This story starts off on an ominous note, fusing French existentialism, magazine fact checking, and the potentially lethal influences of Allan Bloom and Bill Bennett. But it picks up nicely, has an important moral, and only lasts around 1,000 words. So please bear with it.
A few months ago, I wrote a story about socially conscious rock stars, noting that U-2 lead singer Bono Vox has a tendency to quote from Albert Camus. Forbes has a rigorous fact-checking procedure, so a few hours after the story was edited, a fact checker ambled into my office. Writers always view fact checking with dread—I was once asked for Al Jolson's phone number—but nothing in my past could, have prepared me for the terrifying question I was asked that afternoon.
"In your story you mention this guy Albert Camus [pronounced Kammis]," he began. "Who is he" What in blazes? Who was Albert Camus? Who was Albert Camus??? Was this guy serious?
I tried the diplomatic route: "I can't believe you don't know who Albert Camus is."
"Well, I don't, so please tell me."
"What did you major in in college?"
"That explains it."
Well, it did, and it didn't. True, there was no reason that the works of Albert Camus should turn up in any agronomical curriculum, so it was theoretically possible for a person to get through college without ever being exposed to his vast influence. But this was a 27-year-old reporter working for a magazine located in the heart of Greenwich Village. The fact that he had never come across the name Albert Camus in his reading, chats, or dates with girls from Bard could mean only one thing: that Albert Camus, one of the heroes of my youth, was fading out of the collective consciousness. Forever.
For the first time in my life, I felt the way aging gin monkeys must feel when they sit around the taproom rhapsodizing about Honus Wagner and Bronco Nagursky with some yuppie bartender who figures they're talking about rent-a-cops working the night shift at the G.M. plant. For a philosopher, Camus was a man of that very same stature—the Gehrig of gloom, the Marciano of moroseness, the Aaron of angst. Yet our fact checker didn't know who the hell he was. It was enough to break your heart.
Anyone who went to college in the 1960s will know why, because the 1960s was the Golden Age of Pretentiousness, and in the Golden Age of Pretentiousness, no one was more persistently, indefatigably pretentious than Albert Camus. Not McLuhan. Not Heidegger. Not Hoffer. Camus, of course, was the French philosopher who co-founded existentialism with Jean-Paul Sartre in the 1940s. Camus actually invented the idea that life is absurd, though Hitler got credit for proving it. Patents for many of his other ideas—life is boring, life is meaningless, life eats it raw—can be found in the Library of Congress, in the Gray Room.
In his heyday, Camus headed a pantheon of unbelievably flatulent characters including Carlos Castanede, Frederich Schopenhauer, Frederich Nietzsche, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. But Camus had one great advantage over these other guys: You could actually read him. This meant that you could get in on pretentiousness on the ground floor, without putting in all the legwork you had to do with Kant and Hegel. No, unlike all those German proto-crypto-fascists, the Frenchman wrote accessible prose exploding with the most exquisitely smug, half-baked, undergrad banalities:
"Men die and they are not happy."
"Today, my mother died. Or was it yesterday?"
"Every artist preserves deep within him a single source from which, throughout his lifetime, he draws what he is, and what he says. When the source dries up, the work withers and crumbles."
As my colleague Stewart Flack puts it, "Albert Camus didn't write The Plague; he was The Plague."
Though Camus was an underground favorite in the late '40s and early 50s, he didn't really break out nationally until the mid-'60s, a decade after his death. That's when millions of pretentious 17-year-olds were starting college. I was one of those pretentious youths and can well remember the path that led me to Camus. I started out at age 15 with Kahlil Gibran, then moved on to Herman Hesse's Glass Bead Game at age 16, before stumbling upon the writer whose fashionably nihilistic philosophy would perfectly mesh with mine until I started pulling down more than $50,000 a year.
But I had another reason for feeling such affection for Camus: If it hadn't been for him I might have ended up in Southeast Asia. I grew up in a poor section of Philadelphia, and lots of my classmates went to 'Nam. I might have joined them, because my high school grades were just so-so, and in order to swing a scholarship to college, I had to convince the Jesuits at St. Joseph's College that I had the goods.
So the day I showed up for my interview with the dean of admissions, I deliberately softened him up with some second-rate material—Ayn Rand, J.D. Salinger, Jack Kerouac, Teilhard de Chardin—before going to Powder River: Camus. I sprang Big Al on him just as the conversation was starting to wane and I could see that I'd registered a hit: "The kid knows Camus. He's pompous enough to be a Jesuit. Let's put him in the Honors Program."
Yes, me and the big fella go back a long way, so after the fact-checking incident, I decided to conduct an informal poll to see how badly Camus had slipped. A literary agent assured me that sales of The Stranger and The Plague were still brisk but cautioned that this was mostly because of college courses. On a discordant note, my local bookstore—which prides itself on its literature section—has no copies of Camus's important works and reports no recent requests for Camus titles. And an informal poll of 30 friends is hardly reassuring: A full quarter have never heard of Camus, and of those who have, eight don't know what he did for a living. So there are no two ways about it: The dude is in trouble.
Let me make it clear that I am not one of those burned-out '60s types who cannot let go of the past. I do not spend the weekends playing Leonard Cohen or Gabor Szabo albums; I rarely quote Heidegger; I have never owned an M.C. Escher print; and I do not have The Collected Richard Brautigan poised next to my night light. Still, I am not yet ready to make a complete break. I can live without Pound's Cantos, The Incredible String Band, Samuel Beckett, and Imamu Baraka. I can get through the rest of my life without Ravi Shankar, Pentangle, Carlos Castanede, Fairport Convention, or the Firesign Theater. I can stay the course without Ludwig Wittgenstein, Steeleye Span, or Herman Hesse.
But Albert Camus and I are not parting company without a struggle. We've been through a lot together, and I was kind of looking forward to the year when Pretentiousness makes its big comeback. If that comeback is not to be, if the younger generation has already decided that it doesn't need, doesn't want, doesn't even know Albert Camus, then it's probably time for me to pack it in as well. Because if Albert Camus's going, goddamn it, I'm going with him.
Joe Queenan is a senior editor at Forbes.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Pretensions: Adieu, Adieu, Albert Camus".