Keeping sane

Albert Camus lived through an era not unlike our own – saturated with a hopelessness about the future, fearful of the other, leading to terrorism from one side and torture and justifications of torture from the other side in order to supposedly safeguard society. Camus himself saw such as a vicious circle, and fell out with his fellow Leftist travellers, such as Sartre, for feeling that violence was somehow inevitable and yet never justified, never a necessary evil for the greater good, in contrast not only to modern Western conservatives, but to those of Camus’s time on the political left with their justification of Stalinist violence.

This is a major theme coming out of Robert Zaretsky’s recent little biography (A Life Worth Living) – though biography may be the wrong word – study might be better: Zaretsky takes five tropes: absurdity (of course), silence, revolt, fidelity and moderation, and writes about each of these affected and were meditated on by Camus.

Famously, Camus thought that it was necessary to confront meaninglessness. One can argue about the supposed meaninglessness of the world, in big and small ways, but it would be flippant not to be at least sympathetic to his outlook that the world is indeed meaningless, particularly based on the situation he found himself in, as an onlooker to the exploitation and violence in his native Algeria. (Besides, talk about meaning in the world at large is, as David Bentley Hart points out, so abstract as to be, er, meaningless – meaning is to be found in a particular thing… or difficult to find in a particular thing, as the case may be.) It’s not hard to have sympathy and admiration for both Camus’s outspokenness and then his reluctance to speak out about violence. He felt passionate about injustice and was torn between a duty to report the truth and a reluctance to offer a voice when there are often no clear answers to moral dilemmas (hence them being dilemmas in the first place). This is not always an easy position for a public intellectual to take – it is easier to make grand pronouncements that leave the impression of black and white.

It is also hard not to admire his attitude to the cultivation of happiness – that it is hard fought for – a long, tiring effort, especially when our society promotes easy answers here too, that are generally mirages. His Sisyphean attitude is sometimes off – Zaretsky suggests that contrary to what Camus says, Homer never says Sisyphus is wise and there’s actually not much to redeem that story, and there’s not meant to be – it’s not about human dignity, but about the folly of crossing the gods – but one can admire Camus’s ‘epiphany’ that one must not neglect injustice or those things that keep us sane, such as, in Camus’s case, taking some joy from nature.

Fence climbers

Violent Borders, Reece Jones, Verso.

Reece Jones’s book contains an arresting image of illegal immigrants high atop a dizzyingly high Spanish border fence that looks over Spaniards doing the rounds at an exclusive golf course. The fence climbers are repeatedly removed by security forces, only to try again a few days later. It’s a microcosm of what is happening at various places along the borders of European countries.

In 2015 3700 people died trying to enter Europe illegally. In the decade previous, 40,000 people, possibly 1 in 4 who stepped on a boat, lost their lives. The answer to this is often touted as deterrence, with much hysterical press attached, but Reece Jones focuses here on a more ideological root issue, and what most of us just take as a given – international borders and their policing. As well as advocating for refugees, Violent Borders amounts to a short history of the border.

Jones argues that international borders, which are a relatively recent invention and which often cut arbitrarily across geography and ethnic groups, are set up to ‘protect privileges’. ‘Border protection’ then naturally invites Trump-like rhetoric and violent defensive action. Jones outlines the international escalation of the criminalisation of illegal migration and the increasingly unempathetic attitude towards refugees.

This stands in contrast to international corporations that are free to roam the globe to secure the cheapest labour. The benefits corporations bring to the head honchos of third world nations entices those leaders, in order to keep the corporations there, to reduce regulations, including those that deal with environmental care, and to restrict the movement of the labourers within their countries.

Jones describes this global situation as ‘broken’. Why, he asks, if we consider people to be equal, do we not allow the poor equal access to employment? The freedom to travel and to offer your labour for a fair price should be a basic human right. He advocates for more open borders, which to many will seem like an invitation for global chaos. But, he says, this is no more radical an idea than giving women the vote seemed in the nineteenth century. Then again, it might simply seem as radical as the early church, whose members ‘held all things in common’.

(Reviewed for the Uniting Church)

Appealing to conservatives and atheists

The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard can appeal to conservatives, atheists, fervent believers and critics of the church. He is claimed as a Lutheran and an existentialist. He influenced Karl Barth, Martin Luther King and Bonhoeffer, but also Albert Camus and Franz Kafka. Equally, he could offend anyone, in his own life and beyond, as his critical gaze takes in most of human folly. He was precocious and aloof but also physically impaired. He treated his ex-fiancee dreadfully but also saw and responded to the humanity in all the people with whom he talked in the streets of Copenhagen.

Summaries of his thought and his life can be daunting, which makes Stephen Backhouse’s Kierkegaard: A Single Life (Zondervan) a feat, even though, admits Backhouse, Kierkegaard himself deplored such reductionism. The subtitle, ‘A Single Life’ refers to the ‘single individual’, Kierkegaard’s term for the individual who stands with authenticity apart from the crowd, something that Kierkegaard increasingly came to embody, as he became mired in slanging matches in the press and ultimately became a figure of public ridicule, so much so that he could no longer take his daily walks in the city. Backhouse outlines the scandals and trials, and also, fascinatingly, how Kierkegaard’s thought disseminated across the globe until he reached his place in the pantheon of the greatest of Western philosophers.

Rococo letter writing


Writer David Bentley Hart calls Patrick Leigh Fermor ‘one of the greatest masters of English in our or any epoch’. One acquaintance described Fermor as ‘a most enchanting maniac’. He is famous for the exuberant narratives of his travels across Europe in the 1930s beginning with A Time of Gifts. Travelogues also fill his letter writing (recently collected as Dashing to the Post, John Murray), which is similarly rococo and attests to a by-gone era when letters were minor works of art, writers could be swashbuckling gadabouts and time moved more slowly (at one point Fermor describes a cafe owner greeting him warmly, remembering his visit from seven years’ prior). This potpourri includes letters to famous friends, outpourings to jilted lovers and beautiful descriptions of countrysides (especially of Greece where he eventually settled).

Adam Sisman, who introduces this collection, describes him as playful, boyish and not particularly interested in politics. He lived through war and communism, could sleep in a barn if he needed to, but also hobnobbed with the rich and famous. He corresponded with the Duchess of Devonshire (their letters have been previously collected), was friends with Diana Cooper and Bruce Chatwin, but found the super-rich ‘colossally boring’. He was liberal in his collection of friends and lovers. There are many outpourings of love here, with coy references in code to sexual adventures. But there are also long descriptive passages just for the thrill of describing, say, a boat trip to an island.

The letters show a deep knowledge of history and literature, as well as surprising insights into Christianity, from his stays in monasteries when he was researching a book on the subject, and where he describes himself as ‘clear-headed’ after having to leave off the alcohol during his stay.

Bush tracks, hunting trips, waterholes


Kim Mahood’s Position Doubtful (Scribe) was included on many readers’ ‘best of 2016’ lists, and no wonder. The title is a mapping term, but it can also refer in a more symbolic way to the relationship most Australians have with indigenous Australia, and also to Mahood’s own experience of having one foot each in the two ‘worlds’ of Australia’s Euro-centric coast and the red centre, as a white person with an Aboriginal ‘skin’ name. She is an artist and describes a long project of mapping and painting with indigenous elders, with constant travel over bush tracks, hunting trips, waterholes and storytelling. The book is also a meditation on central Australia and contemporary indigenous life that goes beyond simplistic attitudes such as Dreamtime idealisations or condemnations of Aboriginal communities as hopeless. Instead, the indigenous communities she describes have a mix of the traditional and the Western. Older ways of inhabiting the land mix comfortably with Christian faith. Both supermarket food and goanna meat is craved. Western technology is incorporated, but unlike the Westerners who flow in and out of central Australia, the indigenous people she describes have a curious lack of curiosity about white ways. They have a comfort in their own wisdom, something noted by visitors who sense something is lacking in modern Western culture. At the same time, Mahood is not blind to the problems of central Australia’s clash with modernity. There is a strong absence of men in the book – drawn away, beset, dying young. The older women are the wise ones, caregivers, custodians. But they are funny too, and sometimes bossily selfish. Complete human beings, in other words, not caricatures, a picture which often alludes visitors, especially tourists. Mahood herself is wary throughout of reductionism, a danger that summaries of the book are susceptible to.

Fifth-rate art books

John Berger’s Landscapes is a companion piece to his recent Portraits – a smaller, jumbled accumulation of essays on art and society with a meandering timeline. Among detailed appreciations of the breach that was cubism, and non-painting related essays, such as one on Joyce, are some enjoyably scathing pieces about the priesthood of curators and the religion of modern art. He castigates curators for their laziness and supposed prestige, as custodians of the sacred objects we call art, while stripping the veils away and pronouncing that we are still living with the old bourgeois idea of paintings as valuable property that helps demarcate between the haves and have-nots. Blockbuster exhibitions are a form of charity, he argues – a condescension to the masses, allowing them access to these valuable objects, revered as well, he says, in ‘fifth-rate’ art books.

He also fires shots at much modern art that he labels as gimmick and rubbish – literally, he says, as exhibitors have a fondness for portraying decay and ‘muck’. Though some of this writing is decades-old, the themes are still relevant. It’s not all negative. He has a fondness for the craft of art, and the artist as craftsperson, and a very personal approach to art, which is why he feels passionate about, somewhat ironically, art’s denigration and commodification in outrageous prices and the genteel business of art museums.

In extremis

For those of us familiar with the writing of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Annie Dillard, The Abundance (Canongate) is a reminder of how good her writing is – how vibrant, wrenching, cheeky and exhausting. For those unfamiliar, this may be a welcoming antechamber to a mansion where metaphysics, natural history and memoir clash, spark and play off each other. She if often described as a nature writer (though, also, she is novelist, memoirist, philosopher and historian, mostly in unorthodox fashion) but is a nature writer in extremis. She says a writer, like a tennis player, plays the edges.

This book is more tasting platter than abundance; the selections of her writing here taken out of context are like jewels fallen from a necklace, but they are jewels none-the-less. As Geoff Dyer says in his introduction to the collection, Dillard is slightly crazy (she says in her memoir American Childhood that as an adolescent she was labelled a ‘live wire’), and unflinching in her observations of the world, whether they be of bugs or Christian worship. This observation doesn’t come naturally, it must be cultured. In a passage in her prize-winning first book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, (here excerpted as ‘Seeing’) she describes the process of forcing herself to look properly at what nature lays out in front of us. Her eyes are peeled, her enthusiasm peaks, her imagination is in fifth gear.

She also loves jokes. Her memoir contains a long passage about how her parents joked and talked about jokes often, how they explained their structure to Dillard and her sisters, how they constructed elaborate practical jokes, how running gags would fill entire weekends. Her writing displays a deep understanding of timing. A particular page might dip and soar and make profound observations before bumping down with a closing quip which lets the reader know that the preceding paragraphs are to be taken with both gravity and levity.

She comes at Christianity from an oblique angle, but come she must, because part of her curiosity at the world is wonder at its, and our, existence. It is heartening to follow her example in being able to find the mysterious and forbidding ultimately enlightening. But when she describes C S Lewis’s writings on pain as ‘serenely worded, logical sounding’ she is not being complimentary. She prefers the wildness and wonder of Job.