On Creativity and Liberalism: Albert Camus

Allegory of the Seven Liberal Arts by Maerten de Vos (1590). Public Domain via Wikimedia.

Create DangerouslyCreate Dangerously by Albert Camus

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This short work consists of three speeches: Create Dangerously, delivered in 1957 a few days after Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature; Bread and Freedom in 1953; and Defence of Intelligence in 1945. For Camus, there are two kinds of intelligence: "intelligent intelligence, and stupid intelligence" (p. 7). Camus searches for the authentic liberty, rather than the society of signs, the artificial liberty that "inscribes the words 'liberty' and 'equality' on its prisons as well as on its temples of finance" (p. 7). Artists struggle with liberty, in that, to be regarded as great, they must be popular, but in being popular, they cannot be great. Asserting one's freedom is an act of establishing order over chaos:
The free artist is one who, with great effort, creates his own order (p. 27)... [and assumes] all the risks and labours of freedom (p. 28).
Art, then, is the "enemy marked out by every form of oppression" (p. 29). It is here that I start to see parallels between Camus' time (the time of mutually assured destruction) and our own era of incremental tyranny. Camus surprises me by a desire to defend the West, and it would seem specifically the defence of the liberal tradition. But he is not pessimistic; rather, the artist's "ordeal contributes meanwhile to our chances of authenticity" (p. 31). Rather than seeking solitude, the paradox is that the artist must not be popular, but must find peace "in the heat of combat". This reminds me of Jordan B. Peterson and the criticism he is facing at the moment. I must suspend my criticism here as I have only read parts of his work as it relates to Stoicism, but Peterson is surely in the heat of combat in his attempt to make order out of chaos. This connection with the Stoics and Peterson is interesting and appears in Defence of Intelligence, in that:
...the enemy in the future must be fought within ourselves, with an exceptional effort that will turn our appetite for hatred into a desire for justice (p. 36).
And the comparison with our present doesn't end there. For Camus, who fought against the Nazis as part of the French Resistance, attacks against intelligence were part and parcel, not just of Nazi Germany, but of greater Europe:
Goering gave a fair idea of their philosophy by declaring: "When anyone talks to me of intelligence, I take out my revolver". And that philosophy was not limited to Germany. At the same time throughout civilised Europe the excesses of intelligence and the faults of the intellectual were being pointed out" (p. 37).
Now tell me that doesn't resonate with your daily news feed? Artists (experts?) should not "give in when they are told that intelligence is always unwelcome or that it is permissible to lie in order to succeed". Is that what is happening in academia? The collection concludes with Bread and Freedom, where Camus tells us that justice and freedom go hand in hand: we cannot have one without the other, and we cannot allow the few democratic liberties we have now be "taken from us without a protest" (p. 48). If the first concern of any dictatorship is to "subjugate labour and culture", then it is clear we are well-advanced on the path to tyranny. Like all great works of the liberal tradition, Camus' final words ring true:
[F]reedom is not a gift received from a State or a leader but a possession to be won every day by the effort of each and the union of all (p. 54).
And while for years we have focused on the state and society more generally, and for all our "individualism", I cannot help but think that we have lost the idea of liberty. The words of James Allen (As A Man Thinketh, p. 91) (and certainly the Stoics would agree) mirror Camus' view:
Where the calm mind is there is strength and rest, there is love and wisdom; there is one who has fought successfully innumerable battles against self, who, after long toil in secret against his own failings, has triumphed at last.
For Camus, the problem is more complex than just the artist fighting against or capitulating to the state: it is insidious. It is like the screaming echo chambers of social media, where we protest. But we cannot tell whether we are the martyr or the lion (p. 4); the artist is not faithful to her own genius (p. 5). To put it simply, there is no comfort in freedom, and the free artist is no more comfortable than the free man. Camus seems to be telling us that in the life of the artist, and this encompasses all of "the arts", wisdom only declines when it involves no risk and "belongs to a few humanists buried in libraries" (p. 31). Rather than condemn, the artist must absolve (p. 25). If I were to capture the big problem in higher education in a short sentence, it would be students' constant search for the "right" answer. If wisdom and learning is hard won, and there is no right answer, then this becomes a recipe for burn-out, or at least a jaded fatigue. Camus reminds us that this is because we look for good and evil (see also Nietzsche), rather than to understand. And so, to absolve rather than condemn, to take on the risks and the labours of freedom. Were it only so simple.

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