Entranced by Reality

In a beautiful review of a new book on Camus, Ian Marcus Corbin writes:

In one of his most lyrical essays, “Nuptuals at Tipasa,” Camus exults in the stark beauty of an Algerian mountain town on the verge of the Mediterranean Sea: “Deep among wild scents and concerts of somnolent insects, I open my eyes and heart to the unbearable grandeur of this heat-soaked sky.” [ . . . ] One could very sensibly argue that the pleasure and vibrancy of his aesthetic experiences served as a vital counterbalance to one of the most common and dangerous pitfalls of professional thinkers: the temptation to float off into the cool, exhilarating ether of abstraction, leaving messy, mundane realities behind.

The next few sentences of “Nuptuals” aren’t quoted by Corbin but they seem particularly apposite: “It is not so easy to become what one is, to rediscover one’s deepest measure. But watching the solid backbone of the Chenoua, my heart would grow calm with a strange certainty. I was learning to breathe, I was fitting into things and fulfilling myself.”

Camus’ refusal, or perhaps inability, to lose sight of the real in the abstract accounts for much of his enduring attraction. It may not seem such a rare thing, but amongst serious thinkers I believe it is. And as Corbyn says, “it certainly was in Camus’s day. Camus’s peers, mid-century French intellectuals, were all too susceptible to the raptures of abstraction.”

His love of the sensual beauties of the world cohabited uneasily with an astringent sense of its otherness, its strangeness, its unknowability. Continue reading

Hungary and the End of Politics | The Nation

Hungary isn’t part of my normal beat and my ignorance about it is profound. Nevertheless, this recent long piece in The Nation caught, and held, my attention.

It explores how in four years Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party have utterly transformed Hungary’s political landscape.

What is clear is that with his re-election, Orbán has consolidated a well-orchestrated constitutional coup that has rattled the European Union’s complacency about being a club of well-behaved democracies. Since 2010, Fidesz has rewritten the Constitution without engaging any opposition parties and has granted overwhelming and unchecked power to its party leader, who in turn wasted little time in wresting control of every state institution from opposition hands, entrenching his political allies everywhere, bringing the judiciary to heel and radically centralizing political authority. The Fidesz constitutional “reform” has spawned a Frankenstate, a form of government created by stitching together perfectly normal rules from the laws of various EU members into a monstrous new whole.

Nor, it seems, was any of this accidental.

Before the 2010 election, he gave an uncharacteristically candid speech, one in which he expressed his vision of politics. Speaking in Kötcse, a small village in southern Hungary, in September 2009, he criticized the “divided field of power” that characterized the country at that time, referring to the multiparty system with its competing ideas about politics. Then he dared to dream, predicting that “a large governing party with a central political field of power will be established, one which will be capable of formulating national concerns, doing so without continuous arguments, naturally representing these in its own way.” It would exist for at least fifteen or twenty years without conflict or contention, he promised.

Ukraine: The Only Way to Peace | Anatol Lieven

Events in Ukraine are in danger of slipping into chaos. There may not be much time left to avert an entirely unnecessary catastrophe.

Anatol Lieven lays things out clearly in a piece published in the NYRB two days ago.

What all this reveals is something that should have been blindingly obvious ever since Ukraine became independent in 1991 and that is deeply rooted in Ukrainian history: Ukraine contains different identities, and cannot be ruled unilaterally by one of them alone, or pulled in a single geopolitical direction, without risking the breakup of the country itself. The huge demonstrations in Kiev this winter showed that Yanukovych’s and Moscow’s hope of taking Ukraine into the Eurasian Union was impossible, because many Ukrainians would literally give their lives to prevent it.

Now, events in the east and in Odessa make clear that a Ukrainian state that defines itself purely in pro-Western and anti-Russian terms is also out of the question, because a great many Ukrainians will not tolerate this either. In these circumstances, it is no good for one side to hope for absolute victory. [ . . .]

Critics of federalization say that it would allow Russia to block Ukrainian moves toward NATO and the EU. What is surely apparent however is that Moscow and its allies in Ukraine have already done this. The goal of the West must be to get all the opposing forces in Ukraine off the streets and back within a legitimate democratic process that is recognized by a majority of Ukrainians, and that will allow the possibility of economic and political reforms by democratic means. Time is short. We saw again and again, in the Balkans, the Caucasus, and elsewhere in the 1990s, that once fighting begins, previously possible solutions quickly become impossible. This would be a tragedy—Ukraine does not need to be Yugoslavia or Georgia.


See also Six Mistakes the West Has Made (and Continues to Make) in Ukraine