Brave Genius: How the Unlikely Friendship of Scientist Jacques Monod and Philosopher Albert Camus Shaped Modern Culture
By Maria Popova
What makes a good life, a meaningful life, a life of purpose? And how can one live it amidst pain and destruction; how can the human spirit soar in the face of crushing adversity? The meaning of life resides in the answers to these questions, which countless luminaries have been asking since the dawn of recorded time, and which an unlikely duo of Nobel-laureate friends — revered writer, journalist and philosopher Albert Camus and pioneering biologist Jacques Monod — set out to answer during one of the darkest periods of human history, the peak of World War II. In Brave Genius: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize (public library), molecular biology and genetics professor Sean B. Carroll — not to be confused with the cosmologist Sean Carroll, who also authors fascinating works, but of a rather different nature — tells the story of how each of these extraordinary men lived through the terrifying reality of the war and emerged as an exceptional mind of creative brilliance and humanistic genius, a story of “the transformation of ordinary lives into exceptional lives by extraordinary events — of courage in the face of overwhelming adversity, the flowering of creative genius, deep friendship, and of profound concern for and insight into the human condition.”
It was the Occupation of Paris that served, as Carroll poignantly puts it, as the “perverse catalyst” that sparked each man’s genius and propelled them into intersecting trajectories of greatness as they entered each other’s lives.
Camus, an aspiring 26-year-old writer working as a newspaper layout designer, and Monod, an “underachieving and, at age thirty, relatively old doctoral student in zoology,” met at a human rights event in 1939. Both had to contort their lives to avoid death — Camus by disguising his identity for security reasons with a false ID under the assumed name of Albert Mathé, and Monod by sending his Jewish wife to safety outside of Paris, also equipped with a fake ID that Aryanized her maiden name; both men joined the Resistance against the Germans, each contributing in his own way — Camus through the power of the written word in his moving editorials for the underground Resistance newspaper Combat, and Monod by joining the French armed forces, where he excelled as an officer and went on to lead the coordination of Resistance activities in the latter stage of the Occupation.
But they otherwise had little in common by way of upbringing or professional background. Still, they instantly hit it off and found a kindred spirit in the other. More than that, the friendship sparked an uncommon and boundlessly fruitful cross-pollination of intellectual curiosities, which would come to shape each man’s work and impact on the world. Carroll writes of their special connection:
Francis Crick described Monod in terms that applied equally well to his new friend Camus: “Never lacking in courage, he combined a debonair manner and an impish sense of humor with a deep moral commitment to any issue he regarded as fundamental.” In addition to the special bond of former resistants, Monod and Camus discovered they shared many similar concerns. Over the course of their friendship, those concerns would encompass a broad spectrum of humanitarian issues, including the state of affairs in the USSR, human rights in Eastern bloc countries, and capital punishment in France. Monod gave Camus further ammunition for his indictment of the Soviet Union, an indictment that terminated many of Camus’s friendships with left-wing peers.
Camus gave Monod access to his world of literature and philosophy.
Most impressive of all, however, was the enormity of literary and philosophical works Camus managed to publish during the Occupation, underpinned not by the desperation of a war-torn world and a lamentation of evil but, like Viktor Frankl’s timeless treatise from the same era, by a profound faith in the human spirit and our shared capacity for goodness. Carroll writes:
The terror and cruelty of the Occupation, the slaughter of tens of millions in the war (the second such war in a generation), and the horrors of the Holocaust that were coming to light had made many despair and abandon any hope for the future of humanity. Denial of any meaning or purpose in life — nihilism — was a widespread response.
But Camus vehemently rejected nihilism and took an entirely different path. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus addressed what he contended was the fundamental issue of philosophy — “judging whether life is or is not worth living.” To Camus, the crux of the matter of life was the certainty of death. The practical question that certainty prompted was: How could one live a meaningful life in full knowledge of the inevitability of death?
Camus asserted that by recognizing the reality of the physical limits of one’s life, one attained the clarity and freedom to make the most of life as it is. He reasoned that the logical response to the certainty of death was a revolt against death — a revolt that took the form of living life passionately and to the fullest: “Being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom, and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum.”
Camus’s recipe for living life to the fullest was to do nothing in hope of an afterlife, and to rely on courage and reasoning: “The first teaches him to live without appeal [to religion] and to get along with what he has; the second informs him of his limits. Assured of his temporally limited freedom … and of his mortal consciousness, he lives out his adventure within the span of his lifetime.”
For Camus, even Sisyphus — condemned as he was to rolling his rock uphill each day, only to have it roll back down and to begin again — was master of his own fate. Sisyphus created meaning in his own life by deciding that “the struggle towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” Camus concluded the essay, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
This “reasoned optimism,” as Carroll puts it, resonated with readers in France as they struggled to heal from the psychological atrocities of the war. Camus, whom his close friend Jean-Paul Sartre described as “an admirable conjunction of a person, an action, and a work,” offered hope amidst hopelessness:
Camus once wrote, “In the depths of winter, I discovered that there lay within me an invincible summer.” Readers in France, and then as his works were translated, millions more readers around the world, responded to that invincible summer. Camus offered a practical philosophy for living without succumbing to nihilism or appealing to religion. In the aftermath of the great calamity, Camus offered the masses a picture of a brighter future for France and the world, an alternative to the cycle of war that had darkened a half century, and that threatened to continue. He offered a choice, as he put it, “between hell and reason.”
While Camus was contemplating the philosophical foundations of life, Monod was shedding new light on the biological. During the 1940s, before the discovery of DNA as the basic building block of life, biology was a budding science propelled by, as Carroll elegantly puts it, “simple but fundamental questions.” Enthralled by the mystery of how cells grow, Monod and his collaborator François Jacob, a nineteen-year-old second-year medical student en route to becoming a surgeon, laid the foundations for our understanding of how a single fertilized egg could blossom into a complex creature — and they did it with extraordinary taste, a concept seemingly counterintuitive and belonging more to the literary world than the scientific, but in fact essential for scientific discovery.
Like Camus, Monod also transcended the boundaries of his discipline to effect broader cultural and political awareness. After the liberation of Paris — the momentous triumph that marked the beginning of the end of WWII, which both Anaïs Nin and Ernest Hemingway recorded with exuberant relief — weapons were replaced by dueling dogmas. Carroll contextualizes the climate:
Soon after the end of World War II, a new war emerged — of ideologies. It was a war between capitalism and socialism, between democracy and Communism, and the beginning of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. In France, those along the entire spectrum of political ideologies from the far left to the far right vied for power and influence. The Communist Party enjoyed strong support, particularly among the intelligentsia and workers, many of whom looked to the Soviet Union as a model of where socialism in France should be heading.
In the summer of 1948, Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, the Soviet head of agriculture appointed by Joseph Stalin, launched a concentrated attack on the science of genetics, pushing for geneticists to be purged from Soviet biology — a kind of “ideological terrorism” that flew in the face of what science knew to be true, propagated by France’s communist-owned newspapers. Appalled and infuriated, Monod eviscerated Lysenko’s arguments in an op-ed that ran on the front page of Combat — the same Resistance newspaper in which Camus had given hope and sanity a voice. Stirred by the incident, Monod was moved to “make his life’s goal a crusade against antiscientific, religious metaphysics, whether it be from Church or State.”
Unsurprisingly, given their bond and enormous overlap of convictions, Camus’s influence had a profound impact on Monod, who integrated philosophical inquiry into his biological pursuits. Carroll writes:
After receiving his Nobel Prize, Monod turned to consider the implications of the discoveries of modern biology — how the answers to Schrödinger’s question “What is life?” bore on the question of the meaning of life. He explained his impulse in Camusian terms: “The urge, the anguish to understand the meaning of his own existence, the demand to rationalize and justify it within some consistent framework has been, and still is, one of the most powerful motivations of the human mind.” The opening epigraph of Monod’s resulting, widely acclaimed, bestselling book, Chance and Necessity, was the closing passage from his friend’s The Myth of Sisyphus.
Indeed, receiving the Nobel Prize — Camus in 1957 and Monod in 1965 — while equally deserved, produced radically different responses in the two friends. When news of the philosopher’s award broke, Monod immediately sent his friend a letter of warm congratulation:
My dear Camus,
My emotion and my joy are profound. There were many times when I felt like thanking you for your friendship, for what you are, for what you managed to express with such purity and strength, and that I had likewise experienced. I wish that this dazzling honor would also appear to you, in some small part, as a token of friendship and of personal, intimate recognition. I would not dare coming to see you right now, but I embrace you fraternally.
But Camus, who feared such public attention would fuel his critics and indicate that his body of work were complete rather than ever-evolving, met the news of the prize with mixed emotions, oscillating between pride and panic. (A reaction not wholly unsurprising given the conflicted story of the Nobel Prize’s very conception.) In his journals, he noted “a strange feeling of overwhelming pressure and melancholy.” Despite his friendships with such intellectual and creative icons as Pablo Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre, and George Orwell, he chose to share his feelings only with Monod, responding in a letter:
My dear Monod.
I have put aside for a while the noise of these recent times in order to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your warm letter. The unexpected prize has left me with more doubt than certainty. At least I have friendship to help me face it. I, who feel solidarity with many men, feel friendship with only a few. You are one of these, my dear Monod, with a constancy and sincerity that I must tell you at least once. Our work, our busy lives separate us, but we are reunited again, in one same adventure. That does not prevent us to reunite, from time to time, at least for a drink of friendship! See you soon and fraternally yours.
But beneath the warm professional support of their friendship, there was a deeper bond that held them together, one of shared purpose. Carroll writes:
Both men were deeply engaged with timeless questions about finding meaningful experiences in life. They were forced to ask, by virtue of the experiences into which they were plunged, the most fundamental questions of all: What is worth dying for? And what is worth living for? Once free, they were compelled to ask: What is worth spending one’s life pursuing?
Brave Genius is an elevating read in its entirety, reminding us that even in a time of profound adversity, it is genius, not misery, that loves — longs for, necessitates, thrives on — company.
Published September 30, 2013