January 18, 2017

As D-Day Looms, Einstein, Kafka and Camus Sail to Sea In a Beautiful Pea-Green Boat

By Stuart Mitchner

If at first an idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it. — Albert Einstein

I’m thinking of two Lears. Edward is the author of “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat,” one of the happiest poems ever written. The other Lear is Shakespeare’s mad king who brings the world down on his head because he only hears what he wants to hear no matter how evil the source and when he hears something he doesn’t want to hear, even when it’s spoken by an angel, he banishes the angel, opens the door of his kingdom to evil, and is lost. It’s our good fortune that Shakespeare makes great literature out of all that madness and misery. It’s our absurd fortune that someone with the failings of the mad king is about to take the throne.

So let’s enjoy imagining the owl looking up to the stars above and singing a love song to the pussy-cat and while we’re at it, let’s imagine Einstein musing on Kafka and Camus as he sails his boat on Lake Carnegie with a woman resembling Kafka’s Dora Diamant at his side. They’re both smiling in the sunlight. Maybe he’s telling her about how Kafka and Dora dreamed of opening a restaurant in Tel Aviv, where she’d work in the kitchen and he’d wait tables. Einstein even improvises a dialogue around the absurd idea of Kafka serving his clientele: “Waiter, there’s a giant cockroach in my soup!” At this Kafka would introduce himself by quoting in Hebrew (he and Dora had been studying the language in Berlin) the opening sentence of The Metamorphosis.

In view of the absurd idea that will become a fact of life in Washington D.C. Friday, I’m looking for something positive in Einstein’s comment. Like the formula, absurd=hope. Sure, why not imagine a semblance of hope, just a little, just a few accidental bubbles of hope blown by the crazy winds of chance. While it’s unlikely that even a mind as large as Einstein’s could have room for human folly comparable to what’s coming on January 20, he did after all witness the installation of Harry Truman, the onetime haberdasher and occasional pianist who ordered the dropping of the atom bomb four months after being sworn in as president. Einstein was haunted by the mushroom cloud. There it is in the background of the doctored image of him happily riding his bicycle through the streets of Princeton.

Einstein Chez Camus

While it’s possible that Einstein read The Stranger sometime after its publication as L’Étranger in 1942 (the translation appeared in 1946), it’s a fact that Camus brings Einstein into his last complete work of fiction, The Fall, published in 1956, the year after Einstein’s death. The speaker is a wealthy Parisian defense lawyer admitting that his passion for women is such that he’d have given “ten conversations with Einstein for an initial conversation with a pretty chorus girl,” even though he might be “longing for Einstein or a serious book” after the tenth conversation.

Later in the same monologue, the lawyer concludes that “it’s always better to go to bed with a mystery.” The mystery Camus went to bed with was the E=mc2 of the absurd explained in his introduction to The Myth of Sisyphus (1955), that “it is legitimate and necessary to wonder whether life has a meaning; therefore it is legitimate to meet the problem of suicide face to face” with the understanding that “even if one does not believe in God, suicide is not legitimate.” The result is “a lucid invitation to live and to create in the very midst of the desert,” in other words the Sahara of the absurd because “Happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth.”

So can we assume that Camus’s “happiness” is in some perverse way comparable to what Einstein means by “hope” in the formula quoted above? Having just finished rereading The Stranger for the first time in decades, I keep going back to the exalted conclusion of Matthew Ward’s translation, when the condemned man grabs the priest who has relentlessly pressured him to show some remorse or fear or faith. As he pours out everything that’s in his heart, “cries of anger and cries of joy,” the central absurdity of the book is expressed, that a man is being executed “because he didn’t cry at his mother’s funeral.” Then comes the amazing final paragraph when all the passion and poetry that Camus has been keeping at bay explodes, “As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world.”

Where Einstein finds hope, Camus purges it and finds happiness. So perhaps it’s best not to look for hope in what’s coming, perhaps the idea is to look for humor. If it’s positive to see the absurdity of life as hopeful or happy, like turning a negative on its head, then welcome to the present, where, as recently reported in the New York Times, an insulting tweet from the president-elect becomes a badge of honor, a selling point, a species of acclaim.

Kafka and the Cats

Kafka died of tuberclosis in June 1924, Einstein of a ruptured aneurysm at Princeton Hospital in March 1955, Camus in an auto accident in January 1960.

Kafka’s demand that all his papers be burned after his death was famously ignored by his best friend and eventual biographer and archivist Max Brod, who saved everything he could, publishing The Castle and The Trial and the rest, making possible Kafka’s afterlife as a literary legend.

The pilgrim’s progress of the papers Brod saved from oblivion is a tragicomedy of the absurd described at length in Elif Batuman’s New York Times Magazine piece “Kafka’s Last Trial” (Sept. 22, 2010). In 1939, a decade and a half after Kafka’s death, Brod was on the last train to leave Prague only minutes before the Nazis closed the Czech border. He was carrying a suitcase packed with Kafka’s papers and destined to become “subject to more than 50 years of legal wrangling” after finding their way into the 21st century and the two septuagenarian daughters of Brod’s secretary. As it Kafkaesquely happened, a sizable portion of the literary treasure trove landed on Spinoza Street in Tel Aviv in an apartment one of the daughters shared with “between 40 and 100 cats.” As Batuman tell us, the neighbors, “as well as members of the international scholarly community,” had misgivings about what all these cats might be doing to the priceless archive. More than once, municipal authorities had “removed some of the animals from the premises, but the missing cats always seem to be replaced.”

As a novelist quoted by Batuman observed, Max Brod would be “horrified” if he knew the fate of the papers he’d shepherded out of Nazi Germany but Kafka “might be O.K. with it: ‘The next best thing to having your stuff burned, if you’re ambivalent, is giving it to some guy who gives it to some lady who gives it to her daughters who keep it in an apartment full of cats, right?’ ”

Camus’s Last Ride

If the epic fate of Kafka’s papers seems absurd, the fate Camus inadvertently signed up for on 3 January 1960 is no less true to his theory. Not that his decision to drive to Paris with his publisher Michel Gallimard instead of going by train with his wife was overtly suicidal (an account in the N.Y. Times quotes him having stated there can be “nothing more absurd than to die in a car accident”). On the most obvious level, Camus chose to ride with his good friend Gallimard — a notoriously fast driver in a big, stylish, but not “dynamically competent” vehicle — because he enjoyed his company. In fact, his distaste for riding in cars was a subject he’d often discussed with Gallimard, whose Facel-Vega HK500, a luxurious “automobile folie” with a massive Chrysler engine was known as “the fastest four-seater car in the world.” According to an observer of the accident — the car skidded off the wet road, hitting one tree, then another — Gallimard must have been driving at about 150 kph. Camus died instantly, Gallimard five days later. The ticket for the train Camus never took was found in the wreckage along with the manuscript of the novel he never finished.

Accidents Happen

It seems a contradiction of Camus’s philosophy, that “the Absurd Man” would even subconsciously put himself in harm’s way. The almost too-pat literary irony to be read into the fatal accident — the author dying in the publisher’s stylish but fatally flawed vehicle — suggests the cause and effect of similar catastrophes on the grand scale. Like the fact that Osama bin Laden himself had not expected that the hijacked planes would actually topple the structurally compromised Twin Towers. Like the absurd idea that the media could fail to comprehend how a flawed system and a gulled electorate would deliver the presidency to an absurd candidate.

The details about Camus’s fatal accident can be found at www.stephenbayley.com.