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The strangers: Albert Camus and American pop culture

By Maximo Zeledon

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 upheaval.


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 to survive.

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 either.

Maximo Zeledon is an artist, critic, essayist, and political man of letters based in Miami, Florida.

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