Brave Genius by Sean Carroll

Eeekkk. I’ve been reading, honest. In fact I finished this a week ago and I’ve knocked off two Alice Munros. Not to mention started Graham’s biography of Hoyle. Not to mention another spinoff from Dr Glas. And most importantly, I’ve reread Heidi.

I’m not big on biography, as you will know, so I’m not even sure what came over me to have ordered this even before it was released. I guess we’ve been reading science and I love Camus, so a book about Monod and Camus probably seemed obvious at the time.

I must say, Carroll does a splendid job. It turns out, when you get to the end of the book, that he has a perfect background for it. The science is obvious, but he is highly knowledgeable about WWII and also has fair French. He is detached as the historian must be, but never cold. He refrains from bombarding us with the horrific minutiae of the period without that making it anything other than horrific. If the movie came out, I imagine it would be chock full of scenes of Nazis torturing the good guys. Carroll has no need for that (and nor should a good movie either).

I will display my appalling ignorance of this period of European history – the thirties to the sixties or thereabouts – by saying I learnt a lot from this book. The hesitancy that lets a Hitler not only take over a country, but attempt to take over the world. The way in which he may appeal to some prejudiced side of a leader or a people which stops them from fighting in the right way soon enough. France was sufficiently anti-Semitic that when it capitulated almost as soon as the Germans invaded, it saw the upside. And, of course, the Nazis did the thing that divides and buys support: make things appalling enough for one group and the other will be simply relieved that it could be worse and at least they aren’t the – in this case Jews. French non-Jews sort of starved for Germany and supplied slave labour and so on, but at least they weren’t killed for their troubles as long as they weren’t Jewish.

It is one of the things that seems obvious about how fundamentalist Islam operates. Make life so dreadful for women, that the men experience relief instead of revulsion. ‘At least we aren’t women, it could be worse’. Divide and conquer. What do my Islamic acquaintances think about this? Equally, of course, the Hindu caste system works this way.

I have a lot of very nice left-wing small ‘l’ liberal (that is, for non-Australians, the Liberals in Australia are Conservative) who say that the consequences of fear of terror (such as censorship to combat terrorism) is worse than terror. So far I’m waiting for them to explain what that actually means. It was on my mind right through this book, how insulting it is to say that, and how much it reflects a safe life and a safe upbringing. Life in the period under consideration was not safe. Camus and Monod both fought in the Resistance and answered big questions. What is worth living for? What is worth dying for? They were intellectual and physical heroes. This does not mean they were not scared. It meant they did what they thought had to be done despite that. They and their brave colleagues resisted during world war two even though they knew every moment of every day that they might be arrested, tortured, killed. They constantly knew that they might, under threat of torture, betray their comrades. This was terror. Absolute pure terror. I do not believe for one moment that these people would have thought that fear of terror was worse than terror.

The story Carroll tells is of people who are allies unbeknownst to themselves, their closest shared experiences being as anonymous members of the Resistance. It is after the war that Monod and Camus become actual friends. Carroll talks about their work too, of course, and the way in which Camus’s philosophy influenced Monod. He talks of Camus’s impossible position in regard to Algerian independence after the war.

What is missing from Carroll’s analysis is no fault of his. He tells of a trip Camus makes to Paris from his writing retreat. His wife and children take the train, whilst Camus is talked into driving with friends. Before heading off he writers to several lovers to arrange to meet them in several places on his return. I could not help recalling with a smile that I made a similar trip as a teenager, a car trip from Adelaide to Sydney. I had various enthusiastic men waiting for my arrival, no doubt something the well-practised Camus would have managed better than I. I sat reading about what I imagined to be Camus’s predicament, recalling that I avoided the ensuing difficulties by having a crash only a couple of hours into our long drive. The car was a write-off, we all ended up in hospital with minor injuries. The trip never happened. And as I recall this and wonder how Camus is going to get on in Paris, Carroll informs us that the driver of Camus’s car loses control and wraps it into a tree. In an instant Camus is dead. I had the luck of a treeless landscape. Camus did not.

This is a real tragedy for mankind. Not the watered down abused notion of tragedy that is part of life now, but one which involved the loss of the world’s most prominent public thinker. One who could actually influence and change the world. On considering the meaning of life,

Camus asserted that the meaning had to be approached, first and above all, in the light of the absurd condition of human existence – of the conflict posed by the human desire for meaning and the total indifference of the universe to that desire. And, second, one had to consider meaning in the fact of the obvious fact of a finite lifetime and a certain death. Integrating these two elements, the central question for Camus thus became: If everyone is destined to die and the universe could not care less, how can life have any meaning? Carroll p137

For Camus the answer was a resounding ‘yes’. He spent the war reassuring those in Paris who did not want to collaborate, that there was something to fight for, a meaning to life that necessitated that they risk their lives every moment of the day as resistance fighters, life from life. And it led when victory could be seen, no longer just imagined, to this famous piece in his propaganda newspaper written and printed and distributed at risk of life every day:

Four years ago, a few men rose up amid the ruins and despair and quietly proclaimed that nothing was lost yet. They said that the war must go on and that the forces of good could always triumph over the forces of evil provided the price was paid. They paid that price. And the cost was indeed heavy: it had the weight of blood and the terrible oppressiveness of prison. Many of those men died, while others spent years enclosed within windowless walls. That was the price that had to be paid….

Nothing is given to mankind, and what little men can conquer must be paid for with unjust deaths. But man’s grandeur lies elsewhere, in his decision to rise above his condition. And if his condition is unjust, he has only one way to overcome it, which is to be just himself. Our truth tonight, the truth that hovers in the August sky is in fact man’s consolation. What gives our heart peace, as it gave peace to our dead comrades, is that we can say before the impending victory, without scolding and without pressing any claim of our own, ‘We did what had to be done.’ Carroll p. 246-7

Remember, my friends who sit at home liking posts on facebook about something not very nice happening somewhere in the world, that this is bravery. Standing up and doing something at risk of annihilation. Like Camus, the brave Monod survived. He had also spent the war in anonymity as a resistance worker, vital to the moment, and ending up at the top of the rather hodgepodge resistance leadership because of attrition as leaders were caught. These people died, they died horrifically, and as they died other people had to take their place. Monod happened to survive and so he had a moment of personal triumph when he took power officially from the Vichy generals who had spent the war theoretically leaders of France with all the unforgivable consequences that led to the struggles of the Resistance. Monod and his brave, perpetually terrified of being caught and tortured assistant, Noufflard, were called to the Ministry of War, temporarily housed in building that had been the residence of Napoleon’s mother. There was fighting all around Paris, nothing was clear yet. Carroll tells the story:

When they reached the door to the Ministry, they were stopped by a group of FFI men with tommy guns; they were there to guard Monod and Noufflard. They entered a grand hallway of large black-and-white flagstones, decorated with armor and were led into a large salon. Sitting in a circle of elegant, high-backed eighteenth-century armchairs was a group of military men in civilian clothes. They were mostly generals and colonels attached to the Vichy government. They appeared a bit stunned to see Monod and Noufflard, who were disheveled and dirty from pedaling across the city. She was wearing an old skirt, and her legs were black with grease from her bicycle chain; Monod was in a suit that was too small for him and that had been mended at the knees. Nevertheless, the assembled gentlemen were to turn over the Ministry to them. Carroll p245

One can say that this was a tiny moment of triumph in a never-ending struggle against the bad side of mankind, there are always people willing to be a Vichy government. Good men do not stand back and suppose that their duty has been done. They carry on fighting and it is terrible to contemplate that the end of WWII was no happy ending. There was in particular the USSR and its forays into Europe to contend with. The world watched and did nothing. It watched, for example, the attempts of Hungarian workers and students to stand up to their regime and the brutal suppression by the USSR. But while the world did nothing, Monod helped two scientists escape, a dangerous, complicated, expensive, time-consuming business.

Camus and Monod go hand in hand.

Ullmann asked her host, ‘Why would you help me?’

‘It is a question of human dignity,’ Monod replied.

Camus’s words. Camus’s philosophy. Monod’s beliefs, Monod’s actions.

Good men, brave genius indeed.


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