The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Albert Camus on How to Live Whole in a Broken World

Albert Camus on How to Live Whole in a Broken World

Born into a World War to live through another, Albert Camus (November 7, 1913–January 4, 1960) died in a car crash with an unused train ticket to the same destination in his pocket. Just three years earlier, he had become the second-youngest laureate of the Nobel Prize, awarded him for literature that “with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience” — problems like art as resistance, happiness as our moral obligation, and the measure of strength through difficult times.

During WWII, Camus stood passionately on the side of justice; during the Cold War, he sliced through the Iron Curtain with all the humanistic force of simple kindness. But as he watched the world burn its own future in the fiery pit of politics, he understood that time, which has no right side and no wring side, is only ever won or lost on the smallest and most personal scale: absolute presence with one’s own life, rooted in the belief that “real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.”

Camus addresses this with poetic poignancy in an essay titled “The Wrong Side and the Right Side,” found in his altogether superb posthumous collection Lyrical and Critical Essays (public library).

Albert Camus

In a prescient admonition against our modern cult of productivity, which plunders our capacity for presence, Camus writes:

Life is short, and it is sinful to waste one’s time. They say I’m active. But being active is still wasting one’s time, if in doing one loses oneself. Today is a resting time, and my heart goes off in search of itself. If an anguish still clutches me, it’s when I feel this impalpable moment slip through my fingers like quicksilver… At the moment, my whole kingdom is of this world. This sun and these shadows, this warmth and this cold rising from the depths of the air: why wonder if something is dying or if men suffer, since everything is written on this window where the sun sheds its plenty as a greeting to my pity?

Echoing the young Dostoyevsky’s exultant reckoning with the meaning of life shortly after his death sentence was repealed (“To be a human being among people and to remain one forever, no matter in what circumstances, not to grow despondent and not to lose heart,” Dostoyevsky wrote to his brother, “that’s what life is all about, that’s its task.”), Camus adds:

What counts is to be human and simple. No, what counts is to be true, and then everything fits in, humanity and simplicity. When am I truer than when I am the world?… What I wish for now is no longer happiness but simply awareness… I hold onto the world with every gesture, to men with all my gratitude and pity. I do not want to choose between the right and wrong sides of the world, and I do not like a choice… The great courage is still to gaze as squarely at the light as at death. Besides, how can I define the link that leads from this all-consuming love of life to this secret despair?… In spite of much searching, this is all I know.

These reflections led Camus to conclude that “there is no love of life without despair of life”; out of them he drew his three antidotes to the absurdity of life and the crucial question at its center.

Couple with George Saunders — who may be the closest we have to Camus in our time — on how to love the world more, then revisit Wendell Berry’s poetic antidote to despair.


The Birth of the Byline: How a Bronze Age Woman Became the World’s First Named Author and Used the Moon to Unify the World’s First Empire

Days after I arrived in America as a lone teenager, the same age Mary Shelley was when she wrote Frankenstein, not yet knowing I too was to become a writer, I found myself wandering the vast cool halls of the Penn Museum. There among the thousands of ancient artifacts was one to which I would owe my future life — an alabaster disk from Bronze Age Mesopotamia, inscribed in Cuneiform with the name of the world’s first known author: Enheduanna.

The disk of Enheduanna (Penn Museum)

Born in present-day Iraq with a Semitic name lost to history, the daughter of the Sumerian king Sargon of Akkad named herself en (“high priestess”) hedu (“ornament”) an (the Sumerian sky god) na: high priestess of the ornament of the sky, our Moon. Her father — himself the son of a priestess single mother, who had borne him in secret, then cast the infant on the Euphrates river in a straw basket into a life as an orphan — had conquered the major Sumerian city of Ur in 2334 B.C.E. and set out to unify the tessellation of warring city-states that was then Mesopotamia, creating the world’s first multinational empire.

He did all the practical things that help people cohere into a people — fostered a common language, standardized weights and measures, introduced taxes to support soldiers and artists — but he came to see what all leaders eventually see: that nothing binds human beings more powerfully than ideas. His citizens had to believe in one thing to become one people.

Sargon hired the best man for the job: his daughter; she anchored her strategy in what Margaret Fuller called “that best fact, the Moon.”

Phases of the Moon by the self-taught 17th-century artist and astronomer Maria Clara Eimmart. (Available as a print.)

Enheduanna, whose story is woven into Rebecca Boyle’s altogether fascinating book Our Moon: How Earth’s Celestial Companion Transformed the Planet, Guided Evolution, and Made Us Who We Are (public library), took it upon herself to unify the Akkadian and Sumerian religions, using the Moon as the unifying force and poetry partway between prayer and propaganda as the fulcrum.

Over the course of her forty-year reign, Enheduanna composed hundreds, perhaps thousands of poems, passionate and playful, unafraid of the sensuous that is the human in the divine and the divine in the human — poems through which, as Boyle writes, “humanity tried to make connections between heaven and Earth for the first time”; poems that, in bringing the gods down to Earth, made them equally interested in all human life, Akkadian or Sumerian. Her crowning achievement of unification were her forty-two verses about different holy places across the empire, known as the Sumerian Temple Hymns and inscribed with the world’s first byline:

The compiler of the tablets was Enheduanna. My King, something has been created here that no one has ever created before.

Enheduanna has been called the Shakespeare of the ancient Middle East. Like Shakespeare’s, her authorship is disputed. But, like Shakespeare, without counterproof she remains the greatest poet of her time and place — doubly so for turning even her pain and loneliness into sacred art: When Sargon’s grandson became king and a rebellion broke out, Enheduanna was exiled to the desert; there, as civil unrest was rupturing the empire, she wrote in verse about her suffering, which was the suffering of many. I am reminded of James Baldwin’s definition of a great poet: “The greatest poet in the English language,” he wrote of Shakespeare, “found his poetry where poetry is found: in the lives of the people. He could have done this only through love — by knowing, which is not the same thing as understanding, that whatever was happening to anyone was happening to him.”

Complement with the story of the first surviving photograph of the Moon, which helped humanity bridge immortality and impermanence — those old concerns of religion — through a young science.


On Change and Denial

On Change and Denial

Central to our ambivalence about change is the fundamental difficulty of letting go. I am not sure what is more difficult — the heartache of enduring a change made against your will and without your consent, which is the foundation of all loss, or the inner turmoil of having to make a necessary change yourself, breaking the momentum of patterns propelled by a lifetime’s motive force, which in turn presupposes the loss of a familiar way of being, the letting go of a habitual self.

Often, we feel the tectonic tremors of change long before it erupts to alter the landscape of life; often, we tune them out or invent a thousand alternative explanations for them. But we know, we know, deep in the marrow of the soul, when something must change — and when it is about to.

Terry Tempest Williams speaks to this beautifully in a passage from her book Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place (public library). Two decades before she came to reckon with the paradox of transformation, she writes:

It’s strange to feel change coming. It’s easy to ignore. An underlying restlessness seems to accompany it like birds flocking before a storm. We go about our business with the usual alacrity, while in the pit of our stomach there is a sense of something tenuous. These moments of peripheral perceptions are short, sharp flashes of insight we tend to discount like seeing the movement of an animal from the corner of our eye. We turn and there is nothing there. They are the strong and subtle impressions we allow to slip away.

Art by Jackie Morris from The Lost Spells

What keeps us from heeding those intuitions is denial, that most precarious of the mind’s acrobatics, most prone to self-injury — denial that the change is necessary, denial that we are capable of it, denial that the world will hold us even if we fall apart in the process.

Williams writes:

Denial stops us from listening… But denial lies. It protects us from the potency of a truth we cannot yet bear to accept. It takes our hands and leads us to places of comfort. Denial flourishes in the familiar. It seduces us with our own desires and cleverly constructs walls around us to keep us safe.

Couple with philosopher Amélie Rorty on the antidote to our self-defeating delusions, then revisit Williams on how to live with uncertainty.


Befriending a Blackbird

Befriending a Blackbird

Friendship is a lifeline twined of truth and tenderness. That we extend it to each other is benediction enough. To extend it across the barrier of biology and sentience, to another creature endowed with a wholly other consciousness, partakes of the miraculous.

Born in England in the final year of the nineteenth century, Hockley Clarke grew up loving nature. When he was sent to France with the British infantry during WWI, still a teenager, he looked for birds whenever he was out of the trenches or had a day’s rest, listening for them through the blaze of the machine guns, once hearing the song of the nightingale clear and bright over a heap of dead bodies. “Although I am not a religious man,” he would later write, “I have always regarded birds and all wild life as the manifestations of God.”

Having narrowly survived, he founded a bird magazine he went on to edit single-handedly for forty years, writing numerous books about birds along the way. He continued birding into his nineties.

Art by Thomas Jackson from Our Feathered Companions, 1870. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting the Audubon Society.)

In Blackie & Co. (public library), Clarke tells the story a blackbird family who took up residence in his wildly overgrown garden and his own family’s tender friendship with the birds. Emanating from it is a moving meditation on our capacity for connection with other creatures, kindred to the story of Beatrice Harrison and the nightingales.

In the savage winter of 1962 — the coldest weather to strike Europe in eighty years (which didn’t stop Dervla Murphy from mounting her bicycle in Ireland headed for India) — a blackbird began roosting in Clarke’s elderberry. He named him Blackie and began bringing him food first thing every morning and again in the evening as the snow and ice lasted for weeks and weeks.

Soon, Blackie was flying out of the tree at meal time, greeting Clarke with “a few glad chuckles.” Something began growing between man and bird, some unbroken thread of trust and tenderness. Clarke writes:

Blackie and I had an understanding on those cold mornings. I spoke to him; he knew my voice and I am sure that he answered in his own language, of which I thought I had some understanding. There was perfect trust between us, a source of joy to me, and it must have been a comfort to him. Perhaps birds understand more than we think.

Male and female blackbird by Elizabeth Gould from Birds of Great Britain by John Gould, 1837. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting the Audubon Society.)

Throughout the book, Clarke details the building blocks of that understanding over the course of the decade Blackie stayed in his garden — the small gestures of sympathy and sensitivity to another’s reality, affirming the Zen tenet that “understanding is the essence of love.” In the final chapter, titled “Valediction,” Clarke reflects on the challenge of comprehending another consciousness by applying to it the frames of reference shaped by our own — including our understanding of what an emotion is, so inseparable from our creaturely biology. He writes:

The relationship between ourselves and these birds threw up a finer feeling, something that cannot be described, and they responded to it without, possibly, being conscious of it at all. It would be rash to think birds are emotional. It would never do for them to be so, seeing the suffering and fatalities that take place, but they are capable of developing a finer feeling if they are allowed and encouraged to do so. This is made up of qualities such as confidence in the person with whom they come into close contact regularly, which motivates a feeling of trust in them and they respond. To put all their actions down to “cupboard love,” or self-interest, would be to rob the relationship of a glow and purpose.

Couple with J.A. Baker’s decade-long communion with a peregrine, then revisit naturalist Sy Montgomery on what befriending thirteen animals taught her about being more fully human.


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