Camus, Albert (Vol. 14)
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.)
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...
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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...
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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,...
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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."…
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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...
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