Facing History Why we love Camus.


“The French novelist and philosopher Albert Camus was a terrifically good-looking guy whom women fell for helplessly—the Don Draper of existentialism. This may seem a trivial thing to harp on, except that it is almost always the first thing that comes up when people who knew Camus talk about what he was like. When Elizabeth Hawes, whose lovely 2009 book ‘Camus: A Romance’ is essentially the rueful story of her own college-girl crush on his image, asked survivors of the Partisan Review crowd, who met Camus on his one trip to New York, in 1946, what he was like, they said that he reminded them of Bogart. ‘All I can tell you is that Camus was the most attractive man I have ever met,’ William Phillips, the journal’s editor, said, while the thorny Lionel Abel not only compared him to Bogart but kept telling Hawes that Camus’s central trait was his ‘elegance.’ (It took the sharper and more Francophile eye of A. J. Liebling to note that the suit Camus wore in New York was at least twenty years out of Parisian style.) Camus liked this reception enough to write home about it to his French publisher. ‘You know, I can get a film contract whenever I want,’ he wrote, joking a little, but only a little. Looking at the famous portrait of Camus by Cartier-Bresson from the forties—trenchcoat collar up, hair swept back, and cigarette in mouth; long, appealing lined face and active, warm eyes—you see why people thought of him as a star and not just as a sage; you also see that he knew the effect he was having. It’s perfectly reasonable, then, that a new book by Catherine Camus, his surviving daughter, ‘Albert Camus: Solitude and Solidarity’ (Edition Olms), is essentially a photograph album, rather than any sort of philosophical gloss. Looks matter to the mind. Clever people are usually compensating for something, even if the wound that makes them draw the bow of art is no worse than an overlarge schnozz and sticking-out ears. The ugly man who thinks hard—Socrates or Sartre—is using his mind to make up for his face. (Camus once saw Sartre over-wooing a pretty girl and wondered why he didn’t, as Camus would have done, play it cool. ‘You’ve seen my face?’ Sartre answered, honestly.) When handsome men or beautiful women take up the work of the intellect, it impresses us because we know they could have chosen other paths to being impressive; that they chose the path of the mind suggests that there is on it something more worthwhile than a circuitous route to the good things that the good-looking get just by showing up. And then the image of Camus persists—we recall him not just as a fine writer but as an exemplary man, a kind of secular saint, the spirit of his time, as well as the last French writer whom most Americans know something about. …”
New Yorker
NPR: Excerpt: ‘Camus, a Romance’
amazon: Camus, a Romance by Elizabeth Hawes

About 1960s: Days of Rage

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