The Myth of Adolescence: James Woods on Jean-Christophe Valtat

Reading James Woods’s review of Valtat’s “03” (New Yorker, September 6), when a comment pops up like the pea in the mattress he opens with, keeping us awake: “He [Camus] proposed four roles…: the conqueror, the seducer, the actor, and the writer. (One notes the convenient glamour of Camus’s chosen roles: not, say, the policeman, the bus conductor, the bureaucrat, and the shopkeeper).” But Wood’s comment might say more about Woods than about Camus, for Woods can’t seem to imagine a hero who is a plumber, a gardener, a clerk, a waitress. Besides, it’s not entirely accurate, as we find if we take a look at Camus’s actual heroes. But in context, Woods wants Camus to lead the way into Valtat’s four-types Camus imitation: “The exile, the rock musician, the eccentric, the suicide,” which, in turn, permits Woods to introduce his own, fifth role, that of the “…arrest[ed], of helpless delay, of simply coming to a stop while continuing to live,” the condition most adolescents find themselves consigned to once reaching adulthood.

It was some time ago, in an issue of Reed Magazine, we read with interest an article by a Reed English professor about what jobs an English major might aspire to. The breadth of the suggestions was anemic and seemed to reflect an academically enculturated world view: law school, teaching – that was about it, no mention of Wallace Stevens, the great American poet who (albeit trained as a lawyer) enjoyed a career as Claims V. P. with the Hartford; of Ted Kooser, US poet laureate who spent his adult working life at Lincoln Life, in Nebraska; of Kafka, who spent time employed by two European insurers.

Not that it matters, for the question in point is what bearing one’s occupation has on one’s role. When Sartre says that the existentialist’s existence precedes his essence, is he talking about finding a job? When Jesus said “follow me,” was he talking about joining a laborer’s union?

I’m not sure if Woods intends to dis Camus, adolescents, or both: “’03’ is indeed a moralist’s novel: I was often reminded of ‘The Myth of Sisyphus,’ that great outburst so loved by adolescents,” as if adolescents can’t fully know what it means to live, to suffer, to read, to write, to have to decide who to follow, and what book to take along. Alas, the current generation of adolescents will certainly have plenty of time on their hands thinking about it, as they go about applying for jobs that don’t exist.

Jesus and the Jazz of Being Existential

Existentialism 1There is no place to hide in the existentialism of Sartre and Beauvoir, but one does not go there to hide, but to realize. Jesus was the first existentialist (as Kierkegaard showed), and the early Christians lived by choice, reborn in an existential rejection of a status quo existence, rejecting their birth rights (and wrongs), if they had any, their birth situation, for a choice that gave meaning to their lives. The early Christians chose choice; they chose freedom, and the choice was all encompassing.

 

Beauvoir is far more devastating than Sartre in criticizing roles, lifestyle as identity, faces prepared to meet faces. She obliterates the sub-man, the serious man, the nihilist, the adventurer, the passionate man.

 

Jazz is the music of the existentialist. The jazz musician takes up his instrument, develops a musical attitude. His tone reveals his attitude toward the piece, an attitude that must change with each playing. The music is constantly being reborn, the jazz musician improvising, every measure a rebirth, every performance one of doubt – otherwise, why play it yet again, yet again differently?

 

Where is the religion that might do for Christianity what jazz has done for music?  “To will oneself free is also to will others free” (Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity).