strangers: Albert Camus and American pop culture
RAW STORY STAFF WRITER
Albert Camus was a great and brilliant writer who deeply
influenced a generation of young men in Europe, Africa
and Latin America in the 1960s. He was primarily a moral
voice advocating political action and strict adherence
to moral principles in an era of nihilism and social
No writer perhaps did more to restore faith in the pursuit
of knowledge and truth after the end of World War II
than Camus. His willingness to address the horrors of
Nazi terror resulted in a hopeful existential philosophy
based on the power of the individual to resist cruelty
and inhumanity. Nevertheless, more than any other 20th-century
intellectual, Camus’ reputation at any given moment
has been shaped by pop culture and current prejudice.
This is particularly true in the United States where
his influence never reached the mainstream despite the
accessible nature of his work.
Introducing Camus to a wider audience never has been
an easy task — philosophical material tends to
pose problems in both academic and public spheres. For
instance, how do you get young Americans interested
in ideas? How do you explain the value of history, literature
and philosophy to a generation of PlayStation addicts
and Vin Diesel fans? Surely truth, knowledge, freedom,
identity, justice and goodness (to name a few) are worthy
and compelling subjects that deserve a place in our
cultural agenda. But you would not know it by reading
the newspaper headlines or by watching the countless
reality-TV shows available on television networks today.
In actuality, to lament over the demise of the quality
of education and editorial content in our society is
futile because blame lies within all of us.
Regrettably, our current cultural dialogue is centered
on desperate bachelorettes seeking true love on network
television, the arrest of a fading pedophile pop star,
and the promiscuous habits of a Hollywood starlet. Not
only are we a nation of misguided opinions, bad taste
and self-adulation, we are also deeply dissatisfied
citizens in need of answers and greater meaning. Indeed,
we live in a society that promotes lies, illusions and
fairy tales — all of which have become deeply
entrenched in our psyche, turning us into what Jean-Paul
Sartre called automatons.
There was a time, though, when the average man in this
country knew a thing or two about the world and his
will to engage the mind in meaningful topics was not
an uncommon occurrence. Just a few generations ago,
World War II taught a generation of men to raise their
level of social consciousness. The experience and aftermath
of war profoundly affected their views on human nature
and existence. Men everywhere were infused with a self-conscious
sense of purpose and a commitment to improve the world
because they did not want future generations to go through
the same horrors. They were also quite cynical and realistic
about their expectations in a world in which instant
annihilation was a reality.
The need for deep introspection produced a cultural
revival; writers like Norman Mailer, James Jones, Joseph
Heller, and Gore Vidal (all fought in WWII) enjoyed
a large following after the war because their novels
resonated with a public eager to come to terms with
war. One of the most popular novels to emerge in that
period was 1951’s “From Here to Eternity,”
made even more unforgettable by the 1953 film starring
Montgomery Clift, Burt Lancaster and Frank Sinatra.
The book by James Jones was both a bestseller and prize
winner. Like most of his writing about the war, the
characters in “From Here to Eternity” were
an emotional mess, burdened by alcohol, severe physical
wounds and depression.
Across the Atlantic, Camus coped with the aftermath
of war by drawing from his own experience and Europe’s
rich philosophical tradition. He developed a stoic philosophy
to respond to the existentialist predicament in which
death and man’s inability to make rational sense
of his daily experience led him to nihilism and indifference.
“The Plague” (published in 1947 and considered
one of his finest works of fiction) is a symbolic novel
in which the important achievement of those who fight
bubonic plague in Oran, Algeria, lies not in the little
success they have in saving people but in their assertion
of human dignity and endurance. For Camus, to lose meaning
and purpose in life was to lose one’s humanity
— a lesson he learned in the years he spent fighting
the Nazis as member of the French underground.
The horrible nature of the Holocaust also made a deep
imprint in Camus’ existentialist philosophy. He
formulated his ideas about humanity and its ultimate
failure to bear witness to the Holocaust in “The
Fall,” which is basically an indictment against
human indifference. (Clamence had the capacity to help
an individual in need, but he failed. He walked away
for fear of being inconvenienced from his self-centered
life.) During the Holocaust, humanity had the opportunity
and the capacity to bear witness — which could
have stopped Hitler — but humanity failed. Camus
faced this reality and made it public to the world.
In doing so he hoped we would learn from the past in
order to overcome our shortcomings. Indifference is
a deplorable but inherent human trait. This makes Camus
an important and relevant writer in these times of cynicism
and political aloofness.
March 20 marked the first anniversary of our involvement
in the Iraq war, which has taken the lives of 564 American
soldiers and wounded another 3,190. With the exception
of a handful of protesters, the general public has not
bothered to question the legitimacy and nature of our
continued armed involvement in the region. Not one significant
piece of resistance has made it to the mainstream media.
This is not merely a matter of taking a political side
— it’s rather an issue of social consciousness,
objectivity and balance.
We are a nation at war, currently fighting on two fronts,
yet there is a disturbing atmosphere of normality in
this country that our corporate and media outlets have
worked very hard and diligently to preserve. A nation
synonymous with dissent has become mute. Each generation
has the right to find comfort where it can, but silence
never should be an option. Citizens must question the
actions of their political leaders in order for a democracy
Instead, all activity in our culture seems to be directed
at making money and satisfying our greedy appetites.
Indeed, we live in a society consumed with material
wealth, in which unremarkable men hold positions of
power and influence because we have stopped thinking
critically and we perceive money and excess as true
signs of power. The potency of celebrity worship has
exhausted our capacity for abstract thought and we have
divorced ourselves permanently from history, literature
and philosophy. We spend a fortune on gym fees, tanning
salons, penile enhancements, protein supplements, Zegna
suits and SL 500s, but we can’t cover the hollow
in our soul. As Hamlet so eloquently put it: “There
is something rotten in the state of Denmark.”
How then do you turn the tables on the elements in
our culture that aims at destroying public consciousness?
How do you eliminate public gullibility? How do you
intellectually engage a new generation of young men?
These are loaded questions, but they are worth considering
if the acquisition of a precise personal, moral awareness
about where we are headed as a nation is to take place.
Creating the conditions under which meaningful cultural
dialogue could reach the “mainstream” starts
with the individual. Reading Camus is not a bad start
Maximo Zeledon is an artist, critic, essayist, and political
man of letters based in Miami, Florida.
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