“Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.” Those lines are perhaps the most-quoted of Albert Camus’ online. They’ve most likely reached more people than his books have. The problem, aside from the diabolical triteness of the sentiment, is that Camus doesn’t seem to have written these words. They appear in none of his major works nor in any interview that I can find. To anyone who has read Camus’ work, this comes as little surprise. It just doesn’t seem his style to write something so simpering, a message with all the profundity of an episode of The Littlest Hobo, a kind of self-help post-Oprah drivel, the proliferation of which has made Facebook a place which the sound of mind should avoid as they would a leper colony.
Camus did have a talent for writing one-liners and epigrams though rarely as light-weight as the aforementioned one (which seems more akin to Footprints in the Sand god-bothering doggerel than any literary text). There was more than just his looks linking him to Philip Marlowe-era Bogart. His economy of setting and language, the continual question of complicity, the omnipresent threat of violence, the deadly inexorable clockwork of his plots, the unreliable narrator of The Fall and the narrative tension in The Stranger, The Plague and ‘The Guest’ (from Exile and the Kingdom) mark him out almost as much a noir writer as an Existentialist, the latter a title he always denied. Camus was manifestly hard-boiled; hair slicked, collar up against the wind, cigarette hanging from his mouth. Perhaps he did write those words but they were mistranslated. Perhaps his instructions not to walk ahead or behind was not some happy-clappy sentiment but an untrusting and untrustworthy narrator, afraid his follower might suddenly brandish a revolver or afraid he might do the same. Walk alongside me so I can look you in the eye and get the measure of you, friend. Robbed of Camus’ characteristic style or perhaps the context of a private letter (in which case it would have a touching personal resonance), the quote is just another platitude masquerading as wisdom (hence the vaguely religious connotations). Why it attached itself to Camus or who actually wrote it is unclear.
Let’s take what Camus really did write as an example of the depth of his writing. The words of the infernal barfly Clamence in The Fall, “I shall tell you a great secret, my friend. Do not wait for the Last Judgment. It takes place every day.” The startling admission that opens The Stranger, “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure.” His evocation of Manhattan from his American Journal, “Sometimes from beyond the skyscrapers, across thousands of high walls, the cry of a tugboat finds you in your insomnia in the middle of the night, and you remember that this desert of iron and cement is an island.” In Return to Tipasa, he wrote exquisitely that “In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” In Summer in Algiers he is equally life-affirming, “If there is a sin against life, it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as in hoping for another life and in eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.”
All very inspiring but only truly so when placed in context. To fully appreciate Camus’ humanism you must set it in the sense of godless post-Nietzsche post-Holocaust futility which he, and the Existentialists, wrestled with and following the very real and often grim experiences of his poverty-stricken childhood in Algeria and his time risking his life in the French Resistance during the Occupation. This is why he deliberately sets his observations within tales of murder, epidemics, betrayals, dictatorships and torture. When he comes to write his most explicit philosophical and political work The Rebel, he does so by examining the barbarities of the French Terror, Stalin and Hitler. To take this context away, to have a quote floating like a speck of dust in a vacuum, is to do him a disservice and change the very meaning of the quote itself. His glints of light only exist in any meaningful sense when they are located in darkness.
A maxim isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself. Some immensely fine, if occasionally infuriating, writing has come in the form of collections of them: Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, the writings of Nietzsche and Marcus Valerius Martialis, Wittgenstein’s mind-melting Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the Futurist’s magnificently poetic Manifestos, David Shields’ recent Reality Hunger. The crucial aspect is that these have been set within and to a context that gives it a deeper meaning. The epigram originated as individual lines and snippets of verse that could work as graffiti or carved into headstones. The setting gave it additional meaning. This is still where it works best, unexpectedly jolting us out of routine. The Poems on the Underground in London is a great idea because it can give us a stolen moment in the time that has been stolen from us by work, a chance for contemplation and lucidity amidst the gloom of the commute. With our own time however it seems we should live as deeply as we possibly can given there will be no second chances. We should read likewise. Trying to appreciate a writer based on individual sentences is like surveying a Van Gogh painting by examining a chart of the colour palettes he used. To use another example, if we know nothing about Philip Larkin and his misanthropic worldview, it’s difficult to detect the various layers of meaning in a line like “What will survive of us is love” (from An Arundel Tomb). The conclusion of a monumental death-haunted poem would be reduced to a greetings card banality. The reader, if not the poem, would be reduced to interpreting on face value alone. It would be like trying to imagine what is at the bottom of the sea by glancing at a puddle.
We could somewhat unfairly blame Oscar Wilde for the modern bombardment of quotes and soundbites given he was a master at making them. Wilde set them to the wider framework of a life lived as art and, in fairness, he lived extravagantly enough to convincingly carry this off. Yet it was a costly decision. It led him to write his life into tragedy, regarding very real dangers with rhetorical flippancy and a fatal seemingly-untouchable vanity. He realised what was happening and the forces gathering against him much too late to save himself. Additionally his skill with a witticism overshadowed his most important work (De Profundis, The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Soul of Man under Socialism). Like a grim bell tolling for a condemned man, his rise and fall also heralded the age and the nature of public celebrity for us all.
It might be reassuring to think that at least quotes serve as a signpost towards a writer’s work. It takes a discerning eye to know who to signpost to and how (the early albums of the Manic Street Preachers with their attendant literary slogans being a successful example of this). Such an eye is rare and brings us to the question of ulterior motives. I’m highly sceptical of those who claim that society is dumbing down, with its implication that some golden age of knowledge existed in the past, often unsurprisingly a draconian age where knowledge was the preserve of a cosseted and craven elite. Though I’m sceptical too of a view of human progress as ever-upward, we do know, in every field of inquiry, immeasurably more now than we ever have before. It may sound unromantic but the famed Library of Alexandria, regardless of its undoubted lost treasures, would pale in comparison to Wikipedia let alone the Library of Congress or the British Library. We have more ways to access this information and share it despite the considerable efforts of those who would happily shut these routes down for most people. The real issue of concern is not whether technology and social networking are rendering us ‘stupider’ (the contrary may well be true or equally the effect may be negligible as technology tends to only bring out and accentuate what is already in us) but the motives behind those who employ them.
Take the prevalence of websites where for your convenience you’re served culture as you might be served chicken nuggets in a drive-thru. You know who they are (but if in doubt try Flavorwire, GQ.com, BuzzFeed, Huffpost’s book section or Brain Pickings). In the absence of imagination or depth and using the modern model, you could easily fire together a Top Ten Books/Films/TV Shows About Vampires/Zombies/Fashion/Love, preferably with each book on a separate page or their beloved “after the jump” to greatly boost the hits and thus advertising revenue of your site. You could make sure each book is dealt with in a cursory paragraph, perhaps lifted wholesale from its blurb or press release with a droll rejoinder tacked to the end. Or better still, just stick a quote or ten on there with images taken from other list-based culture sites who’ve in turn taken their image from other sites and so on forever and ever. Include endless ‘how to write’ articles written by writers so it has that familiar creative writing workshop feel. Don’t bother looking too closely or at too much length at anything. Feel free to share all of this via the widgets provided. Reiterate positivity, motivation, self-belief like Dr Phil if his moustache happened to be a permissably ironic one. Remember above all, your priority is clicks not culture. There’s little harm in any of this of course but there’s little substance to it either. It’s resulted in the elevation of the curator above the creator, taste above talent, pointing above doing.
Culture filtered through social networking (or more accurately the opposite) reaches its nadir with the tendency towards ventriloquism, the point at which it becomes damaging rather than just mildly irritating. Readers inevitably project their own views onto the writers they love (and loathe), it takes a curator or a critic to truly misrepresent a writer. In the past few months, I’ve seen writers whose work I adore be resurrected in horrifying forms. Gone are the edges, complexities and ambiguities that made them so interesting and unique. Instead we get a partially-pristine partially-malformed ventriloquist dummy replica. Worse still they all speak with the same voice. The words are theirs but the voices are not. Those have been changed in the editing process.
If I had first encountered Anaïs Nin by reading a quote of hers about love or dreams or fulfilling your potential or massaging your inner child superimposed on an insufferably twee image, I would never have picked up her wonderful remarkably-transgressive books. Perhaps this shows the shortsightedness of my own prejudices but it’s still not a fair or substantial representation of her work. What I want when I encounter Anaïs Nin is Anaïs Nin, not a therapist or a motivational speaker. The same goes for Susan Sontag or Henry Miller or David Foster Wallace or any of the other incandescently brilliant writers whose writing has recently been cherry-picked and repackaged as glorified self-help tracts. The quotes are certainly theirs, being culled from diaries, journals, speeches and interviews (with the double meaning of culled being entirely apt). The sentiments may well be true. Yet it seems to me duplicitous because the quotes have been carefully selected to fit a pre-existing agenda – us. I am a ludicrously solipsistic and selfish person but even I bristle at the idea that the only thing Susan Sontag or David Foster Wallace had to offer is advice for me. At the risk of impertinence, if I chance upon someone using the currently virulent “there is actually no such thing as atheism” quote by Foster Wallace out of context to bash atheists (ignoring its implicit ‘worship God precisely because He is so ineffectual He can’t harm you’ angle) with no further interest in his writing or life, I’m going to nail a copy of Infinite Jest to their collective forehead.
Perhaps it’s simply contrarianism or some innate desire not to make life easy for myself but maybe it’s something more significant. In a world which increasingly values speed, extroversion and convenience, being slow, introverted and awkward might well become radical activities. The more I encounter a particular modern mindset with its unholy trinity of second-hand Freud, New Age Buddhism and TED talk evangelism, the more I find myself thinking thoughts that flit between the hermetical and the tyrannical. The more filled with self-positivity things become (while everything to the contrary is happening politically, economically and socially), the more I long to live in an interminably long, turgid and depressing Russian novel that ends with me hanging myself from a burning cherry tree. Those are my issues and they are plentiful. What I do know are those quotes from Camus or whoever stuck onto images of children skipping along beaches or flowers blossoming are just a symbol of a deeper malaise. They’re not signs of contentedness or well-being or spirituality. They’re precisely the opposite.
Mercifully, there are lots of cultural places that give me hope on the net. Sites like The White Review have long heavyweight articles, The Paris Review long heavyweight interviews. Neither of them are fun-sized. They seem to respect writers enough to spend a degree of time and forethought examining their work and speaking to them. Occasionally sites like these risk going too far the other direction, appearing pretentious but sometimes that’s amusing in a strange way (and no more pompous than the title of this post you’re reading). And at least they assume their audience aren’t idiots and possess a concentration span larger than that of an amoeba. They are swimming against the tide but likely always have and always will.
If there’s a lesson anywhere in these ramblings, it’s that if you write anything once it’s released it’s not in your hands anymore. And once you’re dead, everything’s up for grabs. You can be misrepresented a thousand different ways according to the ambiguities of language, the distortions of editing and the intentions of the selector. The least we might suggest is for those doing so to go read the book before abridging it into a single line and superimposing it onto a jpeg of a fucking rainbow or waterfall. To respect the writer they’re quoting and the reader they’re addressing and themselves. The only alternative for a writer is to do as Socrates did and refuse to write anything down (though even that, as Camus has shown, is not a fail-safe). Whatever the outcome, it’s clear the writer-reader relationship is not as one-way as we might think and a degree of trust is required by both sides, precarious though it may be.