Camus, Albert (Vol. 14)
Camus, Albert 1913–1960
Camus, an Algerian-born novelist, dramatist, and essayist, had a profound influence on modern philosophy, particularly on existential thought. 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 is itself irrational. It was individual action and the power of the individual will that provided life with value and purpose for Camus. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 9, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 89-92.)
In The Myth of Sisyphus,… Camus provided us with a precise commentary upon [The Stranger]. His hero was neither good nor bad, neither moral nor immoral. These categories do not apply to him. He belongs to a very particular species for which the author reserves the word "absurd." But in Camus's work this word takes on two very different meanings. The absurd is both a state of fact and the lucid awareness which certain people acquire of this state of fact. The "absurd" man is the man who does not hesitate to draw the inevitable conclusions from a fundamental absurdity. (pp. 108-09)
Primary absurdity manifests a cleavage, the cleavage between man's aspirations to unity and the insurmountable dualism of mind and nature, between man's drive toward the eternal and the finite character of his existence, between the "concern" which constitutes his very essence and the vanity of his efforts. Chance, death, the irreducible pluralism of life and of truth, the unintelligibility of the real—all these are extremes of the absurd.
These are not really very new themes, and Camus does not present them as such. They had been sounded as early as the seventeenth century by a certain kind of dry, plain, contemplative rationalism, which is typically French and they served as the commonplaces of classical pessimism. (p. 109)
By virtue of the cool style of The Myth of Sisyphus and the subject...
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The works of Camus, as they stand interrupted by fate, utter a pagan message which is to be set beside that of the great pagans of antiquity and that of some of the modern pagans to whom Christianity owes an immense debt of gratitude—for they have asked the right questions and constrained Christians to evolve ever more satisfactory answers to them. "Neo-paganism is the great spiritual phenomenon of our age"—thus wrote, in The Drama of Atheistic Humanism (1944), the eminent Jesuit thinker, Father Henri de Lubac, who deplores it, but courageously concedes that many noble souls, indeed many "blinded Christian souls" are attracted to the renovated paganism of today.
Instinct and doctrine blend in Camus's pagan assertions. His early series of essays, Noces (Nuptials), sings a paean to the wedding-feast of sky, sea, and the Algerian earth, supplemented by several equally rapturous prose canticles in honor of his "invincible summer" burning through the hours of distress and squalor in his youth. Their motto is a vehement denial of any longing for another life. Four pages before the volume closes, he propounds the conclusion: "The world is beautiful and, outside it, there is no salvation." The opening lines of the book are a disclaimer of all myths and intellectual structures erected to frustrate or to justify man's naïve desire for earthly happiness. "There is but one love in this world. To embrace a woman's body is also to...
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To appreciate Camus fully … it is necessary to encounter as an ensemble his novels, stories, plays, philosophical and lyrical essays, journalistic political criticism, speeches, interviews, and notebooks, as though they formed a single, multivolumed creation like Proust's Remembrance of Things Past or Durrell's Alexandria Quartet. (p. 4)
The reader is likely to get his first concrete indication of Camus's dialectical method from his unorthodox custom of making explicit cross-references between his fictitious works. (p. 5)
A second unifying technique is certain key images that Camus uses repeatedly, from his first to last writings, as titles and motifs: the stranger, the plague, the fall, the judge, the condemned man, the sun and sea, the two sides of the coin, exile and kingdom, lucidity and indifference, speech and silence, solitude and solidarity. His thematic associations with these images are usually fairly constant, so that they become a kind of shorthand for his continuing preoccupations. Sometimes, however, he works ironic variations on them or gives them multiple meanings, thereby creating tension between their appearances in different contexts. (pp. 5-6)
[Camus's] method was to fragment in each work one facet of his personality, one line of argument, one of several possible responses to a common condition such as the absurd, in such a way that only assembled in their totality...
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For Albert Camus the struggle to achieve meaning in human life must always be an affirmation of the love that engendered it. This conviction is the key thematic in Camus' novel, The Plague and finds expression in the character Tarrou. Tarrou's is a quest for total meaning in life: "What interests me is learning how to become a saint." Tarrou is definite about the path he must follow to reach the peace assuring meaning to life. It is the "path of sympathy," the way of charity. "But you don't believe in God," his friend, Dr. Rieux charges. Tarrou's rejoinder is to the point: "Exactly! Can one be a saint without God?—that's the problem, in fact, the only problem, I'm up against today."…
Camus' ethic of fraternal charity bestowing meaning and securing sanctity in human living is, in reality, a theistic ethic—the Gospel law of charity…. Camus, in refusing the pseudo-God of an unkind Christianity is in reality opting for the true God of authentic Christianity and … his indorsement of fraternal charity as man's way to peace and meaning in life is radically, though unwittingly, a call for man to love the God who has identified himself with the least of his brethren. (p. 76)
From his earliest appearance in print, Camus was haunted with the notion that our world is a universe which has no place for us, in which our life makes no sense…. His early experience told Camus of man's isolation:...
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It was not until 1961, almost nineteen years after its first publication, that any critic suggested in print that Camus's L'Etranger could be read as a 'racialist' novel. (p. 61)
Camus himself insisted that he saw L'Etranger first and foremost as a book about a man who is a martyr to truth…. Throughout the novel, the reader is invited to sympathise with Meursault and see his cult of physical sensation—his delight at the crisp dryness of a hand-towel at midday, his love of swimming and making love, his appreciation of the sights and sounds of Algiers—as infinitely superior to the conventional values which are always being offered to him. Meursault, we feel, is right not to exchange the sun-drenched beaches of Algiers for the cold courtyards of Paris, right to prefer straightforward sensuality to Marie's sentimentalised idea of 'love', right to place the reality of this life higher than the hypothetical consolations of eternity, right to persist in his vision of the truth as he sees it even if this does lead him to the guillotine. How, then, can a novel with so attractive and honest a hero be seriously interpreted as embodying so unpleasant and life-denying an ideology as racialism? How, moreover, can so conscientious and self-conscious an artist as Camus have written a book which so contradicts the values which he officially defended in his lifetime? For he was not only the first French writer seriously to concern...
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