Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Rebel, by Camus, Entry 1, The Introduction

     Well, the Sandel book was not all that interesting, and I think I've grown strong enough to take a chance again at reading this book by Camus. Albert Camus is one of my favorite authors. I first read Camus as a teenager and found that among 20th-Century writers he was the one who spoke to me the most.  I put Camus' writings in the category of the works that have set the agenda(or non-agenda) for much of my mental life.  One can ask which direction the causality went: did my tendency to be deeply morose come first and cause my resonance with certain works, such as Ecclesiastes, or did this exposure cause my tendency.  I'm certain now that the causality ran in the first direction. But, once I read Ecclesiastes, it was done. Then came Macbeth, then Camus.  Camus is, for me, far more affecting than, say Sartre, with whom he is, I think unfortunately, connected.
      As a philosopher, Camus is uninterested in the usual problems of epistemology.  This is possibly why he is often referred to as an 'existentialist', though, from what I can gather he had no set position on free-will.  Philosophy of Science as such is no interest to him, nor is metaphysics, really.  Obviously I have an interest in these but Camus can make me feel like I'm wasting my time(note this book was published in 1956; Camus seems to characterize this era as one of 'ideology'):

 "The important thing, therefore, is not, as yet, to go to the root of things, but, the world being what it it is, to know how to live in it.  In the age of negation, it was of some avail to examine one's position concerning suicide.  In the age of ideologies, we must examine our position in relation to murder. If murder has rational foundations, then our period and we ourselves are rationally consequent.  If it has no rational foundations, then we are insane and there is no alternative but to find some justification or to avert our faces."(pg. 4)

It seems to me we still live in a world, somewhat surprisingly if you had an early-in-life belief that progress would cause so many of these problems to simply dissolve, divided by religion and ideology.  Humanistic optimism seems no more justifiable now than in previous decades.  How is this possible? How is it possible that 'market triumphalism', to borrow a phrase of Sandel's, could continue to be so influential? At the same time, how could the academic left still present as alternatives economic models that are so obviously untenable(federated anarcho-syndicalism, simplistic versions of democratic socialism etc..)?  Sometimes we seem to be getting nowhere and the romantic fears about science seem quite justified(I just read a couple of great stories by Hawthorne: 'The Birthmark' and 'Rapaccini's Daughter').

     I bought this copy of The Rebel only a couple of years ago. I found I did not have the strength to make it through this work -- as I proceed through this book now those of you who know me will see why.  Now, the book is a pretty dense read, but that is not the problem, the problem is passages like this:

"In a way, the man who kills himself in solitude still preserves certain values since he, apparently, claims no rights over the lives of others.  The proof of this is that he never makes use, in order to dominate others, of the enormous power and freedom of action, which his decision to die gives him...Absolute negation is therefore not consummated by suicide.  It can only be consummated by absolute destruction, of oneself and of others...Here suicide and murder are two aspects of a single system, the system of a misguided intelligence that prefers, to the suffering imposed by a limited situation, the dark victory in which heaven and earth are annihilated."(pg. 7)

This is the voice of a man who has been there. This whole topic is difficult to bring up with the hysteria over mental illness now sweeping across the media -- saying that the issue is really gun control(by the way, I'm in favor of banning guns altogether, period. And, yes, frankly, I agree with those who say that violent video games, movies etc... do put ideas in the minds of those already predisposed.) does not go to the heart of the matter; this is because the matter he describes goes to the heart of what Camus thinks are the ultimate questions.
     Camus, in The Myth of Sisyphus I believe, puts suicide as THE philosophical question, not just a matter of emotional exasperation[Russell once said somewhere that existentialism was based intellectually on errors of syntax and emotionally on exasperation, but reading his 'Conquest of Happiness' is like reading the text of a Disney movie.]. Nihilism, taken seriously, leads to the total destruction Camus refers to here, but optimism of any kind seems frankly silly.

Enter the REBEL...

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