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

Facebook Twitter Email

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

Facebook Twitter Email

In Consideration of 20 Somethings, Christine Hassler’s Manifesto

 

I picked up Hassler’s 20 Something Manifesto: Quarter- Lifers Speak Out about Who They Are, What They Want and How to Get It(2008) as an experiment, just to see the differences between my time in 20 Something and the experience of X and Y types. I was born a war baby, but due to my extended time as a professional student and sophomoric intellectual, I fell onto the early fringe of the Boomers. To typecast me, use Benjamin Braddock, anti-hero of The Graduate.

I’m glad to have read Hassler’s observations on the stories of young American men and women circa 2008. I wish I’d had a read like this when I was twenty or so and I wonder what Benjy Braddock would have done with it. Benjy and I were dedicated to existential drift. We had plenty of passion and we were muddled by it. I’m afraid Benjy and I were too entitled to have read a guide like Hassler’s. Looking back, especially given my shyness and lack of high school social life, I might have learned what the other kids were feeling and sensing. I was a loner and there was no program, however accurate it was, called “Friends.”

Hassler’s 20 somethings, whether they are passionate about good grades or not, know they should be. I was Beta Club in high school and placed in the Ohio physics test. No one fussed much. Dad probably figured it was an aberration. My physics teacher, passionate about mentoring his kids and pets, told me to look into engineering. I blew him off. I thought I liked English more — nothing more than that. For the most part high school bored me and I passed hours in revery walking the hillsides and riding my bike worrying about being bored and why I couldn’t fit in like the other kids. Today’s parents would knock such dreaminess out of their kids.

And I suppose that is the biggest difference between my time in 20 Something and that of the X’s and Y’s. It was the late Fifties and while I and my cohorts did think about career and success, we also took it for granted — plastics would always be out there if and when we got around to it. A job, if that’s all you wanted or even a career awaited us in the real world. I knew I’d have to face it one day, but I was in no hurry to work for the Man.

My dad pretty much let his sons figure out their own lives. In my case there was concern that I never would. I had two, squared-away brothers before me. Dad was an electrical engineer who set his goal when he was eleven in 1911. Because I was not as quick in math as he was, I felt low in his estimation. If not overly patient, Dad did help me with algebra, geometry and physics. Dad worried but did not meddle. Unlike today my parents hovered no helicopters over my activities and destiny. My stepmother stood watch to ensure that I would keep my instrument in my pants, safe from the hands of earthy farm girls. She was terrified I might find a fateful hay mow before I got to Ohio State. “The trouble with this small town,” said she, “is preoccupation with sex and babies.  — the earlier, the better.” Other than that she wanted me to play a good game of bridge, tennis and golf. When I dated a Jewish girl, her brow furrowed as it did when I spoke well of John Kenneth Galbraith and John Maynard Keynes.

At Ohio State my eyes were opened by Professor Kettler in political science who told of his stay in Buchenwald and shyly showed his prisoner number to reinforce the poignancy of his lecture. There was also Harvey Goldberg, history professor, whose lecture on the Storming of the Bastille over flowed his classroom with one-time auditors. Much to my parents druthers, the liberal arts changed me. And while I have never completely shed my Republican, Waspish heritage, a liberal streak, despite some back sliding, has only gotten wider over the years. Books and learning utterly changed my world view. Actually, they gave me one. However sophomoric I am sure I felt much more weltschmerz in the Sixties than most X’s and Y’s in their time. I did not think at all about creating wealth. Global angst was de rigueur for an aware person. What was to come in the late Sixties and Seventies sounded clarion notes notes in Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul and Mary, even The Kingston Trio.

In the late Fifties employers just wanted college graduates and they wanted them bad enough to assign an English major on-the-job, finance training. There were plenty of men in my fraternity who had clear goals to be a vet, an MD, a lawyer or to just climb on the corporate bus to success. I studied next to my big brother who was set on landscape architecture. In those times having more expectations than goals was more accepted, concerning but not critical — at least not immediately. Today, everybody from parents to educators to the afflicted person herself wants the searcher to get well quickly.

After I finished college and didn’t know what to do, I went to OCS and became a Naval officer, hoping four years on the bounding main would shape me up — perhaps make me a Navy lifer. I was game for that if it worked. In Hassler’s sampling, no one tried or even mentioned the military as a viable action. Fully half my twenties I passed in the Navy. In the service I thought I learned what I did not want to do. As time passed and after I met Myers-Briggs, I questioned that conclusion and decided that a Navy career would have been a very wise choice. I miss the sea.

When Alexandra, one of Hassler’s 20 something’s was 24, she was thinking about her “headiness” — actually she was making a frontal assault on that ruminative beach. At her age I was well into my failing marriage and leaving the Navy. Like Alexandra I indulged in analyzing, brow furrowing, and asking for too many opinions from too many people. Like her I wanted to divide myself into multiple persons, each of whom could take a test run at every pathway that appealed. In one I wanted to go back into the Navy.   In another I wsnted to go to grad school. On another road I wanted to find a decent job and make an effort at being a family man complete with mortgage and car payments. I wanted to want to be the pleaser of a woman longing for children and the picket fence — just like dear old Dad had done. As for Alexandra the potion“ of worrisome headiness caused low energy, bitterness and the urge to just give up. It fostered Mittyesque fantasies about career for me, but they were not funny like Walter’s. Like her I willed some trust in myself, left the marriage and went back to grad school. I had begun reading Henry James and totally immersing myself in books — more headiness of course, but of a different kind. I passed hours browsing bookstores. I was being the thorough introvert I knew I was and making no apologies for it. I thoroughly earned the disgust of my parents. I didn’t like the disgust, but the rebellion was good for me. Guilt mounted. Once back in classes with books, professors and inquiring minds (I fancied), I felt happiness for the first time in a long time. I let my feelings validate this act of self-trust. That was a rare moment for an INTP.

Erin, at the ripe age of 27 felt she should be doing more with her life. After nearly seven decades on the planet, I feel I should have done more with my life and have felt so for most of my life. Erin had taken her dancing talent to New York and returned vanquished. Erin was living with her parents and crying a lot. I was living in a crappy studio apartment behind an equipment rental business, driving a little Honda 55. living on cube steaks, Kraft cheese dinners, washed down with Hanley beer at 89 cents per six pack. She was crying a lot. I cried a little, made a girl friend and found myself thriving on a fancied visit to bohemia. I lit out for Czechoslovakia after Prague Spring and studied French for eight weeks in the Pyrenees.

In the Fall I started my MA. Erin experienced Hassler’s Expectation Hangover at a comparable age. I was full of expectation about my new plan to be a professor of English, but my Expectation Hangover was on the way. Erin was paying off debt and feeling like a failure on the threshold of 30, comparing herself to friends and feeling miserably full of regret. I compared myself, of course, to models nearly impossible for yours truly to emulate.  I still  waged a putative battle against materialism. It went on too long and tended to throw out the good of personal success with the bad of human greed.  Delayed adolescence was upon me in those days — a necessary passage regardless of tardy onset. I was an introverted rebel with a false cause. I only denied myself, and punished myself for God only knows what. The Red Convertible has many forms. My little Honda trail bike was red and I rode like a knight on his steed.  I had achieved delightful anonymity. But Erin and I struggled with how to end regret.

Hassler’s answer is simple. Stop it. But it’s like drinking. Regret induces a melancholy and the feeling of might have been is not far removed from might be. Regreter forgets it’s only a memory, The result is perverted hope. The habit becomes an insidious companion, a punishing, perverse demon chasing one around on a bewildering, evil and bleak landscape. Dear Regreter, run away, read a poem, whatever, but find an angel and stop it. Remember that hope was the work of a trickster god named Prometheus.

At three times the age of the current young, I am amazed that a constitutionally flaky person like myself has survived into retirement that includes a nice home in a pleasant city. How it has happened I’m not quite sure for I have functioned more on expectations than disciplined goal setting and methodical performance. Shame! Shame! Having a very good Friend upstairs has had much to do with it. I have never been a good list maker or box checker — perhaps I am impossibly thrilled by surprise.  And, Friends, it is too late to start box checking in all but modest ways.

I do, however, recommend an attentive reading of Hassler’s Expectation Hangover Treatment and Protcction Plan. It has taken me years to learn to take steps, not leaps. Reactive leaps have been my specialty. While I visited “comparison land,” my INTJ/P nature has always been driven by my own ground of being. As a result, hell and high water came unto me. I have belatedly learned to expect nothing from anyone, however.

Unfortunately I still find myself expecting others to read my mind. Bluntness, considered virtue in 2008, is not a family trait either. I’m not anxiously awaiting others to tell me I am fabulous. Deluding myself of my own fabulous nature, keeps me going. The present is the best place to live. Remind, remind, remind yourself of that. I always thought living in New England or New York would be cool. But there’s nothing like a blazing summer in Kansas and the sunsets are astonishing and too many fly over types go through life without seeing one. I could be somewhere else, but I am here and as is often said, “Someone has to live in Kansas.” Aha comes in small packages. There’s nothing like a new toothbrush.

I’ve always been a Humanities man who calls on drama, novels, poetry, philosophy, art and scripture for answers and guidance. Being Hamlet would be a bummer, I know. We’re both Pisces, though, so I have a fondness for the Prince of Denmark. For years in my effete way, I scoffed at the behavioral school and the self-help crowd. Then one day in executive training and feeling misfit as a chamber executive, I met Myers-Briggs which, of course, led me to Jung et cetera. I always go to the deep end of the pool. If I had known at twenty that I was INTP (if I even was INTP at twenty), I wonder what I might have done with the knowledge. I might have tried to be more feeling and sensing, but — most likely I’d have blown it off like the cavalier I was. But now, I’m a believer in coaching, even red-faced, passionate athletic coaching which I never experienced and wish I had. A good assessment, a coach’s ire or a comeuppance is a good thing for a person. Every time I have tried defiance, like Ahab I have met a white whale.

So I recommend Christine Hassler’s 20 Something Manifesto for young and old, foolish and wise. Besides, you’ll understand the 20 somethings better. But for getting in touch with one’s personal myth, I recommend the experience of Myers-Briggs assessment. It’s fun, revealing to say the least, and makes for great conversation.

Still — I go to poetry. When I was young I met T. S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, I determined never to be like Prufrock and then I decided that a hollow man is no person to be. Becoming a full man has been my task and a formidable one. I work at it still. In the end only God can judge relative “hollowness” in human beings. He was the Engineer after all and I’m not going to condemn the Engineer’s work.

I do know that Hassler and the self-aware 20 somethings in reaching for fullness are searching like the poet into the shadow that falls between motion and act. The shadow is deep, dense and deep teal in color and requires a lifetime of shedding light underwater. As long as a person wants her life to be meaningful, there will always be expectation hangover. These hangovers occur on either side of optimism in the lands of panic and fear, on a tour of personal progress the tour begins in either land. Age and experience may decrease the hangover’s intensity and duration but, O Youth, if you are sentient, expectation hangovers never go away — if you drink life. Eventually they become solitary, post-disappointment debriefings, i.e. talking to one’s self. When they disappear completely, you won’t be here anymore.

“I move that . . . “ is only a procedural gesture, a notion or dangling idea looking for support and wherewithal. Between mere gesture and performance lies will and willfulness and intense focus. And then comes accomplishment. Making something happen marks the victory. I understand the sea tortoise is quite fast underwater and the closer he swims to the top, the more light he finds until  — POW! — he bursts through, and cracks the surface into light and air.  He gulps and dives deep again; hangovers, yes, but eventually some celebration.

Steadfast and cautious,

 

The Tortoise

 

 

 

 

 

 

Facebook Twitter Email

Being and Becoming

Now this subject can become deep and/or hairy, but I’m not going that far. I’ve read my Sartre who knew about being and nothingness.  Camus was a popular, celebrated Algerian Existentialist, writer and playwright.  I could grasp Camus at least and I thought it would be cool to be like him, but then I was only a college sophomore at the time and thought it would be groovy to be a French poet, too.  Sophomores are invincible. Camus’ The Stranger remains high on my list of the greatest books ever written.  Albert Camus died in an auto crash. That didn’t seem so cool.

I am only a tortoise and like all animals, The Tortoise knows that she is what she is. We’re like trees in that sense.  There’s a final form into which we grow, have our being and then depart — well, not really.  Being organic, we ultimately contribute to the next round of  being, be it animal or vegetable.  We’re all content with that, we Chelonians — probably because we do not know discontent.  In a way we do.  We just can’t utter a  word on the feeling.

But you Homo Sapiens, you do have your burdens. You’re saddled with intellect, knowledge, hopefully wisdom, hope, expectation, drive, folly et cetera. If you’re Camus you believe in human solidarity and you act like it.  There’s no escape from action. A Camusian must choose to act and suicide is not one of the choices. Like my species you and Camus need food and shelter, but you also need skivvies, bras, tuxedoes, uniforms, et cetera. For some of you these things must be fashionable and alluring, not just serviceable. You get my drift.  I needn’t go on.

Some want to be something else, hence the absurdity of  my being a French poet.  A tortoise cannot become a gazelle, however much she longs for grace and swiftness.  You’re supposed to learn this stuff in fables and fairy tales.  The point is that Broderick Crawford couldn’t have won a handsome contest over Tab Hunter.  Younger folks won’t get that.  It’s the beauty and beast thing. Broderick Crawford was a fine man and played a great highway patrolman.  Now, there’s a way humans can salve their discontent.  You can act, well, some are better than others.

You know what I think?  I think you’re all growing into some final form that’s programmed in your eggs as altered by your sperm.  You’re not going to be strong as an oak, well, except as a metaphor.  So you’re not so different or superior to a tortoise.  Someday each of you will look back, see your career and say “Aw nuts!” or “Not so bad, considering.”

Anyway, I have to go. I promised the wife a long ride in the old Studebaker.

The Tortoise

 

Facebook Twitter Email