Nautilus

Ingenious: Albert Camus

I had always dreamed of meeting Albert Camus and so was thrilled when he appeared at Lucey’s Lounge, a dark and yellowy lit bar in Brooklyn. The Algerian writer had graciously agreed, or so it seemed, to be interviewed about absurdity, the concept in philosophy to which his name is forever attached. He was as casually handsome as a film star off the set, though a tad overdressed for this warm night, perspiring in a gray suit and vest, his black tie undone. He paid for our scotch-and-sodas with cash—“Your national drink, is it not?”—and left a generous tip. “No one ever has change in this country,” he said with a weary smile.

Arriving from his home in Paris, Camus was torn about New York. “The heart trembles in front of so much inhumanity,” he remarked. Equally entranced and repelled by Times Square, he felt in rhythm with the midtown traffic, the gilded skyscapers piercing the blue sky. Although the city’s anxious circus had exhausted him, he seemed at ease in this Brooklyn neighborhood, Gowanus, which was barely hanging on to its industrial past. We sat on a bench outside the bar as subway trains rattled along the track overhead. Camus smoked aimlessly.1

This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.

Celebrated for his novels, including The Stranger and The Plague, and his philosophical essays, notably The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus, seldom noticed by critics, thought about science and the scientific principle, and referred to them in his work. He was a close friend of Jacques Monod, a French biochemist, who won the Nobel Prize for illuminating key processes in how genes manufacture proteins. Monod was outspoken, and not long after World War II published a scathing essay in the French newspaper, Combat, formerly edited by Camus, of Soviet science, and in particular Soviet scientist Trofim D. Lysenko, who maintained heredity resulted not from internal genetic processes, but was shaped by environmental forces; as a result, humans could intervene and modify plants and animals in any way they desired. As a pioneering geneticist, whose experiments helped prove genetic mutation could be a strictly internal process, and what’s more, influenced by chance, Monod punctured the bubble of social engineering, and the science from which it supposedly derived. “Lysenko’s claim that Mendelism must be incorrect,” he wrote, “is, of course, completely absurd.”2

Monod had long admired Camus, and after the pair became friends—a mutual acquaintance said at dinner parties the scientist and writer would complete one another’s sentences—he clearly influenced Camus. In his book The Rebel: An

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