My Canon

Reflections on Formative Influence

by Robbie McClintock

A work in progress. Started Spring 2011 as a series of lectures at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Albert Camus, The Rebel

"Truth, reason, and justice . . . have ceased to be guides in order to become goals." (p. 134)

During college, and throughout my life, I've been drawn to a series of "aspirational texts," books that I found difficult and did not need to read for any extrinsic reason. Somehow I sensed that they had something to do with what I aspired to do, or be, or perhaps better to become -- but even that statement is far too clear-cut, for aspirations, particularly youthful aspirations, are not formed propositions, but rather feelings, even a sense of surprise that you are doing this or that with unexpected interest or intensity.

The Rebel by Albert Camus was not the first aspirational text for me. In high school, during the summer between junior and senior year, we had to choose and write essays on three books. Of them, I can't remember one at all. The second, a current biography of Abraham Lincoln, made little impression on me. The third, The Outsider by Colin Wilson, recently published, impressed me. Its contents are now a blur, but I do remember gushing about it at the dinner table, causing some consternation in my father, himself something of an Insider, who envisioned his son being educated at considerable expense for a similar orientation. My awareness of Camus, and my urge two or three years later to enter into dialog with his work, derived from reading Wilson, partly by choice and partly as a chore.

Wilson wrote about Camus 'The Stranger, which was then by far the most widely read of Camus' writings—short, hard-edged, and enigmatic, Catcher in the Rye for grown-up college kids. The Myth of Sisyphus was also inescapable—also short, also absurdist. Both were first published in 1942 and represent Camus' understanding of the loss of metaphysical conviction in European thought, as it appeared to an observant critic in a world in total war with its outcome starkly uncertain. The Rebel, properly L'Homme révolté, whose form of life is more complex and comprehensive than that of the rebel, was published in 1951 (English trans., 1956). It was a post-war book, a Cold-War book. And I experienced it, circa 1959-60, very much as a post-war, a Cold-War youth, a young person trying to form his understanding of himself and his world immersed in the period following World War II in which the Cold War came to dominate the historical landscape in which one lived.

Lost in Translation

The following is a draft that needs substantive revision:

I first read Camus 'The Rebel in my sophomore or junior year of college, 1958 or 1959, out of interest, not as an assignment for a course. I should say I read in it, for I recall the first encounter being hard going. Two or three years earlier, I had seen James Dean in Rebel without a Cause and thought it significant in a rather distanced way. At 14 or 15, I had flirted with adopting a tough persona, but acting out in "youthful rebellion" was not my way, nor that of my peers. Our memoirs have more of Simone de Beuavoir's Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter to them, except that we were dutiful sons, but like her raised in the comforts and certitudes of a bourgeois world, having to break away into a world of autonomous intellect.

A Princeton undergraduate in the late '50s would not pick The Rebel up expecting a discourse on adolescent rebellion. I would not have expected something presaging the sense of liberation so powerful 10 to 15 years later. I do not recall my specific expectations that led me to start reading it, putting some real effort into it. It was not an easy book for someone 19, for it is written in that French style in which the author assumes his readers have read, and have their own opinions about everything that he has read and has opinions about. In that sense it is a good aspirational text, for it is like a detailed map that points to all the places a truly experienced traveller should have visited.

An inevitable want of background at the age of 19 was not the only problem I encountered in trying to read The Rebel. I remember significant frustration in my effort to understand what the book was really about. Part of this difficulty arose because I was not really sure what to make of so many familiar references to absolute strangers, but I learned to tame that anxiety by bracketing and filing the references away among those never exhausted destinations for future journeys. In reading The Rebel I began to become confident in my skill at picking up the import of a reference, phrase, or text by attending intelligently to its context and figuring out its meaning through a process that technologists call "reverse engineering." The further problem had to do, not with the author's assumptions, but with his language.

The Rebel was the first substantial text I tried to read on my own that had not been written in English. Fortunately, a good deal of Latin, since forgotten, and even more French, still a useful resource, however much native speakers cringe at my pronunciation, were among the prescribed elements of my schooling. Fortunate too, through college I worked during summers in southern Switzerland, so getting my own copy of L'Homme révolté in French seemed both feasible and natural.

L'Homme révolté was my first encounter with an important realization, a counter-intuitive one. Confronted with a difficult text, reading it in the original, even if my facility with the language is low, often helps me come to grips with the text. In part this surprising phenomenon arises because there are problems and choices made in translation that one can clear up by working with the original and a good dictionary of two—even if ones capacity to read easily in the language is low. But the benefit goes beyond puzzling out problems of translation. Reading in a second language slows one down. One encounters many opportunities to consult a dictionary. These soon become a bore and one skips the exact meaning and uses the overall context of the passage to make sense of the word and the sentence where it occurs—more reverse engineering. Reading requires hermeneutic interpretation, especially reading serious thought. I have found George Santayana to be the most difficult philosopher to read with comprehension because his prose is so good—a text will move on, page after page, lulling the mind into comfortable inattention. A great stylist writing philosophy benefits, like Nietzsche, by writing aphoristically, keeping the reader in a state of continually starting thoughts, one after another, in that heightened state of attention we all bring to the beginning of things.

A big problem of translation with The Rebel confronts the reader at the very beginning, with the title, and it echoes throughout the text. It does not result from a poor choice by the translator, but from one of those excruciating choices that arise because no language in masterful use is fully commensurate with another. "L'Homme révolté" is not merely a rebel. In both English and French, there is essentially the same set of terms -- revolt, rebellion, and revolution. One of the joys of digitization lies in the ease with which it allows us to do word counts on text. L'Homme révolté uses révolution 241 times, and the English translation 244. The translator is simply using the English cognate for the French. In the original, rébellion 4 times and le rebelle, literally the rebel, 14 times. In the translation, rebellion occurs 553 times, and rebel 269. In the translation, revolt occurs all of 22 times, 13 of which are in Herbert Read's "Foreword", while Camus used révolte 724 times and l'homme révolté an additional 124. It is not hard to understand why the translator would make the transposition—"the revolted man" does not mean much in English. But do rebellion and rebel express well in English the implications of the French révolte and l'homme révolté?

At 19, I had neither the means nor the inclination for doing such word counts, but I had a sense that something was problematic. I found it hard on first tackling The Rebel to figure out what the book was really about. In substance, Camus' book encompasses a large swath of human experience—the metaphysical, the historical, the artistic. I do not think the book really holds together if the basic concept informing all its parts is rebellion. That is a statement made by someone aged 71, looking back, having reread much of a work he struggled with long before and occasionally then dabbled in. At 19, I was becoming critical about major aspects of the world I was maturing into. I was ready to question, to reject, to say "no" to a lot that I was expected to accept, but rebellion did not really seem the way to do that. It seemed to me that the peculiar "rebellion" that Camus seemed to explore in the English translation was something more that rebellion in the ordinary sense, not in that it was a still more vehement outburst, but that it was more basic, radical in the sense of being at the root of things.

Now, I think I understand something that I was then sensing because it spoke to a sense of the world that someone like myself would then have. The logic of the French verb révolter gets to the heart of the matter. It is first off, a transitive verb—to appal. That sense still has a presence in English when we recoil from something saying, "That's revolting!" In French, révolter then becomes reflexive, se révolter, to appal oneself, to recoil from something. This leads off in two directions that remain related—to rebel or revolt, and to be appalled. L'Homme révolté in the full sense of the French, with which I think Camus wrote, is someone who is appalled and refuses to obey. In this sense, l'homme révolté is at a very radical ground of motivation: he is appalled and refuses to obey. It is a fundamental negation, for Camus it is the human condition, presenting to us the problem of living our lives—to find how, being appalled and refusing to obey, to commit neither suicide nor murder.

Camus began "L'Homme révolté" assuming the problem of suicide was basically solved—the capacity to be appalled and to refuse to obey had an affirmation of ones life intrinsic to it. It was a reason, and a reason was sufficient to refrain from suicide. Bur a reason, being appalled and refusing to obey, was a danger for l'homme révolté, because it became an invitation to murder. The problem of The Rebel is the problem of being appalled and refusing to obey yet finding reason not to impose that negation of others who might stand in the way of your refusal. This seemed to me to be a big problem as a Cold-War kid.

Of course, we did not put it that way; we did not have an explicit awareness of it. Part of the problem in understanding formative influence arises because a person can intuit the outer horizon of a work, challenged by its potentialities, while quite unable to speak about or deal with the explicitly. Growing up between 1940 and 1960 surrounded by the sources of adult news, one was seeped in reasons for wondering about the grounds for killing and revelations that left one appalled—graphic photo journalism of a vast war, with its terrible bombings culminating in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the atrocities of concentration camps and mass graves into which ordinary people had been shot and dumped by the truckload, all then followed by a background fear of nuclear war, built by well-publicized tests, a pervasive us-them interpretative framework, a Manichean right versus wrong, and absurd rituals of what to do in the event of attack.

To my mind, then, Camus spoke to all that, and I think he still does—profoundly. The experiences of growing up between 1940 and 1960, even beyond, underlie, with the endless variations characteristic of concrete human experience, the anti-foundationalism in post-modern thought. But that post-modern sensibility, however important, is still very much under-developed, jejune, intellectually under-nourished. As a result, it drifts in our times without much consequence, leaving the more brute engines of history, the nihilism of unquestioned conviction, to work their course unchecked. There has been running through My Canon a quest, a hope, and a recurrent frustration and disappointment. Justice remains elusive, hard to understand, let alone achieve, even more, complicity in injustice in so many forms, continues, a troubling backdrop that we learn to gloss over for the sake of survival, enjoying or suffering the fortune of the moment.

I think it has been unfortunate that Camus 'L'Homme révolté is so hard to translate because clarity about these problems seem both important and difficult to attain. I think Camus achieved a valuable clarity, which got somewhat lost in translation. Post-modern anti-foundationalism, especially in its English-speaking variants, is too a-historical—everything before us was foundational in its assumptions; therefore we need not study it. The consequence is excessive superficiality and a need to reinvent well-won ideas. Camus, particularly the Camus of L'Homme révolté, was a subtle post-modernist before the label, one who cast the foundational problem in an important way, a way that can enable the recovery of important resources in the intellectual tradition.

Consider a couple sentences that occur early in the section on "Creation and Revolution," which concludes the part on Art. "Rebellion in itself is not an element of civilization. But it is a preliminary to all civilization." (p. 273) These two sentences are examples of assertions in many places in The Rebel that on first encounter gave me trouble, for it is hard to say exactly what Camus had in mind. It is easy, taking it in in ordinary English, to say hogwash—all sorts of rebellion are elements of civilization. The translation is entirely straightforward aside from substituting rebellion for la révolte. Are the implications of the sentences different in the two languages?

Insofar as a reader attaches an agenda to rebellion or revolt, the sentences do not really ring true, and whether one attaches an agenda to rebellion or revolt has significance for how one situates Camus and the kind of thinking he exemplifies with respect to foundational issues in thought. I think in English, the rebel usually has a cause—that was why The Rebel without a Cause was a powerful movie title, and rebels without causes came to refer to angry youths acting out their discontent at having to take on (meaning both contend with and adopt) confining adult limitations. That implicit agenda attaches as well to the word in French, which is why the book was called L'Homme révolté, not Le Rebelle.

It is true that a concept can take on an altered meaning if a text carefully nurtures it, and to some degree, I think, the The Rebel may lead its readers to dissociate the act of rebellion from a justifying cause. But I do not think the translation fully succeeded in doing that. Take as an instance, the sentence concluding the important section, "Rebellion and Murder" or "Révolte et Meutre," towards the end of the book. The English version reads, "But the revolutionary spirit in Europe can also, for the first and last time, reflect upon its principles, ask itself what the deviation is which leads it into terror and into war, and rediscover with the reasons for its rebellion, its faith in itself." (293) For our purposes, the French is equivalent except for the last clause—". . .et retrouver, avec les raisons de sa révolte, sa fidélité." (p. 362) The reasons of its revolt, not for its rebellion. It is not a question of deciding for what it is that one is rebelling, but why one is appalled and refuses to obey.

It is not hard to see how revolt as a feeling . . . .