Books: Cultural Amnesia — Albert Camus |
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Albert Camus (1913–1960) was born in Algeria just before World War I and never forgot his colonial origins, although he rose to stardom in metropolitan France, the homeland of the colonist. “Stardom” is the right word because from his first day as a published writer he was surrounded by the kind of glamorous aura that other writers are likely to resent. In Nazi-occupied Paris he took risks in support of the Resistance but was honest enough to admit later that the risks had not been very great. A fundamental honesty was his hallmark. It led him to question whether the horrors of Nazism in any way legitimized the horrors of communism. His answer to that question was his book L’Homme révolté (The Rebel), which appeared in 1951 and set him at odds with Sartre and the whole of the French left, although Camus, with good reason, went on calling himself a man of the left until the end. Raymond Aron found the book weak when not obvious, but that could have been partly because Camus had got into print first with ideas that Aron had held while Camus was still a boy. Those for whom Camus’s thesis is still not obvious would do well to read the book: his novels The Stranger and The Plague deserve their reputations but give only part of the picture of a complex mind. The widespread notion that Camus’s mind was not really very complex at all is the penalty he paid for being blessed with good looks, the Nobel Prize, too many women and too much fame. He even died famously, in a car crash featuring that most glamorous of all sports saloons, the Facel Vega. The fate of Algeria, his lost homeland, haunted him until his last day. Even at the height of his success, he was a pied noir in exile. To himself, his condition as a displaced person was a constant source of unease. For generations of admiring readers, it must count as the deep secret of his overwhelming charm. Bright young beginners will always be attracted to a man who could say that everybody’s life looks to be in pieces when seen from the inside.

* * *
Tyrants conduct monologues above a million solitudes.

WHEN I FIRST read The Rebel, this splendid line came leaping from the page like a dolphin from a wave. I memorized it instantly, and from then on Camus was my man. I wanted to write like that, in a prose that sang like poetry. I wanted to look like him. I wanted to wear a Bogart-style trench coat with the collar turned up, have an untipped Gauloise dangling from my lower lip, and die romantically in a car crash. At the time, the crash had only just happened. The wheels of the wrecked Facel Vega were practically still spinning, and at Sydney University I knew exiled French students, spiritually scarred by service in Indochina, who had met Camus in Paris: one of them claimed to have shared a girl with him. Later on, in London, I was able to arrange the trench coat and the Gauloise, although I decided to forgo the car crash until a more propitious moment. Much later, long after having realized that smoking French cigarettes was just an expensive way of inhaling nationalized industrial waste, I learned from Olivier Todd’s excellent biography of Camus that the trench coat had been a gift from Arthur Koestler’s wife and that the Bogart connection had been, as the academics say, no accident. Camus had wanted to look like Bogart, and Mrs. Koestler knew where to get the kit. Camus was a bit of an actor—he thought, in fact, that he was a lot of an actor, although his histrionic talent was the weakest item of his theatrical equipment—and, being a bit of an actor, he was preoccupied by questions of authenticity, as truly authentic people seldom are. But under the posturing agonies about authenticity there was something better than authentic: there was something genuine. He was genuinely poetic. Being that, he could apply two tests simultaneously to his own language: the test of expressiveness, and the test of truth to life. To put it another way, he couldn’t not apply them.

Though he sometimes fudged the research and often fell victim to the lure of a cadence, Camus was stuck with a congenital inability to be superficial: he could be glib, but would regret it while correcting the proofs. He is not being glib here. Over the course of more than forty years, this line of his must have come to my mind at least a thousand times. (I thought of it again in the first minute of realizing that I would one day write this book.) But the first time I ever read it was the time that really counted, because the idea didn’t just strike me as true, it struck me as unbeatably well put. He didn’t put it in English, of course, and at that stage I could read scarcely a word of French, so I had no way of checking up. But by a lucky break the line translates easily, and even sounds rather better balanced in English than it does in the original. It would probably sound solid even in Urdu, just as long as the second and third nouns matched for polysyllabic weight. What brings the idea to incandescent life is that the line itself is so attractive an example of the very thing the tyrant’s monologue can never do: it’s interesting.

The tyrant’s monologue doesn’t want to be interesting, and that’s its point. Camus was among the first—almost as early as Orwell—to realize that the totalitarian overlord’s power to bore was a cherished and necessary component of his repressive apparatus. Droning on without contradiction was a proof of omnipotence, Stalin had already proved it with his grinding speeches to the Presidium: speeches which had to be applauded at the end of each bromide, and for which the applause at the end had to be endless. (During the Great Terror in the late 1930s, the first person to stop applauding went in peril of his life: it was either bleeding hands or a bullet in the neck.) But Stalin’s speeches were the merest rehearsal for the tedium of his writings. It was particularly brutal of him to call his personally penned missal on the theory and practice of communism The Short Course. There was nothing short about it except its length. Physically, his writings were not all that extensive. Spiritually, they extended into the life of his readers and suffocated everything that breathed. Lenin had already set the style, but with Lenin the occasional sign of an active mental capacity crept in to aerate the slogans. Stalin made sure that didn’t happen even once, and from his earliest years in power until the Soviet Union finally crumbled, the tone of official prose never varied in its almost inspired dreariness. To take a late example, the official Short Biography of Brezhnev, nominally written as a group effort by the Institute of Marxism-Leninism, could have been dictated by Stalin’s ghost.

In other Communist countries, the tyrant’s monologue was equally a standard, all-pervasive, atmosphere-clogging item. Mao Zedong had a taste for Tang poetry and some qualifications as a poet himself. Western enthusiasts have even seen the virtues of Oriental miniature poetic forms in the component mottoes of his Little Red Book. But his speeches were an amalgam of squeal and scream that managed to extirpate from Mandarin its normally inalienable melody. His gift for the dogmatic tirade, lavishly decorated with scatological abuse, was faithfully reproduced by every party mouthpiece who ever addressed a meeting, until, in the Cultural Revolution, the official address was a recognized form of torture throughout the country. In Cuba, Fidel Castro’s writings, such as they are, have usually appeared in the form of interviews given to the foreign media. They are not without brio, especially if you are learning Spanish, in which case it actually helps to have the same few themes hit from fifty different directions by the one hammer. The best example of a book-form Fidel interview is Nada si podra deterner la marcia del historia. Nothing can hold back the march of history, and he proved it with his mouth. The Swedish journalists who faithfully recorded his torrential flow also caught some of his charm, however, and you can’t reach a realistic estimate of Castro unless you take his charm into account. I bought my copy in the book market in Havana, sat reading it in a café while staving off the heat with a mojito, and learned quite a lot of ordinary Spanish by reading from context: the context being, of course, the standard international revolutionary boilerplate, recognizable at a glance in any language with a Roman alphabet.

But Castro’s more typical form of communication is the speech, and his speeches have to be experienced to be believed. Most of the jokes made about them are made by people who have never really listened to him: they have just seen footage of him tossing his beard about while jabbing his finger at the air. In real life, if it can be called that, Castro carries the leader’s monologue to lengths that should be physically impossible: a dedicated scuba-diver, he can probably do without the oxygen tanks, because he must have the lungs of a sperm whale. Camus, who played soccer, would have admired Castro’s sporting proclivities but might have found his oratory suspect. Offshore admirers of Castro’s putative intellectual vitality are fond of explaining how the people of Cuba—happy, salsa-dancing folk whose simple minds can be read from long range—find his oratorical powers endlessly entertaining, but the emphasis should be on the endlessly, not the entertaining. A sceptic might note that Castro’s supposedly spellbinding effect presupposes the absence of other forms of verbal entertainment, and indeed the absence of a substantial part of the Cuban population. Cubans who head for Miami with nothing but an inflatable inner tube between them and the sharks are unanimous on the point: Castro’s speeches would have been enough to drive them out even if the regime’s other promises of abundance had been kept.

From North Korea in its nightmare heyday, the writings of Kim Il Sung were exported to the West in container ships, but not even our most fervent advocates of an alternative to capitalism could generate within themselves a demand to match the supply. They should have taken a look: it would have been a useful education, although very painful. Our broadsheet newspapers frequently ran, as a paid advertisement, a full-page prospectus of the collected writings, quoting examples of Kim’s thoughts, or Thought. The prospectus was probably enough to make the fans postpone their enjoyment. The luckless inhabitants of North Korea, however, had no choice: they had to stay abreast of a stream of prose that flowed faster than they could read. Not a paragraph of it was of any interest whatsoever, except as an awe-inspiring demonstration of the great leader’s prerogative to bore his people rigid, like the Chinese terracotta army he inspected on his tour of Shaanxi province in 1982. He must have thought that he had seen those glazed eyes before.

Examples from the Communist regimes could be multiplied—her rhetoric was the other reason that Camus might not have relished an evening with Mrs. Ceauşescu—but the exercise would be without merit. The fascist leaders present a more problematic, and therefore more important, case. Mussolini was held to be an exciting speaker, but on any objective estimate you had to be an enthusiast to think so. Ezra Pound, who was otherwise such a fine judge of poetry that T. S. Eliot sought and accepted his suggestions for trimming The Waste Land, compared the spare shapeliness of a Mussolini speech to a sculpture by Brancuşi. It is permissible to suspect, however, that Pound’s demented politics (Mussolini’s measures against the Jews were never enough to suit Pound, just as Pétain’s were never enough to suit Céline) had affected his aesthetic judgement. Even at the time, there were plenty of native Italians capable of realizing that what was coming out of Mussolini’s bag was wind, and later on, during the long hangover after the Fascist binge, dispassionate philologists subjected his rhetoric to a rigorous linguistic analysis, laying bare how he had worked his tricks. In the case of Hitler, German-speaking critics had identified his speeches as concerted trickery long before he came to power. (In pre-Anschluß Vienna, the coffee-house wit Anton Kuh published a persuasive dissection of Hitler’s rhetorical hoopla, thus earning himself a high place on the Nazi death list.)

For the performance art of both Hitler and Mussolini—both of whom the young Camus heard regularly on the radio—the most you can say is that it was exciting stuff if you believed it, and abject tub-thumping if you did not. As a writer, Mussolini when young could turn out a reasonably rousing socialist polemic. Hitler as a writer gave us Mein Kampf, which is worse than boring: Rudolf Hess, who transcribed it as it poured from his hero’s lips, would have been driven mad if he had not already been that way anyway. Had Mein Kampf been even halfway readable, more people would have actually read it, and the world would have been warned earlier. In their off-duty moments—their down-time, as it was never then called—Mussolini and Hitler were very different creatures. Mussolini, though he brooked no contradiction, could be entertaining because he could be entertained: an admirer of Fats Waller could never be entirely without bonhomie. But Hitler was boredom incarnate. A typical oratorical effort was his broadcast on the eve of the Anschluß: it lasted a full three hours. And if listening to him was hard work in public, it was living hell in private. As we have it in transcribed form, his table talk makes us long for Goebbels. In the salon of the Berghof, for hours after midnight, Hitler would keep his punch-drunk guests from their beds with an interminable monologue about his early struggles and the shining Nazi future: a Ring cycle minus the music. Secretaries who worshipped him fell asleep trying to write it all down, while amputee officers reporting to him from the eastern front longed to get back to the comparatively spontaneous entertainment provided by the Red Army’s massed artillery.

Hitler had the con man’s insight into other people’s reactions and must have been well aware of what he was doing. He was proving himself. Or rather he was proving his position: proving his power. Tyrants always do, and Camus spotted it. If Mussolini strikes us as a partial exception, it was because he was a partial tyrant. In Fascist Italy, the idea of individuality never quite died among the people. The true political monster insists that, apart from a few hand-picked satraps, there shall be no individuals except himself. Everyone must be reminded, all the time, that solitude is all there is: solitude in the sense of helpless loneliness, awaiting its instructions from the leader’s voice. It was probably Camus’s own innate loneliness that permitted him the insight. For a would-be athlete with weak lungs, there was no amount of success that could detach him from his primal knowledge of what it feels like to be without power. It was a knowledge that helped to make him a great writer. The Gods poured success on him but it could only darken his trench coat: it never soaked him to the skin.