Sontag Punks Camus
We have defended our girl Susan Rosenblatt from her many detractors. She is particularly talented at faint praise, the kind I give to Molly all the time. “Great piece on robots, you’re the new Camille Paglia.” This is the highest compliment I can give, and yet it will likely inspire Molly to spend three hours trolling wowowow and telling me about how her switch to Obama came about organically. Susan was way better at faint praise, as you can see in this legendary review of Albert Camus’ Notebooks from the September 1963 issue of The New York Review of Books. In her righteous diminishing of Camus, Susan proves once and for all that while you don’t need to be a hottie to take down an icon, it doesn’t hurt.
The Ideal Husband
by Susan Sontag
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.
the author’s one time husband, philip rieff
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.
“Love Today (Patrick Wolf remix)” – Mika (mp3)
camus first draft
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.
susan, killin’ 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.
“Human After All (Justice remix)” – Daft Punk (mp3)
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 preceded 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.
sartre, simone, and che guevara, setting a record for the most humorless people to appear in one room
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.
“Silver Stallion” – Cat Power (mp3)
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.
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.
Why is George Bush reading Camus?
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 Notebooks which 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’s Diaries. 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.
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 l’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.
nobody loves good herb more than JP Sartre
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 completely 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.
Susan Sontag is our girl Friday, or Tuesday, whichever day of the week it may be.
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