‘Brave Genius’ review: A gripping portrait of two heroes of conscience and intellect

November 6, 2013

This book is a bargain. For $28 you receive the following:

1) A short biography of writer and philosopher Albert Camus, who was born 100 years ago — and whose life and work are being celebrated tonight at a special program at the Alliance Francaise de Washington.

2) A similar short biography of Jacques Monod, pioneering molecular biologist and eventual head of the Pasteur Institute.

3) A riveting account of the German invasion of France and the activities of the French Resistance in Paris, focusing on two of its leaders: Camus, the editorialist of the underground newspaper Combat, and Monod, member of the militant partisan group Francs-Tireurs et Partisans.

4) A potted history of molecular biology, from Erwin Schrödinger’s speculative “What Is Life” (1944) through Watson and Crick’s discovery of the double helix of DNA to the researches into gene communication by Monod and François Jacob.

5) Succinct analyses of Camus’s thought (in such books as “The Myth of Sisyphus” and “The Rebel”) and of Monod’s bestselling reflections on life, “Chance and Necessity.”

Initially, “Brave Genius” might seem to be trying to do too much, as it shifts back and forth between military history and biography, or pauses to describe philosophical arguments, political stances and enzyme reactions in bacteria. But Sean B. Carroll — a professor of molecular biology and genetics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and a regular contributor to the science pages of the New York Times — uses his multiple threads to build suspense and keep the reader turning the pages. It’s the rare book that can usefully complement both Alan Riding’s “And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris” and Horace Freeland Judson’s standard history of molecular biology, “The Eighth Day of Creation.”

Camus, born in Algeria to a deaf and illiterate cleaning woman, and Monod, member of a cultivated, cosmopolitan family (his mother was from Milwaukee), didn’t meet until after the war, in 1948. So clandestine were their Resistance activities that only a few people knew the true identities of “Albert Mathé” and “Bauchard” (both Camus) and “Malivert” (Monod). But the two men hit it off immediately and from the start shared many philosophical views, beginning with the one thrillingly set down at the opening of “The Myth of Sisyphus”:

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest — whether the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer.”

Yet, if one rejects suicide and the (supposedly) false consolations of religion, how does one find meaning in an indifferent universe? For Camus, a passionate embrace of life itself is the answer: “The struggle toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” Monod would agree, emphasizing in “Chance and Necessity” that humankind’s deepest purpose is the dual pursuit of creation and knowledge, that is, art and science. Consequently, a proper society should “defend intellectual, political, and economic freedoms” and “foster education . . . as its primary task.” Human life and history should be a progress toward ever more freedom, creativity and knowledge.

These might sound like austere, rather high-minded ideals, but Camus and Monod found in them the courage to risk their lives. To Camus, the unforgivable sin was to elevate abstractions and ideologies over living, breathing human beings — and this is just what the Nazis stood for and did. To Monod, the Nazis — and later the Soviet Union, McCarthyite America and conservative France — all curtailed, to varying degrees, the freedom of inquiry and exchange of ideas required by scientific research. In later life, Monod not only helped colleagues escape from Budapest after the failed Hungarian Revolution but also joined the students during the Latin Quarter protests of May 1968.

For both men, the Resistance to the German occupation formed and tested their characters. Friends died. Entire networks were sometimes compromised and their members sent to concentration camps or executed.

One evening, Monod gave his briefcase to a young lab assistant and told her, “I am leaving tonight to [do] something dangerous; and I would like you to keep this for me.” He added that if he hadn’t returned in a certain number of days, “Please see that my wife is told.” The scientist then made his way to neutral Switzerland for a meeting with the U.S. agents Max Shoop and Allen Dulles to discuss operations for the “Secret Army” after the Allies landed, whenever that might be.

On June 1, 1944, a BBC radio announcer at last spoke the awaited code words: “Ma femme a l’oeil vif” (My wife has a lively expression_ — the signal that the invasion of Europe was imminent. In the following weeks, Monod and his Troisième Bureau would be largely responsible for the sabotage of railroads and munition depots. Later still, Monod helped oversee the uprisings in Paris against the Germans and commandeered the Ministry of War until the arrival of the leader of the Free French, Charles de Gaulle.

Throughout the Occupation, Camus’s editorials for the newspaper Combat, as eloquent as Churchill’s speeches, lifted spirits. They thrill even today: “A people that wants to live does not wait for its freedom to be delivered to it. It takes its own.” When Paris was finally liberated, Camus wrote:

“Nothing is given to mankind, and what little men can conquer must be paid for with unjust deaths. But man’s grandeur lies elsewhere, in his decision to rise above his condition. . . . What gives our heart peace, as it gave peace to our dead comrades, is that we can say before the impending victory, without scolding and without pressing any claim of our own: ‘We did what had to be done.’ ”

In 1957, Camus received the Nobel Prize for literature; in 1960 he was killed in an automobile accident at age 46.

After the war, Monod returned to his lab and the pursuit of what he once called “the secret of life.” In partnership with the brilliant François Jacob — who had joined de Gaulle in England and been seriously wounded in Normandy — he gradually recognized the importance of RNA and established “a general model for the logic of gene regulation.” In 1961, the two published their watershed paper “Genetic Regulatory Mechanisms in the Synthesis of Protein,” and, four years later, in conjunction with their colleague André Lwoff, they received the Nobel Prize in medicine.

“Brave Genius” is long, and I’ve done scant justice to its postwar second half, which relates, for instance, Camus’s falling out with Sartre and Monod’s eviscerating critique of Soviet pseudo-science (Lysenkoism). This is, in short, a gripping book throughout, and Carroll deserves all praise for his double portrait of two exemplary heroes of conscience and intellect.

BRAVE GENIUS

A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize

By Sean B. Carroll

Crown. 581 pp. $28

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