Friday, April 6, 2012

Camus on Liberty and Art

Since my teenage years I’ve been intrigued by the raw power and urgency of Camus’ words, his poetic sensitivity and his dedication to personal and social liberation. I remember reading The Stranger as a 15-year-old and being amazed that a novel could dig down so deep into the human soul. As soon as I was done reading the book, I flipped back to the first page and began reading it again. It was the first any only time I’ve ever done that with a book. Maybe it had something to do with my teenage fascination with self-destruction, but I like to think it was more than that.

It took me until now to get around to reading a collection of Camus’ essays titled Resistance, Rebellion and Death. (Such a subtle title, right?) It’s clear to me now that Camus is not only one of the greatest modern novelists, but also one of the 20th Century’s greatest essayists.

Camus is a man of tremendous intellectual curiosity and moral intelligence. He’s also a true lover of freedom. But he understands that freedom does not come easily, and, once obtained it is constantly vulnerable to threats: “Like all freedom, it is a perpetual risk, an exhausting adventure…” And unlike many so-called libertarians, Camus also understands that “The freedom of each finds its limits in that of others…”

It’s hard to describe the conviction with which Camus writes of liberty. The only writer/philosophers who have expressed a love of liberty with such passion are perhaps Thomas Paine, Martin Luther King and Frederick Douglass.

Camus decries all forms of censorship in every circumstance. Whatever the ends may be, the means cannot include censorship and limits on free expression, even temporarily. Echoing Voltaire, Camus lays out his support for free speech absolutism: “Those who applaud [free speech] only when it justifies their privileges and shout nothing but censorship when it threatens them are not on our side.” Again: “… if you want the happiness of the people, let them speak out and tell what kind of happiness they want and what kind they don’t want!”

Camus is a firm believer in “objective truth,” and a firm believer that those who attempt to destroy truth through oppression and censorship should be called out. It infuriates Camus that men of power, and those who they control, subvert language and art for malicious intent. He makes a distinction between “true art” and the use of artistic methods put to use in the service of tyranny. But Camus is an artistic optimist, a man convinced true art is a force for good in the world: “No great work has ever been based on hatred or contempt. On the contrary, there is no single true work of art that has not in the end added to the inner freedom of each person who has known and loved it.”

To Camus, art is more than just paint on canvas or words strung together: “The aim of art, the aim of a life can only be to increase the sum of freedom and responsibility to be found in every man and in the world.” Art, “by virtue of that free essence I have tried to define, unites whereas tyranny separates. It is not surprising, therefore, that art should be the enemy marked out by every form of oppression.”

Another positive note: “I am tired of criticism, of disparagement, of spitefulness – of nihilism, in short. It is essential to condemn what must be condemned, but swiftly and firmly. On the other hand, one should praise at length what still deserves to be praised. After all, that is why I am an artist, because even the work that negates still affirms something and does homage to the wretched and magnificent life that is ours.”

Well said, sir.

A significant amount of this book is dedicated to the subject of capital punishment. Camus’ argument against execution of individuals by the State is probably the best I’ve read on the topic. It’s a rational and moral argument, not a stuffy, lawyerly one, and I challenge any supporters of capital punishment to read his essay and think about it.

“[Capital punishment] is to the body politic what cancer is to the individual body, with this difference: no one has ever spoken of the necessity of cancer.” Executing a convicted murderer does not serve justice, Camus argues: “this new murder, far from making amends for the harm done to the social body, adds a new blot to the first one.” I won’t lay out his entire argument because he does so with a poetic wit I simply don’t possess. But for anyone interested in criminal justice, this essay is a must-read.

While all the essays in this book are notable and interesting, a couple of them really stuck out. Camus’ essay “The Liberation of Paris” is a beautiful homage to French Resistance writer René Leynaud. Camus praises Leynaud, a devout Christian, for pouring his talents and beliefs into the most meaningful struggle of the time. “Truth,” Camus writes, “needs witnesses.” For Camus, the act of documenting hatred and oppression serves society’s larger goals of decreasing hatred and oppression. The essay is a great foray into the French Resistance and the broader issue of the responsibility of artists and intellectuals to oppose tyranny.

In a brief essay titled “The Unbeliever and Christians” Camus argues (quite convincingly, in my opinion) that Christian doctrine is not necessary in order to understand evil or the ways to reduce it.

His essay on Algeria is politically incisive and moving. It is further proof (as if any were needed) that Camus’ work is relevant today. He describes the moral and political faults of imperialism without neglecting the gritty realities of violence and terrorism. And his discussion of the French-Algeria situation in the 1950s has many parallels in the United States-Afghanistan debacle of today.

Only the coldest of hearts could read this collection of essays and not be moved. This book now has a permanent spot on my bookshelf, and it serves as another example of why Albert Camus is one of my favorite writers. 

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