A Cruel Man Delighting in Flowers

...the mildness to which men ... had yielded was only half of the intoxication of beauty, while the other half ... was of such surpassing and terrible cruelty—the most cruel of men delights himself with a flower—that beauty ... failed quickly of its effect... 

Hermann BrochThe Death of Virgil

 

Jeremy Davies is made of ink, but don’t dip a feather in him. It tickles. He once painted a fingernail black and no one really noticed. He was disappointed. He’s also an editor, a religious atheist, a liker of strong coffees, a Shakespeare-lover, a political anarchist and someone who rarely has a pen when he needs one. He has been a PhD candidate, a personal trainer, a life model, a bouncer, an infantry soldier and someone who rarely had a pen when he needed one. He has had words published in a variety of places, in a variety of publications, in a variety of forms, in a variety of moments: Canada, Wet Ink, SMS and twelve minutes past three in the afternoon being some of these. His first novel, 'Missing Presumed Undead', will be re-published by Satalyte Publishing in February 2014. A second is on its way.

Four Plays by Albert Camus

Caligula and Other Plays - Albert Camus, Stuart Gilbert,  ed.

‘Caligula’ 4.5 stars

CALIGULA: Ah yes … Now listen! I’m not mad; in fact I’ve never felt so lucid. I suddenly felt a desire for the impossible. That’s all. Many people share your opinion.

Caligula, a just ruler, returns from mourning his sister’s death with a new vision. And a request: that he be brought the moon. If he is the ruler, and his rule is law, then this must be done, or none of it works.

CALIGULA: [with sudden violence]: All it proves is that I’m surrounded by lies and self-deception. But I’ve had enough of that; I wish men to live by the light of truth. And I’ve the power to make them do so.


Camus takes the nihilism of his times and applies it to a totalitarian State authority; writing during the ascendancy of Nazism in Western Europe. The dilemma being portrayed is central to the existentialist project: once man gives up on the idea of Grand Narrative meaning to life (socially imparted self-delusion), is the inevitable end-point, is the logic of bald-faced truth, the path to nihilism/hedonism? 

Various characters in the play respond to Caligula’s ‘insanity’ in ways that can be considered representative of various segments of society, their approach for attempting to deal with this trauma of lack-of-meaning. Helicon, the bureaucrat, who hardly misses a beat; Scipio, the poet, who rejects it, but doesn’t know why, and eventually comes around to it, but doesn’t know why; Cherea, the scholar, who rejects it, and needs it destroyed; Carsonia, the lover, who lives with it and dies for it.

SCIPIO: Have you nothing of the kind in your life, no refuge, no mood that makes the tears well up, no consolation?
CALIGULA: Yes, I have something of the kind.
SCIPIO: What is it?
CALIGULA [very quietly]: Scorn.

Caligula is certainly not ‘insane’ but, like Meursault in 'L'Etranger', he could be considered socially insane, he has become untethered from ‘the other’ in the face of the impossibility of knowing it. He understands that he can’t live with this, that this is a broken method of living, just because it is living. He tells Carsonia that loving is the opposite of living, that it is the very antonym. It’s not an inconvenient truth that bothers Caligula, it is an impossible truth—the same as catching moons—but the impossibility of it, never acknowledged due to the sheer irresolvable tension of it in the face of social existence. 

 

A Caligula 'reading' at my place 2013 Centenary

 

[A reading of 'Caligula' in the final scene at my place during our Centenary of Camus Evening that certainly broke into full dramatic performance. Here, Caligula reads script while manhandling his 'lover']

So of course, Caligula must die, he does everything he can to assist the plotters in killing him, letting them go when they’re captured. He knows he can’t live with the impossibility of his existence; but he wants to live. When he’s being killed, stabbed in the face by Scipio and Cherea and others, his final words, as he dies, are: ‘I’m still alive!’ 

In the last moment of his life, as in every moment, he is fully alive, and that is his victory. 

‘Cross Purpose’ 4 stars

Camus uses a story of human tragedy taken from the news to illustrate the tragic absurd conditions of humanity. As a product of greed and avarice, an indifference to other people is developed to such a degree in the Mother and here daughter that they are capable of killing men in their sleep for their money; or is it the other way around? (There would be a way of reading these two characters as emblemic of first wave and second wave feminists respectively … but that might get Camus blacklisted, so I won’t pursue that…). Though both characters approach their denial and lack-of-certainty in different ways, they arrive at the same point. 

This is a very personal and heimlich (to be Freudian) take on the Absurd: which touches heavily on notions of personal identity and familial relations, but still very much in touch with universal condition.

 

Cross Purposes

 

 

THE MOTHER [in the same listless tone]: It only proves that in a world where everything can be denied, there are forces undeniable; and on this earth where nothing is sure we have our certainties.

Both collapse under the weight of certainty, something that have resisted for so long, but cannot avoid. 

THE MOTHER: But this world we live in doesn’t make sense, and I have a right to judge it, since I’ve tested all it has to offer, from creation to destruction.

Since the central plot device relies on mistaken identity—or at least, identity withheld—much could be discussed regarding how the play expores the Absurd epistemologically. Why does Jan withhold his identity? Why not say: ‘It’s I’? He goes through a few reasons, none of which sound that convincing—to the reader or his wife—like he’s fitting the pieces post-mortem. The mother asks herself the same question after they’ve killed him, but with a provision. ‘Oh why did he keep silence? Silence is fatal. But speaking is as dangerous; the little he said hurried it on.’ And the daughter, to the grieving wife, ends the argument later: ‘That in the normal order of things no one is ever recognised.’

No-one can really ever say ‘It’s I’ in any sort of meaningful way: all they can do is further their personal narrative with ‘the other’. Yes, it would have saved his life, but for how long? And for what purpose?

At the end, in the universe with the ever-present-but-ever-silent God, finally God answers the grieving widow imploring Him for help. The final word of the play is:

THE OLD MANSERVANT [in the same tone]: No.

‘The Just’ 5 stars

 

We now see the progression of the bleakness of Camus’ dalliance with nihilism into what will become The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt; summed up nicely with the chief of police talking to the condemned man:


SKOURATOV: You begin by wanting justice, and in the end set up a police force.

 

The Just

 

This was the play I expected the least from, and delivered the most. How is the killing of another man justified? Camus, again responding to reported events, whereby ‘terrorists’ refused to kill their target when he was accompanied by children, but carried out the bombing later successfully. 

Stepan is your future Stalinist: ‘Everybody lies. The important thing is to lie well.’ ‘Honour is a luxury reserved for those that have carriages,’ is another of his gems. Opposed in motivation to Kaliayev, who loves life over justice, but is prepared to kill and die, or even ‘die twice’, in order that others may live. To be ‘just’ is to get beyond the immediate actions to the overall effects. The ‘warmth’ of the world is not for these people. They have to be cold for the projected warmth of the future.

Dora, the heroine, and most striking of the characters of this play, and the most striking of all Camus’ female characters I have read, says this, and names the play: “Do you remember what summer is like, Yanek? … but no! … it’s always winter here. We are not of this world … we are ‘the just’ … There is a warmth in the world, but it is not for us … [Turning away] Oh, pity ‘the just’!”

Sounds a little self-indulgent? She’s got reason to be, just at that moment, and it’s affecting. Of all Camus’ plays so far that I have read (I have seen none on a stage: only stage versions of his novels…) this is the first one where I have actually felt and thought to myself, wow, I would love to see someone great performing that on stage. The others I have enjoyed, but I have potentially enjoyed them more as a reader of a play, as opposed to be in touch with the performance of it. And it was Dora, right at the end, that hit me in the guts. Right after Yanek (Kaliayev) has gone to his death at the gallows, with a hangman jumping up and down on his shoulders to snap his neck, after being offered a reprieve if he’d turn informer:

DORA: Then do this for me: let me throw the bomb … [ANNENKOV looks at her.] Yes … the next time, I want to throw the bomb … I want to be the first to throw it!
ANNENKOV: We don’t let women throw the bombs.
DORA [with a shriek] Am I a woman … now? [They all look at her in silence.]
VOINOV: Yes, let her.

This text is ironic and dark, but also beautiful. You understand the narrative inevitability of Kaliayev’s death, just as you do the Duke’s, and Kaliayev does to. He is Camus’ absurd hero, and he battles Stepov, the ungiving Stalinist; Dora, the lover; Skouratov, the Police chief; and finally, the religious Grand Duchess, the widow of them man he has killed, and while he doesn’t always win, he remains truthful. 

GRAND DUCHESS: But men are vile… You can either forgive them or destroy them. What else can you do?
KALIAYEV: You can … die with them.
GRAND DUCHESS: But you die alone … He died alone.

Both Skouratov and the Grand Duchess want to save him, but he refuses. In announcing her imminent arrival in his cell, he says to him:

SKOURATOV: First the police … and now … religion! You are being spoilt, aren’t you? But everything holds together. Imagine God without prisons! … What solitude!

Camus is no apologist for terrorism—he opposed the Algerian nationalist terrorist movement when his ideological pals seemed to be all for it—but he is trying to occupy these characters, and he does so authentically and powerfully. The thorny nature of Justice, the dynamic scope of its lens and framing, and how that interacts with Love—of fellow man and of sexual partner—is stripped bare in a very cold light.

 

‘The Possessed’ 3.5 stars

 

The Possessed on stage

 

It was possibly a mistake and an injustice upon the play to read the novel it was based on ('The Devils') immediately before. Camus says in his foreword that he is ‘…well aware of all that separates the play from that amazing novel!’ and that he ‘…merely tried to follow the books undercurrent and to proceed as it does from satiric comedy to drama and then to tragedy.’ I assumed that Camus was going to select particular elements and characters to dramatize this ‘undercurrent’ for the stage, and had even predicted how he was going to do that, with what scenes, and what characters he might use and/or conflate; but, instead of merely an undercurrent, a very large percentage of the novel in narrative terms is squeezed into a three part script with 27 characters. Consequently, in Parts One and Three, it seems like everyone is in a great rush to get things done, and I even couldn’t help imagining them talking to each other really really quickly.

But what Camus does do is reinvent Stavrogin in a very interesting way, particularly in Part Two where the pace seems to slow and the characters seem to get a bit of collective breathing space. He becomes the struggling-man-towards-being-the-Absurd-Hero: to Kirilov’s reasoned suicide in the face of intellect-over-faith, and Shutov’s abject living in the face of faith-over-intellect. And all three headed for annihilation in their own ways. 

KIRILOV: Have you ever looked at the leaf of a tree?
STAVROGIN: Yes.
KIRILOV: Green and shiny, with all its veins visible in the sunlight? Isn’t it wonderful? Yes, a leaf justifies everything. Human beings, birth and death—everything one does is good


STAVROGIN: Don’t worry, I am a Christian. Or, rather, I would be if I believed in God. But… [He gets up.] …there is no hare.

SHUTOV: No hare?
STAVROGIN: Yes. To make jugged hare, you need a hare. To believe in God, you need a God.


Both Shutov and Kirilov were ‘disciples’ of Stavrogin: but Stavrogin, Shutov discovers, had been instructing them to completely opposite ends. While Shutov was being taught that ‘…the blind life-force driving a nation in search of its god is greater than reason and science…’, Kirilov was being taught the opposite.

SHUTOV: How could you tell him one thing and me the opposite?
STAVROGIN: Probably I was trying, in both cases, to persuade myself.

So just as teacher created pupils, pupils created teacher.

Stavrogin’s fall is more spectacular in the play; he hits a nihilistic rock-bottom.

STAVROGIN: I hate everything that lives on earth, and myself first of all. So let destruction reign and crush them all, and with them all those who ape Stavrgoin, and Stavrogin himself…’

Stavrogin loses faith in all things, while his vile do-badder ‘pal’ Peter Verkhovensky…

PETER: Filth and decency are just words. Everything is just words.

…still has faith in himself, and puts himself and his own interests above all.

How Stavrogin meets his end is quite different in the play also; it comes as a direct result of one of his numerous love interests … the only one left alive at the end of the play.

STAVROGIIN: I am capable only of negation, of petty negation. If I could believe in something, I could perhaps kill myself. But I can’t believe.
DASHA: [trembling]: Nicholas, such a void is faith or the promise of faith.
STAVROGIN [looking at her after a moment of silence]: Hence, I have faith…

So he fails to accept his Absurd condition, and falls into faith, and dies, but dies happy. Camus’ Stavrogin is a fascinating fully-inked man-in-crisis who is crunchingly flawed and achingly sincere; he reminded me sometimes of my impression of Kurtz in 'Heart of Darkness'. ‘Everything is foreign to me,’ he says. Doestoevsky’s Stavrogin is much more shadowy, particularly in relation to some ot the other vivid characters in the novel.

Camus’ calls Dostoevesky’s book a ‘prophetic book … not only because it prefigures our nihilism, but also because its protagonists are torn from the dead souls unable to love and suffering from that inability, wanting to believe and yet unable to do so—like those who people our society and our spiritual world today.’ And it remains so today. Camus’ play, for all its flaws, works very well in parts, but poorly in others, despite its content; Camus’ devotion to this ‘amazing novel’ maybe brings him undone. He wrote the play in 1953 or 54, but says in the foreword he had been visualizing it for twenty years, and it was touring in January 1959, after a six month run, when the company of actors were informed of Camus’ death in a car accident.

Currently reading

Lyrical and Critical Essays
Albert Camus
The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages
Harold Bloom
The Rebel (Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics)
Albert Camus