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...
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of the absurd and invest it "with much of the intensity, inevitability and universality of classical tragedy." Death, as inCaligula, 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 attempt, earnest though unsuccessful, to shape tragedy out of the knowledge that life is meaningless. The Misunderstanding is, like The Stranger, a representation of the encounter with the absurd. It is not tragic in structure or content simply because the absurd is not tragic. Influenced in his conception of tragedy by the writings of Nietzsche, Camus held that tragedy emerges when two equally strong forces are in conflict. Man must assert his desire for freedom, but he meets the resistance of an external order that is indifferent to his needs, and these conflicting forces cannot possibly be reconciled. The Camus protagonist is, like Kafka's heroes, a victim; the fate meted out to him is one that his mind cannot grasp. In his battle against death, however, he beholds the blinding truth which redeems him from the clutch of illusion….
Camus raised aloft the banner of metaphysical revolt. Art is a protest in the name of life against the immutable decree of death. That is how Camus sought to affirm life and repudiate the nihilism on which his vision of the absurd is based.
Charles I, Glicksberg, "Albert Camus and the Revolt Against the Absurd," in his The Tragic Vision in Twentieth-Century Literature, Southern Illinois University Press, 1963, pp. 51-63.
[Some] have claimed—Sartre is one—that Camus' fiction doesn't really belong in the category of the novel at all, but rather stands in the tradition of the Voltairean moral tale. The postwar American reader, then, read Camus, and still reads him, for largely nonliterary reasons. He reads him not so much for pleasure or delight, but for guidance.
William Hamilton, "The Christian, the Saint, and the Rebel: Albert Camus," in Forms of Extermity in the Modern Novel, edited by Nathan A. Scott, Jr., John Knox Press, 1965, pp. 55-74.
Camus is honest, and his style, his sense of myth, his authentic passion, his ability to become involved in an issue without being dominated by a program, have earned him a hearing: so much so that he has been called "the conscience of a generation". He is indeed a "moralist" in a great tradition, that of La Rochefoucauld, Montaigne, Pascal. What is more, when he was alive he managed to use this gift of insight and of style to very good effect not only in his novels but in the newspapers….
Camus is not a "philosopher of the absurd" in the sense of an advocate of the absurd. The popular image of him shows Camus as one who somehow prefers the absurd, who finds it more interesting, more real, than rationality, and who takes it as the basis for complete freedom from all law: since everything is absurd, do what you like. In actual fact he is at once more exacting and more traditional. He first shows that what seems to be rational in accepted ethical and social systems is in fact irrational and largely meaningless. But the discovery of this meaninglessness calls for a revolt that will replace empty forms with authentically significant acts. Camus opposes to nihilism a certain "human measure" of which the best examples are to be found, he thinks, in the Greek and Mediterranean tradition. Camus is, if anything, a Classic moralist on the stoic pattern rather than an existentialist thinker.
Thomas Merton, "Camus: The Journals of the Plague Years" (© 1967 by the Trustees of the Merton Legacy Trust; reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation), in Sewanee Review, Vol. 75, No. 4, Autumn, 1967, pp. 717-30.
It is questionable whether Camus … will remain for posterity one of the masters of the art of fiction. But few are the French writers who would not prefer the title of 'moralist' to the glory of being a novelist, a dramatist, a philosopher, or even a poet…. Few moderns have as warmly as did Camus, admired those classical moralists of France [who flourished chiefly between the time of Montaigne and Diderot], their wisdom nurtured on the experience of life and directed toward the practice of living…. Camus, however, except in his posthumous Notebooks, did not usually sum up his wisdom in those somewhat bitter pills of disillusion of which authors of maxims are fond. He is a moralist in another sense: in his novels and in his short stories, one senses the presence of a man who is looking for reasons for living, tormented by the concern to lead men to the elusive goal of more happiness; he is obsessed by the need to justify his characters' behavior, indeed to justify literature itself, which he is perpetually calling in question. Little did he care for the elaboration of a system of abstract and logical thought. It is easy to refute each of the intellectual attitudes which he adopted and to take issue with the ambiguity of his positions (on existentialism, on his criminal Christ-figure Meursault, on the sarcastic narrator of La Chute, on the Algerian problem). Any meditation which would not lead to action would hold scant value in his eyes….
The art and the thought of Camus are closely bound up with his life, with circumstances which provoked some statement by a man who was attentive to every event, irked by any contradiction which he judged to be mean or unfair, a journalist of the very highest order and a polemicist in the noblest sense, that is, a loyal adversary of all that struck him as false, base, or nefarious. He was predestined to become a rebel against injustice, a fighter in the ideological and ethical controversies of his age, and first of all by his origins. He was French, doubly so for having risen to culture and to the wielding of a magnificent prose amid many handicaps; and yet he felt alien to much that was narrow, conventional, gloomy, and, as he would say, sunless in the traditions of France….
Camus's natural, or early bent, as evinced in Noces and L'Eté was for a vibrating and romantic prose in the tradition of Chateaubriand and Barrès. He imposed upon himself almost impossible restraints in his novels in order to pare down all that might be superfluous flesh and caressing resonance to his voice. When successful, his style reached a muscular sparseness which is in the truest lineage of the classical moralists. At times, however, its sobriety verges on dryness. The romanticism preliminary to any classical pruning and softening was perhaps not strong enough to be overheard through the novelist's fear of orchestration. The finest pages of writing by Camus are to be found elsewhere than in his three novels and six short stories….
The Stranger is a minor masterpiece of restraint and of effectiveness: but too much is lacking for the protagonist to rise to tragic stature. There is some trickery in the author's stacking all the cards against Meursault and emptying him of will power, of anger, passion, even of psychological substance. The romantic condemnation of a 'bourgeois' society whose judges sentence a murderer too harshly is a little facile. But the young Camus had thus to begin by setting himself against the world as he found it; before he could discover how to change it or how to rethink it, he had to depict it as unsatisfactory. The starting point of any ulterior message had to be found in the solitude and the clear sightedness of Meursault….
La Peste is an allegory, as are many novels of our time…. All that normally makes fiction attractive to readers, imaginative escape, love adventures, seductive women characters, surprise in the invention of incidents, is excluded. Camus felt still too close to the events symbolized in his fiction to relate them and to elicit their moral purport otherwise than with a Jansenist severity and a haughty nobleness. The style of the volume is deliberate and restrained, almost dry. The romantic, perhaps the Spanish, facet of Camus's personality was obscured there. He felt profoundly that the French novel has a special mission, which sets it apart from the other great fictional literatures of Europe. That mission is, thanks to a very limited number of situations, to express and illustrate a certain conception of man. The primary role belongs to intelligence, which rules over the conceptions of such a novel and imposes upon it 'a marvellous economy and a sort of passionate monotony…. To be classical means to repeat oneself and to know how to repeat oneself,' as he put it in his essay of 1943 on 'L'intelligence et l'échafaud.' The texture of the novel strives after monotony. There are hardly any touches of humor, no superfluous adornment, and very few evocations of scenery to appeal to our senses: all takes place in the dullest of provincial cities, with no lurid scenes of horror, which the subject might easily have seemed to call for….
La Chute … is the most complex, and not the least baffling, of the author's three novels. It disappointed those who expected in Camus an evolution toward faith, or at least toward para-Christian ethics. The sarcastic tone and the use of Christian allusions in a spirit of blasphemy … seemed to denote a return to Camus's early nihilism, from which he had emerged with La Peste. 'It is from ironical philosophies that passionate works spring,' Camus had remarked. There is both irony (indeed brilliant wit also, and striking epigrammatic thoughts) in La Chute, and there is passion. As a work of art, this long monologue which recalls Diderot's Le Neveu de Rameau and some of Robert Browning's 'apologies' is even more successful than L'Etranger as a virtuoso feat of writing….
Death cut short the promises of more mature achievement at the very time when Camus was meditating most intensely on the position and duties of a man of letters in the modern world….
Camus is not likely to remain among the supreme novelists or the most gifted of imaginative writers. Fiction to him was a convenient mold in which to elucidate his own conflicting doubts; it was also a medium for judging himself with objectivity while avoiding the dryness which preys upon the abstract thinker or the complacent coiner of moral aphorisms.
Henri Peyre, "Albert Camus: Moralist and Novelist" (© 1967 by Oxford University Press, Inc.; reprinted by permission), in his French Novelists of Today, Oxford University Press-Galaxy, 1967, pp. 308-33.
The literary importance of Albert Camus, and his influence and reputation as a moralist and philosopher, are as great as those of Jean-Paul Sartre. Like Sartre, Camus cannot be considered simply as a novelist; like Sartre, he found expression both in the theatre and in the essay; and like Sartre, he played and still plays the role of a spiritual advisor. His sudden death, at a time when he had just attained the eminence of the Nobel Prize and had so much more to say, crowned his work with a halo of tragedy….
In L'Etranger, Camus borrowed the narrative techniques and to some extent the style of such American novelists as Hemingway. The novelist himself remains objective; he refrains from intervening in the fate of his characters, from using them as mouthpieces for himself and from making explicit their thoughts and feelings. He limits himself to describing the actions and gestures of his hero, Meursault, to noting the phases of his behaviour within the Behaviourist discipline. Meursault does not 'exist'; he merely reacts to the impulses he receives.
Maurice Nadeau, in his The French Novel Since the War, translated by A.M. Sheridan-Smith (reprinted by permission of Grove Press, Inc.; 1967 by Methuen and Co., Ltd.), Methuen, 1967, pp. 83-4 (in the Grove-Evergreen paperbound edition, 1969).
Albert Camus is a thinker …, but he has joined the classic writers (he died prematurely) as a great novelist, not as a great philosopher. Books like The Plague, State of Siege, The Just Assassins are primarily studies of real people and places—they impress as fiction—and only secondarily imaginative expressions of ideas…. An empty universe, man as an absurdity, the necessity for action—these form the central themes of Camus's fiction…. What we admire in Camus, apart from the skill of the novelist, is the courage and honesty with which he tries to attack the nothingness which seems to be the human lot. The human condition is absurd, the universe is indifferent to man; why not then commit suicide? But this is to play into the hands of the enemy; moreover, a suicide is an individual act which may or may not be performed—it cannot be posited as a general philosophical principle. We are left—as in Sartre—with the necessity of being human, which means performing the acts of a human being.
Anthony Burgess, in his The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction (reprinted by permission of W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.; © 1967 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1967, pp. 184-85.
[The] fundamental theme of Camus's writings [is] at once a bitter protest against the injustice of man's position in the universe and an examination of the ethical problems which this implies. Camus, even in his earliest writings, instinctively rejects the amoralistic views that might seem to be the logical consequence of his sense of the absurdity of human existence. From the very outset he is seeking an intellectual foundation of some sort for his deep-seated ethical convictions…. Camus's general attitude toward life resembles that of a Christian who believes in an unchristian God. He has retained the protest, but rejected the consolations of the Christian faith. It is nonetheless a religious attitude toward life. The emotion comes first, the intellectual justification of the emotion second…. Both nature and society, as seen by Camus, are evil; both, certainly, are powerful; and both exact the same sort of sinister idolatry from their victims. It is against this spiritual sanctification of material force, and the ignorance and the illusions on which it thrives, that Camus speaks….
Each one of [Camus's] novels is written in the first person, and each is written in an entirely different style: a sort of linguistic equivalent for the different forms of being depicted in the different novels, which reveals Camus's extraordinary gift for verbal mimicry as well as his talent as a writer.
Germaine Brée and Margaret Otis Guiton, "Albert Camus: The Two Sides of the Coin," in their An Age of Fiction: The French Novel from Gide to Camus, Rutgers University Press (New Brunswick, N.J.), 1968.
Camus's thought did not stop with the Absurd treatise, The Myth of Sisyphus. In the postwar years he moved away from the atomistic view of man (the individual in independent revolt, as in The Stranger) toward an emphasis on human solidarity in the revolt against the irrational (represented as suffering in The Plague). We might say that Camus became "socialized," or at any rate more humanistic, in the modern sense. Although few could accept the Absurd equilibrium as a pattern for living, and although Camus's solution is perhaps too tainted by his own personality to have universal validity, his insight into the basic problems of being human is very keen, and its literary expression is undeniably beautiful.
Robert S. Tate, Jr., "The Concept of Absurd Equilibrium in the Early Essays of Albert Camus," in South Atlantic Quarterly (© 1971 by the Duke University Press), Summer, 1971, pp. 377-85.