(HOST) A bit of summer reading took commentator David Moats on an unexpected journey – back to college and the Vietnam era, back to the post World War II years in France, and ultimately, back to a colleague in Middlebury.
(MOATS) When I was in college, no writer was bigger than Albert Camus. Camus was the Nobel Prize-winning author of the novels The Stranger and The Plague. He wrote essays exploring the na- ture of freedom and the problem of finding meaning in a world filled with cruelty. He was a veteran of the French resistance and a journalist engaged with the great issues of the day.
Not so long ago, I got around to reading a biography of Camus, and it was the occasion of some nostalgia. I realized how much the intellectual life of the 50s and 60s was shaped by the epic devastation of World War II. Camus’ novel about the plague paral- leled the dictatorship and mass murder that swept the continent during the war. It was a time when there were intellectual heroes on a grand scale, and the intellectual wars of the time echoed with memories of catastrophe.
That’s why Camus’ storied rivalry with Jean-Paul Sartre was more than two cafe intellectuals scoring points against one another. It was about freedom and totalitarianism, history and responsibility. They took these questions very seriously. After all, one’s views on these issues and how one acted on them during the war might make the difference between life and death.
These questions were still alive in the 1960s. I remember arguing with a Jewish friend that going along with the Vietnam War would be like going along with the killing of the Jews. So I was intrigued while reading the Camus biography at the mention of a letter Ca- mus had written in response to an inquiry from a Harvard student named Nicholas Daniloff.
Nicholas Daniloff is the father of Middlebury resident and VPR commentator Caleb Daniloff. I asked Caleb about the letter, and he asked his father, who dug it out and sent a copy along to me with an English translation. Camus was responding to an unknown kid in America, but he was determined to be clear about his beliefs.
“I am not an existentialist in the current use of the word,” he wrote. The existentialism of Sartre, he said, was “filled with confusion and bad faith.”
Daniloff wanted to know how to reconcile individual freedom with the authority of the state. Camus said it was impossible to do so if one views history as a “fait accompli,” absolving the individual of responsibility. These questions never seem to be resolved.
Camus was in the thick of the debate about the French war in his native Algeria, about terrorism and imperialism. He hated French oppression in Algeria, and he hated the terrorism of the Algerian freedom fighters. It all sounds depressingly familiar. Yet my re- discovery of Camus reminds me that it’s possible to be honest. It’s possible to believe in high human values and to refuse to excuse the terrorists or the oppressors, to find value in life despite the absurdities of our existence. After World War II, philosophers, at least some of them, were reduced to the essential questions.
I can see why it was all so inspiring to a college kid all those years ago – both to Nicholas Daniloff and, a few years later, to me.
This is David Moats from Salisbury.
David Moats is the editorial page editor for the Rutland Herald and winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. He spoke from studios at Middlebury College.