September 1st, 2010 09:45 EST
Hero of the Resistance Remained Resistant to Ideologies
The pursuit of a legend by a clear-eyed lover
(Camus, A Romance, Elizabeth Hawes, Grove Press, 2009, 319 pp)
Albert Camus was 46 when he died in 1960. Elizabeth Hawes was 19. She was in love with him and had never met him. Or was it the idea of him? She would find out. And her determination to find out has given us an exemplary literary adventure.
Camus was a near-historical figure at his death in a car crash. His trail was still hot. He had cut a deep if not wide swath through the cataclysmic events that reshaped the world during World War II and its aftermath. People were still grinding axes. His story remained unsettled, its focus skittish. The political and intellectual right despised him, the left disowned him and there was no middle ground for him for the many reasons the young Hawes was about to discover.
Camus, A Romance is as much the young scholar`s story as it is Camus`, which is another way of saying that as biography it is more honest and less pretentious than most, because the biographer reveals her emotions, her motives, her false starts, her disappointments. She is not out to ply a trade and win the usual accolades. She is telling us why this particular man meant so much to an American student. Hawes is that rare phenomenon, a clear-eyed lover.
I have a reason of my own for giving much thought to Camus. He was finishing his studies at the University of Algiers the year I was born in that city. It was 1934 and the French had ruled Algeria for more than a century. He was born to an Alsatian father and a mute Spanish mother. I was born to an American of German descent and an Algerian Arab father. Neither Camus nor I ever felt quite at home in our adopted countries, he in France and me in America. We saw things as otherlings see them and we understood the nature of otherness, that issue that haunts America and Europe today.
With Hawes I share an obsession with someone I never met, in my case Alexander the Great. I know what it is like to read the available literature and come up half empty. But Hawes did something about this quandary. She set out in pursuit of Camus, and Camus remains much more elusive than Alexander. If we can`t know Alexander, we know him by his masterpiece, the entirety of Western (Hellenic) civilization. It is said Alexander cut the Gordian Knot with his sword, unwilling to be hornswoggled by it. Camus` life reflected this directitude; it earned him a wealth of friends, lovers and enemies. He would not subscribe to preconceptions, and it is this facet in his nature that Hawes gives us so ably. He is a man of the hour, this hour, because we are everywhere beset by half-baked notions, ideologies and seductive lies.
Camus would probably have savored the absurdity of matters in the United States today. He would have set down the paradoxes, meannesses and contradictions in plain, uncompromising prose, the key word being uncompromising. While he looked fixedly into the eye of absurdity he was not hypnotized by it into an amoral apathy. He remained a moralist, but he profoundly distrusted isms as conveyances of morality. He had witnessed the war as a member of the Resistance, and that affirmed his misgivings about institutions and ideologies. But he insisted a person could be moral without them. In a very real sense he never left the Resistance, resistance to every handy, hospitable idea, to vogue, to taste-making.
Camus hardly ever encountered an orthodoxy, whether it was the French Revolution`s mythos or Surrealism, that he was not willing to debunk. And since every orthodoxy has its fanatics he found himself in many crosshairs. His crucible was not World War II "the issues seemed clear enough "but the Algerian war for independence from France. He was, after all, a pied noir, a European. But his sympathies were with Algeria, its Arabs, Berbers, Tuaregs, Jews "and pieds noir. While he had taken part in the Resistance, he could not bring himself to take the part of the armed Algerian insurgents. Paradoxically, he wanted an assimilationist solution, the very thing that had eluded him in France.
Some historic figures are more elusive than others. Among our founding fathers Jefferson continues to evade the lepidopterist. T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) challenges biographers. Emily Dickinson and Hart Crane are not rendered to biography as readily as, say, William Carlos Williams or T.S. Eliot. And there are those work interests us more than their persons, or those whose persons overshadow their work.
Hawes has written a book of process, and in so doing she has warned against the authorized versions that form around influential people. Instead of offering one of her own or debunking others, she shows us the stone walls biographers encounter, the evasions and cover-ups, the romanticizing. Hawes is a disciple of Flaubert in her unremitting hostility to the received idea. She and Camus would have had grand conversations about this.
No one in the history of existentialist thought is more germane to world events today than Albert Camus. The human compass is everywhere stuck on ism and creed, polarizing humanity. In Japan and the United States ethnocentrism is resurgent. Throughout Islam fundamentalism, particularly Wahhabism, is rewriting the script in a fundamentally anti-Qu`ranic way. Camus would have us confront the absurdity of all this, not because he had answers but because there are too many answers and not enough questions. He viewed ideologies and religions as cataracts obscuring human vision.
Hawes takes us with her luggage to the places and people who can shed light on how Camus came to his abiding, implacable distrust of ideology. Sometimes the light is flickering and disappointing, sometimes it is bright and almost unbearable. For example, the silence of his mother, Catherine, permeates his work. He understands there is no language without silence, and it is likely her silence and watchful eye shaped his conclusions about the danger of institutional thinking.
We could read a great deal about Camus and not know as much as Hawes imparts simply because her approach is not unlike Camus` own. He had no desire to prove anything, but he did wish to confront, and that is why his position on the Algerian war of independence is so troubling and tragic. David Carroll in his 2007 Albert Camus the Algerian addresses this issue. With Hawes and Carroll in hand we can posit the question of how Camus would have regarded the roiling phenomenon of otherness now plaguing Europe, the United States and Japan.
Camus was himself perceived as other. " He was a French national but not an ethnic Frenchman, and that is true of many of his Algerian countrymen, whether they are ethnic Berbers or Arabs. They are otherlings, as are Hispanics, Arabs, Jews and many others` in the United States. Camus` assimilationist aspirations have not prevailed. They have fallen to the roadside explosive devices of ethnocentrism and other isms.
But Camus` problem here is France`s problem. He wrote in French, not an other " language, and he wrote so well in French that the French are loath to disown him even as they know he would cast a jaundiced eye on their ostracism of the North Africans they fought so hard to rule and who fought so hard for France against her enemies.
Camus ultimately made the intelligentsia that had welcomed him uncomfortable because he had a visceral dislike for the fashionable idea. He remained suspicious of orthodoxies of any kind, left, right or center. He is exactly the champion the others of today need. And in this sense and perhaps only in this sense, his writings lend themselves to aphorism: he knew that one way or another we are all others and that is our true commonality. Camus understood that orthodoxy saps the vitality of a culture. That is why he looked forward to a multicultural Algeria, a idea as unwelcome today in Algeria as it is in France, an idea that is increasingly challenged in America by reactionaries.
Camus has not traveled the Atlantic well. He often comes across as a member of an intellectually pretentious elite, an elite that irked America`s more francophobic tendencies. His reputation as a writer is ill-served by his reputation as a thinker. If he had been portrayed as a hard-hitting newspaperman, which he was, and a novelistic writer of considerable merit, his reputation would have fared better in America. But his entanglement with the existentialists, like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, from whom he fell away, distanced him from American empathies.
Elizabeth Hawes changes all this. She was a young American scholar who fell in love with him and bravely set out to discover if the man deserved the reverence in which she held him. He did. He does. Camus, A Romance could have been a frivolous book "that might have enhanced its reception "but it is instead a story of love under scrutiny. Hawes, whether she knew it at the outset or not, was paying homage to Camus` idea that whatever we are unwilling to scrutinize will be the death of us.
She didn`t know what she would find, but she persisted, and in this way her book is a story of love requited, even though she had been tracking a dead man.
Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.
His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal Latte first prize in fiction in 2008. His poems have been published in The American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, poemeleon, The Same, and other journals. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.
Del`s book, Far From Algiers New review of Far from Algiers
Artists Hill, Literal Latte fiction first prize
Djelloul Marbrook Blog
His mother`s art: www.juanitaguccione.com His aunt`s art: www.irenericepereira.com