Reduced To What I Really Am

I don’t have anything to write for the purpose of this website, which I am told will receive a complete makeover soon, and become a new entity in the wake of my upcoming novel. I did, however, recently return to the work of Albert Camus, reading through one of my favorite novels, The Stranger, on a drive to New Orleans. And just last week, I returned to The Myth of Sisyphus, but more importantly, The Rebel. The more I study philosophy, understand the context of the 20th century, and develop my own rhetoric, the more I appreciate Camus’ work and philosophy.

I am posting his Nobel acceptance speech. It was delivered on December 10, 1957 at the Nobel Banquet at the City Hall in Stockholm. I hope it impacts you as much as it has impacted me this morning.

“In receiving the distinction with which your free Academy has so generously honoured me, my gratitude has been profound, particularly when I consider the extent to which this recompense has surpassed my personal merits. Every man, and for stronger reasons, every artist, wants to be recognized. So do I. But I have not been able to learn of your decision without comparing its repercussions to what I really am. A man almost young, rich only in his doubts and with his work still in progress, accustomed to living in the solitude of work or in the retreats of friendship: how would he not feel a kind of panic at hearing the decree that transports him all of a sudden, alone and reduced to himself, to the centre of a glaring light? And with what feelings could he accept this honour at a time when other writers in Europe, among them the very greatest, are condemned to silence, and even at a time when the country of his birth is going through unending misery?

I felt that shock and inner turmoil. In order to regain peace I have had, in short, to come to terms with a too generous fortune. And since I cannot live up to it by merely resting on my achievement, I have found nothing to support me but what has supported me through all my life, even in the most contrary circumstances: the idea that I have of my art and of the role of the writer. Let me only tell you, in a spirit of gratitude and friendship, as simply as I can, what this idea is.

For myself, I cannot live without my art. But I have never placed it above everything. If, on the other hand, I need it, it is because it cannot be separated from my fellow men, and it allows me to live, such as I am, on one level with them. It is a means of stirring the greatest number of people by offering them a privileged picture of common joys and sufferings. It obliges the artist not to keep himself apart; it subjects him to the most humble and the most universal truth. And often he who has chosen the fate of the artist because he felt himself to be different soon realizes that he can maintain neither his art nor his difference unless he admits that he is like the others. The artist forges himself to the others, midway between the beauty he cannot do without and the community he cannot tear himself away from. That is why true artists scorn nothing: they are obliged to understand rather than to judge. And if they have to take sides in this world, they can perhaps side only with that society in which, according to Nietzsche’s great words, not the judge but the creator will rule, whether he be a worker or an intellectual.

By the same token, the writer’s role is not free from difficult duties. By definition he cannot put himself today in the service of those who make history; he is at the service of those who suffer it. Otherwise, he will be alone and deprived of his art. Not all the armies of tyranny with their millions of men will free him from his isolation, even and particularly if he falls into step with them. But the silence of an unknown prisoner, abandoned to humiliations at the other end of the world, is enough to draw the writer out of his exile, at least whenever, in the midst of the privileges of freedom, he manages not to forget that silence, and to transmit it in order to make it resound by means of his art.

None of us is great enough for such a task. But in all circumstances of life, in obscurity or temporary fame, cast in the irons of tyranny or for a time free to express himself, the writer can win the heart of a living community that will justify him, on the one condition that he will accept to the limit of his abilities the two tasks that constitute the greatness of his craft: the service of truth and the service of liberty. Because his task is to unite the greatest possible number of people, his art must not compromise with lies and servitude which, wherever they rule, breed solitude. Whatever our personal weaknesses may be, the nobility of our craft will always be rooted in two commitments, difficult to maintain: the refusal to lie about what one knows and the resistance to oppression.

For more than twenty years of an insane history, hopelessly lost like all the men of my generation in the convulsions of time, I have been supported by one thing: by the hidden feeling that to write today was an honour because this activity was a commitment – and a commitment not only to write. Specifically, in view of my powers and my state of being, it was a commitment to bear, together with all those who were living through the same history, the misery and the hope we shared. These men, who were born at the beginning of the First World War, who were twenty when Hitler came to power and the first revolutionary trials were beginning, who were then confronted as a completion of their education with the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, the world of concentration camps, a Europe of torture and prisons – these men must today rear their sons and create their works in a world threatened by nuclear destruction. Nobody, I think, can ask them to be optimists. And I even think that we should understand – without ceasing to fight it – the error of those who in an excess of despair have asserted their right to dishonour and have rushed into the nihilism of the era. But the fact remains that most of us, in my country and in Europe, have refused this nihilism and have engaged upon a quest for legitimacy. They have had to forge for themselves an art of living in times of catastrophe in order to be born a second time and to fight openly against the instinct of death at work in our history.

Each generation doubtless feels called upon to reform the world. Mine knows that it will not reform it, but its task is perhaps even greater. It consists in preventing the world from destroying itself. Heir to a corrupt history, in which are mingled fallen revolutions, technology gone mad, dead gods, and worn-out ideologies, where mediocre powers can destroy all yet no longer know how to convince, where intelligence has debased itself to become the servant of hatred and oppression, this generation starting from its own negations has had to re-establish, both within and without, a little of that which constitutes the dignity of life and death. In a world threatened by disintegration, in which our grand inquisitors run the risk of establishing forever the kingdom of death, it knows that it should, in an insane race against the clock, restore among the nations a peace that is not servitude, reconcile anew labour and culture, and remake with all men the Ark of the Covenant. It is not certain that this generation will ever be able to accomplish this immense task, but already it is rising everywhere in the world to the double challenge of truth and liberty and, if necessary, knows how to die for it without hate. Wherever it is found, it deserves to be saluted and encouraged, particularly where it is sacrificing itself. In any event, certain of your complete approval, it is to this generation that I should like to pass on the honour that you have just given me.

At the same time, after having outlined the nobility of the writer’s craft, I should have put him in his proper place. He has no other claims but those which he shares with his comrades in arms: vulnerable but obstinate, unjust but impassioned for justice, doing his work without shame or pride in view of everybody, not ceasing to be divided between sorrow and beauty, and devoted finally to drawing from his double existence the creations that he obstinately tries to erect in the destructive movement of history. Who after all this can expect from him complete solutions and high morals? Truth is mysterious, elusive, always to be conquered. Liberty is dangerous, as hard to live with as it is elating. We must march toward these two goals, painfully but resolutely, certain in advance of our failings on so long a road. What writer would from now on in good conscience dare set himself up as a preacher of virtue? For myself, I must state once more that I am not of this kind. I have never been able to renounce the light, the pleasure of being, and the freedom in which I grew up. But although this nostalgia explains many of my errors and my faults, it has doubtless helped me toward a better understanding of my craft. It is helping me still to support unquestioningly all those silent men who sustain the life made for them in the world only through memory of the return of brief and free happiness.

Thus reduced to what I really am, to my limits and debts as well as to my difficult creed, I feel freer, in concluding, to comment upon the extent and the generosity of the honour you have just bestowed upon me, freer also to tell you that I would receive it as an homage rendered to all those who, sharing in the same fight, have not received any privilege, but have on the contrary known misery and persecution. It remains for me to thank you from the bottom of my heart and to make before you publicly, as a personal sign of my gratitude, the same and ancient promise of faithfulness which every true artist repeats to himself in silence every day.” – Albert Camus

This Morning

This morning was something.
A little snow lay on the ground.
The sun floated in a clear blue sky.
The sea was blue, and blue-green, as far as the eye could see.
Scarcely a ripple.
I dressed and went for a walk — determined not to return until I took in what Nature had to offer.
I passed close to some old, bent-over trees.
Crossed a field strewn with rocks where snow had drifted.
Kept going until I reached the bluff.
Where I gazed at the sea, and the sky, and the gulls wheeling over the white beach far below.
All lovely.
All bathed in a pure cold light.
But, as usual, my thoughts began to wander.
I had to will myself to see what I was seeing and nothing else.
I had to tell myself this is what mattered, not the other.
(And I did see it, for a minute or two!) For a minute or two it crowded out the usual musings on what was right, and what was wrong — duty, tender memories, thoughts of death, how I should treat with my former wife.
All the things I hoped would go away this morning.
The stuff I live with every day.
What I’ve trampled on in order to stay alive.
But for a minute or two I did forget myself and everything else.
I know I did.
For when I turned back i didn’t know where I was.
Until some birds rose up from the gnarled trees.
And flew in the direction I needed to be going.

-Raymond Carver

In Which Kirk Pulls Me Apart and Puts Me Back Together

After half a dozen beers and several whiskeys I stood up to leave. There was an ice bucket in the center of the deck. I tripped over it and cursed.

“I’ve got to head home,” I told Kirk. “The library opens in five hours.”

He shook his head and laughed. “My god, man, do you ever stop? Hold on a minute,” he said. He waved his arms. “Just a minute, okay, okay. I need to talk to you about some stuff.”

I sat down on the porch step and lit a cigarette. I was having a hard time getting my zippo to stay lit. He moved in front of me and began to wave his hands. “Now, listen, just listen, listen, man. I’m concerned about you.”

I wiped my eyes and sighed.

“First,” he said. “Let’s talk about this novel.”

“What about it?” I asked.

“God, man, my God,” he laughed. “So I’m reading it and here you are evoking that free will is an illusion, and so, of course, is fatalism. I’m dying over it. It’s fantastic. You’re evoking this agency and tangling with these things and it’s wonderful. It’s just fantastic. It’s not even finished and I think it’s quite effective. But,” he said, gesturing with his hands, “it’s a remarkable undertaking itself. Like, just on its own, that’s a huge task, what you’re trying to say, right? But you’re not just getting at those things.”

I nodded. “Right,” I said. “That’s right.”

He took a deep breath and continued, his hands still swinging frantically. “You’re also dealing with these complex philosophical ideals – you’re invoking the will, affirmation, these ascetic ideals, and so on. And these are a novels worth of concepts to evoke and get at by themselves. And it’s fantastic. It’s coming together really well in my opinion.”

“Thanks,” I said.

I smirked. He shook his head.

“No. No. Hold on a minute. Hold on here,” he said.

“Let me get another beer,” I said, walking into the kitchen.

I sat down and took a swig. He was looking at me with his hands on his hips, frowning. He stuck his hand out.

“Now, listen, Shane, my friend. Listen, here, okay. This stuff can mess with your head. Trust me. I know. If you don’t stop and breathe and shut your mind down, it’ll get to you. And I know how your mind operates. We’ve got similar minds, right?”

I nodded. I took the ashtray, walked over to the end of the deck and dumped the ashes into the grass, then sat down again.

“Well, let’s look at what’s going on and call these things into question. Okay? Okay? Right, so here you are writing this novel, which I think should be your main focus, your main objective.”

I nodded again. “Sure,” I said. “I agree.”

He pursed his lips. “Well, look at this though. You’re not sleeping at all. You’re drinking like a fish. You’re reading entire textbooks for classes that haven’t even begun. You’re trying to come to terms with the history of western thought in a month or two. You’re writing papers for classes that haven’t begun. And again, right, right, you’re not sleeping at all. And when you’re not doing these things, constantly writing and reading, you’re drinking like a fish. And sometimes you’re doing them at the same time, like tonight at the bar. I mean, my god, Shane, Shane, I mean, look at these things. Your wife is one of the sweetest, most gorgeous women I’ve ever known, and you’re here at a bar by yourself, reading poems and writing. What’s going on here, really?”

I shook my head and sighed. “I know, Kirk. I’m a mess. I’m working on it.”

“Well, he said. “I’ve thought about these things. Let me tell you what I see.” He sat in front of me, drinking from his beer. “You’re wrapped up in all this shame and guilt, all these illusions and it’s killing you, man. It’s killing you fast. The other night on the porch you actually said, “I’m gonna stay here. I need to suffer.” I mean you actually said that, word for word. You literally said you need to suffer.”

I looked at him. “Did I?”

As I was saying this a large golden tabby crawled into my lap and began to knead on my thigh. I scratched behind its ears.

“Yeah, man. You actually believe you need to suffer. Shane,” he paused now, drank the last of his beer and set it down. “Shane, you’re punishing yourself over nothing, just illusions. It’s not even you. It’s just your mind. If there was a buddhist around they’d smack the shit out of you. I mean, to be honest, we should have converted to Buddhism years ago.”

I laughed. I was having a hard time at this point in the conversation. We were being eaten alive by mosquitos, but neither of us suggested retreating into the house.

“You’re sitting around punishing yourself for, what was it you said, for even feeling sadness, for being upset. It’s like you’re punishing yourself for imagined past transgressions. It’s a form of pleasure. Do you see that?”

“Sure,” I said. “I know what you’re saying.”

“Yes,” he said, pointing at me. “But do you really see it? Do you understand it’s just your mind. It’s not you. It’s an illusion and you’re punishing yourself because it makes you feel good to suffer for these things over which you feel guilt and shame and all these other negating things. You don’t need to feel those things. You shouldn’t. You should reject them. Do you see that?”

“I think so,” I said. “I guess I’m still trying to get beyond these things I believe shape my identity. I think I’m just struggling to get beyond these things.”

He nodded. I pulled a small garden table between us and poured another drink, pretending to study the label.

“Well, you, it’s not just in your head either. I mean, look, look, you invest yourself in people who don’t give two fucks about you, and you actually hold the people who care about you at arms length, or reject them altogether. I mean, Jesus, poor Aryn probably thinks her husband is going mad.”

There was a truth in these things and I was conscious of it before Kirk called it out. His expression was sincere. He believed these were important things that needed to be discussed, examined, and reconciled. He continued.

“The solution to these things is right in front of you. You’ve got all you need for a happy life, but you’re choosing this hell based on illusions. It’s not just you. It’s all of us, myself included. There’s only now,” he said. “That’s all there is is right now – this present. Do you see?”

I nodded. “Right,” I said.

“I mean, I don’t mean to grill you or tear you apart. That’s not my intention,” he said. “It’s just, I think you’re headed for a collapse. I can see it now. You’ve got to give your mind a rest. You’ve got to come to terms with these things and address them appropriately. Let them go and get on with affirming things. Stop torturing yourself. And for Christ’s sake stop wasting your time and energy on people who don’t give a fuck about you. You understand?”

We stood and walked to the edge of the porch. I looked into the field. “Thanks,” I said. “I really appreciate you looking out for me. No one else does. I mean it – thank you, Kirk.”

“Hey, listen, Shane. I don’t mean to barrage you, either. You’re a good guy. You’re my friend. I admire the hell out of  you.” He said. “I just hate seeing you so miserable like this, and I’m sure Aryn hates it too. You’ve got plenty to offer. Be good to yourself.”

“I will. Thanks,” I said.

“Are you okay?” He asked.

“I am.” I paused. “You don’t know how good it is to hear someone ask that. It’s absurd. I sound like a kid.”

“Hey, look, no, no, it’s not at all. Go home. Kiss your wife. Sleep through the night. Slow down a while. We’ll talk soon.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I will. Thanks again.”

I got in my car and began to drive home. The highway was empty. The moon was low. Something was bothering me, but I let it slip through the cracks and turned up the radio.