Curing the Canon
Issue #11, January/February 1994
The absurd enlightens me on this point: there is no future.
— Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
I think I've used the above quote a hundred times in a hundred different essays, usually paired with the Sex Pistols' similar claim about the future. Especially when the topic at hand is closer to punk rock than to French philosophy, the appearance of Camus lends a bit of historical and intellectual weight to my efforts, because Camus is a part of the canon, that unwieldy construct which gets passed from generation to generation, and has fallen upon hard times in recent years.
The literary canon, supposedly representative of what Matthew Arnold in the nineteenth century called 'the best which has been thought and said in the world,' is fueled by the institutional power of prestigious literature departments. What texts constitute the canon is less important than the mere existence of the canon as a marker of 'the best.' As such, the institutional canon serves those institutions which promote the value of the canon; the reasoning is circular (we teach the canon, which is the best, because we are the best, because we teach the canon); the usefulness for any particular individual remains unclear. Camus, or any other canonical writer, becomes in part a tool to justify the canon-making institutions, complicating a personal response to his work. To return to a 'personal' Camus, we must first jettison our attachment to the canon; we must kill the Pope before we can find Jesus in our hearts.
And so I want to follow my own personal canon, in particular, the presence of Albert Camus on my list, in an attempt to learn something about Camus, about canons, and (of course) about myself. My relationship to Camus has undergone many changes over the past thirty-plus years; at times I almost forgot about him, at other times I thought him nothing more than an adolescent infatuation, but even then his importance was evident to me whenever I gave him any thought. He is my canon; he always exists. What purpose does he serve? Does he offer me education, political or otherwise, about everyday life? And why do I think of Camus every time I watch NYPD Blue?
When I was around ten years old, my mother, an intelligent, questioning woman, was interested in Protestant philosophers such as Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, and French existentialists like Camus. Our bookshelf, stocked as well with hot paperbacks like Peyton Place and coffee-table tomes about fashion and football, contained a healthy supply of Tillich and friends, all available to a bookish youngster with time on his hands. Over time I became the only pre-teen in my experience who had long, heated discussions with his mother over the relative merits of The Stranger and The Myth Of Sisyphus. If the pop existentialism of the post-war period was tailor-made for self-absorbed, angst-filled teenagers who believed they were misunderstood, still, how do we explain the attraction of Meursault to a ten-year old intellectual in cahoots with his own mother?
There was, first of all, Camus' use of language (in translation, of course!), what French writer Roland Barthes has called Camus' 'colorless, neutral writing.' Camus was often interested in reducing a problem to its core; in The Myth of Sisyphus, which in a roundabout way helps 'explain' The Stranger, Camus tries to get at the 'one truly serious philosophical problem,' suicide, in part by refusing to allow himself any 'easy' answers. He does not want to complicate the matter; either life is worth living or it isn't. But he also refuses to be fooled: he won't decide that life is worth living by concocting a 'false' vision of life, but must simultaneously accept the absurdity of existence and opt for living over suicide. Similarly, Camus' writing gives the impression of not 'fooling' the reader; it is uncomplicated, it presents the world 'as it is' without the encumbrances of stylistic flourishes (the recent new translation of The Stranger by Matthew Ward more clearly shows the roots of this style in American hard-boiled realism).
The appeal to a budding pre-teen like myself seems evident, in retrospect. The Stranger reduced the most important act in a man's life, the murder of an Arab he didn't even know, to the unarguable effect of the unrelenting heat of the sun on the hero in his crucial moment. There is an appealing simplicity to this worldview, as it was interpreted by my ten-year-old self: you do it or you don't. Years later, The Cure encapsulated this view in their homage to Camus, 'Killing An Arab':
'I can turn and walk away or I can fire the gun
Staring at the sky, staring at the sun
Whichever I choose, it amounts to the same
I'm alive, I'm dead, I'm the stranger
Killing an Arab.'
Meursault was simple, but also heroic, like Sisyphus as Camus pictures him in The Myth of Sisyphus, the other Camus book on my pre-teen canon. Anyone can murder, Camus seems to argue, just as anyone can commit suicide. What is important is to understand the absurd, to refuse to turn one's head, to act in full knowledge that what you are doing means nothing. The act itself isn't heroic; what is heroic is the understanding. As Camus says of Sisyphus, 'If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him?' To hope is to give in; to live without hope, and yet to live, that is the triumph of the absurd man. Though for most of The Stranger, Meursault is, as Camus once described him, 'a man with no apparent awareness of his existence,' by the novel's end he has come to an understanding (it occurs to him as he is trying to strangle the prison chaplain ... killing the Pope, indeed) and has 'opened [him]self to the gentle indifference of the world.'
Sisyphus was condemned by the gods to spend eternity pushing an enormous rock up an enormous hill, at which time, the rock rolled back down the hill, followed by Sisyphus, who again pushed the rock up the hill, ad infinitum. Camus is interested in Sisyphus during his walk back down the hill, for it is then that Sisyphus can contemplate his existence, unencumbered for the moment by the physical exertions of pushing the rock up the hill. 'He contemplates that series of unrelated actions which becomes his fate, created by him ... convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human.' Here Camus tries to move beyond the cheap nihilism of The Cure. That whatever our actions, they 'amount to the same' (as the Cure states), is less important to Camus than the realization that we are the creators of our own meaningless actions. We are personally responsible. Meursault may have had many reasons for killing an Arab; he may have only felt too clearly the heat of the sun. In the end, the reasons for his actions amount to absolutely nothing. What matters is that he acted, and that he sees his action clearly, and he takes personal responsibility for his actions, for his life. An interesting moral lesson for a ten-year-old to learn from his mother's bookshelf. What was difficult, then and now, was deciding whether Camus, in insisting on personal responsibility, had really moved anywhere from 'cheap nihilism;' it still means nothing. In my good days, I am Camus, but in my bad days, I am the Cure, and I can not see beyond nothing.
At some point in my personal experiences I decided that what seemed interesting and incontestable on the pages of The Stranger nevertheless fell a little short in the role-model department: if the only answer was to be a murderer like Meursault, then why bother? (I was using my canon as a guide on how to be me, which is in a way the purpose of the institutional canons, though their canonical works are chosen for you in the interests of those doing the choosing.) And then I discovered my greatest hero, Dr. Rieux of The Plague.
Camus's allegorical novel takes place in a fictionalized Oran during an outbreak of bubonic plague. There are a variety of characters in the novel who contain more depth than one expects in a standard allegory; one can read The Plague without knowing or caring how it relates to the Nazi occupation of France, or the French presence in Algeria, or which character is standing in for which philosophical theory. One of the most interesting characters is Grand, a low-level clerk with a passion for writing who has been working on the same opening sentence for years, unwilling to move on until he is convinced his first sentence is perfect. When the plague turns Oran's citizens into exiles, Grand immediately offers his assistance in the general fight against the plague, only asking that he be allowed the time to continue to work on his sentence. The narrator kindly suggests that if his story must have a 'hero,' then Grand would be a perfect choice, a man 'who had to his credit only a little goodness of heart and a seemingly absurd ideal.'
The narrator, who is Dr. Rieux himself, is the more traditional hero of the story, however, to the extent that Camus allows the existence of heroes. It is Rieux, an atheist who hates to see children suffer, who is exiled from his wife, who battles the plague even though he does not 'believe' in anything, who serves as my role model. He states, 'I have no idea what's awaiting me, or what will happen when this all ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing. Later on, perhaps, they'll think things over; and so shall I. But what's wanted now is to make them well. I defend them as best I can, that's all.'
As an English teacher, I have the opportunity to assign texts to students, to participate in the ongoing re-creation and solidification of the institutional literary canon, and in fact I have taught The Plague and I have taught The Stranger. I have imposed these texts on my classes; I have tried to convince them of the importance of Camus and his work. It is difficult to retain the freshness of my personal response to Camus, when I am also fighting my own participation in canon formation. What is important is insisting on the personal nature of my choice of assignments, regularly bringing to the foreground my personal involvement with the texts. 'Personal' ... this word pops up again and again in this essay. Like Camus in The Rebel, which argued for a principled, absurd individualism in the face of the Stalinist transformation of Marxism into totalitarianism, I find myself arguing for a principled, absurd, 'personal' individualism in the face of the institutional transformation of personal pref erence into a dogmatic, academically-inclined canon imposed from above. Absurd, because I participate in the very process I condemn; personal, because I insist on my responsibility for my actions and insist that my students recognize that 'wholly human origin for all that is human.' There are sick people and they need curing.
And so I aspire to be Dr. Rieux. A silly, even absurd aspiration; as my wife once noted when I despaired of ever living up to my role model, 'You can't live up to him; he's a fictional character!' But, much like Meursault and The Cure, better and worse sides of my personality, I find myself rarely a Rieux, but frequently a Grand, with his opening sentence and his small but hopefully significant efforts in the general welfare. Like the citizens of Oran, I find that my unfortunate tendency to romanticize 'principled individualism' is tempered by the friendships of kindred spirits, fellow exiles who try to find education, political and otherwise, in everyday life, and who are kind enough to share their lives with me.
And on Tuesday nights, I watch NYPD Blue. The principled individualist continues to have resonance in contemporary popular culture, sometimes more principled, sometimes more individualistic, and sometimes aware of the unfortunate implications of loneliness (I just looked across the room and asked a colleague how to spell loneliness; if I were truly working alone, I'd have to fend for myself, in spelling as in everything). Dirty Harry exists alone and apart; his partners, when they exist, exist only to die. But in television ensemble dramas, cops shows like Hill Street Blues and futuristic shows like the various Star Trek units, the principled individualist works within a community that has a positive effect on the heroes. If Dirty Harry is Meursault with a badge, then Captain Picard is Dr. Rieux with a starship. And David Caruso's Detective Kelly of NYPD Blue is Rieux with a soulful face and a naked ass.
Detective Kelly's New York City is a spiritual match for Camus' Oran. A plague has infested the city; the opportunistic are making their fortunes, and evil has the upper hand. It is impossible to live in Kelly's New York without being a part of the plague. Kelly, like Dr. Rieux, works as a part of a team, a team made up of useless bureaucrats and ambitious back-stabbers but, also as with Rieux, a team as well with people who care and people who try. Kelly views the world from his place of principled individualism, tempered by his community of workmates. What he sees is what Dr, Rieux saw in The Plague: people are sick and they need curing, and he defends them as best he can.
When I watch NYPD Blue, I think of Camus and I wish I was Detective Kelly. I fall short, just as I fall short of Rieux. But, just as The Plague offers me Grand, a more accessible role model, so NYPD Blue offers me Dennis Franz' Detective Sipowitz, a more accessible, more disturbed version of the principled individualist working in a community. If in my bad moments I am the Cure rather than the cure, then Sipowitz holds out hope that I might at least cure myself before I die. And he even cures others once in awhile, in the process of curing himself.
NYPD Blue is a weekly representation of my living, personal canon. I watch the program and I think of Camus. If the institutional canon were regularly connected to the real personal lives of that canon's recipients, perhaps it too could affect people outside of the institution. But since the institutional canon is by definition representative of the institution rather than any individuals, and since that institution is structured as a hierarchy of the learned over the learners, it is difficult to imagine how we are to make something personal of that canon, especially since the existence of the classic canon is supposedly 'proven' by its era-spanning value rather than by its usefulness in any particular time and place.
One is left to wonder how any personal canon might be created. One might also question the best efforts of teachers like myself to introduce 'non-canonical' (better is 'personally canonical') texts into the classroom; if my presence as teacher implicates me in the power of the institution, how can I hope to do any more than my more traditional-minded colleagues? It is an absurd situation to find myself in, which brings me back to Sisyphus and all the other Camusian heroes: people are sick and need curing, but nothing matters, and all I can hope for is to realize the futility of my actions even as I continue to try to cure the sick.
Camus leaves Meursault a condemned man, but a man who we have come to understand over the course of The Stranger. Camus grants Meursault his humanity. Hopefully I have done the same for Camus in these pages. The understanding of our plight, which Camus offers as the ultimate in absurd existence, must extend itself to our understanding of others. It is this understanding that allows us to be a part of the community of humankind, even as we are alone. Detective Kelly understands this, as does Dr. Rieux. With the help of these fictional characters, and my very real friends and family, one day I hope to understand this, too.
Steven Rubio is a graduate student in English and a fan of NYPD Blue.