Camus: Ignorance and clear-sightedness

Along with others, I have been revisiting Albert Camus’ novel The Plague (like Vox’s Sean Illing speaking to historian and Camus biography Robert Zaretsky or Book Riot’s Christine Ro contrasting two different versions of the novel). As Ro puts it, “If Contagion is The Movie of the COVID-19 pandemic, The Plague is The Novel.”

Trying to get back into quotes, I was drawn to the one below about ignorance and what is often translated as clear-sightedness or lucidity:

The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as good, if they lack understanding. On the whole men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance which fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. There can be no true goodness, nor true love, without the utmost clear-sightedness.

Though the novel is directly about the Algerian town of Oran under quarantine for Bubonic plague and the main characters finding various ways of coping and addressing the isolation and rising body count, it also explores deeper themes of humanity in the face of overwhelming challenge. The plague itself is partly a symbol for Nazism and other fascist regimes, nihilism, and the specter of the absurd.

This leads to the above quote. Camus’ post-war morality, which developed firmly in his Letters to a German Friend during the war, focuses on these two sides: ignorance and lucidity. Elsewhere in The Plague the two main characters have a conversation:

“What on earth prompted you to take a hand in this?”
“I don’t know. My… my code of morals, perhaps.”
“Your code of morals. What code, if I may ask?”
“Comprehension.”

Throughout much of his writing, including his early work like The Wrong Side and the Right Side, Camus argues that clarity is at the core of morality. One cannot do the right thing clouded with ignorance, and vise versa: having a clear sense of the situation makes it harder for tyrants to perpetuate atrocities. For example, as he writes on capital punishment:

When the imagination sleeps, words are emptied of their meaning: a deaf population absent-mindedly registers the condemnation of a man. … There is no other solution but to speak out and show the obscenity hidden under the verbal cloak.

Part of this belief seems to step from Camus’ faith in the underlying goodness of most people, a resilient theme in his work. As he says, “men are more good than bad.” This faith girdled his humanism and informed his break from other French intellectuals, like Sartre, who took a more Marxist view of history, less focused on individual morality and more focused on grand causes and social movements.

But as Camus says, most people are inherently ignorant, causing suffering through their uninformed actions or letting leaders abuse them and stir them to abuse. And if clear-sightedness is the core of morality than the opposite is the worst: “an ignorance which fancies it knows everything.” Over the years, I have often come back to this form of ignorance, which I often term “impassioned ignorance,” where individuals, for whatever reason, refuse to change their views in the face of information.

While not new and not inherently destructive (Will Sorr’s The Unpersuadables takes a more positive view, for instance), this impassioned ignorance seems especially destructive today, whether in the rhetoric of anti-vaxxers, science-deniers, those vilifying other races and ethnic groups, and those peddling conspiracy theories like QAnon. Amid fake news and post-truth rhetoric, impassioned ignorance is flourishing.

And I think Camus’ warning is as important as ever, though like the plague itself, addressing ignorance presents an seemingly impossible challenge.

20 Things for 2020

This is a post from an older draft that I originally was going to publish before COVID-19 got serious (I wrote it in February), so it is not connected to the moment per se, but I think it, and the broader goal of blogging, may be helpful during this unique time. Good luck, no matter where you are at, and my thoughts are with you.

Why I love gardening

I love gardening because it represents hope and future. So often, we are trying to “get things done” or, like Hannah Arendt’s notion of labor, we are doing something that will need to be re-done at some point inevitably and likely in the near future. But gardening is a sort of tactile luxury saturated in promise.

So, currently, I have been cultivating a few herbs the past few months with genuine success. I just have one window, and they have sad days, but in general, they are doing OK.

Side note: anyone with gardening advice, feel free to post. But as you can see, I have a few pots with mostly soil. I decided on a whim to get some seeds and see where they went. I often buy plants, and I may do so again, but here we are. And a few days ago, my pea plant started sprouting.

And, seeing this little pea burst up felt really good. It is likely a bit basic, but I appreciate testing the soil and sun each day and seeing, almost stork-like, if the soil brings new life. And I know farmers have a different situation and that is why I call this “gardening” or even vanity gardening, as I am doing this out of a love growing plants, not out of livelihood. (Side note: give farmers help and support local agriculture.)

As I started, this is about hope. And since it is spring here–hell yeah, more flower pics soon–I always come back to one of my favorite poems, Charlotte Smith’s Sonnet Viii, “To Spring.” It is a mixed poem with the end, but I always come back to that “AGAIN” that starts it, as it expresses a sense of renewal. But gardening represents more than renewal; it represents genuinely new life. Time to get started.

A paragraph

Earlier this week, I met with my adviser, and we talked about writing. I have had a hard time writing anything: academic, creative, teachery, etc. And to give some stakes, (1) I have prospectus due soon and (2) I recently failed to write chapter that was due. But we talked about writing a paragraph each day to get better. So here is my paragraph.

I remember once living at Mount Irenaeus as part of an internship. I woke up each day at five in my tent. Side note: the three “companions” lived in a trio of tents on platforms up a hill, near the chapel, while around six friars lived in the buildings below. It was a tradition started in the mid-80s.

In any case, I would wake up, open up my mosquito net, and open the tent flap. Sometimes animal prints etched some nearby soil. I rubbed my tired eyes and started down the trail, and after leaving a small grove, I saw the distant Allegheny foothills, robed green beneath a broad horizon, the sun just starting to inch up.

And I walked to the garden and watered the plants, the hose adding to the dew before the caustic summer. I did not need to do this, but I loved it. I then showered up and meditated. And then rushed to morning prayer, where we read psalms in meditative postures. I was still skeptical of God at the time, but the sing-song peace and poetry of the Breviary and books set a calm. As well as the sitting. And the silence.

And from there with sleepy hugs and handshakes we went down the hill and ate, getting ready for the day, amid laughter, teasing, and tea.

Revisiting Egypt

Been rereading old journals tonight and this one stuck out, Dated 30 June 2013:

Egypt is active—even Ma’adi is active. We had a quiet day today: reading, writing, resting, talking. Abuna Bishoi didn’t let us leave the seminary at all, so we resolved to have a focused, quiet day here. I started out by cleaning my room, washing some clothes, and having a simple breakfast of yogurt, dates, and a Cliff Bar.

Then Dea joined me, we talked, and we went down to breakfast with the others. There, most of the seminarians were tense and only knew the vague outlines for the day, telling us that unrest had erupted all across Egypt.        

“I am very worried for Egypt,” said Ashraf.

Then, we separated. I read and I made some tea and dug up a short story to work on: Free Birds. I made some good progress. .

Afterward, we had lunch. Then the teachers, including me, watched a great movie called The Visitor. It was about a quiet college professor who teaches globalization in Connecticut. His wife, a pianist, is dead. He comes to an old apartment, finding a Syrian and his wife from Senegal in it. Not wanting to throw them out, he lets them live with him. He becomes their friend, and starts playing the drum. Then the Syrian is arrested. He’s innocent, but he’s also an illegal alien and is transferred to a deportation office.

The professor keeps trying to help. The Syrian’s mother comes, and the two fall in love. But the Syrian gets deported, and the mother returns to Syria to be with her son. They are all heart-broken.

The dialogue was terse and realistic, the shots were direct, yet fulfilling. The score was elegiac and beautiful—a lot of simple piano music and rhythmic drums. The story was good, and the acting was good.

After that, I wrote some more, working on the short story, and then Dea and Amy visited the suite, where we had snacks. Rita came after they left. We talked about the protests and the students and the teasing proximity of the flight home. Rita and I also talked a lot about books and writers. Then we had dinner, where I sat with Ashraf, Romany, and Alaa. I had a blast, and we joked a lot.

Then, I went on a walk with Atef, to say goodbye. He had given all the teachers a letter, thinking us and asking us to pray for him and Egypt. I got teary-eyed reading it. We walked around the seminary for about twenty minutes—although it felt like a very short time. He said a lot, like “Many in Egypt need many things, like gas, and food, and water. “They do not want, they need.” Also, he said, “I love Egypt.” I told him it was in his bones; he liked that. “This is American, I think?”

Then, I went to the roof, and looked out into the night. An old can rattled, and a heavy wind blew at me. I saw a group of young men walking down the street waving flags, shouting in rhythm “Yalla Morsi!” A few kids joined them too. They went down the road, converging on what sounded like a bigger crowd—even a convoy of people and cars. People shouted slogans and cars beeped out a rhythm as they flowed down the road. A tree blocked my view, but I could see the lights, the outlines of people, and hear the excitement.

Now I am here, writing, having just finished a non-alcoholic bear, courtesy of Abuna Bishoi. I can’t wait to be in my own bed again, but I think I am so tired that I will sleep well here. A good day, I think. I will have to see what comes in time.

Entering 2019

As I’ve said in the past, the start of the semester feels more “New Year” than Jan. 1, and I want to rekindle the tradition of posting at the start to set things on a productive path and provide a space to reflect.

But first, an update.

Hello, 2017

“And once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.” -Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

I’ve never been a big New Year person. It’s position seems too arbitrary. Sometimes it fits, but often, like a poorly timed joke, it feels too late or too early, punctuating the calendar whether we want to celebrate it or not.

I think about other forms of time, like the slow waltz of geologic cycles or the Mayan Long Calendar’s b’ak’tun–the approximate equivalent of 144,000 years per cycle. I don’t mean to go full Rent, but the sense of days adding up to a pre-determined, arbitrarily assigned date feels a little bloodless to me. Abstract, even if its celestial and mathematical elegance has its own beauty. I appreciate the bringing-together mentality that each New Year offers, even though many countries don’t celebrate this crux between December 31st and January, but as an individual, I wonder if more valuable measurements exist.

Continue reading “Hello, 2017”

Update

Hey all,

Sorry for the long hiatus. I don’t know if you noticed, but I’ve made some significant changes to the site, both aesthetically and in terms of content. I’ve finally compressed my for-school blog into this site–including all of the past posts I did this semester–and will likely be doing both types of writing here from now on. I think the major changes are done, but I may be doing further tweaks, as I’m not quite sure how I feel about this aesthetic quite yet.

I hope to do my first post tomorrow, as a way to start the new year, but in the meantime, I hope everyone has a positive final day of the tumultuous 2016.

-Brett

Clogged Up

I have other more “pressing” things to do this morning. Perhaps some housework. Definitely some teaching prep and student feedback. Maybe research. But I feel like I needed to write this morning to get rid of a certain clogged feeling. So I’m setting a timer for 30 minutes and writing. Let’s see what happens.

I guess I’ll start looking at the feeling more directly. I’m not quite sure what it is, but it feels a bit like cabin fever for the mind, like I’m stuck doing similar intellectual activities. Or just sort of stuck in a general life way. I was doing a freewrite the other day, and this came out describing the feeling:

I don’t know how I got here. Well, I know in a literal sense, the sense that if a cop were to ask me how I got there, I could tell him. Tell him in pretty solid detail. And I’m not trying to be all abstract, thinking about genetics and geology and all that—how I got here in space time or geologic time. No, it was really more of a feeling, really. Like I was drifting in an aimless current and suddenly beached like a piece of drift wood, with the current flowing further down stream.

I think this sort of mood is pointing to some of the intellectual ambiguity that comes from overthinking existence. To thinking, learning, being, but not necessarily acting because despite all this thinking and learning, sometimes it’s hard to figure out what to do. Or how to do what you want to do. Or what there is to do.

Right now, in terms of my life, I’m on summer break before entering my second year of coursework in a 4-year PhD program in composition and cultural rhetoric. I’m teaching a summer class. I’m vaguely trying to work through an idea about video games, trying to improve my programming literacy, and read for exams next summer. But I am, largely speaking, in coursework.

This brings me back to writing and that clogged feeling. One of my friends and colleagues described that coursework feels like being a sponge loaded up with water, and since you are not doing much non-reflective writing, you don’t have an outlet to squeeze out all this intellectual saturation.

I also think this feeling has a connection to another conversation I had–a few times, actually–about the “selfish” nature of grad school, especially when it is intensive and absorbing. Doing all of this learning feels a bit cut off. A professional writer has an audience, but in coursework, I’m not sure why I’m learning quite yet, what all this knowledge is supposed to lead to, what I’m supposed to do with it.

This seems to be one of the difficult things about knowledge production to me. In the past, I’ve generally looked at intelligence and what I would term intellectual productivity in an emergent, almost playful sense. That ideas come from playing with other ideas, thinking through them, talking through them, etc. I’m having a hard time transitioning to the “production” of knowledge, from learning as work in stead of play. Learning, even when it was difficult, has always been play to me, not “work.”

I suppose I’ve been dwelling on this “work” and “play” distinction lately, which I imagine is inevitable when researching play and games. I’m not sure what keeps sticking me to it, though.

I suppose it’s the question of why work matters. Why we work. Why we work hard, in particular. Many don’t have a choice–it’s work or die–but I think a lot of people do have some choice about work, or at least the illusion of choice, and the existential anguish involved with that (maybe false) choice. This is one issue. That sense of “am I doing what I love?”Or even, “Can I do what I love?”

But that’s not the only question. One has issues like “fullfilling work,” a fairly recent idea, or the odd tyranny of play that may happen when one is expected to know certain media and play becomes work. The difference between productive hobbies and wasting time. Production v. play. What it means to earn a “living” and not just “an earning.” When a passion becomes something else.

My timer is winding down, so I guess I’ll end in this messy set of contradictions. But I think this this particular fixation does point to larger things, or could. I’m just not quite sure yet.

Productivity?

As the years go on, I see the false idol of long hours. Long hours, when meaningfully deployed are great, but so often quantity takes the place of quality. I worked x hours, instead of getting x done. Or in its more haunting form, I still have time and work to do today, so I can’t rest.

I think of a distinction raised in Sogyal Rinpoche’s Tibetan Book of Living and Dying between what I call lazy laziness v. busy laziness. Lazy laziness refers to what we normally consider lazy: the archetypal the couch potato, the binging of Castle reruns, the downing of Atomic-Fire-Lazer-Charged chips. Busy laziness refers to the layering on of hours that ultimately distract us from more meaningful activities, simply exhausting us until we pick back up the next day to do the same thing, ad infinitum. Though I think we rarely fall in either extreme, that spectrum has followed me through the years.

Continue reading “Productivity?”