Reason in an age of terror: vital reading from Albert Camus

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Photography by Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

As I write this, I am being told by an incessant stream of news and media outlets that I am living in a city and a world in which an astonishing number of my fellow human beings are trying to kill me.

This is not true.

One cannot see the modern world as it is unless we are able to lift the veil of hyper-sensationalist media coverage, which increasingly fictionalises reality.

The overall average likelihood of dying in any kind of terrorist attack worldwide is 1 in 9,300,000 (9.3 million).

You are 14 times more likely to die in your bathtub than in a terrorist attack, 11 times more likely to die by slipping during a shower, 16 times by lightning, 517 times more likely to be murdered (there is on average one murder every 60 seconds worldwide), 991 times by self-injury, 500 times in a car accident (3,000 people die every day in road accidents worldwide), 450 times by falling, 118 times by accidental drowning, 41 times in natural disasters (earthquake, flood etc.), 25 times by choking on food, 13 times by a dog bite, 4 times by falling off a ladder, 1.8 million times by a heart disease, 1860 times by electrocution, 93 times by bee sting, and 3 times more likely to die by a snake bite or food poisoning. (Source)

There are, of course, acts of terror committed by individuals across the world in which innocent people are killed. 2017 was ushered in with a shooting at a nightclub in Istanbul; and has since seen car bombs kill civilians in Mogadishu and Kabul, a shooting in Belfast, and – this week – a rogue vehicle and knife attack  in London. These events are, undeniably, terrible. Yet they remain incredibly rare. Of 162 terrorist attacks worldwide in January this year, only 14 caused more than ten deaths – and these all took place in countries suffering extreme political unrest, including war-torn Syria. The fact remains that the chances of being caught up in such an attack in any Western country remains almost infinitesimally small.

Yet our 24-hour news culture would have us believe that those around us would sooner seek to attack, injure or kill us than help us; and this helps perpetuate the fear of terrorism. See for example, the extremely emotive and theatrical language used in the Daily Mail’s front page story that claims “Jihadis” can find instructions on how to implement a rogue vehicle terrorist attack using Google in less than two minutes.  Such lack of consideration for either facts or for the language with which outlets report the news reinforces the idea that we live in a manufactured and artificial world, where it is difficult to attain a semblance of actuality or reality – and nigh impossible to separate fact from fiction.

This hysterical response also helps spread the ideas that terrorism requires in order to have any meaningful impact. It distorts reality by not providing the full context of attacks, nor considering the wider-influences of them. We are limited only to the immediate background and ideology of attackers, and perhaps some consideration may be given to their state of mental health. But we are not reminded of the sources of different strains of terrorism: British Imperialism in Ireland; Globalisation; the fall of European empires; war in the pursuit of oil; the deals made shortly after the second world war between leaders of the Western world and neo-conservative leaders in Islamic states to consolidate power in the hands of followers of Wahhabism and other extreme forms of Islam.

Without the benefit of context, our world becomes that much more terrifying.

This is because human beings are, and will continue to be, ultimately rational creatures who look to make decisions based on reasoned logic. We are tool makers and problem solvers; yet our brains can only process the information they are given – and it is this information that is increasingly distorted, so that we are only ever presented with a world that is bleak and terrible and awful; and this in turn leads us to fear those around us, which itself leads to more anger and suffering.

Because we are rational, it is vital we remember we live in a world of contradictions; one that is both beautiful and good, and one that can be ugly and evil.

Few authors have written on this with as much clarity or astute insight as Albert Camus.

Writing in the mid-1940s, a time in so many ways as bleak – if not more so – as our current climate of shootings, catastrophic climate breakdown, unacceptable wealth inequality, and globalised conflict, Camus’ magnificent essay ‘The Almond Trees’, calls on us to remember what it is to be human.

We’ve picked out a few choice extracts below:

“We have not overcome our condition, and yet we know it better. We know that we live in contradiction, but we also know that we must refuse this contradiction and do what is needed to reduce it. Our task as [humans] is to find the few principles that will calm the infinite anguish of free souls. We must mend what has been torn apart, make justice imaginable again in a world so obviously unjust, give happiness a meaning once more to peoples poisoned by the misery of the century. Naturally, it is a superhuman task. But superhuman is the term for tasks [we] take a long time to accomplish, that’s all.

Let us know our aims then, holding fast to the mind, even if force puts on a thoughtful or a comfortable face in order to seduce us. The first thing is not to despair. Let us not listen too much to those who proclaim that the world is at an end. Civilizations do not die so easily, and even if our world were to collapse, it would not have been the first. It is indeed true that we live in tragic times. But too many people confuse tragedy with despair. “Tragedy,” [D.H.] Lawrence said, “ought to be a great kick at misery.” This is a healthy and immediately applicable thought. There are many things today deserving such a kick.”

How should we deliver such a kick to our propensity to fall into thoughts of misery and tragedy? Camus argues it requires us to cultivate our minds, and recall our propensity for rationality of thought. He explains, “We will not win our happiness with symbols.  We’ll need something more soild.”

Continuing with this train of thought, he adds:

“If we are to save the mind we must ignore its gloomy virtues and celebrate its strength and wonder. Our world is poisoned by its misery, and seems to wallow in it. It has utterly surrendered to that evil which Nietzsche called the spirit of heaviness. Let us not add to this. It is futile to weep over the mind, it is enough to labor for it.

But where are the conquering virtues of the mind? The same Nietzsche listed them as mortal enemies to heaviness of the spirit. For him, they are strength of character, taste, the “world,” classical happiness, severe pride, the cold frugality of the wise. More than ever, these virtues are necessary today, and each of us can choose the one that suits him best. Before the vastness of the undertaking, let no one forget strength of character. I don’t mean the theatrical kind on political platforms, complete with frowns and threatening gestures. But the kind that through the virtue of its purity and its sap, stands up to all the winds that blow in from the sea. Such is the strength of character that in the winter of the world will prepare the fruit.”

As writers, creatives, and free-thinking individuals, it is vital we use our ability to articulate reasoned thought and ideas into responsible arguments and theses. We must not be caught up in the traps of misery and despair so many media outlets create for us. As Camus notes, this requires a great strength of character – even “superhuman” effort – but this doesn’t make it any less necessary or vital today.

Read Camus’ full essay online.

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Strong Opinions: Vladimir Nabokov’s most controversial views on writing and literature

 

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Self-described as “an American author, born in Russia, educated in England, [who] studied French texts”, Vladimir Nabokov is one of the most remarkable figures of 20th century literature. Perhaps most famous for his novel, Lolita, Nabokov was also a world-renowned expert on butterflies, so much so that in the 1940s he became curator of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology’s butterfly collection. His niche in this quadrant of zoology? An in-depth understanding and life-long research into butterfly genitalia.

Nabokov was also a man of controversy. Many will know of the backlash provoked by Lolita, but fewer perhaps will be aware of how his stubbornly held, often controversial views on literature, writers, famous books and literary critics provoked consternation and shock during his life – and after his death.

A glimpse of this is held in this short film (below) in which the author features. What starts out as a simple reading of Lolita in both English and Russian quickly turns to an airing of Nabokov’s opinions – on the most overrated books in literature.

In the filmed interview (around the 3:24 mark), Nabokov points his lance at the inflated popular notion of “great books”:

“I’ve been perplexed and amused by fabricated notions about so-called “great books.” That, for instance, Mann’s asinine Death in Venice, or Pasternak’s melodramatic, vilely written Doctor Zhivago, or Faulkner’s corncobby chronicles can be considered masterpieces, or at least what journalists term “great books,” is to me the same sort of absurd delusion as when a hypnotized person makes love to a chair.”

The fact that Lolita now tops (or at least features in) many ‘top books of all time’ lists variously assembled across the digital realm of the internet perhaps would not impress Nabokov in the slightest.

Nor, it seems, would much else (besides butterflies, of course).

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Photograph from becky-r/Flickr via Creative Commons

 

Indeed, in a celebrated collection of essays and musings, Strong Opinions, Nabokov lays out some of his most controversial ideas and thoughts. Featuring interviews with the author from the Paris Review to Playboy, the work is a fantastic read for anyone interested (or in need of a refreshing and alternative take on the way we think about writing and literature).

Below, we’ve selected a few of our favourite quotes, and listed a few of the literary titans Nabokov attempts to cut down to size – from E.M Forster through T.S Eliot and D.H. Lawrence.

Nabokov’s strong opinions in quotes

Firstly, to the idea of artistic groups or movements:

“I am not interested in groups, movements, schools of writing and so forth. I am interested only in the individual artist. There are only a few great writers and their work is grotesquely imitated by a number of banal scribblers whom a phony label assists commercially.”

(Note to ourselves: Nabokov would probably not have been a fan of collectives of creatives like Nothing in the Rulebook…)

Secondly – to the readers of his books (SPOILER ALERT: he’s not a fan):

“I don’t think that an artist should bother about his audience. His best audience is the person he sees in his shaving mirror every morning. I think that the audience an artist imagines, when he imagines that kind of a thing, is a room filled with people wearing his own mask.”

(What can we takeaway from this? Vladimir’s house parties were probably not the greatest fun. We imagine the topic of conversation at such events might be ever so slightly self-centred).

Thirdly – literary critics have no purpose

“Literary criticism is not at all purposeful. The purpose of a critique is to say something about a book the critic has or has not read. Criticism can be instructive in the sense that it gives readers, including the author of the book, some information about the critic’s intelligence, or honesty, or both.”

(Vlad probably wouldn’t be a fan of our book reviews, either, then)

Fourth – Editors; beware!

“Among the editors I have known they have been limpid creatures of limitless tact and tenderness who would discuss with me a semicolon as if it were a point of honour – which, indeed, a point of art often is. But I have also come across a few pompous avuncular brutes who would attempt to “make suggestions” which I countered with a thunderous “stet!””

And fifth – sex!

“Sex as an institution, sex as a general notion, sex as a problem, sex as a platitude—all this is something I find too tedious for words. Let us skip sex.”

Nabokov vs the literary establishment

  • Balzac, Honoré de. “Mediocre. Fakes realism with easy platitudes.”
  • Brecht, Bertolt: “A nonentity, means absolutely nothing to me.”
  • Camus, Albert: “I Dislike him. He is second-rate, ephemeral, puffed-up. Awful.”
  • Dostoevsky Fyodor: “He is a cheap sensationalist, clumsy and vulgar. He is less a prophet than a puffed up journalist and a slapdash comedian. Nobod takes his reactionary journalism seriously. Crime and punishment was a ghastly rigmarole.”
  • Eliot, T. S: “not quite first rate.”
  • Faulkner, William: “A writer of corncobby chronicles. To consider them masterpieces is an absurd delusion.”
  • Forster, E. M: “My knowledge of Mr. Forster’s works is limited to one novel, A Passage to India, which I dislike.”
  • Gogol, Nikolai: “Nobody takes his mystical didacticism seriously. At his worst, as in his Ukrainian stuff, he is a worthless writer; at his best, he is incomparable and inimitable. I loathe his moralistic slant, am depressed and puzzled by his inability to describe young women, and deplore his obsession with religion.”
  • Hemingway, Ernest: “He is merely a writer of books for boys. He is better than Conrad and has at least a style of his own. But it is nothing I would care to have written myself. In terms of mentality and emotion, he is hopelessly juvenile. I loathe his works about bels, balls and bulls.”
  • Lawrence, D. H: “Execrable.”
  • Pound, Ezra: “Definitely second rate. A total fake; a venerable fraud.”
  • Sartre, Jean-Paul: “Even more awful than Camus.”

 

 

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