Saturday, December 11, 2010

A letter to Camus' German friend

Why Camus? I don't remember. I was going to read and post about The Stranger, for which Camus acknowledged that The Postman Always Rings Twice was an inspiration. But I was sidetracked by "Letters to a German Friend," published in a volume with the snappy title Resistance, Rebellion and Death.

In the first of the four letters, written in July 1943, Camus quotes the unnamed German friend as having said that "in a world where everything has lost its meaning, those who, like us young Germans, are lucky enough to find a meaning in the destiny of our nation must sacrifice everything else."

"No," replied Camus, "I cannot believe that everything must be subordinated to a single end."

One could choose worse words to live by.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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46 Comments:

Blogger seana said...

And Camus was French in an Algerian sort of way. Sartre was the only born Parisian.

It's a nice quote. I don't know if it always applies, but in this case,I hope his German friend took heed.

December 11, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'd suggest that it applied in Camus' case. I don't know that the German friend took heed. In the second letter, Camus takes pains to explain why the friendship is over.

Camus is often referred to as Algerian, a biographical fact of great interest in these post-colonial days of identity politics.

December 11, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Pied-noir, actually, which is kind of 'neither here nor there' identity. My aunt told me a long time ago that his novel about his childhood The First Man, but to my shame, I still haven't read it.

December 11, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Right, and pied-noir is a wonderful term. I also read this week that Camus earned the wrath of leftists for his stance against revolutionary violence in Algeria, which I had known. I had not previously heard that he took this stance in part because he was worried about his mother.

December 11, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Yes, I think that if before we sacrifice everything for our nation, we remember that that does not actually include our mothers, collectively, things might just be that tiny bit better.

December 11, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

He must have made his mother proud, though in moments of exasperation, she might have exclaimed, "My son, Albert! The big-deal philosopher!"

December 11, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Or sometimes just "Sacre Bleu!"

December 11, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've got to read Camus' writing about Algeria and maybe also a good biography of Camus. I read a few pages online of a book about the Camus-Sartre feud that looks worth reading more of. Camus seems to have sensible answers to weighty questions, so I'll be eager to read what the other side says.

December 12, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Oy vey! Discussing Camus in the middle of the night, and about Germans, too!

I looked up these letters and found enough to side with Camus on this, if he was writing to a German friend who justified Nazism.

I'd like to read all of the letters, but couldn't locate them in a quick search.

Will read whatever information and analysis is posted here on this, and on the Camus-Sartre split.

That I knew of since my college days, when it was discussed widely, with vehement arguments on each side.

I do recall that Sartre was the more left philosophically and politically, but when Camus died, Sartre wrote a good statement, I believe.

Somehow, I think I'd judge them on their assistance to the French Resistance movement during WWII.

But I know there's more to this story.

December 12, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't know if the letters are available online (I found them in a book of essays that I bought), but there certainly is discussion of the letters. The selection from the Sartre-Camus book that I found notes that Camus considered the French stronger and morally superior because they went through a period of doubt before mounting stiff resistance to Nazi Germany. But the author calls Camus moralistic for seeming to elevate himself over those who joined the fight immediately. A little controversy spices up any book.

The scraps I've gathered tell me that Camus criticized suppression of a workers' strike in Germany and the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 and spoke out against revolutionary violence in Algeria. This would not have endeared him to some on the left, though it seems so sensible today.

December 12, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

There are always two sides to a story, even three or four.

I'd have to read what Camus wrote and Sartre, too, to see what I think.

Sartre was more popular in my college crowd.

Also, the film, "The Battle of Algiers," which I saw decades ago, was pretty compelling.

December 12, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

I saw the film within the last couple of years myself. I wouldn't say it really takes sides in the war. It reminds me a lot of the more recent Bloody Sunday in this. Both are excellent--and sad.

December 12, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, you might want to look for the Camus-Sartre book I found online. It's called simply "Camus and Sartre" (or else "Sartre and Camus." I forget which.) along with some subtitle that refers to their feud.

December 12, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've never seen "The Battle of Algiers," though Yasmina Khadra, who I think was my path to Camus, liked it very much.

December 12, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

It is good,though in a terrible sort of way.

December 12, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's a classic of its genre, but I never saw it at the most logical time: when I was in college. Algeria was not the issue a la mode then.

December 12, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Why Camus? I don't remember. I was going to read and post about The Stranger, for which Camus acknowledged that The Postman Always Rings Twice was an inspiration

Peter, the interview with Cain in The Paris Review, conducted shortly before his death, is highly entertaining. Some quotes:

He [Camus] wrote something about me—more or less admitting that he had patterned one of his books on mine, and that he revered me as a great American writer. But I never read Camus.

I read a few pages of Dashiell Hammett, that's all. And Chandler. Well, I tried. That book about a bald, old man with two nympho daughters. That's all right. I kept reading. Then it turned out the old man raises orchids. That's too good. When it's too good, you do it over again. Too good is too easy. If it's too easy you have to worry. If you're not lying awake at night worrying about it, the reader isn't going to, either.

Cain was in his mid-80s when he gave this interview and very sharp he was too.

December 12, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That looks like a hell of an interview. Thanks.

I like to think that Chandler would have appreciated Cain's Chandlerian assessment of The Big Sleep. Beyond its wit, though, the comment reflects careful thought. I want to read more of what Cain has to say -- such as any further thoughts about Hammett.

I haven't read much Cain. I do remember that the novel Double Indemnity had a grimmer ending than the movie, and also that Cain never liked being called a crime writer. I've also read that he was never published in the pulp magaines.

I'll probably finish reading The Long Goodbye in a few minutes. I will do so with Cain's comment in mind.

December 12, 2010  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

You know, I've wanted to tell you how much I like and admire the quotes from your reading that you trouble to collect for us. That takes time and effort. But quotes are so much more enlightening than mere assessments.

As for the letter from the German friend: I think people should learn that nations are abstractions. Being inanimate, they don't need our sacrifices. Human beings do. Patriotism is a completely false emotion.

December 13, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, thanks for the kind words. I figure Camus and Dashiell Hammett wrote better than I can, so why not give readers more of them?

The quotes are a form of self-examination. I ask myself why I think what I do about a given book, and the quotations are the answers to that question. (Not, of course, that I compare myself to a great writer who also engaged in self-examination and who also sprinkled his essays so liberally with quotations ... )

Nations are abstractions, but they might well have seemed more real when Nazi Germany was on the march in World War II. And nationalism, such a liberating force in the nineteenth century, now smacks of close-mindedness and xenophobia. Abstractions nations may be, but they're about all we've got when it comes to interacting with the world outside ourselves.

December 13, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Needless to say, I can't let Cain's snide remarks about Chandler go by without providing Chandler's own snide remarks about Cain:

"But James Cain--faugh! Everything he touches smells like a billygoat. He is every kind of writer I detest, a faux naif, a Proust in greasy overalls, a dirty little boy with a piece of chalk and a board fence and nobody looking. Such people are the offal of literature, not because they write about dirty things, but because they do it in a dirty way. Nothing hard and cold and clean and ventilated..." (letter to Blanche Knopf, 22 October 1942).

And here is Chandler's letter to Cain in which he provides his version of the dialogue issues in Double Indemnity.

December 13, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think I had read the "billygoat" line, but I'm not sure I had seen the entire passage. It's gorgeous.

His line to Cain about an emotionally integrated story getting to the screen "in the mood in which it was written" has resonance in light of our discussion of Altman's Long Goodbye.

December 13, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

To my thinking, there are different kinds of nationalism: the kind that led Gandhi in India and others in Africa and around the world, to fight for independence.

And the kind that in the 20th century and this century leads to horrific wars.

This discussion reminds me again of the 1960s and 1970s and John Lennon's "Imagine," being cited a lot recently due to the anniversary of his death.

"Imagine there's no countries..."

A beautiful song with a lovely, human sentiment.

December 14, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder to what extent Gandhi's brand of anti-colonial nationalism is related to the nineteenth-century kind.

The trouble with "Imagine" is that John Lennon never suggests what might replace countries.

December 14, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Anti-colonial nationalism also occurred in the 20th century, too, as countries pushed for independence.

At the risk of revisiting Algeria, I would say that the Algerian cause had a basis in anti-colonialism.

Anyway, here are some key words to "Imagine," which I think explain John Lennon's vision:

Imagine no possessions I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger a brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing for the world

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one

Lennon wasn't a political strategist. He was a decent person, who wanted peace.

He envisioned no countries, no boundaries, people living in harmony. He wasn't saying how to achieve that; he was appealing for him through his beautiful song.

December 14, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Correction: Meant to say in the last line of the post: "appealing for it through his beautiful song."

December 14, 2010  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

The problem with nationalism is that it's so dangerous. The Germans were starving when Hitler came to power. He promised them food and land. Of course, this meant taking it from someone else, but once people thought they were saving themselves, the point became moot. You cannot expect large numbers of people to think either rationally or morally once the frenzy of patriotic fervor starts.
Patriotism is always used to make young men go to war and kill other young men. And women and children.

December 14, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, I'm just abysmally ignorant of my 20th-century history. I know about the struggles for independence, of course, but I don't know whether they were waged in the name of a nationalism like the older kind, or in the name of movements such as pan-Africanism and so on. It all amounts to the same thing, I suppose.

December 14, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, I wonder when nationalism lost its good name. With the Nazis?

December 14, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

As I said before, I think there are two kinds of nationalism: the kind that's for independence and sovereignty, one's own government, laws, etc.

Gandhi led this movement in India, many others in Latin America, Africa, Asia, etc.

And then there is dangerous nationalism, like German in WWII which is used to promote wars and occupations, with super-patriotic fervor used to carry out such horrific policies.

But then I think that the first type of nationalism, for independence and against occupations by foreign powers, was an aspect of the anti-Nazi Resistance throughout Europe.

Fighting for a Free France, etc.

December 14, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sadly, the good kind can turn into the bad kind. In India, home of any number of great, large-spirited men in addition to Gandhi (Jawaharlal Nehru, for one), nationalism mutated in some quarters into anti-Muslim violence.

December 14, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Yes, agree with your point as you stated above about nationalism can turn into something intolerant and more, as turning into anti-Muslim violence.

But there are still countries wanting independence and sovereignty.

December 14, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Tibet comes to mind.

December 14, 2010  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

"The Battle of Algiers" is terrifying. It's in black and white, documentary style and shows men running forever with knives through narrow streets.

The arbitrary nature of violence is what most marked me when reading Camus.

I find his work very depressing and stopped reading years ago.

December 16, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It might be especially worth watching for we in America, for whom taking up positions for or against war is a game, a sport, or a political stance.

December 16, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

It's not a game or sport for those who us who have been against war for our entire lives, or as long as we had consciousness about it, and could think it through.

It's a principle, a political stance, if you will, a consciousness and way of thinking about the world that permeates all issues, and the way one watches tv news or reads the newspapers daily.

That said, that doesn't mean that we don't cheer on the Resistance to the Nazis' attempt to conquer the world, and its racism, anti-Semitism and mass murder.

Although I did know people in my childhood who were conscientious objectors during WWII and I have had to think long and hard about this, since my father tried to enlist in 1941 and was turned
down due to health issues.

He did take me to anti-war protests throughout my teenagehood.

And I'm quite glad of this.

December 16, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, I meant by my comment that in the United States, discussion of war can take on a curiously detached and unreal element. Perhaps we should be grateful for this, since it probably reflects the fact that American soil has not been a critical site of battle since the Civil War. (To what extent one ought to include terrorism as war, I'm not sure.)

I'm uneasy with gung-ho pro-war rhetoric from people who will never in their lives see combat. But I am equally uneasy, if not more so, with radical anti-war slogans such as "peace is the answer." I hope fervently that this will never be more than a hypothetical question for me.

December 17, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Yes, people in the U.S. haven't had combat on their soil.

I find that Europeans, who have experienced this throughout their history, are much more anti-war in general.

Both world wars caused massive deaths, injuries, destruction of cities, towns, farmlands and economies, and so many Europeans are opposed to warfare altogether.

Hmmm, don't know why "peace is the answer," would make one leery.

I've grown up with that view (aside as I said WWII which had to be fought everywhere, or the Civil War), and it's as part of me and as normal as drinking tea and reading the NY Times every day--or more apropos, picking up a book.

I became conscious watching the Vietnam war news, the horrors of it all, the massacres, etc., knowing friends (as we all did from that era) who had to decide what to do about the draft; they did various things.

And then finding out about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the horrors of that.

Those both did it, informed my opinion for a lifetime.

December 17, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I am leery of "peace is the answer" to the extent that implies war is the wrong choice in all situations. Camus wrote about how the French were forced into the morally correct decision to fight against Nazi Germany. For them, peace was not the answer.

The more experience one has with war, I suppose, the less one wants to have anything to do with it. Thankfully, North Americans who have not served in war zones overseas lack that experience.

December 17, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I agree about WWII, as I said in my comments on this post. That war had to be fought, and I cheer on everyone in the Resistance in every country. That was a defensive war everywhere against the Evil Empire-builders.

And the Civil War had to be fought, too.

The other wars of this century? I say "peace" there.

December 17, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

All such just wars should have a spokesman as eloquent as Lincoln -- though the Gettysburg Address was not so universally revered as it is now. Some newspapers disparaged the speech in the most dismissive terms, and not just in the South, either. One of the papers in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, postiively ridiculed the speech.

December 17, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I would imagine many did not agree with the Emancipation Proclamation, either, but it was a crucial document, obviously.

December 18, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I should check if that Harrisburg paper that ridiculed the Gettysburg Address is the paper that's still around today. I bet that if it is, that's one part of its past the paper does not talk about much.

December 18, 2010  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

I think it is always short sighted to think that published opinions, notably in newspapers, tell how a whole population thinks.

We were educated to admire the Gettysburg Address as a model of oratory and fine writing. Parnell's thoughts on the subject of "the march of a nation" are, literally, cast in stone on a monument in O'Connell Street.

There are probably many unrecorded opinions that did not admire these speeches.

It is interesting to have Mark Twain's biography which is now freely able to express the political views that were not popular or fashionable at the time they were written down. It seems strange that writers must protect themselves by delaying their true thoughts from being published for so long.

December 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think it is always short sighted to think that published opinions, notably in newspapers, tell how a whole population thinks.

Of course it is, and it was especially so in the nineteenth century, when newspapers were attached to a given political party more than they are now.

The editor of the volume in which I saw the anti-Lincoln quotation had a sense of humor. It was on a page of contemporary reactions to the speech, and it was at the top of the page.

I passed the Parnell monument often when visited Dublin, but I don't remember stopping to read it. I was too busy looking up. And I wold like to read the new Twain autobiography.

December 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

In Ireland, of course, it's proverbial that there would have opinions against the speech by people who would have formed a new party to express their opposition.

December 19, 2010  

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