I adore the new Penguin Modern collection. My first foray into the set, Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter From Birmingham Jail, was such a success that I dove right into my next one, Albert Camus’s Create Dangerously. This is not the second book in the collection, but it is the next book in numerical order from the little handful of Penguin Moderns I’ve chosen to start with.
About the book: Camus speaks about social pressures on art, and whether writers will be accepted by “the masses” if they agree or disagree with popular political stances. Even silence is a statement that artists must be careful of making. He explores whether societal expectations are influencing the art that is appearing in the world, and whether realism in art is desirable or even possible. In his second speech, Camus discusses the aftermath of WWII and the need to reignite the flames of intelligence that have been snuffed out in order for people to cope with the horrors of the war. Intelligence is an integral part in the worthwhile friendships that should be cultivated to overcome the remnants of war. In the third speech, Camus argues the need to fight for one’s freedoms, and to never surrender the freedoms one already possesses.
“…freedom is not a gift to be 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.”
I had a very different experience with this volume than I did with Letter From Birmingham Jail. I think that difference largely stems from the fact that I knew the material from Letter From Birmingham Jail better going in. I picked up Create Dangerously based only on recognition of the author’s name (without knowing more about him than his name) and the description of his speeches from the tiny blurb of this book.
“To create today is to create dangerously. Any publication is an act, and that act exposes one to the passions of an age that forgives nothing. Hence the question is not whether this is or is not prejudicial to art. The question, for all those who cannot live without art and what it signifies, is merely to find out how, among the police forces of so many ideologies […], the strange liberty of creation is possible.”
My first obstacle arrived in the early realization that Camus was a philosopher. I don’t have a problem with philosophers as such, but one college philosophy class was enough to know that I just don’t jive with that branch of science. In a mathematical sense (surprisingly), I appreciate how structured philosophical arguments are. I also appreciate their logic. But when it’s all put together, reading philosophy feels to me like reading a bunch of crafty loopholes, and I just don’t enjoy it. Create Dangerously felt a bit like being back in that college philosophy class that I was so very happy to escape.
“So it is with art, which is nothing without reality and without which reality is insignificant. How, indeed, could art get along without the real and how could art be subservient to it? The artist chooses his object as much as he is chosen by it. Art, in a sense, is a revolt against everything fleeting and unfinished in the world. Consequently, its only aim is to give another form to a reality that it is nevertheless forced to preserve as the source of its emotion.”
The second obstacle for me was that Camus was French. I don’t have a problem with anyone who is French, of course, I just don’t know enough about French culture and history to fully appreciate philosophical arguments about freedom in the aftermath of WWII in France. That’s a failing on my part, not this book’s.
These difficulties made the book a much slower and carefuller read than I was anticipating, but I did reread certain passages and look up a few details about Camus and French WWII history to do justice to the three speeches of this book: “Create Dangerously,” “Defence of Intelligence,” and “Bread and Freedom.” The latter two speeches went much easier for me, although I may have just been getting used to Camus by that time. “Bread and Freedom” was my favorite of the three.
“If someone takes away your bread, he suppresses your freedom at the same time. But if someone takes away your freedom, you may be sure that your bread is threatened, for it depends no longer on you and your struggle but on the whim of a master.”
Though I’m sure a few of Camus’s finer points went over my head entirely, I did feel that I was learning while reading this book, which is something I appreciate from my reading. I marked more quotes than I copied into this post for your perusal, and going back through them now I’m finding a lot of moments in Camus’s writing that are beautiful and inspiring, and they’re making me grateful for persevering through this book. If you’re attracted to the questions “what is art?” and “what is freedom?” and even “what is intelligence?” you would probably enjoy reading these works of Camus’s.
“Any artist who goes in for being famous in our society must know that it is not he who will become famous, but someone else under his name, someone who will eventually escape him and perhaps someday will kill the true artist in him.”
My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I will probably reread this at some point to see if I can get more out of it, but I don’t anticipate it ever being a favorite. Nevertheless, I will definitely be reading more from the Penguin Modern collection. Even the volumes that indicate to me that I do not want to read more from this author, serve their purpose: they broaden my reading horizons and give me an indication of the author’s work without subjecting me to hundreds of pages of reading that I wouldn’t be able to finish.
The Literary Elephant