Camus, Albert 1913–1960
Camus, an Algerian-born novelist, dramatist, and essayist, had a profound influence on modern philosophy, particularly on existential thought. His philosophic and literary concerns revolve around the question of the nature and meaning of existence. Camus's conception of the human condition is predicated upon the constants of evil and death. Rejecting religion for reason, Camus concluded that the universe was itself irrational. It was individual action and the power of the individual will that provided life with a value and purpose for Camus. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 9.)
On the whole, it can be said that Camus is the great writer American literature has waited for and who never came. The generation of Faulkner, Dos Passos, and Hemingway already belongs to the past and to history. Its value is one of example and no longer of witness. It so happens that the succession is vacant. There are a hundred authors not wanting in talent, but there is no writer who attacks the problems of our time in depth. If happy peoples can be said to have no history, perhaps prosperous peoples have no literature. (p. 17)
Through the allegorical turn of his mind, through his effort to confine himself to the universal, through his wish to give meaning solely at the level of the human condition, Camus offered in his novels an image of man bare and free enough of the particularities of nationality or history to be immediately accessible. Sartre, on the other hand, whose intellectual and personal approach is so deeply rooted in one moment of both pre- and postwar French consciousness—or "bad conscience"—intrigues, irritates, or fascinates Americans. In general, he remains fundamentally foreign to them. Camus, however, presents through literature what is for the Anglo-Saxon mind often the essential thing: an ethic. And this ethic finds fruitful soil here in America. I would not say that Americans are always sensitive to what is deepest in Camus's thought: the sense of a tangible, vital participation in life that one might call "the solar joy." What they like most is the Old Man and the Sea aspect of Camus, the concern he shares with Hemingway or Melville for man's struggle within the universe and against it. Camus continues and expounds a humanistic ethic that stresses effort more than success, and that unwittingly nourishes the ascetic spirit still alive in America in spite of the cult of success and well-being.
But even more, Camus's sense of the tragic goes to the heart of the American...
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Camus's rapid rise to celebrity between 1942 and 1945 is unparalleled in the history of French literature: The Stranger, The Myth of Sisyphus, the two plays Caligula and The Misunderstanding, together with Camus's role in the Resistance and the widespread interest in his Combat editorials, started his career in meteoric fashion. This sudden fame was not easy for the young writer, and there were many in the clannish and often supercilious world of Paris letters who, as long as he lived, reproached Camus for something he had neither sought nor wanted. (p. 4)
Camus never allowed himself to forget that he had once been a lonely child, defenseless against himself and against a paradoxical and often shockingly brutal world. This early unhappiness was the source of much of his strength and even, sometimes, of his inflexibility.
Another of the motivating forces behind both Camus's actions and his work was a violent and apparently never resolved struggle of opposing character traits. Like his Caligula, Camus had a drive toward self-affirmation, which, unchecked, might have turned into a cruel form of self-indulgence that he seemed to identify with the amorality, indifference, and serenity of the cosmos. But Camus also had a passionate need for self-denial, for a kind of effacement within the "world of poverty" that was his as a child. Each one of these powerful inner forces could have led to forms of self-destruction, which the act of writing seems to have held in check. The climate of Camus's work is inseparable from his struggles to maintain a sane equilibrium. At all times Camus refused the romantic delectation of thinking of himself as an individual apart from all others, marked by fate for a singular career. (p. 5)
[The] silent uncomplaining figure of his deaf mother seems to have created in the child an overwhelming sense of compassion, all the harder to bear because of his helplessness. She was the inspiration for one of the essential figures in many of his later plays and novels and suggested a fundamental symbol: the silent mother, the land of Africa, the earth, death.
The silence that both separated and united the mother and son, born as much of her endless labor as of her deafness, was later to influence the young writer's thought deeply concerning the problems of communication and expression. He was often to define the writer's "commitment" as the obligation to speak for those who are silent, either because, like his mother, they are unused to the manipulation of words, or because they are silenced by various forms of oppression…. A major source of Camus's work, which from the very start carried it beyond the frontiers of social satire or recrimination, is Camus's understanding of and sensitivity to that part of all lives which is spent in solitude and silence. He, too, struggled with that almost intolerable compassion which rings in the words of his youthful Caligula: "Men die and they are not happy." It was from this depth of compassion that Camus drew a sense of solidarity with human beings so profound that he could accept them in their fundamental nudity—an acceptance certain doctors come to experience, such as Camus's Dr. Rieux in The Plague.
To this basic experience of sadness, Africa added an experience of joy. No one has spoken of the glory of the Mediterranean landscape better than Camus. As a boy he roamed over its beaches and hills. The landscape of North Africa appears in all his writing, carrying with it the sense of freedom and life through his essential symbols: the sun, the sea, and many different sorts of light. "There is a solitude in poverty" he wrote, "but a solitude which gives its proper rank to all things. At a certain level of wealth the sky itself and a night full...
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It is customary to think of Camus as the great apostle of life in this century, and to view his work as testimony to the acceptability, indeed the worthiness of the human condition. It is equally routine to regard Beckett as an exploiter of nihilism, and to brand his literary output as cadaveric, as one denoting a paralyzed, indeed a corpsed universe. Their concept of suicide, however,… precludes such simple conclusions and points instead to an unsuspected rapport between the two writers….
In Camus the persona discovered one of its most subtle and sophisticated advocates. The subtlety of Camus found that it was necessary to insist on the integrity of the absurd experience. The "integration" of the persona resulted from the insistence that "There is thus the will to live without rejecting anything of life, which is the virtue I honor most in this world."… Camus worked from the presupposition that life is acceptable, even though in the more cynical mood of The Fall he conceded: "But in certain cases carrying on, merely continuing, is superhuman." Nevertheless for Camus suicide constituted the avoidance of the absurd, rather than its confrontation, for which he opted. (p. 105)
In the work of Camus … numerous are the instances when his rejection of suicide appears without qualifications. The Myth of Sisyphus is in fact a treatise on suicide, the one and only serious philosophical problem, a phrase made famous by the author at the very beginning of his essay. The point which Camus wishes to reveal to us immediately is that, if one becomes conscious of the vanity of the human condition, of the nonsense of life, one is no longer capable of accepting the trap of going on, because of habit, or because of the force of inertia. One is tempted, instead, by that exile without return which death exemplifies. Camus writes:….
Dying voluntarily implies that you have recognized, even instinctively, the ridiculous character of that habit, the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation, and the uselessness of suffering.
But then he asks the question: "Does denying that life makes sense imply that it is not worth living?"… On the contrary, it becomes obvious to him that the less sense there is in a life which carries its own degenerating factors, and which is temporal, the more it is worth living. A challenging approach,...
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The movement … from unconsciousness to consciousness and despair and back to unconsciousness, has been analysed by Albert Camus in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus. (pp. 278-79)
Camus' essay deals exclusively with … the question of one's response to the awareness that life has no transcendent meaning. The essay "attempts to resolve the problem of suicide … without the aid of eternal values which, temporarily perhaps, are absent or distorted in contemporary Europe."… [It] was written during a major world disaster and … was acclaimed as an important contribution to the resolution of the problems raised by that disaster….
Camus views Sisyphus' … hopeless struggle as...
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In his notebooks and in his novel The Plague, Albert Camus often describes the city of Oran in negative terms. He stresses the qualities or characteristics Oran lacks, seeing in this absence a source of inspiration.
In Camus' universe the cities of North Africa, Oran and Alger, serve an essential function. They are not only the background for his works but they are the embodiment of man's relationship with his environment. The topos of Camus' world revolves around a desert-city dichotomy. (p. 75)
In all of Camus' fiction, the city imposes its own personality and attributes upon its inhabitants….
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