In the spring of 1946, Albert Camus visited the United States for the first time. He came at the invitation of his American publisher, Alfred Knopf. Like some other French writers he had profoundly ambivalent feelings about this rising superpower. On the one hand, he was attracted to the drive and ingenuity of the Americans; on the other, somewhat repelled by what he saw as their cultural philistinism.

These conflicting and contradictory feelings are captured in letters written by Camus to his French publishers. Soon after he landed in America, he wrote to Michel and Jamie Gallimard that he was not sure whether he was ‘among madmen or the most reasonable people on earth; if life was as easy as they say here or as foolish as it seems; if it is natural that they hire ten people instead of one, without improving the sense of service; if Americans should be called modest, liberal, or conformist; if it is admirable or immaterial that garbage collectors wear elegant clothes; if it is good that the circus here shows ten simultaneous attractions in four different rings so that although you are interested in them all, you can’t see any of them; if it is meaningful that the thousands of youngsters who roller-skated with me the other night to the sound of a giant organ in a sort of indoor bicycle track in a yellowish light seemed as serious and absorbed as if they were solving an eight-degree equation’.

This letter, and others I shall quote presently, are excerpted in Olivier Todd’s magnificent biography of Camus. From that book we also learn that in New York, the writer’s host and escort was the French cultural attaché, a certain Claude Levi-Strauss, a man then somewhat obscure, but who in the fulness of time was to become perhaps the most influential of all modern anthropologists. New York bemused, enchanted, exasperated and puzzled Camus. Thus, as he wrote to this friends the Gallimards,

‘It is beyond human power to give an idea of the curious way in which eight million bison live in this elevated amusement park that geographers call New York, in which 102,000 green, red and yellow beetles that entomologists call taxis circulate, stop, start, and cross one another… using the manners of polite anthills, while 252,000 bison dressed like operetta generals and admirals stand in front of doors of buildings, some to stop the beetles by means of a whistle, and others to open the door for us, and still others to go up and down like multicolored toys in fifty-story cages which commentators call elevators in memory of the Virgin Mary, who didn’t make many disciples here as a virgin, which is a blessing in one sense, because that way no one will be crucified’.

Camus met other writers and publishers, but he also encountered many Americans with no relation to the literary world. From his talks with ordinary folk, he decided that ‘the secret of conversation’ in America is ‘to speak in order to say nothing’. He then wrote out, in English, a typical exchange between a tourist and a local: ‘Good morning—Nice weather today, is it not?—It is.—The spring will be wonderful.—I think so.—How do you like America now, Mr Camus?—I like it very much—You are right. It’s a nice country, is it not?—It is.—Will you come back again—Sure—Etc. etc’.

After weeks of this kind of chatter, he told the Gallimards, he was impatient to ‘rediscover the flaws and defects of Europe, where conversations have wit, even nasty wit, irony, loftiness, passion, and lies…’.

Camus contrasted the pessismism of Europeans, who looked on life as a tragedy, with the optimism of Americans, for whom life was good and even marvellous. He thought the world needed a synthesis of the two attitudes. For all his sarcasm, he was touched by the friendship he got from America and Americans. When a friend asked why he did not publish an account of his trip through the States, Camus replied: ‘Everywhere I went, I received a warm welcome, and everywhere I expressed myself with total freedom. I’m not going to spit in the plate after having eaten the soup, the way [Jean Paul] Sartre did’.

Camus’s letters from America spoke directly to this writer, who after a dozen visits to the United States can’t quite put in order, or in words, his own, very confused feelings about that country. Like Camus I admire the classlessness of American society (when, if ever, will a black man run for the office of the Presidency of the French Republic?); like him, I am irritated by their small talk and too-easy politeness; like him, I am staggered by the scale of their social, architectural, and political ambition.

Camus’s conclusion about America was that it was ‘a great country, strong and disciplined in freedom, but ignorant about lots of things, starting with Europe’. To which we may add: and about Africa and Asia, too.

Published in The Hindu, 26/10/2008

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