Episode 31: Disrespecting Albert Camus
Today’s episode is part of a series called “Lessons from Paris.” In this series I’ve chosen essays from my book A Writer’s Paris that I’m betting will help you deepen your connection to your creative life and motivate you to create every day. Today’s show, the fourth in the series, is called “Disrespecting Albert Camus.”
The episode begins this way:
“I love Albert Camus to pieces but intuitively supposed that there would be few monuments to Camus in Paris. His World War II heroism notwithstanding, he told too many hard truths to receive public glorification. So, out walking one day in the northeast corner of Paris, it horrified me but did not surprise me to discover how the politicians have decided to disrespect Camus. They exiled him far from artistic and intellectual Paris, a maneuver excellent as irony and an unintended reminder of the title of his short story collection, Exile and the Kingdom.”
Tune in to hear more!
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Eric Maisel: Hello, everybody. Welcome to today's episode of "The Joy of Living Creatively".
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Today's show is another episode in the Lessons from Paris series based on my book, "A Writer's Paris". In each episode we examine an important aspect of the creative life and set our examination against the backdrop of Paris. I hope that you enjoy today's show and will want to follow the whole series.
Today's episode is called Disrespecting Albert Camus. Like the great French novelist, Albert Camus, you may be a writer who finds yourself at odds with important aspects of your culture and your community.
Maybe, your politics are radically different from your culture's politics. Maybe, your beliefs are radically different. Maybe, you are better at detecting humbug and wool pulling than your neighbors. In that case, two things are true. You will probably see it as your duty to write as a cultural witness and speak out. And those whom you speak out against will probably not put up many monuments to you.
And so, I suppose there would be few monuments to Camus in Paris. His World War II heroism notwithstanding, he told too many hard truths to receive public glorification. Out walking one day in the northeast corner of Paris, I discovered how the politicians have decided to handle Camus. It did not surprise me to find they have exiled him far from intellectual Paris in an unintended but ironic reminder of his short story collection, "Exile in the Kingdom".
The Place Albert Camus has been dropped on the shoulder of a busy traffic circle in an outer arrondissement. The Rue Albert Camus runs downhill from its namesake square through modern apartment complexes. The small, benchless place is anchored by a chrome sculpture of a man who looks like a fleshless terminator. Under this figure is the too simple inscription: Albert Camus, Journalist and Writer. You would think that pride in one of your country's Nobel Prize winners and national treasures would outweigh the politician's usual animosity towards the truth but no.
Albert Camus faired poorly in France. He was a real resistance fighter which didn't help as too many of his fellow countrymen weren't. He doubted Communism which made him the enemy of most French intellectuals, Sartre especially. He argued against religion, a position that faired better in 1780 than 1950. Perhaps, his greatest folly was arguing that Algerian Arabs and Algerian French might get along. While the grain of colonialism was cruel, he asserted that expelling the French from Algeria was myopic and a cruelty of its own. That position sealed his fate as the darling of no one.
Camus was a dyed in the wool skeptic but refused to allow people to label him a skeptic just to dismiss him. Instead, he confronted his detractors with, "Since when is an honest man who refuses to believe the liar a skeptic?" He would have preferred a sweet humanism to chronic rage, but the times wouldn't permit it.
He wrote in an open letter to a German friend that he was slow to credit the Nazi threat because he had hoped that Hitler was not as bad as he seemed or if he was, the Germans would come to their senses and oust him. He banked on hope but finally had to admit his error. That is what a humanist does. He hopes that man will be better than he usually is and sadly admits his mistake when man, once again, fails him.
On a recent trip to Paris I read Camus' last novel, "The First Man". Published posthumously by his daughter it was found in draft manuscript by the side of the road where Camus, a luckless passenger, in a car driven by his publisher was killed in a motor accident. It is an almost wistful novel in which a mature artist more than a little tired of wagging and pointing his finger announces to his reader that life is not that bad.
In "The First Man" Camus explains that a poor child growing up in Algeria could get incredibly lucky, find himself befriended by a goodhearted teacher and become Albert Camus. It is a rags-to-riches story for thinking people and not a romantic novel. We see the great divide that separated the French Algerians and the Arab Algerians. We see a child's fruitless search for a father he never knew.
When Camus slips in an anecdote about a barber who slits the throat of the man he is shaving simply because it has been too hot for too long, we note that he is reminding us that he can't write fairy tales. Camus explained that, "The nobility of the writer's occupation lies in resisting oppression, thus in accepting isolation".
You may think that you have come to Paris to fulfill a dream. Maybe, you see your visit to Paris as a romantic gesture or a madcap fling. In fact, you are stepping into the shoes worn by our great truth tellers. You are choosing an isolating experience to witness in a land you don't really understand among people whose language you find beautiful but meaningless for the sake of resisting everyday oppression.
In every culture the small-minded, the selfish, the power hungry and the corrupt stand ready to retaliate whenever a writer courageously announces, "Here is what is really going on". The specter of their retaliation notwithstanding, we strive to say what we know to be true.
A government antagonistic to the truth as are all governments has isolated the memory of Albert Camus in an inglorious square in a nondescript part of town. It has added insult to injury by memorializing Camus with a chrome sculpture of an inhuman working man, a cross between social realism and Hollywood action figure.
Not one tourist in 10,000 will end up in the Place Albert Camus by accident, and not one in a million will end up there on purpose, but that is neither here nor there. The tragedy is not that Camus is insufficiently honored by his government. The tragedy is that he is not taught and not read.
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