Posts Tagged With: existentialism


“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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In the 19th century Mark Twain said: “The more I get to know people, the better I like my dog.” In the 20th century the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre said: “Hell is other people.” Sartre also came to the conclusion that man’s belief in God and religion stemmed from an overwhelming fear and sense of abandonment if man believed he was alone in an empty universe without a supreme being. It’s as Christopher Hitchens said in his book, “God is Not Great,” God did not create man. It’s the other way around. Man created God.

People, you can’t live with them but you can’t live without them. Actually you can live without them if you’re willing to become a hermit. But that doesn’t sound like tons of fun either, and it also brings on its own set of unique delusions. All this is the long way around of getting to 2 polls that were taken in Alabama and Mississippi that caught my attention. No, they weren’t polls showing that weird, whacky Ricky Santorum would win those 2 states in the Republican primaries over Mitt the Lionhearted, and Newt the Fantasy Chaser. ( Mitt displayed his fearlessness yet again when he responded to a question from the press about Rush Limbaugh calling a Georgetown Univ. student a slut and prostitute, by saying, “those are not the words I would have used.” How much more of a hard-hitting rebuke can you get than that. As for Newt, about the only place where he wins the Republican nomination is on Fantasy Island.)

The poll that I’m referring to is the one where they asked the citizens of Alabama and Mississippi whether they believed that Barack Obama was a Christian. Only 15% believed that he was. Unbelievably, about 50% were convinced he was a Moslem. After all, what else could he be with a name like Barack Hussein Obama. (The other 35% were too busy keeping up with the Kardashians to give a damn, one way or another.) This despite Obama”s often repeated assertion that he was a Christian, and his often publicized church attendance over several decades. Now, understandably, you can’t get any deeper into the bible belt than those 2 southern states. But the hatred there of Obama, because he is perceived to be a dangerous, radical, socialist bent on destroying America, is such that a majority of people are willing to ignore reality and, once again, slip into that comfy state delusion. One more way in which irrationality becomes most people’s life-style.

After all if we were a rational society, would we conduct the political primary process in the manner that it’s conducted, with a hodgepodge of caucuses and elections starting way too early, and giving way too much influence to small states like Iowa or New Hampshire. In a rational society, there would be a primary election day sometime in June or July, where all 50 states would vote to select each party’s candidate to go forward into the general election. If we were a rational society. And does anyone understand why states have caucuses instead of outright elections. Near as I can make out, its because people have some sentimental belief that political business was conducted in that manner back in colonial days.

Nevada is a caucus state, and in 2008 the wife and I decided to attend the Democratic caucus for the party’s nomination between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. (Now we are older and wiser and will never make that mistake again.) Anyway we were told to report on a Saturday morning to a local school room where the caucus for our area would be held. Fortunately we arrived early enough to get seats in an enlarged but overcrowded school room where people kept pouring in. Soon the room became overheated and there was standing room only. Finally a moderator appeared (I have no idea how he was selected or who he even was), and announced that everybody who supported Obama go to the right side of the room, and all Clinton supporters to the left side. This would facilitate the counting of votes. I had intended to support Obama, but I was OK with Clinton too, and I happened to be seated on the Clinton side. We agreed that there was no way we were going to give up our seats to go stand in the too hot room, with the rabble on the Obama side. So we remained seated, and thus were counted as votes for Hillary. There you have the democratic process in action.

But the irrationality of the primary process pales in comparison to the way we select the most powerful man or woman in the world. As I’ve written before, every office in the land, from dog catcher to Senator or Governor is decided by a simple majority of votes cast. Not so for the presidency, as Al Gore found out, where the electoral college decides who the winner is. This system was written into the Constitution because of our founding fathers deep distrust of the judgements of the rabble that would be allowed to vote in future elections. Of course, they did have a valid point. On the average, about 50% of people eligible, fail to vote. Of the remaining 50% percent that do vote, maybe about half of that is somewhat conversant with issues at stake. The rest likely base their selections on radio or TV commercials. So perhaps 25% of the eligible population takes enough interest to know what they’re doing when voting for the President or Congress.

A third or fourth world banana republic country might legitimately raise the question: Is the United States ready for democracy?

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