Taking a bath with “the best man in France,” 2012
It was Hannah Arendt, in a private letter, who dubbed Albert Camus with the title “the best man in France.” In the famous image of Camus taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1947 the French writer was 34 years old. When the photograph was taken James Dean was only 16 years old and the images that define how we remember him were not yet taken. Humphrey Bogart on the other hand, was already 48 years old and a serious cultural icon, and in fact, many Americans likened Camus to Bogart. He had the glamour of a movie star.
Camus and my father were born just a year apart. Camus lived to be 46 and my father to 49. They both inhabited a similar European male body type; lean and dark. Both smoked, as did most men of that period, and both were seductive and charming. This may explain in part why the Cartier-Bresson image is so riveting to me.
My sisters and I all have the same photograph of my father in our respective homes. He is sitting in a wooden lawn chair in a tweed jacket, smoking a cigarette. In that photograph he too looks like a Hollywood icon. In fact, in all of the photographs taken of my parents in the early and mid-fifties they look as if they have just stepped off a movie set. It’s hard to say if it was the clothing they wore, the way they lived, or just how they happened to look. My mother was often stopped for autographs in the street; many people mistook her for Alice Faye. It may also have been an after-effect of the war, a need to live for today. It did have the effect of making my parents seem remote. I have often thought that most of the appeal of Hollywood gloss for me stemmed entirely from a confusion developed in childhood.
By the time of Camus’s premature death in a car accident in 1960, his reputation was in serious decline. It seems that trying to take a complex and unpopular position on the Algerian war for independence, perhaps an untenable one given the historical circumstances, so tarnished his reputation as a thinker that he was silenced by it. So our feeling in the present that it has become impossible to articulate a nuanced argument about political issues is not as new as we would like to believe.
Roland Barthes spends nearly an entire book, Camera Lucida, explaining the loss that is embodied in the photograph; a reverie of mourning for his mother. “In front of the photograph of my mother as a child, I tell myself: she is going to die: I shudder, like Winnicott’s psychotic patient, over a catastrophe which has already occurred. Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe.” Barthes’s book is dedicated to Jean-Paul Sartre, once Camus’s mentor and from whom Camus eventually parted ways. The photograph of Camus by Cartier-Bresson is an exemplary case. And yet, his gaze seems oddly alive to the present. During an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2007 called The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings, amidst many large scale paintings, I came across a 17 1/2” x 15 3/4” painting by Vermeer entitled Study of a Young Woman. What was remarkable about this modest oil painting was the eye contact between the sitter and the viewer of the painting, creating the illusion of contact with a soul that had existed over three hundred years ago.
Camus was certainly aware of his affect. The photograph tells us that if nothing else. And while his gaze was focused on the camera and on Cartier-Bresson at the time, he seems deeply aware of the multiple exchanges with his gaze that will take place in a future when “the subject is already dead.” And so I can sit in the tub in 2012 gazing at “the best man in France” while he gazes up my skirt, so to speak.