Bush Misread Camus (and Orhan Pamuk, too)
I wonder whether Bush's speechwriters are related to the Reagan people who thought Born in the U.S.A. was a patriotic anthem? Last year Bush completely garbled the meaning of the writings of Orhan Pamuk. This year he is full of heaping ignorance as he misunderstands Camus.
Bush and his people either misread or read what they want to believe, regardless of the author's intent. Maybe his/ theirs is reader misresponse theory in practice?
"Bush Misread Camus."
A careful reading of The Fall reveals that President
Bush's quote from Albert Camus in Brussels last week was
an astonishing mistake. Many of our European friends may
now be laughing up their sleeves at the American head of
state. To those who know Camus, a White House
speechwriter may have created a spectacle in which the
President unwittingly parodied himself.
The quote, "freedom is a long distance race," was ripped
from its context, a context that establishes beyond a
doubt that Camus's words were not meant
straightforwardly, but as a spoof of the thought of his
former good friend, Jean-Paul Sartre. The words spoken
by the President are part of a reflection near the end
of The Fall by Jean-Baptiste Clamence, the book's
narrator and sole character. Clamence offers drinks and
tells his story in the Amsterdam bar he habituates. He
is a former Parisian defense attorney "specializing in
noble causes" until one day when he stood by without
lifting a finger while a woman committed suicide by
jumping into the Seine. He abandoned his practice, fled
France for the gloom of Amsterdam, and now spends his
time luring visitors into hearing his confession and
telling their own sins.
The paragraph just before the one quoted by President
Bush begins with Clamence uttering a Sartre-sounding
proclamation, "no excuses ever for anyone" and ends by
Clamence calling himself "an enlightened advocate of
slavery." Both remarks reflect Camus's bitterness
towards Sartre after their 1952 breakup, and his
admission, in an interview in the New York Times Book
Review on February 24 ,1957 that Sartre and his close
colleagues were targeted by The Fall. The paragraph from
which the President quoted begins by having Clamence
extolling slavery, as Camus believed Sartre had done by
aligning himself with the French Communist Party. Then
Camus has Clamence condemn himself of hypocrisy, for
which Camus criticized Sartre in his journal, by saying
that that he "was always talking of freedom. At
breakfast I used to spread it on my toast, I used to
chew it all day long, and in company my breath was
delightfully redolent of freedom. With that key word I
would bludgeon whoever contradicted me; I made it serve
my desires and my power." After the "long-distance race"
statement Camus concludes the paragraph with other
Sartre-sounding phrases, especially on the theme of our
being alone with our freedom and freedom being a heavy
burden to bear.
Camus's character, while sounding resolute and tireless
about pursuing freedom, making it seem daunting and
thankless, but the mark of a true human being, is really
prattling on about freedom, intimidating people with it,
using it for purposes of self-interest - but does not at
all believe in it. The grand-sounding phrase about
freedom being a "long-distance race" is just another
piece of flimflam. Camus, a writer who pondered every
phrase, every word, might turn in his grave upon hearing
President Bush misunderstand his meaning. He might also
insist that those responsible for the Camus vogue among
the neoconservatives because of his determined
opposition to terrorism are picking and choosing their
Camus in their own self-interest, ignoring his equally
determined condemnation of political violence. But,
great French ironist that he was, he might just as well
be smiling a sly smile of satisfaction at seeing the
American president spreading freedom on his breakfast
toast. The President's speechwriters obviously should
read their sources more closely - or perhaps the
President's unconscious self-parody was deliberately
crafted by a French mole in the White House?
Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended It.
University of Chicago Press, 2004.
Faber and Faber, 2004.
Posted by Librarian at 3/06/2005 06:42:00 AM