Internet Quotes: Camus on Autumn
[This is the first in what will be an irregular series of posts on various quotations posted to the internet. The internet is a wonderful source of information, but when it comes to quotations it is abysmal. I’ll lay good money down, giving odds, that any given quotation taken from the internet is defective in some way. ]
A friend of mine posted a picture of some autumn leaves to her Facebook feed today, and inscribed on the picture was:
Autumn is a second spring, when every leaf is a flower.
A nice sentiment, a bit treacly for my taste, but nice nonetheless. But alarms bells went off in my brain when I saw the quotation was ascribed to Camus. The sentiment didn’t sound like the dark and gloomy writer that I was familiar with. But hey, people write all sorts of different things, and maybe Albert penned this in one of his more manic moments.
So I set out to look it up.
The regular web was no help. Sure the quotation was there, ascribed to Camus, but as usual none of the hundreds of quotation pages gave any kind of authoritative source. I wanted to find in which of Camus’s works or letters does the line appear?
But Google Books came through, and it turns out that Camus did pen the line, or at least its original French incarnation. It’s from Act 2 of his 1944 play The Misunderstanding (Le Malentendu). But plays and other works of fiction are tricky things. Did Camus really mean this as a hymn to the beauties of autumn, or is this something he placed in the mouth of one of his characters only to twist it into some kind of existential angst? So let’s see in what context Camus used these words:
MARTHA: And often, in the harsh, bleak spring we have here, I dream of the sea and the flowers over there. [After a short silence, in a low, pensive voice] And what I picture makes me blind to everything around me. [After gazing at here thoughtfully for some moments, JAN sits down facing her.]
JAN: I can understand that. Spring over there grips you by the throat and flowers burst into bloom by the thousands, above the white walls. If you roamed the hills that overlook my town for only an hour or so, you’d bring back in your clothes a sweet, honeyed smell of yellow roses. [MARTHA, too, sits down.]
MARTHA: How wonderful that must be! What we call spring here is one rose and a couple of buds struggling to keep alive in the monastery garden. [Scornfully] And that’s enough to stir the hearts of the men in this part of the world. Their hearts are as stingy as that rose tree. A breath of richer air would wilt them; they have the springtime they deserve.
JAN: You’re not quite fair; you have the autumn, too.
MARTHA: What’s the autumn?
JAN: A second spring when every leaf’s a flower. [He looks at her keenly.] Perhaps it’s the same thing with some hearts; perhaps they’ll blossom if you helped them with your patience.
MARTHA: I’ve no patience for this dreary Europe, where autumn has the face of spring and the spring smells of poverty. No, I prefer to picture those other lands over which summer breaks in flame, where the winter rains flood the cities, and where ... things are what they are.
What we have is a cherry-picking of a quotation, removing it from its context and thereby completely changing its meaning. Camus is not extolling the beauty of autumn, but rather portraying it as false and deceptive replacement for a poverty-stricken and bleak spring, tricking one into thinking that all is in bloom, when in actuality everything is dying. Now there is the Camus that I know and love.
Camus, Albert. Caligula and Three Other Plays. Justin O’Brien, trans. New York: Knopf, 1966. 104–05.
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton