A review of The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud (trans. John Cullen)
Much as I felt like literally throwing this well-written fan-fic book away (I think I refrained because it was on loan from the library, and I have respect for the public library system of my country … at least their history, anyway) there are ways this book can be enjoyed.
Firstly, it can be enjoyed by the post-Said Arab decolonization crowd (of which I am not one) and I believe that’s maybe the chief way it is enjoyed and the means by which it is most chiefly lauded by Western intellectuals and literary prize-givers. There’s plenty of this discourse packed in there, almost as if through a megaphone sans any kind of irony, dramatic or otherwise.
It can also be enjoyed as fan-fic for lovers of the parent book. Even in my annoyance and despair with it, there were moments when I thought things like ‘Ah, nice work Daoud, I see what you did there, how you’ve taken something from Camus’ oeuvre and done this this this to it. Interesting. And that’s the allure of fan-fic for the fan, obviously; and I am definitely a fan of the parent work here. It strokes your ego like any in-joke. But it does get tiresome, particularly when it’s heavy and ham-fisted. Apart from these moments, there’s no question that the book is well-written: well-writ fan-fic.
Perhaps a more interesting way to approach it would have been as a prima-facie police-procedural of an actual investigation? Maybe that’s what I was expecting? Maybe that’s what Daoud wanted me to expect? Instead of this Jean-Baptiste Clamence figure narrating as if to Doctor Rieux about Meursault … you get the gist. The very hotch-potchyness that makes it well-writ fan-fic makes it tiresome and a little nauseating as a stand-alone work.
The narrator himself is interesting, particularly when it gets into his personal relationships and his relationship with his country and his religion, and here the over-reach for the Camusian “brand” plays against it, if anything. But it gets you to read the book (as it did me) so it would probably have never been read otherwise. It was a good commercial decision, if not artistic. And there is a string of irony if you want to look for it, in the effect of independence on the nation, the very effect Camus wished could be avoided even though he was ‘cancelled’ for his ideas in the fifties, well before it had become a culture…
Another way to enjoy the book might be to make a social-political comparison between Camus’ liberalism of his day, and its abject repudiation of nihilism as an end-product of liberlism; and our current age of liberlaism which has become almost too vacuuous to be nihilism; a sort of nihilism that doesn’t even believe in nihilism?
If you are a Camus-lover, as I am, and have maybe read The Outsider/The Stranger in every English translation (some of them more than once) and maybe have even worked your way heroically through the first forty or so pages of L’Etranger in French (like me) then you should perhaps read it, just to get it out of the way. If not, then I would not bother.
Beauty, I argue, is a real and universal value, one anchored in our rational nature, and the sense of beauty has an indispensable part to play in shaping the human world.
While the book is short, it is quite broad. Scruton has spent much more time on the notion of beauty than any other contemporary philosopher I know of. Beauty is not so admired, at least in the Academy. The study of aesthetics, beauty’s ugly sister, holds a little more attention, but not so much as it relates to beauty … more so as something to negate beauty, and to judge it an unnecessary extravagance of the privileged. And whereas it might be a privilege to be here, the state of being privileged is not a privilege to be anywhere; and part of the atonement probably has something to do with embracing ugliness.
Why is beauty so important to Scruton, in an age of opposition to it?
Partly because of the opposition, of course. But there’s certainly more to it than that. The burden of beauty is something essentially human, so to turn our back on it is to turn our back on humanity, what makes us human; and he doesn’t want this battle to be considered as simply a matter of taste, but he wants to fight this on the field of rational enquiry.
Nevertheless, you want the table, the room or the web-site to look right, and looking right matters in the way that beauty generally matters—not by pleasing the eye only, but by conveying meanings and values which have weight for you and which you are consciously putting on display.
Getting something right, making something fit in—the fitting-ness of something—this is a cornerstone of Beauty for Scruton, as he drills down to some kind of objective essence, and also manages to highlight something from everyday lived experience, as opposed to the experience of what we might call High Art, for example.
When you pause to study the perfect form of a wildflower or the blended feathers of a bird, you experience an enhanced sense of belonging. A world that makes room for such things makes room for you.
Belonging-ness is a cornerstone of Scrutonian conservatism; wanting to position the things to conserve as the things that conserve us; and what conserves us has much to do with a sense of belonging. When articles of endeavour and observation become noticeable enough for our consideration to hold them up as singular and worthy of being held up, then we have a model for beauty.
…the look of something, when it becomes the object of intrinsic interest, accumulates meaning.
Naturally, Scruton’s two key concerns of architecture and music come into play, but he also covers such things as the silent experience of the novel. He moves through some historical models of how beauty has been appreciated, from the Platonic on, and he often returns to Kant’s lesser known works. Through this he contrasts natural beauty with presented beauty. There is beauty that appears to be un-learned, such as admiring a landscape, but this admiration still comes from a conscious human place. Just as there are degrees in beauty, there are degrees in our capacity to appreciate beauty in its varied forms.
Nevertheless, if stories and novels were simply reducible to the information contained in them, it would be inexplicable that we should be constantly returning to the words, reading over favourite passages, allowing the sentences to percolate through our thoughts, long after we have assimilated the plot.
Beauty, when we encounter it, draws upon connections within us, and without us, with the others around us. That’s not to mean that everyone has the same taste, or that everyone maybe is capable of experiencing a particular article of beauty. Scruton uses the example of classical music and talks about the importance of aesthetic education in order to develop our senses in order to progress from the fitting-ness of a well-laid table setting to, maybe … eventually, someone like Bach. To be human is to be social, but, likewise, part of our becoming human is a socialisation process, a learning to be social, from birth.
But dissonance and conflict may also be fitting…
Scruton wants to develop a fundamental difference between ugliness and beauty in terms of how beauty might be championed. As he points out, ugly is the new ‘beauty’—particularly in art, post-Duchamp. The problem for a Bohemian conservative, the tension, is that we want open expression and a lively avant-garde in the arts to live alongside the importance of examining and creatively preserving the canon of beauty in the field that has gone before: the après-garde.
Rules and precepts are there to be transcended, and because originality and the challenging of orthodoxies are fundamental to the aesthetic enterprise, an element of freedom is built into the pursuit of beauty, whether the minimal beauty of everyday arrangements, or the higher beauties of art.
So a place must be made for challenging without repudiating. Dissonance and conflict can drive beauty, but it cannot overcome it. To overcome it is to become ugly; to under-come it is to fall into kitsch. And while 98% of the avant-garde might fall into these categories, we need it to happen so that the 2% that doesn’t can happen, which maybe wouldn’t otherwise. That is not to say that the 98% should be lauded … as they currently generally are.
Beauty reaches to the underlying truth of a human experience, by showing it under the aspect of necessity.
Our need for beauty is not something that we could lack and still be fulfilled as people.
Finally, beauty is not just an add-on for Scruton, something for rich educated people to understand and experience. It’s communal. Which is part of the reason Scruton was so concerned with architecture, I imagine. I mean, I can avoid seeing the 98% by not going to modern art galleries, but I can’t avoid seeing the concrete and faded-green office block (and I mean ‘block’) on Komödienstraße after walking out mesmerised by the cathedral in Cologne.
Beauty gives us something to cling to among the general entropy of living. It does not have to be of the transcendental kind, but can equally be of the incidental kind. This is a rational and practical means by which to drive being inclusive (and actually using the word as a means of inclusion, as opposed to its more common antithetical meaning discursively). There is common ground in the truly beautiful. There is a ‘we’ in aesthetic delight.