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Camus, Albert 1913–1960
Camus, an Algerian-born novelist, dramatist, and essayist, had a profound influence on modern philosophy, particularly on existential thought. 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 is itself irrational. It was...
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- Critical Essays
Camus, Albert 1913–1960
Camus, an Algerian-born novelist, dramatist, and essayist, had a profound influence on modern philosophy, particularly on existential thought. 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 is itself irrational. It was individual action and the power of the individual will that provided life with value and purpose for Camus. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 9, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 89-92.)
Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3083
In The Myth of Sisyphus,… Camus provided us with a precise commentary upon [The Stranger]. His hero was neither good nor bad, neither moral nor immoral. These categories do not apply to him. He belongs to a very particular species for which the author reserves the word "absurd." But in Camus's work this word takes on two very different meanings. The absurd is both a state of fact and the lucid awareness which certain people acquire of this state of fact. The "absurd" man is the man who does not hesitate to draw the inevitable conclusions from a fundamental absurdity. (pp. 108-09)
Primary absurdity manifests a cleavage, the cleavage between man's aspirations to unity and the insurmountable dualism of mind and nature, between man's drive toward the eternal and the finite character of his existence, between the "concern" which constitutes his very essence and the vanity of his efforts. Chance, death, the irreducible pluralism of life and of truth, the unintelligibility of the real—all these are extremes of the absurd.
These are not really very new themes, and Camus does not present them as such. They had been sounded as early as the seventeenth century by a certain kind of dry, plain, contemplative rationalism, which is typically French and they served as the commonplaces of classical pessimism. (p. 109)
By virtue of the cool style of The Myth of Sisyphus and the subject of his essays, Albert Camus takes his place in the great tradition of those French moralists whom Andler has rightly termed the precursors of Nietzsche.
As to the doubts raised by Camus about the scope of our reasoning powers, these are in the most recent tradition of French epistemology…. Camus shows off a bit by quoting passages from Jaspers, Heidegger and Kierkegaard, whom, by the way, he does not always seem to have quite understood. But his real masters are to be found elsewhere.
The turn of his reasoning, the clarity of his ideas, the cut of his expository style and a certain kind of solar, ceremonious, and sad sombreness, all indicate a classic temperament, a man of the Mediterranean. His very method ("only through a balance of evidence and lyricism shall we attain a combination of emotion and lucidity.") recalls the old "passionate geometries" of Pascal and Rousseau and relate him, for example, not to a German phenomenologist or a Danish existentialist, but rather to Maurras, that other Mediterranean from whom, however, he differs in many respects.
But Camus would probably be willing to grant all this. To him, originality means pursuing one's ideas to the limit; it certainly does not mean making a collection of pessimistic maxims. The absurd, to be sure, resides neither in man nor in the world, if you consider each separately. But since man's dominant characteristic is "being-in-the-world," the absurd is, in the end, an inseparable part of the human condition. Thus, the absurd is not, to begin with, the object of a mere idea; it is revealed to us in a doleful illumination. "Getting up, tram, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, in the same routine" (Sisyphus), and then, suddenly, "the setting collapses," and we find ourselves in a state of hopeless lucidity.
If we are able to refuse the misleading aid of religion or of existential philosophies, we then possess certain basic, obvious facts: the world is chaos, a "divine equivalence born of anarchy"; tomorrow does not exist, since we all die. "In a universe suddenly deprived of light and illusions, man feels himself a stranger. This exile is irrevocable, since he has no memories of a lost homeland and no hope of a promised land." The reason is that man is not the world…. This explains, in part, the title of our novel; the stranger is man confronting the world. Camus might as well have chosen the title of one of George Gissing's works, Born in Exile. The stranger is also man among men. "There are days when … you find that the person you've loved has become a stranger." The stranger is, finally, myself in relation to myself, that is, natural man in relation to mind: "The stranger who, at certain moments, confronts us in a mirror" (The Myth of Sisyphus).
But that is not all; there is a passion of the absurd. The absurd man will not commit suicide; he wants to live, without relinquishing any of his certainty, without a future, without hope, without illusion, and without resignation either. He stares at death with passionate attention and this fascination liberates him. He experiences the "divine irresponsibility" of the condemned man.
Since God does not exist and man dies, everything is permissible…. [The] absurd man, rebellious and irresponsible, has "nothing to justify." He is innocent, innocent as Somerset Maugham's savages before the arrival of the clergyman who teaches them Good and Evil, what is lawful and what is forbidden. (pp. 109-11)
And now we fully understand the title of Camus's novel. The stranger he wants to portray is precisely one of those terrible innocents who shock society by not accepting the rules of its game. He lives among outsiders, but to them, too, he is a stranger…. And we ourselves, who, on opening the book are not yet familiar with the feeling of the absurd, vainly try to judge him according to our usual standards. For us, too, he is a stranger….
[You] probably hoped that as you progressed your uneasiness would fade, that everything would be slowly clarified, would be given a reasonable justification and explained. Your hopes were disappointed. The Stranger is not an explanatory book. The absurd man does not explain; he describes. Nor is it a book which proves anything.
Camus is simply presenting something and is not concerned with a justification of what is fundamentally unjustifiable. (p. 111)
Camus does not require that attentive solicitude that writers who "have sacrificed their lives to art" demand of the reader, The Stranger is a leaf from his life. And since the most absurd life is that which is most sterile, his novel aims at being magnificently sterile. Art is an act of unnecessary generosity. We need not be over-disturbed by this; I find, hidden beneath Camus's paradoxes, some of Kant's wise observations on the "endless end" of the beautiful. Such, in any case, is The Stranger, a work detached from a life, unjustified and unjustifiable, sterile, momentary, already forsaken by its author, abandoned for other present things. And that is how we must accept it, as a brief communion between two men, the author and the reader, beyond reason, in the realm of the absurd.
This will give us some idea as to how we are to regard the hero of The Stranger. If Camus had wanted to write a novel with a purpose, he would have had no difficulty in showing a civil servant lording it over his family, and then suddenly struck with the intuition of the absurd, struggling against it for a while and finally resolving to live out the fundamental absurdity of his condition. The reader would have been convinced along with the character, and for the same reasons.
Or else, he might have related the life of one of those saints of the Absurd, so dear to his heart, of whom he speaks in The Myth of Sisyphus: Don Juan, the Actor, the Conqueror, the Creator. But he has not done so, and Meursault, the hero of The Stranger, remains ambiguous, even to the reader who is familiar with theories of the absurd. We are, of course, assured that he is absurd, and his dominant characteristic is a pitiless clarity. Besides, he is, in more ways than one, constructed so as to furnish a concerted illustration of the theories expounded in The Myth of Sisyphus. For example, in the latter work, Camus writes, "A man's virility lies more in what he keeps to himself than in what he says." And Meursault [is] an example of this virile silence, of this refusal to indulge in words…. (pp. 112-13)
[Meursault] has always lived according to Camus's standards. If there were a grace of absurdity, we would have to say that he has grace. He does not seem to pose himself any of the questions explored in The Myth of Sisyphus…. The character thus retains a real opacity, even to the absurd-conscious observer. He is no Don Juan, no Don Quixote of the absurd; he often even seems like its Sancho Panza. He is there before us, he exists, and we can neither understand nor quite judge him. In a word, he is alive, and all that can justify him to us is his fictional density.
The Stranger is not, however, to be regarded as a completely gratuitous work. Camus distinguishes, as we have mentioned, between the notion and the feeling of the absurd. He says, in this connection, "Deep feelings, like great works, are always more meaningful than they are aware of being…. An intense feeling carries with it its own universe, magnificent or wretched, as the case may be" (The Myth of Sisyphus). And he adds, a bit further on, "The feeling of the absurd is not the same as the idea of the absurd. The idea is grounded in the feeling, that is all. It does not exhaust it." The Myth of Sisyphus might be said to aim at giving us this idea, and The Stranger at giving us the feeling.. (p. 114)
Camus talks a great deal; in The Myth of Sisyphus he is even garrulous. And yet, he reveals his love of silence…. [In] The Stranger, he has attempted to be silent. But how is one to be silent with words? How is one to convey through concepts the unthinkable and disorderly succession of present instants? This problem involves resorting to a new technique.
What is this new technique? "It's Kafka written by Hemingway," I was told. I confess that I have found no trace of Kafka in it. Camus's views are entirely of this earth, and Kafka is the novelist of impossible transcendence; for him, the universe is full of signs that we cannot understand; there is a reverse side to the décor. For Camus, on the contrary, the tragedy of human existence lies in the absence of any transcendence…. (pp. 115-16)
He is not concerned, then, with so ordering words as to suggest an inhuman, undecipherable order; the inhuman is merely the disorderly, the mechanical. There is nothing ambiguous in his work, nothing disquieting, nothing hinted at. The Stranger gives us a succession of luminously clear views. If they bewilder us, it is only because of their number and the absence of any link between them. Camus likes bright mornings, clear evenings, and relentless afternoons. His favorite season is Algiers' eternal summer. Night has hardly any place in his universe.
When he does talk of it, it is in the following terms: "I awakened with stars about my face. Country noises reached my ears. My temples were soothed by odors of night, earth, and salt. The wonderful peace of that sleepy summer invaded me like a tide" (The Stranger). The man who wrote these lines is as far removed as possible from the anguish of a Kafka. He is very much at peace within disorder. Nature's obstinate blindness probably irritates him, but it comforts him as well. Its irrationality is only a negative thing. The absurd man is a humanist; he knows only the good things of this world.
The comparison with Hemingway seems more fruitful. The relationship between the two styles is obvious. Both men write in the same short sentences. Each sentence refuses to exploit the momentum accumulated by preceding ones. Each is a new beginning. Each is like a snapshot of a gesture or object. For each new gesture and word there is a new and corresponding sentence. Nevertheless, I am not quite satisfied. The existence of an "American" narrative technique has certainly been of help to Camus. I doubt whether it has, strictly speaking, influenced him. (p. 116)
I catch a glimpse of a poetic prose underneath, which is probably Camus's personal mode of expression. If The Stranger exhibits … visible traces of the American technique, it was deliberate on Camus's part. He has chosen from among all the instruments at his disposal the one which seemed to serve his purpose best. I doubt whether he will use it again in future works. (p. 117)
Camus's story is analytic and humorous. Like all artists, he invents, because he pretends to be reconstituting raw experience and because he slyly eliminates all the significant links which are also part of the experience.
That is what Hume did when he stated that he could find nothing in experience but isolated impressions. That is what the American neo-realists still do when they deny the existence of any but external relations between phenomena. Contemporary philosophy has, however, established the fact that meanings are also part of the immediate data. But this would carry us too far afield. We shall simply indicate that the universe of the absurd man is the analytic world of the neo-realists. In literature, this method has proved its worth. It was Voltaire's method in L'Ingénu and Micromégas, and Swift's in Gulliver's Travels. For the eighteenth century also had its own outsiders, "noble savages," usually, who, transported to a strange civilization, perceived facts before being able to grasp their meaning. The effect of this discrepancy was to arouse in the reader the feeling of the absurd. Camus seems to have this in mind on several occasions, particularly when he shows his hero reflecting on the reasons for his imprisonment. (p. 118)
Where Bergson saw an indestructible organization, [Camus] sees only a series of instants. It is the plurality of incommunicable moments that will finally account for the plurality of beings. What our author borrows from Hemingway is thus the discontinuity between the clipped phrases that imitate the discontinuity of time.
We are now in a better position to understand the form of his narrative. Each sentence is a present instant, but not an indecisive one that spreads like a stain to the following one. The sentence is sharp, distinct, and self-contained. It is separated by a void from the following one, just as Descartes's instant is separated from the one that follows it. The world is destroyed and reborn from sentence to sentence. When the word makes its appearance it is a creation ex nihilo. The sentences in The Stranger are islands. We bounce from sentence to sentence, from void to void. (pp. 118-19)
The sentences are not, of course, arranged in relation to each other; they are simply juxtaposed. In particular, all causal links are avoided lest they introduce the germ of an explanation and an order other than that of pure succession. (p. 119)
This is what enables Camus to think that in writing The Stranger he remains silent. His sentence does not belong to the universe of discourse. It has neither ramifications nor extensions nor internal structure. (p. 120)
[Can] we speak of Camus's novel as something whole? All the sentences of his book are equal to each other, just as all the absurd man's experiences are equal. Each one sets up for itself and sweeps the others into the void. But, as a result, no single one of them detaches itself from the background of the others, except for the rare moments in which the author, abandoning these principles, becomes poetic.
The very dialogues are integrated into the narrative. Dialogue is the moment of explanation, of meaning, and to give it a place of honor would be to admit that meanings exist. Camus irons out the dialogue, summarizes it. renders it frequently as indirect discourse. He denies it any typographic privileges, so that a spoken phrase seems like any other happening. It flashes for an instant and then disappears, like heat lightning. Thus, when you start reading the book you feel as if you were listening to a monotonous, nasal, Arab chant rather than reading a novel. You may think that the novel is going to be like one of those tunes of which Courteline remarked that "they disappear, never to return" and stop all of a sudden. But the work gradually organizes itself before the reader's eyes and reveals its solid substructure.
There is not a single unnecessary detail, not one that is not returned to later on and used in the argument. And when we close the book, we realize that it could not have had any other ending. In this world that has been stripped of its causality and presented as absurd, the smallest incident has weight. There is no single one which does not help to lead the hero to crime and capital punishment. The Stranger is a classical work, an orderly work, composed about the absurd and against the absurd. Is this quite what the author was aiming at? I do not know. I am simply presenting the reader's opinion.
How are we to classify this clear, dry work, so carefully composed beneath its seeming disorder, so "human," so open, too, once you have the key? It cannot be called a récit, for a récit explains and co-ordinates as it narrates. It substitutes the order of causality for chronological sequence. Camus calls it a "novel." The novel, however, requires continuous duration, development and the manifest presence of the irreversibility of time. I would hesitate somewhat to use the term "novel" for this succession of inert present moments which allows us to see, from underneath, the mechanical economy of something deliberately staged. Or, if it is a novel, it is so in the sense that Zadig and Candide are novels. It might be regarded as a moralist's short novel, one with a discreet touch of satire and a series of ironic portraits (those of the pimp, the judge, the prosecuting attorney, etc.), a novel that, for all the influence of the German existentialists and the American novelists, remains, at bottom, very close to the tales of Voltaire. (pp. 120-21)
Jean-Paul Sartre, "Camus's 'The Outsider'" (1943), in his Literary and Philosophical Essays of Jean-Paul Sartre, translated by Annette Michelson (copyright 1955 by S. G. Phillips, Inc.; reprinted by permission of S. G. Phillips, Inc., in Canada by Hutchinson Publishing Group Ltd), Criterion Books, 1955 (and reprinted as "An Explication of 'The Stranger,'" in Camus: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Germaine Breé, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962, pp. 108-21).
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The works of Camus, as they stand interrupted by fate, utter a pagan message which is to be set beside that of the great pagans of antiquity and that of some of the modern pagans to whom Christianity owes an immense debt of gratitude—for they have asked the right questions and constrained Christians to evolve ever more satisfactory answers to them. "Neo-paganism is the great spiritual phenomenon of our age"—thus wrote, in The Drama of Atheistic Humanism (1944), the eminent Jesuit thinker, Father Henri de Lubac, who deplores it, but courageously concedes that many noble souls, indeed many "blinded Christian souls" are attracted to the renovated paganism of today.
Instinct and doctrine blend in Camus's pagan assertions. His early series of essays, Noces (Nuptials), sings a paean to the wedding-feast of sky, sea, and the Algerian earth, supplemented by several equally rapturous prose canticles in honor of his "invincible summer" burning through the hours of distress and squalor in his youth. Their motto is a vehement denial of any longing for another life. Four pages before the volume closes, he propounds the conclusion: "The world is beautiful and, outside it, there is no salvation." The opening lines of the book are a disclaimer of all myths and intellectual structures erected to frustrate or to justify man's naïve desire for earthly happiness. "There is but one love in this world. To embrace a woman's body is also to retain, close to one, that strange joy which descends from the sky to the sea … I love this life with abandon and I want to speak of it freely; it fills me with pride at my human fate." Hic et nunc: here and now Camus, the young Pagan, like his three immediate predecessors in French literature, the Gide of Fruits of the Earth, Montherlant, and Giono, wants to savor the delights of life. The notion of hell appears, but as a pleasant joke, conceived by the imagination of most virtuous persons. Immortality, and any ultimate rewards promised to those who elect the Pascalian wager, are spurned. "I do not choose to believe," states the worshipper of the wind at Djemila, in Noces, "that death opens onto another life. To me it is a closed door." Those delusions are but an attempt to unburden man of the weight of his own life. And Camus prefers to carry his burden himself. (p. 66)
The name of Pascal has been invoked in connection with that of Camus, perhaps too lightly. A writer in the Christian monthly Esprit, Simone Fraisse, rightly argued, in March 1959, that much deeper affinities linked Camus to Lucretius. To the Latin poet, Epicurus was already a man in revolt, spurning the concept of Providence, haughtily consenting to his role of Sisyphus: he did not deign to indict the gods, for they had no share in the evil of the world. They passively watched it. Camus read his own mood as a rebel, intoxicated with the absurd, in the "prodigious image of divine sanctuaries swollen with the accusing corpses of the plague" which closes Lucretius's sixth and last book. But he added to Lucretius's resigned pessimism the modern concept of men's solidarity. After writing in Noces that "there is no shame in being happy," he had a character in The Plague, Rambert, remark, when faced with the omnipresence of evil: "There is shame in being happy all alone."
Much wishful thinking has been lavished over The Fall…. [Readers] of misguided good-will, lured by the title, thought they could descry anticipatory signs of a Christian attitude in The Fall. Meursault [in The Stranger] was in a sense an innocent sentenced for a crime which he had committed but not willed, and could be viewed, as Camus owned ("paradoxically," he underlined) as "the only Christ that we deserve." To searchers for allusions, Meursault's last wish for a large crowd to witness his execution, "so that all be consummated" might even recall the "consummatum est" whispered by the crucified Christ in the nineteenth chapter of St. John. But the hero of The Fall is an embittered, sarcastic nihilist, a garrulous talker merging his own guilt in the guilt which he instills in all those whom he forces to listen to him. If anything, that baffling tale should be read as a satire of the self-indictment practised by Christians and atheistic Existentialists alike, by Dostoevsky's "buffoons" as Camus called them in his "Exil d'Hélène," and by the advocates of universal and unlimited responsibility. After Tarrou and Rieux [in The Plague], the mouthpieces of a lofty ethics which did without God so that nothing be ravished from man's prerogatives, those idealists dreaming of being saints without God and pure of all expectation of any reward, Clamence [in The Rebel] strikes us as a totally desperate and sneering cynic. The book, unlike The Plague, truly has "no exit." Clamence's hell is, as in Sartre's play, the judgment of men, the glaring presence of the others.
Camus is profoundly opposed to all Christianity stands for: first the notions of incarnation, of grace, of redemption, of repentance, and of collective guilt for some sin committed, unbeknown to us. In that sense, as Camus himself remarked … and as J. P. Sartre had shrewdly explained as early as February 1943 ("Explication de L'Etranger" in Les Cahiers du Sud) [see excerpt above], Camus stands at the opposite pole from Kafka, "the novelist of impossible transcendence": for Kafka, enigmatic signs appear to point to an inhuman and undecipherable order; for Camus, there is no transcendence whatever. The very notion of sin, he avers, is meaningless to him. (pp. 67-8)
But Camus's most original revolt is against hope…. Camus indicts hope as a form of resignation, robbing man of energies which he needs, in order to enrich a God who "hardly needs them."… (p. 68)
Camus's world is one of universal condemnation to death, as Pascal's world was. But to the stranger, to the unfortunate men of good will in Oran harassed by the plague, to his companions in the Resistance, to the unbelievers of today who spurn the use of those small screens which Camus declared he had seen in Italian museums, through which the scaffold was concealed from men sentenced to death, to the bitter characters sketched in The Fall and in Exile and the Kingdom, the issue seems to require an anti-Pascalian answer: what are the positive values which persist in this world of mortals sentenced to death? Such paganism or disbelief in Christian values is a novel phenomenon of the twentieth century. Camus noted it in a curious footnote to his article, "Portrait d'un élu," in Cahiers du Sud, April 1943: "Contemporary unbelief does not rest on science as it did toward the close of the last century. It denies both science and religion. It is no longer the skepticism of reason in the presence of miracle. It is a passionate unbelief." (p. 70)
Henri Peyre, "Camus the Pagan," in Yale French Studies 25 (copyright © Yale French Studies 1960), 1960 (and reprinted in Camus: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Germaine Breé, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962, pp. 65-70).
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To appreciate Camus fully … it is necessary to encounter as an ensemble his novels, stories, plays, philosophical and lyrical essays, journalistic political criticism, speeches, interviews, and notebooks, as though they formed a single, multivolumed creation like Proust's Remembrance of Things Past or Durrell's Alexandria Quartet. (p. 4)
The reader is likely to get his first concrete indication of Camus's dialectical method from his unorthodox custom of making explicit cross-references between his fictitious works. (p. 5)
A second unifying technique is certain key images that Camus uses repeatedly, from his first to last writings, as titles and motifs: the stranger, the plague, the fall, the judge, the condemned man, the sun and sea, the two sides of the coin, exile and kingdom, lucidity and indifference, speech and silence, solitude and solidarity. His thematic associations with these images are usually fairly constant, so that they become a kind of shorthand for his continuing preoccupations. Sometimes, however, he works ironic variations on them or gives them multiple meanings, thereby creating tension between their appearances in different contexts. (pp. 5-6)
[Camus's] method was to fragment in each work one facet of his personality, one line of argument, one of several possible responses to a common condition such as the absurd, in such a way that only assembled in their totality would they reveal his full intention. This method enabled him to temper the intense emotionality that most readers associate with his writing with an equal measure of ironic detachment that he is not usually credited with. (p. 8)
L'Envers et l'endroit and Nuptials are concerned primarily with the necessity to detach oneself periodically from both legitimate social commitments and the flux of habitual social routine, with its illusions of immortality, stability, and self-importance, in order to establish an identity in solitary relation to the indifferent natural world and thereby to confront one's own mortality as a part of nature and to heighten appreciation of being alive. The sense of solitude and personal insignificance resulting from this dislocation of everyday routine in face of death, which is regarded as valuable in his first two books, regresses at the beginning of The Myth into a source of anxiety as one aspect of "the absurd," along with other aspects including the apparent nonexistence of God, the lack of unity, purpose, or rationale in the natural universe, and the frustrating restrictions of human understanding. Camus ends up accepting absurd alienation in The Myth, concluding that the insignificance and ephemerality of the individual's existence actually constitute its unique, irreplaceable value. He introduces the theme of metaphysical revolt in calling for the man of absurd awareness to rise above his overwhelming, lonely fate by bearing it defiantly rather than killing himself, to stave off death through prolonging and savoring every moment of life, and to combat the limitations of reason by maintaining constant lucidity.
The Stranger and The Misunderstanding dramatize more fully than The Myth that aspect of the absurd concerning the capricious twists of fate, while The Stranger and Caligula add to metaphysical absurdity and revolt the parallel dimension of revolt against the social absurdity of conventional morality and arbitrary legal authority, especially in the extreme form of capital punishment. The Stranger, like The Myth, asserts the primacy of individual, flesh-and-blood reality against any abstract notion that claims to supersede it. (pp. 9-10)
The absurd takes a political form in The Rebel and other writings after World War II about the capricious course of modern history, particularly in revolutions that have mis-carried and ended up reinstitutionalizing murder as a political policy in both bourgeois and communist states. A total commitment to nonviolent resistance expressed in Neither Victims nor Executioners and by Tarrou in The Plague is modified in The Rebel and The Just Assassins to a doctrine of "limited guilt" whereby the rebel recognizes that he may have to kill in a just revolution or war, but only as a last resort and on the condition that he be willing to sacrifice his life in return so as to avert a cycle of revenge-killings or the political legitimization of murder. (p. 10)
This thematic line is elaborated through Camus's underlying vision of life's ambiguity and its reflection in his literary style through his frequent use of parallelism, antithesis, paradox, and ironic reversal…. In his world view the natural universe and man's fate are enigmatic, capriciously fluctuating forces, and our experiences are charged with many levels of possible meanings and implications that are sometimes complementary or parallel to one another, sometimes antithetical. His fascination with ambiguity shows in his titles … and in his frequent use of dualistic phrases like "solitary/solidary," "judge-penitent," "ambivalence" "equilibrium," "duplicity," and "equivocation." (pp. 10-11)
For Camus this pluralism pervading every area of life is sometimes a cause for anxiety … but it is also the source of a benign, Montaignian skepticism and tolerance, a distaste for absolutism, whether in politics, philosophy, morality, or aesthetics…. This pluralism provides, above all, an ennobling challenge to encompass and hold in dynamic balance the whole range of complex, self-contradictory possibilities that life offers. (p. 11)
Among Camus's array of balanced antitheses, the less complicated include unity and diversity …, pessimism and optimism, sensuality and intellectuality, and the life-giving and destructive sides of nature. Disillusioned recognition of life's limitations is offset by its intensification of the values remaining within those limitations…. (p. 12)
A more complex series of antitheses stems from possible alternative attitudes toward death. First there is terror in facing it, balanced by the pride of acknowledging it honestly: "I want to keep my lucidity to the last, and gaze upon my death with all the fullness of my jealousy and horror" [as Camus states in Lyrical and Critical Essays]. He also finds this lucidity toward death to be a means of intensifying life's joys, in the carpe diem tradition…. (p. 13)
[Camus's] attitudes toward death becomes subsumed in the first half of a larger antithesis in which the solitary egocentricity of Camus contemplating nature and natural death is balanced against his social conscience…. (p. 16)
Camus's theoretical writings about the literary artist's vocation incorporate the same balance between egocentricity and social responsibility…. He significantly modified the theory of art for art's sake … along much the same lines as André Malraux—to begin with, infusing it with a heterosexual sensibility in contrast to its previous frequent association with homosexuality. Furthermore, The Rebel and later expressions of literary theory develop his conviction that no artist, no matter how egocentric, can work in isolation…. (p. 18)
Finally, the writer must always draw from his time for material, and only the most effete author can remain uncommitted when faced with the urgency of our present crises. The challenge is to assimilate the present temper into works that are both significant socially and substantial aesthetically. (p. 19)
His most widely inclusive antithesis is that between romantic and classical values and stylistic traits, the reconciliation of which is a rare, admirable achievement in the twentieth century…. [In Camus's view, romantic and classical values] are not entirely antithetical; classicism, rather, encompasses romanticism, since the balancing of opposites itself is a central classical and neoclassical doctrine…. (pp. 19-20)
But the classical spirit is subject to abuses too. Camus's exhortations to emotional and intellectual intensity are in the tradition of the romantic movement's reaction against the rigidified neoclassicism of the late eighteenth century, a reaction that has been repeated in the twentieth century by French surrealism and existentialism, and later the American beat and hippie movements, against the atrophy of the classical virtue of decorum into academic stuffiness or bourgeois insipidity and priggishness. Thus, if classicism can be seen as a controlled romanticism, controlled romanticism can also be seen, in an author like Camus, as a regenerated classicism.
A final way he combines the two traditions is to enclose his romantic subjects or heroes in a classical style and structure. Classical stylistic convention as well as ideology can be seen in his constant use of antithetical devices like parallelism, balanced sentences, chiasmus, and oxymoron. In contrast to romantic verbal effusion, involution, and rejection of set forms, his prose is typically concise and clear (aside from some lapses in The Myth and lyrical essays), his literary forms tightly, symmetrically structured. (pp. 20-1)
Camus blends still more antithetical attitudes into the paradoxes that mark almost every page of his writing. The paradoxes inherent in the absurd condition provide the dramatic reversals of The Myth: The absence of a God or transcendent meaning in life, which he begins by postulating as a justification for suicide, ends up making life more worth living; reason is incapable of making sense out of life, yet it is valuable insofar as it gives us a concept of what sense is and a rational articulation of its own limitations. The crucial shift in emphasis in his writing after The Myth from the phase of the absurd to that of rebellion pivots on a paradox that he expresses in the introduction to The Rebel: If I conclude that the value of my freedom and egocentric pleasure make my own life worth living, I must through simple empathy say the same about everyone else's life. Therefore, murder as well as suicide is proscribed, my freedom must be limited where it interferes with others', and in order to defend the principle of the value of life, freedom, and pleasure, I may have to sacrifice my own when others' are threatened. Thus Camus in his personal dialectical development recapitulates the ambivalence from total irresponsibility to total responsibility that is central to existentialist thought from Dostoevsky to Sartre. (pp. 21-2)
Similarly, in his literary theory he transmutes the narcissism and political escapism or elitism usually identified with art for art's sake into a politically committed, democratic aesthetic….
Another form of paradox is the ironic reversal by which a line of action carried too far merges with its opposite or the condition against which it was intended to rebel. An excess in one's assertion of freedom destroys others' freedom and eventually his own, as in the case of Caligula. Rebellion against a murderous universe (Caligula) or society (Meursault) can make the rebel a competitor in murder. The romantic quest for apocalyptic transcendence of bourgeois banality can end in intellectual or physical self-annihilation that is equally banal. (p. 23)
A full recognition of the protean, unpredictable side of Camus's writing that emerges from these patterns of ambiguity, antithesis, ambivalence, paradox, and ironic reversal shows how far off the mark are those readers and critics who regard him as somber, monolithic, or unremittingly tendentious…. In fact, his flair for playing riddle games and for shifting roles was so strong that he must have come to feel misgivings about its tendency to undercut his more serious, straightforward intentions. (p. 24)
The monumental artistic plan and ideological comprehensiveness of Camus's total work approach a complete world system, a synthesis of metaphysics, ethics, history, political theory, social psychology, aesthetics, and semantics into a single, consistent viewpoint. Part of his fascination is the same as that of other philosophical or literary system builders…. And he is open to the same criticism, on philosophical if not on artistic grounds, that he sometimes oversimplifies or bends reality in trying to make everything fit his system. (pp. 24-5)
All of the foregoing indicates why he is a difficult author. It is not that he is prone toward obscure, scholarly allusions in the manner of T. S. Eliot, or toward the occultism and private fantasies of symbolist and surrealist poets, or even the rigorous formal philosophy of Sartre. It is, rather, that assimilating the magnitude, complexity, and kaleidoscopic dynamics of all his major works combined presents the reader with an aesthetic challenge…. (p. 25)
In the end, it is ironic that Camus, who has generally been underestimated by both Marxist and formalist critics—two schools that he considered to be at equally excessive poles in their exclusivity—actually provides an exemplary subject of study for the combination of aesthetic and political concerns valued by the former and for the literary complexity valued by the latter. (pp. 25-6)
Camus's aesthetic is closer to that of Coleridge, who is often cited as a forerunner of the New Critics; in contrast to the latter, though, for Coleridge as for Camus the internal dynamics of the literary work are not constrictingly divorced from the external world but are enriched all the more by being viewed as a microcosm of the artist's organically unified world view. Part of Camus's unique accomplishment in our time is that his stylistic and formal elaborateness is not an aesthete's affectation or attempt to flee reality into an artificial paradise but an integral extension of and key to his total vision of reality. (p. 26)
The most prominent motif unifying Camus's writing is the problem of judgment, to whose multiple forms he attributes the crucial spiritual and social ills of the twentieth century. He develops some aspects of this theme in expository order in the essays, while in the fiction and drama he reveals other aspects through a variety of literary techniques: images of the judge, jury, prosecuting and defense attorneys, witness, guilty verdict, prison, and death sentence run all through these works on the level of literal action and as metaphor, symbol, and allegory. His system here involves four parallel elements: metaphysical and human judgment and the rational and irrational forms they both take….
The imagery of rational metaphysical judgment derives from the Christian conception of God as the final judge, who omnisciently dictates standards of innocence and guilt and accordingly rewards or punishes men after death. Camus sees rational human judgment as society's appropriation of God's judicial powers. (p. 28)
Governmental absolutism reveals itself not only in war but in capital punishment, which Camus repeatedly attacks as legalized, rationalized murder. (p. 29)
In opposition to "rational" religious and social judgment, Camus expresses his themes of metaphysical absurdity and social nihilism in images of irrational judgment. Neither Camus nor any of his fictional heroes believes in God, an afterlife, or any rationale in the workings of the universe…. Death obliterates all of society's distinctions between innocence and guilt, and a premonition of his death exposes to a man the artificiality of society's rules, freeing him to rise above them and live any way he pleases.
If freedom from religious and social judgment is pushed to its extremes, however, it in turn becomes another form of judgment; unlimited freedom legitimizes nihilistic murder, by which man becomes the accomplice of the universe as capricious killer…. (pp. 29-30)
[Murderous] forms of metaphysical and human judgment figure centrally in Camus's fiction and drama as well as in the philosophical and journalistic essays. The novels, stories, plays, and earlier lyric essays also extend the theme of social judgment dramatically into more mundane areas—such as the everyday, arbitrary rituals of conventional morality, the officiousness of clergymen, judges, and bureaucrats, the petty vanity of individuals who need to give an air of importance to their banal daily routines or to consider themselves morally superior to their neighbors. (p. 30)
The complexity of the judgment theme can be confusing, and failure to distinguish between its multiple aspects has caused many readers and critics to miss the ironies and structural dynamics that Camus gets out of paralleling metaphysical and human, rational and irrational judgment. In The Fall preeminently, all four forms of judgment are closely intertwined in Clamence's fevered, devious discourse on guilt; here, and to nearly an equal degree in each of the other works, it is necessary to distinguish carefully which forms of judgment Camus is dealing with and on what literary levels they are functioning at different stages of the story. (p. 31)
Out of the values of The Stranger and The Plague Camus synthesized a humanitarian ethic for our time. From The Stranger he retained Meursault's simple, pagan sensuality free from illusions of immortality or a God to justify one's values, as well as his freedom from society's arbitrary laws and self-righteousness. However, Meursault's is "a still-negative truth," as Camus says in a 1955 foreword to The Stranger …, because Meursault ultimately denies life's value and because he kills, albeit accidentally, without contrition. In The Plague Rieux and Tarrou make Meursault's negative truth positive. By battling against the plague—and, allegorically, against natural death and nihilism—Rieux attests to the value in every man's life that justifies fighting to stay its inevitable execution. Tarrou makes explicit Meursault's instinctive rebellion against social judgment in its everyday forms and especially in its most severe form, rational murder committed under the authorization of capital punishment or militant "Justice." In defending human happiness against any life-threatening force—metaphysical or human, irrational or rational—Rieux and Tarrou define the boundary of individual freedom at the point where it destroys one's own or another's life. (p. 43)
However, the theme of Camus's last novel, The Fall, is that most men 'today are, unfortunately, incapable of gaining this humanitarian salvation because they have been conditioned by centuries of Christianity to need a belief in the transcendent authority of God and further conditioned by recent decades of totalitarianism to need absolute social authority. (pp. 43-4)
Camus follows the … general theme of men's flight from rebellion and freedom in several of the stories in his final work of fiction, Exile and the Kingdom. The multiple levels of the theme are most effectively embodied in "The Guest," which is primarily a dramatization of the French colonial intellectual's divided sympathies in the Algerian conflict but which also has a symbolic dimension in which Camus explores the idea of a humanitarian Christ who comes to free men from religious and social judgment.
Christian critics who have claimed to see indications of an impending conversion by Camus in The Fall and other late works have missed the irony in his use of Christian imagery against orthodox Christian doctrine. (pp. 48-9)
One of the central, and typically ambiguous, words throughout Camus's writing is "meaning." He uses the noun le sens and the verbs signifier and vouloir dire to refer both to a metaphysical purpose, justification, or scale of moral values in life and to epistemological "sense"—semantic signification and the rational unification and explanation of sense experience….
Camus divides the multiple aspects of the absurd that he enumerates in The Myth into what can be termed metaphysical and epistemological absurdities. The former include the brevity of life and inevitability of death, the indifference of the natural universe to human existence and of men to one another's existence, and the absence of a God and an afterlife that would give this life a transcendent purpose or universal system of moral values (although Camus approaches the existence of God more as an epistemological problem than as a metaphysical one; he does not deny God's existence but our ability to ascertain it rationally). Epistemological absurdity further entails the limitations of human understanding in general—the foundering of reason in logical dilemmas, the mind's failure to explain or unify experience totally, the frustration of our "nostalgia for unity, that appetite for the absolute …"…. (p. 52)
Camus summarizes all of these metaphysical and epistemological aspects of the absurd in the formulation "life has no meaning"; the central question of the book then becomes whether "refusing to grant a meaning to life necessarily leads to declaring that it is not worth living."… He assumes that it is the belief life has a meaning, in all of the above senses, that makes most men feel it is worth living. But, he asks, is the absence of metaphysical and epistemological meaning in fact equivalent to the absence of all value in life, or can values be found that make life worth living even under the conditions of absurd meaninglessness? His answer from the beginning is, "In truth, there is no necessary common measure between these judgments."… Indeed, he later concludes, "It was previously a question of finding out whether or not life had to have a meaning to be lived. It now becomes clear, on the contrary, that it will be lived all the better if it has no meaning."… (pp. 52-3)
On the metaphysical level, he explains, the absense of God—or more precisely our absence of knowledge that there is a God—dictates existential freedom …; recognizing the brevity of life and denying an afterlife provide an imperative to savor every minute of this life; the lack of any preordained purpose or moral value system is an invitation to create one's own life style and to substitute "the quantity of experiences for the quality."… (p. 53)
On the epistemological level, reason is valuable within its limitations for two reasons. To begin with, its failure to explain and unify experience is not total…. And reason provides the source not only of a minimal sense of coherence but of another form of revolt, that of the human mind defying the mindlessness of the rest of the universe and grappling with its own limitations: "To a man devoid of blinkers, there is no finer sight than that of the intelligence at grips with a reality that transcends it."… To deny the value of reason altogether, through irrationalism, mysticism, or the religious-existentialist leap to faith in God, is to commit "philosophical suicide," the intellectual equivalent to literal suicide as a response to metaphysical absurdity. (pp. 53-4)
One more dimension of meaning and value remains to be integrated into Camus's overall pattern—that dealing with language and literature as communication. One of the set of paradoxes providing the transition from the period of the Stranger and The Myth to that of The Plague, "The Enigma," and The Rebel is that, although part of the absurd condition is man's solitude in the natural universe and in society, this very solitude can become a source of solidarity between men recognizing their common condition. In the later works Camus accordingly comes to emphasize the communicative function of language and literature along with their life-affirming and unifying functions. In The Myth language and literature are already forms of rebellion against total meaninglessness, and in The Rebel Camus defines all rebellion as communal. In The Stranger part of Meursault's "negative truth" is his minimal linguistic communication and compassion with the other characters—although he thinks of the latter primarily in terms of the fellowship of men condemned to death. In the subsequent works Camus moves toward a more life-oriented concept of compassion between men, which he expresses in the image of "dialogue," as opposed on one hand to the silence associated with accepting the absurd and on the other hand to the verbose monologues of those who use language to set themselves above others. To the metaphysical and social ills he has been concerned with previously are added those resulting from faulty communication. (pp. 67-8)
[The] communicative value of literature becomes obvious: "If he speaks, if he reasons, above all if he writes, immediately the brother reaches out his hand." "Even if the novel describes only nostalgia, despair, frustration, it still creates form and salvation"—salvation through compassion between men in their common nostalgia, despair, and frustration. Camus's entire development of the theme of meaning and value can be seen as culminating in his final ideal of the vocation of the writer, whose challenge is double: first, to strike a balance between negating false hopes of total metaphysical or epistemological meaning and affirming the validity and value in life's limited level of meaning; and second, to be "the artist [who] fashions himself in that ceaseless oscillation from himself to others," again striking a balance between that degree of solitude inherent in the absurd condition as well as in the artistic temperament, and that degree of solidarity attainable through literary creation. (p. 70)
Camus's essays on the social responsibility of artists and intellectuals are of special importance today because this subject has provoked increasingly intense debate in France and the United states since the time of his death and was a crucial point on which he was opposed to Sartre and subsequent revolutionary ideologists….
[His] literary theory is most distinctive as a middle path between two opposite extremes prevalent in twentieth-century aesthetics. On the one hand, in Camus's analysis, nineteenth-century notions of pure art for art's sake have led to ahistorical formalism and social isolation or dandyism in the artist, who by abdicating public responsibility leaves mass culture the exclusive realm of trivial entertainers and mass politics that of unscrupulous professionals. (p. 101)
On the other hand, he asserts, the realistic tradition has also had its excessive offshoots. Naturalism, as for example in Hemingway or the "tough" American detective that was an intellectual fad in France during the 1940's, claims to record life impassively, in its totality, without the artist interposing selection, arrangement, or judgment—an impossible claim to begin with, in Camus's view. It binds the writer, at least in theory, to an isolated historical moment and impersonal themes and style. Because these two extremes either totally ignore or accept the world as it is, neither serves rebellious art's purpose of "correcting creation."… (pp. 101-02)
If Camus had never written any fiction or drama he would still be likely to rank among the outstanding authors of the twentieth century solely as a literary essayist…. [The exemplary quality of his prose] is distilled in its purest, most autonomous form in the essays.
Because of their individual brevity and occasionality, the essays in L'Envers et l'endroit, Nuptials, and Summer are too often regarded as minor works, thematic corollaries to The Myth and The Rebel…. Artistically, however, both individually and as a collective unit, the lyrical essays often surpass the "major" essays and stand among his very finest works. Here Camus is most fully, comprehensively himself, in contrast to the ironic personae of his fictional narrators and to the single lines of formal argument that he isolates in The Myth, The Rebel, and the political journalism. The personal essay is the medium in which he is most at home—that is to say, in the world of immediate, concrete experience. Here he relaxes and speaks in his own voice of the actual settings and personal relationships of his life, the flesh-and-blood inspirations of the abstract themes of The Myth and The Rebel. Here too he reveals the compassion, the warmth of personality and zest for living, the amused affection for the details of everyday life that he subordinates in his fiction and plays—perhaps regrettably—to the creation of mythic settings and characters and crisis-pitched action. (pp. 117-18)
Dominating all else is his rhapsodic love affair with the Mediterranean sun, sea, and flower-covered landscape. He succeeds in elevating intensity of sense experience into a rationalist metaphysic and in exalting the communion of man with nature in overtly sexual imagery without ever lapsing into mysticism, pantheism, or the pathetic fallacy….
Thematically and stylistically, the individual lyrical essays—even the earliest ones in L'Envers et l'endroit—contain his most concise, integrated expressions of his ideal of keeping life's paradoxes and antithetical possibilities in balance…. (p. 118)
Structurally, the essays follow a typical pattern of a passage of straight narration or description that evokes a meditation that is in turn elaborated into a paradoxical metaphor or aphorism…. They are further characterized by a rise to poetic diction in the closing paragraphs…. (p. 120)
The lyrical essays have the expository form of tightly knotted prose poems, challenging the reader with complex extended figures of speech, obliquely expressed themes, elliptical jumps in narration and thought, and cryptic motifs that reveal their meaning bit by bit as they recur with variations from essay to essay—such as silence, indifference, black sun and dark flame, or the seaside cemetery near Algiers. (pp. 120-21)
As a journalist Camus was one of the few in the midcentury to produce a substantial body of daily and weekly articles of lasting literary value, only a small number of which have been translated into English. (p. 123)
His own journalistic ideals and practice exemplified what the periodical press can and should be: the application to daily events of a refined humanistic sensibility, long-range historical perspective, and a radical integrity…. (p. 124)
It is important to note … that, while on international affairs his reasoning was becoming strained and his rhetoric hollow by the late fifties, on a domestic issue he could still, in 1957, write his most radically incisive political statement, "Reflections on the Guillotine."… [This essay] best epitomizes Camus's journalistic style, and indeed his entire art and thought. Here Camus marshals all his powers of novelistic and dramatic description and of straightforward journalistic exposition, heightened literarily by bristling irony, paradox, and aphorism and supported philosophically by his most maturely refined and concisely articulated metaphysical, political, and moral principles. The result is one of the most devastating polemics against capital punishment ever written. (pp. 126-27)
The Myth of Sisyphus is Camus's most difficult work, particularly in the first … sequence, "An Absurd Reasoning," which presents stylistic challenges similar to the lyrical essays—dense construction, digressive asides, elliptical jumps between sentences, cryptic aphorisms—and compounds them with a lengthily sustained, involved line of argument in a combination of philosophy and literary essay reminiscent of Kierkegaard or Nietzsche. The book is filled with nearly as many points of ambiguity as The Stranger, which would undoubtedly be a defect from a purely philosophical point of view but which makes it all the more engrossing as an aesthetic creation, embodying in its own structure the epistemological pluralism that comprises one aspect of the absurd. (p. 130)
[A] factor contributing to the book's emotional power is its dramatic techniques like the buildup of narrative tension and dynamic modulations in tone. Camus displays his flair for drama in the startling opening—"There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide" …—and in the way he systematically demolishes all the illusory values that sustain conventional life, then amid this seeming wasteland builds a new scale of values consistent with the absurd in which "everything resumes its place and the absurd world is reborn in all its splendor and diversity."… The Myth shares with the fiction and lyrical essays Camus's characteristic of rising in climactic paragraphs to a rhapsodic tone and intensely poetic diction…. (p. 131)
The Myth's ambiguities begin with the central term itself, "the absurd," partly because Camus isn't entirely consistent in its usage, partly because he considers it essentially an indefinable, emotional quality, such as beauty….
The book's expository structure also contributes to several ambiguities, some doubtlessly intentional, some probably not, that tend to mislead unwary readers. The shock opening leads one to expect a discourse on suicide in general, despite Camus's subsequent qualification that he is only dealing with suicide as a response to the absurd. (p. 132)
As his aesthetic theory has indicated, Camus's writing generally does not convey a highly developed sense of specific social or historical situation. Although in his reportage he did criticize the inequities of class society, in his fiction, drama, and literary and philosophical essays he purposely strove for universal truths even when he located them in recognizable social settings. The price he paid was a certain loss of fidelity to those specifics of existence that vary enormously between different social strata and historical moments. (p. 137)
Camus [maintains] the customary ambiguity of his titles in L'Homme révolté, which translates either as "Man in Revolt" or "The Revolted [or 'disgusted'] Man." The essay's artistic complexity is mainly contained in its monumental structure and a world view synthesizing metaphysics, political and literary history and theory. In lieu of his projected 1500-page "The System," it is the closest approximation to his summa, encompassing virtually all aspects of his formal thought and all the stages in the dialectical development of his themes. (p. 139)
Whatever the drawbacks of The Rebel's massively symmetrical structure, it effectively underscores the theme of man's perpetual passion for unity, forming an organizational counterpart to the reflection of absurd pluralism in The Myth's fragmented exposition.
The introduction is one of the key passages of his entire works, encapsulating the transition between the phase of the absurd and that of rebellion. Picking up from where The Myth leaves off, Camus moves from the problem of suicide to that of murder. Although he does not mention the titles of his earlier works, he implicitly contrasts the nihilistic implications of the absurd, those followed by Meursault and Caligula, with the affirmative implications in The Myth, whose line of argument, if followed accurately and to its end, rejects nihilistic suicide and now by extension rejects nihilistic murder as well: "To say that life is absurd, the conscience must be alive. How is it possible, without making remarkable concessions to one's desire for comfort, to preserve exclusively for oneself the benefits of such a process of reasoning? From the moment that life is recognized as good, it becomes good for all men."… (p. 141)
In the end, Camus's exhortations are only fully applicable to volunteer rebels, especially intellectuals, within the bourgeoisie—one of whom, as Sartre reminded him, Camus himself had become. Camus's political theory in general is most meaningful as a program for middle-class intellectuals and artists involving themselves and their distinctive sensibility in historical struggle. These men, however, are apt to play only a marginal political role at best. Camus recognized this and at times gives the impression in The Rebel that he is trying mainly to formulate an ethic of minimal nonviolence for himself while conceding, like Tarrou, that other men must go on murderously making history. In this light, The Rebel stops short of proposing a universal political program, which is undoubtedly a grave limitation. On the other hand, perhaps the reader can best do it justice by approaching it with the understanding that its title applies mainly to the intellectual engagé and perhaps even more specifically to Camus himself. (pp. 149-50)
Dualities pervade [The Stranger] in theme and structure…. [There are] the parallels between God's and society's judgment and between natural death and capital punishment. There is another important thematic parallel between the absurdity of nature or fate and that of society. (p. 160)
Society as Camus portrays it is as duplicitous, capricious, and lethal as fate, with one vital difference: fate makes no claim to rationality, while society does make one. (p. 161)
[Fate] ironically links incidents that would seem to have no logical connection (e.g., Meursault's behavior at his mother's funeral and his trial for murder), and a foresight of death, by reducing all actions to the same level of importance, creates an identity between the most disparate events. Instead of mystical doctrines in which all objects and events are identified with one another in their equal significance, Camus presents the reverse: all are identified in their equal insignificance….
Camus's observations on the duality of nature, society, fate, and the ironic identification that death effects between diverse events mold the novel into a highly symmetrical structure. (p. 163)
The most disputable issue in The Stranger is whether its final implication is really that "life isn't worth living." Meursault's meditation shortly before being executed, "From the moment one dies, how and when has no importance," can be regarded as the key to his whole character. Camus may be asking us to consider the startling hypothesis of a man who in the midst of life is as indifferent to his fate as he will be after death. (p. 166)
[It] is likely that Camus intended to leave open the possibility of at least two contradictory conclusions to make the book illustrate that "this world is nothing and this world is everything—there is the contradictory and tireless cry of every true artist." The only unequivocally affirmative theme is to be found, not explicitly in Meursault's narrative but in the novel's literary structure and in the author's having remained alive and choosing to write that novel…. (p. 169)
Of all Camus's works The Stranger is undoubtedly filled with the most paradoxes, both internally and in relation to his life and other works. The ending ironically reverses conventional notions of innocence and guilt. (pp. 169-70)
By conceiving a story and a novelistic structure that epitomize the pluralistic nature and internal contradictions of the absurd, by enriching the novel with multiple meanings and paradoxes on every level, Camus infused The Stranger with a distinctive vitality that makes this slim récit unique among his works and those of any other author. He was never again to attain its richness in any of his later works, although this is not to deny their own distinctive virtues or justification for being less complex. The Stranger is one of those rare, fertile inventions like Hamlet, Moby Dick, The Brothers Karamazov, Ulysses, or The Great Gatsby that even the greatest of writers are seldom fortunate enough to create more than once in a lifetime: a combination of will, in the author's felicitous original conception, and of good fortune in the way this conception quickens and expands to take on a life of its own. All the elements coalesce to form a simple, yet infinitely intricate pattern, and the levels of meaning proliferate to produce an artistic organism that is as protean, enigmatic, and endlessly tantalizing as the human condition itself. (pp. 171-72)
In The Plague Camus audaciously synthesized the ultimate extension of [realism and symbolism] into an allegorical naturalism. He had previously demonstrated his native mastery of the metaphysical plane in fiction and drama, on which plane the plague allegorizes the absurd, natural death, the problem of evil…. He is an incisive social psychologist in his portrayal of a trapped community, a portrayal that reveals universal truths about any group of humans in crisis…. (p. 173)
To sum up The Plague's strong points, it is on first reading as gripping and moving as anything in world literature. Only on subsequent, closer rereadings do its limitations become troublesome. Stylistically it lacks the enduring fascination of The Stranger's verbal complexities and The Fall's epigrammatic incisiveness…. The various symbolic levels and Rieux's doctor-artist dual role are rather static techniques of structural ambiguity compared to the dynamic interaction between Parts One and Two of The Stranger or the innumerable possible interpretations of individual passages and of that novel as a whole. It should be remembered, however, that by the time of The Plague Camus has become committed to a more straightforward literature, having developed an antipathy toward the abuses of linguistic ambiguity that he expresses through Tarrou: "All our troubles spring from our failure to use plain, clean-cut language."… (pp. 175-76)
The philosophical dialogues between Rieux, Tarrou, Paneloux, and Rambert, although substantial thematically, tend to make stilted, bombastic fiction….
After the first reading, without the suspense and emotional involvement in the characters' fates, Rieux, Tarrou, Cottard, and Paneloux do not retain enough individual complexity or appeal to become much more than the abstract voices of philosophical positions…. (p. 176)
Furthermore, weak points in the book's elaborate symbolic system lead to problems in structure and interaction between characters. Camus situates his fictional Oran outside of a specific historical and political context. Consequently, he can only bring in politics through Tarrou's flashback monologue, which, though one of the outstanding parts of the novel in itself, is dramatically and thematically an artificial interpolation. (p. 177)
Moreover, on the naturalistic level The Plague conveys little consciousness of social class in Oran. We do not see enough of the difference in the effects a plague—or a military occupation—would have on the rich and the poor. (p. 181)
A different critical perspective from that applicable to The Stranger and The Plague needs to be brought to bear on evaluating The Fall. To begin with, it contains fewer conventional novelistic elements. There is really only one character and not much of a plot; the technique derives almost exclusively from the resourceful use of first-person narrative point of view. (p. 183)
The Fall marks a culmination of nearly all of Camus's main themes: metaphysical and human judgment, dandyish egoism vs. altruism, monologue vs. dialogue, Europe vs. the Mediterranean and tropics, communist and Christian authoritarianism, an antireligious, secularized Christian ethic, and conflicting loyalties and fears between maternal and paternal forces. The fullest appreciation will result from recognizing its climactic significance in the overall pattern.
Although it is his least conventional novel in plot and characterization, it is all in all his most literary fictional work. In its genre it owes much to the tradition of spiritual autobiography and confessional literature…. (p. 184)
The Fall … marks a successful change of form for Camus to an overtly traditional literary style and allusiveness. He obviously did not choose this style, however, simply to show that he could master it. In the unsavory character of Clamence, who represents the humanistically educated, cultivated European, he is calling into question the whole cultural tradition of Western civilization. (p. 186)
Another extratextual dimension contributing to the complexity of The Fall is its elements of autobiography…. Clamence's occupation as a lawyer for noble causes is an obvious analogue for Camus's public image as humanitarian author, an image he bridled at and is satirizing here. (p. 188)
The main limitation in The Fall is not any weakness on its own terms, within which it is difficult to find fault, but a general one in Camus's fiction that becomes most acute here. There is a paucity throughout his work of long-term, gradually developed characterization and relationships between people in more or less normal life situations….
The dimension lacking in his fiction can be pointed up by comparing him to a master of characterization like Proust, the one twentieth-century French novelist who most clearly surpasses Camus in scope. (p. 194)
Camus did have a surprising capacity for dialectical reversals, and it is quite possible that he would have mastered the traditional techniques of interpersonal characterization and naturalistic, historically situated exposition in ["The First Man," the novel he was writing at the time of his death]. (p. 197)
In the six stories of Exile and the Kingdom Camus is trying out new techniques: a relatively objective third-person narration in all of them but "The Renegade," which is his only attempt at interior monologue; a light, urbane tone in the satire on upper-bohemian Paris social life in "The Artist at Work"; a feminine point of view in "The Adulterous Woman"; extensive stretches of detailed realistic narration and description with few symbolic overtones in the early parts of "The Adulterous Woman" and "The Growing Stone" and throughout "The Silent Men." He is also trying to fill some gaps in the subject matter of his previous works: sustained accounts of marital relationships in "The Adulterous Woman" and "The Artist at Work"; mundane central characters and workaday settings in "The Adulterous Woman" and "The Silent Men"; a Parisian locale in "The Artist at Work"; most strikingly, the less attractive side of the coin of Algeria's landscape and life—"The Renegade" takes place under inhumanly hot sunlight, "The Adulterous Woman," "The Silent Men," and "The Guest" in wintry cold. The stories are woven together thematically by various paradoxical mixtures of familiar antitheses: exile and kingdom, solitude and solidarity, freedom and servitude, silence and noise or speech. Each of the central characters suffers from divided loyalties, each is literally or figuratively a foreigner, isolated in the midst of society. (p. 199)
Exile and the Kingdom's most striking technical feat is the style of the interior monologue in "The Renegade," much of which is unfortunately lost in translation…. The tortuously elongated sentences, ungrammatically linked without punctuation or by commas, are the antithesis of The Stranger's curt, disparate sentence structure. Clamence's verbose quasidialogue, verging toward the end of The Fall on delirium, is reduced here to a man without a tongue raving interminably to himself—the ultimate image of everything Camus has said about the perversion of language to isolate and enslave men. A litany of anguish is created by the rhythms of three, six and twelve-syllable syntactic units that suggest the French alexandrine poetic line, reinforced by internal near rhymes…. (p. 202)
"The Growing Stone" is the most obvious instance of the impression the whole book gives that Camus had not fully mastered the short-story form. "The Guest" is the only story that ranks with the three novels in successful cohesion of theme, structure, expository technique, characterization, and realistic and symbolic elements. "The Renegade" is perhaps equally well written but is emotionally unmoving, perhaps because its narrator is the only one of Camus's central characters who is totally unsympathetic. "The Adulterous Woman" is too obviously written around the tour de force ending; like "The Growing Stone," the realistic scene setting of its first half is somewhat listless and unnecessarily long. "The Artist at Work," on the other hand, is a moderately effective study in satirical realism up to the ending where, as in "The Growing Stone," the sudden shift to highly contrived symbolism disrupts the previous development and tone. "The Silent Men" is successful as far as it attempts to go but is too short for us to become fully absorbed in its characters or situation. It and "The Growing Stone" might have served better as points of departure for longer fictional works; in fact, "The Silent Men" may provide us with a hint of the direction Camus would have taken in the work based on his youth in Algiers that he projected in the 1958 preface to L'Envers et l'endroit. But the subjects of these and several of the other stories are also precisely those he had had the least success dealing with in depth: realistically portrayed working-class an colonial situations, marital relationships, the feminine viewpoint. Perhaps his very choice of the short-story medium, which is a constricted one to begin with and which by the 1950s was becoming even more obsolescent than the novel, was a tacit admission of his inability to treat these subjects with the fullness they require. (pp. 209-10)
In spite of his lifelong passion for the theater, Camus never attained full mastery as a playwright. All four of his plays make better reading than stage pieces, although each has its moments of theatrical power. Caligula and to a lesser degree The Just Assassins were successful in their original productions and revivals in France, but neither received as much acclaim as his adaptations of Faulkner's Requiem for a Nun and Dostoevsky's The Possessed….
Camus was preoccupied with the challenge of finding a contemporary dramatic form equivalent to Greek tragedy…. (p. 211)
[It can readily be seen] that Camus is writing, not in the Shakespearean tradition we are attuned to, but in that of Racine and Corneille, who have never been popular in England or America, and of Greek tragedy, which we tend to regard more as a subject for literary study than as viable stagecraft.
Even when his theater is considered on its own terms, though, it has serious limitations. There is too much talk, too little action, too little modulation in pace and mood; the unrelenting stage of siege on the audience's emotions is overly demanding, more so in the theater than in a private reading that can be broken up at will. The characters are too often stiff, their dialogue pompous and stilted. Dialogue is not one of the strong points of his fiction, and his restriction to it here, with only the truncated narration and description that can be put into the characters' mouths, precludes the features that most enliven his fictional language: lyricism, ambiguities in diction and viewpoint, multiple levels of significance. Another of his general weaknesses, the portrayal of lovers, is preeminent in State of Siege and The Just Assassins. (pp. 212-13)
Caligula has with justice been widely recognized as the one play that ranks among his best works. Theatrically, it provides an acting tour de force in the title role…. It is the only play that fully achieves Camus's distinctive resonance and complex of meanings….
Caligula has the grandeur of a classical tragic hero. He is never simply a tyrant, never impelled by pragmatically self-advancing motives, mere lust for power or sadism. He is, rather, the disillusioned romantic hero of The Rebel, compelled to do evil out of nostalgia for an unrealizable good. (p. 213)
Caligula's assertion of egoistic freedom, then, is not self-serving so much as it is exemplary. His tragic flaw lies in not recognizing that "no one can save himself all alone and that one cannot be free at the expense of others."… (p. 214)
The main weakness in Caligula as a stage piece is its pacing…. Nihilism is a difficult subject to dramatize without monotony: when you have wiped out all human values in the play's first ten minutes, where do you go from there? Rather than having Caligula start to pass death sentences in the first act, Camus might have better modulated the tone and built up suspense by restricting Caligula's actions at first to disrupting social and legal rituals, thereby allowing for more satirical social criticism, and only later having him escalate his caprices to killing.
The Misunderstanding is the play that most closely approximates Greek tragedy in its concentrated, inexorable movement toward a fatal resolution that the audience already knows…. It is also his most Sartrean work in portraying the subjective existences of a set of individuals at cross-purposes with one another as an aspect of the absurd…. Camus's darkest work, its considerable theatrical power lies in the sheer, stark anguish of human beings undone by the caprices of fate. This dramatic strength, however, is also a drawback; the sustained agony is perhaps too much to expect a modern audience to sit through for three full acts—although it must be granted that the same criticism can be directed at Oedipus Rex. In any case, the brief plot is somewhat padded out, and the play would probably work better on stage reduced to one act. (pp. 214-15)
In his 1957 preface Camus emphasized that State of Siege was in no sense an adaptation of The Plague; still, it is clearly a companion piece, a variation on many of the same themes. (p. 217)
In this kind of experiment it is nearly impossible to predict ahead of time whether the play is going to work on stage or not. In this case it emphatically did not. The various styles fail to work individually and disastrously fight against each other collectively…. Nevertheless, the play has its appealing points, mainly in the love-duty conflict and the political satire, and if he had lived to revise it, as he likely would have, by pruning out some of the cumbersome elements like the choruses and symbolic machinery he might have salvaged it….
[The Just Assassins] provides a striking contrast in its straightforwardly realistic structure and dialogue, controlled tone, and the sublety of its political thought. It is much the better play and one of Camus's most mature works, even though its theatrical effectiveness is limited by an excess of talk and deficiency of onstage action, the latter perhaps partly a conscious effort toward French neoclassical decorum. (p. 219)
After more than a decade, it is still difficult to talk about Camus's death without giving in to the temptation toward excessive poetic license. The unavoidable literary interpretation, that the fatal auto wreck seemed preordained as the ultimate dramatization of Camusian absurdity, tends to depersonalize the human body and mind that were crushed therein—as Camus would have been the first to point out. (p. 253)
Nevertheless, in spite of Camus's own early acknowledgment that a creative career usually ends not in definitive resolution but in "the death of the creator which closes his experience and the book of his genius," it remains an inconsolable outrage that a senseless accident should have cut short a life of such youthful vitality and an artistic and ideological creation of the utmost importance for our time while it was still in full evolution. (p. 254)
Donald Lazere, in his The Unique Creation of Albert Camus (copyright © 1973 by Yale University), Yale University Press, 1973, 271 p.
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For Albert Camus the struggle to achieve meaning in human life must always be an affirmation of the love that engendered it. This conviction is the key thematic in Camus' novel, The Plague and finds expression in the character Tarrou. Tarrou's is a quest for total meaning in life: "What interests me is learning how to become a saint." Tarrou is definite about the path he must follow to reach the peace assuring meaning to life. It is the "path of sympathy," the way of charity. "But you don't believe in God," his friend, Dr. Rieux charges. Tarrou's rejoinder is to the point: "Exactly! Can one be a saint without God?—that's the problem, in fact, the only problem, I'm up against today."…
Camus' ethic of fraternal charity bestowing meaning and securing sanctity in human living is, in reality, a theistic ethic—the Gospel law of charity…. Camus, in refusing the pseudo-God of an unkind Christianity is in reality opting for the true God of authentic Christianity and … his indorsement of fraternal charity as man's way to peace and meaning in life is radically, though unwittingly, a call for man to love the God who has identified himself with the least of his brethren. (p. 76)
From his earliest appearance in print, Camus was haunted with the notion that our world is a universe which has no place for us, in which our life makes no sense…. His early experience told Camus of man's isolation:
In a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.
The absurdity of death, reducing man's activity to a matter of indifference, becomes the basis of man's "inner freedom" from all restraints. (p. 78)
[However, there is a certainty] that there are values in life, even in the face of the absurd. Consequently, there are corresponding limits to the exercise of human freedom….
The limits to his freedom in man's rebellion against the absurd situation in life are set by the "value" revealed in the "movement of revolt."
In the absurd experience, the tragedy is individual; with the movement of revolt it is conscious of being collective. It is the adventure of all. The first progress of a mind struck by this estrangement is to recognize that he shares this estranged condition with all men and that human reality in its totality suffers from this distance in the relation of oneself and the world.
This solidarity with all men is the value—so important for Camus—that is revealed by the movement of revolt and that forms the basis of his ethic of fraternal charity….
We have, then, the right to say that any revolt that claims the right to deny or destroy this solidarity loses simultaneously its right to be called revolt and in reality becomes an acquiescence in murder. In the same way, this solidarity, except in so far as religion is concerned, comes to life only on the level of revolt. And so the real drama of revolutionary thought is announced. In order to exist, man must rebel, but revolt must respect the limit it discovers in itself—a limit where minds meet and, in meeting, begin to exist.
Paradoxically, Camus' ethic of revolt implies the ethic of fraternal charity that came to be dominant in his later drama and fiction. (p. 80)
But the deeds of charity must flow from a kind heart. When Camus acknowledges in L'Envers et L'Endroit, "I am linked to the world by all my acts, to men by all my pity and gratitude," he is emphasizing the interior, the affective side of charity. It is the kindness that refuses to pass the absolute judgment that excludes man from the company of his fellows; it is the merciful kindness that, upon seeing a stranger, takes him to heart.
Two of Camus' most impressive characters were "strangers"—Meursault in The Stranger and Tarrou in The Plague, the former the stranger-victim of man's unkind judgment, the latter the stranger-saint with the kind heart…. Neither jury nor prosecutor had the resources in kindness of heart to reach the person of Meursault as he was in himself. Camus draws "the absurd contrast between what we know Meursault to be and what the court decides he is." (pp. 82-3)
In contrast with Meursault, Tarrou had experienced family affection…. Having known kindness, Tarrou had the power to show kindness. Furthermore, seeing a man sentenced to execution had worked upon his heart in such a way that he could never acquiesce in any man's being sent to his death and led him to "take, in every predicament, the victim's side," as he followed his "path of sympathy" to the end. (p. 83)
For Camus charity shows itself effectively as completely generous and all-embracing only because it springs from a kind heart, a merciful heart that will not judge the brother nor treat any man as a stranger, a sincere heart from which all selfishness has been purged. Tarrou had realized that man's "inhumanity to man" had come from unpurged hearts, "that each of us has the plague within him." For Tarrou purgation released the power of sympathy; it involved metanoia, the change of heart from "être solitaire" to "être solidaire," to invoke Camus's favorite catchwords. (p. 84)
What Camus has portrayed as the ultimate human quality throughout his writing is in essence the agape of the Gospels: "Agape will be able to minister openly and unreservedly to a neighbor, but only from an utterly selfless heart."…
Camus sharply diverges from the Christian position when he refuses to set the roots of neighborly love in any love for God. Camus' is the conviction that the charity wherein man finds his perfection as man is not consistent with belief in the Christian God…. (p. 87)
The scandal of indifference to a brother in need is overshadowed by an even greater scandal in Camus's eyes: "C'est toujours l'Eglise en tant que compromise par l'Inquisition et ses variantes, passées et présentes, qui constitue la pierre d'achoppement de Camus devant le christianisme." ["It is always the Church as compromised by the Inquisition and its variants, past and present, that constitutes the stumbling-block of Camus before Christianity."] Camus is turned away by Christianity's being, in any way, a party to a judicial process that commits the supreme unkindness of turning a man out of society in rendering absolute judgment against him. Camus sees the court that condemned Meursault, with its Christian prosecutor and its Christian jury, as a modern counterpart to the Inquisition in its harshness. In the name of Christianity, this court severs the last, weak tie to community that the unfortunate Meursault has with his fellow man…. (p. 88)
[The scandal of the] unkind Christianity that Camus rejects is equally disavowed by Christ and His late vicar. The Christianity, then, that Camus dismisses is a pseudo-Christianity; the God he refuses a pseudo-God….
Camus has averred that "if a rebel blasphemes, it is in the hope of finding a new God." Camus' search for meaning, for some principle by which the happiness and misery of man can be explained is a quest for the good who is in reality the hidden God. (p. 89)
Philip Mooney, "The Theistic Basis for Camus' Ethic of Charity," in THOUGHT (copyright © 1977 by Fordham University Press; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Vol. 52, No. 204, March, 1977, pp. 75-94.
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It was not until 1961, almost nineteen years after its first publication, that any critic suggested in print that Camus's L'Etranger could be read as a 'racialist' novel. (p. 61)
Camus himself insisted that he saw L'Etranger first and foremost as a book about a man who is a martyr to truth…. Throughout the novel, the reader is invited to sympathise with Meursault and see his cult of physical sensation—his delight at the crisp dryness of a hand-towel at midday, his love of swimming and making love, his appreciation of the sights and sounds of Algiers—as infinitely superior to the conventional values which are always being offered to him. Meursault, we feel, is right not to exchange the sun-drenched beaches of Algiers for the cold courtyards of Paris, right to prefer straightforward sensuality to Marie's sentimentalised idea of 'love', right to place the reality of this life higher than the hypothetical consolations of eternity, right to persist in his vision of the truth as he sees it even if this does lead him to the guillotine. How, then, can a novel with so attractive and honest a hero be seriously interpreted as embodying so unpleasant and life-denying an ideology as racialism? How, moreover, can so conscientious and self-conscious an artist as Camus have written a book which so contradicts the values which he officially defended in his lifetime? For he was not only the first French writer seriously to concern himself with the Algeria problem, campaigning as early as the 1930s in favour of equal treatment for Arab and European alike. He was, in 1945, virtually the only French journalist to warn of what was going to happen in Algeria if France did nothing to change its basically colonial status.
Once the book is isolated from Camus's life, however, the racialist undertones of L'Etranger becomes so easy to detect that one wonders why critics should have taken so long to point them out. The action of the book takes place in Algeria, sometime in the 1930s, at a period when there were some nine Arabs to each European. But only the Europeans have names: Meursault, Pérez, Masson, Sintès, Salamano, Cardona. The Arabs, in contrast, are a nameless, undifferentiated mass. When Marie comes to visit Meursault in prison, both she and the old woman—a European—who sits next to her are described with that attention to physical detail which is so agreeable a feature of the novel…. Camus either ignores the indigenous population of Algeria completely or treats it merely as a convenient backcloth against which the really interesting dramas, those involving Europeans, can be acted out.
Moreover, it can be argued that the Camus of L'Etranger does more than merely ignore the Arabs…. He tells a story in which the interests and point of view of the non-European characters are so totally sacrificed to the concerns of the 'whites' that one begins to wonder just exactly what his own subconscious attitude towards the two races was. For what actually happens in L'Etranger, when seen from the standpoint of the Arabs, is a peculiarly unpleasant example of both racialist and sexual exploitation. (pp. 61-2)
Camus wrote [the novel] at a time when he was working on Le Mythe de Sisyphe, his essay on the absurd, and wished to illustrate the idea that 'a supernumerary employee in the post office is equal to a conqueror if they have the same degree of awareness'…. Meursault, at least in Camus's conception of him, is a man who has gone through the experience of the absurd before the novel begins. He has had the overwhelming sense of his own mortality and consequently become aware of the 'blood-stained mathematics which command our lives'…. He is therefore living out the rest of his life in that 'weariness mingled with surprise' … which characterises the 'absurd man', consciously refusing the consolations of religion or any other form of reconciliation with the world. He knows that he is going to die and this knowledge, as he tells the priest, has taken all meaning from such normally all-important experiences as the death of his mother or the love which other human beings have for him. Drying his hands on a crisp towel at midday is just as important as being promoted to a better job. Indeed, insofar as physical sensations are the only reality in an absurd and valueless world, such an activity is more important than the worship of the bitch goddess success which would be implied by accepting his boss's offer of a new job in Paris, and Meursault needs to make only one more discovery about life to become one of the heroes of the absurd celebrated in Le Mythe de Sisyphe. He needs to find out that 'no depth, no emotion, no passion and no sacrifice could give the same value in the eyes of the absurd man to a conscious life lasting for forty years and a full awareness extending over sixty'…. He does this when, lying in his prison cell thinking about the possibility of being reprieved, he feels his eyes tingle with delight at the thought of 'twenty years of life to come'….
But in order to bring his hero to this point of awareness, Camus has to have him sentenced to death…. Such an ending also has the advantage of enabling Camus, early in his career, to give vent to the hatred of capital punishment which dominates La Peste, L'Homme révolté and the Réflexions sur la guillotine, as well as to express his mistrust of a legal system in which it is often more the skill of his lawyer than his own guilt or innocence which decides whether someone accused of murder is executed or acquitted. Neither were these the only considerations which led Camus to organise the plot of L'Etranger around a murder trial and a legal execution. He always thought of himself primarily as an artist, and clearly derived great satisfaction from constructing a narrative in which, as in L'Etranger, the completely innocent experience of events in the first half of the novel is interpreted as overwhelming evidence of guilt in the second.
All the different and overlapping intentions that Camus had in mind when writing L'Etranger thus involve a novel in which the central character is sentenced to death. All Camus therefore had to find was a convenient anecdote. The story of Sintès, Meursault and the Arabs eminently satisfied this condition. It nevertheless involved—and this is the central plank upon which a 'racialist' interpretation of L'Etranger is based—the total subordination of Arab to European concerns. (pp. 63-4)
[It is argued, however, that] a 'racialist' reading of L'Etranger completely distorts the novel and prevents us from seeing it as the masterpiece of irony, lyricism, humour and tragedy that it is…. It is consequently yet another example of the way in which contemporary considerations can completely distort our understanding of a work of art by preventing us from seeing it either objectively or in relationship to its time or the terms in which the author originally conceived it. It is, moreover, totally unsound because it makes the very elementary mistake of failing to distinguish between the author of a book and the fictional character whom he invents to tell the story. (pp. 65-6)
[It] is Meursault who is the racialist, not Camus himself. Indeed, by presenting events to the reader through the eyes of a 'Poor White', Camus is himself condemning both Meursault and the male-dominated, colonialist society which he represents. It is not Camus but Meursault who tells the story in which Arabs figure only as small part players and in which the murder of an Arab deserves only the most superficial of passing comments. Camus, in contrast to his fictional creation, is actually using both the events of L'Etranger and Meursault's own attitude towards them in order to underline how prejudiced and unbalanced he finds the colonial system which existed in Algeria in the 1930s.
This could well be a fruitful and defensible way of reading L'Etranger if it were not for one thing: The comments which Camus himself made about Meursault's character. For it is very clear, from the entries he made in his Notebooks when the novel was published, from an interview which he gave in 1946 and from the preface he wrote in 1955, that he did not have this kind of critical attitude towards the narrator in L'Etranger. The character of Meursault, he noted in 1942, was based partly upon two other people—one a man, one a woman—and partly upon himself. But he did not suggest that he rejected those aspects of his own personality which had gone to form his fictional hero. When the Catholic critic André Rousseaux attacked the novel for presenting a character 'without humanity, without human value, and even … without any kind of human truth', Camus drafted a long letter of reply—which he never in fact sent—but in which he summed up the meaning of the book as being either that 'society needs people who weep at their mother's funeral' or that 'you are never executed for the crime you think'. But although he mentioned 'ten other possible' ways of looking at the book, [Camus] gave no indication that he saw either Meursault or the attitude he represented as defective or inadequate. In 1946 he went even further when he told Gaëtan Picon that 'men in Algeria live like my hero, in an absolutely simple manner', and implied that their attitude towards life was, in many respects, preferable to that of the average Northern European. But he again abstained from any unfavourable comment on Meursault, and carried his enthusiasm for the main character of L'Etranger even further in 1955 when he described him as being 'inspired by a passion which is profound because unspoken, the passion for the absolute and for truth' and said he was 'the only Christ whom we deserve'.
It is in many ways unfortunate that Camus made these remarks about L'Etranger. Had he not yielded to the pressure which literary journalists and enterprising scholars so frequently put upon French writers to say what they 'really intended to do' in their books, L'Etranger would be far less vulnerable to the type of criticism put forward in the first part of this article. For it is only when we follow out the implications of Camus's remarks and begin to look at it as a novel about moral values that its flaws and inconsistencies appear. So long as it is seen as the study of a man who is genuinely 'an outsider' in the sense of someone who lives in his own private world and is simply not at all interested in what anybody else thinks about him, L'Etranger is … invulnerable to criticism on moral grounds…. Indeed, the remarks which [Camus] made about the novel after 1943 nowadays have the curious and wholly unintentional effect of making it seem a much less satisfying and intriguing book than it is when we read it in isolation from its author's proclaimed intentions. For they also have the effect of underlining, by contrast, what a poor fool Meursault is in his relationship with Raymond and how insensitive he is in his attitude to Marie. (pp. 66-8)
To revisit Camus's L'Etranger is thus, for me, first of all to realise how unwise creative artists are when they yield to the temptation of telling us what the meaning of their works 'really is'…. [The] impression which a book makes on its readers can change with the passage of time. In the 1940s, when writers, critics and readers were obsessed with the idea of the absurdity of the world, L'Etranger seemed an almost perfect illustration not only of this absurdity but of a valid reply which men could make to it through their personal attitudes and private experience…. It was only when the happy pagans celebrated in the pages of Noces became the shock troops of the Organisation de l'Armée Secrète, a violently racialist body devoted to keeping Algeria French at all costs, that critics inspired by an equal and opposite intolerance pointed out features of Camus's work which nobody had notice before. Henri Kréa, Pierre Nora and Conor Cruise O'Brien [who originally pointed out the racialism in L'Etranger] thus gave an excellent illustration of how right Baudelaire was when he said that literary criticism should be 'partial, passionate and political'. (p. 68)
Philip Thody, "Camus's 'L'Etranger' Revisited," in Critical Quarterly (© Manchester University Press 1979), Vol. 21, No. 2, Summer, 1979, pp. 61-9.