggling with their own identities and feel estranged from social norms--felt that Merseault's trial was a miscarriage of justice because of the focus on his reaction to his mother's death, rather than on the murder he committed.  But we explored the possibility that even if there was some doubt about the murder--Camus, of course, stacks the deck against his own argument by leaving no such doubt--we might still prefer that a jury convict him simply to remove him from society, since his fidelity to his own notion that nothing matters makes him an inherent threat to kill eventually.  One would merely note that Camus, indeed, preferred his mom to his ideas. 

He was rejected by the French intelligentsia because he is, like de Tocqueville, essentially a figure of the Anglosphere

Book Review: 'The Soul of the World' by Roger Scruton : A first kiss is more than the mating ritual of gene-perpetuating machines. It summons 'the consciousness of another in mutual gift.' (IAN MARCUS CORBIN, May 15, 2014, WSJ)

"The Soul of the World" is an example of what conservatism can be, at its best--a clear-eyed, affectionate defense of humanity and a well-reasoned plea to treat the long-loved with respect and care. This kind of conservatism comes into being when something good is threatened: Here Mr. Scruton aims to conserve "the sacred" in the face of threats from scientific reductionism, an ideology that asserts that all phenomena--including things like love, art, morality and religion--are most accurately described using the vocabulary of contemporary science.

Viewed through the lens of scientific reductionism, all existence is fundamentally the bouncing around of various material particles, some arranged in the form of gene-perpetuating machines we call humans. Mr. Scruton almost agrees--we are, in fact, gene-perpetuating machines, and the finer, higher aspects of human existence emerge from, and rest upon, biological machinery. As he points out, though, it's a long jump from this acknowledgment to the assertion that "this is all there is." The jump, according to Mr. Scruton, lands us in "a completely different world, and one in which we humans are not truly at home." A truly human outlook involves the intuition of intangible realities that find no place in even our most sensitive systems of biology, chemistry or physics.

Philosophers and theologians have traditionally understood that certain things transcend our abilities to fully perceive, comprehend and articulate them and that the way we incorporate those things into our lives is through the experience of the sacred--the irruption of the transcendent into our mundane reality. The sacred stands, as Mr. Scruton puts it, "at the horizon of our world, looking out to that which is not of this world" but also "looking into our world, so as to meet us face-to-face." While sacredness is most commonly associated with religious actions and artifacts--such as sacraments, scriptures and holy places--it is not limited to these. Mr. Scruton argues that our encounters with one another, and indeed with nature, are experiences of the sacred as well.

The key insight of the Anglo philosophical tradition is, of course, even more radical.  It is that the encounter with ourselves can not be explained in terms of materialism either, but, likewise, partakes of the sacred.  All being intangible, we necessarily begin from faith.

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Posted by at May 17, 2014 7:43 AM

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