Last Word on “Llewyn”

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O Brother! Why Bother? The latest issue of the Claremont Review of Books has a masterful essay by the critic Martha Bayles. It’s framed by discussion of the Coen Brothers movie so often mentioned on this site. But this is more than a movie review. Bayles covers allied subjects—1930s folk music, 1960s folk music, figures like Alan Lomax and Pete Seeger, folk’s relation to the blues, the perennial debate about authenticity—and places them in the context of commerce and entertainment in America.

Bayles Excerpts

On the Communist Party then—

The party in 1935 “made it once again permissible to use any music that might further a Popular Front against Nazi Germany. Unintentionally, the Popular Front turned out to have a salutary effect on American music, including several strains of commercial music tied to the Capitalist economic machine.”

On the singer-songwriters now—mostly drek! finally someone has said it!

“The folk revival nurtured the rise of the singer-songwriter, to be sure. But people like Tom Paxton, Ewan MacColl, and Bob Dylan were so steeped in the tradition, their best work sounds as though it has been around forever. This is less true today, when most ‘folk songs’ are just as melodically and lyrically impoverished as most pop songs.”

The Liberals, II — Jean-Paul Sartre versus Albert Camus

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SartreCamus

In his 1982 memoir The Truants: Adventures Among the Intellectuals, William Barrett contrasted Sartre and Camus—and noted how the Nazi occupation of Paris brought out their dissimilarities:

The break between them is usually attributed to their differences over the Soviet Union . . . . Sartre at this time had begun to be an ardent Fellow Traveler, enamored of the idea that Soviet Communism, whatever its imperfections, still represented a progressive and revolutionary force in the world. Camus had been a member of the Communist Party in North Africa in his earlier years; he knew the treacherous shifts and duplicity of the Party from the inside, and he was now an intransigent foe of the Soviet Union. It was typical of Sartre, by the way, that though he was the most celebrated Fellow Traveler in France, he never became a member of the Party. To join would be to diminish his Freedom—that absolute and somewhat vacuous freedom which his philosophy celebrates—and in this he was consistent with his own system. But the friendship survived even these political differences for a while. The break, when it came, was over more deeply personal and at the same time universal values.

The difference between the two men seems to me wonderfully revealed in a little incident related by the Dominican priest Father [Raymond Léopold] Bruckberger, who was active in the French Resistance and was close to both at the time. Bruckberger used to run into Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir at the café, the two of them huddled over books and notes and discussing points in philosophy. They struck him, he remarks, like two permanent graduate students. . . . They were joined one day by Camus, who was coming away from his labors on Combat, the clandestine paper of the Resistance that he edited. Sartre was then in the process of completing his big book Being and Nothingness, and he was in the midst of expounding to his hearers the view of absolute liberty which he develops in that tome. This liberty is a possibility we carry around with us like a terrorist’s bomb, which at any moment we could detonate in any direction. “Nothing prevents us . . . ” —this is Sartre’s recurring phrase to indicate that at any moment we can step off into a new direction out of the rut that we have hitherto traveled in life. At that moment a German officer in full regalia walked past on the sidewalk, and Camus, who had been listening in silence, remarked: “Even granted that liberty, there are some things we wouldn’t do. For example, you wouldn’t denounce me to the Germans even though you had the pure possibility of doing so.” The remark, Bruckberger tells us, seemed to disturb Sartre, as if he had never thought of the question so concretely and personally before, and he was at a loss for a reply.

This little episode seems to me to sum up the two men: Sartre the rampant ideologue, and Camus the advocate of what he came to call “ordinary values”—those elementary feelings of decency without which the human race could not survive.

–William Barrett