Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Wind at Djemila

I first encountered the so-called Lyrical Essays of Albert Camus at the end of my second year of college (1978), when I was twenty. Camus quickly became my favorite writer (1) because of his uniquely sensual fatalism (or was it fatalistic sensuality?). Even his philosophical essays, like The Myth of Sisyphus, possess a sensual beauty that I have treasured ever since I first encountered them. And his first novel, L'Étranger - a title rather misleadingly translated by Stuart Gilbert as The Stranger - was a breakthrough for me. I even liked the film Visconti made of it, with Marcello Mastroianni dubbed into French as Meursault. When asked by the judge why he murdered an Arab on the beach, Meursault says, "It was because of the sun."

In the "lyrical" essay, "Return to Tipasa", Camus wrote one of the most moving sentences I ever read: "In the depths of winter, I realized that within me there was an invincible summer." (Au milieu de l'hiver, j'apprenais enfin qu'il y avait en moi un été invincible.) That was written in 1952. In 1936, Camus published "The Wind at Djemila", a starkly beautiful account of his visit to a ruined Roman city in the mountains of Northern Algeria. (See photo) He used the account to present some of his ideas on life and death that had a direct bearing on the development of his theory of the Absurd.

(1) Camus and my other favorite writer, George Orwell, both died in January, a decade apart, at the age of 46.

Albert Camus
The Wind at Djemila

THERE are places where the spirit dies so that a truth may be born which is the spirit’s very negation. When I went to Djemila there was wind and sun but that must wait. What has to be said first is that a great silence reigns there, heavy and without a crack. The cries of birds, the furred sound of a three-holed flute, the stamping of goats, murmurs from the sky--these are so many noises which made up the silence and desolation of the place. Now and then a dry crackling, a shrill cry, mark the flight of a bird that had crouched among the stones. Every road one follows, the paths among the ruined houses, the wide-paved streets under gleaming columns, the immense forum between the arch of triumph and the temple on its hillock, everything leads to the ravines which on every side bound Djemila, a pack of cards spread open under a sky without limits. And one finds oneself there, tense, set face to face with the stones and the silence, while the day advances and the mountains grow larger as they turn violet. But the wind blows on the plateau of Djemila. In that great confusion of wind and sun, the mingling of the light with the ruins, something is forged which gives man the measure of his identity with the solitude and silence of the dead city.

It takes a long time to get to Djemila. It is not a city where one halts, and then goes on. It leads nowhere and opens on nothing. It is a place from which one comes back. The dead city is at the end of a long, twisting road which seems to promise it at each turning and appears thereby so much the longer. When, on a faded tableland sunk among high mountains, its yellowing skeleton rises finally, like a forest of bones, Djemila presents the symbol of that lesson of love and patience which alone can lead us to the beating heart of the world. There, amid a few trees, some dry grass, she defends herself with all her mountains and all her stones against vulgar admiration, the picturesque, or the deceptions of hope.

In this arid splendour we wandered all day long. Little by little the wind, hardly felt at the beginning of the afternoon, seemed to grow with the hours and fill the whole landscape. It blew from a gap in the mountains, far away to the east, hastened up from the depths of the horizon, and bounded, cascading, amid the stones and the sun. Without cease, it whistled powerfully through the ruins, bathed the heaps of pitted blocks, surrounded each column with its breath, and came to spill out in unceasing moans over the forum that lay open to the sky.

I felt myself shaking in the wind like a mast. Hollowed out by my surroundings, eyes burning, lips cracked, my flesh became so dry that it was no longer mine. Through it, before, I had deciphered the writing of the world, the signs of its tenderness or its anger, the warmth of its breath, or the bite of its frost. But, buffeted so long by the wind, washed by it for more than an hour, dazed out of resistance, I lost consciousness of the pattern traced by my body. I was polished by the wind, worn down to the soul. I became a little of that force by which I drifted, then more, then, at last, nothing else, confounding the beating of my blood with the great sounding beat of this ever-present heart of nature. The wind fashioned me in the image of the scorching nudity that surrounded me. And its fugitive embrace gave me, a stone among stones, the solitude of a column or an olive tree against the summer sky.

This violent bath of sun and wind drained all the life from me, hardly leaving that fluttering, that grumbling, that feeble revolt of the spirit. Soon, spread out to the four corners of the world, I was the wind, and in the wind, these columns and this arch, these hot flagstones, and these pale mountains around the deserted city. And never have I felt so strongly both my detachment from myself and my presence in the world.

Yes, I am present. And what strikes me at this moment is that I can go no further. Like a man condemned to life imprisonment, for whom everything is in the present, but who also knows that tomorrow will be the same, and all the other days. Because for a man to become aware of his present is to expect nothing any longer. If there are landscapes which are states of the soul, they are the most vulgar. Through this landscape I followed something which was not mine, but it’s like a taste of death we had in common.

Between these columns with their now oblique shadows, anxieties came to rest like wounded birds. And in their place, this arid lucidity. As the day advanced and the noises and the lights were snuffed out under the ashes descending from the sky, abandoned by myself, I felt defenseless against the slow forces within me which said no.

Few people understand that there is a rejection which has nothing in common with renunciation. What does it mean here, the word "future"? What can the "progress" of the heart mean? If I obstinately refuse all the "laters" of the world it is because it is a question also of not renouncing my present riches. It does not please me to believe that death opens on another life. For me, it is a door that closes. I do not say it is a threshold that must be crossed, but rather that it is a horrible and filthy misfortune. Everything that men propose to me is an attempt to rid man of the weight of his own life. And before the heavy flight of the great birds in the sky of Djemila it is exactly a certain weight of life that I ask for and obtain.

To be wholly in this passive passion--the rest no longer concerns me. I have too much youth in me to be able to speak of death. But it seems to me that if I had to, it is here that I would find the exact word to express, between horror and silence, the conscious certainty of a death without hope.

One lives with a few familiar ideas. Two or three. In one’s chance encounters with men and worlds, one polishes these ideas, one transforms them. It takes ten years to have an idea really one’s own—about which one can talk. Naturally, it is a little discouraging. But only that way does a man gain intimacy with the beauty of the world. Until then, he saw it bluntly, face to face. Now it is necessary for him to take a step sideways to look at its profile. A young man sees the world face to face. He has not had time to polish the idea of death or nothingness of which, however, he has digested the horror. That is what youth should be, this hard confrontation with death, this physical fear of the animal that loves the sun.

Contrary to what is said, in this respect, at least, youth has no illusions. It has had neither the time nor the piety to construct any. And, I do not know why, before this furrowed landscape, before this solemn, mournful outcry of stone, Djemila, inhuman in the setting sun, before this death of colours and hope, I was sure that at the end of their lives men worthy of the name should find this confrontation again, deny the few ideas which were theirs and recover the innocence and the truth that shines in the faces of the men of ancient times before their destiny. They regain their youth, but it is by embracing death. Nothing is more contemptible in this respect than sickness. It is a remedy against death. It prepares for it. It creates an apprenticeship of which the first stage is tenderness for oneself. It supports man in the great effort he makes to escape from the certainty of utter death. But Djemila .... and then I feel that the true, the only progress of civilisation, that to which from time to time a man attaches himself, is in creating conscious deaths.

What always astonishes me, when we are so prompt to refinement on other subjects, is the poverty of our ideas about death. It is good or it is bad. I am afraid of it or I long for it (as they say). But this proves also that everything simple is beyond us. What is blue, and what can one say about blue? One has the same difficulty with death. About death and colours we cannot reason. And yet what is really important is this man before me, heavy as the earth, who prefigures my future. But can I truly think about it? I tell myself: I must die, but this means nothing, since I cannot make myself believe it and can only experience the death of others. I have seen peopled die, above all, I have seen dogs die: it was touching them that upset me. Then I think: flowers, smiles, the desire for women, and I understand that all my horror of death lies in my jealousy of life. I am jealous of those who will live and for whom flowers and the desire for women will have all their meaning of flesh and blood. I am envious, because I love life too much not to be an egoist. What does eternity matter to me ? One may be lying in bed one day and hear: "You are strong and I owe it to you to be honest ; I can tell you, you are going to die"---one may be there, with all one’s life in one’s hands, all one’s fear in one’s intestines, and an idiotic look on one’s face.

What does the rest matter ? Men die in spite of themselves, in spite of appearances. Ones says to them," When you are well .... " and they die. I do not want any of that. For if there are days when nature lies, there are days when she tells the truth. Djemila speaks truly tonight, and with what sad and insistent beauty! For myself, here in the world, I do not want to lie nor to be lied to. I want to carry my lucidity to the end and look at my death with all the profusion of my jealousy and horror. It is in the measure that I separate myself from the world that I am afraid of death, in the measure that I attach myself to the fate of living men, instead of contemplating the enduring sky. To create conscious deaths is to diminish the distance which separates us from the world, and makes us enter without joy into the consummation of our lives, conscious of the exalting images of a world forever lost. And the sad song of the hills of Djemila drives deeper into my soul the bitterness of this lesson.

Towards evening we climb the slopes which lead to the village and, retracing our footsteps, we listen to explanations--"Here is the pagan city, this quarter which rises out of the earth is that of the Christians. Later .... " Yes, it is true. Men and societies have followed each other here; conquerors have marked this countryside with their civilisation of subalterns. They had a mean and foolish conception of grandeur and measured that of their empire by the surface it covered. The miracle is that these ruins of their civilisation are the very negation of their ideal. For this skeleton city, seen from so high, in the descending evening with the white flight of pigeons around the arch of triumph, did not write on the sky the signs of conquest and ambition. The world always ends by vanquishing history. This great stone outcry that Djemila utters amid mountains, sky, and silence, I know its poetry well; lucidity, indifference, the true signs of despair or beauty. The heart contracts before this grandeur we are already leaving. Djemila remains behind us with the sad water of its sky, a bird song that comes from the other side of the plateau, the sudden, brief descent of goats on the sides of the hills and, in the relaxed and echoing twilight, the living features of a horned god on the pediment of an altar.

Thursday, November 22, 2012


Thanksgiving has a long tradition in America. While most Americans associate Thanksgiving with the Puritan Pilgrims of 1621,(1) the holiday was actually signed into law under FDR as the fourth Thursday of November, after Abraham Lincoln established it as the last Thursday of November, in observance of the turning tide of the Civil War in 1863. Having spent a few Thanksgivings overseas in the military, the photo at right has a special poignance for me.

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

William H. Seward,
Secretary of State

(1) Some American holidays get lost in translation in Japan. For instance, when asked what Thanksgiving commemorated, a Japanese man in the street replied: "It's the day when Noah's Ark landed at Plymouth Rock, and the animals came out, two by two."

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Department of Corrections

Recently, I went back several months to read a few of my posts and discovered so many mis-spells and typos in some of them that I felt obliged to either delete them or make corrections and re-publish them. My excuses are many but unforgivable: I write everything in long hand and, having no computer of my own, I use internet cafes that charge by the hour. Since I have established a routine of two posts every week, these circumstances eliminate any chance of proofreading and/or on the spot revision. Excuses, excuses. I know.

I had a chance to watch the Steven Soderbergh film Contagion, for which I wrote a review last January, again last week. I revised the piece, and offer it again, via link only. As Steve Allen once said, "I stand corrected. I should be, I'm wearing surgical hose."

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

In the Mood

What with Obama winning a second term as our president, a death in the family, and being overtaken by a general malaise, I'm in one of those moods. (I don't blame Obama - he was the lesser of two evils.)

I have used this blog for somewhat less than confessional purposes. I have tried to cast my thoughts in a presentable fashion (without amanuensis). But as my friends dwindle, thanks to my distance from them ("they flee from me that some day did me seek"), I am getting to the point of no return.

Thursday, November 8, 2012


In 1977, in a bizarre twist to one of the most incredible rags-to-riches stories in history, the dead body of Charlie Chaplin was dug out of its grave in Switzerland and kidnapped (1) by two unemployed mechanics. After Chaplin's widow refused to pay a ransom, police caught the two body-snatchers, located the re-buried body of Charlie, and returned it to its proper grave, this time in solid concrete.

For a few years, I have waited with quite morbid curiosity to see the results of experiments with CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) in the duplication of well-known celebrities like Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, and Michael Jackson. Having seen some of the results, I am quite unimpressed. Such technology still has quite a long way to go. It is one thing to re-create these deceased people on film using their own expressions and gestures with which we're familiar. What will be disturbing, not to mention totally out of line, is when the images can be made to do or say things that Elvis or Marilyn or Michael never did, and perhaps would never do. Because, quite aside from the images these people have left behind in the public domain - the same ones Andy Warhol played with in his Pop Art - they once belonged to living, breathing human beings who were, needless to say, proprietary and careful of their use.

Having seen a few samples of the new French-made computer animated series Chaplin & Co., I feel obliged to state categorically that, while it certainly isn't the first time animators have capitalized on Chaplin's timeless Tramp character,(2) the French cartoons ought to be the last. As Arnold Bennett once put it, they are "as hollow as a drum and as unoriginal as a bride-cake." Aside from the fact that the cartoons are uniformly dumb and dull, the assumption that one can take the moustache, the bowler hat, the cane, and baggy pants and regenerate such an inimitable artist as Chaplin is completely stupid. Yes, there is the amusing anecdote of Chaplin entering a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest in Monaco and coming in third. But it doesn't mean that genius can be bested by an imitator, no matter how talented. Whoever it was who judged that look-alike contest must've been a moron who hadn't watched Chaplin's films very closely and who had no understanding of what it took for him to create them. And, in this case, Chaplin didn't just act in his films - he wrote, directed, and edited almost every one of them.

What if it were possible for a computer to re-create the music of John Coltrane or Billie Holliday? The practice assumes that one can separate art from the person who created it. Or how about writing novels like Dickens or Bellow? As George Orwell wrote, "What people always demand of a popular novelist is that he shall write the same book over and over again, forgetting that a man who would write the same book twice could not even write it once."

What if, as has already been implied, a computer could be built that has encoded within it every note ever recorded of Coltrane's saxophone, that could then be programmed to play Coltrane differently? Something on the order of this was perpetrated by Clint Eastwood for his film of Bird, in which Charlie Parker's saxophone solos were isolated in a recording studio, and new musicians, including John Faddis, Ray Brown, and Walter Davis, Jr., were enlisted to play backup. Not only did it show a total disregard for the playing of Parker's original combos, it betrayed the era and the very idiom it was seeking to glorify.     

Here's an idea: why not devote all these technical energies to creating original work?          
Here is one of the trade statements for Chaplin & Co.: 

"Brand manager PGS Ent. has announced a new raft of sales for the CG-animated 104 x 6’ 3D series Chaplin & Co. Produced by Method Animation, MK2 TV, DQ Entertainment Limited, Fabrique d’Images and commissioned by France Télévisions and RAI Fiction, the new comedy series follows the adventures of the irrepressible silent screen legend and his best buddy, The Kid, are always getting themselves into trouble.

The short-format series with no dialogue marks the first time Chaplin has been animated and perfectly recreates the slapstick genius of the master himself for kids and families. Emmanuel Gorinstein and Alexandre de Broca are responsible for the graphic adaptation, while Mathieu Kendrick and Vincent De Mul are the script writers. Cyril Adam and Julien Charles are directing the toon and Franck Roussel and Nicolas Richard deliver the series’ music."

(1) Kidnapped - a last, sad irony for the creator of The Kid.
(2) The producers of the series seem oblivious of the fact that animated cartoons of Chaplin have been around almost as long as Chaplin himself.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Laughing in Tahiti

The dramatic sinking last week of what the media were calling a "tall ship" (it wasn't quite), the Bounty, in eighteen-foot seas off North Carolina must've raised many questions, the most obvious one being, "what the f__k was that ship doing at sea with the once-in-a-lifetime storm [of which we've seen several all over the world the past few years] on its way?" Passengers and crew of the "tourist ship" were rescued by the coast guard, but the 63-year-old captain, Robin Walbridge, true to form, apparently went down with the ship.

I wondered if the ship was the same Bounty - not the HMS Bounty, aka HM Armed Vessel Bounty, last seen on fire off the coast of Pitcairn Island when it was abandoned by its crew of mutineers, led by Fletcher Christian, in 1790. There was a second Bounty (1), an exact and fully functional replica, which was built nearly fifty years ago expressly for use in the production Mutiny on the Bounty, which was scheduled to be directed by the great Carol Reed (The Thid Man), until he quit when the on location antics of its star, Marlon Brando, grew intolerable. He was replaced by veteran director Lewis Milestone (All Quiet On the Western Front), but Brando's misbehavior continued. After the shooting was completed (no thanks to him), he married Tarita Teriipia, who played Maimiti in the film and even bought his very own island.

Brando got advice for his performance as Fletcher Christian from a man named Luis Marden, an explorer and diver, who had discovered the remains of the first Bounty off the coast of Pitcairn and salvaged a rudder pin, an anchor, and a ship's boat oarlock, along with some nails, two of which he turned into cufflinks.

When the film was done with its services, the Bounty was exhibited in the 1964 World's Fair in New York. After years of service for tourist excursions, it was made up to appear as the pirate ship the Black Pearl in The Pirates of the Caribbean films. It was up for sale in 2011, and was in use for private voyages when it encountered Hurricane Sandy on October 29.

The story is quite irresistible to anyone at all interested in seafaring, its history, adventure, hazard, courage, earthly paradise, and sex. The sinking of the Bounty last week was the last chapter in the fervid, and ultimately disappointing story of the film production, unless someone with more money than brains decides to mount a salvage operation on the Bounty replica.

One last sad irony about the shipwreck last week. One of the last passengers rescued by the coast guard was none other than Claudene Christian, Fletcher Christian's great-great-great-great-great granddaughter. She was pulled "unresponsive" from the high seas and was pronounced dead at Albemarle Hospital in Elizabeth City, NC.

One of my favorite movie lines occurs in Ivan Passer's brilliant Cutter's Way. In the middle of an amateur murder investigation, John Heard, playing the title character, tells his wife "Some day in Tahiti, we'll look back on all this and laugh."

(1) A third Bounty, built for the aborted David Lean film - eventually directed by Roger Donaldson in the 1984 film The Bounty, which is a tourist attraction on Lantau Island in Hong Kong and is still in use in films.