..A .R E A T   P H I L O S O P H Y



After practicing as a non-conformer up to the age of 15 (rules, I learned by age-7, were blindly obeyed only by idiots), I slid idly into conformity. I suppose it suited my various ambitions. And until the end of 1988, I followed this path of least resistance. But it was through that adolescent revolt that I discovered the pleasures and aptness of idling, a discovery resurrected in 1988.

Perhaps it was from a new insight on 'work' that  I leapt back into revolt (and idling) - but this time a personal revolt, involving no overt subversion, no other people, and no effort - in fact, the reverse: it was, ultimately, I suppose, a revolt against the inevitability of death.

Belated as this was, I now regard it as the only truly constructive move I've ever made; though to have made it sooner would perhaps have been pre-emptive:

From Herbert Read's 1951 Forward to Camus's 'The Rebel':

Camus believes that revolt is one of the 'essential dimensions' of mankind. It is useless to deny its historical reality - rather we must seek in it a principle of existence. But the nature of revolt has changed radically in our times. It is no longer the revolt of the slave against the master, nor even the revolt of the poor against the rich; it is a metaphysical revolt, the revolt of man against the conditions of life, against creation itself. At the same time, it is an aspiration towards clarity and unity of thought - even, paradoxically, towards order. That, at least, is what it becomes under the intellectual guidance of Camus…

But HAS the nature of revolt changed radically in our times? It may have seemed so in the early fifties - or from a position of affluent isolation. But like the historic reality mentioned in the extract, my revolt was all three: beginning (as a kid) from 'slave against master', growing (as a 'youth' - a 25-year diversion) to include 'poor against rich', and finally taking-up 'Man against creation' - or in my words 'Man against oblivion' or 'Man FOR creation' ( that is: for the life force, not any deity which to me is nonesense, as too for Camus). All of these remain for me. And in spite of what Read says, I suspect all will remain in the world for a good time to come (the first two so long as capitalism thrives).

[note: if what Read meant by 'creation' was what has come to be called in 2008 'creationism', then he is obviously right (as Camus himself spells out in his own words below in red). But in spite of our 'gloomy prospects', as Camus makes clear, there is nothing inconsistent about experiencing 'joy of life' at the same time as being an atheist; in fact, as Camus makes equally clear, any other combination would not only be inconsistent, but would fail to reflect (and sieze) the truth of our predicament.]

While most people accept a prosaic everyday life, or else plunge into some absorbing activity or other, there's always a few - whether pauper or millionaire - who choose to idle their way through the days and years. We idlers amble along, void of all tangible ambition, preferring (when we can) to observe and wonder than do anything 'useful'. It's enough for me, it seems, to roam the cliffs and beaches, to dive into the sea in the summer months, visit dusty second-hand bookshops and idly commune with other pseudo-bohemians. It's enough to enjoy the bright clear mornings for what they actually offer, and the dazzling sunsets... never mind living on the breadline. Priority number one: No reluctant trudge to the office, no grudging days spent in the tedium of unwelcome toil. Who needs money, beyond subsistence, when TIME is so short? Who needs money when, tacky clichés aside, the best things really are free for the taking?

Raymond Chandler used to force himself to sit in front of his typewriter all day - even if he ended up writing nothing. He reasoned that boredom would spark the creative impulse. For him it worked - occasionally. I've read his novels and, for all their faults, enjoyed them. If you're going to do anything creative, said Hemingway, you need above all a 100% infallible shit-detector.

Dostoyevsky observed that the most important quality for a writer is the ability to cut. As readers of this site will have noticed, I've yet to acquire either. I know it, yet it doesn't stop me; I go on regardless.

dostAt the age of 24, two years after 'Poor Folk', Dostoyevsky produced 'The Landlady' in which he reveals a growing self-realisation in Ordynov, the protagonist (how much of this is autobiography?). Here's an extract:

"…never, not even in the present instance, was there any order or preordained system in his solitary studies; all he knew now was the first ecstasy, the first fever, the first delirium of the artist. He was creating a system for himself; it had obsessed him for years, and little by little the vague, obscure, but somehow wonderfully gratifying outline of an idea was taking shape within his soul; the idea was embodied in a new, lucid form, and this form cried out to be released from his soul, tormenting it; he was as yet only timidly aware of its originality, truth and distinctiveness: the creative achievement was already announcing itself to his energies; it was forming and establishing itself. But the day of creative realization was as yet far off, perhaps very far off- perhaps quite unattainable!"

This, I imagine, is precisely the sensation experienced by Dostoyevsky himself. Who can fail to admire the extraordinary skill of Dostoyevsky (and a few others)? Do I envy their talent, their ability to express themselves in such gripping and clear original prose? I have no right to envy them. I've made virtually no effort. Quite probably they slaved at their desks for years; whereas I, instead of applying myself, have chosen to amble through woods and fields, drive dreamily around the USA, Australia or Europe, and generally laze about. I wrote not a single thing in those crucial teenage years so long ago when the brain is fresh and learning by practice is so effective. But I have good memories and I aim to add to them. The truth is, though, I'm an indolent, self-indulgent loafer, an irredeemable slacker, an aspirant to perpetual contentment - a 'folly' acutely bulldozed by some. Yet, to me, doing nothing is a fine pastime, and is only inappropriate when I'm confronted with an obvious need to act. It is said that helping others is a way of losing yourself. If that's your primary aim, fine. But it's not mine. And the helping hand can be severe - it is frequently unwelcome.

But I've experienced no such creative inspiration as Dostoyevsky illustrates in the above extract. And it seems impossible to induce artificially: no amount of self-motivating tactics appear to work. Perhaps it emanates unconsciously from deep within - a bit like being love-struck. Maybe this is what happens when a kid knows, with spontaneous certainty, what to do with their life. Are they the lucky few? Probably they are. Whether or not we are aware of the truth in Shaw's maxim: 'Make sure you do what you like or you'll end up liking what you do.' - most of us are inclined to drift and get stuck in whatever hole we perchance fall into. I was lucky in a different way because for a few years I experienced that passion for knowledge that Colin Wilson speaks of in his 'Beyond The Outsider':

'For those who have experienced it, the hour of the awakening of passion for knowledge is the most memorable of a lifetime… in that moment, man glimpses the possibility of becoming truly human, and recognises that the instruments required in this new existence are not weapons and tools, but intellect and imagination.'

I remember above all the strong sense of engagement. This wasn't creative energy or the consciousness of innate potential for originality - as infected Dostoyevsky's Ordynov. Rather, it involved a yearning to understand certain details of physical reality. Perhaps this corresponds to the creative impulse to the extent that such passion removes you from yourself, you are gripped by the thrill of the moment and the anticipation of great things to come.

That ephemeral glittering palace, for which every fortunate youth is headed, looms with such breathtaking clarity that you can't possibly doubt its existence. Even when it finally begins to fade, when it dawns on you that it was all a delectable figment, you are still buoyed by what the delusion once inspired: the sense of purpose, the warming power of optimism, the hope and trust you once felt in the unexplored road. It is something you can look back on with a smile when you stumble on that next con-trick: the stormy skies and craggy precipice of looming middle-age... as so strikingly depicted in the paintings of Thomas Cole. Do they still hang in 'The Smithsonian'?

see 'The Voyage of Life'

This must be a common experience. Less common, I imagine, is the awareness, as a youth, of both these visions at once. Hesse, for instance, demonstrates this duality in his early work. But it was elucidated most plainly, I believe, by Albert Camus. Alan Watts remarked that 'Salvation consists in the most radical recognition that we have no way of saving ourselves'. I'd rephrase this: 'Our only hope is to abandon hope.'

As the extract below suggests, Camus would have concurred with this. I first read it some years ago, noting how Camus was particularly inspired by 'Les Isles' ('The Islands') written by his professor, Jean Grenier. Camus wasn't so much a nihilist, I believe, as a seeker of balance, a realist who saw the rough and the smooth with the same youthful yet eminently perceptive eye. His palace was the very real present, while his precipice lay equally real just ahead and just as clearly. The extract anticipates the above appraisal by Read, and is an account of certain experiences and analyses recorded in Camus's early work. It is refreshingly uplifting - though also perhaps disquieting:

The following (italics) is from 'THE MAKING OF A WRITER' ('Albert Camus 1913-60' by Philip Thody pp 21-25 [for the complete chapter click here]) - quotes taken from Camus in RED :

The idea of happiness is indeed not absent from L'Envers et l'Endroit ['The Wrong Side and the Right Side' 1936 - written at age 23], and it inspires one of the best essays in the book, L'Amour de vivre, ('The Love of Living'). But it is linked in the first essays with two feelings which appear only intermittently in Noces ['Nuptials' 1937 - the song of the nuptials between man and the earth]: those of despair and of an indefinable aspiration towards some unknown and unattainable ideal. 'There is no love of living without despair of life,' he wrote in L'Envers et l'Endroit, when describing his contemplation of the sun-drenched countryside of the Mediterranean countries, and added to this epigram a definition of 'love of living' as 'a silent passion which was perhaps going to escape me, a bitterness beneath the flame'. It is this awareness which Camus said he owed to the influence of 'Les Iles' and writes with less irony and more enthusiasm of the full satisfaction to be gained in the physical joys of life.

It is because Camus feels so completely at home in the physical world that he does not, in Noces, stress the world's basic indifference which obsesses him in L'Envers et l'Endroit, and that the whole tone of the book, with the picture which it gives of the young Camus, is unlike that suggested by the first essays. The Camus described by Emmanuel Robles as '
essentially a creature of the sun, made for the simple and intense life of the Mediterranean shores' was also the Camus who wrote this profession of confidence in the world in the first essay in the book, Noces a'Tipasa: 'I must be naked and then dive into the sea, the scents of the earth still about me, wash off these scents in the sea and consummate on my own flesh the embrace for which, lips to lips, earth and sea have for so long been sighing.' The whole of this essay is the description of the completely satisfying experience which Camus has when he enters into communion with nature, and it introduces a hymn to joy which is taken up in different ways throughout the book. At Tipasa, the sea 'sucking at the rocks with the sound of kisses,' the mountains 'moving with confident and certain rhythm to crouch down in the sea,' the 'melody of the world' which comes through the gaps in the wall of the Christian basilica at Sainte-Sala, all strengthen Camus in his realisation that here man is offered a happiness which is made for him and which is always within his reach. At the end of a day spent swimming, and walking through the flower-strewn ruins of Tipasa, Camus sits on a park bench and meditates on the fullness of the happiness he has found. 'I watched the shapes of the countryside merge in the growing twilight. My cup was brimming over. Above my head hung the buds of a pomegranate tree, closed and ribbed like little fists which held all the promise of spring. There was rosemary behind me, and I could smell the alcoholic tang of its leaves. I could see hills through the gaps of the trees, and, further in the distance, a strip of sea above which the sky, like the sail of a boat motionless for lack of wind, rested with all its tenderness. I felt a strange joy in my heart, the very joy which is born of a clear conscience. There is a feeling which actors have when they know they have played their part well, that is to say when they have made their own gestures coincide with those of the ideal character they have been representing, taken up a position in a picture made for them in advance and suddenly brought it to life with the beating of their own heart. This was exactly my feeling: I had played my part well. I had done the task which awaited me as a man, and the fact that I had known joy all one livelong day seemed to me not an exceptional success but the whole-hearted fulfilment of a condition which, in certain circumstances, makes it our duty to be happy.'

Even when, as on a windy day at Djemila, Camus feels not the '
inner quietness of love satisfied' but rather a full awareness of his coming death, this sense of communion with the world is not destroyed. Indeed, throughout Noces the idea that death is inevitable merely adds to Camus's determination to enjoy fully and completely the pleasures vouchsafed to him. It is when the wind has almost destroyed his feeling of his own individuality, when he has been 'polished by the wind, worn through to the very soul . . . mingling the beating of [his] heart with the great, sonorous heart-beats of the ever present heart of nature' that he realises the full extent of the satisfaction which his complete identification with the world and his refusal to seek out any other values can give him.

Few people understand that there is a refusal which has nothing to do with renunciation. What meaning can words like "future", "improvement", "position" have here? What can be meant by "the heart's progress"? If I obstinately refuse all the "later on" of the world, it is because I do not want to give up my present riches. I do not want to believe that death opens out on to another life. For me it is a closed door. I don't say that it is "a step that we must all take": but that it is a horrible and dirty adventure. All the solutions which are offered to me try to take away from man the weight of his own life. And, watching the heavy flight of the great birds of Djemila, it is exactly a certain weight that I ask for and receive. I have too much youth in me to speak of death. But if I were to speak of it it is here that I should find the precise word which would, midway between horror and silence, express the conscious certainty of a death without hope.'

This communion with nature, this instinctive wisdom of the body, and this rejection of all attempts to clothe the thought of final annihilation in comforting myths are also qualities which Camus finds and appreciates in the essentially pagan civilisation of North Africa. The essay L'Ete' a' Alger ('Summer in Algiers') is a long defence and illustration of the virtues of Camus's own countrymen who come of a race which '
born of the sun and of the sea, alive and full of vigour, derives its greatness from its simplicity and, standing upright on its beaches, addresses a smile of complicity to the shining smile of the heavens'. Such a people, Camus writes, have the touch of barbarity typical of all races who have created a new civilisation, and he suggests that they are, perhaps at this very moment, in process of 'modelling the face of a new culture where man's greatness will perhaps find its true likeness'. If they did succeed in doing so, it would apparently be one where man would have to resign himself to the unhappiness of old age, abandon the vague quest for something more permanent described in L'Envers et l'Endroit, and accept that the important part of his life is finished when he is over thirty. 'Men find here,' writes Camus, 'throughout the whole of their youth, a life which is made to the measure of their beauty. Then afterwards, their life goes down towards forgetfulness. They have placed their bets upon the body, and they knew that they would lose. In Algiers everything presents a refuge and an occasion for triumphs to those who are young and alive: the bay, the sun, the red and white games of the seaward terraces, the flowers and the sports stadiums, the young girls with smooth legs. But for anyone who has lost his youth, there is nothing to which he can cling and not a single place where melancholy can seek refuge.'

Men must accept that there is no other truth than that of the body, and, for Camus, it is the fact that the Algerians do this which gives them their particular virtue. It is a virtue which Camus took from them and made into one of the important ideas in Le Mythe de Sisyphe [The Myth of Sisyphus' 1941]. The men who were '
gods of the summer at the age of twenty because of their thirst for life, and who are still gods when they live completely without hope', have never committed a sin against life. For, writes Camus, 'if there is a sin against life, it is not so much to fall into despair as to hope for immortality and elude the implacable grandeur of the life we have'. The essential virtue is to recognise that there is no solution to the problem of human mortality, that no consolation of another life can be offered to man, and that he must be satisfied with 'stones, stars, and flesh, and those truths which the hand itself can touch'. Camus's rejection of religion is more absolute in Noces than it was in L'Envers et l'Endroit because the emotional grounds for it have changed. In L'Envers et l'Endroit, religion is presented as an illusory consolation which can never seriously rival the activities of real life. In Noces, the suggestion is rather that even if the hope and comfort offered by religion did happen to be true, this would by no means be a good thing: man would thereby lose that intensity of joy which can, in Camus's view, come only from his awareness of the absolute finality of death.

Evidently, Camus learned early the ecstasies of slacking. But for it to work properly, he realised, one must have a clear conscience: the certainty that it is a sacred pursuit, which requires absolute honesty - no metaphysical riddles, no heaven or hell or other supernatural clutter.

PART-2: part 2


' The Voyage of Life' by Thomas Cole (1801 - 1848)










Old Age

These magnificent paintings are enormous - I've seen them - they're probably too big to go through a normal doorway. They were mounted in a kind-of lobby between four high arches that led out into larger rooms of the gallery. Note the absence of a 'spirit-guide/guardian-angel' in the Manhood painting, emphasising the symbolic (rather than religious) nature of Cole's depictions of the four key phases we irrational humans are inclined to pass through in our amazing and absurd 'Voyage of Life'.

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