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Loose Thoughts on Adam Gopnik’s “Facing History”

04.17.2012

To be liberal in that sense, with a style that conferred eloquence on compromise, was the accomplishment.

The threat he posed to totalitarian thought came from his ability to attach these common sense principles to a set of magisterial arguments and timeless aphorisms.

This is a strange article in some ways. Gopnik’s is an argument for the role of image, both in the acceptance and actual understanding of an idea. He ascribes to Camus the office of pretty articulator of the common sense. In light of this, to discount—or, at least, neglect—the fact that the popular image of Camus as putative intellectual of Absurdism might have some primary merit seems ridiculous (as does, similarly, implying that Sartre—its antithesis in many ways—was a champion of “totalitarian thought”). As Gopnik writes, Camus was a nuanced and capable thinker, unruffled by contradiction, wary of extremism and narrow-mindedness—none of which precludes the presence of original and sometimes antithetical thought. Camus was not just an amalgamator of common ideas, yet Gopnik seemingly sets out to shock us with this banality.*

Gopnik also argues that the trend of intellectuals is toward the extreme alternatives—those positions most in need of, and amenable to, artful (or simply louder) articulation—while the common-sense man is naturally drawn toward the delicate compromise. But how does one account, then, for the easy persuadability and general thoughtless apathy of the majority when it comes to challenging ideas? People might naturally come to nuanced compromise on the question of whether and how much to light the neighborhood streets at night, but when confronted with the moral uncertainties with which Sartre and Camus were grappling? Faced with these questions the common men are the ones flying to the extremes (or simply throwing up their arms—was Camus apathetic?), and whether they’ve heard it from a media-savvy demagogue or come upon it in their own meek rationality makes little difference. The majority (at least in this country, and not just the crazy ones we see on tv, but one’s own neighbors) understand the subtlety and nuance and contradiction of these situations perhaps even less than the most vociferous intellectuals do.

Wasn’t this part of Camus’ philosophy? Sometimes things happen but it’s okay because other things happen and it’s not really understandable but just try to take it calmly. Gopnik presents this as the widely held (by politicians and farmers alike) idea of the twentieth century. Maybe it’s my unfortunately narrow education but this is not how the events of the twentieth century either are presented nor seem to have actually played out.

For thinkers like Camus, there is nothing more enticing and at the same time nothing more onerous than the rational argument. Its frustrations are legion, its manipulators rampant, its rhetoric constantly devolving into the absurd. Contradiction is not rational, nor is subtlety widely embraced in our modern life. But sometimes, it seems, it is necessary to expound like Sartre to get at the same delicate result. Make bold statements, and then change your mind however many times you need to. As long as you continually define your terms succinctly and mark the contrapuntal path down which you’ve come, it should work out alright.

For people like me (if not exactly Camus, or even Sartre) generalities and stereotypes are the next best thing, especially when the only alternative is narrow-mindedness or abstraction or, worse, apathy. There is Narrow-Minded Suffering—from the knowledge of the One Great Truth that despicably too few follow—and Broad-Minded Suffering—from the knowledge that there are no absolutes, and all is relative, weightless, absurd—and for the broad-minded sufferer one of the few ameliorative islands of solidity are generalities and types, which, though impossible as truths, are at least not as false as they otherwise could be, and can tell us a hell of a lot both about whom they are stated, and who did the stating.

The image of Camus is that he was comfortable without these crutches. But, as Gopnik is good to point out, when the Algerian War hit, the sublimated uncomfortableness came to the surface, and the result was (a distinctly un-cool) silence. Sartre, in part, was able to argue with the world on its own terms, molding and inveigling them (sometimes more than others) into his own terms. As eloquent as he was, Camus couldn’t. Perhaps this was a good thing. Why talk? Why stop talking? It just seems to me his answers to those questions (or his questions to those questions) are not at all about compromise, nor are as common as one might think.

*In the interest of everything that I’m arguing for in this post, this is, it should be said, unfair, as Gopnik does indeed want to shock us but also presents the nuances (if I had a dollar for every time he utilizes the phrase “not wrong”) of each of the arguments he discusses. One point on which I do outrightly disagree, however, is that common-sense minds eventually voice saner ideas. Do read on…
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