Monday, April 30, 2012

The Estranged

So, yes, I've returned to Camus.

Years ago his example summoned me to the artist's life. I opted instead for traditional joys, which were real enough; but traditional suffering always comes with traditional joys, and in the end one must choose between living and dying. It's easy to mistake death for life—easy enough that, at some point, just about all of us do it. For many people it's the mistake that defines their lives. For a long time it defined mine.

What I loved most about Camus when I first read him was that despite his elegant, extraordinarily lucid prose, I couldn't understand him. Reading The Stranger, I thought, This is a little, simple book. It's taught in high school. Why can't I understand it?

Fran├žois Camion, one of my life's many brilliant teachers, released me from that particular anxiety when he pointed out offhandedly that to understand and to love are, at some level, opposites. Ideas like that come from somewhere: I never asked Fran├žois if that idea came from Camus. It certainly could have.

In any case, my inability to understand Camus became an enduring source of pleasure, and—more to the point—it served as a thrilling artistic model. Be clear, I thought, yet  mysterious. Write sparely yet mythically. Do not articulate the trivial despairs of domesticity. Be in the world—he repudiated the commandments of my youth—and of it.

Of course we're attracted to our opposites, and in many respects Camus is my opposite: African-born; a sensualist, a success with women; hard-working; brave; stylish; free of religious dogma; French-Mediterranean (in a nutshell); a smoker (somehow, that's important); prolific. A romantic figure who managed to be above romance. A man at home in the world, in his time.

But we must recognize something of ourselves in those we love, too, and I had the audacity to think of him as a kindred spirit. In the 1958 Preface that opens Lyrical and Critical Essays, I recognized myself time and again:
I was placed halfway between poverty and the sun. Poverty kept me from thinking all was well under the sun and in history; the sun taught me that history was not everything. . . . The lovely warmth that reigned over my childhood freed me from all resentment. I lived on almost nothing, but also in a kind of rapture.
After some soul-searching . . . I can testify that among my many weaknesses I have never discovered the most widespread failing, envy, the true cancer of societies and doctrines.
I don't know how to own things.
I have never been able to succumb to what is called "home life" (so often the very opposite of an inner life); "bourgeois" happiness bores and terrifies me.
I don't envy anyone anything, which is my right, but I am not always mindful of the wants of others and this robs me of imagination, that is to say, kindness. 
I don't think I ever found delight in re-reading a finished page.
Differences and similarities of this order—this intensity—mark most love affairs. The good thing about falling in love with an author is that he's easily returned to. If he's changed, it's because we are. Noting those changes can be both a relief and a heartbreak.

I finished re-reading The Fall last night and with relief still found it incomprehensible. Which probably means that it's the mirror Jean-Baptiste (and, by extension, Camus) meant for it to be.

Art, life, love—the words are synonyms—are all incomprehensible. With Camus as my model, I am, I hope, also incomprehensible—not least to myself. Certainly I hope I'm incomprehensible to those who love me or have loved me. If they have ceased to love me, it's probably because they have decided that they comprehend me.

Camus warns against that decision. While humanity is inclined to interpret incomprehensibility as a mark of evil, of guilt, his work reminds us that it's often a kind of beauty, and worth treasuring.

At least I think that's what he says.

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