Kano, Nigeria

September 1997

The first time my plane touched the ground in Africa was in a city called Kano. Kano is in the heart of Nigeria, and consistent with what I expected, the military met the plane on the runway. I wasn’t prepared for the military to board the plane, however. “A routine inspection,” we were told. “We’re just looking for anyone trying to enter Nigeria illegally.”

I silently wondered why anyone would want to enter Nigeria illegally. Leave, I might understand, given the financial and ecological devastation that General Sani Abacha had wreaked on the country.

The expressed concern over immigration was a ruse, which became obvious once the soldiers began walking the aisles of the plane. A business man who had traveled this route many times before sat next to me. He told me to put anything of value out of sight before the soldiers reached our row of seats. When the soldiers neared our row, I learned why. I could overhear the soldiers asking unsuspecting people, “is that for me?”, referring to headphones, nice watches, and cameras. For the most part, they seemed interested in electronic devices. Once each had a “gift” from a traveler, they left the cabin, and the military told the pilot that we could move on.

As the plane taxied to the end of the runway, we moved past a graveyard… only this was a graveyard for broken and decaying planes. There was one that looked almost whole; it seemed to be missing only a front wheel. The plane leaned forward, suggesting the discomfiture of a rough landing. When you’re preparing to take off, that’s not exactly what you want to see.

At the end of the taxi lane, when making that sharp turn to enter the runway, I could see from my window a man harvesting something. I thought he might simply be cutting field grass, but the business man sitting next to me told me that the man was actually farming. Since the Kano International Airport is all that many people ever see of Nigeria, the local government thought it would be a good idea to show travelers the products of rich Nigerian soil… never mind the bath of jet fuels leaching into the rows of wheat. I just hope that no one ever ingests whatever crops are grown here.

Before I put my camera away once we were back in the air, I turned to get one last look at Kano.

sick

Staying at home because I am sick is no fun.

Illness is doubly cruel. For the past three days, I’ve felt weak physically, I’m uncomfortable, my body shakes violently every 30 seconds because I cough, my nose leaks, my throat feels like its closing up with thick gooey, sour, sharp tasting crap, my head sometimes hurts, and my eyes seem extra sensitive to the light. So, I do things like keep the shades closed, refrain from playing music, keep the the volume low on the computer and the TV, walk slowly, and I tend to stockpile everything I need to stay in one room. The physical effects of a cold make me want to stay as still as possible without threat of boredom — which is a challenge in itself. Reading a good book is about the only thing I can do without too much light, noise, or movement. But it can’t be a funny book, because that would make me laugh, laughing would make me cough, coughing would shake me, and shaking me reminds me of all those body aches.

Being sick is a double whammy, so the second ‘wham’ is the mental effect of a cold. When I wake up after a full night of uninterrupted sleep, and I still feel like my body has been drained of all locomotive power, that hurts the psyche. When I’m sick, I forget what it feels like not to be sick. All I can think about is how weak I feel, how the fast-moving, loud-noise world that we live in is not very accommodating to people who have a cold. When I’m sick, I feel like I’m never going to get well, even when experience tells me that whatever bug I have should pass in a few days. Intellectually, I know I’ll be well again. But, it’s hard, if not impossible, to feel the truth of it. With the blinds closed, the lights dimmed, and the house so still, the world closes in on me. Unless I go outside to check the mail or do some other simple chore, I can even forget that there is a world outside of the dungeon I’ve created for myself. The very atmosphere that my physical body wants/needs, my mind can’t stand. Competing physical and mental needs is just torture.

mountain storm

Storm in the mountains. It announces itself from miles away, rolling, incoming. Floats just over the mountain next to my camp, crashing into its bald rock face. I see the rain from here, see its thick screen turn gray everything behind it. It sounds like it’s coming this way, dark clouds are overhead, and cool air is blowing, dropping the temperature rapidly. It begins to sprinkle. I quickly finish dinner, clean my bowl, hang the food bags, rinse the dinner pots, sprint for the tent, and am settled inside just as it begins to… sprinkle a little more. Then it stops. I wait a few minutes, open the tent, and return to my post on the crag. I see that the storm is already a mile or so away. It blew around my mountain. I see that the storm leaves behind pieces of itself — smaller wisps of white clouds are left in the valleys. They’re too young to climb the slopes, so they’re left to fend for themselves in between the mountains. They too gradually blow away, but not over the mountain… into it I guess.

beliefs

I think beliefs are strange things. Do you ever believe one thing, and so you try to write it, say it, articulate it in some way, but, in the very process of articulating it you realize that you actually believe something else? Or, am I the only person to whom this happens? I’ve realized that sometimes I don’t really know my own beliefs until I try to verbalize them, either orally or in writing. It’s as if I sometimes have to say something false before I can say something true — as though I can evaluate my beliefs, see them for what they are, only after they’re out there, open for public examination.

I’ll let you know later if I still believe in this observation.

where to begin?

Wednesday, at his retrial, Alan Gell was found not guilty of the crime for which he’s spent almost 9 years on North Carolina’s death row.

Anticipating the verdict, I wondered what it would be like to hear the sweet words of justice after having so many years of my life stolen. Mistaken identity and prosecutorial corruption happen. We’re all at risk of being punished for crimes we do not commit. So, I’ve wondered before what it would feel like to be released from such injustice, to taste freedom again after such strict confinement.

Gell, pictured here with his sister (left) and mother (right), shows what it must feel like.

albert camus

This category of entries to nicomachus.net is a collection of notes I’ve taken in the course of my study of the Algerian philosopher Albert Camus. For years I’ve debated whether I should compile these notes into a more systematic essay on Camus. Such an essay would cover, among other topics, his moral theory; his political involvement in war-time and post-war Europe; an analysis of (what I believe to be) the dialectical structure of his writings; discussion of the influence of ancient Greek texts on his philosophical development; the complicated role that pacifism played in his life; and an interpretation of what he means by “happiness” in A Happy Death and The Stranger. These topics, though, cover far more than will fit into one essay — maybe that’s why I haven’t been able to write it. My notes are a place to begin.

I’ve chosen to publish these notes (to the extent that posting on a web site is publishing anything) because sharing them requires me to organize them a little more than the current mess they’re in. I’ve chosen to publish them here because this blog is where I write most often. It is a medium that is ready and waiting for my entries, and blogs do not demand polish (at least not as much polish as a publishing house). Hopefully, the process of organizing and publishing the notes here will result in a more formal analysis… or two, or three.

Originally, I took these notes in a literary journal — a sketch book for jotting down ideas for future writing projects. Much of the other topics on which I’ve written in the journal has been polished and turned into essays. Mostly these works were written to satisfy the hunger of professors of philosophy, though I can’t really say how satisfying to chew on were the arguments contained in them. Writing papers that don’t satisfy is difficult. It bores the writer as well as the reader. But that’s what academia is all about… writing papers that conform someone else’s standards, on someone else’s schedule, on topics that someone else says they care about. In Walden, Henry David Thoreau argued that “there are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers.” Thoreau’s words couldn’t be more relevant today. These notes on Camus are in their current unfinished state primarily because all but one of the many professors of philosophy with whom I’ve worked discouraged me from engaging Camus’ works. Camus, in their eyes, made no meaningful contributions to academic philosophy.

Which brings me to why I care enough to study and write about Camus in the first place. I have to agree with my former professors. Camus’ works are no model systematic body of thought, nor did he adhere to the 20th century’s rigorous standards of logical analysis. The analysis in his essays is amateurish — confused at best. Yet they are unquestionably thought- and feeling-provoking. And more importantly, he chose to express his most philosophical thoughts through literature rather than through the traditional analytic essay. It was to his plays, short stories, and especially his novels that Camus devoted most of his attention. He had a remarkable gift of creativity and an uncanny talent for describing feelings of confusion and despair. He was trained in ancient Greek philosophy, and (I think) because of this he was more concerned with living a life of principle than with defining principles.

Thoreau goes on to lament that it was once admirable to live a life according to principles, but that something has changed. Thoreau was sensitive to the professional, academic demands on philosophers and recognized that living according to such demands replaces the philosophical life with the professional one. “To be a philosopher,” he writes, “is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.”

To Thoreau and to you, gentle readers, I submit the life of Albert Camus. I argue that Camus lived as a philosopher more than he wrote as one, and that is perhaps because he lived as a philosopher more than he tried to write as one. I admire Camus for many reasons: I admire his ability to remain committed to moral principles despite being admittedly confused by the intellectual arguments that support (or don’t) those principles. I admire his outspoken stance against the death penalty and the eloquence with which he treated the subject. I admire the way he lived up to his own challenge to artists: to be responsibly engaged socially and politically, not just artistically. I admire the way he spoke through the medium he was most comfortable with. A creative one. He wrote analytic arguments, often at the request of others, but he is not remembered for them. He is remembered because he found his muse and he followed his heart.

nausea

Since Sartre is always lumped in with Camus as one of the great literary figures and moral leaders of war-time and post-war France, I thought I should read more by and about Sartre — if only to learn yet another perspective on Camus. “Pick up some of the easy stuff,” I thought. “I’ll read some of his fiction.” Beginning with some of my favorite provoking lines (where he calls dogs, men, and all living things “flabby masses which move spontaneously”), Nausea lives up to its name as well as its reputation. Not only is the character’s egomania obnoxious, but Sartre’s pedantic emphasis on recording the mundane details of a bourgeois existential crisis, the confrontation with the absurdity of our everydayness, is well done. He seems to have accomplished what he set out to do: he wrote a book that is almost as painful to read is it is to live the protagonist’s life. Being and Nothingness is almost more interesting; almost, though much longer and therefore more painful.

What is most interesting to me is to try and derive moral theory from ostensibly amoral existentialist writings. Sartre restructures morality to issue from the “I” rather than from the “they” or even the “us”. From the realization “that I am myself and I am here,” Sartre thinks that we learn to accept full responsibility for our actions, even if we are not ultimately responsible for the causes of them. I’m not sure whether I agree with his moral psychology, but I do agree with the conclusion that, more often than not, we ought to take responsibility for our actions whether or not we ultimately have the resources to demonstrate our physical (causal) responsibility. It is only by embracing responsibility for our condition and the condition of the world around us that we care enough to improve both.