Tag Archives: Albert Camus

Freedom – The End of the Human Condition

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Freedom – The End of the Human Condition
By Jeremy Griffith
WTM Publishing – £15.99

Kick the darkness till it bleeds daylight.
                                        Bono

Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined.
                                        Albert Camus (The Myth of Sisypus).

Knowledge requires great daring.
                                        Nikolai Berdyaev (The Destiny of Man).

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty!… in action how like an angel! In a apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me.
                                        William Shakespeare (Hamlet)

I haven’t attended that many book launches of late, but I was invited to attend the launch of Freedom – The End of the Human Condition by Jeremy Griffith at the National Geographic Society in London. And what a gathering of people it turned out to be.

Apart from the most humble attendance of the author, Griffith himself, Sir Bob Geldof was asked to give the opening talk, which, if nothing else, was both eloquent and exceptional.

Not to mention punctuated with a menagerie of home-grown truths.

So, nothing new there then – for as is probably well known, Geldof, along with the luminary likes of Sir Peter Ustinov and Peter O’Toole, has always been something of a truly terrific orator. Hence, the whole affair having been filmed by WTM.

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So, the book itself.

According to Dr Ronald Strahan, who is the former director of Sydney’s Taronga Park Zoo: ”I consider the book to be the work of a prophet and I expect the author to become recognised as a saint,” while Ian Frazier, author of the bestselling Great Plains and Travels in Siberia, has stated: ”questions of the size you raise tend to stagger me (as they do most people) into silence… What you’re doing is admirable.”

Indeed, the work Jeremy Griffith has undertaken for many, many years, and is continuing to investigate, is undoubtedly admirable. Enviable even. Enviable, because of the blatant honest conviction with which he pursues his most analytical of work(s) and writing(s). The dense and most admirable manifestation of which is surely, clearly, a labour of (philosophical) love.

For who else would have the brazen temerity to write: ”The fundamental goal of the whole human journey of conscious thought and enquiry has been to find the reconciling, redeeming and rehabilitating explanation of our species’ troubled condition, so to reject it when it arrives is madness of the highest order!”

Or lest it be said, quote the aforementioned Nikolai Berdyaev: ”Knowledge requires great daring. It means victory over ancient, primeval terror… it must also be said of knowledge that it is bitter, and there is no escaping that bitterness… Particularly bitter is moral knowledge, the knowledge of good and evil. But the bitterness is due to the fallen state of the world… There is a deadly pain in the very distinction of good and evil, of the valuable and the worthless” (The Destiny of Man).

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Moreover, it might be said that these 787 pages will invariably (only) appeal to the converted. To the curious. To those who fundamentally care, and dare I say it, those who have read a few books. And just one of the reasons I mention this, is because everyone from Moses to Plato to Kierkegaard to Camus to J D Salinger to George Bernard Shaw to     T. S. Eliot is herein quoted and somehow mentioned.

Now in and of itself, this could be construed as being literally, theologically as well as sociologically k-a-l-e-i-d-o-s-c-o-p-i-c in scope – which admittedly, is absolutely fair enough. After all, a similar assessment could just as readily be applied to every argument. Every book.

In fact, the same could just as easily be said for nigh everything that’s ever said. Ever shared. Ever written. BUT (and here’s the deal), it’s all in the telling. All in the sharing. Surely it’s all about how things are conveyed?

For instance, the American President, Barack Obama, could regale something out-loud and it be would plausible if not riveting; entertaining if not profoundly interesting. My old biology teacher could regale the EXACT same words and it would be fucking awful. Awful to the point of being uninteresting, lacklustre, hot-air-induced, redundant bollocks.

Likewise, the written word. Or why the interpretation of some Shakespeare plays will entice an audience onto the edge of their seats, while others will have an audience doze off unto a miasma of mere expensive sleep.

Freedom – The End of the Human Condition, for all of its idiosyncratically, idealistic notion(s) of further, honest, redeeming advancement, unfortunately falls – from a reading perspective at least – somewhere betwixt (the delivery of) that of Barack Obama and my old biology teacher. Lovely fella that the latter was, he really wouldn’t have made for a great dinner date. Just like this book, which really doesn’t make for great reading.

To be sure, what it’s ultimately trying to convey is undoubtedly magnificent; but, as Geldof mentioned at the launch, Griffith (and this book as a whole) would benefit greatly, with a tough, robust editor in the vicinity.

David Marx

Prepared For The Worst

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Prepared For The Worst – Selected Essays and Minority Reports
By Christopher Hitchens
Atlantic Books – £16.99

Apart from the fact that the standard of writing really is second to none, Christopher Hitchens, was, still is, renowned for taking his reader on a lively and most intellectual journey that can only be described as a combination of mordant wit and provocative prowess.

Each of Prepared For The Worst’s five sections is simply uber-jam-packed with the sort of dissectory analysis akin to that of say John Pilger, only without quite so much politicised, social commentary, and perhaps more flair for a variety of subjects that range from Graham Greene to Thomas Paine (”Merely by stating the obvious and sticking to it, Paine had a vast influence on the affairs of America, France, and England. Many critics and reviewers have understated the thoroughness of Paine’s comment, representing him instead as a kind of Che Guevara of the bourgeois revolution”), Pat Robertson to Albert Camus (”Camus had a knack for noticing grotesque things – not just in individuals, but in attitudes”), the questionably unresolved Watergate Scandal to Kim Dae Jung to one of my all time favourite writers, George Orwell, in an overtly thought provoking essay.

Aptly entitled ‘Comrade Orwell’) it begins: ”Orwell has been smothered with cloying approbation by those who would have despised or ignored him when he was alive, and pelted him with smug after-thoughts by those who (often unwittingly or reluctantly) shared the same trenches as he did. The present climate threatens to stifle him in one way or the other.”

This alone sets the literary, semi-politicised pace for what’s to follow, which, for all intents and persuasive purposes, is an essay littered with a number of sentences that are simply tailored made for academic questioning and further analysis:

”Orwell seldom wrote about foreigners, except sociologically, and then in a hit-or-miss fashion otherwise unusual to him; he very rarely mentions a foreign writer and has an excessive dislike of foreign words; although he condemns imperialism he dislikes its victims even more.,” – Discuss.

”It would be dangerous to blind ourselves to the fact that in the West millions of people may be inclined, in their anguish and fear, to flee from their own responsibility for mankind’s destiny and to vent their anger and despair on the giant Bogey-cum-Scapegoat which Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four has done so much to place before their eyes.,” Discuss.

”He was a materialist and a secularist – particularly hostile to the Roman Catholic heresy – but had a great reverence for tradition and for liturgy.,” – Discuss.

As Hitchens himself contends of this superb collection of essays: ”I suppose that, if this collection has a point, it is the desire of one individual to see the idea of confrontation kept alive.” And who, with the possible exceptions of George Osborne and those who work in either insurance or advertising, would want to argue with such razor induced profundity?

Prepared For The Worst is a terrific book and first of a number of Christopher Hitchens books I shall be reviewing in the near future.

David Marx

Algerian Chronicles

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Algerian Chronicles
By Albert Camus
Edited & Introduced by Alice Kaplan
Harvard University Press – £16.95

As Alice Kaplan has written in this book’s Introduction: ”Giving speech to anger and helplessness and injustice is the task Camus set for himself in publishing the Algerian Chronicles. His sense of impending loss, his horror of terror, even his vacillations, endow the book with many moments of literary beauty, and with an uncanny relevance.”

It is a description that’s most unthinkable to argue with.

Quite why this is so, is because it’s almost impossible to refer to any page of this brave and outstanding work, without really being touched in some form. There again, the philosopher and ultra-humanist, Albert Camus, literally seethed with an emphatic commitment to the defense of those who suffered both deplorable and inconceivable colonial injustice.

For instance, in the seventeenth chapter, ‘A Clear Conscience,’ he argues: ”[…] these same ordinary people are the first victims of the present situation. They are not the ones placing ads in the papers, looking to buy property in Provence or apartments in Paris. They were born in Algeria and will die there, and their one hope is that they will not die in terror or be massacred in the pit of some mine. Must these hardworking Frenchmen, who live in isolated rural towns and villages, be sacrificed to expiate the immense sins of French colonization? Those who think so should first say as much and then, in my view, go offer themselves up as expiatory victims. It is too easy to allow others to be sacrificed, and if the French of Algeria bear their share of responsibility, the French of France must not forget theirs either.”

Published in France in 1958 – the same year the Algerian War triggered the collapse of the Fourth French Republic – this is the first edition of the Algerian Chronicles in English.

Initially dismissed or disdained upon publication, these 216 pages could well be described a prescient analysis of the dead end of terrorism. A book which – due to a menagerie of thanks to Arthur Goldhammer’s excellent translation – sheds an inadvertent abundance of apposite light on the futility of current day terrorism. A facet, which in and of itself, is no mean feat, as the translator himself makes clear at the outset: ”When I think of Camus’s prose, I think of adjectives such as ”pure,” ”restrained,” and ”disciplined.” He never strains for effect, never descends into bathos, and always modulates his passion with classical precision.”

Might this be due to the fact that Albert Camus ”wrote as a moralist, in the noblest sense of the term?” Or, as he once declared: ”people expect too much of writers in theses matters?”

Either way, it’s a pleasure to be able to finally read this English edition of the Algerian Chronicles, and as such, fully comprehend the 1957 Noble Prize Winner for Literature’s acute anguish as to what (really) was going on in his place of birth: ”I do not think I am mistaken when I say that the destiny of this people is to work and to contemplate, and in so doing to teach lessons in wisdom to the anxious conquerors that we French have become. Let us learn, at least, to beg pardon for our feverish need of power, the natural bent of mediocre people, by taking upon ourselves the burdens and needs of a wiser people, so as to deliver it unto its profound grandeur.”

David Marx

The Complete Works of W.H. Auden – Volume V

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The Complete Works of W.H. Auden – Volume V
Prose 1963-1968
Princeton University Press – £44.95

Having already reviewed the previous four volumes of W.H. Auden’s colossal body of work that Princeton University Press have published over the years; it should come as no surprise that I’d be more than compelled to write about this rather marvellous collection too.

Weighted in overt literary curiosity, my reasoning is such that almost all of Auden’s work, whether it’s prose, poetry or indeed, just about anything, remains so instantly enlightening. Not to mention consistently refreshing and invigorating to read.

In the words of The London Review of Books’ Frank Kermode: ”When you add in the volumes already devoted to plays, libretti, poems, it becomes hard to avoid describing the whole enterprise as heroic. In fact it could also be described as unique, for no other twentieth-century English poet has been so fully and patiently honoured.”

Indeed, it’s not remotely easy to even marginally fathom what makes W.H. Auden – Prose 1963-1968 so very readable. So very enjoyable; other than it being a darn good read of the highest (and I do mean the highest) calibre.

With the possible exception of only a handful of exceptional writers such as Burroughs, Camus or Orwell, where else would one read such colourful and quintessentially vital provocation in any other book’s Introduction – as any of the following: ”When in love, the soldier fights more bravely, the thinker thinks more clearly, the carpenter fashions with greater skill […]. It is quite true, as you say, that a fair principle does not get bald and fat or run away with somebody else. On the other hand, a fair principle cannot give me a smile of welcome when I come into a room. Love of a human being may be, as you say, a lower form of love than love for a principle, but you must admit that it is a damn sight more interesting […]. For millions of people today, words like communism, capitalism, imperialism, peace, freedom, democracy, have ceased to be words, the meaning of which can be inquired into and discussed, and have become right or wrong noises to which the response is as involuntary as a knee-reflex […]. Propaganda, like the sword, attempts to eliminate consent or dissent, and, in our age, magical language has to a great extent replaced the sword.”

Replete with philosophical undercurrent(s), the above quotations are equally cerebral and regal. Yet the tonality of the actual language used, remains nothing less than that which one has come to wholeheartedly expect from surely one of the twentieth century’s greatest of poets.

Yetr, what set Auden apart from so many of his contemporaries, was his uncanny and sometimes audacious ability to wax lyrical without ever falling into the trap of taking his eye off the ball. A facet of both thinking and writing, that still isn’t all too easy to accommodate. As not only was his writing simultaneously succinct and elaborate, it was anchored in being acutely fundamental: ”[…] ”there is no comprehensible relationship between the moral quality of a maker’s life and the aesthetic value of the works he makes;” the sources of every artist’s art ”are what Yeats called ‘the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart,’ its lusts, its hatreds, its envies.””

Suffice to say, the above is a mere tip of the extraordinary, literary iceberg contained within these 509 pages (excluding seven sections of Appendix, numerous Textual Notes and an Index of Titles ad Books Reviewed). From the very outset of Prose 1963-1968, Auden testifies to his own resounding translucent belief, where, in a Foreword to The Plough and the Pen: Writings from Hungary, 1930-1956, he writes: ”[…] in deceiving others, I cannot help knowing that I am telling a lie. I can, of course, choose to avoid learning certain facts because I am afraid of the truth and prefer to remain in ignorance, as the average German under Hitler, though he knew that concentration camps existed, preferred not to think about them […]. We must not, of course, imagine that political freedom in itself guarantees the creation of good art; indeed one of the most obvious characteristics of any country where there is freedom of speech and publication is the vast quantity of rubbish which gets spoken and printed. Persons with a love of and a talent to perceive and utter it are, unfortunately, a minority, but only under conditions of freedom can this minority develop its powers and have an influence.”

Hopefully, what I’ve written will give just some indication as to the sheer breadth and depth of W.H. Auden – Prose 1963-1968. To simply call it an altogether wonderful book could be construed as getting off too lightly, but in truth, that really is what it is: ”The articles will delight any reader with their wit, charm, and elegance (Charles Rosen, New York Review of Books).

David Marx

How The French Think

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How The French Think – An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People
By Sudhir Hazareesingh
Allen Lane – £20.00

          No other European country has a relationship with its ex-colonies which is               both so intense and violent, made of passion and resentment in equal                         measure, thus perpetuating the misunderstandings to the present day.

So writes the overtly well versed, gifted writer from Mauritius, Sudher Hazareesingh, in the Conclusion (‘Anxiety and Optimism’) of this exceedingly well written thesis on French scholastic thought, How the French Think – An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People.

To term the book’s three hundred and twenty-six pages as an inspiration is akin to saying there’s a lot to see in Paris. Reason being, it is idiosyncratic and inviting to read in equal measure; just as it is majestic within the occasionally fraught parameters of paradox. The latter of which (like the French themselves), being an acute and appropriate example of what is fundamentally responsible for beguiling the reader into investigating and dare I say it, embracing what is essentially a complex, albeit compelling subject matter, a whole lot further.

In the words of Albert Camus for instance (herein quoted in the chapter ‘The Skull of Descartes’ on page forty-three): ”The world in itself is unreasonable, and the absurd lies in the confrontation of this irrationality with the unrelenting desire for clarity whose call emanates from deep within man.”

The l-o-n-g line of histoire, to say nothing of French intellectualism, is a quintessentially dense oeuvre; within which it could be ever so easy to lose sight of whatever initial plot one may have had in mind at the outset (as former French Foreign Minister, Dominique de Villepin, readily notes, there is a French ”obsession with dividing things into two.” […]; such as ”opening and closure, stasis and transformation, freedom and determinism, unity and diversity, civilization and barbarity, and progress and decadence”).
There again, we are in the academically robust hands of a seasoned, focused and more than considered writer; for whom the words, clarity of vision, is tantamount to the literary job in hand.

We need only remind ourselves that Hazareensingh won the Prix du Memorial d’Ajaccio and the Prix de la Fondation Napoleon for his book, The Legend of Napoleon (Granta, 2004), and is also the recipient of the Prix d’Histoire du Senat for Le Mythe Gaullien (Gallimard, 2010). So the lucidity of How the French Think, really should come as no surprise.

Such clarity (of vision) is just one facet among many, that is regally substantiated by Patrice Higonnet, who is none other than Professor of French History at Harvard University, wherein he states: ”And no better mirror on the wandering path of French culture of yesterday and today could be found than this wise and gentle book, as learned as it is engaging, Peguy worried about what God would have to think about if the French were not there to amuse and inform him. Now we know why this might still be so.”

Indeed we do! As if there were ever any doubt!

To return to the focused framework of the author’s intent, it goes without saying that: ” […] beyond identifying the many and varied ways in which the French have represented themselves and imagined the world, my ultimate ambition here is to try to explain, as the title has it, how the French think: in other words, to make sense of their preferred concepts, frameworks and modes of thought, as well as their particular stylistic fetishes. These include such classic characteristics as a belief in their innate disposition towards creative thinking, as when the writer Blaise Pascal observed of his compatriots, ‘I do not speak of fools, I speak of the wisest of men; and it is among them that imagination has the great gift of persuasion.’ […]. ‘What is not clear,’ affirmed the writer Rivarol imperiously, ‘is not French.’ This precision could be accompanied by a certain hedonistic levity, as acknowledged by the critic Hippolyte Taine: ‘All that the Frenchman desires is to provoke in himself and in others a bubbling of agreeable ideas.’ Typically French, too, is an insouciance of manner, ‘doing frivolous things seriously, and serious things frivolously,’ as the philosopher Montesquieu put it.”

The very readable acuity of this all round prodigious book, is unsurprisingly twofold; wherein the infectiousness of an occasionally disparate subject matter, is intelligently harnessed by way of a writing that is nothing short of merveilleux.

David Marx

French Literature – A Very Short Introduction

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French Literature – A Very Short Introduction
By John D. Lyons
Oxford University Press – £7.99

I have to say, I’m becoming quite a fan of the Oxford University Press collection
of A Very Short Introduction.

This is my third review in the series, and what I particularly like about them, is their short, concise overview of the subject matter at hand. There’s no unnecessary, elongated padding nor flim-flam; but rather, an informative revelation of the most relevant information one essentially needs. And with most Introductions clocking in at around 120 to 130 pages, one can decide whether or
not to investigate further, which is all the more aided and assisted by way of the ‘Further Reading’ section(s) at the back of each book.

French Literature – A Very Short Introduction by John D. Lyons appears to cover nigh all aspects of French literature – not that I know all aspects of course – beginning with a chapter called ‘Introduction: meeting French literature,’ in which the author interestingly writes: ”Protagonists necessarily have problems.
If they did not, there would be no story, no quest, no obstacle to overcome, no mysteries to solve, no desire to satisfy, no enemy to defeat. In the French literary tradition, moreover, the central figures often have problems of such a unique type as to warrant being called ‘problematic heroes’ – heroes and heroines whose very status and place in society is at stake […].”

By immediately reinforcing within the reader a considerable chasm of literary food for thought, I found the above sentiment remained with me for the next eight chapters, concluding with ‘French-speaking heroes without borders?,’ where Lyons wholeheartedly invites us to embrace the French-Mauritian writer Le Clezio: ”There is no better representative of the movement for a ‘world literature’ in French than J. M. G. (Jean-Marie Gustave) Le Clezio, whose novel Ritournelle de la faim (The refrain of hunger) appeared in October 2008 just as the author became the latest French-language writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature […]. Le Clezio’s work ‘belongs to the tradition of the critique of civilisation. which on French ground can be traced back to Chateaubriand, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Diderot, and […] Montaigne.’ In this respect, Le Clezio is highly representative both of his own time, a period of post-colonial criticism and debates about national and linguistic identity. His work is therefore a good place to enter into French literature, both in its origins and in its persistent variations.”

So there you have it, a full-on, up-to-date endorsement of where to perhaps start.

That said, as is surely well known, French literature covers an exceedingly wide terrain. From any of the aforementioned writers to the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus (both of whom would chastise me for mentioning their names in the same sentence, due to having fallen out to the point of not speaking to one another for years), to the likes of such brilliant female writers as Simone de Beauvoir and Helene Cixous.

Indeed, where to even start with French literature is anyone’s guess.

All the more reason, that if you’re relatively new to the genre, or would simply like to recommend or promote it to a family member or friend, then I’d highly recommend this stimulating (and at times), provocative A Very Short Introduction. After all: ”In a world threatened by sameness, we have never had a greater need for the French difference.’

David Marx