Note of a Review

These are moments when everything becomes clear, when every action constitutes a commitment, when every choice has its price, when nothing is neutral anymore. It is the time of morality, that is, a time when language becomes clear and it is possible to throw it back in the realists’ face.

A&L links to a review by Michael McDonald of the Jacqueline LĂ©vi-Valensi edition of Camus at "Combat": Writing, 1944-1947. (Arthur Goldhammer, translator). McDonald notes another passage:

Camus was against “political realism”, calling it “a degrading thing.” “Those whom we called leaders”, he wrote, “invented names for this abdication of responsibility. They called it ‘nonintervention’ one day and ‘political realism’ the next. Compared with such imperious language, what could a poor little word like honor count for.”

The bracing vision of Camus often gives solace. McDonald explains why.

Update: If you feel the need to read some Garry Wills to reinforce your feelings of superiority to Bush, then A&L has rounded that up, too. I assume, however, that this blog is not obliged to give equal time.

5 thoughts on “Note of a Review”

  1. I had read the silly piece in A and L. Co paring Bush to Camus is downright ludicrous. Incidentally, Elie Wiesel remakred a number of times that he could
    understand if not appreciate the people siding with evil (the Nazis) and those taking a stand against it; but he was repulsed by those fence sitting, not taking a stand either way.

  2. I thought the review was sensible. If there’s anything odd about it it’s the intellectualoid conceit that comparing Bush to Camus is somehow an offense to Camus, when really it is, if anything, the other way around. Camus was admirable but he was mainly a writer; he didn’t have the enormous responsibility that Bush has, to manage the military and diplomatic efforts of a large nation at war.

    I liked this line:

    Arthur Koestler, a close friend of Camus, once remarked that people like himself who opposed totalitarian ideologies were “fighting a total lie in the name of a half-truth.”

    I think the statement is true but note the overly cynical, glass-half-empty tone — a typical affectation of literary intellectuals. Why not rephrase it in the terms of practical people:

    It is important to support representative government even though it is flawed, because it is vastly superior to the alternatives.

    Unlike some of his contemporaries, such as the execrable Sartre, Camus had moral clarity. So does Bush, unlike some of his detractors. The Bush-Camus parallel is apt.

  3. Right on, Jonathan. But, while Camus did not, of course, have the heavy responsibility, he was a good deal more of a “doer” & risk taker for what he believed than most other intellectuals – at that or any time. I suspect it was that which gave him a more proportional & clear-eyed view.

  4. Speaking of Camus…I also posted this in Little Green Footballs. This is from the SparkNotes Study Guide on The Plague, by Albert Camus. I left out all of the philosophical parts, concerning man’s struggle to find meaning in life despite a certain death. What remains is an allegory for…well, you be the judge.

    The book is the story, told by a Dr. Rieux, of an epidemic in the city of Oran. Its first manifestation is a multitude of dying rats.

    “One would assume that people would take immediate action in response to a phenomenon as grotesque as the dying rats, but to do so would require a grave underestimation of the power of indifference and denial…everyone assumes that it is someone else’s responsibility…no one wants to depart from his or her comfortable, isolated routine to deal with the problem…so they resort to rationalizing the phenomenon.

    “It is as if an infected abscess had burst open, implying that Oran itself is diseased in some way. Over the course of the epidemic, it will become clear that indifference and denial constitute the metaphorical disease… People are all too ready to deny that a collective problem does not concern them.

    “The newspapers that made such a fuss over the rats are strangely silent regarding the disease… probably the bubonic plague… the city government will try to deny the obvious. Despite periodic outbreaks of the plague, people tend to hold the view that it has disappeared in “temperate climates.” Wars and plagues have always existed in human populations, yet people are always surprised when they become victims of one or the other.

    “As the newspapers begin to cautiously discuss the disease, the authorities continue to drag their feet. Meanwhile, the tally of deaths continues to mount. As spring settles on Oran, people continue to lead their lives as they always do.

    “Just as with the rats, everyone considers it someone else’s responsibility to deal with the mysterious illness in Oran. The government officials and Dr. Rieux’s colleagues do not want to break with the status quo, so they waste time discussing whether the disease is definitely contagious and whether it is definitely the bubonic plague. Dr. Rieux’s stance is that they should act as if the disease were the bubonic plague. He does not relish the idea of waiting for new cases to prove his suspicions. His main concern is saving as many lives as possible.

    “Even when the government posts warnings all over the city, the posters are unobtrusive. Dr. Rieux feels that the situation calls for an attitude of all or nothing. If the government does not completely implement all the measures for dealing with a possible epidemic, it is as good as doing nothing at all. Unobtrusive posters do nothing to impress the public with the potential danger of the situation. Dr. Rieux realizes that human beings have too much faith in rationality to really appreciate the threat of an impending catastrophe. Wars and plagues are not rational, logical disasters.

    “Most people in Oran are obsessed with maintaining their “peace of mind.” They do not want their comfortable, habitual routine disturbed.

    “The plague concerns everyone in Oran whether they want to admit it or not. Most people in Oran expect someone else to take responsibility for defending their lives, so they waste time complaining about the lack of effort on the part of the city government, the medical authorities, and their fellow citizens.

    “The authorities’ inability to recognize the plague as a collective disaster: They engage in their own form of denial with daily death statistics and bombastic talk about whether 130 deaths as opposed to 150 is a “victory.” They do not respond to the deadly menace of the plague with real, devoted action.”

  5. The Camus quote reminded me of this passage by Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

    Today there are once more saints and villains. Instead of the uniform grayness of the rainy day, we have the black storm cloud and the brilliant lightning flash. Outlines stand out with exaggerated sharpness. Shakespeare’s characters walk among us. The villain and the saint emerge from primeval depths and by their appearannce they tear open the infernal or the divine abyss from which they come and enable us to see for a moment into mysteries of which we had never dreamed.

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