August 29, 2006


Caption: Literary and philosophical studies can be exhausting. Seamus McGoogle was keeled over by Karl Popper, who wasn't even a French existentialist.

In addition to dealing with death and the culture shock of being a hick in Manhattan for a few days, El Cabrero has been grappling with another shock: the French (Freedom?) writer Albert Camus recently made it to the (very) Short List of President Bush’s reading material.

Camus was an Algerian-born novelist, philosopher, playwright, member of the French Resistance, essayist, journalist, activist and pretty much all around good guy.

The fact that Bush read even a little of his work may well be the best news we’ve heard from this quarter in the last five years. Alas, while Camus’ writings generally lack miraculous powers, I’d be real surprised if anyone came out the worse for reading them.

At least it couldn’t hurt.

According to The New Republic, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said “He found it an interesting book and a quick read.”

The word on the street is that the even president discussed existentialism with Snow.

I would have paid cash money to be a fly on that wall.

Camus ranks prominently on El Cabrero’s list of Writers Whose Work Probably Made Me a Little Bit Less of a Jerk Than I Might Otherwise Have Been. The first encounter occurred in the stacks of the hometown public library and involved his classic essay opposing capital punishment, “Reflections on the Guillotine,” which was one that has stuck with me over the years.

(Snarky comment: too bad a certain person didn’t read this and maybe Neither Victims nor Executioners during his term as governor.)

While The Stranger is no doubt Camus’ best know work of fiction, I would have felt a little better if the president had read The Plague instead.

The take home message from that book can be found in a statement by the character Tarrou:

All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.

Probably the greatest thing about Camus was his realization that one of the few things distributed fairly throughout the world is the tendency of people to act unjustly to others given the chance. He alienated both the left and the right by speaking out for human rights regardless of where the abuses came from.

He opposed both reactionary conservatism and bloodthirsty utopianism. A realist, he believed we had to try to fight against the evils of the world without adding to them, no easy task. He called for both rebellion and holy moderation, which he viewed as one and the same.

This may be a bit much to wish for these days, but it would have been nice if the president and other national leaders had scanned the nonfiction work The Rebel as well, where Camus developed many of these ideas. Sample quote:

We all carry within us our places of exile, our crimes and our ravages. But our task is not to unleash them on the world; it is to fight them in ourselves and in others.


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