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...
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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 ethics. Camus's humanism is the spiritual face of American democracy.
It is true that if for Camus the human struggle can only end in provisional victories that will ceaselessly be questioned, American optimism tends rather to envisage a progress that is slow perhaps, but sure—a unilateral advance, in spite of retreats or pauses. At first glance one might see in this remark a conflict between two points of view. This would be to misunderstand the writer's role in America. The best American writers have attempted to give body and a voice precisely to those tragic elements that society officially wishes to ignore, but that survive in the unspoken consciousness of many. Hemingway and Faulkner spoke out for those who keep silent. So does Camus in our own day…. I would venture to say that it is not in spite of his atheistic humanism, but because of it, that Camus is so popular here. Here at last is someone who has expressed in black and white the secular ethics which is at the heart of this American civilization, where piety is most often merely a pious fraud. (pp. 17-19)
Serge Doubrovsky, "Camus et I'Amérique," in Nouvelle Revue Française (reprinted by permission of the author and Nouvelle Revue Française), February 1, 1961 (translated by Ellen Conroy Kennedy and reprinted as "Camus in America" in Camus: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Germaine Brée, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962, pp. 16-19).
Camus's rapid rise to celebrity between 1942 and 1945 is unparalleled in the history of French literature: The Stranger, The Myth of Sisyphus, the two plays Caligula and The Misunderstanding, together with Camus's role in the Resistance and the widespread interest in his Combat editorials, started his career in meteoric fashion. This sudden fame was not easy for the young writer, and there were many in the clannish and often supercilious world of Paris letters who, as long as he lived, reproached Camus for something he had neither sought nor wanted. (p. 4)
Camus never allowed himself to forget that he had once been a lonely child, defenseless against himself and against a paradoxical and often shockingly brutal world. This early unhappiness was the source of much of his strength and even, sometimes, of his inflexibility.
Another of the motivating forces behind both Camus's actions and his work was a violent and apparently never resolved struggle of opposing character traits. Like his Caligula, Camus had a drive toward self-affirmation, which, unchecked, might have turned into a cruel form of self-indulgence that he seemed to identify with the amorality, indifference, and serenity of the cosmos. But Camus also had a passionate need for self-denial, for a kind of effacement within the "world of poverty" that was his as a child. Each one of these powerful inner forces could have led to forms of self-destruction, which the act of writing seems to have held in check. The climate of Camus's work is inseparable from his struggles to maintain a sane equilibrium. At all times Camus refused the romantic delectation of thinking of himself as an individual apart from all others, marked by fate for a singular career. (p. 5)
[The] silent uncomplaining figure of his deaf mother seems to have created in the child an overwhelming sense of compassion, all the harder to bear because of his helplessness. She was the inspiration for one of the essential figures in many of his later plays and novels and suggested a fundamental symbol: the silent mother, the land of Africa, the earth, death.
The silence that both separated and united the mother and son, born as much of her endless labor as of her deafness, was later to influence the young writer's thought deeply concerning the problems of communication and expression. He was often to define the writer's "commitment" as the obligation to speak for those who are silent, either because, like his mother, they are unused to the manipulation of words, or because they are silenced by various forms of oppression…. A major source of Camus's work, which from the very start carried it beyond the frontiers of social satire or recrimination, is Camus's understanding of and sensitivity to that part of all lives which is spent in solitude and silence. He, too, struggled with that almost intolerable compassion which rings in the words of his youthful Caligula: "Men die and they are not happy." It was from this depth of compassion that Camus drew a sense of solidarity with human beings so profound that he could accept them in their fundamental nudity—an acceptance certain doctors come to experience, such as Camus's Dr. Rieux in The Plague.
To this basic experience of sadness, Africa added an experience of joy. No one has spoken of the glory of the Mediterranean landscape better than Camus. As a boy he roamed over its beaches and hills. The landscape of North Africa appears in all his writing, carrying with it the sense of freedom and life through his essential symbols: the sun, the sea, and many different sorts of light. "There is a solitude in poverty" he wrote, "but a solitude which gives its proper rank to all things. At a certain level of wealth the sky itself and a night full of stars seem natural possessions. But at the bottom of the ladder the sky takes on all its meaning: a grace without price."
To lose either the sense of one's human vulnerability and therefore solidarity with others, or the sense of one's participation in the grandeur of the cosmos is in Camus's language to move into the "desert" of exile. One can accept a drastic simplification which Camus himself made when he said that he was born in a country—North Africa—which, unlike Europe, taught no lesson other than that "there is on the one hand man, in his essential poverty and vulnerability; on the other, the glory of the cosmos in which he moves." (pp. 5-6)
Young Camus, rather like his character Meursault in The Stranger, seems to have had an infinite capacity for living fully in the sensuous plenitude of each passing minute. If death is the essential discovery and the beginning of lucidity in Camus's first works, this awareness seems to be due partly to his confrontation with a problem he might not otherwise have envisaged in the same way. His reaction was first one of revulsion, then of refusal and of a passionate commitment to fight this personal form of "the plague."
The word "revolt" is not used by Camus in any generally accepted sense, and that is where the arguments and admonishments of some of his more highly abstract commentators have failed to reckon with Camus's meaning. His revolt is not directed against the romantic aspiration to transcend and destroy the limitations of the human being. It is directed against all that conspires to lessen any man's capacity for functioning with the greatest chance for happiness within these limitations. The enemies Camus detected and relentlessly fought were all the forces that stifle human beings—another of his basic symbols—whether these forces be mental, individual, or institutional; stemming from somnolence, insensitivity, or the myriad ideologies and systems, the complacent "godless theologies," of our time.
It is in this very personal context, rather than in abstract intellectual formulas, that one must seek the genesis of Camus's work and its freshness. The full flavor of the personality, sensitivity, and imagination of the man has often been lost in unnecessarily complex analyses. If, as seems likely, The Stranger continues to be one of the significant works in twentieth-century literature, it is not merely because of the new qualities of tone and energy in the writing. (pp. 6-7)
He was never hampered by the grinding and obsessive sense of limitation and guilt that Sartre seems to feel as a "petit-bourgeois" in the era of "the Masses."… Sartre settles with his conscience through speech and writing, whereas Camus took positions and acted directly in the political issues of concern to him, whether with or against the point of view prevalent in his entourage. The football player and lightweight boxing champion of Algiers that he had once been never mistook a battle of words for a real battle with all the physical risks, violence, and dangers it involved. Both what he had to say and the way he said it stood out with startling distinctness against the complex and often nebulous background of a literature richer at that time in literary savoir-faire than in authentic literary creativeness. (pp. 7-8)
His natural Mediterranean flair for drama and mystification found an outlet in his passion for the theater—all facets of the theater…. A feeling of the stage, of the voice speaking directly to an audience, of dialogue projected across the footlights to link audience and actor is present everywhere in his work. Camus was immensely sensitive to the quality of the human voice. It is one of his major tools of creation and establishes with the reader a certain carefully calculated rapport. Whatever the work, there is always a dialogue implicit in Camus's fictional universe: between himself and his main characters; between them and the reader; between the reader and the author. He and his characters address themselves to an audience.
Camus's unusual capacity for "dead-pan" impersonation, satire, and hoax is one of the highroads to the understanding of the peculiar, paradoxical form of imagination most obviously at work in The Stranger, Caligula, and The Fall…. [His] playfulness and sometimes grim irony have no small part in the genesis of much of Camus's early work and in his favorite method of fictional creation: impersonation. Of The Fall Camus explicitly said, "Here I used techniques of the theater, the dramatic monologue and the implied dialogue, in order to describe a tragic comedian." Perhaps The Stranger and The Fall prove so disturbing to many readers precisely because they are … deliberately intended to disrupt the reader's tranquility…. [Few] critics have remarked upon the ferocious humor everywhere evident in Caligula and the more apparent but even more devastating humor pervading The Fall. Some of the confusion concerning Camus's ideas arises from a tendency to equate them with the points of view of his fictional characters. A dramatic monologue, obviously, is not the same thing as a personal confession. The aesthetic intents in these two forms of writing are basically opposed. Clamence, the Satanic impersonator, is Albert Camus's creation, only ironically his mouthpiece, and never Albert Camus himself. In a sense Clamence is a very modern version of Diderot's Rameau's Nephew, although no "philosopher," unless it be the reader himself, is there to maintain the dialogue. Camus asks a great deal of his reader. (pp. 8-9)
Germaine Brée, in her introduction to Camus: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Germaine Brée (copyright © 1962 by Prentice-Hall, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey), Prentice-Hall, 1962, pp. 1-10.
It is customary to think of Camus as the great apostle of life in this century, and to view his work as testimony to the acceptability, indeed the worthiness of the human condition. It is equally routine to regard Beckett as an exploiter of nihilism, and to brand his literary output as cadaveric, as one denoting a paralyzed, indeed a corpsed universe. Their concept of suicide, however,… precludes such simple conclusions and points instead to an unsuspected rapport between the two writers….
In Camus the persona discovered one of its most subtle and sophisticated advocates. The subtlety of Camus found that it was necessary to insist on the integrity of the absurd experience. The "integration" of the persona resulted from the insistence that "There is thus the will to live without rejecting anything of life, which is the virtue I honor most in this world."… Camus worked from the presupposition that life is acceptable, even though in the more cynical mood of The Fall he conceded: "But in certain cases carrying on, merely continuing, is superhuman." Nevertheless for Camus suicide constituted the avoidance of the absurd, rather than its confrontation, for which he opted. (p. 105)
In the work of Camus … numerous are the instances when his rejection of suicide appears without qualifications. The Myth of Sisyphus is in fact a treatise on suicide, the one and only serious philosophical problem, a phrase made famous by the author at the very beginning of his essay. The point which Camus wishes to reveal to us immediately is that, if one becomes conscious of the vanity of the human condition, of the nonsense of life, one is no longer capable of accepting the trap of going on, because of habit, or because of the force of inertia. One is tempted, instead, by that exile without return which death exemplifies. Camus writes:….
Dying voluntarily implies that you have recognized, even instinctively, the ridiculous character of that habit, the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation, and the uselessness of suffering.
But then he asks the question: "Does denying that life makes sense imply that it is not worth living?"… On the contrary, it becomes obvious to him that the less sense there is in a life which carries its own degenerating factors, and which is temporal, the more it is worth living. A challenging approach, to be sure, but one which, if espoused, leads inevitably to the conclusion: "One must imagine Sisyphus happy."…
But can one? Does his intolerable burden, or ours, permit such an optimistic ergo? Perhaps the answer depends on the temperament of the one who poses the question and cannot be imposed on him by a philosopher, no matter how seducing, or even decoying his language is. For Camus and his followers, however, there is no doubt about the cathartic quality of confrontation, of staring into the face of the absurd … and of experiencing the thrill of combat even if the negative outcome is known in advance. For as he declares in his Lettres à un ami allemand: "I continue to believe that this world has no superior meaning. But I know that something in it makes sense, and that is man, because he is the only being to require meaning. This world contains at least the truth of man, and our task is to supply him with reasons against his destiny. And the world has no other reason outside of man, and it is the latter we must save." And if man is saved, or saves himself by rejecting the alternative of suicide, then he may be able to join Camus in the great lyrical outburst: "The world is beautiful, and outside of it there is no salvation."
This is not to say that Camus opts for life in view of a future compensation of some kind. Rather, as is evident throughout The Rebel, he opts for life because self-annihilation presents a number of insurmountable problems. To begin with, it tends to be considered a flight, a copout, a cowardly form of escapism, or even a trickery. Secondly, suicide cannot be concordant with absurdist reasoning … [for absurdist reasoning accepts, in Camus' words, the "desperate encounter between human inquiry and the silence of the universe"]. (pp. 105-06)
But the most powerful argument evoked by Camus against suicide is the fact that the absolute negation that it appears to be, fails to negate very much at all. Suicide is usually thought to be the ultimate act of destruction. But such an act is always willed, always performed in the name of some value. It is always preceded by a because and always followed by a therefore. It cannot be otherwise, and it follows that, on the contrary, suicide becomes a most powerful act of affirmation. In fact Camus considers it so idiosyncratic that, in his opinion, when occurring, it can only rehabilitate life by renewing its meaning or adding to it. Such a rehabilitation is, of course, tardy for the deceased. But for those who survive, the reintegration into the kingdom of man is facilitated. Little wonder, then, that although he examines the question of suicide, and for a brief time he gives it the status of an alternative, the entire literary production of Camus can be viewed as an apologia of life. (p. 107)
[Both] Camus and Beckett unequivocally reject suicide, but whereas Camus' rejection represents a celebration or affirmation of life, no such acceptance of life is implicit in Beckett's resolve to go on living. There is no glorification or exaltation of the state of animation in Beckett, nor does his rejection of suicide represent a synthesis or solution. Camus exorcizes Thanatos, the death urge, with the resolve to abide within the context of the absurd, while in Beckett the ubiquitousness of the absurd causes the distinction between life and death to become blurred, thus removing the possibility of suicide. Whereas both consider it often, Camus merely rejects it; Beckett, on the other hand, goes further: he invalidates suicide altogether. (p. 110)
Alfred Cismaru and Theodore Klein, in Renascence (© copyright, 1976, Marquette University Press), Winter, 1976.
The movement … from unconsciousness to consciousness and despair and back to unconsciousness, has been analysed by Albert Camus in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus. (pp. 278-79)
Camus' essay deals exclusively with … the question of one's response to the awareness that life has no transcendent meaning. The essay "attempts to resolve the problem of suicide … without the aid of eternal values which, temporarily perhaps, are absent or distorted in contemporary Europe."… [It] was written during a major world disaster and … was acclaimed as an important contribution to the resolution of the problems raised by that disaster….
Camus views Sisyphus' … hopeless struggle as monumental, heroic….
[The] emphasis is placed on the torment of consciousness, because it is consciousness that brings the recognition of ultimate futility and defeat. (p. 279)
Camus, at the end [of his essay], returns his hero to his futile labor, stands back and, on behalf of this hero, celebrates his life; and,… Camus … makes an assumption—a leap of faith, really—about his hero's feelings about his life: "One must imagine Sisyphus happy." Like all leaps of faith, [the author begs] the question. (p. 280)
Camus' absurd hero does not gradually "return into the chain."… The struggle to remain awake, to remain always aware of the absurdity of what one does, and yet to avoid paralyzing, nihilistic despair, continues all his life….
In "The Myth of Sisyphus," Camus insists that modern man's greatest task, and his only chance to completely realize himself, is to acquire the knowledge that Camus possesses, and to preserve this knowledge intact and yet not despair…. (p. 281)
Allen Simpson, in Scandinavian Studies, Summer, 1976.
In his notebooks and in his novel The Plague, Albert Camus often describes the city of Oran in negative terms. He stresses the qualities or characteristics Oran lacks, seeing in this absence a source of inspiration.
In Camus' universe the cities of North Africa, Oran and Alger, serve an essential function. They are not only the background for his works but they are the embodiment of man's relationship with his environment. The topos of Camus' world revolves around a desert-city dichotomy. (p. 75)
In all of Camus' fiction, the city imposes its own personality and attributes upon its inhabitants….
Camus' initial impressions of cities are visual and organic. He focuses on minutia…. Camus mentions the city's spiritual indifference and climatic excesses such as Oran's autumnal "deluges and floods of mud."… Oran is not in coordination with nature; it is a city which has denied its natural boundaries with the sea and has, therefore, destroyed an essential communion. (p. 76)
Oran in The Plague becomes a living entity. The city dictates the habits and concerns of its population. Oran is an enclosed microcosm of modern urban society where nature is denied and forgotten…. He endows the city with the literary form given to people. Oran personified in The Plague becomes a collective protagonist in its own right.
Textually and contextually Oran structures the novel. In the first line Oran establishes the novel's geographic boundaries: "The unusual events described in this chronicle occurred in 194- in Oran."… The limits of the text and of the city are synchronized. The reader and the narrator are imprisoned within the city limits of Oran, escaping only once in the scene of the sea bath. The last line in the novel transcends the specific context of Oran but emphasizes the city: "… it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city."… The last word "city" is translated from "cité." The use of "city" distinguishes it from the "town" ["ville"] of Oran.
The Plague is divided into five parts, each section focusing on the progressive relationship between Oran and the plague….
Rieux, the narrator, does not provide political, socio-economic, or statistical information. The leaders and administrators remain anonymous both in name and function, referred to only as "the authorities," "the municipality," or "the administrators." The city is a living organism which acts collectively; its leaders are only appendages. (p. 77)
The plague gives Oran mythological dimensions. In Camus' works the modern city is a mythic archetype of death, exile, and isolation…. The stone, like the other elements in nature, is part of the natural harmony of the desert. In the city these same elements become indifferent or antagonistic….
Before the plague, Oran was a city without a past. Oran personified must wait for the advent of the Plague to realize its myths and history. Rootless, neutral, and indifferent to its surroundings, the plague gives Oran a particular heritage, identifying it with a long line of plagueridden cities throughout history. (p. 78)
In Camus' work, Rieux is among the very first to hear the word, and immediately the word, "Plague," provokes a proliferation of images of cities turned into charnel houses and graveyards:
Athens, a charnel-house reeking to heaven and deserted even by the birds; Chinese towns cluttered up with victims silent in their agony; the convicts of Marseille piling rotting corpses into pits;… men and women copulating in the cemeteries of Milan; cartloads of dead bodies rumbling through London's ghoul-haunted darkness-nights and days filled always, everywhere, with the eternal cry of human pain….
For Rieux the connotations are abstract and literary, yet the text has already made its impact on the reader by this profusion of horrifying flash-images. Through the plague, Oran takes its place among these hellish cities. (p. 79)
The Plague can be read on two superimposed contextual levels, as a literal description of the disease's impact on the city of Oran or as an allegory of the Nazi occupation in a European city. Camus prefaces the novel by a quotation from Daniel Defoe: "It is as reasonable to represent one kind of imprisonment by another, as it is to represent anything that really exists by that which exists not."…
Camus wrote this work during the war and published it in 1947, the first major French novel after the war. His introductory quotation calls for an allegorical reading. The allegorical structure of the novel is progressively interwoven into the text by a pattern of historical and sociological analogies. The plague is an emblem of exile, death, and arbitrary evil. The city of Oran is not only a besieged city but contains within its walls two substructures: the bureaucracy of death leading to the creation of crematoriums and the all-male quarantine camp, allegories of the concentration camps and the prisoner-of-war camps. Oran in this interpretation transcends its definition as a city and becomes a microcosm of the war-torn state.
The transformation of Oran from a neutral, indifferent city to a victimized, closed, and occupied city becomes the underlying theme in the narrator's chronicle. Indifference gives way to gradual awareness as the plague invades all neighborhoods and affects all citizens regardless of their position or rank…. Like the German troops in French cities, the plague supersedes previous administrative systems. The occupied city must adapt to a new order. (pp. 79-80)
The end of the narrator's chronicle of The Plague is a denial of the city. Even liberated Oran remains "stifled, strangled" in contrast to the free natural world around it. As protagonist, myth, or allegory, the city is linked to the plague. It can never be entirely free of this association. (p. 81)
Irène Finel-Honigman, "Oran: Protagonist, Myth and Allegory," in Modern Fiction Studies (© copyright 1978, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Spring, 1978, pp. 75-81.