Camus, a Romance: Review of Elizabeth Hawes’ Memoir-Biograhy

Hawes concludes her work by saying that through the nine years she passed researching the life of Albert Camus, she felt she had become the friend of a man she never met.  I make no such claim because my knowledge of Camus is minute compared to that of Hawes.  And unlike Hawes, I have not haunted his paths in Paris and Algeria. I have not drunk where he drank nor sat where he surveyed the sea; let alone met his son and daughter. I have not sat in the gravel near his grave. Yet I have felt a peculiar affinity to Camus.  He simply comes to me frequently as an acquaintance whom I would make my friend, too. I have re-read The Stranger several times since I was alone at Meursault’s  age myself.

When I learn from Hawes that Camus drew upon his experience of Melville, again a writer whom I have enjoyed,  I begin to feel a certain circle of influence pressing on me.  The circle widens when I read that Camus had sensitivities for Keats, but then what reader with a heartbeat does not.  In the questions for discussion of Hawes book the editors suggest thinking about Keats’ concept of Negative Capability and again I feel more and more among friends.  Of course, Camus, a fellow tubercular would have been a reader of Keats. In his way Camus is a Romantic, too.

What is harder for me personally to understand is how I, a son of Appalachia and basically the product of upper middle- class, Midwestern influences have been influenced by, I must say it, “existentialist” literature. On the other hand, questions of existence were around long before the bohemian fad.  Camus himself rejected this term and “absurd” as well; therefore I will, too.  I am content with Keats’ preference for a literature that simple does not seek “irritable reaching after fact and fiction” or philosophical labels. That absolves me also from my own attraction to things French.  I have no mitigation nor apology for my respect for la civilisation française.

I suspect that my Francophilia also contributes to my enjoyment of Camus, a Romance (Grove Press, 2009). Hawes is an extraordinary Francophile whose love affair with Camus began as a coed when she pinned a poster of him on her wall in college.  She admits to being a “fan,” but her dedication to and discipline in the biographer’s art impresses me immensely.  Sustaining a professional point of view was paramount and she succeeded. Indeed, her sharing of the memoirist and biographic process makes the book even more interesting.  I passed weeks savoring it as I also tried to empathize with Albert Camus who had never been much more to me than “the stranger.”  And yet, even at the end of his life, he was still a stranger in the world — especially among Parisian intellectuals.  Sartre and others broke his heart over their criticism of The Rebel .  The controversy became virulently personal.  Camus mended, of course, but the scar remained.  Camus condemned capital punishment, terrorism and violence.  His cause for a French Algeria died, as one might say an Algeria died, too.

I was looking for signs of happiness in a so-called “philosopher of despair.”  Hawes found it in his devotion to his sense of responsibility, the most important thing to know about Camus,  she says; and after that his sense for fun.  Hawes chronicles the latter in the man’s love for his women, dogs, friends, Citroëns, the sun and the beach.   Catherine Camus, his daughter, trying to express the intangible in her father,  said of him, “It’s that one feels solidarity in a situation of happiness.” This would account for his passion for the theatre.  And Camus himself said, “But what is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads?”

His Nobel Prize actually became a burden that required nearly two years of adjustment.  At the end of it, not long before the fatal car accident, he said, “Absence, painful frustration.  But my heart is alive,  my heart is finally alive.  So it was not true that indifference had overcome everything.” In Hawes’ words Camus believed ” it was a duty to be happy [and] not to give in to inevitability, whatever face it took.  Sisyphus speaks here: “There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night.”

I will let a photo gallery speak. And you can also visit “Albert Camus Quotations” to your right and down on the Blogroll.

For me,  having read Hawes’ biography, Camus stands even bigger in life.  He was a devout humanist above all.  As for what he does for me, Camus epitomizes what he thought Europe has to offer America — “a useful sense of disquiet.”  In our current relapse into dysfunctional adolescence in the world, American behavior is absurd and a dose of Camus’ conviction taken to heart could do us much good.  He has never been more relevant.

David Milliken

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Good Living Demands a Both a Good Woman and Good Bike Shop

As in life some people change tires because they are preventive types who follow regular maintenance schedules or because they note tread wear and decide to bite the bullet and to buy new tires and tubes, but not so in my case. I was eking the last millimeter of wear possible from my tires — false economy at best. I did notice that the tire was a little spongier than usual before I cycled last Saturday; nevertheless  I pumped up the tubes to eighty PSI and mounted up.  Joyfully I shoved off, but alas, halfway down the trail, I heard  “Pfft”  and steering turned sluggish and ultimately lumpy. On the rim I was — thanks to a sharp, penetrating stone, I think. A senior should be much more aware of tread wear in life.

I had a little repair kit containing useless dried up rubber cement. A man should always check his rubber cement before taking risks. My wife was at home and lying in the sun.  It had been years since I’d had a flat and needed her to rescue me, yet she was not mollified.  After a frustrating search for me requiring the aid of a clerk at Seven Eleven, she finally found me sitting on a rock playing with my repair kit.  See how our little negligent indulgences  impinge on the lives of others?

I’m blessed with good woman, though.  The next day, when I was taking a break from cutting grass, she said, “Hey, why don’t you go get what you need to fix your bike.  You need to ride tomorrow.”  So I left the mowing to her.  I do not deserve this woman.

I went to the bike shop which like bookstores and nurseries always have the nicest people to assist. We fussed around and found the right tire size.  I bought two tires and a tube.  The nice people at Trek gave me five bucks off the tire that had been marked up.  While they searched I watched the female twenty something hefting bikes up and down from the repair rack and wielding her tools deftly.  Thinking of things unisex these days, I marveled at how boys and girls work together in such equality and I wanted to be one of them in this new age.  Are there any sissies anymore, male or female, gay or straight? At least in the bicycle shop everyone had muscle tone.

But I went home, took a nap, opened a beer and set about changing tires.  I always worry about getting the chain back correctly on the cassette (or mass of gears on the rear hub).  This time I took note of the sprocket last used.  I suspect this was unnecessary as I believe chain and sprocket find each other like lovers.

The philosophical element here is  making sure that one’s tread design hits the road effectively in the advancing direction of life.  One must remember always to find the little arrow marked “Forward Direction >>.”  It is difficult to pick out from all the other information such as  brand name, tire dimension, inflation pressure and a bunch of other numbers on either side of the tire and understood best by Bontrager and the folks at the bike shop. Experience with tractor tires, believe me,  has inestimable value here. When the tread has a v-shape, the single, convergent point must dig into the earth for maximum traction. A man has to attack life with the tip of the arrow, not the feathers.

Then one must remember that the clamping lever on the hubs goes on the left side of the bike.  In the end one notes that a successfully mounted tire also has the brand name on the right side.  It all fits and matches when fitted right.  As in life it helps to know port from starboard.  And like life, inflation is crucial.  I mean how much air we blow into the tube or skin of life matters:  enough, just enough, too much?  You can’t just count on the same pressure you put into the old tires.  The secret lies in all those variable dimensions which determine the surface area of the inflated tire. Even here leverage matters — pounds per square inch.  In this case sixty PSI did what it took eighty PSI to do on my last set of tires and tubes.  It’s a matter of time, design and change.  One must adapt to his pressures, internal and external.

In the end I did as good a job as anyone at the bike shop.  The tires held firm and I joyfully cycled my whole route the next day.  My wife got her sun bath, too. With a little more care and foresight, I’d have had an additional fifteen or so miles on the trail that weekend and a tanner spouse.

David Milliken

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The Tortoise and the Writer, a Fable (Corrected and Revised1/4/12)

Just around noon a tortoise and a writer met along a creek bordering a meadow.  The tortoise had felt the writer’s presence from the vibrations of heavy foot steps.  The tortoise, hidden as well as possible near rocks and bushes, quickly pulled his tail and legs into his shell and his head, too;  except that he left just enough of a gap to spy on the intruder. He noticed when the writer caught sight of him, slowed his pace and quickly acted as though he hadn’t seen the tortoise. Then the human sat on a rock, pretending to ignore the tortoise.  He began unwrapping a sandwich and opened his water bottle.   Tortoise watched, waited and determined the vibrations to be friendly.  Slowly his head, limbs and tail emerged.

“What are you eating?” said the tortoise.

“Goose liver.”

“Good, one of my forebears had a bad experience with  flying geese, you know.”

“So I’ve heard,” said the writer. ” The geese dropped him mid-air.  Splat.”

“Not very sensitive on your part, but yes, he died.  But you got the story wrong.”

“No, I know the story.  The tortoise should have kept his mouth shut even though the humans jeered and mocked him. It wasn’t the geese’s fault. The tortoise couldn’t take the ridicule. Everyone knows that.”

“He was angry, just trying to save some pride.  We have as much right to pride as any human. ”

“Why bother? There’s nothing wrong with a little humility.  It just is.  Humbling passes and besides, humility can be the start of new experience if you apply a little effort. You have to do something with humility. Humility comes before meaning.”

“That sandwich smells good.”

“You’re an herbivore.”

“You’re misinformed. Who are you anyway?”

“I’m a writer, an absurdist.”

“What does that mean?”

” An absurdist doesn’t believe life has any inherent meaning.”

“So?”

“I mean that life has no essential meaning.”

“I don’t understand you. I can’t ask such a question, let alone answer it,” responded the tortoise.  I just eat, poop, pee and procreate. I bask in sun and rain alike.  Oh, I hold on to life for dear life, but I know there’s an end.  I’ve seen tortoises die —  sad vibes when life is over,  like one day the light never comes.  In the meantime I enjoy a warm flat rock in the sun. I fight for as much of these things  as I can.”

“What do you do for meaning, Tortoise?”

“I can’t do for meaning, don’t you see.  I do for doing. I’ve tried to tell you that. I like pleasant scenes,  especially in the meadow, but that’s a risky trip to the meadow.  I go anyway.  I’m cautious in the meadow — and watchful. Good vibes give me pleasure.  Simple stuff satisfies me, but you’d have trouble sharing my vibes.  Vibes are tough to communicate to a human. We could rub each other’s neck, I suppose.”

“Maybe later.”

“I have good vibes right now — about you I mean.  Put your finger just below my head.”

“Well, okay.”  The writer put his fingers on Tortoise’s neck.  “Hmmm,  hmmmmmmmmmm!  Feels good.  I can’t get any meaning from it.”

“Isn’t feeling good enough,”  said Tortoise.  What’s this “meaning?” You got pleasure, didn’t you? I like to be stroked by a human. That’s the best I can do for you, but I don’t want to go home with you and be your pet. I like being a wild tortoise.  You’d know if I sensed you were bad, believe me.  I don’t get bad vibes from you.”

“Meaning?”

“Get off it. Bad vibes make me uncomfortable, wary, defensive.  Worse case, bad vibes would tell me if you were more interested in turning me into soup than enjoying my company.  I can be a companion, not like a dog, but I can be your friend.”

“Just pulling into your shell wouldn’t stop me from killing you.”

“Sure, you’re the dominant dude in these parts. . . Yikes! There’s more humans headed this way from up the path. I’m not getting good vibes at all.  Excuse me,  my friend,  while I sljp this mobile home into the brush here.  Keep those folks busy, okay?”  Whereupon the tortoise crawled back into  the brush. The writer rose and walked toward the strangers.

He noticed that the men  carried fish nets, clubs, fishing poles and tackle boxes. Their eyes scanned the water and creek bank.  One of them waved at him.  Quickly the writer emerged from the brush and faked fiddling with his fly and said,”Hi, men, caught me in the act of nature.  What are ya fishin’ for.”

“Catfish here in the stream and snappin’ turtles if we can find ’em.”

“Not a fisherman myself.”  He glanced carefully back at the bushes while he closed his zipper and noticed the dark, brownish rump of the tortoise mostly concealed in the bush and was amazed at how much like a rock he looked.  He walked closer to the fishers knowing they’d love to club a large tortoise.  Without being obvious he tried to obstruct their view of the tortoise posing as a rock behind him. After more pleasantries the fishers moved on.  The writer walked the opposite direction up the path, long enough for the men to disappear; and then he  returned to the tortoise.  He was still tucked inside his shell. He spoke to the tortoise, but heard no reply, nor did he come out of his shell.

For some time, perhaps an hour, the writer waited, speaking occasionally to the inert lump before him. He sat on the tortoise and felt the same vibrations as when he’d stroked his neck, only more intensely.  He thought long and deep about this accidental  event in his life.

The writer struggled in his head for the meaning of what had happened.  The vibrations from Tortoise, like a purring cat told him he was quite content. In the end the writer decided that the only meaning he could bring to this happening was the pleasure of fooling  men with  nets and clubs.  Acting to help a threatened, humble creature can be a good adventure.

David Milliken

 

 

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Email: david@thetortoisefactor.com

 

 

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“Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure” — Recommended Book

According to David Brooks (New York Time, 8/12/11), author Tim Harford’s basic lesson is that “you have to design your life to make effective use of failures. You have to design systems of trial and error . . . ”  I haven’t read it yet but the book appears to be a Tortoise kind of thing.  Anyway, I’m going to check it out. Brooks full review is at NYT (6/13/11).

 

 

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A Citizen’s Prayer for the United States of America

Dear God,

These are trying times for all your children across the world, dear God. I thank you for both the blessings and burdens of global leadership given to the United States of America. May we be worthy of your Grace and Trust.  Please touch the hearts and minds of our elected Representatives of the People and Senators of the Republic. Make them mindful that in our democratic republic there must be liberty, freedom and feasible fairness for good times and bad; that our democratic republic must rest on tempered capitalism; that  vices and virtues abound in every economic system; that taken alone neither capitalism or progressivism are  wholly or purely good; that both have negative effects;; that properly understood and tempered neither of them is inherently fatal. The two approaches offer  strong therapies requiring changing blends adjusted to the ailments  according to time, place and severity.    God, banish unfounded fears from our spirits.

Teach our elected officials to suspend pre-occupation with re-election and self-aggrandizement long enough to act solely in the public interest based on the results of facts, judgment, good sense and responsible argument — civil argument.   Make them understand that the poet was right when he spoke of the shadow that falls between the motion and the act; and that the People are exhausted from endless groping in the shadows.  Keep us all from selfishness and greed. Bless the common wealth.  Help the People and its publics to understand their own excesses — even the need for strong medicine now and then. Make as anathema to all the use of viciousness that only encourages more viciousness. When decisions are made they are made for a time. Political parties deserve their term of sway, but public elections are the means of changing the dominance of any philosophy. Simple majorities of three to five per cent are not mandates. Right order of redress and reconsideration must be respected.  Dear God, we cannot thrive in a state of constant turmoil.

Make us all  understand that the trinity of Faith, Hope and Charity has its place in our society and its government.

In your name we ask these things, Dear God. Amen.

Steadfast and Cautious,

D. “Tortoise” Taylor

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Democratic and Republican Attitudes

 

Perhaps the reason there’s so little  comity in Congress stems from the basic similarity of Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee. Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee share only a need for re-election. The problem is that we really have a Congressional stew of governmentalists, libertarians, social democrats, tories, whigs, independents and know-nothings — strains we’ve had since the Founding.   We probably need a total re-alignment, if it were not for the fact that we need moderate Democrats to counsel the ultra-left.  And there are no moderate Republicans.  Everyone is  trying to make a two-party process work because we can’t have a six party system.  Because we’d never get a majority. pretend we have two. And everyone,  for the American people which is also equally splintered, emains that Democrats  and Republicans dabble in each other’s territory.  (Where are you Nelson Rockefeller when we need you?  We could sure use a little Clintonesque triangulation, you know?) Everyone is compromised despite his or her dogma. No one is purely anything except scared as hell of a second  Great Depression.

There may be value in looking at the seemingly simple to understand or remind ourselves what the two national parties represent.  Ostensibly the GOP represents the forces of free market capitalism, though the Republicans frequently compromise “free market.”  They have no problem profiting from huge government contracts, especially military — nor do Democrats.  Neither camp has a problem with stable, conservative investment havens  in public utilities.  There have been few better uses of public capital than turnpikes and the inter-state highway system.  It was a win-win for everyone except the small towns that died.   Most likely an infrastructure bill will be the next bogeyman for partisan bashing.

In capitalism jobs and workers are  instrumentalities.  Good, solid productive  jobs take time.  This is a real burden for Republican candidates. Jobs develop after land, capital, product/service and market are “firmed up.”  Certainly, Republicans are human beings with families to support; it’s just that slow development doesn’t sell well to voters.  That’s why “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs!” sounds odd on Republican lips.  They would more sincerely chant “Profit, Profit, Profit!” because that’s the nature of capitalism.  Jobs will come in time — or not.

Many small enterprises never get to the point of hiring help because profit never materializes; again, a fact.  Enterprises frequently die first.  So, we should never ever forget that net gain and profit must come first in business. Always. It’s a law.   Period.  Being passionate about business makes a business person seem “cold” and “calculating.” Must likely it’s only worry and caution because some entrepreneur has hocked his house. Hence, the Republican Party must thrive in the same culture.  It’s hard to hurry up and build a factory for jobs needed yesterday.  It’s impossible to be honest with the electorate about business realities.  Hard to talk this way in public.

Many Democrats are capitalists, too.  Democrats can make a profit.  So can a Frenchman or a Swede. Democrats are far more inclined to see the economic role of wage and salary earners be they public or private.  Democrats have a weakness for soft jobs, often  grant-based ones that die.  Good teachers are productive, but not in a way that appeals to capitalists. Artists are even more marginal — until they make a bundle on a best seller. Teachers and artists are absolutely essential as are doctors, lawyers, dentists, pharmacists and hardware store owners.  For some capitalists, teachers teach because they cannot “do” anything else.

Salaried folks and wage earners are mere necessities — essentially costs — which fall victim to the economic cycles. Ask any contract engineer.   That’s why on occasion, however not recently, the stock market goes up when unemployment rises.  Up to a point unemployment reduces costs and drives higher profits. In the same way business will employ a machine in preference to a human being. (As latter day Luddite, I am dedicated to never using the self-check out.) Businesses  will also go off shore. It’s a business law.

Perhaps this focus also drives Republican politicians who receive their pay and health insurance from tax revenue.  They play the role assigned, but it must seem a little hypocritical to the more empathetic among them.  In the end, even for them, government is a good employer.  They forget that economics looms far larger than business alone.  The worst of them, the anti-government faction, will never understand that government and education cannot be businesses.  Only a part of education and government can be a business.  It’s a law.  Whatever shall we do?  Admit all this and reason together? Yeah, right.

 

Non-partisanship really should come  easily since the business ethic has triumphed in America — perhaps even in the whole world.  Everyone must be a marketer or die. Global capitalism is alive, just ailing a little.

David Milliken

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Wanted: Convicted Moderates to Stop the Anarchy

What rough beast slouches toward Washington?  Pundits, politicians and citizens have their own opinions; but I cannot believe that anyone doubts, as the poet Yeats writes, that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Only the radical, right fringe is convicted. They alone are willing at all cost to see their dogma realized, step by ugly step. Sweet reason has gone begging. Again in the poet’s words, “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

No one voted with passion.  Aye votes were painstakingly drawn from those at the least risk of losing votes back home. Others waited for a comfortable plurality to hide beneath — voting as late as possible and hoping for forgiveness back in Peoria. Many voted  “necessarily” to stop the madness — hardly the stuff of true belief. The liberal left cast its inconsequential votes, but partly to  prevent default.  The ultra-right and  the ultra-left made strange bedmates. It remains to be seen whether or not we have squashed the tyranny of  minority views, Tocqueville’s greatest fear for the survival of the republic. Effectively we got a taste of multi-party politics in the form of factionalism.

Now, the rough beast will come in the form of the Committee of Twelve, carefully stacked to continue the same polarization, six to six, between democratic socialists and libertarians. It’s beginning to look so much like European history that I wonder when the fascists will appear — fascism being the triumph of the military industrial complex, i.e. money and might. In the meantime deadlock will occur and the triggers will be pulled and we will be off again into the madness, trying to correct not having dealt with the Simpson-Bowles Commission Report. Simpson-Bowles was our last shot at reasonable tough love and sweet reason.

The poet’s wisdom must be heard. Yeats’ “Second Coming” should be required homework for Americans. Things have fallen apart. The center has not held. The 2012 election must bring victory for  a new center — a center that can hold. Nothing is more important now than convicted moderates in large numbers.

Steadfast and cautious,

 

D. “Tortoise” Taylor

 

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

THE SECOND COMING

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

 

 

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