On Reading Philosophy

French Existentialist Writer Albert Camus (1913-1960)

Generally speaking, I have the devil’s own time trying to understand what philosophers write. The absolute worst are the German philosophers like Hegel, Heidegger, and Kant. I have difficulty even reading excerpted quotations from these writers—let alone whole paragraphs or chapters!

I have come to the conclusion that to enjoy reading most philosophers one has to be a gamer where language is concerned.

Fortunately, there are exceptions, particularly among the so-called Existentialist philosophers such as Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Camus and (on occasion) Sartre. I am currently reading Camus’s Notebooks 1951-1959 where I find surprising, gemlike ideas expressed such as the following:

The history of mankind is the history of the myths with which it covers up reality. For two centuries, the disappearance of traditional myths has shook history as death has become without hope. And yet there is no human reality if in the end there is no acceptance of death without hope. It is the acceptance of this limit, without blind resignation, in the tension of all one’s being that coincides with balance.

I await with patience a catastrophe that is slow in coming.

According to Melville, the remora, a fish of the South Seas, swims poorly. That is why their only chance to move forward consists of attaching themselves to the back of a big fish. Then they plunge a kind of tube into the stomach of a shark, where they suck up their nourishment, and propagate without doing anything, living off the hunting and efforts of the beast. These are the Parisian mores.

Give money, or lose it. Never make it fructify, nor seek it, nor crave it.

In love, hold on to what is.

Lope de Vega, five or six times a widower. Today people die less often. The result is that we no longer need to preserve in ourselves a force of rejuvenating love, but, on the contrary, we need to extinguish it in order to elicit another force of infinite adaptation.

Criticism is to the creator what the merchant is to the producer. Thus, the commercial age sees an asphyxiating multiplication of commentators, intermediaries, between the producer and the public. Thus, it is not that we are backing creators today, it is that there are too many commentators who drown the exquisite and elusive fish in their muddy waters.

Ooh, that last one, I think, is aimed at me.

Shortly after great historical crises, one finds oneself as dissatisfied and sick as on the morning following a night of excess. But there is no aspirin for the historical hangover.

Do not curse the West. For me, I cursed it at the time of its splendor. But today, while it succumbs under the weight of its faults and its long past glory, I will not add to its weight…. Do not envy those of the East, the sacrifice of intelligence and of heart to the gods of history. History has no gods, and intelligence, enlightened b7y the heart, is the only god, under a thousand forms, who has ever been saluted in this world.

I think what makes Camus a philosopher for our time is twofold:

  • He was born and raised in Algeria.
  • His experience with the French Resistance during World War Two made him avoid the obscurantism of more supine intellectuals.

A Camus Notebook 1942

French Existentialist Writer/Philosopher Albert Camus (1913-1960)

I have been Reading Albert Camus’ Notebooks 1942-1951 from which I have excerpted the following selections from the year 1942. Even a fragmentary work by such a great writer is well worth the effort. I keep thinking of Blaise Pascal, whose Pensées have been a major part of my life since high school.

Secret of my universe: Imagining God without human immortality.

Capital punishment. The criminal is killed because the crime has spent all the capacity for living a man has. He has experienced everything if he has killed. He can die. Murder drains a man.

“What am I thinking that is greater than I and that I experience without being able to define it? A sort of arduous progress toward a theory of negation—a heroism without God—man alone, in short.”

Nostalgia for the life of others. This is because, seen from the outside, another’s life forms a unit. Whereas ours, seen from the inside, seems broken up. We are still chasing after an illusion of unity.

Solitary arrivals at night in strange cities—that sensation of stifling, being transcended by an organism a thousand times more complex. It is enough to locate the main street on the morrow, everything falls into place in relation to it, and we settle in. Collect memories of night arrivals in strange cities, live on the power of those unknown hotel rooms.

Novel. Beside the dying body of the woman he loves: “I can’t, I can’t let you die. For I know that I shall forget you. Hence I’ll lose everything and I want to keep you on this side of the world, the only one where I am capable of embracing you, etc., etc.”
She: “Oh, it’s a dreadful thing to die knowing one will be forgotten.”
Always see an express at the same time the two aspects.

Sexual life was given to man to distract him perhaps from his true path. It’s his opium. With it everything falls asleep. Outside it, things resume life. At the same time chastity kills the species, which is perhaps the truth.

Wuthering Heights, one of the greatest love novels because it ends in failure and revolt—I mean in death without hope. The main character is the devil. Such a love can be maintained only through the ultimate failure that is death. It can continue only in hell.

Living with one’s passions amounts to living with one’s sufferings, which are the counterpoise, the corrective, the balance, and the price. When a man has learned—and not on paper—how to remain alone with his suffering, how to overcome his longing to flee, the illusion that others may share, then he has little left to learn.

The Philosophers

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir

Just as the Second World War was ending, there was a philosophical renaissance of sorts that was born in the streets and cafés of Paris. Most associated with it are Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir. Best known for her book The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir had written a novel about the French existentialists in 1954 called The Mandarins.

It is a classical roman à clef, in which real people appear under fictional names:

  • Jean-Paul Sartre becomes Robert Dubreuilh
  • Simone de Beauvoir becomes Anne Dubreuilh, Robert’s wife (In real life, Sartre and de Beauvoir were an unmarried couple for over fifty years)
  • Albert Camus becomes Henri Perron
  • American novelist Nelson Algren becomes Lewis Brogan

The book’s characters are deeply involved in leftist political issues without subjecting themselves to control by the Russian Politburo. Yet they find that it was easier to blow up trains and otherwise sabotage the Nazi war machine than to find a path through the messy politics of the Fourth Republic in France, particularly during the postwar political rise of Charles De Gaulle.

The Camus/Perron character struck home with me, because he is the most disaffected of the group after the war ends. As he gets pushed more and more by his friends into the messy politics of the French Republic, he becomes increasingly dispirited. This reflects his relationships with his women and his male friends.

Curiously, although Simone de Beauvoir never married and never had children, she is both married and with a troublesome daughter (Nadine) in The Mandarins. Her relationship with Sartre/Debreuilh is an open marriage, and she carries on a long affair with an American novelist, Nelson Algren/Lewis Brogan, the author of The Man with the Golden Arm.

The Mandarins is one of the best books I have read all year. I rather suspect that I will revisit the French existentialists in my reading during the months to come. Also, I have concluded that de Beauvoir is a badly underrated author considering her importance in a major twentieth century philosophical movement.

Serendipity: Camus on Travel

Albert Camus

Albert Camus

The text below is from his posthumously published Literary and Critical Essays:

Without cafés and newspapers, it would be difficult to travel. A paper printed in our own language, a place to rub shoulders with others in the evenings enable us to imitate the familiar gestures of the man we were at home, who, seen from a distance, seems so much a stranger. For what gives value to travel is fear. It breaks down a kind of inner structure we have. One can no longer cheat — hide behind the hours spent at the office or at the plant (those hours we protest so loudly, which protect us so well from the pain of being alone). I have always wanted to write novels in which my heroes would say: “What would I do without the office?” or again: “My wife has died, but fortunately I have all these orders to fill for tomorrow.” Travel robs us of such refuge. Far from our own people, our own language, stripped of all our props, deprived of our masks (one doesn’t know the fare on the streetcars, or anything else), we are completely on the surface of ourselves. But also, soul-sick, we restore to every being and every object its miraculous value. A woman dancing without a thought in her head, a bottle on a table, glimpsed behind a curtain: each image becomes a symbol. The whole of life seems reflected in it, insofar as it summarizes our own life at the moment. When we are aware of every gift, the contradictory intoxications we can enjoy (including that of lucidity) are indescribable.

 

 

Texts: A Boyhood in Algeria

Albert Camus

Albert Camus

This night inside him, yes these tangled hidden roots that bound him to this magnificent and frightening land, as much to its scorching days as to its heartbreakingly rapid twilights, and that was like a second life, truer perhaps than the everyday surface of his outward life; its history would be told as a series of obscure yearnings and powerful indescribable sensations, the odor of the schools, of the neighborhood stables, of laundry on his mother’s hands, of jasmine and honeysuckle in the upper neighborhoods, of the pages of the dictionary and the books he devoured, and the sour smell of the toilets at home and at the hardware store, the smell of the big cold classrooms where he would sometimes go alone before or after class, the warmth of his favorite classmates, the odor of warm wool and feces that Didier carried around with him, of the cologne big Marconi’s mother doused him with so profusely that Jacques, sitting on the bench in class, wanted to move still closer to his friend … the longing, yes, to live, to live still more, to immerse himself in the greatest warmth this earth could give him, which is what he without knowing it hoped for from his mother.—Albert Camus, The First Man

You Need to Breathe and You Need to Be

French Writer Albert Camus, Born 100 Years Ago Today

French Writer Albert Camus, Born 100 Years Ago Today

Find meaning. Distinguish melancholy from sadness. Go out for a walk. It doesn’t have to be a romantic walk in the park, spring at its most spectacular moment, flowers and smells and outstanding poetical imagery smoothly transferring you into another world. It doesn’t have to be a walk during which you’ll have multiple life epiphanies and discover meanings no other brain ever managed to encounter. Do not be afraid of spending quality time by yourself. Find meaning or don’t find meaning but ‘steal’ some time and give it freely and exclusively to your own self. Opt for privacy and solitude. That doesn’t make you antisocial or cause you to reject the rest of the world. But you need to breathe. And you need to be.—Albert Camus, Notebooks 1951-1959

One Hundred Years of Camus

French Writer Albert Camus, Born 100 Years Ago Today

French Writer Albert Camus, Born 100 Years Ago Today

There are few recent writers and thinkers in the West who have influenced me as much as Albert Camus, who was born a hundred years ago today in Dréan, Algeria. As a philosopher, I think he was far more of an “honest broker” than his countryman Jean-Paul Sartre; and his ideas have far more relevance to everyday human life than the English and European philosophers who spent the last century analyzing language. In fact, to my mind, there has been very little in Western philosophy that has moved me since Marcus Tullius Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations some two thousand years ago.

Central to his thinking is the Greek myth of Sisyphus. According to Wikipedia:

As a punishment for his trickery, King Sisyphus [of Corinth] was made to roll a huge boulder up a steep hill. Before he could reach the top, however, the massive stone would always roll back down, forcing him to begin again. The maddening nature of the punishment was reserved for King Sisyphus due to his hubristic belief that his cleverness surpassed that of Zeus himself. Zeus accordingly displayed his own cleverness by enchanting the boulder into rolling away from King Sisyphus before he reached the top which ended up consigning Sisyphus to an eternity of useless efforts and unending frustration. Thus it came to pass that pointless or interminable activities are sometimes described as Sisyphean.

What Camus does with this idea is interesting:

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain. One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

His novels published during his lifetime—The Stranger (1942), The Plague (1947), and The Fall (1956)— are worth reading and re-reading, not only for their ideas, but for their style. I hope to read more of the author’s journalism, essays and Notebooks in the coming year. Also recommended are his plays, particularly Caligula (1938) and The Misunderstanding (1944).

I still remember a lecture at Dartmouth College almost half a century ago in which Professor Robert Benamou pointed out how, in The Stranger, the trial of Meursault for murder deliberately makes the accused appear to be habitually amoral and criminal by a clever use of the past imperfect tense—whereas in fact, the first half of the book shows a series of unique occurrences that by no means define his character.

The more of Camus I read, the more I think he is the only one of the Twentieth Century Existential philosophers who had anything to say to me.

 

Spiritual Testing

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

What gives value to travel is fear. It is the fact that, at a certain moment, when we are so far from our own country (a French newspaper acquires incalculable value. And those evenings when, in cafés, you try to get close to other men just to touch them with your elbow.) We are seized by a vague fear, and an instinctive desire to go back to the protection of old habits. This is the most obvious benefit of travel. At that moment we are feverish but also porous, so that the slightest touch makes us quiver to the depths of our being. We come across a cascade of light, and there is eternity. That is why we should not say that we travel for pleasure. There is no pleasure in traveling, and I look upon it more as an occasion for spiritual testing. If we understand by culture the exercise of our most intimate sense—that of eternity—then we travel for culture. Pleasure takes us away from ourselves in the same way as distraction, in Pascal’s use of the word, takes us away from God. Travel, which is like a greater and a graver science, brings us back to ourselves.—Albert Camus, Notebooks 1935-1942

“An Intellectual? Yes.”

An intellectual? Yes. And never deny it. An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself. I like this, because I am happy to be both halves, the watcher and the watched. “Can they be brought together?” This is a practical question. We must get down to it. “I despise intelligence” really means: “I cannot bear my doubts.”—Albert Camus