Albert Camus

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Camus, Albert (Vol. 1)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Camus, Albert 1913–1960

Camus, a French existentialist philosopher, novelist, and playwright, is remembered especially for The Stranger, The Myth of Sisyphus, and The Rebel. He won the Nobel Prize in 1957.

It was, of course, Camus who first spotted the significance of [the] new style of nihilism and identified it, in The Stranger, with the pathological apathy of the narrator Meursault—the French were far in advance of the Americans in seeing that the "rebel" was giving way in our day to the "stranger." In … [the] collection of stories called Exile and the Kingdom, Camus [continued] to deal with the predicament of men and women moving dully through an indifferent universe (he is very much a man in quest of solutions, and not at all content with mere diagnosis), but my impression is that he … lost the firm grasp he had on the problem in his earlier work. The decline set in with his … novel, The Fall, a book that seems to me only a mechanical repetition of what he had already accomplished before, and even at their best these new stories have nothing of the clear brilliance and beauty of The Stranger or the thickness of texture that distinguished The Plague….

The source of his power is not in my opinion his superior artistry (indeed, as a craftsman of the novel he is rather poorly endowed by comparison with a dozen lesser writers), but in the very delicate balance he manages to strike between identification with the nihilists he writes about and detachment from them. Reading Camus is like watching a man plunge over a precipice and then grab the edge of the cliff with his nails and hold on by God knows what miraculous instinct to survive. It hardly matters that this instinct is inarticulate, that Camus's solutions (submitting to the knowledge of the predicament, sharing the burdens of the oppressed) are no solutions—or at least nothing more than individual solutions. What matters is that he has looked upon the face of death and lived, that he has visited chaos and returned with the message that all we can do is try to think our way back into a world of meaning, to create a new world of meaning that makes no concession to the bankrupt philosophies of church or state.

Norman Podhoretz, "The New Nihilism and the Novel" (1958), in his Doings and Undoings (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1963, 1964 by Norman Podhoretz), Farrar, Straus, 1964, pp. 159-78.

Camus's creative strength derives not from his ideational faculty but from his capacity for responding sensuously to the variegated beauty of the earth. Like the Algerian people among whom he was born, he appreciates "The glories of our blood and state" as substantial things, not shadows, and therefore looks upon death as the enemy. It is the intrusion of death that transforms the Garden of Eden into a charnel-house of horror, so that the human quest for happiness turns into a curse. The precarious present is all a man can hope to enjoy. Hence the necessity for revolt. The crime of crimes is to resign the self to this intolerable condition, to sink into the morass of routine, even if it is done in the name of duty. There is the dichotomy which is a perpetual source of anguish in man: the craving for life without end is opposed by the knowledge that he is doomed to die….

Camus's early work tried to utilize the myth of the absurd and invest it "with much of the intensity, inevitability and universality of classical tragedy." Death, as in Caligula, is the crowning feature of the absurd. Just as all truth must be uncompromisingly faced, so must one learn to live with the absurd, not by resigning himself to it but by revolting against it. The absurd is thus transformed into a kind of "negative" religion, providing the spiritual basis on which the tragic affirmation can stand….

From the beginning Camus sought to create a form of tragedy in which man would be presented as the doomed victim. His early plays marked an...

(The entire section is 3,210 words.)