Monday, July 17, 2017

RETRO READING: CAMUS



Re-read Camus’ The Fall, probably the first time since the 1980s. I read it first around 1974, I think, and it was part of the background I draw on when I recall my high school reading. The formative stuff. My recollection of it—the bar, the quays, the bridge—played a part in the initial “Axis and the Fallen Angel” composition of around ’76 or so. Reading The Fall now, I see in it the seeds of my conviction, fully ignited by reading Nietzsche in those days, that the purpose of life was a kind of mental clarity about one’s state—I suppose I would’ve accepted “spiritual state” as a good enough phrase for what I had in mind. Key to that intention was a need to do away with the teachings of the Catholic church in the name of something else.

In The Fall, the speaker’s insistence on judgment—to give it and to escape it—plays into that need. One could accept that one would be judged “sinful” by the arbiters of that law one was raised with, but the effort was to free oneself of that view, to find another way. The greatest risk was that one had wasted one’s time, one had squandered one’s gifts—and life, with whatever talents and intelligence one possessed, was the chief gift. One was indebted, from the start, but how to repay that debt? For the artist, the way was clear, in a sense: use one’s talents to the best of one’s ability. But there one encounters a question: how do we determine “best use,” how do we understand—or even perceive or conceive—what “talent” compels? It becomes “a blessing and a curse,” as the song says; it becomes a test of one’s mettle all along the way. One reason I want to go back to the scene of starting out is because I want to see again where I went wrong—but, even more so, I want to reshape the past for the sake of the present and possibly for a different future.

Returning to The Fall interests me because I know that the speaker’s insistence that “we need slavery” is something I grasped at some basic level back then—in two senses. One was with Rimbaud’s “we are slaves, let us not curse life.” A complex statement that says our slavery is built into the system we serve. We have our assigned tasks and we let them determine our identities, to a large extent. We are given money for this and so we cease to call it slavery—we are “free,” we say, to choose. But if we are honest, we know how little choice we have. Somewhere in that notion, as I received it, was Nietzsche’s “What, a great man? I see rather the play-actor of his own ideal.” That line, to me, undermined even the unique life of the artist or leader. Such figures were still slaves to an ideal, an intention, that governed them. We might wade through the biographies of everyone whom talent or wealth or wisdom supposedly freed until we come at the moment when they are ruled by something—call it love, call it God, call it need, call it—maybe even—justice. It doesn’t matter. It’s an ideal that shapes that person’s acts, making them, at best, an actor—pretending they “have it,” the ideal—at worst, a puppet, an automaton compelled by the ideal to—and here’s where Camus comes in—make excuses. For we all fail our ideal. And so must own up to it, or take it out on others. “No excuses ever, for anyone; that’s my principle at the outset. I deny the good intention, the respectable mistake, the indiscretion, the extenuating circumstance. With me there is no giving of absolution or blessing . . . .  In philosophy as in politics, I am for any theory that refuses to grant man innocence and for any practice that treats him as guilty. You see, in me, trรจs cher, an enlightened advocate of slavery.”

So we come to the other sense of slavery—as the state of those who require masters, or a master. In other words, the Hegelian master/slave dichotomy. To me, coming from Catholicism, God was the ultimate master and we his slaves because he owned us—having created us for his own reasons. The Christian sense of this debt was simply that we should love Him, worship Him, do His bidding to the extent we could perceive it. But if that master is removed, then mastery itself becomes the task: to master oneself, to make of oneself a master to be loved. To the master who achieves this, perhaps, the mass of mankind would willingly be a slave. But the master? What kind of freedom is his? It’s the kind of freedom (from masters) that Camus’ Clamence calls “a chore . . . a long-distance race, quite solitary and very exhausting.” The master enslaved to his mastery.

This is not only the artist enslaved to his own ideal of mastery—of, perhaps, preaching a message to the masses via art—but also the task which Camus will imagine as the rock of Sisyphus. Pushing the rock up the slope, Sisyphus masters gravity; letting it roll to the bottom and pursuing it, he masters himself. But he is eternally enslaved to that struggle. There’s no freedom through tasks. Freedom from all tasks—that, I suppose, was the tact I took. The freedom simply to Be. To be, not only as “finale of Seem,” but Be as the only acceptable slavery. For one must exist. Camus also argues for the acte gratuit of suicide, as a gesture of mastery of the moment, and over life itself—which some find, no doubt, in the taking of other lives. But it should be clear that in the philosopher’s oubliette—or what Camus’ speaker calls “the little-ease” (a medieval torture confinement)—we are only concerned with the life we were given. (If one lets oneself become an executioner of the life of others one is indeed defined by the task, by the fact of lives one can end until someone or something ends one’s own life. Needless to say, all such acts are distractions—as is sex and appetite—from the existential emptiness at the heart of the endeavor, any endeavor.)

Granted, art or war—or maybe the art of war—are alike in their valuing a skill set that must prove itself again and again. At some level, the exercise of these skills may be an end in itself, but don’t we—the spectators of the world historical cases these exercises establish—want something more? Some like to speak of edification, but that’s a mighty abstract idea. Don’t we want, really, a rooting interest? A sense that there are stakes and that our hero-warrior or hero-artist or hero-ruler may fail mightily or succeed greatly? But in what lies that success or failure? Renown? The eyes of the multitude upon the acts, and the judgment—always the judgment of someone from somewhere—that it was “worth the time,” “worth the candle,” worth—if it must come to it—the whole world. And into that “world” we place the crying babies of need, and the misused and abused women and men, and all those who have shackled their fortunes to the side that lost, and all those who danced in the streets with the side that won, and all those who never knew comfort and all those who squandered riches untold, and all those who struggled to improve their lot or the lot of others, and those who broke every rule and yet thrived, or who reviled their betters or abased themselves for preference, or who lived pious, quiet lives, exulting in God, or who threw all caution to the wind and gave themselves over to every sensual pleasure and pain. “All” are subsumed in this Battle Royale of one against the very principles of existence.

Thus existentialism chez Camus.


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