Posts Tagged With: Albert Camus


“The Plague” written by French existentialist  Albert Camus, should be on everyone’s top ten bucket list to read before dying. Written in 1947, it takes place in an Algerian port city, similar to the one Camus grew up in Algeria. Oran to be specific. At the time Algeria was a French possession, and would not achieve independence until the early 1960s. The Plague deals with issues that were central to French philosophy during WWII years; namely existentialism, the absurd, and humanism. Although the story is ostensibly about infected rats emerging from the city’s sewers and dying in the streets, and then how the disease spreads to the human population who also start dying in large numbers; it is said to actually be an allegory about the horrors of WWII. The basic message of The Plague is that the world, and, indeed, the universe, is often senseless and indifferent to human suffering, which is unceasing and torturous. If you don’t believe so, think of a parent’s worst nightmare-which is the loss of a child. A nightmare they can never recover from. Nevertheless, Camus believed we should always fight the good fight against all this suffering, as the doctor fought unceasingly against the disease in The Plague. Although, in the end, that battle will inevitably be lost. Remember, this book was written shortly after WWII with all its horrors of concentration camps and death; so pessimism concerning the human condition abounded everywhere, especially in Europe. Camus did fight in the French underground and got to see the horrors of war up close.

In a godless, absurd, and uncaring universe, Camus made the case that compassionate humanism was the only rational course for human existence. I was thinking about “The Plague” recently, especially with its latest outbreak concerning the Ebola virus, with the death and destruction it has already caused, and it reminded me of my misspent youth immersed in French existentialism. I have written before about my dalliance with humanism and existentialism when I was in college in New York, and how I had three close friends with the same interests. About how the four of us would work after school during the tax season for an accountant named Herman Lord, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. The four of us read virtually all the works of French existentialists such as Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone du Beauvoir, Andre Malraux, Andre Gide, and others. Like the French writers, we fancied ourselves to be atheistic existentialists in a cold and indifferent world and universe. Thus, the irony was not lost on us that we went to work for a man named Lord. When we came into his office, we would profusely bow with great flourish, and refer to him as The Lord. One day he finally lost his temper and yelled that if we didn’t cut that shit out, the four of us would be looking for a new job immediately. We still went on referring to him as The Lord, amongst ourselves, if not to his face. After all, it seemed like destiny that us 4 atheists would wind up working for The Lord.

As I’ve said, his office was in the Bed-Sty section of Brooklyn which was virtually all black at the time. It was the Brooklyn equivalent to Harlem. But this was the mid-1950s, when New York, and indeed, the rest of the country was still peaceful and the crime rate was low. Often I would be the only one in the office, (besides the client, of course), and not lock up until about 9:PM. Usually, my car would be the only one parked on the street. Yet I never had any fear for my safety, or for my car being ripped off. Even my mother, who was a professional worrier, never had a concern about my working nights in Bed-Sty. So how did it all turn so violent as we moved into the 1960s. Cities burning often repeatedly, crime surging, massive illegal drug dealing and usage, huge demonstrations and protests, relentless poverty, inner-city rat infested slums, unpopular and unnecessary war, and a host of other ills burst upon the American scene. It seemed that the relative tranquility we experienced during the 1950s was, indeed, an aberration.

And so it was, as the facade of a peaceful American society papered over huge social and political problems. Blacks were routinely segregated and treated as semi-slaves in the South. There were huge gaps in wealth between rich and poor, blacks and whites, and even between men and women. Minorities were fed-up with being relegated to inner-city slums, as well as dealing with Jim Crowism. The war in Viet-Nam, started because of our neurotic fear of communism, would go on to take close to 60,000 American lives as well as hundreds of thousands of Viet-Namese. And the plague of violence that spread across America after the 1950s, would, over decades, go on to infect the rest of the world, that is today caught up in Islamic-terrorism. We swallowed a healthy dose of that terrorism on 9/11 and in terrorist strikes on American soil since then. But large chunks of Northern Africa and Asia are currently subjected to the terrorist plague of almost daily beheadings and massive killings. And the beat goes on.

Albert Camus died in a car accident in Algeria in 1960. I would like to believe that he would have appreciated the absurdity of such a hugely important literary figure dying in such a mundane manner. My friends and I grieved over his death as if we had lost a parent. A major voice for reason  and sanity and compassion in the human condition had abruptly been silenced. We were now truly alone in an indifferent and uncaring universe. How frightening is that.


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This is not about the classic by Marcel Proust, although kudos to you, if you are one of the few that has been able to read Proust from cover-to-cover. Instead this entry is about what old-timers do with increasing frequency; and that is dwell on memories of past occasions. Mainly, I believe, to escape the aches and pains of the so-called golden years. Which should really be called the zinc alloy years.

In any event, and for no particular reason, I got to thinking about my life during the 1950s, as I was taking my Sunday walk, yesterday. During that decade I went from early teen-agehood into my early 20s. I grew up in a poor neighborhood in Brooklyn that was roughly half Jewish and half Italian; and would hang out with guys named Vinny or Vito or Carmine, as well as Robert, Alvin and Seymour. In those days people aged much more quickly and died a lot sooner than today. People started looking real old by the time they reached their mid-to-late 60s, and their life spans rarely went beyond their mid-to-late 70s. I remember as an early teenager hanging out with the guys in one of the neighborhood parks and watching the many old people that lived in the “hood.” Invariably, they were bent over, usually had to use a cane to walk, and barely had the energy to schlep from one park bench to the next. For most their teeth had been removed and they were wearing dentures. Or else, their teeth were in the process of falling out, virtually before our very eyes.

So, with youthful bravado, we declared that this was no way to live, and that the best thing for us would be in dying by age 60, or 65 at the very latest. After all, that was still a good 50 years into the future. At our young age, 50 years seemed like all eternity; so we bravely declared that by 65 we all preferred death rather than schlepping along, with a cane, all bent over, no energy and false teeth. We didn’t specify how death would occur by that age; it would somehow just materialize at our will. So now I’m well past that age limit, and I suspect the rest of my teenage “buds” are too. Indications of the progress medical science has made in the last several generations.

When I entered City College in the mid-1950s (where tuition at that time was a stunning $10 registration fee each semester) I quickly developed deep friendships with 3 other guys who shared similar views as mine. If you weren’t already aware, the 1950s was a particular stultifying decade, where strict conformity to what were considered societal norms was demanded of everyone. The 4 of us would routinely bemoan the widespread conformity that had been inflicted on everyone. So we became atheistic existentialists, and tried to behave as the French existentialist writers of the time did. Writers like Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Simone De Beauvoir. We would read all their stuff, and tried to tailor our thinking to accommodate their philosophies. When Albert Camus was killed in an auto accident in Algeria in the 1950s, it was as if we had lost a parent. To believe in God when there was so much wretchedness and despair in the world was unthinkable. When the Beat Generation finally came upon scene during the latter part of the 1950s, with writers such as Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsburg, it felt to us like a breath of fresh air.

But it came to pass, during those college years, that each of us got a part-time job, after school,  with a tax accountant who operated in the Bedford-Stuyvestant neighborhood of Brooklyn. For those of you not familiar with Brooklyn, (shame on you, if that’s the case) “Bed-Stuy” was an all black, mostly poor working class neighborhood, similar to Harlem in Manhattan. The man we worked for, who had a typical personality one would expect in a tax accountant, was named Herman Lord. Don’t think that the irony of we 4 would-be atheists working for The Lord, as we called him, was lost on us. The Lord had built his tax practice on the premise that everyone coming in to have their income taxes prepared would get a refund. And just about everyone did, since they all had low incomes. Once a man came in that had a high enough income to where he actually owed the Government money. I almost couldn’t find the words to inform him that he had to write a check to IRS.

In those days Bed-Stuy was as free from crime as any other neighborhood in America. Some nights I was in the office by myself, as the other guys didn’t have a shift, and The Lord had decided to take the night off. Never once did I have the slightest concern for my safety. When I would leave the office about 9:PM my car was often the only one parked on the street. Never once was any damage done to it. Of course, as we all know, those days are gone forever. After I graduated college, I had to get a full time job, and could no longer work for The Lord. Shortly thereafter, I wound up relocating to Paris, France for 3 years. I’ve written several previous blogs about my experiences in Europe, if you’re further interested.

The 1950s was also the decade that Dwight Eisenhower was President. Everyone liked Ike, even if you disagreed with his policies. Who couldn’t adore that warm smile he always generated. Today’s looney-tunes Republican Party would never nominate a sane, rational and moderate man such as Eisenhower who won 2 landslide elections. Perhaps the decline of the American empire started when the nation failed to heed Ike’s warning about the growing and intrusive influence of the military-industrial complex in our every-day lives. Or, perhaps it began when us four atheists stopped working for The Lord.

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