Camus, Albert 1913–1960
Camus, an Algerian-born novelist, dramatist, and essayist, had a profound influence on modern philosophy, particularly on existential thought. His philosophic and literary concerns revolve around the question of the nature and meaning of existence. Camus's conception of the human condition is predicated upon the constants of evil and death. Rejecting religion for reason, Camus concluded that the universe was itself irrational. It was individual action and the power of the individual will that provided life with a value and purpose for Camus. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 9.)
On the whole, it can be said that Camus is the great writer American literature has waited for and who never came. The generation of Faulkner, Dos Passos, and Hemingway already belongs to the past and to history. Its value is one of example and no longer of witness. It so happens that the succession is vacant. There are a hundred authors not wanting in talent, but there is no writer who attacks the problems of our time in depth. If happy peoples can be said to have no history, perhaps prosperous peoples have no literature. (p. 17)
Through the allegorical turn of his mind, through his effort to confine himself to the universal, through his wish to give meaning solely at the level of the human condition, Camus offered in his novels an image of man bare and free enough of the particularities of nationality or history to be immediately accessible. Sartre, on the other hand, whose intellectual and personal approach is so deeply rooted in one moment of both pre- and postwar French consciousness—or "bad conscience"—intrigues, irritates, or fascinates Americans. In general, he remains fundamentally foreign to them. Camus, however, presents through literature what is for the Anglo-Saxon mind often the essential thing: an ethic. And this ethic finds fruitful soil here in America. I would not say that Americans are always sensitive to what is deepest in Camus's thought: the sense of a tangible, vital participation in life that one might call "the solar joy." What they like most is the Old Man and the Sea aspect of Camus, the concern he shares with Hemingway or Melville for man's struggle within the universe and against it. Camus continues and expounds a humanistic ethic that stresses effort more than success, and that unwittingly nourishes the ascetic spirit still alive in America in spite of the cult of success and well-being.
But even more, Camus's sense of the tragic goes to the heart of the American situation. In the polemic debate which separated them, Sartre reproached the author of The Plague for making the struggle against Heaven the central theme of human activity, for translating the "ideal" situation of occupied France's fight against Nazism into the Manichaean vision of a Humanity aligned together against absolute Evil. Sartre argued that this was a betrayal of the true conditions of man's struggle to make an ideal of humanity triumph. Now—and this is striking—the allegory of the plague retains all its force within the American context, where it seems to find a natural setting. In American society there are no class conflicts; racial conflicts never for an instant put the social structure in doubt; and nothing basic separates either political parties or spiritual group. In the final analysis, because the collective organism is confronted neither with internal dissidence nor really harrowing problems, men of good will automatically find themselves united in the face of evil…. [It is] the medical element in Camus that is most acutely felt [in The Plague ]; the courage which rises above ultimate and inevitable failure, the day-to-day love for men as they are, and a certain confidence in man, in spite of faults which are never moral defects. Here, in short, is an ethics rigorously separated from politics, or, if you prefer, inseparable from the sort of politics that can be reduced to...
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