Our Society of Dead Poets

We pass on how to live in our genes. Our bodies telling us when we are hungry in order to eat, when we are tired to sleep. The myriad urges of animal life – when to purge our accumulated waste, when to procreate. Seeking warmth, shelter in a cave, companionship – tenderness. Mothers instinctively feed their babies; father’s respond with violence to predatory threats from just over the horizon.

But why to live? That, it seems, each successive generation must discover for itself – and it’s a messy process which would appear to be incompatible with the peace that we all seek. Peace, or meaning. I often wonder if those are the two life-forces destined to be constantly in conflict. I am not the first to wonder this, because as part of our experience in living we developed writing. This greatest technology (perhaps second only to fire), in order to pass down what we learn in our old age to those who come after in the desperate and vain hope that they will not have to follow the same rocky paths. The ones they invariably do anyways.

I am an honorary member of the ‘Dead Poets Society’. Dead white men – is what they are branded these days by the know-nothings desperate to never crack open a book. Believing, as I suppose they do, that meaning enough can be found from the juices excreted from their glands or the pangs of human urges. The blood that runs through their veins – scary. But the dead poets? Who cares, they must have been vile; how could they not be, product of our wicked past? Of course, its important to note that they are not all white, nor are they all men; wisdom knows no pigment or chromosome. Chinua Achebe and Ahmadou Kourouma – Homer (indeed, Homer was probably brown). Emilie Dickenson and Pearl S. Buck. They do have to be dead though – yes that rule is incontrovertible. Living people tend to disillusion. When they’re gone you know at least that they can never weigh in on the daily news thread, an act by which they will invariably disappoint someone and crash to earth, their soaring comet converted instantaneously to just another ‘fascist’ or ‘neo-con’ or ‘racist’ to be rapidly discarded. The society; I am an honorary member. Member, because it is a self-selecting group. We are members who choose to write down our short experiences upon this old planet in the hopes that somebody will pick them up one day and avoid for themselves some trouble. Honorary, which literally means ‘conferred as an honor, without the usual requirements or functions’ – because one of the requirements of membership is to be dead, and I do not meet that requirement. Yet.

Dead Poet’s Society – too many of you won’t know I’m referring to a movie. About an English professor, played by the great Robin Williams (may he find in death the peace he never did in life), and his attempt to inspire meaning in his gang of motley boarding-school charges. ‘Pop culture’, maybe – at least back then, when I was young. But it did abide, mostly because it was about dead poets, Wordsworth and Keats and Kipling – and of course Robin Williams, who has now joined them and become a full-fledged member of the society that he did not found (though certainly named) by meeting that most lasting of requirements.

I have a ritual with my little boy. We run around. OK, I know, not particularly inventive; but pure little boy joy. We stream YouTube play lists as we chase each other. “Beat music, daddy” he says. Simon and Garfunkel be damned. As the technology selects the next song, I often find myself guiltily enjoying some of the cotton-candy music of the moment, and in this process I came across Avicii (only to learn belatedly of his fate). In the listening, I discovered one song about a father’s advice to his son. “One day my father he told me ‘son, don’t let it slip away.’ He took me in his arms, I heard him say ‘when you get older your wild heart will live for younger days. Think of me if ever you’re afraid.’ He said, ‘one day you’ll leave this world behind, so live a life you will remember…’”

Meaning? Live a life you will remember. Forgetting if you’re dead, ostensibly you will not remember anything – unless you believe in what comes next, but this is not a song about religion. Millenials don’t really do ‘faith’; that is mostly for dead white people – the foremost of who is Jesus, who probably was not white either but the same toasted hue as Homer. “A life you can remember”, I suppose it’s as good advice as any, though if we were to go by the music video it would appear that ‘remembering’ involved mostly jumping off of things (buildings, bridges, etc.). “Where are we going?” the next song by the same musician inquires. “Somewhere we belong,” is the answer. Meaning; remembering, belonging? But where do we belong, if we’re dead? Especially if we don’t believe in dead not-so-white men? I learned with one quick google that Avicii had killed himself a week prior with the shards of a wine bottle he’d emptied. Meaning; remembering, belonging? Seems that this tragic boy lost the plot; proving again what we already knew, fame and fortune at least aren’t the answers. Will he join the society of dead poets now, as Robin Williams did – victim to the self-same demons? Maybe – but as the wrong type of lesson, a lesson I will teach my little boy when the time comes.

But “Think of me whenever you’re afraid.” That piece of advice at least is wise and was, as always happens with wise advice, ignored. Upon the narrow tortured path of life, this young man slipped off a ledge. The saddest thing in the world. What is my point on this Memorial Day morning? Memorial Day, when we remember those whose lives were cut short in the defense of our grand experiment, the greatest dead poet’s society in human history. Maybe, “Live a life that others will remember”. Yes, I’m almost certain that’s it. Dead poets and historians and philosophers and theologians – our great poet founders led as they were by the greatest poet of all, a Jewish man from Nazareth. Now THERE is a life that was remembered!

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The Dead Poet’s Society (we could say our ‘great cloud of witnesses) – having written down what they learned so many years in the past, we are encouraged to “Think of them, whenever we’re afraid.” Wise advice – which we should heed, lest we too slip and tumble.

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The Untold Stories of Maria Corina

“Who will deliver us from them—?” Them, of course, are the hostage takers in all their forms: dictators, socialists, totalitarians, criminal gangs who seize the apparatus of the state to have easier access to the weapons they need to ply their real trade. They are so often stronger – freedom is not the natural state of man, liberty is like a delicate flower on a fine alpine slope. It requires perfect conditions to bloom, rich soil, temperate climate, rain and clean air; while the thistle of the brutish can germinate in any cracked and broken down parking lot. This shouldn’t surprise us, as I said in “The Burning of San Porfirio”:

“We’ll do an experiment,” he said, eyes twinkling. “We’ll put a dozen people in a room. We’ll give half of them a copy of Aristotle, and the other half each gets a Glock. We’ll see who comes out of the room.”

Nevertheless we fight – I’d rather have the dream of an high-mountain vale than the reality of a life sitting on the hot tarmac waiting upon the mercy of overlords near and far. I once wrote about Cuba’s untold story – blank pages unfilled for six generations. Sure, we know about the story told. About the Women in White, the Castro brothers, the ‘revolution’. Their crappy health care and their wars in Angola and Mozambique; their parasitic survival at the expense of one host after another. But its Cuba’s untold story that is the most compelling – the un-composed sonatas, the opuses of great novelists who could not pass the regime’s censors, the diseases uncured because the scientists were waiting in a line for beans and sanitary napkins. Music unsung – life unlived. And the unstories have extended, though we pretended we were at the “End of History”. Un-Nobel laureates sitting in refugee camps in Jordan or Bangladesh; un-Pulitzer winners crossing borders treacherous and harsh.

Of all those untold stories, the saddest for me are those I know could have been, which instead were aborted – not reaching full term, murdered by the mindless. Stories of people I have known from places I’ve been who, groomed and prepared for leadership, to do great things – end wars and spur innovation and fight poverty and misery – instead sidelined and silenced. Norbert Mao in Uganda waiting for the tired dictatorship of Yoweri Museveni to end. Morgan Tsvangirai who died of cancer just as Robert Mugabe was forced out of power. Friends in Nicaragua waiting out the corrupt despotism of Ortega, as grey starts to creep through their beards and their hair starts to thin.

Maria Corina Machado in Venezuela.

I was struck the other day by the sadness of it all. Maria Corina, who once stood tall and fearless at the center of the agora and faced down a tyrant. “You’re a thief,” she told him, and her courageous words still ricochet around a tired continent.

I was struck because, following the news of Venezuela’s most recent electoral fraud, I found myself watching a video of her unfurling a Venezuelan flag along with a few students beside a highway in Caracas.

And this made me wonder, what are the untold stories of Maria Corina Machado? She, who would make a fine president; who would stand proudly before the green marble at the United Nations and talk about ‘popular capitalism’ and liberty. Who would fearlessly fly into refugee camps and with abandon confront the rebel armies; what are her untold stories? A dramatic new economic model which would have Caracas whispered in the same sentence with Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Singapore and Reykjavik. The final arrival of the first “Latin American Tiger” country, defying 200 years of bitter, envious rent-seeking politics to chart a new way. A negotiated end to the civil war in Yemen, in Syria? A great new retaining wall against the sludge of stupidity that always threatens to drown free-loving people. Instead, the sludge has engulfed her country – and through such sludge as that nation has fallen into no light can shine, bright or faint. Not even that of a warrior princess. What would have been the untold stories of Maria Corina? Who knows—

Of course nothing is written beforehand, things have a way of changing for the better at the most unexpected moments; just ask we the relieved Americans about that. Dictatorships become both thick and brittle and eventually lose their maneuverability and shatter, often of their own weight – corruption and self-dealing causing paralysis and constipation. And I am hopeful – it does spring eternal after all. Yet as I watched the fallout from the fraud, I was nevertheless helpless to say, if only to myself (and now to you I guess) what I’ve said so many times in the past, “What a sad country Venezuela has become indeed, which allows no more stories to be told.”

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The Deep Magic and My Little Boy

I’m teaching my son about the deep magic. The powerful forces that exist outside time and place, those things that we inherit product of our special status as humans and which are unchanging; rock islands standing strong amidst the raging torrents. “Why…?” the haughty ignorant often ask. “Why do you insist so? Give way, surrender your magic to us,” they say, “for we have found a better way,” the Falstaffian assertion goes. Steadily we respond, “We need these things, for upon which to build our happiness.” Because those of us who are older know this, we who have too often strayed; and for this reason it is our duty to pass on the deep magic to our children – because who else will? Peers, who themselves are ignorant? Schools, buttressed by the winds of politics and progress? Other adults? Those of you who read me often know how I feel about humanity’s ability to see through the veil. Yes, I am a little worried about my boy these days – I suppose every father of a little boy says that. In a bait and switch, the deep magic is being called ephemeral while those incantations which dry and crack to powder, blowing away in the harsh winds of progress are lifted up like a golden calf – to the same result.

Of course they are, I expect no better from an ignorant world. Blind and mean; for there is nothing more dangerous than a one-eyed man who in his pride would rather pluck out his other eye than admit he sees imperfectly and condescend to follow paths laid before him by those more illuminated. Which begs the question – who are the more illuminated? A hard question for some, as the wicked keep setting forgeries upon the torturous path of illumination, to point the way to better trodden roads. Safety in numbers, right? So says the Pied Piper – incidentally another story about the deep magic.

Ah, but that is what the deep magic is for – because it was there first, if we are only to look for it, which so few trouble themselves over these days. I just finished reading “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” to my little boy. Because I want him to learn first about the deep magic, and from me – lest a fellow point him down a misbegotten path. I want him to learn about the principles of the deep magic; I want him to carry the lion and the witch in his consciousness even when he is making great advances – building rockets to the moon or exploring the deep places where none have gone.

I want him to learn about restraint; that eating an entire bowl of Turkish delight might be gluttony; that destroying your enemies when you can might negate a higher purpose; that glory comes only in the fullness of time. I want him to learn about sacrifice; that greatest of all sacrifices which comes when a lion surrenders his life for a little boy – a God for a fallen man. I want him to learn about loyalty; to stand shoulder to shoulder with his army even when the enemy is overwhelming in number and in strength. I want him to learn about love; love of the dewy morning, of Christmas and of beauty and of family. And I want him to learn about truth; of the wicked plants that grow from the tiniest seed of a lie. And I want him to learn the hardest lesson of all, that of eucatastrophe; when out of the horror of the advancing darkness, our deep magic is suddenly and deliberately victorious. That is, after all, the Christian story – is it not?

These all are the incantations of the deep magic, which my little boy must learn for to have a “life more abundant”. And they are my duty, a duty I do not shirk – fatherhood too is part of the deep magic, against which there is no effective hex. When the cotton candy world has dried and blown away, my little boy will still have our stories and the deep magic of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”.

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America’s New Aristocracy

Every morning, here in West Africa, as I prepare my little boy for his school – the gym and the recess and the library, PE and science class and field trips – I look through the window of my kitchen out over the manicured lawns, the play ground and the swimming pool and through the concertina wire to the Africa outside Elysium. There too, in the shadow of privilege, a little one-room school house has sprung up, built in a park that was quietly seized one night by the entrepreneurial homeless, a homestead in which no government official will interfere. Upon broken down benches and with no electricity, writing in pencil upon cracked paper, sharing aging yellowed books, West Africa’s urban poor hope for a better future which is, quite literally, just over the wall.

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Privilege and inequality, those are the words of the 21st century world. We in America take great pride in our world of mobility, where – as the story goes – it doesn’t matter who you were born, its your hard work, savvy and street smarts, your grit, which will determine how far you go. There are no elites, no aristocracy, just businesspeople and politicians – just winners and losers. But is that really the case? Or has our world changed? Are we more like West Africa than we care to admit? In his seminal article “The 9.9% is the New American Aristocracy” Matthew Stewart describes the rise of America’s new nobility. Aristocracy, you probably frown – we are careful to hold closely to accepted parlance, using the word meritocracy as a salve with which we soothe our aching knuckles after beating back those who try desperately to overtake us. “The meritocratic class has mastered the old trick of consolidating wealth and passing privilege along at the expense of other people’s children. We are not innocent bystanders to the growing concentration of wealth in our time. We are the principal accomplices in a process that is slowly strangling the economy, destabilizing American politics, and eroding democracy.”

The 9.9% are the managers. The elites. The swamp, if you are less generous. They are people like Darel E. Paul who writes in Quillette of “A Managerial Ideology”, “Managerialism (…) is a coherent and complex account of society with a program for creating social order. Not surprisingly, it places the manager at the center of that order and assigns her the key role in producing it.” The intent of the managers is to carefully supervise the creation of a, “society in which every individual has an equal chance to develop and realize his merit and be rewarded by society for it. This is a process of individual transformation and empowerment. Networking and mentoring programs build personal skills toward increasing personal value, self-affirmation, and self-realization.” They see society – from everything like real estate, banking, education, health care and the food industry all the way through government – as a series of interlocking organizations to be managed using the best practices of Harvard Business School. Managed by them, specially credentialed with degrees from the right universities and membership to the right clubs and affiliation with the right candidates – and of course control over the right institutions which make the right regulations – they can assure no upward seepage of the non-9.9% which will challenge their reigning wisdom.

And in the process of their acts of benevolent management, they created a new caste, a new aristocracy, being careful to “Pull up the ladders behind them as they ascended,” as Angus Deaton eloquently explains. “They have taken their money out of productive activities and put it into walls,” says Stewart. This is no surprise, the history of aristocracy has always been one of exclusion, of privilege protection through systems as complicated and bizarre as the right of first night or hazing rituals at the elites’ managerial universities. Self-serving, self-dealing, and as the expert managers of society using their elite friends in media and entertainment to make the case for the indispensable nature of their class.

The only problem, of course, is that they have failed. Inter-Generational Elasticity (IGE – how much better off your children will be than you are) in America is the worst in the developed world. And as Stewart says, “Rising immobility and rising inequality aren’t like two pieces of driftwood that happen to have shown up on the beach at the same time, he noted. They wash up together on every shore. Across countries, the higher the inequality, the higher the IGE. It’s as if human societies have a natural tendency to separate, and then, once the classes are far enough apart, to crystallize.” The process of the American aristocracy’s crystallization is well advanced.

Not only have they failed, as if that were not bad enough, but it turns out people do not like to be managed. There’s something plucky and rebellious about America that we get from our rocky mountains and our hard winters and our wide-open spaces, our sense of the indomitable that eschews supervision. How does this rebelliousness manifest itself? Among other things, it comes raging forward in the rise of reactionary, some might say emancipatory politics. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, to not put too fine a point on it.

Of course, the managers are fighting back as their work is dismantled and their entire raison d’etre is brought into question. Cue the elite temper tantrum over the last 18 months. When the flight 93 passengers who have stormed the cockpit talk about “draining the swamp”, throwing the pilots out of the window in order to desperately try and avoid the rapidly approaching mountain, this is what they are talking about. And America does have a weird and unique way of righting the listing ship – our titanic has not yet hit the proverbial iceberg. Who will win? Will the managers re-exert their steady but smothering influence as we become more and more like West Africa, or will the rowdy and raucous win the day, overthrowing the managers and creating an explosion of prosperity? Stay tuned, I guess.

It is quiet now, and my son is in his nice clean classroom with his electricity and his new books and his air conditioning and his science experiments as I listen outside to West Africa’s child poor in play. They are the real losers in an overly-managed world; for the managerialism which is destroying  prosperity in America does not stop at our shores. We are imperial in every way that matters. And as such in many ways, in all the ways that count in fact, we have exerted our imperial weight in the farthest, darkest corners of our world – in systems of subjugation which at home are hard enough to fight; but what about for Africa’s poor? Do the little children who laugh and chase know yet that the odds are stacked against them? And, I ask you – who probably anger and seethe at your own perceived injustices, whether you are a manager, or the managed – do you even considered them as you think of the human struggle for prosperity? As for me, I do. Because, in more ways than you probably know, our fates and those of Africa’s poor are closely intertwined.

“We gaze upon the 0.1 percent with a mixture of awe, envy, and eagerness to obey. As a consequence, we are missing the other big story of our time. We have left the 90 percent in the dust—and we’ve been quietly tossing down roadblocks behind us to make sure that they never catch up.”

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Venezuela’s Zombie Election

Two years ago I wrote about a suicide. A sad, bitter, rueful blog that went viral, capturing the desperation of a prescient people who saw clearly what was coming just over the horizon. The timeless tides creating currents that follow one full moon after another, picking up a cadaver from one desiccated shore to deposit it without circumstance or ceremony upon another, noticed only for that full-nosed stench of putrescence by which we recognize something which has turned, which is no more for this world but has nonetheless lingered on. Something undead.

I wrote about a Randian exercise in futility and stupidity – of a great bait and switch where vile epithets were thrown at those who work while the slovenly became “dignificados”, those dignified above the prosperous and disciplined by the sole fact of their being miserable – an Orwellian doublespeak wherein (often) self-imposed misery is worn as a medal, emboldening those who cannot through a predatory government which itself can only take. I wrote about the extinguishing lights of a great city – a city which once upon a time anchored a continent providing refuge for those neighbors arriving to seek a life in peace. From near, Colombia and Cuba and Haiti and Peru. From far, Germany and Lithuania and Spain and Portugal; Jews and gentiles alike finding succor on Venezuela’s storied beaches; in lost enclaves and jungle mines and in the powerful capital of Caracas. A city which committed suicide and is now undead.

Because suicide is not forever – as neither is murder. Eventually the tortured body of even the most resilient surrenders its broken soul to its creator, lamenting what could have been, finally at last at peace, perhaps even glad that the fight is over and looking to the hereafter for answers not attained in life. “What more could I have done?” More than one singsong Spanish-Caribbean accent has lingered at the Pearly Gates to ask Peter before passing through to the quiet beyond. “You did all that was expected,” might be the answer. “The suicide was not carried out by your hands.”

To fight, to rebel, to resist. Even great names that echo through history know this is most often humanity’s lot. Ours is not a storybook world – Frodo returning after the ring is destroyed; Aslan waking to ravage the white witch. Most often ours is the futility and sorrow and violence of the fight rendered anonymous by the passing of time. Sure sometimes great names enter our consciousness: Nelson Mandela; Liu Xiaobo; Anne Frank; perhaps Leopoldo Lopez someday. But the others? Do you know who Lorent Saleh is, imprisoned underground in “the tomb” after being handed over to the regime by Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos, a blood prize for his misbegotten peace which will bring no freedom? No, you don’t – but what about the others? Children held in the torture chambers of the regime; violated until they are killed or released to pass anonymous into history, to wait undead in food lines and think only of their times in the dungeons.

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Photo Courtesy of Andres Gerlotti

Tomorrow is another Venezuelan election. The system has been so fully rigged for so long that there is no doubt as to the outcome. A decomposing corpse can never choose life, even one that still somehow struggles on. In a solemn act of surrender – or defiance – a hopeful few will brave their undead city, zombies gaunt and spare trudging to polling booths from houses with no electricity and water by stores with no bread or butter or milk beside shuttered factories and abandoned super-malls and into schools which no longer host even teachers. $2 a month? Who blames them? There under the supervision of the beetle-men encased in Kevlar and bristling with weapons to deposit a piece of paper upon which is imprinted the sum total of their desperate plea “When will this end?”, to be discarded by the regime in favor of a final number which is more convenient to their privilege.

What to do? Vote? Not vote? Rebel? Flee? Sabotage? These are not my decisions, chronicling as I am the aspects of undead Venezuela from afar. I can only hope and pray and lend my voice to the full throated screams of Venezuela’s zombie-voters tomorrow as they cry “When will this end??”

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Ibn Tufayl’s “Hayy Ibn Yaqzan” – A Book Review

I have a friend who was an erstwhile archeologist. Not Zahi Hawass, digging piles of gold from the sands of ancient Egypt but a local archaeologist who worked for a municipality in England. Clearing lands and approving building permits, excavating ancient Roman latrines or guardhouses. Its important work in the old places, because the deeper we go, we find that when a layer of civilization is brushed away often times another is found beneath, and another beneath that in the great story of humanity.

Philosophy is like this. Each generation picks up something from the one before, who had learned from before and before that going back to the very foundations of writing – of thinking. The Greeks, most often. And the Bible, the old testament (or the Torah); Moses and Aristotle, everything comes from them.

Only for those who read, that is; something that happens less and less in these days of perpetual outrage and haughty ignorance.

I just finished Hayy Ibn Yaqzan by Ibn Tufayl. Tufayl was born in Almohad Al-Andalus, in the little town of Guadix north of Granada in the 12th century, at the height of Caliphate control of Iberia. He was a doctor, a philosopher, a theologian, and a poet. He served the governor of Granada from the palace of Alhambra and was the physician to the Berber Almohad Sultan Abu Yaqub Yusuf in Marrakesh.

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Mosque of the Booksellers

Tufayl was, above all, a thinker. “Behind him Ibn Tufayl left his disciples, his children, and his books.” What a wonderful thing to be said about such a monumental figure of philosophical thought. And Yaqzan was his most important work, and his only surviving philosophical treatise, which has been like a boulder thrown into the pond of rational thought well after the days of Islam’s Golden Age. “The title of the Latin translation, ‘Philosophus Autodidactus’ (The Self-Taught Philosopher), captured the imagination of generations of philosophers and theologians. How this tale shaped the course of European thought in the 17th century and during the Enlightenment presents a fascinating example of the travel of ideas across religious, cultural and linguistic boundaries.” It is said he influenced Locke’s philosophy and Jefferson read the book on rainy afternoons in his hilltop mansion of Monticello.

Hay Ibn Yaqzan is the story about a little boy who “comes to being” or is transferred to a desert island to be raised by gazelles. In the course of his life, and with no help except his own pure reason through an Aristotelian process of thought he begins to discover natural creation, man’s place in nature (above the animals), the existence of the metaphysical and finally the “Necessarily Existent Being” (Aristotle’s ‘unmoved mover’). At the end of the short book, he is finally taken from the island to attempt to share his knowledge with man, only to be met by failure as he realizes that men are illogical and nasty – and he finishes his story admonishing them to hold tightly to religion because left alone the natural state of humanity is evil. “He saw that most men are no better than unreasoning animals, and realized that all wisdom and guidance, all that could possibly help them was contained already in the words of the prophets and the religious traditions. (…) There was nothing to be added.”

On a personal note, I love north-African Islamic civilization. It is old and ornate and beautiful; full of wisdom and tradition and purpose. I’ve walked the Medina in Marrakesh, gazing up longingly at the Mosque of the Booksellers; I’ve wandered through the hidden corridors of the Alhambra and I’ve strolled the sandy alleys of Timbuktu, popping into the ancient libraries that were once the greatest collection of knowledge since the library of Alexandria. The preservation of Greek philosophy and the importance of mono-theistic theology have led those societies for a time to sit at the apex of civilization, and the works of their collective minds are still strewn across the deserts of Africa. And their commitment to reason and understanding still influences us, through its pre-eminent place in our own philosophical traditions.

Why did Ibn Tufayl write the story of Yaqzan? “Fearing that the weak-minded, who throw over the authority of prophets to ape the ways of fools, might mistake these notions for the esoteric doctrines which must be kept secret from those unfit to know them, and thus be all the more enticed to embrace them, I decided to afford them a fleeting glimpse of the mystery of mysteries to draw them to true understanding and turn them away from this other, false way.” I could not have said it better myself; and isn’t this why we, who dare to be writers, do so?

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Camus’ Joyful Nihilism

Camus’ existential nihilism is beautiful, and joyful. I think that is what surprised me the most.  “In the light, the earth remains our first and our last love. Our brothers are breathing under the same sky as we; justice is a living thing. Now is born that strange joy which helps one live and die, and which we shall never again postpone to a later time.”

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Camus radiates the warm, comforting, safe power of Europe in modernity, the Europe we all think of when we consider Paris, her poets and philosophers arguing late into the night under the protective golden dome of the city of light. They had survived two world wars, they had fought off the Stalinists, they had embraced themselves and increasingly each other – eschewing the weariness and sorrow of the immediate post-war days. Why not embrace the amazing art of living in the all-consuming “now”? The world is meaningless? Let’s fill it with pleasantness and love. Camus’ existential nihilism has nothing of Nietzsche’s cold German bitterness, it is an expression of joy.

“The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt” is Camus’ attempt to introduce a new humanism, one not rooted in Christianity, though the work is deeply religious even as it denies the power of faith to give life meaning; and it is clear that Camus himself understood a great deal about Christianity though this understanding appears to have been insufficient for his philosophy. Nor in atheistic thought, and Camus reserves harsh criticism for those who seek to replace “rebellion” with Revolution which is, to him, an act only of destruction. Camus’ is a “third way”, a Gnostic secularism, a new humanism with humanity at the center of the considerations of man.

“The Rebel” is a treatise on rebellion – as man is a fundamentally rebellious creature, finding his own humanity in his acts of rebellion. “When you have once seen the glow of happiness on the face of a beloved person, you know that a man can have no vocation but to awaken the light on the faces surrounding him. In the depth of the winter, I finally learned within me there lay an invincible summer.”

Camus rebellion is an act of awakening.

He reserves especially harsh words for what he calls the ‘dandy’: “The dandy creates his own unity by aesthetic means. But it is an aesthetic of singularity and negation. ‘To live and die before a mirror’: that, according to Baudelaire, was the dandy’s slogan. (…) He can only exist by defiance. (…) The dandy rallies his forces and creates a unity for himself by the very violence of his refusal. Profligate, like all people without a rule of life, he is coherent as an actor. But an actor implies a public; the dandy can only play a part by setting himself in opposition. He can only be sure of his own existence by finding it in the expression of others’ faces. Other people are his mirror.” I think we all know who the “dandies” who claim the mantle of “rebellion” (maybe ‘resistance’?) are today, don’t we?

In turn Camus reserves his greatest praise for the novel. “The world of the novel is only a rectification of the world we live in, in pursuance of mans’ deepest wishes. (…) The suffering, the illusion, the love are the same.  The heroes speak our language, have our weaknesses and our strength. (…) But they, at least, pursue their destinies to the bitter end (…) they complete things that we can never consummate.” Camus, a novelist himself, sees the novel as the fulfillment of his rebellious existential nihilism, achieved through acts of creation which are the consummation of the human experience. “Every act of creation, by its mere existence, denies the world of master and slave. The appalling society of tyrants and slaves in which we survive will find its death and transfiguration only on the level of creation.”

Camus existential nihilism is powerful because it is not bitter. It takes no time shaking its fist at fellow man. Nor does it shake its fist at the creator in heaven, accepting what we have here as our lot and finding the joy in our acts of rebellious creation. “’I believe more and more,’ writes Van Gogh, ‘that God must not be judged on this earth. It is one of His sketches that has turned out badly’.” In that, at least, Camus and I are in full agreement.

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