Camus, “I am not an existentialist”

“No, I am not an existentialist. Sartre and I are always surprised to see our names linked. We have even thought of publishing a short statement in which the undersigned declare that they have nothing in common with each other and refuse to be held responsible for the debts they might respectively incur. It’s a joke actually. Sartre and I published our books without exception before we had ever met. When we did get to know each other, it was to realise how much we differed. Sartre is an existentialist, and the only book of ideas that I have published, The Myth of Sisyphus, was directed against the so-called existentialist philosophers.”

- From an interview with Jeanine Delpech, in Les Nouvelles Littéraires, (1945). Cited in Albert Camus: Lyrical and Critical Essays, Vintage (1970)

Poshlust

“Poshlust,” or in a better transliteration poshlost, has many nuances, and evidently I have not described them clearly enough in my little book on Gogol, if you think one can ask anybody if he is tempted by poshlost. Corny trash, vulgar clichés, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic, and dishonest pseudo-literature—these are obvious examples. Now, if we want to pin down poshlost in contemporary writing, we must look for it in Freudian symbolism, moth-eaten mythologies, social comment, humanistic messages, political allegories, over concern with class or race, and the journalistic generalities we all know. Poshlost speaks in such concepts as “America is no better than Russia” or “We all share in Germany’s guilt.” The flowers of poshlost bloom in such phrases and terms as “the moment of truth,” “charisma,” “existential” (used seriously), “dialogue” (as applied to political talks between nations), and “vocabulary” (as applied to a dauber). Listing in one breath Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and Vietnam is seditious poshlost. Belonging to a very select club (which sports oneJewish name—that of the treasurer) is genteel poshlost. Hack reviews are frequently poshlost, but it also lurks in certain highbrow essays. Poshlost calls Mr. Blank a great poet and Mr. Bluff a great novelist. One of poshlost‘s favorite breeding places has always been the Art Exhibition; there it is produced by so-called sculptors working with the tools of wreckers, building crankshaft cretins of stainless steel, Zen stereos, polystyrene stinkbirds, objects trouvés in latrines, cannonballs, canned balls. There we admire the gabinetti wall patterns of so-called abstract artists, Freudian surrealism, roric smudges, and Rorschach blots—all of it as corny in its own right as the academic “September Morns” and “Florentine Flowergirls” of half a century ago. The list is long, and, of course, everybody has his bête noire, his black pet, in the series. Mine is that airline ad: the snack served by an obsequious wench to a young couple—she eyeing ecstatically the cucumber canapé, he admiring wistfully the hostess. And, of course, Death in Venice. You see the range.

Interview link.

On Israel-Palestine

I struggle to think of anything but the recent problems in the Middle East, especially Palestine, because I am only impressed by the futility and needless embitterment that is happening throughout my small circle of periodicals I read–as though all parties concerned know very well that nothing is being achieved under the pretext that something is being done. The conflict is not about to be fixed by awareness raising or any other tactic so loved by my generation–these last few months have proven, from Egypt to Syria to Russia and back again to Jerusalem that the men with the largest weapons win. Whether for better or worse: ‘moral’ victories aren’t. More importantly, dear reader, you don’t matter. I don’t matter. The world spins and we are animals dying on a plain.

Yet out flows all sorts of nonsense, as if this was merely some political question that enough hackneyed and trite declarations will solve. 

If there is any position taken by my blog about a political event, then I will promptly close it. This blog is only for learning new things, appreciating things and looking at things. Politics has little place here and where it does exist only when it interferes. Like here. The muse, as medieval scholars wrote to conclude, is silent. Let another take off where it ends. 

“I was born in 1860, just before the War of the Rebellion. I don’t remember it, of course; I was too young. I don’t remember my father either; he was killed in the first year of the war, at the Battle of Shiloh.” He looked quickly at Stoner. “But I can see what has ensued. A war doesn’t merely kill off a few thousand or a few hundred thousand young men. It kills off something in a people that can never be brought back. And if a people goes through enough wars, pretty soon all that’s left is the brute, the creature that we–you and I and others like us–have brought up from the slime.” He paused for a long moment; then he smiled slightly. “The scholar should not be asked to destroy what he has aimed his life to build.”

The quote is from a book, dear reader, you should promptly buy. 

A Wonder of Reading

In Borges illuminating, “premeditated” study of Kafka, we are deposited–in a fashion Borges’ owns–onto the conclusion that we discover Kafka’s qualities but only because he had written and Max had saved. Kafka’s influence on these earlier works “In other words… would not exist” if Max had obeyed the will or Kafka had not obeyed his will.

When Pontius Pilate was asked to take down the sign above Christ’s head—which read ‘King of the Jews’—he replied quod scripsi scripsi.There was no regret or elusion. But earlier Pilate had looked into the crowd and had washed his hands. Christ was neither his problem nor responsibility. It is a study of contrasts, who is the real Pilate? If he did not allow a single addition or elision then he is a man of towering certainty. If he abdicated his responsibility and washed his hands of the crowds’ decision then, dear, reader, come to the opposite conclusion.

Deciding who he is a question without an answer, but he is a door we have to pass through. He is still alive, having exhausted all infamy, and is a gift that we must accept gratefully. Because he is a gift I cannot refuse I am afraid that my suffering and joys and sufferings, not to mention my other sufferings, will be left for other pages. Other nights will carry the burden of my scribbling life. Tonight is Pontius.

It is a needless observation that Pilate should be damned for his actions but because of his actions he, indirectly, saved the world. Are the world’s sins cleansed forever and for all if Jesus is let go in favor of Barabas? I am not a theologian but Jurgen Moltmann would be a radically different thinker. Perhaps that is a modern point—efficiency and end results always provide retroactive forgiveness to inexcusable means. But I would consider it a small irony if Pilate was damned because he allowed the savior to save the world. Given the omniscience of God he is also a moral point and, thus, we are led back to my first paragraph—what moral point?

I refuse to believe that Pilate is unvarnished evil. He is not Milton’s Satan or Shakespeare’s “Cheated of feature by dissembling nature and deformed, unfinished, sent before my time into this breathing world, scarce half made up.”

What Pilate represents to us, today, is not the same moral point he has always represented. Theology always contains an autobiographical element, and an autobiography is always changing. What I see in Pilate is Kafka, but if Kafka had not written then I would have never seen him. What I see in Pilate is also an Eichmann, but if Arendt had not written then I would have never seen him.

For that I thank you, authors, and for you dear reader think of what and how figures change when you look at them through different lenses. For Borges could have, and I am sure he did, gone farther. It is not Kafka that we see in those earlier writers, though he is certainly there. It is ourselves that we see. If Zeno’s paradox against movement is reflected in Kafka’s work and Kafka’s work is reflected in Zeno’s then it is because you choose to insert Kafka’s work into Zeno’s and Zeno’s into Kafka’s. And now, as I write, I am busily inserting Borges and, for that matter, whomever you decided wrote the Gospels.

Functionally, I have become Kafka’s precursor. It is a wonder of reading. In considering Pilate I leave myself behind, for Kafka to pick up after I read him–or perhaps before.

A Ritual Deserving Greater Understanding and Acceptance

On a populous morning cotton balls flow around my feet. He asks for a lighter. Someone asks for a spare cigarette. He clasps his hands around the end, begging the flame to life. Is it lite yet? Lighter? Spare? How many will you smoke today? The liturgy of our simple scene is built around questions. The lighter is missing because it is hiding. We use its life blood to kill ourselves and it would be an irony if it was not so expected. Here’s a lighter. Here’s an extra. The smoke disappears into the morning.

Rituals surround us. I have my own: every day is another to resist an occasional positive thought. My coworkers have their own: smoking. To ridicule such rituals is easy; I seek to understand them. Each person deals with the ashes in their own way. Some take away the ash with an abstracted tap. Others take the time to roll the cigarette in the ash tray. The first is sloppy. The second is meticulous but hygiene becomes an egg broken in the name of a well manicured omelet. Some blow the smoke out with a long sigh. Others do it in short bursts punctuated by a laugh, a contemplative scratch or words.

If the tobacco is a burnt offering who is it going to? I refrain from speculating. They are our’s and only that I am sure of. The waft of smoke is the incense. Our church is the lawn and we, unintentionally, find ourselves recreating the early Christian Church where no one stood above anyone else. Christianity is an ordering of the world enigmatic. The Fathers built rituals to fit reality. What is the reality of Christianity? Some say the appearance of Jesus Christ. Our reality is less momentous and I refrain, again, from saying anything definitive. But I would like to play with it because our ritual is its own ordering.

Smoking tempts with the knowledge of good and evil. Smoking‘s original sin is its cunning, its patent insincerity. A single white stick, limping out of the corner of your mouth, implies a wordliness—perhaps outright bitterness—that is as useful for the local watering hole as it is for Hollywood. Is wordliness this ritual’s goal? If so Adam and Eve had a tree, we have a shrub and we need no other commentary on the degradation of modern life. It could be my own arrogance but I see something more. I see an intimacy that is out of step with the modern lives we all lead. When was the last time you offered a burnt offering in unison with another person, or several other people?

I cannot detect where the intimacy takes off when the wordliness ends, but I assume that it is roughly equal parts of both.

They are our sirens. If we breathe a little too deeply of their song we will die, if not by drowning but by sadder means.  In the Odyssey there is no description for the Sirens; Ovid described them as reddish-plumed birds with virginal faces; Apollonius of Rhodes described them as women from the waist up, the rest a bird, for Tirso de Molina „half women, half-fish.” For our purposes we must remember that the sirens attracted and led sailors astray and that Ulysses was tempted by promises of knowledge of all things in the world. Does a siren need to be a beast? I think not. We now know that sirens never were, there was only ourselves.

Cigarettes pretend to be our royal friends. They are clothed in gold, neatly packaged and trimmed. The only problem is that they are trying to kill us. Our desire is another siren. But, again, even as they chew a few cigarettes and suck the life out of lighters there is no expectation that they are living a healthy life. There is no irony and only sincerity. I think that is the building block of every religion and why, ultimately, that they are at a service. Not at a service to God but maybe to us, throughout the world, or other gods. Smoking saw the advent of Christianity and it will certainly see it off.  

Court Through a Glass Darkly

The call was insistent. Mr. Kanu! Mr. Kanu, are you here? There was no reply. Next. Mrs. Jacobs! Mrs. Jacobs, are you here? There was a reply. She stood up, went to the podium and quietly stood there waiting her turn to speak unlistening. Not guilty she said. A bench trial or a jury trial? I am not guilty she said. I do not need a trial. The Judge smiled, that is a little beside the point, ma’am.

Man after man, woman after woman. If a courtroom of the guilty and innocent uttering a single statement of their guilt or innocence—‘not guilty,’ ‘guilty’—is an allegory about the futility of justice in modern America where post-modern assumptions of morality make legal niceties Kafka-esque anachronisms, then it’s because you think a courtroom of the guilty and innocent uttering a single statement of their guilt or innocence—‘not guilty,’ ‘guilty’—is an allegory about the futility of justice in modern America where post-modern assumptions of morality make most legal niceties Kafka-esque anachronisms.

The problem with most observations is that they are mirrors. We can look inside the observer but never see the reality the observer sees. In the words of Paul, through a glass darkly. What a cliché, fit for the best collection of post-modern clutter, but I think it’s helpful to consider that this has nothing to do with post-modernism unless I—or you, dear reader—are already making assumptions about post-modern clutter. So the circle becomes full and the shape of this thinking makes writing, for me, sometimes unbearable. I want to describe the world but instead I use other people and experiences as sock puppets. It is not so much crude as it is egotistical.

If there was one way I could write, I would choose to say what people don’t want to hear in a way they wish they’d could. Have you ever considered that you are merely the extra in millions of people’s lives?

So let us learn a little about myself. I read Camus. The co-existence of self and world generates absurdity: “the Absurd is not in man (if such a metaphor could have a meaning) nor in the world, but in their presence together. For the moment it is the only bond uniting me” (The Myth of Sisyphus, trans. O’Brien, Vintage edition, p. 30); “There can be no absurd outside the human mind… But there can be no absurd outside this world either” (ibid., pp. 30-31).

Conversely, Kierkegaard is not concerned with an incomprehensible universe. Quite the contrary. In Christian Discourses he writes that the proper natural response to our encounter with the grandeur of creation is astonishment and adoration of God, not perplexity and offense. Further, he carefully distinguishes this from our response to God’s mercy and forgiveness of our sins, which is what, for him, generates the possibility of either offense or faith.

Am I, the observer of the courtroom, viewing the incomprehensible or an astonishing nature? Both? Perhaps it is cynicism: The hope that someday you’ll have known better all along. After some days in court, I can only imagine fiction sitting at my desk dismayed and outdone by fact. I do not know where that companionship puts me. Am I astonished, am I bewildered? Some days it is nothing. I cannot look beyond the day. If there is any meaning I do not realize it and if I do I do not understand it. It is a curious mix of apathy and ignorance—I do not care that I do not know.

More people are moved in, more people are moved out. Some call it the cattle call. Others call them the room meat—the silent, waiting bodies in the backrows waiting for their misdemeanor plea. Such is the novelty of arraignment.

Perhaps the only reason I write is to understand myself. If observations are mirrors, maybe the reason I like to make them is because I like looking into myself. Not at myself but in. That is a comforting thought.