Sunday Contemplation — Finding Wisdom — Siegfried Sassoon

Does It Matter?

Does it matter? -losing your legs?
For people will always be kind,
And you need not show that you mind
When others come in after hunting
To gobble their muffins and eggs.

Does it matter? -losing you sight?
There’s such splendid work for the blind;
And people will always be kind,
As you sit on the terrace remembering
And turning your face to the light.

Do they matter-those dreams in the pit?
You can drink and forget and be glad,
And people won’t say that you’re mad;
For they know that you’ve fought for your country,
And no one will worry a bit.

Sunday Contemplation — Finding Wisdom for Father’s Day — Mark Jarman

Descriptions of Heaven and Hell, Mark Jarman, 1952

The wave breaks
And I’m carried into it
This is hell, I know,
Yet my father laughs,
Chest-deep, proving I’m wrong.
We’re safely rooted,
Rocked on his toes.

Nothing irked him more
Than asking, “What is there
Beyond death?”
His theory once was
That love greets you,
And the loveless
Don’t know what to say.

Sunday Contemplation — Finding Wisdom — Barbara Tuchman



“An event of great agony is bearable only in the belief that it will bring about a better world. When it does not, as in the aftermath of another vast calamity in 1914-18, disillusion is deep and moves on to self-doubt and self-disgust.”– Barbara Tuchman

Barbara Tuchman was an earnest historian.  She began her career as a journalist and worked assignments in Japan during the Shōwa period and witnessed the rise of nationalism and the military state there.  Afterward, she became an editor at The Nation, working as a war correspondent covering the Spanish Civil War.  Thus she bore first hand witness to and recorded the history that unfolded before her during one of the most tumultuous and tragic periods of human civilization.

Later in life she turned her full attention to history, and it is there that her full talent revealed itself.  She is known for a trilogy of books about different topics concerning the period prior to and during the First World War.  These are The Zimmerman Telegram, The Guns of August, and The Proud Tower.  She also penned a comprehensive history of China’s convulsive period from 1911 until the end of the Second World War conjoined with how these events were seen through the eyes of an energetic U.S. Army officer in the book Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-1945.  For both The Guns of August and Stillwell she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.  Other books of note include A Distant Mirror:The Calamitous 14th Century, The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, and The First Salute.  She received the National Book Award for A Distant Mirror on its paperback release–a strange practice of revisiting worthy but overlooked books on their initial hardcover release that has since been discontinued.

For me the books that focus on the period leading up to and including the First World War–the trilogy listed above–combined with Stilwell serving as epilogue, provide the most intelligible record of a largely incomprehensible period of human history.  These books speak to us on many levels for not only do they record specific events and times, they also explore the depth of the bottomless well known as human folly.  Like Hannah Arendt, she approached history and tragic events in an unconventional manner, applying irony–much criticized lately–as an effective device in highlighting the foolishness of human actions and the frailty of human existence.  For example, in noting the epic tragedy of the First World War with its endless trench warfare and blind charges into fortified positions that produced such horrific results she observed:  “Human beings, like plans, prove fallible in the presence of those ingredients that are missing in maneuvers – danger, death, and live ammunition.”

More immediately, it has become increasingly clear since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, that the politics, social upheavals, and decisions made during this period continue to loom over entire parts of the globe today.  It is almost as if the bipolar post-World War II Cold War construct had been but a constraining and moderating blanket which, when lifted, allowed all of the built-up hatreds, ethnic and religious animosities, nativism, anti-democratic economic oligarchies, and nationalistic and jingoistic ambitions to rise to the surface once again.  We have seen, as a result, tragedies in our own times from these poisons rising to the surface: the dissolution and unraveling of Yugoslavia leading to the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, Herzogovina, and Kosovo; the widespread upheavals across the Arab world and the Far East, the rise of fundamentalist and militant sects in almost all areas of religious faith, wars of genocide in central Africa, the reemergence of animosities between China and its neighbors, and the rise of Russian imperialism in Europe under a new banner.  Here at home, as in other Western nations, we have seen the rise of political movements and economic elites that would turn the clock back to 1914 and before.  Given such developments it is here too that Tuchman informs.  “Learning from experience,” she wrote, “is a faculty almost never practiced.”  But learn we must, and apply the experience of other generations to allow us to avoid in our own times errors and follies whose consequences, given the ability of modern technology to extinguish human existence, would be much more tragic.

If we begin with The Proud Tower we enter a world in which we trace the strains on civilization that eventually led to the tragedy of 1914.  Beginning its narrative in 1890, the book illustrates the period in unexpected ways through the fog of time.  In the words of the author: “(this is not) the book I intended to write when I began. Preconceptions dropped off one by one as I investigated. The period was not a Golden Age or Belle Epoque except to a thin crust of the privileged class. It was not a time exclusively of confidence, innocence, comfort, stability, security and peace. . . . Our misconception lies in assuming that doubt and fear, ferment, protest, violence and hate were not equally present. We have been misled by the people of the time themselves who, in looking back across the gulf of the War, see that earlier half of their lives misted over by a lovely sunset haze of peace and security. It did not seem so golden when they were in the midst of it.”  Ms. Tuchman’s admission to having to strip herself of her preconceptions of the period is no mean feat.  This is the essence of intellectual honesty and, as a result, we find insights and honesty throughout its observations and conclusions.  Thus, we learn much about the past and are left to draw our own lessons from it–a period in history that was in rapid transition that few of its leading citizens outside of the arts seemed to note.

Ms. Tuchman’s magnum opus is The Guns of August.  Here she traces all of the trends and personalities involved in the disastrous decisions that led the world to war.  She begins her narrative with the funeral of Edward VII of England in May of 1910.  World leaders met to pay their last respects to the son of the queen whose own rule was short compared to that of his mother–Queen Victoria.  What we see is that so many of the major powers of the world are still ruled by kings, queens, czars, and emperors–a world very much different from the one we know today.  This knowledge informs our perspectives in reading other histories of the 20th century, particularly as it relates to Europe, in understanding that even in the 1920s and 1930s, in the wake of the Great War, that many people had narrowed their choices between competing authoritarian and totalitarian ideologies: Communism and Fascism.  Coming away from the funeral in 1910, former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt came away from his visit, having seen the strains and ambitions expressed by the assembled leaders, convinced that Europe was on the brink of war.

Roosevelt, more than anyone, was an astute observer and an historian in his own right.  By 1910 the Eurasian nations were aligned through pacts–some secret and some not so secret–established for the mutual protection of the parties involved.  The Proud Tower chronicled the ceremonial hand waving at the peace conferences prior to the Great War that were attempts to establish an international security framework in lieu of military alliances.

Furthermore, the nations of Europe had developed some deep-seated prejudices and assumptions about their neighbors.  The Germans, for example, had successfully invaded France in the Franco-Prussian War.  It is this war that led to the unification of Germany under Bismark, social upheavals in France, and French designs to retake its lost territory of Alsace-Lorraine.  The French had constructed fortifications along the corridor of the previous Prussian invasion, causing the German general staff to develop a plan to go around those fortifications by attacking France through Belgium.  This plan did not take into account Great Britain’s historic guarantee of Belgian sovereignty.  The French for their part believed that “elan” and Napoleonic daring could overcome the firepower and bullets of modern weaponry.  The Germans also viewed Russia as a weakling and its leadership incompetent.  This view was reinforced by its losses to Japan in 1904-05.  Austria-Hungary, which viewed itself as the bulwark of western civilization against the east, had designs to expand its influence, particularly in the Balkans.  Russian for its part still smarted from its humiliations.  As with every repressive regime, it looked to foreign enemies to quell its internal instability.  It found these enemies in Europe and espoused a pan-Slavic ideology to claim areas of influence over large swaths of Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the Baltic states.  Add to this the colonial holdings and ambitions of the major European powers, as well as Great Britain’s role as enforcer of the world order, and you have the ingredients for world war.

Thus, the Germans backstopped the Austrians and viewed itself encircled by enemies in France and Russia, France and Russia guaranteed the security of the other, Russia was allied with Serbia, Austria-Hungary felt secure in its alliances with Germany and Italy, and Great Britain and its Commonwealth was obligated to support Belgium and France.  It was this system of pacts, alliances, hostilities, and prejudices that Roosevelt observed and which set the dominoes in motion after being given a push.  For any high school student paying attention the assassination of Grand Duke Ferdinand in Serbia was that push.  Automatically and without thought, the parties acted as if they could not intervene in their own unfolding events.  When the war, particularly along the Western Front, ground to a stalemate the parties involved refused one after another to stop the carnage that was to consume an entire generation for another four years.  Tuchman tells this story in gripping detail, all the while keeping her eye on the facts and larger events.  Her literary style, and narrative voice keep the reader engaged in understanding the otherwise confusing motivations and actions.  It is this ability that defines the book as a magisterial work.

In The Zimmerman Telegram, Ms. Tuchman traces the U.S. entry into the Great War.  The book traces the discovery and release of a telegram from German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann to Germany’s Ambassador to Mexico, Heinrich von Eckardt in 1917 to convince Mexico to engage in war with the United States in order to keep the country out of Europe on the side of the Allies.  As unlikely as this situation seems to modern readers, the history of relations between the United States and Mexico were very strained, particularly during this time.  Mexico had undergone a series of revolutions beginning in 1910, one unauthorized overthrow even being fostered in 1913 by the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico with the instigation of U.S. industrialists who had invested in the country.

As a result, tensions between the countries rose, especially when President Woodrow Wilson attempted to undermine the dictator Victoriano Huerta, who had been installed by the U.S.’s own rogue ambassador.  Tensions continued to rise as Emiliano Zapata launched a revolution to the south and Pancho Villa waged a revolutionary war in the north along the U.S. border, creating chaos throughout Mexico.  Hoping to destabilize Huerta, President Wilson launched a naval occupation of Veracruz upon the unauthorized arrest of American naval personnel in Tampico and Veracruz.  American forces eventually ceded Veracruz back to Mexico.  But another American incursion occurred after Pancho Villa crossed the border and attacked and pillaged the New Mexico town of Columbus in order to resupply his forces after a devastating defeat.  From March 1916 to February 1917 General John Pershing launched a punitive expedition into Mexico with the intent of capturing Villa, which it did not do.  But U.S. forces did manage to destabilize Villa’s forces in the north and secure the border.

Against this backdrop of impending war with Mexico, the Zimmerman Telegram emerged, and with it the attention of United States public focused on the actions and machinations of Germany.  Germany’s Foreign Secretary’s proposal, which Wilson released to the U.S. press, had an explosive effect, especially when it was suggested that in the resulting peace that Mexico would be given back its lost territories of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.  While historians have argued, since the book’s publication in 1958, that the U.S. likely would have gone to war with Germany in any event for its unrestricted submarine warfare and the loss of American and civilian lives that resulted, the Zimmerman telegraph probably pushed President Wilson to break his 1916 pledge to keep out of the war and negotiate a peace among the parties.  It also resulted in a number of immigration and other discriminatory legislation being passed against both Mexican and Japanese immigrants.  Ms. Tuchman outlines the cryptographic details, German duplicity and arrogance, and the resulting ramifications in her signature lucid and honest prose.

Finally, in Stilwell and the American Experience in China Tuchman hints at the frustration and regrets of American shortcomings that would increasingly frame her later writing.  Through the eyes of General Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, staff officer to the American Occupation Zone in Shanghai and America’s roving intelligence officer in China from 1934-1940, she traces the American fascination with and idealization of China as an emerging democracy shaking off the binds of colonialism.  Central to Stilwell’s activities are his support for Chiang Kai-shek as the inheritor of Sun Yat-sen’s dream of a Chinese republic.  In particular, his efforts focused on the China-Burma theater in establishing logistical operations to aid the Chinese army in resisting the Japanese invasion.  In the end, however, Stilwell was given the minimal amount of support, both logistical and political, and so could neither provide enough support to make Chiang’s army effort nor to force Chiang to change his corrupt ways.  In the end Stilwell’s mission is a failure and Tuchman expresses all of the disillusionment and disappointment that can be mustered when an opportunity is allowed to pass.  It would not be long before the new post-war American right wing would be looking for scapegoats for “losing China.”  Tuchman’s book, however, shows that it was never ours to win or lose.

Taken together, the common theme throughout Tuchman’s books is how individuals and nations delude themselves into believing a narrative that parts with reality.  As she would write in A Distant Mirror, “When the gap between ideal and real becomes too wide, the system breaks down.”

Memorial Day Weekend Contemplation — Finding Wisdom — Miguel de Cervantes and Don Quixote


“It is one thing to write as poet and another to write as a historian: the poet can recount or sing about things not as they were, but as they should have been, and the historian must write about them not as they should have been, but as they were, without adding or subtracting anything from the truth.” — Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote

All modern fiction flows from Don Quixote.

Its author, Miguel de Cervantes, was born into a poor family about 1547 in the Castilian city Alcala de Henares, which lies several miles northeast of Madrid.  As a youth he fell madly in love with a local barmaid by the name of Josefina Catalina de Parez, but was forbidden to see her as a result of his poor prospects of making a living, given the lowly station of his bird.  He fled the rough circumstances of his birth, as many Spaniards did at the time, by first landing a job as a chamber assistant to a wealthy priest in Rome in 1569.  A year later he joined the Spanish Navy Marines (the Infanteria de Marina), which was stationed in Naples, Italy, then a possession under the Spanish crown.  While in Italy he was greatly influenced by the art, architecture, and learning of the high Renaissance that was all around him, and wrote about these experiences in his later writings and through fictional situations.

After only a year in Naples he participated in the significant sea battle of Lepanto in October 1571.  During this battle the Holy League, hoping to stem the Islamic Ottoman Empire’s influence into the Western Mediterranean, prevailed over its rival, who had not lost a sea battle since the century before.  Cervantes, suffering from fever, participated in the battle nonetheless, and was wounded three times from gunshot wounds: two in the chest and one to his left arm that left it useless for the remainder of his life.

He was hospitalized six months from his wounds from the battle and then returned to service and Naples until September 1575.  During this period he participated in additional expeditions and battles, including the fall of Tunis to the Turks.  At the end of his assignment in Naples, he boarded the galley Sol, which was headed to Barcelona, carrying with him letters of commendation from the Duke of Sessa to the King of Spain for his heroism and service.  While off the Catalan coast the Sol was engaged by Algerian corsairs and, after the captain and many officers perished, was taken as a prize, the survivors–including Cervantes–made slaves.  He attempted to escape at least four times over the five years of his captivity in Algiers.  It was not until his parents successfully ransomed him through the intercession of the Trinitarian order was he able to return to Madrid and freedom.

After his return to Spain Cervantes struggled to find his place in Spanish society.  His request two times to emigrate to the New World, in 1582 and 1590, which was another means of rising in Spanish society, were denied by the Spanish Crown.  Though married in December 1584 he worked at various jobs as well as launching his career as a writer, including as a purchasing agent for the Spanish Armada, and as a tax collector.  During this time he continued to struggle financially.  In 1585 he published his first major work, La Galatea, which garnered very little interest from the Spanish public.  Ostensibly a pastoral romance the stories of the novel stitch together his poetry, which seem to be the main purpose of the work and has established him in the pantheon of great poets.  But La Galatea also anticipates many of the themes that he pursued to much better effect in Don Quixote: low people with high values, and high characters with low intentions.

He also wrote several plays during the period prior to Don Quixote, barely making a living and fell into bankruptcy and imprisoned as a result at least twice: in 1597 and 1602.  It was supposedly during his second imprisonment in La Mancha that the idea for Don Quixote came to him.  Thus, at the age of 58, Cervantes successfully published the first part of his classic work, following with the second half in 1615.

The work has become such a part of our literary and cultural heritage that we have woven its images and themes into our lexicon (e.g., quixotic) and in our art, as with this iconic image by the artist Salvador Dali:

Dali Don Quixote

Most of this imagery is based on the popular first, farcical, part of the novel, which is probably as far as an average reader can get through the work.  It is in this part that the stories of the muleteers, his tilting against windmills, the goatherds, and his other popular misadventures are told.  In the later, second part, Cervantes employs devices never before seen in fiction, and which anticipate many of the devices seen in the modern novel today, such as the character that is aware that it is being written about.

All of these characteristics do make the novel both the first modern novel and one of the greatest of all time.  But my post is most concerned about how Cervantes through Don Quixote speaks to us today.  In order to understand this we must first place both Cervantes and Don Quixote in their time, which was one of the most significant periods in European history.  Spain at the time, particularly prior to 1588, was the first of what we would later characterize a world superpower.  The original saying, that became known to apply later to the British Empire, was that “the sun never sets on the Spanish Empire.”  The Spanish monarchs influenced and defended the first transnational organization that unified most of Europe–the Roman Catholic Church residing in the Vatican.  From the Netherlands, to Italy, across North Africa, into Asia, the Philippines and the Spice Islands, across the African horn, the Indian subcontinent, and the New World it was the Spanish flag and Spanish authority that contended for hegemony against its sworn enemy: Islam and other forms of heresy.  Its holdings in all of these places brought to the home country galleons burgeoning with silver, gold, and spices that expanded their coffers.

The Spanish Imperial vision was also an apocalyptic one and so–as with most great nations–the strengths that forged its origins and the weaknesses that were baked into those origins later evolved into extreme and grotesque embodiments of themselves, leading both to its cultural fugue and slow decline.  Three years mark significant events related to these weaknesses:  1478, 1492, and 1609.  The first, 1478, marked the start of the Spanish Inquisition, which was a means of the Spanish monarchs to seize control of religious orthodoxy from Rome.  Combined as it was with fealty to the Spanish monarchy, it enforced a type of severe theocracy upon the Catholic people of the Iberian peninsula which was not only enforced from above but insinuated itself into the fabric of Hispanic society anticipating such totalitarian societies as the Soviet Union, Castro’s Cuba, and Cultural Revolution-era China.  The second date was the year Columbus under the authority of the Spanish Catholic Monarchs landed in the New World (though he believed to his death that he had landed in Asia).  More significantly it marked the final conquest of Granada, which was the final foothold of the Moorish (Arab) political authority in Iberia, and the expulsion of the Jews.  The latter royal decree, which was followed up in 1501 to apply to the Moors remaining on the peninsula, took the form of an ultimatum to convert to Catholicism or to leave.  The final date, 1609, marked the forcible expulsion of the Morisco Conversos (Moors who converted to Catholicism) to North Africa.

Prior to 1478, while the Iberian peninsula was in play between the Spanish monarchs and the Moorish caliphs of Al-Andalus, there were periods of tenuous peace and cooperation in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society that helped spark the early European Renaissance.  It was in the Iberian peninsula, Sicily, and the Italian city-states that the Jewish scholars, bringing with them the classical texts of the Hellenic and Hellenistic philosophers preserved by the Arab conquerors, reintroduced these ideas into European society by translating them into Latin.  It was also through the free intercourse of a diverse people through trade and intermarriage that knowledge of Asia and the Spice Islands sparked the European Age of Discovery.

It was not that life during such Golden Ages, where our current concepts of human rights and freedom were unknown, were ones that approached our current state of safety and our current sense of fairness.  Al-Andalus suffered periods of Islamic religious fundamentalism and oppression from time to time.  Relative to what was to come, however, the people of the Iberian peninsula had developed a free and tolerant attitude that was undermined by the legal authority of both the Catholic monarchs and religious authority, enforced by the medieval code of chivalry.  Spain became a terrorist state, focused on the concept of Christian “limpieza de sangre” (purity of blood).  By the time of Cervantes, there was a large black market in false family trees to ensure that one’s Jewish or Moorish ancestry would not be uncovered.

The chivalric tradition, with its emphasis on defending the Catholic Church and the monarchy, stood in opposition to the emerging idea of civic republicanism, also known as civic humanism.  This concept emphasized, in the words of Paul Rosenberg recently at

“was practiced by the Renaissance-era Italian city-states. In a world dominated by large feudal hierarchies, with powerful militaries at their command, citizens of republics were collectively and individually responsible for sustaining the sphere of relatively remarkable freedom they enjoyed — including, but not limited to being responsible for military defense. The spirit of patriotism which animated them derived from the fact that they were responsible for continually re-creating the political community that gave their lives meaning.”

The most prominent advocate of this concept came from Niccolo Machiavelli, who lived from 1469-1527, and it would be hard in reading Cervantes that he was not influenced by the Italian reintroduction of civic virtue in this manner.  Living under oppression the artist across history has found many ways to express heterodox ideas without running into trouble with the authorities or other self-appointed defenders of orthodoxy.  I believe the same is true of Cervantes in his great book.

Thus, given this context, we learn in Book One of Don Quixote that the story was conveyed to the author by the (fictitious) Muslim historian Cide Hamete Benengeli.  In this way Cervantes ties Spanish tradition at the outset to their Moorish influences–a tie that would not be permissible in any other real way.  Furthermore, we find in the fictional narrative that the chronicles of Don Quixote were originally written in Arabic and translated by a Morisco.  Throughout the tales of this Picaresque novel we find the protagonist applying the principles of chivalry through the lens of his delusions in increasingly outlandish and satirical ways.  What happens to Don Quixote and his loyal servant Sancho Panza are both extremely funny and sad.  Almost everyone he encounters swears fealty to chivalric traditions, religious and cultural orthodoxy but, in the end, are interested only in their own self-interest and in deceiving the obviously deluded old man before them.  In the second book the cruelest deceptions are inflicted by a Duke and Duchess, the legend of Don Quixote and his squire now known far and wide among the literate classes of Spain.

Thus 16th and 17th century Spain, through its oppression in seeking racial and religious purity, had created a vast wasteland.  The old virtues no longer held sway, if they ever did, and the people–isolated as they were by fear and loathing–could not adopt the new ones.  Only delusion held things together.  In the novel, when our Knight Errant returns to reality and, once again becomes Alonso Quixano the hidalgo, he has no choice but to die.  Imperial Spain was rotting from the inside.  It would take another 200 years before its decline would lead to its fall at the hands of Napoleon’s France.

Thus Don Quixote is many things and its full meaning has eluded readers for over 400 years.  It is both funny and extremely sad, as life is; and certainly as we look back at Cervantes’ own life, as it must have been for him.  For one can only cry and laugh at the extreme cruelties, stupidities, deceptions, and hypocrisies of his time and our own.  He was an insider, a heroic man who, like his character, at first believed in the cause for which he fought, was wounded, enslaved, and upon his liberation, found that in his own society that he was also an outsider; deceived, rejected, defrauded, and imprisoned.  In the end Alonso Quixano became Don Quixote on his own terms, just as the wounded hero Miguel de Cervantes became the one of the greatest authors of all time.

 “Too much sanity may be madness and the maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it should be.” — Miguel de Cervantes

Sunday Contemplation — Finding Wisdom — Albert Camus

Albert Camus

“The evil that is in the world almost always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.”

Albert Camus was a philosopher like Bertrand Russell was a philosopher.  Camus, whose fiction is among the greatest written in the 20th century, denied that he was a philosopher or that he was proposing a philosophical position.  Indeed, in reading his fiction and essays it is apparent that he places little value in modern philosophy, ideology, and religion because, ultimately, each promises a utopia that is unrealizable and that oftentimes ends in evil, even though the intentions of the proponents of those schools of thought may be good.  Out of these writings, however, he does construct an edifice for how we can live our lives in a universe that we learn is vaster and older than we ever imagined.  In this way he anticipates the current crop of scientific writers who are beginning to extend their interests to this same territory, in particular, the so-called New Atheists through such works as Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins as in this talk:

But also other writings from various specialties such as Lewis, Amini, and Lannon in A General Theory of Love.  Or perhaps it is they who have continued his line of thought, though they may not be entirely aware of that fact.

For Camus, who lived first-hand during the fall, humiliation, and Vichy collaboration of his beloved France–a member of the Resistance–life was an “absurd” proposition since we live our mortal lives and ask ultimate questions in the face of a silent universe.  In his book length essay The Myth of Sisyphus (1942; Eng. tr. 1955) he noted that we humans continue to ask such questions yet, like Sisyphus, find ourselves tumbling back down the hill.  Reason and deductive philosophical methods fail to answer these questions since they attempt to prove using circular reasoning the propositions that they assume as true.

For me the essential wisdom to be garnered from Camus lies in the novels The Stranger (1942; Eng. trans., 1946), The Plague (1947; Eng. trans., 1948), and The Fall (1956; Eng. tr. 1957), though along with the essays The Rebel (1951; Eng. tr. 1954) and the aforementioned The Myth of Sisyphus, though he hardly ever wrote anything that was not worth reading.  Wisdom derived from these works is not simply in the philosophical propositions that they explore but in their insight into the human condition.

In The Stranger, the main character Meursault, a French Algerian, describes his world in a detached and pathological manner.  He is what today we would recognize as a sociopath, a condition that may describe as many as one of every twenty five people.  It is here that Camus explores the nature of evil.  The book opens with him discussing the death of his mother in a dry, almost passive voice, which he learns through a telegram.  He is asked to travel to a nursing home a distance away to make arrangements for her burial, which he does reluctantly.  He then returns home as quickly as he can to spend time with his girlfriend, for whom he expresses no feeling.  As we explore Meursault’s character we find that he does not care about anything, nor does he share empathy with his fellow human beings.  He decides eventually to kill another person as an intellectual exercise.  He wants to know: can he kill a stranger without anger?

When he is arrested for the crime Meursault barely tries to defend himself, explaining to the jurors that he feels nothing but annoyance at having to defend his actions.  As a result he is put to death for his crime.  The Stranger was first published in 1942 during the Nazi occupation of France.  It was during this time that Camus was editor of the Resistance newspaper Combat.  All around him was the horror of human cruelty given legitimacy by an invading force that killed without regret.  It is in this context that the novel’s flat tone is both shocking and intimate given the monstrous human phenomenon it describes.  For Camus, evil is ignorant–pathology and solipsism being extreme forms of ignorance.  The character Meursault sounds much like the pleadings of Eichmann after his capture by the Israeli authorities chronicled in Hannah Arendt‘s landmark book Eichmann in Jerusalem.  In her study of the man Arendt posited that Eichmann was anything but an aberration but, in her terminology, evil it turns out is banal.  In this same vein Camus’ Meursault is a very banal man, and the embodiment of his own country’s collaboration with fascism and the Holocaust which caused people to do horrible things to their fellow human beings.

In The Plague, Camus’ masterpiece, scores of people are falling ill and dying in the Algerian city of Oran.  Despite the reality before them, the city’s leaders are unwilling to accept that it is bubonic plague.  As the disease runs out of control with fear running amok, the government finally takes action and places the city under quarantine.  The people of the city are now not only cut off from the outside world and their loved ones, but also cut off from social contact within the city.  Fear, isolation, and panic overtake the community.

As Camus develops his story the people of Oran react in one of two ways to the plague: those who personalize the danger and regret their lives, and those who dedicate themselves to caring for the sick, despite the personal danger to their own health.  Among this latter group is Dr. Rieux and a few of his acquaintances.  Only after almost half of the city’s population dies does the community realize that all of them have a high probability of dying.  Accepting their own mortality they develop a sense of unity and place the needs of the community of a whole above their own personal needs and desires.  This is a theme that Camus will revisit in later essays and literature.  Faced with the realization of one’s mortality in an indifferent universe does one give up and die, pursue one’s own interests, or is there still another way to preserve the best that makes us human?  Camus comes down strongly for finding such a way in the compassion, sympathy, and empathy felt among one’s fellow human beings, which speak to the needs of all of us.

In The Fall, probably Camus’ most controversial and complex novel, we follow the conversation between former Parisian lawyer, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, and a fellow Parisian he meets in a seedy dockside bar in Amsterdam named Mexico City.  The conversation is one-sided, and first person through the second person, not an unfamiliar approach for those familiar with the work of Joseph Conrad.  The story covers a period of five days in five separate locations starting at the bar and ending in Clamence’s apartment.  Clamence describes himself as a “judge-penitent,” and it is not entirely clear what he means when his narrative begins, but which reveals itself as the story unfolds.

The novel follows three main sections:  Clamence in Paris and his fall, Clamence in a prison camp during the Second World War, and Clamence’s acquisition of the painting “The Just Judges.”  Each of these sections pose a dilemma and explain Clamence’s self-description of “judge-penitent.”

In Paris, before his self-described fall, Clamence had been a well respected lawyer.  He viewed himself as the defender of the downtrodden and actively sought out cases that bolstered his image in this way.  His actions were not so much motivated by altruism than both public approval and self-image.  Clamence’s fall, and his self-imposed exile to Amsterdam, is caused by his own lack of action when a woman falls to her death along the River Seine.  He passed the woman along his walk and saw that something was amiss.  Regardless he presses on and hears a splash, though he doesn’t see her fall.  He chooses not to go back and investigate, avoiding the choice of whether to place his own life in danger in saving the woman.  He tries putting the incident out of his mind and avoids reading the newspapers in fear that they may confirm that the woman did, indeed, jump–an act that would undermine his own self-image.

Then one day, he finds himself close to the same location along the river while in a self-congratulatory mood.  He hears laughter in the distance and it seems to be coming from the water, though he turns and it most likely came from two lovers in the distance, though there is enough doubt in the narrative to suggest that it was generated by Clamence’s subconscious and that he himself uttered the laugh.  He is thus reminded of his cowardly behavior and the possibility of the woman’s death.  He is struck by the contradiction of his self-image and the reality of his motivations and actions.

Later Clamence’s “fine picture of himself” is literally shattered by a sucker-punch to the face coming from a motorcyclist with whom he gets into an argument for blocking a congested city street.  Dejected and seeing for himself for the first time for what he truly is, Clamence attempts to destroy the image he built of himself, living a life of debauchery and consorting with the worst elements of Paris.  Despite these attempts the myth of his public image is too strong and he fails as a public penitent.

In the second part of the narrative, Clamence tells the story of his desire during the war to join the Resistance, but his fear of death is too much for him.  In fear he instead flees to North Africa with the intention of ending up in London.  I was reminded in reading this portion of the book of the Humphrey Bogart movie Casablanca and came to realize that its narrative was very close to the experience of many Frenchmen during this time.  During his transit Clamence is arrested in Tunis, supposedly as a precautionary measure, and ends up in a German prison camp.  While in the camp he meets a veteran of the Spanish civil war, captured by a “Catholic general” and handed over to the Germans.  The man tells him that, supposedly as a result of the Church’s collaboration, he has lost his faith in Catholicism and posits that a new Pope is needed.  Only able to control the limited environment of their imprisonment, the inmates at the behest of the Spanish inmate elect Clamence the camp “Pope,” with wide latitude over the distribution of food, water, and work assignments.  At first diligent in his duties Clamence abuses his power one day by drinking the water of a dying man.  For the second time we have the imagery of water.  In the first case Clamence refuses to immerse himself to save another.  In this case Clamence consumes the water to cause the death of another.

In the final sequence, the stolen Jan van Eyck panel entitled The Just Judges from the fifteenth-century Ghent altarpiece entitled The Adoration of the Lamb hangs in a cupboard in Clamence’s apartment.  He explains that he acquired it from the bartender of the Mexico City who, in turn, had received it from the thief in return for a drink.  Because Clamence knew that the painting was being sought by the authorities he extended a “kindness” by offering to hide the panel for the new owner.  The subject of the panel are the judges on their way to adore Jesus.  To Clamence the judges will never find him since he cannot offer people the redemption that they seek.  Since Jesus’ teachings emphasized the avoidance of judging others, the Church subverted his message and turned him into the ultimate judge, separating him from his innocence as the Lamb.  It is here that he defines his role as judge-penitent.

Many critics have looked at The Fall as a break from the more optimistic and positive messages in The Plague, The Myth of Sisyphus, and The Rebel.  Instead, however, I believe that this work is the fullest rendering of the human condition that he wrote, exploring the themes that he always visited.  Unlike The Stranger, there is no final judgement that brings justice.  Unlike The Plague, there is no community to pull together.  Instead, in the atomistic post-World War II world we only have individuals who appear to be trustworthy and acting in the public interest, though the reality is starkly different.  What goes around does not always come around.  In this way Camus is much like Mark Twain’s “The Story of the Bad Little Boy.”

The narrative structure goes a step further by insinuating the reader into Clamence’s world.  As such we, the second person, allow him to be what he is.  And, as such, we are co-conspirators to his actions and, by extension, to the world we allow to take place.  It is a book, along with its predecessors, that still speaks to our time.