Worthwhile lives

I’ve just spent the last 30 minutes sitting in a small glade in the front garden reading a book. It was a pleasant interlude. It was peaceful there away from the noise and bustle of the house. On a warm day like today it’s also about 5 degrees cooler. The tall trees surround the little glade, their high leaves filtering the light and heat and creating a serene, cool space. I began reading A Life Worth Living, a new biography of Albert Camus by Robert Zaretsky.

Is Camus one of my favourite writers? I’m not sure, but he is one I admire most. I prefer his fiction to his essays. Some of his novels are seminal in the history of 20th century literature. They are provocative in making us confront themes of alienation, adsurdity and oppression, among others, in language that is sinuous, sometimes lyrical, and often sensuous. Often times reading his stories set in the cafes and beaches of Algeria I can feel it, the heat of the sun, the sweat, the touch of the ocean, can respond to the smile of a pretty woman across the way. There is a sense of place, of moment, which is somehow disconnected from what came before, and what comes after. As a fellow sensualist I feel his sensuous perspective very deeply, and in many ways share it.

I find his essays more difficult. What he expresses through shape and form in his stories occasionally become  clumsy when he attempts to express it straight out. It’s as if his language is not quite up to it – not finely grained enough to properly describe the particularity of what he is trying to say. I’m more sympathetic to Camus as a  man than I am to Sartre, but when I read their philosophical writings I tend to think that Sartre is the better thinker, though Camus sees more clearly. 

Language is the other issue, because, not surprisingly he writes his essays differently to his fiction. Whilst his fictional writing can be sensual, lyrical, it’s as much in form as in the language it uses. His fictional writing is matter of fact in many ways – he describes what there is, often pretty things, but without unnecessary flourish. The picture speaks for itself.

There is no ‘picture’ as such in his non-fiction, nothing to hang a philosophy upon, and so it comes out raw, and often with a flourish that always takes me unawares. It’s a language I don’t agree with. I don’t like the extraneous. I’m mistrustful of high sounding phrases, particularly when there is more earthy alternative available. I don’t want to be sold anything. I want a view expressed, prettily if possible, but without cliche.

Regardless Camus is one of those people I wish I could visit in the way-back machine. I think he’s a good man, though not without vice. I’d love to have a chat to him over a beer, and perhaps debate some of these things. Given a lot of his fiction I reckon we have a similar eye. No doubt he had his earnest qualities, but clearly he was drawn by the sensual as well. I imagine we might break from an earnest conversation to go carousing together.

That’s speculation and sadly I have no way-back machine as yet. He died relatively young, possibly preserving his reputation and creating the aura the prematurely dead so often possess. I wonder what might have happened had he lived longer, but that too is speculation.

In the end I think he is a man who lived up to the title of this book: he lived a life worth living. That very title pinches at me a tad. I went through my French existentialist stage, reading every book by Sartre as well as Camus. I pondered the questions they posed, the scenarios they created, daily, if not hourly. As you do, I passed through that stage, but passed into others. I’ve spent a lifetime inquiring, one way or another, and literature has been the default window through which I’ve peered in wonder.

Living a life worth living was always a concept precious to me, not just in the abstract, but consciously in the every day. That’s a value judgement – what makes a life worthwhile? For me it was to do, to feel, to ask, ultimately, to conquer. Conquer how? I wanted to live and feel, all the way up. I wanted to have rich experience in every facet, intellectual, spiritual, physical, and sensual; wanted to consciously go about life aware that I was alive and some kind of splendid and mysterious miracle. I wanted to drink things in, to absorb all around me and to come to some kind of understanding of. Curiosity is central in this. So too is understanding, but only if you define it as a path you travel on perpetually – there is always something more to understand, another question to ask, another vista to look upon. One life is not nearly enough.

But conquer? I’m not a monk. Knowledge in itself is not sufficient to me. Contemplation is good only to a point. I’m of the very strong view that to make life truly worthwhile that this journey must be parlayed into action. Execution counts. To know is one thing, to act is another. If we really have only one go-round in this life then this is the only chance we have. We have to make it count. For me that means I have to use what I learn; that I must take the understanding I am given along the way and use it practically.

That is what I mean by conquer, which might seem a heavy word for it, though it is apt for my personality type. It’s not about scoring, or profit, or even winning. It’s about making the experience count, otherwise, in my mind, it is only so much intellectual onanism. 

My life is challenging and it takes all my will and strength to remain afloat. I’ve derived a certain amount of understanding and knowledge through this episode, which, however, is incidental to the effort of survival. Reading of Camus I feel somewhat shamed if I consider my own ambitions. Is this life I have worth living? The verdict on that can only be made the end, but for many years I felt as if I was on the path I wanted to be on. My life, in transit, was worthwhile by the criteria that was important to me. It was not perfect, and I strived for more, but more was always possible.

It’s different now. I suspect that if and when I come out of this I will see things differently. For now though it feels as if I’ve slid down a long snake. For all the unexpected colour of my life there is little of it at this point I think worthwhile.

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