Thursday, November 7, 2013

The View from the Hill

My two favorite writers are George Orwell and Albert Camus. Orwell was born in 1903 and Camus a decade later, in fact a hundred tears ago today.(1) There are a few interesting similarities between them. Both were born in colonies, outposts of empire: Orwell in British India and Camus in French Algeria. Both were teachers for s short time, long enough to learn that they hated the job. Both were Leftists who tried to avoid its orthodoxies. Both contracted tuberculosis - Camus was cured, but the disease killed Orwell. Both created striking parables on totalitarianism, The Plague in 1947 and Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1949. And both of them died at the age of 46.

Because I encountered him when I was a very young man, Camus has been with me the longest time, and I think I cherish him more because of this. Through the years, the truth in his writings has been continually confimed: "Le monde est beau, et hors de lui, point de salut." (The world is beautiful, and there is no salvation beyond it.) Despite having lived - so far - nine years longer than he, these words seem to me more true than ever.

His seminal, and central essay was The Myth of Sisyphus, published in 1942 concurrent with his first brilliantly serious and sensuous novel, The Stranger (2). Jean-Paul Sartre, who had been a mentor for Camus, was critical of the essay because of its lack of philosophical rigor. Sartre may have been a better philosopher, but Camus was by far the better artist. Sisyphus is a fascinating treatise because of its highly imaginative, personal and emotional content.

It was this work, with its metaphor of a contented - even a happy - Sisyphus fulfilling his Sisyphean task of pushing a giant rock to the top of a hill, only to watch as it rolls all the way back down to the bottom, that introduced to literature Camus's concept of the Absurd, insisting that all human endeavors are ultimately as fruitless and profitless. "The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor."

Faced with knowledge of the futility of his life, Man must inevitably contemplate suicide. "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide." Camus himself had attempted suicide. "At any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face." How can he possibly be happy, knowing what he knows of the futility and hopelessness of his life? What would stop someone from suicide if he possessed such knowledge? Even thus punished for eternity by the Gods, Sisyphus's triumph lies in his rebellion - his refusal to be damned by his labors. "But in the end one needs more courage to live than to kill oneself." Camus concludes in his essay that, even if this tedious effort is his only reality, the condition of being a man, he must accept it, embrace it, ceaselessly throw himself into the effort. "What is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads?"

"I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain. One always finds one's burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

The image that Camus leaves us with is indelible: Sisyphus on the hilltop, turning to descend down the hill to where the rock - his rock - has rolled once again. Is it a faint smile I see on his shadowy face? "In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back."

For me, this is Camus's greatest achievement - making words and abstract concepts into flesh. "In the beginning was the Word," the gospel of John begins. "And the word was made flesh." And it's what distinguishes Camus the artist from Camus the philosopher. It is only because they convince one as works of art that his most philosophical essays live on.

(1) My father was born the same year, on March 13. 3-13-13. Needlessly to say, my father was a gambler all his life.
(2) The word "stranger" is a better equivalent to the French l'√Čtranger than "outsider," which is also gauche.

Monday, November 4, 2013

A World in Print

On further reflection (always a mistake), I find that the words I published two days ago - twenty-two days too late - on the occasion of my learning of the death of Stanley Kauffmann were helplessly inadequate. I was reading a post on John Simon's blog that he published last month, referring to Kauffmann in the past tense. Since I was already sensitive to the man's advanced age (97), I checked and discovered the news of his passing. I seem to have dropped everything since.

I can't properly gauge how much this man meant - and still means - to me, since it had a cumulative effect over most of my life. His writings on film (and it's important to remember that he wrote about much more than just films) are as heartening and restorative to read as it is to watch the films he so brilliantly celebrated, like L'Avventura, about which he wrote in 1960. 

He showed anyone who cared to read his column that, despite all the worthless prattle that about 99 % of film commentary amounts to, some films demand serious consideration. But even when he wrote about utterly forgettable films, like How to Live Forever (2009), he found something beautiful to say (italics mine):

There isn’t much new to be said about death, but that won’t stop us, all of us, from saying it. Hence this documentary—and this review of it.

How to Live Forever was made by the experienced Mark Wexler, who, an affable host, appears in it as interviewer. He visits people all over this country and in a few others who are interested, in their smiling ways, in death. They very rarely mention it: what they talk about mostly is prolonging life or rejuvenation, neither of which would be subjects at all if it were not for death.

The film begins with a visit to a trade show of funeral equipment in a huge exhibition hall through which we are guided by a sexy blonde in a clinging dress who makes winsome faces at us in front of coffins. But Wexler’s tone throughout is not satirical: he is sympathetic as he interviews a guru of calorie-counting-as-life-preserver, one of laughing yoga, one of physical fitness (Jack LaLanne, who did all that fitness could do). He gives us a glimpse of elderly porn performers in Japan. He takes us to visit a 101-year-old man who smokes and drinks, then a 114-year-old woman who did not smoke or drink—on camera at least. We hear the venerable comedian Phyllis Diller, who talks about meeting a man so old that his blood type has been discontinued. There is much, much more.

Through it all we feel a slight bewilderment—that there are so many people who treat death as if it were a problem to be solved. None of the teachers or masters in the film promises immortality, but each of them is proposing—is selling-a means of treating inevitability as questionable. The only memorable comment comes, unsurprisingly, from Sherwin B. Nuland, a professor at the Yale School of Medicine who is also a notable author (and a contributor to these pages). He says he feels that his death is a debt to the past and to the future. We can take this to mean that the past gave him a place in a tremendous procession, that he had a chance to make a contribution, and that now he must make room for those to come. This seems a bit stoic, but it has a ring to it.

Stanley Kauffmann's contribution to the tremendous procession is incalculable.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Stanley Kauffmann (1916-2013)

Stanley Kauffmann, who was The New Republic's film critic for fifty-five years (the length of my own life, so far), died on October 9, at the age of 97. I wish I could say that it has taken me this long to come up with the words to measure the depth of my sense of loss. But the awful fact is, it's taken me this long to find out. I don't have access to the internet 24-7. It's more like an hour or two a week. Here is what The New Republic published on the day of his death. At the bottom of the selection of tributes are links to other articles by and about him. His New York Times obit is here.

I expressed some of my admiration for the man on the occasion of his 97th birthday. I hope I didn't do it too clumsily. The simple fact is that I wanted to say something while he was still around, still in the same world I live in, still watching and commenting on films. Film has gone through too many dispiriting slumps in the last fifty years, shifts in taste and in the utterly fickle attention span of what Kauffmann himself called the Film Generation. Kauffmann took every slump in stride, and insisted that claims for the death of cinema were always premature. Yet he admitted to being amazed, every year, when a beautiful and intelligent film from some of the unlikeliest places in the world showed up on his doorstep in New York. And he sympathized with some of his readers who lived in places where those films would only ever reach them via netflix.

For a long time, I was one of those readers, living in the boondocks. The word "bundok" is a Tagalog (Filipino) word that refers to a remote, inaccessible place. And now I'm living in an actual bundok, in the Philippines, so removed from the world, in fact, that the news of my favorite film critic's death took three weeks to reach me.

He was in the same class of American film critics as Otis Ferguson (who also wrote for The New Republic), James Agee, and Dwight Macdonald. His long life kept alive the somewhat romantic hope that there would be a few more by now to add to that list. America has certainly been luckier with its film critics than with its films. That hope isn't exactly dashed, but it seems so much more romantic than it used to.

So long, Mr. Kauffmann.