Exile and the Kingdom Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Evaluation

When Albert Camus received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, there was some surprise that the award had gone to so young an author and one whose ultimate direction was still uncertain; but there were few dissenting voices. The reason is clear. Even though his meanings may not be easily grasped, Camus was obviously an important writer in the European tradition of the man of letters. As novelist, playwright, political and moral pamphleteer, and short-story writer, he had from the beginning of his career addressed himself to a program of literary activity which, according to the citation of the Swedish Academy, “with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times.” If his preoccupation with the larger concepts of man’s fate—war, guilt, God, love, and death—on occasion clouded with abstract argument the simple fables he chose to enclose them, he nevertheless demonstrated the working of a poised and sincere intelligence in his attempt to reconcile the evidence of history with the idea of life as value. His importance is revealed in the imaginative treatment he gave to the political and the moral decay which underlie the special terror of the twentieth century.

Each age creates its own shapes of fantasy and terror. Roderick Usher gives place to Dorian Gray. The terrors of the Grand Guignol have their sea change in Faulkner’s Jefferson or on the rocky beach at Carmel. The outcasts of Dostoevski echo in the troubled ghosts of Koestler and Silone. The twentieth century has found its agonized image in the psychology of the irrational and its meaning in themes of guilt and expiation. Dostoevski’s Raskolnikov and Mitya, Conrad’s Razumov and Lord Jim, Mann’s Krull, Kafka’s K., and Camus’ Meursault mark the line of its succession. This literature represents an accumulation of suffering in terms of grief, guilt, and loss. Today, however, the whole impact of disaster and doom is no further away than the news broadcast or the headlines of the daily papers. Everyone has a part in the nightmare of history and wonders at what point man was betrayed. Somewhere in the past, in the unconscious reservoir of memory and dream, man should have been prepared for this age of wars, regimented societies, and threats of mass annihilation.

Most contemporary serious writers must commit themselves, in some degree, to this literature of terror. They cannot transcend the world; they can only describe it. Crime, for example, loses much of its moral significance when it becomes political and impersonal; murder may be virtuous and treachery noble. The earlier writer could take his world for granted. The characters of Fyodor Dostoevski and Charles Dickens are everywhere surrounded by a society that rested upon recognizable moral value; readers measure the enormity of their guilt by the intellectual, social, religious, or domestic beliefs of the society from which they stand apart. The modern writer has no such vista. He uses the immediate nightmare to explore the lies, perversions, brutalities, and fears which threaten man’s responsibility through morality or reason; and if he is nimble enough, he may reclaim the human atom from the processes of annihilation and death.

In the nihilistic world of Albert Camus, salvation is neither easy nor consoling, for his people achieve at best a sense of identity and a mere glimpse of fulfillment. As he wrote in THE REBEL (1951), those who cannot accept God or the evidence of history must live for others who, like themselves, are unable to live fully; they must live for the humiliated. This is the theme running through all of his books, though it becomes more explicit in his later work, his brilliant short novel, THE FALL (1956), and the six short stories in EXILE AND THE KINGDOM.

It is clear that, out of the confusion of the time, Camus was able to formulate for himself a strategy of moral advantage—a series of strategies, rather, which began with the view of the absurd, carried him through the philosophy of revolt, and then uncovered the Greek ideal of measure seen behind his later literary position. These shifts in attitude and insight help to explain the fact that the total body of his writing suggests an area of greater significance...

(The entire section is 1747 words.)