Sunday, May 25, 2014

What I've Been Reading

A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning by Robert Zaretsky. An insightful book which will mould and shape the way we think and live life. I think, Camus has just helped me change the course of my life. Yes, there were some confirmation biases but I learned a lot.


To the only philosophical question worth asking—whether suicide must be our response to an absurd world— Camus’ reply was clear : it cannot and must not be. If, as he wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus, “revolt gives life its value,” suicide instead accepts—embraces, even— a life and world devoid of meaning and importance. It is essential, he affirmed, “to die unreconciled and not of one’s own free will. Suicide is a repudiation. The absurd man can only drain everything to the bitter end.… The absurd is his extreme tension, which he maintains constantly by solitary effort, for he knows that in that consciousness and in that day-to-day revolt he gives proof of his only truth, which is defiance.”

Orwell & Camus on Nature & Beauty

Yet, ignored by many commentators, both men also insisted on the necessity of beauty. In an essay published shortly after the war, “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad,” Orwell dwelt on the abiding and necessary joys of nature. Is it, Orwell asked, “politically reprehensible … to point out that life is frequently more worth living because of a blackbird’s song, a yellow elm tree in October, or some other natural phenomenon which does not cost money and does not have what the editors of left-wing newspapers call a class angle?” Orwell in fact offers an English equivalent to Camus’s :

“Mediterranean” philosophy— a kind of pensée de Cotswalds: I think that by retaining one’s childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and— to return to my first instance— toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more.

Like an ocean current, the themes of the beauty and happiness he found in nature flow through Camus’ writings. A telling instance is his essay “Return to Tipasa.” Camus wrote the essay in 1953— a particularly trying time. Not only had there been the violent quarrel with Sartre over The Rebel, but Camus was also dogged by fears that his creative reserves had run dry, leaving him feeling betrayed and becalmed. He flew to Algiers, where he was greeted by several days of rain. But the skies then cleared and Camus drove to Tipasa, overwhelmed by memories of his earlier visits— visits filled with an innocence and confidence he had since lost.

As he climbed toward the Roman ruins, Camus carried the scars of the battles he had fought on behalf of those who could not: starving Berbers, oppressed pieds-noirs, tortured resistance fighters, silenced political prisoners. He heard the voices of these “humiliated ones,” but he also began to hear “the imperceptible sounds that made up the silence” that had first greeted him: the calls of birds enfolded in bushes, the scrabble of lizards across the hot stones, the whispering of the absinthe plants and “the short, light sighing of the sea” below. Despite his battered lungs, Camus scrambled up the rocky path. As he ascended, he heard “the happy torrents rising within me. It seemed to me that I had at last come to harbor, for a moment at least, and that from now on this moment would never end.”

Among the crumbling arches— once the backdrop to his youthful forays with friends— an older and wearier Camus experienced a simple epiphany.

“Yes, there is beauty and there are the humiliated. Whatever the difficulties the enterprise may present, I would never like to be unfaithful either to one or the other.” Yes, injustice exists, but so too does the sun— the source of measure. Indeed, Camus “measured [his] luck, realizing at last that in the worst years of our madness the memory of that sky had never left me. This was what in the end had kept me from despairing.… In the middle of winter, I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer.” 

Montaingne's Influence on Camus

The Myth of Sisyphus is instead a salvo of impressions, some intimate, others literary, all of them urgent and lucid. The Myth is an essay, similar to those written by one of Camus’ models, Michel de Montaigne.

In fact, Camus achieves with the Myth what the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty claimed for Montaigne’s Essays: it places “a consciousness astonished at itself at the core of human existence.”

By then, Camus had, like Montaigne, also retired from public affairs— at least in regard to his native Algeria. After the failure of his effort to convince the warring sides to adopt a civilian truce, Camus retreated into public silence. In February 1956, shortly after the still-born civilian truce, Camus had quit his position at L’Express, telling friends he could no longer write or speak publicly on events in Algeria. What more could he say at this point? Silence seemed, if not the sole option, the most meaningful one. As he wrote to his friend, the Kabyle writer Mouloud Feraoun: “When language is thoughtlessly used to dispose of human lives, being silent is not a negative quality.”

Montaigne would have immediately recognized Camus’ plight as his own. In sixteenth-century France, extremists among both Catholics and Protestants despised les politiques: moderates devoted to negotiation and compromise. But in a nation increasingly polarized, in which each religious camp saw the other as evil incarnate, the politiques were not just distrusted, but often powerless in the face of repeated spasms of violence. Mayor of a volatile city divided between Huguenots and Catholics, where the fanatics of the Catholic League terrorized Protestants and politiques, Montaigne was acutely aware of his thankless and desperate task. As he observed: “Our zeal does wonders when it is seconding our leaning towards hatred, cruelty, ambition, avarice, detraction, rebellion. Against the grain, toward goodness, benignity , moderation, unless as by a miracle some rare nature bears it, it will neither walk nor fly.”

Yet Montaigne, though a politique, was not an amoralist— to the contrary. 
“Among other vices,” he wrote with rare intensity, “I cruelly hate cruelty, both by nature and by judgment, as the extreme of all vices.”

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