Existential times

In my teenage years, a serious-minded and rather eccentric girl seemingly dropped by aliens in a small Lancashire mill town, I was determined to be an existentialist philosopher when I grew up. I could imagine nothing more glamorous than spending my working life writing in a notebook in a Parisian cafe (I’d never been abroad). This despite having been tortured by a French syllabus that included Sartre’s 

and
. The fact that he was neither a good philosopher nor a good writer didn’t put me off. For there was Simone De Beauvoir, whose novels like 
are ok, and whose 
is a seriously important book.

[amazon_image id=”207036769X” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Les Mandarins 1: 001[/amazon_image]

And above all, Albert Camus, the archetype of the honourable man in a dishonourable world, and a great novelist. I read 

tucked up in bed with an old fashioned metal hot water bottle that my mother had covered with a sock so it wouldn’t burn me. The sock had a hole and the bottle raise some small blisters on my arm. I was so wrapped up in the book that I didn’t notice the burn, but when I spotted the blisters later, ran downstairs to my bemused mum, shouting that I had caught the plague.

[amazon_image id=”B006E3KCT6″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]La peste[/amazon_image]

So reading about Camus on the occasion of what would have been his 100th birthday this week – a brilliant essay by Claire Messud in the NYRB and Michael Azar in Glanta – I bought the new book of Camus essays,

, edited by Alice Kaplan and translated by Arthur Goldhammer. I set aside Jonathan Fenby’s (so far) excellent 
about modern China and plunged instead into Algeria at the tail end of France’s colonial occupation. Alastair Horne’s 
is still as far as I know the best single book on the conflict.

[amazon_image id=”0674072588″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Algerian Chronicles[/amazon_image]

What these essays by Camus – appearing for the first time in English – add to the history is that same sense as from Camus’ wartime years of the near-impossibility of morality in polarized times. The pressures to say one side or the other is all right, the opposing side all wrong, to justify any means in terms of ends, are almost irresistible. It is very interesting to read Camus on terrorism and counter-terrorism – there is an obvious parallel with our own times. More generally, the polarization of politics away from the centre ground in the context of slow economic growth and the extreme tone encouraged by online discussion, make it interesting to look once again at existentialism. For decades it has seemed hopelessly retro (only an ignorant teen in a provincial backwater could have found it glamorous even as long ago as the 1970s); but maybe the times have circled back and ‘authenticity’ is having another moment.

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9 thoughts on “Existential times

  1. That’s a lovely post. I too, read Camus and Sartre as a teenager in the 1970s and felt like a ‘fish out of water’ and fantasised about Parisian intellectual life.

    Recently re-read The Plague, then the Last Man and Andy Martin ‘a book on Sartre and Camus – The Boxer and the Goalkeeper. Yes, Camus is back! Must get this new translation.

  2. Lovely. Do you pronounce it “Berry” or “Burry”? The lady’s family always used the latter, but there were a little to the East of you. Around 70 or so years ago I recall a music hall act, Enoch, Ramsbottom and I, but alas have forgotten who it was.

  3. Excellent piece, strongly resonated with me. I had those same existentialist fantasies as a teenager living in a Yorkshire village in the late ’50s. Sartre’s “L’etre et le neant” and “L’Existentialisme est un humanisme” were the key texts, and pictures of Juliette Greco, Francoise Sagan and Sartre & Co in Paris Match fuelled the dream of Left Bank living. I still find existentialist tenets sound and useful for coping with the world.

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