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.


Orage said...

I've searched high and low for a translation of this text I do love. Thank you so much for posting it!

katherine wilkins bienkowski said...

did you translate this? if not, who translated it? I'd like to properly cite it when I share it with students! Thank you.

Dan Harper said...

I'm not entirely sure, but I think this is Justin O'Brien's translation. I found it at another website and in copying it I had to make numerous corrections - typos, grammatical errors. So it may differ slightly from O'Brien's translation. Thanks.