Unfinished, reprise

I have a rich tradition of liking books my mother (for very good reason) hates. Most often our disagreement is purely one of taste; we agree on the content, but not on whether or not we have any interest in reading it.

I’ve been going through a Saul Bellow phase – Augie March, Henderson the Rain King, Seize the Day, and his collected essays. Mom was puzzled for a while. In college, she had to read Mr. Sammler’s Planet, the book for which Bellow got perhaps the most breathless contemporary praise, and absolutely hated it. I’m about halfway through Mr. Sammler and I’m not exactly a fan but, even before I started reading it, Mom had started to think she was missing something. She was not.

“Maybe I’ll have to give him another try.”

I asked her what she didn’t like about Bellow. Her response: she remembers thinking the characters intensely unsympathetic, Bellow’s voice preachy, and the politics strident. Nope: she shouldn’t give him another try. All of that is true. I enjoy a lot of Saul Bellow but Joan Didion is one of my favorite writers. Mom dislikes her as well. She’s a downer; her characters maddeningly unpleasant. All true as well. But still, I love her. Sylvia Plath is depressing. Indeed she is, but her writing is beautiful. The list goes on, but it all started in college when I read Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus.

Mom had to read Sisyphus in a philosophy class and was not a fan. She recalled that she hated the professor and that it was taught alongside other existentialists, the majority of whom she found insufferable. But Camus doesn’t quite fit with the existentialist philosophers to whom he’s often linked (and was perpetually confused at the association). Other than being French and an atheist, there’s little to tie Camus to Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre is nihilistic and Camus is, in a strange and melancholy way, uplifting. Were they fellow travelers, Camus might, upon returning to his childhood haunts in Tipasa, have written that, in the middle of winter, he at last discovered that there was in him deeper and deeper cold that demanded the blood of colonizers and that people were ants running around a maze waiting for the sole of a shoe. Instead, he wrote of invincible summer.

But, like Plath and Didion and Bellow, Camus makes himself difficult to read. Jon Dupuis wrote about Sisyphus this weekend in his column “Unfinished” and, in doing so, mentions what makes the essay such a challenge: it begins as a meditation on suicide. In truth, I don’t remember much about the essay beyond a handful of passages that struck me such that I can still, years later, quote them word for word. I do, however, remember struggling through the book. It’s a challenging read in literal terms: the vocabulary and ideas are complex, the structure dense, and the translation and style beautiful though florid and tough to follow. But it’s also difficult to read simply because of the subject matter. Depression, sadness, and death are extraordinarily difficult topics even when they’re treated with care. Camus doesn’t do that; to him, they’re merely philosophical exercises.

I encountered Camus for the first time in the work of religious scholar Karen Armstrong. She writes at length about different strains of atheism and religious fundamentalism, Camus included. Jon’s piece prompted me to revisit her briefly. In a roundabout sort of way, Armstrong offers the key to my appreciation for dark ideas, meditations on unpleasant people and imperfection, dysfunction, and sadness. She writes:

“A late Beethoven quartet does not represent sorrow but elicits it in the hearer and player alike, and yet it is emphatically not a sad experience. Like tragedy, it brings intense pleasure and insight. We seem to experience sadness directly in a way that transcends ego, because this is not my sadness but sorrow itself. In music, therefore, subjective and objective become one. Language has borders that we cannot cross. When we listen critically to our stuttering attempts to express ourselves, we become aware of an inexpressible otherness.”

As a musician, I take a more liberal view of language. Language can never quite shake its objective meaning, but musicians like John Adams and Benjamin Britten spent their lives bringing out the music of spoken language (Olivier Messiaen even transcribed the songs of birds). Language has a literal music and deeply sad or dysfunctional people, rendered beautifully, can have the same effect that Armstrong describes in a Beethoven string quartet. With the freight of sorrow expressed literally in the words, it helps that Camus’s deeply disturbing journey through human existence leads him to an uplifting conclusion but, perhaps even if it didn’t, the beauty of his words alone would be enough to fill a man’s heart.

“And here are the trees and I know their gnarled surface, water and I feel its taste. These scents of grass and stars at night, certain evenings when the heart relaxes – how shall I negate this world whose power and strength I feel?”

The difference, of course, is that, while I think more abstractly about language, Armstrong is right: I can’t separate the faint glow of the message from the beauty of the words. Perhaps without that light, the words would be enough. But perhaps they wouldn’t. The ugly and sorrowful weight of literal meaning can make beauty unpleasant and nearly impossible to find.