Sunday, March 30, 2014

Albert Camus, Elegaic Swansong

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Many years ago I picked up a collection of essays Albert Camus (1913-1960) had published in 1954 under the title L'Été (Summer).  All are good and worth reading, but the only ones that really grabbed me by the nous were two:  Retour à Tipasa (Return to Tipasa), recounting his reminiscences on visiting the ruins of Tipasa in his homeland, French Algeria in "White Africa" (l'Afrique Blanche)—i.e., in one of the parts of Africa which the white West had taken great pains, labor and love (though not always optimal intelligence) to try to help and heal from the ravages of Islamic conquest and occupation and from innate cultural backwardness—and  La mer au plus près (The Sea Up Close).

It was this latter one that struck me at the time as an extraordinary meditation.  On rereading it recently, it still strikes me that way.  Much of the essay seems to transition unexpectedly yet organically into a rambling prose-poem tenuously connected to its theme—whatever that theme is supposed to be, exactly; and one long moment past midway seems to lurch into a strange rant about his aversion to the new global transportation of his era, the jet plane.  Even in this unexpected digression, Camus treats the reader to an evocation oddly and acutely apt as he seems to recount perhaps a prior trip by air (over the South American continent) as a barbaric contrast to his divine transport in the ongoing present asea of his narrative:

... aux fleuves noirs du Venezuela, atterrissait, hurlait encore, tremblait de convoitise devant de nouveaux espaces vides à dévorer et avec tout cela ne cessait jamais de ne pas avancer ou du moins de ne le faire qu'avec une lenteur convulsée, obstinée, une énergie hagarde et fixe, intoxiquée. Je mourais alors dans ma cellule métallique, je rêvais de carnages, d'orgies. Sans espace, point d'innocence ni de liberté ! La prison pour qui ne peut respirer est mort ou folie ; qu'y faire sinon tuer et posséder ? Aujourd'hui, au contraire, je suis gorgé de souffles, toutes nos ailes claquent dans l'air bleu, je vais crier de vitesse, nous jetons à l'eau nos sextants et nos boussoles.

"... over the black rivers of Venezuela, the plane terrorizes the terrain, relentlessly hurling through the air, trembles in avarice, determined, gripped with a haggard and obsessive energy, intoxicated.  I died then in my little metallic cell in the air, dreaming of carnages, of orgies.  No space, no innocence, nor freedom!  A prison where you can't breathe is death or folly; what can be done there except to kill and seize?  But today, on the contrary, I am suffused with breezes, all our wings flap in the blue air, where I cry out with life, and so let us jettison our sextants and compasses to the waves."

Between the lines there, and in keeping with the rest of this marvel of a tale that may or may not be a report, one is permitted the license to venture, and to say he refers to the contrast between the rigidly lifeless directionality of the plane, which tries to master the earth, on the one hand, and the wide open compasslessness of the sea conducive, alternately rocking gently and careening dangerously, to that deeper destination, the famous "circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere".

And speaking of rocking and rolling amidship, and the apposition of sea and sky, Camus at one point executes a wonderful reversal of orientation one could say channels Archimedes and Copernicus, by way of Nicolas of Cusa, when he describes one night on the open sea:

La curieuse lune australe, un peu rognée, nous accompagne plusieurs nuits, puis glisse rapidement du ciel jusque dans l'eau qui l'avale. Il reste la croix du sud, les étoiles rares, l'air poreux. Au même moment, le vent tombe tout à fait. Le ciel roule et tangue au-dessus de nos mâts immobiles. Moteur coupé, voilure en panne, nous sifflons dans la nuit chaude pendant que l'eau cogne amicalement nos flancs...

"The curious southern moon, somewhat waning, follows us many nights, then glides swiftly from the heaven down to the water which swallows it, leaving the Southern Cross, the rarified stars, the porous air.  At that moment, the wind died down suddenly.  The sky tipped and rolled above our immobile masts.  The motor cut, the sails spread out, we respired the humid night while the waters lapped our sides amicably..."

From there, as the reader tries to relax into the unaccustomed rhythms of the text, it dawns on him that one has to settle in for the trip:  a deeper exploration and broader sublimation of matters more philosophical, mythopoetic and, ultimately, mystical.

The ostensible theme is some kind of sea voyage, apparently global, with some sort of lodestone centered in South America.  One almost gets the sense of a periplus from ocean to ocean—from the Pacific to the Atlantic (or is it the other way around?), with the Americas just a stop along the way, and no real earthly destination.  Nor does the journey begin anywhere discernible; though elusive mention is made of the ancient mariner's bourn of Gibraltar:

Nous passons les portes d'Hercule, la pointe où mourut Antée. Au delà, l'Océan est partout...

"Let us pass the Pillars of Hercules, the spot where Antaeus died.  Beyond that, the ocean is everywhere..."

But the sentence immediately debouches and flows out to a vastly indeterminate (and lovely) ocean of figuration clearly indicating that Camus is waxing on a different plane than the one the customary prosaic essayist may prepare his reader for:

... nous doublons d'un seul bord Horn et Bonne Espérance, les méridiens épousent les latitudes, le Pacifique boit l'Atlantique. Aussitôt le cap sur Vancouver, nous fonçons lentement vers les mers du Sud. À quelques encablures, Pâques, la Désolation et les Hébrides défilent en convoi devant nous. 

"... let us round in a single bound Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope, the meridians push back the latitudes, the Pacific swallows the Atlantic.  Suddenly, there's the cape of Vancouver, and now let us sink down slowly to the waters of the South.  After some nautical miles, the Eastern Islands, the Desolation of the Hebrides unravel in a series before us."

In a way, the reader almost feels as though it begins in the middle—precisely the point, as Dante's amazing journey to Hell and Heaven in order to gain better bearings of his place on Earth, began in the middle of his life, in the middle of a wild wood.  And, as philosopher Eric Voegelin reminded us, writing at the end of his life in his last work (published posthumously, and much of it dictated from his deathbed), In Search of Order, chapter one, "The Beginning of the Beginning", part one ("Where Does the Beginning Begin?"):

... the story has no beginning before it has come to its end.  What then comes first: the beginning or the end?

Neither the end nor the beginning comes first.

And yet, as T.S. Eliot wrote in his poem Four Quartets:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.


. . .

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.


As the circumnavigation Camus is recounting—strangely, elliptically, with flashes and splashes of vividly evocative yet elusive poetry—draws to its narrative close, it seems he has crossed the Atlantic eastward, apparently back to where he started from, the Gibraltar Straits where the great Hercules wrested and bested the giant Antaeus, the mouth of the Mother of all Seas, the Mediterranean, raped and despoiled by centuries of Islamic raids, conquests, and piracy, the mouth or motherly opening whence he first began his journey out to the wide world.

Earlier I noted that this Camusian voyage had "no earthly destination", and one may almost mean that literally, in that the deeper destination, or destiny, he is sounding here is not earth, but the sea itself, whose mystical quality he rhapsodizes in terms mythic and, as an open-minded atheist, open to the divine as translucently maritime.

Voegelin had great respect for Camus, and noted from a study of his journal or notebooks—the Carnets—that Camus was blessed with what Henri Bergson called l'âme ouverte (i.e., an open mind), enough to see theophanies in the sea, the sky, and sun, particularly of his homeland (or homesea), the Mediterranean.  Underpinning this was a predisposition moving Camus to something beyond the limitations imposed by both the theism and the atheism of the 20th century.  In his collection of essays titled Anamnesis, Voegelin wrote of Camus and his recovery of reality amid the deformity of modernity:

The "madness" of the time is no home for man; he must choose the home in which he, living, will again create a home in time.  Camus chooses the myth: "The world where I feel most at ease: the Greek myth."

Voegelin goes on at length to palpate the significance of this:

The vision of healing: Rebellion has attained its meridian of thought men refuse to be gods and thus relinquish the unlimited power to inflict death. The new rule of ethics, the sole “original rule of life today”: “to learn to live and to die and, in order to be a man, to refuse to be a god.” 

In other words, the murder of God, the preoccupation of the European intellectual from the Marquis de Sade to Hegel and Nietzsche, and which logically led to the murder of man, is reversed. 

A contemporary note in the Carnets makes clear that Camus’s self-analysis had already gone beyond the formulations of The Rebel: “Not morality but fulfillment. And there is no fulfillment other than that of love, meaning the renunciation of self and dying to the world. Going on to the end. Disappear. To dissolve oneself in love. It will be the power of love which then creates, rather than myself. To lose oneself. To dismember oneself. To deny oneself in the fulfillment and the passion of truth.” 

It seems to have been more difficult, although understandable for everyone who knows the milieu of intellectual terror, to have courage for the theoretical consequences of the new insight from love. I quote a touching remark from The Rebel: 

“The analysis of rebellion leads at least to a suspicion that there is a human nature, as the Greeks thought, and contrary to the postulates of modern thought.” 

If one does not take “human nature” in this sentence to mean that kind of information that textbooks on philosophy always offer, but rather take it to mean active life, ordered by the loving tension of existence to the divine ground, in which tension the autonomous self dissolves itself, one would not miss the direction of the progressus. It is remarkable how young people understand Camus, taking him as model and guide in the analysis of existence that today is the burden of everybody who, resisting the time, seeks to regain his reality as man. At more than one American university, I could observe that the imitation of Camus’s meditation has become, for numerous students, the method of catharsis. In this way they rid themselves of the intellectual pressure of either the leftist ideologues or the neo-Thomists or existentialist theologians, according to their respective milieu. The great effect of Camus’s work seems to stem from his inexorability in the endeavor for purity as he divests himself of ersatz realities.

The sea in this meditation Camus wrote seemed to offer a mercy beyond the limits of this world, yet fully of this world—a tension Voegelin would not disapprove of:

L'espace et le silence pèsent d'un seul poids sur le coeur. Un brusque amour, une grande oeuvre, un acte décisif, une pensée qui transfigure, à certains moments donnent la même intolérable anxiété, doublée d'un attrait irrésistible. Délicieuse angoisse d'être, proximité exquise d'un danger dont nous ne connaissons pas le nom, vivre, alors, est-ce courir à sa perte? À nouveau, sans répit, courons à notre perte.

"The space and silence press with one weight upon the heart. A harsh love, a great labor, a decisive act, a thought which transfigures, at certain moments evoke the same unbearable anxiety, bound up with an irresistible attraction. Delicious anguish of being, exquisite danger up close whose name we do not know, to live, then, is this to run to our ruin?  Anew, without hesitation, let us run to our ruin."

But this home was no fixed home on land; the Ground of Being is not the matter of natural terra firma, nor the patria of a political homeland—though the nostalgic memory of his childhood Algeria, in the ruins of Tipasa where he heard the ghosts of the ancients the night he revisited them later in life, may be a beacon indicating the way to a higher, deeper allegiance beyond this world. This home was out on the deep, where in the uncertain fluidity of the swells and tides, Camus had the epiphany of a kind of transcendent security amid no certain solidity... where his openness to the gods of myth, through the experience and symbolization of the theophanic presence in oceanic being, led him to a place of confluence between the pagan Socratic "practice of dying" (Plato's definition of philosophy) and the transcendent Life through death in the Basileia that is not of this world (Jesus).

Whether or not Camus explicitly knew how early Graeco-Roman Christians in the Patristic era typologized Christ's saving crucifixion as a kind of Homer's Odysseus tied to the crossbeams of his ship's mast as he weathered one end of the Middle Sea to the other, Mediator between Greek and Roman, then Roman and Christian; he knew this in a deeper sense, and enacted it in this essay.

Whose last sentence sings an elegaic swansong that may take some of the bitter sting out of his untimely death in a speeding sports car in 1960, to render it bittersweet and tangy with saltspray:

J'ai toujours eu l'impression de vivre en haute mer, menacé, au coeur d'un bonheur royal.

"I have always had the sense of living on the high seas, menaced, yet at the heart of a royal blessedness."

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