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Camus, Albert 1913–1960
The Algerian-born Camus was one of the most distinguished of the French existentialists, contributing seminal works in several genres: novels, plays, and philosophical essays. In his interpretation of existentialism revealed in both The Myth of Sisyphus and The Stranger , Camus attempted to deal with the problem...
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- Critical Essays
Camus, Albert 1913–1960
The Algerian-born Camus was one of the most distinguished of the French existentialists, contributing seminal works in several genres: novels, plays, and philosophical essays. In his interpretation of existentialism revealed in both The Myth of Sisyphus and The Stranger, Camus attempted to deal with the problem of the absurdity of existence, the need for order and understanding in the chaos of existence. This concern remained central to Camus's work throughout his brief career. He was the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, and 4.)
Reduced to its simplest expression, Camus's thought is contained in a single question: What value abides in the eyes of the man condemned to death who refuses the consolation of the supernatural? Camus cannot take his mind off this question. All his characters bring an answer; one has only to listen to them. (p. 92)
Objectivity with Camus does not strive to create an illusion of reality, for it is precisely the real which is being questioned. It strives, rather, to give the sensation of the fragmentation, the incoherence of a world which has, so to speak, lost its nuts and bolts…. [In The Stranger] Camus wanted to show an alienated subjectivity by letting the character depict himself through acts which do not express him. The difficulty was the greater as the récit, by its very nature, supposes a narrator who arranges past events according to the meaning he confers upon them—whereas here, precisely, the meaning is lacking. The narrator has lost the key to his own secret: he has become a stranger to his own life. He holds only facts, and facts are nothing. Therefore, he cannot give his existence a meaning which would establish its unity. Having neither past nor future, he has only a present which is crumbling away and does not become memory. Time, until the final revolt, is nothing for him but a succession of distinct moments, which no Cartesian God pieces together, which no vital impulse spans, which no remembrance transfigures. Camus has rendered admirably this fall of the present into insignificance through a paradoxical use of the first person narrative. The main character gives an account of the facts as they occurred in his life up to the eve of his execution, without the perspective of the immediate past, without extension and without resonance. Nothing is explained, but everything is revealed by the tone and the structure of the work, by the contrast of the two climaxes: the almost involuntary murder, where "the red explosion" of the sun plays a more important role than the man, and which marks the culmination of fatality; the revolt which gives birth to freedom within the confines of a destiny narrowly bounded by death. The art of Camus's récit lies in the subtle use of the processes which take the place of analysis, in the way the discontinuity of existence is emphasized through the continuity of tone which places all events on a single plane of indifference.
And yet, the alienation is far from being complete. A stranger to himself and to others, Meursault has a homeland: sensation. Interiority has, so to speak, emigrated from the soul to the body, and only moments of happy sensation restore a friendly world to the exile. In this sense, Camus's hero is a sort of plebeian brother of Gide's Immoralist who gives to the exaltation of the body the value of a protest against the false seriousness of a morality which finds it can come to terms with injustice. (pp. 92-3)
Camus, like Malraux and Sartre, belongs to a generation which history forced to live in a climate of violent death. At no other time, perhaps, has the idea of death been linked so exclusively to that of a paroxysm of arbitrary cruelty…. Never before had death come to man with the new face now modeled by its millions of slaves. Neither the cult of the dead, nor any belief in glory, nor any faith in eternal life accompany death into this hell. This is the image of death which is woven into every page of Camus's work. (pp. 93-4)
From Caligula to The Plague, Camus covered the same ground as had Malraux from The Conquerors to Man's Fate. Like Malraux, he confronted this problem with the aid of Nietzsche. The drama for this Nietzschean generation was that it lived on Nietzsche's thought and had simultaneously to deal, in actual fact, with its caricatural realization on a practical plane. It exalted the will to power in the individual at the very moment it prepared to fight it outside in the form of imperialism…. Stendhal's Julien Sorel (The Red and the Black) dreams of "distinctions for himself and freedom for all." Though he scorns what he attains—"Is love (war, success) then no more than this?"—the disappointment is partial and does not put into question the value of existence. When, after he has been condemned to death, Julien examines and judges himself, he can absolve himself. He has carried out without flinching the "duty" toward himself which his will to greatness had prompted; this certainly is his absolute. (p. 94)
Compare Meursault's attitude to Julien's as both face death. Just as he had not premeditated his crime, Meursault neither judges it nor assumes it. In contrast, Julien enters wholly into the least of his decisions. "My crime was premeditated," he tells the jury. Meursault neither gambles nor loses; the disconnected time in which he loses his way cannot find consummation in the moment. His entire existence is nothing but a misunderstanding, and it is through a misunderstanding that he eventually gives and suffers death. "I have not lived in isolation on earth," says Julien, "I had the powerful notion of duty … I was not carried away." Meursault is carried away, as his generation was to be carried away into war, by the combined effect of fever and violence. He stands in the blind spot of indifference where everything is equivalent; Julien stands at the summit of a difference which owes its worth to a unique existence. And yet, in front of death, the two meet in a revolt born of their nostalgia for happiness…. But Julien's revolt has a limited purpose: against society it sets up the individual and his sovereign demands. Beyond the social mechanisms which have trapped him, Meursault directs his protest against the human lot. Amid the indifference of a world devoid of God, nothing has any importance or value, except the pure act of living.
To live is enough—there is no humility whatsoever in this assertion. Camus reached it through revolt…. Is there any certainty one can set up in the place of hopes which betray and despair which debilitates? Again Camus answers: to live. Life as passion, challenge, obstinate refusal of all supernatural consolation, amor fati. Here again, Meursault and Julien meet; both think "that there is no destiny above which one cannot rise through contempt." One also sees where they part company: from one obstacle to the next, from one victory to another, Julien conquers his destiny. No sooner has he reached the summit, than he is hurled straight into the abyss. Imprisoned, then condemned, it occurs to him that he might escape, but he does not dwell on the idea. A great individual does not begin his adventure anew, does not consent to repeat himself. Enlightened by his failure, Meursault reaches very different conclusions, and his modern revolt becomes clearly undifferentiated from the romantic revolt of which it is the heir: at the juncture he has reached, Meursault must consider the question of beginning anew. A sure instinct guided Camus when he chose the myth of Sisyphus. He understood with Nietzsche that repetition, starting over again until death, is the supreme test of the absurd. Hence the curious impression The Stranger makes on the reader. A book without hope, or rather against hope, it ends on a promise. (pp. 95-6)
In the trajectory of revolt which links us to the Romantics, Julien is at the highest, Meursault at the lowest point, but at the exact spot where revolt can surge up again. We can see what has been lost during the period that separates Julien from Meursault: the ideal of the Great Personality (today Malraux and Montherlant are the only writers who carry on this tradition). But, if it is true that the great personality contained the germ of its own disintegration, that between Napoleon and Hitler—the frantic puppet who has disappeared under the myths he fanned to a white heat—there exists only the difference between an original and its caricature, one may wonder whether revolt is not a phenomenon of decadence. (p. 96)
"War," wrote Saint-Exupery, "is not an adventure. War is a disease, like typhus." In order better to make us feel this, [in The Plague] Camus painted disease, not war. Consequently, realistic techniques, which, applied to the historical event, would have been laughable, become legitimate and effective. The objectivity with which Camus describes the epidemic is dependent on the same cryptic and non-naturalistic realism he used in The Stranger. Perhaps the use of the term cryptic to define a style which is at times sententious and whose transparency appears without mystery, will seem debatable. The multiplicity of meanings and interpretations it suggests, the deciphering it necessitates, certainly seem to remove it from allegory, which always conceals some precise object. Nothing of the sort in The Plague, where the scourge sometimes designates the event, sometimes the human condition, sometimes sin, sometimes misfortune.
Camus did not attempt to convey the complexity of the events through the technique of simultaneity and juxtaposition of scenes. To the pulverization of time and space he preferred the concentration of a continuous narration which could keep the tone of a testimony. The difficulty lay in taking up, one by one, through symbolic transcription, the themes of life and death during the occupation, starting from both subjectivity and collectivity. Certainly, the theme of the successive manifestations of the scourge is developed in too linear a pattern, and there is something too schematic in the characters, who synthetize the manifold aspects of the ordeal. One should not forget, however, that the real hero is not the I but the we elevated to the dignity of the particular being. Those who went through the ordeal of occupation recognize those situations where, speaking of themselves, they were compelled to say we at a time when each lived the we in an abyss of isolation and exile. The precarious solidarity which had thus linked people as they faced the catastrophe, and which would not out-live this catastrophe, called for a testimony which would rescue it from history and restore it to ethics. This is the task of the poet. Camus answered this call. He tried to describe an experience which had taken place at the level of intersubjectivity, without using either Jules Romains' unanimist technique or an analytical technique. Giving the humiliated we a voice required a form of speech simple enough to reflect the banality of the atrocious, and yet closely knit enough to sustain an insurgent thought. The slightest lack of authenticity would immediately have reduced the we to the they. A poet-moralist and not a novelist-poet, Camus is not gifted with the visionary imagination which creates myths and worlds. He draws a diagram and leaves it up to us to decipher it.
In one respect The Plague seems to us to fall short of the reality it recalls: it has no symbolic equivalent for the humiliation of the suffering inflicted upon man by man. It may seem strange that Camus should have deliberately left aside torture and the demonic attempt to reduce man to the state of a superfluous puppet. But we should not forget that the sentence of death is the central theme of his work. It matters little here whether it is nature, fate, justice, or human cruelty which pronounces the sentence. We know that in his most diabolic inventions man only imitates the tortures of life…. The "collaborator" who accepts and invites the plague is anything but a monster: he is a humbled individual, unhappy rather than despicable, who takes refuge in catastrophe in order to escape fear. Camus's attitude can be understood: by identifying war with the plague, evil with illness, he wanted to present a picture of sin without God; and in this perspective, the partisans of the plague are no longer "possessed," but sick. This leads him dangerously to dissolve individual responsibility in the diffuse guilt of life. "What is the plague?" says one of the characters, "it's life and that's all."… Guides and healers, the stubborn heroes of The Plague remain subjected to the precariousness which binds them to the we, of which they are and want to be a part. In short, attempting to be modest without God, they nurse the supreme ambition of doing without God, without aspiring to become gods. (pp. 98-100)
[In] The Plague, Camus's answer to the fundamental question—What value can withstand the death sentence?—is no longer the same as in The Stranger. For the exiled I whose existence is literally nothing but fall—a fall into the past, into the sin of indifference—the often ignored happiness which wells up with memory, the happiness of being, is the only authentic value. But for the man who starts to struggle, living is not enough. Man regains control of himself in the revolt against death, and henceforth this recovery itself, the good will to begin anew without illusions as to the outcome of the struggle, becomes for him the primary value. To be a man condemned, with and among other men likewise condemned: therein lies our task. For Camus, this is the province of ethics—of the we engaged in a desperate venture, beneath a narrow sky darkened by the plague. But Camus wants to base the common effort on individual freedom. We have already noted that he defines freedom through revolt and lucidity—by means of what limits freedom, since revolt clashes with the irreparable and lucidity with the irrational. It is a strange freedom whose motto is: "as if." It has made so many concessions to necessity that it can only act "as if" it were freedom. Camus knows this only too well and admits it: "What freedom can there be in the fullest sense without assurance of eternity?" He has granted himself the only freedom compatible with the world of the man condemned to death. Does it bring nothing but a semblance? If we examine it more closely, we can recognize it as the freedom of Adam and Eve banished from paradise, at the moment when alone and unprotected they assume the burden of their earthly existence. The mutilated freedom of Adam and Eve after the fall is not devoid of love, since it begets the solidarity of this first we facing a hostile world. If we examine it even more closely, we recognize the frightening present-day freedom with which we face a future that must be created out of nothing. "The individual can do nothing, and yet he can do everything," said Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus. The Plague reaffirms the same thing on the level of the "we." (pp. 100-01)
We do not propose to pit these two ethics against each other. We do not choose an ethic as we choose a coat. It steals in on us, permeates us, and is already within the walls while we are still arguing about it. The de-Christianized ethic is heir to Christianity in more ways than one, if only because it gives primordial importance to the theme of the sentence of death, which is the theme of the Passion. It began with an act of defiance, and it still must bring about the paradoxical fusion of revolt (in time) and acceptance (in eternity). If this ethic implies, as Camus thinks—but does he really think it?—a renunciation of eternity, it would annul itself by destroying the paradox on which it rests. All the contradictions in Camus stem from the fact that he wants to reduce freedom to the liberty of action in history, while seeking to find "freedom in salvation" through history. (p. 101)
Camus made use of two complementary art forms, the récit and the drama. In his récits, Camus successfully fused the tradition of the purest French artists, particularly of Gide, with the influence of Kafka. As for the drama, I detect no teacher save himself. It must be said, however, that he belongs to a time where metaphysical problems assume such a concrete appearance that writers as different as Gabriel Marcel, Sartre and Camus himself, feel the need to resort simultaneously to the discursive and to the dramatic expression of their thought. Camus reserved the theme of the will to power for his theater, and, for his récits, the theme of the struggle of the oppressed to whom violent rebellion is forbidden. Not that violence and revolt are absent from the récits, but they either assume a mask of indifference, or else they give way to the liberating action they stirred up. Since tragedy is by definition the place where a revolted freedom is at work, Camus has turned to tragedy when he wished to treat the problem of the relationships between freedom and revolt, By a kind of predestination, the debate which was personal to Camus coincided exactly with the political tragedy of our time. Inside, outside, the pressure was the same; Camus wrote Caligula and The Misunderstanding both in order to gain control over his own personal situation and in order to resist the pressure of history. His heroes, like Camus himself, experience the common condition as an individual condition, at the point where history and subjectivity collide. They also join the procession of characters who have incarnated the Lucifer myth of the Occident. Sustaining their particular conflicts, we discern the din of a vaster drama which, in the realm of fiction, reproduces the drama of history: the drama of the Great Personality. Its rise and fall, the heights it attains in Stendhal and Dostoevski, the blows it is dealt by Flaubert and Tolstoy, its crises, its resurgence and its ultimate defeat make up a history which lives once more with Camus's rebels. They mime the passion and the agony of individuality; their cry is his cry, their violence prolongs the wave of cruelty which always accompanies the destruction of a great model, be it the Knight, the seventeenth-century "Honnête homme," or the Significant Personality. (p. 102)
Play-acting, as Camus so clearly saw, is by no means an accidental trait [of Caligula's]; it is part of the very being of the tyrant. Insofar as Caligula is not equal to his scheme of total annihilation, and he knows it while not wishing to know it, he is in bad faith and therefore must play for himself and for others the comedy of absolute power. The staccato humor of the scenes of mockery alternates with the impassioned irony of the dialogues in which the ally of death confronts, first the defender of the sacred, then the advocate of reason. The struggle is all the more poignant as Camus turns against himself, being, in a sense, just as much on the side of Caligula as with Scipio, the poet, and Chereas, the wise man who refuses to acquiesce in the sacrilegious disorders of hatred…. The fear and the hatred of Caligula's victims, the breathless anguish of the Killer grow from act to act, until, at last, Caligula succumbs not to the revolt of his mediocre enemies, but to the blows of the two friends he has deemed worthy of delivering him from his fate. As he dies, he has the satisfaction of having driven the reasonable Chereas and Scipio the pure to that same violence which they condemned in him. Vanquished, but not punished, he recognizes his error: he demanded the infinite from that absolute finality which is death. What does he ask for? The impossible, the moon, "something which is mad perhaps, but which is not of this world," and which he cannot make an attribute of his power. Caligula must eradicate from his soul this desire which makes him dependent upon something he cannot put into words. And it is precisely the one thing he cannot do. Therein lies his limitation, therein his paradox….
He externalizes evil in order to liberate himself, and by doing so he clings to necessity and plays into its hands. The externalizing of evil is nothing but a way of shifting the responsibility for original sin on an absent god. (p. 103)
When he equated freedom and revolt, Caligula forgot that it is always within the power of freedom to annihilate itself. To be sure, Camus is right in a sense: evil is outside; Sophocles is right: the gods have run the show. But the opposite is also true, as the myth of original sin recalls: freedom's attempt to destroy itself is consummated within.
Camus's art was never surer of itself than in The Misunderstanding. From an anonymous news clipping dealing with a chance event he drew a pure tragedy of high quality, achieving an architectural style which carries the play out of reality so that the sacrifice played out on stage becomes a kind of poetic celebration. Humanism, left to its own inclination, would easily fall into the "human all too human" if it did not preserve a sense of the sacred in profane tragedy. With The Misunderstanding all that was emphatic and too highly colored in Caligula has disappeared. Only that blending of nostalgia and violence peculiar to all of Camus's rebels remains. His vengeful heroine has a stature, a splendor which make her not unworthy of comparison with Electra…. Thanks to the remarkable power of fusion which allows him to blend contrasts without blurring them, Camus combines an acute romanticism with the completely classic structure of his play. Romantic in its theme of discontent, in its demand for the absolute in earthly happiness, in its apotheosis of the body against a backdrop of absolute pessimism, The Misunderstanding is an austere work which harks back to ancient drama by way of Kafka. Everything begins and ends in an inn, which resembles the inn where Kafka's surveyor "K." appears, as it recalls the palace of Oedipus; all is consummated in the course of a night befogged by the thickening of the misunderstanding. Camus has returned to his themes—the conflict of sainthood and the will to power, of individual happiness and of action—and has narrowed them so as to make them converge on the central issue of the choice. Freedom surges up between chance and fate; nothing external limits it or forces its hand at the moment when it goes astray. It is freedom itself which begets the fate on which it runs aground. Therein lies the tragedy of The Misunderstanding, rather than in the consequences of the choice, however dreadful they be. The dramatic tension which one experiences here as a choking sensation derives less from the horror of the impending murder than from the contrast between the lucidity of the characters with respect to themselves and the blindness they display in their relations with one another. Everything takes place as if their lucidity were their prison. There is almost no sentence in the second act which does not have a different meaning for the one who speaks it and for the one who hears it. The entire play is built on ambiguity: one has to choose in the dark, without being recognized and without being able to make oneself known. Everyone is betrayed by everybody, including himself. Camus saw the heart of the matter: our modern tragedy is the tragedy of ambiguity touching all mankind. But Camus characteristically depicted ambiguity in the guise of misunderstanding rather than bad faith, just as elsewhere he reduces treason to a fear complex, and cruelty to the transgression of a man humiliated by death. All things being equal, his attitude recalls Corneille, always at ease in extreme violence, and whose vocabulary does not include the word for treason. In this light, the heroine of The Misunderstanding is indeed the sister of Corneille's heroines: she has the same tense nobility and the same wilful mind in the madness of her pride. It is not by chance, either, that Camus recreates the pathos of ambiguity, as found in the Greek tragic poets. His conception of evil as diffused guilt and the fatal mistake of a will to power quite naturally recalls the Greeks. But he is faced with a new problem which neither the Greek nor the French classical traditions can help them solve. Individual conflicts tend more and more to become equated with collective conflicts, not in order to lose themselves in the collective, but in order to embody it…. The playwright must therefore simultaneously expand our field of vision and circumscribe the field of drama; he must rebuild a stage which spans the chaos and is ready to receive and transform the creatures which come to it out of chaos. If the poet thinks he can elude history by means of a short cut, he becomes a counterfeiter; if he lets himself be absorbed by history, he becomes superficial. Yet, the duality of his point of departure must lead him to heights where, beyond antagonisms, the tragic poem finds the balance and calm of beauty. Camus almost meets these conditions in The Misunderstanding, a personal drama if ever there was one, but one in which we discern the rumblings of a collective disaster…. What makes The Misunderstanding a classical play, even though it carries romantic recrimination to a paroxysm, is much less its observance of the three unities than the intimate collaboration of the moralist and the poet in its creation. Camus proves, moreover, that the controlled and taut language which his cryptic realism calls for can, if need be, take over the functions of poetry and adapt to the needs of tragedy. We are far from ideological melodrama. (pp. 104-06)
The Misunderstanding ends on an indignant denial, a total denial of God in view of the endlessness of human suffering. And, as always, Camus's outraged awareness of the injustice done to man is so intense that it leads him to an affirmation of the exteriority of evil. Yet, in contrast, Camus shows us the will to deification as logically fulfilled in the deicide, or murder of the Son. In spite of everything, the free individual is still responsible for the alienation of his freedom. Sin without God is nothing but the choice of the wrong freedom.
A Mediterranean romantic in his insatiable longing for the finite, the tangible, for contours which light does not erode and which even night respects, Camus is very close to the Latin elegists in his lyricism, and to the Greek tragic poets in his pathos. He is in his own element with the French classics. A skeptic by temperament, not through philosophic conviction, a skeptic in so far as he is an artist, his lineage goes back to Montaigne and Saint-Evremond. But he is passionate, too, in a serious, virile fashion, and can also claim Corneille and Pascal as his ancestors. Besides, there is nothing he need disavow in order to reconcile within himself the teachings of the classics and those of Kierkegaard, Dostoevski and Chekhov. We have already pointed to the remarkable coexistence in Camus of the gift of fusion and of contradiction. (p. 106)
Rachel Bespaloff, "The World of the Man Condemned to Death," in Esprit (reprinted by permission of Esprit), January, 1950 (and reprinted in Camus: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Germaine Brée, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962, pp. 92-107).
To characterize Camus as a religious-moral philosopher means to say that his preoccupation is with questions of the nature and meaning of men, their hopes, their possibilities, and their destiny. And within this area Camus has established a positive humanism, a religious philosophy which, to many, is the first move toward what has been termed a "new humanism."
What is mandatory is that, if there is to be such a thing as a new humanism, it cannot be developed in isolation from the great religious alternatives which the Western world possesses. This is to say that such a philosophy must be honest and articulate in the reasons it offers for rejecting the claims of Marxism and the Christian faith. Camus has not been remiss in this, inasmuch as a large portion of his philosophical work has entailed a criticism of the Marxist and Christian positions, and this is one reason for the importance of his thought. In this criticism Marxism has been the central and most urgent concern of Camus, and in The Rebel the sections dealing with Marxist theory and prophecy constitute one of the most trenchant critiques of Communist thought and action ever written from the viewpoint of moral philosophy. But, if large sections of Camus's philosophical works are devoted solely to Marxism, this is not the case with the Christian faith. Camus has nowhere, up to the present, dealt at length with Christian theology. But yet all his major works are filled with direct or indirect references to Christianity, and these constant references create the atmosphere in which Camus's positive thought moves. This lack of an extended critique of Christianity is explained by the fact that, although Camus is an anti-Communist, he is not an anti-Christian—he is simply a non-Christian. As such, he has never cut himself off from conversation with Christian thinkers but stands in a relation of tension to Christianity, directing his criticism to the moral effects of this faith without condemning its ultimate sources, even though he does not accept them. And, certainly, this is as it should be, for any Western philosopher who begins with the assumption that the Christian faith is an illusion and hence entirely discredited is suspect of irresponsibility or willful ignorance. Although Marxism is, for Camus, the most urgent problem to which he addresses himself, it is the Christian faith which is the most fundamental issue and the one with which he must most clearly come to terms. (pp. 48-9)
For Camus the first data of religion and morality are the evil and death that are part of the abiding condition of men. Whether or not there be goodness or God is not a primary evidence of human existence—suffering and death are. (p. 50)
Camus understands … that in its best moments the Christian faith is active in its cultivation of beauty and goodness and sustained by a tragic hope in its acceptance of evil and death. And this is the Christian position which Father Paneloux puts forth in his two sermons in the attempt to bring meaning into the plight of a city beaten by the plague. It is true that, following the death of the child, Paneloux's second sermon was more moderate and less certain than the first; but the difference between the two sermons consisted in saying that, if the plague be not the punishment of the sins of the people, it is at least part of the designs of God, so mysterious they may be, and must, in faith, be accepted and finally loved…. Given human evil and death, either God is innocent and men are guilty or else God is guilty and men are innocent. The death of a child poses the alternative of all or nothing for the Christian faith. (pp. 52-3)
Camus raises the cry for a life in which values are found within history and within human action itself and not above or beyond history. He argues that, so long as we live with values which are posited absolutely and transhistorically, we shall not avoid murder. For it is only when one is absolutely certain of his values that the nonexistence of other men is justified. But, if the values of men are posited within the relativities of human history, then no man can with certainty sacrifice the lives of others for this uncertain value. The effort to validate these uncertain values of human existence was the purpose of Camus's most distinguished philosophical work, The Rebel. Against the aspiration for totality, conquest, and perfection in human history, Camus places a history in which men have limits, and knowledge has uncertainties, and values have relativity. To attempt to transform men into the image of an absolute value is not to fulfill them but to murder and deform them. For men are not infinitely plastic; they are not things which can be endlessly molded and changed. They have limits, and to go beyond these limits is only to add to the total of suffering in human history. It is this limit which all men find within themselves and which is shared in common by all men that is the only source of value which men possess. It is the only real value in human existence. And it is when this limit, this value, is transgressed that men revolt. Revolt, alone, is revelatory of human values and, as such, constitutes an essential dimension of human experience. It is on the basis of such an understanding of human value that Camus is able to say [in The Rebel] to a religion of historicity, "Does the end justify the means? This is possibly so. But what will justify the end? To this question, which historical thought leaves hanging, revolt replies: the means."… (pp. 55-6)
It is a curious thing about the thought of Albert Camus that he has not estranged himself from Christian readers. This may possibly be because Christian thinkers have not as yet realized the full import of what he has said about the Christian faith. Whatever the reason may be, it is interesting that, when Christians pick up the works of such a man as Sartre, it is largely with a mind to refute; but, when Christians pick up the works of Camus, it is with a mind to learn. (p. 56)
At first glance, it is a strange and artificial world in which Camus moves, until suddenly the thundering realization comes that this is our world of which he speaks; it is the history which daily moves about us, except that now it has attained a definitive clarity. Camus immerses us as he himself is immersed in the tragedy and tense hopes of the mid-twentieth century; he is, as he says, "a child of his times." This world and the history lying behind it, which Camus has delineated in his philosophical works, is the world that is in turn found in all his literary works…. It is the moral philosophy which underlies these novels and plays that gives them their force and desperation, and it is only in terms of this larger philosophical position that the literary works of Camus can be fully understood. For Camus is first of all a philosopher with serious moral and religious concerns, and all his literary productions serve as functions of these concerns.
We come to understand the thought of Albert Camus only after we have probed the full significance of his optimism about man and his pessimism about human destiny. For this throws us back to the abiding evidence of evil in human existence. For the Christian the ultimate character of the universe is good, and in this he finds his hope and the ability to transcend and accept, to a degree, the evil in the world. But what, at this point, has become clear about the thought of Camus is that for him the ultimate character of the universe is evil and consequently men are always uncertain and always threatened; whatever goodness there be in life, it is in men, and this goodness is created only in the struggle of men to preserve and enlarge this area of goodness which they alone know and which they alone can guarantee. Value and truth lie within men, and it is only by virtue of the contrast which a threatening world presents to men that they become conscious of the salvation which lies within them. However strange this attitude toward the world may seem at first glance, further reflection will show that it is not after all either strange or even novel. Those who have come to know the thought of Sören Kierkegaard will here recognize remarkable similarities in what might be assumed to be quite disparate philosophies. More interesting still is the fact that Camus's attitude at this point is solidary with that of Christian orthodoxy in its depiction of man's life as a "trial." In face of the threatening character of the world, Camus calls men to revolt. And the call to revolt is nothing more or less than a call to create; to transform the inhumanity of the world into the image of man, to humanize what is inhuman—in short, to civilize. This is the "new humanism" put forth by Albert Camus—a humanism whose final and only goal is the uncertain and mortal lives of men, creatures who are not infinitely pliable and suffering but are limited and infinitely precious and must at all costs be defended against those who would judge their lives and history by that which is foreign to their lives and history. But, after all, we ask, what is man? Man, replies Camus, "is that force which always ends by holding off gods and tyrants"…. (pp. 57-8)
Thomas L. Hanna, "Albert Camus and the Christian Faith," in The Journal of Religion (copyright © 1956 by The University of Chicago), October, 1956 (and reprinted in Camus: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Germaine Brée, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962, pp. 48-58).
I do not think that any of the six tales contained in Exile and the Kingdom can be ranked with Albert Camus's most accomplished writings; but no other book by Camus has made me more keenly aware of the profound nature and actual status of his work. The quest, the intensity, the distribution of this work; what it has attempted and still is attempting to do; what new horizons open up before it: all seem to me to be more clearly visible here than anywhere else.
None of these tales are able to strike us, to hold our attention, to inscribe themselves in our memory with the force of The Stranger, The Plague, or even The Fall. The reason for this is evident. All of Camus's previous books carry through to conclusion a particular line of thought, which finds its form in the simplification and enlargement of a mythical image. These extremes of perspective, the massive writing have an imperious eloquence. Here we are brought back to a state of in-betweens, of confusion, to the careful fusing of the characteristics of everyday existence. Even when it is dramatic, this existence is composed of humble, day-to-day details. "The Silent Men," "The Guest," "The Adulterous Woman" are presented as realistic accounts: that is the way things actually happened, and there is always some detail, attesting to the brutish thoughtlessness of reality, which prevents the narrative from disappearing into the pure and inflexible line of myth. There is always some detail which describes an existing situation without any mental reservation. "The Artist at Work" and "The Growing Stone," on the other hand, have somewhat the appearance of fables. In "The Artist at Work" the irony of the narrator is directed visibly toward the narrative, dispelling the dust of insignificant facts. In "The Growing Stone" the tone is that of legend, but there is also amusement in this irony: the pleasure of recounting in a legendary tone. At any rate, it seems to me that these tales are the first in which Camus takes into consideration the actual subject matter of his narrative and dwells upon the details. Whereas previously he had sought the most exact and most simplified coincidence between a thought impulse and a dramatic action, here he is observing, imagining—caught in the web of reality. (pp. 152-53)
The author's impress is not as visible as usual: we no longer entirely recognize his austerity, his haughty abstraction, his willful reduction to bare essentials. The discordancy of tone may be perplexing because legend succeeds parody, interior monologue succeeds behaviorist narrative. Even the value accorded to geographical location is such as to surprise us. The Algeria of The Stranger and of The Plague was scarcely less allegorical than the Holland of The Fall. Here the setting is more than a conventional situation, or an allegorical agreement between space and mind: the Brazilian forest of "The Growing Stone," the North Africa of the other narratives—it is a fact, a reality which attracts to itself a large portion of that attention which had previously been fixed upon the moral and the symbol. (p. 153)
Camus's problem is to relate the unity of artistic expression with a vibrant inner experience, torn apart so that it may live. How can one gather into unity of expression that which escapes all unity? Sometimes in his linear narrative the unity of myth achieves artistic efficacy only by belying the truth of the experience: the roman-hypothèse achieves unity solely because it is false; it has the air of a dangerous abstraction. Sometimes, notably in The Plague, Camus tried to integrate his inner diversity with the unity of a form by composing, in mid-stream, a somewhat disappointing fusion. To go in one direction only, but to its extreme limit—or to bring into balance opposing tendencies: Camus hesitates between Descartes and Gide, between utmost rigor and infinite comprehension. But the true path lies beyond this hesitation. The present work, rather than being entrapped by the author's fame is still in the process of defining itself, of seeking out its rightful place. I have always thought this, and I find a moving and comforting confirmation of this idea in these lines which Camus wrote for an edition of L'Envers et l'endroit (Betwixt and Between): "The day when a balance shall be struck between what I am and what I do; on that day perhaps, I scarcely dare write it, I shall be able to give substance to the work of which I have always dreamed."
The work he dreamed of is not Exile and the Kingdom, but this collection of stories allows him to envision it somewhat better. Exile and the Kingdom and, as I can imagine solely from the nature of the title, L'Envers et l'endroit are faithful to the author's concept of truth because they are based on a constant coming and going, on a particular tempo. The Stranger, The Plague, The Fall all contain effective myths, rigorous thoughts, but because of that unity which is reflected by the single word in their titles, they destroy the rhythmical truth of a life seeking to know itself. (pp. 153-54)
Camus has a passion for the theater; but he does not seem to have the necessary genius. He wrote one theatrical masterpiece: Requiem for a Nun, but only by drawing upon Faulkner. His plays grow weaker as their structure becomes more dramatic. The finest one, Caligula, is simply a monologue. The best of Camus's writings up to the present have not touched upon this element of dialogue which is inherent in Camus. To be more precise, they suppressed or mitigated it; but here, in the succession of stories in Exile and the Kingdom, the tempo which myth destroyed, and which the theater reflected but feebly, imposes its rhythmical beat. (p. 154)
Each of Camus's books conformed to the other because each one brought forth only one word in its title instead of emitting the rhythm of an entire phrase. Thus The Fall corresponded to The Plague as The Plague corresponded to The Stranger. Exile and the Kingdom does not in the least correspond to The Fall; it does not add another segment in the formation of a line; but in contrast to the successes of abstraction, it poses an attempt at completeness….
The Fall fully explores one path, leaving us suspended on the verge of an answer which it cannot possibly give, because to do so it would have to return to the point of departure. Like all the preceding books, The Fall corresponds to a point in progression (which could, as is the case in this instance, assume a regressive pace), while Exile and the Kingdom contains a definite movement. In The Fall there is only an exile without a kingdom. There is no answer to the discovery made by Clamence (good itself is evil)—at least no answer which does not oblige us to start afresh from nothing. Here the answer is always given with the question, the right with the wrong side, the kingdom with the exile.
This book is not based upon a contradiction, and herein lies its success. The exile and the kingdom are not two continents separated by an ocean: they are two aspects of the same breath and heartbeat. The kingdom is in the exile, the exile is a path toward the kingdom—in fact, exile could actually be the kingdom. (p. 155)
In "The Guest," which is perhaps the most effective story in the collection, we see clearly that the conflict is not between solitude and fellowship, or liberty and submission. The hero does not oscillate between two forms of solitude: one, the cruelest of exiles, is a solitude in which the gestures of fraternity turn against us—the solitude of incomprehension; the other, which constitutes the sole portrayal of the kingdom, is the solitude in which we are aware of what we have done, and realize that it was necessary to do what he did. Is this the opposing of two attitudes: building up a good point and tracking down a bad one? Not at all. The book invites us to probe the very pulse of existence—which unfolds, then shuts up tight; reveals itself in a flash of light, then veils itself in obscurity; waxes and then wanes. The moralist who isolates and dissects is succeeded by the poet who puts together and restores the one complex throb of life. (p. 156)
Gaëtan Picon, "Exile and the Kingdom," translated by Josephine Valenza, in Mercure de France (reprinted by permission of the author and Mercure de France), May, 1957 (and reprinted in Camus: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Germaine Brée, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962, pp. 152-56).
So honest a man as Camus is obviously at a disadvantage in so dishonest an institution as the theater. His sincerity has become a legend, but it has prevented him from becoming a successful dramatist…. I can not think of a better application of the term "defect of his virtue"; Camus's strenuous virtue is the key to his plays and to his defective sense of the theater. Explicitly forswearing "psychology, ingenious plot-devices, and spicy situations," he requires that we take him in the full intensity of his earnestness or not at all.
Simple in plot, direct in argument, oratorically eloquent, his dramas are like few other modern plays. They remind us of Gide and of the early Sartre (in No Exit and The Flies), before Sartre mastered the deceptions of politics and of the stage. But even these comparisons are inadequate because Camus differs significantly from his many French contemporaries who have put ancient myths on the modern stage. The others have turned conventional myths—at least their antiquity has made them seem conventional—into instruments of iconoclasm. Obviously stimulated by French neoclassical drama, Cocteau, Giraudoux, and Sartre became the debunking inside-dopesters of ancient mythology; they made Oedipus into a young man on the make, Electra into a rather addled termagant, Zeus into a tyrant. They overturned or exposed the classical stories. But what Camus does is to begin with a sufficiently cynical legend—the history of Caligula or the murder of the prodigal son (the basis of Robert Penn Warren's "Ballad of Billie Potts")—and to dramatize it as forthrightly as possible, with no tricks, no sneers, no "modernization."
Both circumstances and characters are very carefully selected to perform only what the play requires. Nothing is ever thrown in for good measure or for any incidental purpose. We never encounter in these plays the casual bystanders whom a Broadway dramatist might permit to wander in. What characters there are have strict requirements imposed upon them. Camus primarily demands that his protagonists possess freedom, the capacity for exercising free choice. He has to go far to find his free men. His preference sets Camus off from his contemporaries in the theater; some of this difference is implicit in the contrast Eric Bentley once drew between "Strindbergian" and "Ibsensite" actors. The Strindbergian actor is less restrained: "His emotions come right out of him with no interference whatsoever and fly like bullets at the enemy." But Ibsen, not Strindberg, is the father of modern drama, and, consequently, modern stage characters keep their neuroses in check—or at least in balance. Camus's characters tend to be Strindbergian. Some of Strindberg's unbalanced heroes earn their freedom at the expense of their sanity; one of Camus's heroes, Caligula, pays just this price for freedom. Criminal purposes inspire the principal motivation of The Misunderstanding and so liberate the characters from ordinary scruples. The protagonists of The Just Assassins are also on the far side of the law, revolutionaries who have put aside the usual inhibitions and are in the act of measuring their freedom. The most dynamic figure in State of Siege is, like Caligula, in possession of supreme political power and subject to no regulation by sanity. Camus's characters tear right into the issues, and they ignore small details. Just as Lear's "Pray you, undo this button," could not have occurred in Racine, it also would be an unlikely line in Camus. Everyone in these plays is ready for action—or, more often, for argument. Nothing may intervene to distract, irritate, or enchant us, to explain the characters or to provide context for the events.
The characters are free so that they may best contribute to the simple patterns which the plays work out. Of the four plays at hand, two are constructed to the very simplest formulas—The Misunderstanding and The Just Assassins. The former play requires to be read as an equation. The prodigal son returns wealthy and incognito, to be killed by his desperate mother and sister. Most have seen in this play a perfect paradigm of the absurdity of hoping to escape from poverty or exile. Camus has become more optimistic about man's fate, but, in squeezing a new interpretation out of the play, he still, inevitably, reduces it to a formula. It can be reconciled with a relative optimism as to man. For, after all, it amounts to saying that in an unjust or indifferent world man can save himself, and save others, by practicing the most basic sincerity and pronouncing the most appropriate word.
In other words, don't play jokes on Mother. This is what Meursault, of The Stranger, saw in the same story, but even this authority is not conclusive. Surely it is more exact to say that the slightest weakness, the most innocent facetious impulse, will release an absurd and implacable destiny. Still, relatively optimistic or not, the play is flesh fitted to the bare bones of an equation.
Caligula is something else again. It has more life and irony than any of the other plays, and it comes closer than any of the others to a balanced, qualified statement of a complex theme. Caligula compels us to admire his comic talents; in one unconnected episode after another, this tyrant and mass-murderer engages our interest and even our sympathy with his ingenious exposures of patrician banality and the illogic of daily life. In his defense, this engaging monster is permitted to point out that he has caused far fewer casualties than a major war. A successful revolt fortunately reminds us that, all kidding aside, we need to find some compromise between banality and the loss of freedom.
The language of these plays is lofty and pure. It reflects the complaint Camus once lodged against our time: "For the dialogue we have substituted the communique." The dramatist sets out to remedy this situation, but his dialogue tends to become, especially in The Just Assassins and State of Siege, a formal exchange of weighty remarks which too clearly expose the dramatist's designs on us. Hardly anyone else in the modern theater lectures us quite so directly…. Camus addresses us in the most elevated language he can write. The result has its merits as oratory and as dialectic, but it is deficient as drama.
The defect of Camus's plays bring to mind the virtues of his fiction, in which the method of narration always keeps us from colliding too abruptly with his themes and, above all, his ideas. This rationale surely underlies the impersonality of The Stranger and The Plague, as well as the highly subjective narration of The Fall and "The Renegade." The danger of becoming a pamphleteer in fiction must have been clear to Camus and must have compelled him to use technique as a shield for his ideas. But, in his plays, collisions are head-on; except in Caligula, we miss the theater's equivalents for the sophisticated method of his fiction. (pp. 170-72)
Henry Popkin, "Camus As Dramatist," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1959 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Summer, 1959 (and reprinted in Camus: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Germaine Brée, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962, pp. 170-72).
[If Camus] speaks now from the grave, as he does virtually every day, it is usually in this way: to confer some sort of nobility on other men's positions or prose. His reputation seems more and more honorific; his work has been carved up into quotations—a kind of Bartlett's of liberal piety, which now only awaits an edition…. If it is hard to think about Camus any more, it is partly because one has lost sight of the writer inside the statue.
A good way to begin seeing Camus himself again is by reading a new collection of his prose titled Lyrical and Critical Essays. (p. 276)
From the start, as throughout his career, Camus felt more lucidly than he reasoned. His ideas were the home truths of his experience, linked less by logic than by their emotional fit and weighed by their existential consequences. "I have never seen anyone die," as he put it, "for the ontological argument." Just as his theme of the absurd came directly from his life, so did its resolution—the conquering indifference in which he had been raised. (p. 278)
Theodore Solotaroff, "The Young Camus" (1968), in his The Red Hot Vacuum and Other Pieces on Writing in the Sixties (copyright © 1968, 1970 by Theodore Solotaroff; reprinted by permission of Atheneum Publishers, New York), Atheneum, 1970, pp. 276-83.
[One] recognizes the inseparable nature of content and form, idea and expression, in Camus's work. Indeed, the various attacks that have been mounted against Camus in terms of his alleged ideological unsoundness or lack of sufficient political commitment are ultimately irrelevant and based on a fundamental misunderstanding of his nature as a writer. To make such criticisms is to ask not that Camus should be a more honest or more sensitive writer but that he should be a completely different person as man and artist. This is equivalent to taxing Donne with not being Milton or Dostoevsky with not being Tolstoy…. Camus achieved, in his earliest published work, a wholly personal tone, a "lyrisme intense, sec comme le cri des cigales". As regards his desire for unity, this arose from a fundamental dualism—a view of life as rich in oppositions as those of Pascal, Nietzsche, Gide or Montherlant.
"Beyond Contradiction," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), October 12, 1973, p. 1252.
L'Etranger is clearly structured by portrayals of death: there are three deaths portrayed—that of Meursault's mother, which opens the work; that of the Arab, which constitutes the pivotal event of the entire plot; and finally that of Meursault himself, which closes it. Thus, death is not only nearly constantly present in the novel (three times in this very short work), but these deaths constitute by far the most remarkable and dramatic events in the story—partly because all the rest is portrayed with unrelieved drabness, partly because of the special status of these deaths and the exceptional character of their portrayal.
The death of the Mother is particularly traumatic, because the generative function of the Mother is such that her death represents the death of the principle of life itself, of the principle of passage from stasis to movement. The death of the Arab is the death of the Other, which draws its dramatic character from the function of the Other as the primary source of Self-consciousness. And the death of the Other is an image of the death of the Self—it enables the Self to conceive of the inconceivable, namely, the termination of its own existence; the extraordinary nature of this event is reflected in both style and action: the style takes on a quality of lyrical evocation, and action is presented in a slow-motion, ritual fashion which takes us out of the profane dimension and into the sacred. Finally, there is the death of the Self, which involves the death of the narrator and therefore of discourse; it also plays a parallel or antithetical role to the first death—just as the death of the Mother represented the death of birth, so the death of the son represents the birth of death, of a positive state of death into which Meursault leaps with a savage satisfaction. (pp. 183-84)
This consciousness labeled Meursault, whether it is primarily a recording or a creating consciousness, is clearly obsessed with death, and such an obsession is no doubt linked to that death wish (Thanatos) which characterizes all organic life. Portrayals of death may be taken as manifestations of this death wish, and Meursault's discourse is a dreamlike wish fulfillment oriented toward death.
Such a hypothesis throws new light on the central trait of Meursault's character, namely, indifference. Thanatos, Freud tells us, is even more basic than Eros, because "inanimate things existed before living ones";… as a result, at some deeply hidden layer of our subconscious is inscribed the following fatal word: "The aim of all life is death."… Meursault's indifference is a manifestation of the inanimate, and his obsession with death (which is the only event capable of moving him to drama and lyricism) reflects the realization, as strong as it is obscure, that death is indeed the goal and fulfillment of all, life being a temporary aberration which has alienated us from the primal stasis which was perfection. (p. 184)
There is, moreover, a further perspective possible on the theme of death in L'Étranger…. In … setting his fatal (and fateful) action in perspective as an attack on an existing balance, an existing order, Meursault aligns himself with the archetypal figure of the challenger…. [He] must be publicly examined and vilified for challenging the order of things.
What is the nature of this order challenged by Meursault? Let us recall the context of the murder: a broad stretch of dry, sandy beach baking and dazzling in the scorching rays of a pitiless sun; a great rock with shade and a little spring of fresh water; and, between the suffering, sunstruck Meursault and this oasis of calm and refreshment, a dangerous adversary whose very presence challenges his approach. The threat represented by this adversary is such that the Arab represents death—a spirit of death preventing access to the release and happiness of the forbidden spring. What is this boon which death prevents us from attaining? Meursault's very name gives us the clue: through its meaning ("death leap") it makes of him an archetypal representative of the human condition, condemned to make eventually that ineluctable leap into oblivion. The deepest desire of mortal man (indeed, the strongest instinct of all mortal life, human or nonhuman) is to abrogate this fate—in other words, it is immortality, that eternal dream of our finite human nature. (pp. 184-85)
Whereas the principle of Thanatos rejects all activity as aberration and aspires to stasis, the principle of Eros, on the contrary, aspires not merely to activity but to frenzy and reduplication. It finds fulfillment in the generation of Others whose reflecting function satisfies its narcissism; often, it will constitute the Self as its own reflecting Other.
As with the manifestations of Thanatos, we find also in the case of Eros the three aspects and phases of elaboration represented by the Mother, the Other, and the Self. From this point of view, the Mother figures not as embodiment of the principle of generation but as first love object. The Other this time is not the antagonistic Other represented in Thanatos by the Arab, but the complementary Other represented by Marie. The Self manifests love for itself through its identification with nature (as opposed to society) and through the narcissistic character of the parole vide which is its discourse.
But besides these transparent manifestations of Eros there are also overt expressions of Thanatos which perform a second but vital function (at the subliminal level) as covert expressions of Eros. To expose this fully, we need to expose more completely the archetypal substructure of the work.
The perspective which dominates Western literature is that of the single white male. The most common structural principle in narrative constructs is Self/Other, usually expressed in terms of male/female. Usually, but not always—and this is the point relevant to our present concern. (pp. 185-86)
In the case of L'Étranger, the major symbol is the sun, traditional symbol of the male principle. Its heating and drying qualities regularly provoke, through their excess, the usual defensive, contrary reactions of the body: perspiration (which relieves body heat), even tears…. All such forms of dampness or liquid symbolize the female principle. But because of the structuring function of the two key descriptive passages—the funeral … and the killing …—the whole of the work is organized around a system of such symbols arranged in binary opposition: sun/sweat, sand/water, noise/silence, Self/Other. The fundamental unifying antithesis is that between the male or Self principle (represented in sun : sand : noise) and the female or Other principle (sweat : water : silence), the yang and the yin.
While the feeling of otherness in L'Étranger is chiefly the product of a sense of alienation from society as a whole with its arbitrary rationalistic structures, there are two particular human "opposite numbers" for the white male protagonist. One is Marie, the white woman Meursault loves. But in the mythic playing out of the clash of Self (male) versus Other (female) symbols, we find the series leading to a new, less obvious but more significant "opposite number": Self/Other, male/female, sun/[moon], day/night, light/dark, white/black. This second figure is the Arab whom the white man kills: through his racial difference (as the woman through her sexual difference), he is seen by the Self as Other, and through his dark coloring he represents night as against day, a further opposition to the male Self symbolized by day : sun : light: white. This is confirmed by the manner in which the Arab, like the woman, is associated with the female principle through the element of water: the key scene with the Arab … associates him with the spring of fresh water and the pool of shade, opposed to the scorching heat, glare, and dryness of the sunbaked sandy beach.
This archetypal conformation provides a key to the statis structure based on the relationships existing prior to the action of the novel. This action, in my opinion, confirms our hypothesis in a most dramatic manner by translating the suggested static structure into dynamic terms: the action serves to manifest the underlying relationship. (pp. 186-87)
[Let] us recall the fact that the Arab has a knife, and that Meursault's killing of the Arab is partly caused by the fact that, in his sunstruck condition (he uses the terms ivresse, brûlure, feu), he confuses the sharp piercing pain of the sun with that of the Arab's knife. The aggressive and destructive—but also fertilizing—male principle … is symbolized in L'Étranger by the gun, whose report noisily breaks the passive but pregnant silence of the beach. The gun has become a ubiquitous and conventional symbol of male aggression: it represents that essential difference between Self (male) and Other which enables the Self to penetrate the Other, creating a darkly magic moment which brings together nonlife and life (before and after fertilization through intercourse), life and nonlife (before and after death through shooting).
Thanatos, then, can be said to structure L'Étranger: death of the Mother (she who gave life must succumb to death), of the Other (the Arab), of the Self (the latter involving death of discourse). But the principle of Eros is also given a significant role: in the relationships with the Mother (first love object), with the Other (Marie), and with the Self (imaged in nature, as opposed to society, and in the narcissistic discourse of the parole vide). And above all, overt manifestations of Thanatos involve covert manifestations of Eros, a notable example being the killing of the Arab, surrogate Other violated together with the virgin silence of the sunlit beach. (pp. 187-88)
Patrick Brady, "Manifestations of Eros and Thanatos in 'L'Étranger'," in Twentieth Century Literature (copyright 1974, Hofstra University Press), July, 1974, pp. 183-88.
Given Camus' objective in The Plague (to communicate convincingly his understanding of the human condition, and his urgent sense of how one ought to deal with it); given the terms in which he desired to embody his beliefs (the closed plague-ridden city as central metaphor); and given moreover his conception, as posited in the novel itself, of the difficulties besetting communication, then clearly any traditional narrative method would have had important disadvantages. For Camus had to cope with a unique set of paradoxes: to create a narrator who would be a reliable and effective chronicler, and yet not a professional writer; who would be at once objective and subjective, detached and involved, perceptive yet in some ways naïve, exemplary and yet the brother of erring mankind; and who would, nevertheless, emerge as an entirely credible character. The subtlety with which he resolved these difficulties, however, created in turn another paradox: so thoroughly did his art conceal art that the novel's great technical sophistication has not been much recognized. This is to say that the novel has not been fully understood…. [The] narrative techniques of The Plague … [are of a] "functional complexity": Camus' solving of complicated problems by complicated means, which, however roundabout they might seem at first glance, are invariably right to the point. What finally emerges is that, if Rieux wrote a chronicle, Camus wrote a novel; that The Plague is not an existentialist tract in literary dress, but a triumphant artifice. (pp. 428-29)
Edwin Moses, "Functional Complexity: The Narrative Techniques of 'The Plague'," in Modern Fiction Studies (copyright © 1974, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana, U.S.A.), Autumn, 1974, pp. 419-29.
Camus takes [a] step … toward unifying fictional perspective and ridding the novel of its omniscient author in the Sartrean sense by writing L'Étranger in the first person, although it remains predominantly in the past tense. In this work, however, Camus's first person is no less ambiguous than his past tense, so that ambiguities found in both point clearly toward perspective as it is applied in the New Novel. In other words, Camus's "objective" first person and his "present" past tense foreshadow not only the literal confining of perspective to some form of interior monologue, but also the blatant creation and cultivation of the ambiguous perspective adopted by the majority of French novelists after 1950. (p. 59)
Although point of view in L'Étranger is solidly centered within the single protagonist, Meursault, it focuses alternately upon his moi présent, or his narrating presence, and upon his moi passé, or his remembered participation in the past. (p. 60)
Camus manages by adroit manipulation of these two temporal moments to give the impression that events occur as the story progresses, whereas, in actuality, the events recounted have taken place in the past and are narrated as remembered exclusively by Meursault. The narrative tension thus created becomes acutely dramatic in the final chapter when Meursault focuses upon his condemnation and the possibility of escaping it: upon the meeting of past and present for a possible future or upon the reconciliation of past events with present realities which deny him any future whatsoever.
The several ways in which Camus establishes this illusion of an unfolding present are not easily discernible upon an initial reading of L'Étranger. Primarily, Camus's great innovation is to choose a conversational past tense, the passé composé, rather than the traditional literary passé simple. In addition, he adds numerous temporal indicators of the present, or "false presents," to the few true indications of the present, which make a final impact of the complete moment sufficient unto itself. In this respect, Camus clearly exploits Sartre's notion of trompe-l'oeil with regard to time in the novel, even though he originally did so a number of years before Sartre's entire theory appeared in print. As yet unaware of the Sartrean precepts in their entirety, Camus succeeded brilliantly avant la lettre in respecting Sartre's existential bias in his novel. Contrary to Sartre's intent to simplify, however, perspective in L'Étranger is infinitely more complex and ambiguous than in L'Enfance d'un chef, and it seems clear today that Camus willfully rendered it so. Again in this respect, as well as in others, Camus's work serves as a clear transition between Sartre and the New Novel. (pp. 60-1)
Betty T. Rahv, "Ambiguities in 'L'Étranger'," in her From Sartre to the New Novel (copyright © 1974 by Betty T. Rahv), Kennikat Press Corp., 1974, pp. 59-97.
Albert Camus' first novel, A Happy Death,… offers an instructive lesson in the strategies of the imagination. Though shot through with brilliant rays, A Happy Death is a chunky, labored work, cumbersome for all its brevity, so cluttered with false starts and halting intentions that it occludes its own themes…. In the first novel, the author fumbles, trying to pick himself up by too many handles, and growing more handles in the process; in the second [The Stranger], he takes a short but decisive side-step, becomes less himself, and with this achieved narrowness penetrates to the heart of his raison d'écrire.
The youthful Camus evidently had many attributes of a normal Algerian working-class lout. He liked soccer, girls, beachbumming, moviegoing, and idleness. He had decided, one feels, to cherish the image of himself as a citizen of the Belcourt slums…. The Camus whose gifts for reflection and self-improvement were early recognized and nurtured by a grade-school teacher, the Camus who entered the lycée at the age of ten, who studied philosophy at the University of Algiers from 1932 to 1936, who by the age of twenty-five was a working, travelling, published intellectual and the mastermind of a theatre group—this Camus figures little in the early essays or in the character of Mersault. Mersault, though his consciousness is brushed by philosophical speculation, confesses no ambition for his future and almost never reflects on his past.
By any standards, Camus' upbringing had been bleak. His father, an agricultural laborer, was killed in the Battle of the Marne ten months after Albert was born. His mother, a Spaniard, took the infant and his older brother Lucien from the village of Mondovi to the poor district of Algiers, where she became a cleaning woman. Camus was raised in a ménage that included his mother, a partially paralyzed uncle, and a domineering grandmother. These three adults were all illiterate and, in various ways, ill. The grandmother eventually died of cancer of the liver…. His mother, he wrote, "could think only with difficulty"; deafness, a speech impediment, and a docile temper combined to enforce a habit of silence. Camus once described his literary career as the attempt to speak for the "silent mother"—the inarticulate and disenfranchised of society…. Death for a father, silence for a mother: with such a parentage, Camus would never become a fluent or frivolous creator. At the moment of beginning his first novel, what, indeed, was his artistic treasure? A good education, a normal sensuality, a fond ear for working-class dialect, a rapturous sensitivity to nature, a conviction that paganism was being reborn around him in Europeanized North Africa…. Two events in his early maturity urged him toward energetic use of his capabilities: in 1930 he nearly died of tuberculosis, and in 1934 he joined the Communist Party. Yet always, in the heart of this young man, coexistent with the desire to celebrate and explicate, lay an unshakable lassitude and a blankness…. Around this natural infirmity, then, the novice artist must shape his strategies—no, not around it; he must point himself into it, for this silence is his message.
The first sketch, in the Notebooks, for the novel that is to become A Happy Death outlines, with an excessively formal scheme of alternation between past and present tense, what appears to be a story about love and jealousy among students, ending with the hero's death by disease…. Violent death does not figure in this first version, though the hero (called simply Patrice) does tell "his story of the man sentenced to death." The italicization of "happy" signals an arrival; a month later (September of 1937), the title "La Mort Heureuse" appears. That fall, the character of "an invalid—both legs amputated" begins to talk in the notes, and before the end of the year he has his curious name, Zagreus. To this new character adheres the old "theme of the revolver." (pp. 279-83)
Patrice Mersault, a poor young man, makes the acquaintance, through a mistress, of a legless invalid, Roland Zagreus, who shows him one day a safe full of money, a loaded revolver, and an undated suicide note. Some days later (in a chapter Camus transposed to the beginning of the novel), Mersault visits Zagreus, takes up the revolver, kills the cripple with it, leaves the suicide note on a table, and departs with the money. Walking away from this perfect crime, he sneezes, and the remainder of the novel traces his wandering, through a variety of countries and romantic entanglements, toward his own death, of pleurisy, chills, fever, and weak heart—a somewhat poetic syndrome. Assembled rather than conceived, the story has too many duplicating parts—too many women, too many deaths, too many meditative approaches to the lyrical riddle of "happiness." Simple problems of clarity exist. Has Zagreus deliberately invited Mersault to murder him? Why, when Mersault holds the gun to his head, doesn't Zagreus gesture or speak? "When he felt the barrel against his right temple, he did not turn away. But Patrice, watching him, saw his eyes fill with tears." These tears are given meaning not by the context but by an entry in the notebooks: "The man who doesn't want this easy way out, and who wants to chew over and taste all his fear. He dies without a word, his eyes full of tears." The murder is so abruptly rendered as to seem merely sensational. Nor do its consequences easily flow: after the murder and the theft, Mersault does not live like a rich man; he travels thriftily in Europe and loafs among friends. None of his pleasures are beyond the financial reach of Camus himself at this impoverished stage of his life. Mersault never becomes the proposed hero "who devotes himself completely to the acquisition of money"; money never becomes an embodied theme.
Since A Happy Death arrives now with an excellent critical afterword by Jean Sarocchi, and since Camus suppressed the work, why belabor its weaknesses? Only to marvel at how its materials and concerns reëmerge in The Stranger, transformed by their new position within a unified action. (pp. 283-84)
Of himself, Camus wrote, in a youthful essay, "And yet, at the very moment that the world was crumbling, he was alive." A few sentences further: "Every time it seems to me that I've grasped the deep meaning of the world, it is its simplicity that always overwhelms me. My mother, that evening, and its strange indifference." Indifference, life, simplicity, the sun, death: the concepts link up, make a circle. "There is no love of life without despair of life," an essay affirms. Love, despair, silence, mother, nature. (pp. 285-86)
But A Happy Death, with its half-hearted autobiography, too numerous romances, static scenery-painting, and ingenuous melodrama, could not focus [his] anti-theology. The images that could, however, already lay in Camus' notebook. One of the entries for January of 1936 lists six story ideas; two are "Death of the mother" and "The story of the condemned man." These two preoccupations figure marginally in much of Camus' youthful production; with The Stranger, for the first time he invents them, in the freedom of fantasy. By proposing a young man who could not shed tears at his mother's funeral and went to the movies instead of mourning, and by rendering her pauper's funeral and his daily life in the full dry light of their absurd inconsequence, Camus placed his hidden theme of blankness where no reader could avoid being challenged by it. Though of course derived from observation (impressions of a funeral occur in the notebooks, and his grandmother's death had already provided matter for an essay), the central circumstance is imagined; Camus' mother, in fact, outlived him. His essays show how deeply he loved her. But by killing her in his mind, he unlocked an essential self. Meursault the essential orphan, in all his "simplicity" and estrangement, this cool monster who is Everyman, with his casual, androgynous voice that would blow down all our castles of Christian decency and conventional delusion. And by making this hero's condemnation to death literal and legal, instead of an attenuated wasting by disease, Camus immensely heightens the pressure. He is forced, observe, by these inventions to conjure up two blank-walled interiors—the old people's home and the jail—that crystallize Nada better than the open landscapes he so loved to describe. And the necessary characters of the warden and the chaplain, with their tragicomic eloquence, lead his book into a dimension undeveloped in A Happy Death—the dimension of the political. Society acquires spokesmen, and in debate Meursault turns singular, heroic, revolutionary. The fussed-over irrelevancies of A Happy Death fall away. The new novel pours smooth and hot from start to finish.
Fiction must hold in healthily tense combination the mimetic and pedagogic impulses. Perhaps because kind teachers had guided his rise from poverty, Camus respected pedagogy, wished always to make things formal and clear, liked stories to have morals. He sometimes reminds us of a schoolteacher standing before us insisting that though there is no headmaster and no grading system and scarcely any blackboard, we must stay at our desks, learning virtue and happiness with the diligence of saints. We must, in short, love our mother—"The earth! … that great temple deserted by the gods"—even though she is silent. After The Stranger and The Plague, Camus' fiction shows more intellectual will than vital, involuntary substance. The Fall and the short stories of Exile and the Kingdom seem relatively stiff and diagrammatic. The poet stoops in his prophet's robes. A Happy Death shows the other extremity of this curve—the beginning. when artistry and philosophy struggled with an abundance of live impressions; the prophet had not yet been robed, the young man stood naked. (pp. 286-87)
John Updike, "In Praise of the Blind, Black God," in his Picked-Up Pieces (copyright © 1975 by John Updike; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf, 1975, pp. 279-87.
In the fiction of Albert Camus, man is constantly portrayed as seeking design in a universe that appears to be chaotic. Trapped in a world that is indifferent and at times even hostile to human concerns, man attempts to create an order in which he is in harmony with his surroundings. In "La Pierre qui pousse," the concluding story of L'Exil et le Royaume, Camus reveals the fashion in which man creates the fraternal accord necessary to lead a fulfilled existence. Through the force of human fellowship, d'Arrast, the hero of the story, asserts his membership in the circle of human existence and creates a place of identity for himself in the universe. (p. 321)
D'Arrast, a French engineer, has been sent to Iguape, Brazil, where he is to oversee the project of damming a river which periodically floods the native settlements that lie along its banks. The countryside that surrounds Iguape appears to d'Arrast to be without pattern. This circumstance is aptly revealed in Camus' description of the landscape through which d'Arrast passes on his way to Iguape. The river across which he is ferried is a symbol of chaos and horror. [Claire adds in a footnote: The river might also be considered a symbol of death if one treats the reference to the ferry and the river as allusions to the ferryman Charon and the river Acheron of the Greek mythological underworld. The people of Iguape are in a sterile and deathlike condition before the arrival of d'Arrast; hence, it is fitting that the river which surrounds them should be associated with the tenebrous overtones of the river of death.]… [The river waters] are emblematic of the chaotic character of the universe in which d'Arrast finds himself…. Water in "La Pierre qui pousse" serves as a concrete, sensuous symbol of a universe that is not only indifferent to man, but also, at times, threatening…. Each year these waters inundate the clearings that border them, bringing misery and depravation to the inhabitants of the region. In this capacity, they embody the violent and unbridled forces of nature that submit man to their capricious control. Exposed to their all-encompassing power of destruction, man becomes nothing more than an object of prey, stripped of his identity as an entity unique from the other objects of nature.
The forest through which d'Arrast must make his way is a further symbolic representation of the chaotic forces which threaten man. Like the waters of the river, the forest is characterized by an unpatterned obscurity…. The chaotic character of the forest is reflected in the labyrinthine roads that d'Arrast must penetrate in order to arrive at Iguape. Irrational forces predominate in this world to such an extent that the forest becomes little more than an extension of the river, another aspect of the undistinguishable forces which make man's position in the cosmos uncertain…. The ambiguous nature of the universe is further associated with the image of the sky, which is little more than a viscuous extension of the murkiness of the water and the forest…. As beacons of light, traditional symbols of certitude and absolute values, they are no longer capable of giving man direction, for they, too, are blurred by the same forces of inscrutability and incertitude which preside over the forest and the river.
Located in a landscape characterized by obscurity, man's position in the universe is depicted in the opening pages of "La Pierre qui pousse" as being like that of a blind man…. Man decreases in stature as the universe looms large. Even the work of construction which he has performed in the forest does not suffice to make his cities essentially different from the forest…. The settlement of Iguape and the men who inhabit it seem to have no individual identity capable of making them unique from the forces of nature that surround them.
The descriptions of the individuals whom d'Arrast encounters reflect this lack of human identity. A sense of chaos pervades the description of these people. The colony of Registro is inhabited by a group of Japanese immigrants. The village of Iguape itself is composed of many different types of people—gauchos, Japanese, Indians, half-breeds, and a handful of government officials of European descent. The languages that these people speak are similarly disparate: French, Spanish, Portugese, and various native dialects. There is no pattern which serves to give these people a particular identity as humans. Rather, they are viewed from a detached vantage point, as though they were beasts rather than men. (pp. 321-23)
The dehumanized quality of the inhabitants of Iguape is most strikingly revealed in their attitude toward religion. This religion is nominally Christian, yet it contains much that is redolent of bestial, primitive rites. (p. 323)
Realizing that a religion that permits human deprivation to exist in the present moment in anticipation of future reward is unworthy of man's fealty, d'Arrast has abandoned the Christian faith. He is representative of a European order wherein the absolute rule of Christ, the Lord, has already been destroyed…. Deprived of the right to act on his own, man is rendered immobile in a universe that threatens him. The term immobile itself recurs with significant frequency in the story, serving almost as an incantation urging d'Arrast to act in such a way as to remove from the people of Iguape the burden imposed upon them by their religion. (p. 324)
Although the natives disgust d'Arrast in their candid bestiality, they also possess a health and vigor which makes them attractive. D'Arrast's ambivalent attitude toward them is consummately reflected in the image of the Diane Noire, the female huntress who presides over the last phase of the ritual that d'Arrast is permitted to see. The embodiment of a Greek goddess, arrayed in a harlequin-like costume of motley color scheme, she is a symbol of the concept of Greek moderation gone awry as man becomes one with the forces of nature…. These people embody man's innocence to such a degree that although d'Arrast may become ill at the sight of their lack of moderation, he cannot prevent himself from loving them. It is ultimately through asserting his fraternity with these people that d'Arrast will create a new order for himself and for the people of Iguape, bringing unity to an ununified world. (p. 325)
In serving as a force of mediation, enabling man to create a new, human-oriented order, d'Arrast assumes the characteristics of a religious savior. His role as messiah is appropriately elaborated by the rich Christian imagery which permeates "La Pierre qui pousse." This imagery is for the most part drawn from events which occurred in the life of Christ. (p. 327)
In examining the wealth of Christian imagery in "La Pierre qui pousse," it is essential to note the distinction between d'Arrast and the Christ of the Christian tradition as seen by Camus: unlike Christ, who became an institutionalized figure preaching salvation through faith in the future, d'Arrast opens the way for the people of Iguape to find fulfillment in their present circumstances by teaching them that man must be directly responsible for his actions. (That d'Arrast halts the futuristic projection of salvation is indicated by the fact that his watch stops running on the day of the religious procession.)
Inasmuch as it is ultimately humanity and not divinity which he represents, it is but fitting that d'Arrast should bear parallel resemblances to non-divine figures in Christian mythology. Thus, he resembles St. Peter, for he is given three opportunities whereby he can deny that which is most sacred to him—human fraternity…. On the third occasion, when the cook needs his help …, however, d'Arrast does not deny the bond of fraternity that beckons him. Rather, like another religious figure, Simon of Cyrene, he helps the cook to bear his cross. Finally, like St. George, whose spirit pervades the action of "La Pierre qui pousse," he encounters the forces of chaos which threaten man and helps to inaugurate a new order.
D'Arrast's response in combatting the forces of chaos is one that is as much intuitive as it is intellectual…. The forces of chaos no longer threaten d'Arrast, for having assumed responsibility for his action, he is no longer without identity.
Having discovered his human identity, d'Arrast is no longer in exile. His kingdom is that of human fellowship…. "La Pierre qui pousse" thus concludes L'Exil et le Royaume on an affirmative note. The silent solitude of the opening pages of the story is contrasted with the [concluding] sense of communication and comradeship…. (pp. 327-29)
Thomas Claire, "Landscape and Religious Imagery in Camus' 'La Pierre Qui Pousse'," in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1976 by Newberry College), Summer, 1976, pp. 321-29.
There seems no good reason why [Youthful Writings] should have been published. Of its two hundred and fifty-six short pages of text, ninety-nine are devoted to an introduction in which Paul Viallaneix summarises the seventeen brief specimens of Camus's youthful writings which it contains, and makes a perfunctory attempt to relate them to the circumstances of Camus's upbringing and to the themes of L'Etranger and Caligula….
The specimens of Camus's early writing cover the years 1932–1934, when he was aged nineteen to twenty-one. Antedating by five years the appearance of Le Mythe de Sisyphe, the first of his major works, they show little promise of the writer that he was to become. There is evidence of his youthful study of philosophy in his praise of Bergson, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and in an unconvincing attempt to represent the art of music as making contact with a world of Platonic Ideas. He pays tribute to Verlaine and to the largely forgotten Jehan Rictus for his Soliloques du Pauvre. Under the heading 'Intuitions' there are sixteen pages of 'reveries born of a great lassitude' which are intended to 'record the desire of a too mystical soul, in search of an object for its fervour and its faith'. There are faint touches in them of the irony but little of the logical discipline that was to distinguish Le Mythe de Sisyphe.
The best passages are those in which Camus expresses his love for the local Algerian Scene. Unfortunately, his prose being at its most poetic, they are also the passages that pose the greatest problems for his translator….
Now that the study of contemporary literature has become an academic subject, there will be scholars who cherish every scrap of writing by those who have any claim to literary eminence. Camus's own reputation as an essayist, a playwright and a novelist is deservedly secure and the publication in English of these juvenilia will do it no harm. It will, however, be of interest only to his academic devotees who could, presumably, have been trusted to find their own way to the original texts. (p. 13)
A. J. Ayer, "Camus's Juvenilia," in Books and Bookmen (© copyright A. J. Ayer 1977; reprinted with permission), March, 1977, p. 13.