Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Marvin Bell | On Bertrand Russell and Camus

Bertrand Russell with his children c1935 (public domain)
Marvin Bell in M. Bell and C. Merrill, After the Fact: Scripts and Postscripts. Buffalo NY: White Pine Press, 2016, pp. 100-101—

Bertrand Russell, May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970. An event of mind that lasted almost ninety-eight years. We shall not see his kind again, but are beset by ideologues pretending to be thinkers. I was hurrying along Broadway in the Capitol Hill District of Seattle. As I sped past two men deeply engaged in conversation as they walked, my hand bumped the wrist of one. I glanced back to say "excuse me" and kept going. But the bump must have "cleared the wax from my ears," as our teachers used to put it, and I realized that the older of the two was talking about Albert Camus. He was talking about Camus, Existentialism and meaninglessness. That was the word he used: "meaninglessness." I had overheard him say that meaninglessness was "a big idea." I couldn't just keep going. I went back and confirmed that they were indeed discussing Camus. I asked if they knew his essay on the myth of Sisyphus, who was sentenced to eternally push a boulder up to the top of a hill from where it would always roll down again. The older man (the other was much younger) said that in fact he had just been talking about Sisyphus. So I asked if he knew the very last sentence in the essay. "It's very important," I said, trying not to wag my finger. Well, he didn't, and he looked as if he wanted me to tell him, and I did. The last sentence in Camus' essay, the last of Camus' ideas about this man Sisyphus—who has been sentenced to an eternity of what seems to be meaningless suffering—is, "One must imagine Sisyphus happy." The older man was delighted at this information, and the younger one's eyes lit up as if he had been given permission to be cheerful. I felt like a Boy Scout of philosophy. I hadn't helped anyone across the street. I hadn't offered a way to escape the dark matter and sticky stuff. I had simply pointed out that one could live there. And I have lived there myself, largely as a fly on the wall, a bystander at the parties of the famous, a guest whose photo was taken in the movie star's bathtub, a tourist in international hot spots. We date watersheds, ages and eras, firsts and lasts, but nothing is over until no one remembers. Blessings on the lone scholar who looks again and recovers our words. Nonetheless, I have, like Bertrand Russell, no illusions. 

Albert Camus (1957), Library of Congress Prints & Photographs