Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Someone Whose Mind Watches Itself

But Orwell himself, very early in his career, argued against this style of reading literature. In one of his first book reviews, in 1930, for example — on Lewis Mumford’s book Herman Melville — he argues that such interpretation (an “unpleasant but necessary word”) is a “dangerous method of approaching a work of art. Done with absolute thoroughness, it would cause art itself to vanish.” Reducing a work of art to an allegorical message, he said, “is like eating an apple for the pips.” In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus also argued against reducing novels to what he called a “thesis-novel, the work that proves, the most hateful of all, […] the one that most often is inspired by a smug thought.” For both men, a novel is not supposed to tell the reader what to think, but rather to create the conditions through which the reader can experience thinking for themselves. This idea became the creative spark that fired also their political imaginations, especially their opposition to totalitarianism.

...And yet, where Orwell is praised for his political judgment, albeit based upon a denigration of his literary imagination, Camus is praised for his literary works (he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, after all), but, in the process, he is denigrated for his political thinking — often dismissed as a noble but vague humanism; admirable, but not worth taking seriously.

However, by the time most of the French intelligentsia embraced Communism in the late 1940s and ’50s, Camus had already joined and been expelled from the Communist Party (the Algerian branch). At a time when many others — such as Merleau-Ponty and Sartre — were being seduced by Communism, Camus was already aware of its theoretical contradictions and practical impossibilities. His experiences during the purges of the mid-1940s showed him that today’s victims can easily become tomorrow’s executioners. His own political thinking — which, like Orwell’s, was grounded in intellectual honesty and concrete experience — developed early, through his growing up in poverty in working-class Algeria. What Orwell learned only slowly, and from the outside, about poverty and working-class culture, Camus knew firsthand, from the root source.

Camus sharpened his political sensibilities through his journalism, which forced upon him the practice of keeping an open mind, of collecting the facts for himself, and then thinking through their significance and implications.

I have no idea why Camus has been so frequently popping up in my online reading recently. I'd like to think it heralds some sort of pendulum-swing away from ideology and toward humanistic sanity, but it's probably just a happy coincidence. Whatever the case, it's good to see. As Arthur said to me:

The toxic ideological dust has settled, and Orwell and Camus emerge with honor from the disgraceful period when the intellectual dishonesty of Stalinists like Sartre was the chic thing. What admirable human beings, as well, which gives moral authority to their humanism. This is why they're not academically popular, or haven't been till recently: they distrusted theory, knowing first-hand how easily it become sophistical and a mere rationalization--for example, of crimes against humanity.

It's good to read about two guys who were not academic "thinkers" but thinking writers who showed personal courage and held on to humanistic convictions in the face of totalitarianism left and right. They matter, because they put themselves on the line (the question of suicide in Camus, as the article shows, was not a philosophical abstraction, but truly "existential," that is, personal). There is almost nothing at stake in the academic acrobatics of even a Foucault. Everything is at stake in the writings of Orwell and Camus.