Last Updated on July 10, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 746
Absurdism in French Algeria: In 1913, Albert Camus was born in French-controlled Algeria. Colonized since the 1830s, the Algeria that Camus knew was deeply impoverished and divided along lines of race and class. Always interested in politics and literature, Camus was forced to drop out of university due to tuberculosis. After working in anti-colonial journalism and community theater in Algiers, Camus found himself living in Paris during World War II. Though the Great Depression and Nazi occupation quelled the intellectual momentum in Paris that had been ignited at the end of World War I, Camus was nonetheless influenced by the philosophy of the existentialists and the literary style of both the surrealists and the Lost Generation. Influenced by his experiences with poverty, illness, colonized Algeria, and occupied France, Camus developed the philosophical paradigm of absurdism through his collected theatrical, expository, and fictional works.
- Existentialism and Absurdism: Sharing café au laits with the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Camus took on existentialism as his primary philosophical influence. Expansive in its considerations, existentialism developed in response to the chemical warfare and mechanized weapons unleashed during World War I. Existentialists approached ethics and morality with an acceptance of the notion that there is no continued existence of human life or consciousness after death. Existentialism questions the extent to which objective facts can be known and doubts whether individuals can truly understand themselves or others. Further, existentialist theory generally asserts that life is meaningless but that in embracing that meaninglessness, one can find value, or at least pleasure, in the human experience.
Though Camus’s work reflects these ideas, he approached philosophy in the context of Nazi-occupied France and viewed absurdism as distinct from existentialism. While existentialism at large often concerns itself with human nature in the abstract, Camus’s work more often deals specifically with human motivation and decision-making in the social sphere. Camus labelled his philosophical ideology absurdism in response to the irrationality and chaos he observed when considering the effects human choices have on society.
- Influenced by the Lost Generation: Paris during the 1920s is known for its flowering artistic culture. In the same way that Pablo Picasso pushed the boundaries of what could be captured on a two-dimensional canvas, so too did writers from around Europe and the United States gather in the cafés and salons of Paris to challenge the boundaries of the written word. Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott Fitzgerald were among those Americans who became known as the Lost Generation. Hemingway described his style by comparing it to an iceberg, suggesting that, when literature is well-wrought, readers can grasp the gravitas of a story with minimal description, interior monologue, or exposition in the text. This notion, exemplified by Hemingway’s clipped, simplistic style, informed the way Camus developed Meursault’s detached, unrelatable characterization in part 1 of The Stranger.
- Influenced by Surrealism: Though more subtle than the influence of the Lost Generation, the surrealists also influenced Camus, particularly in their means of capturing ambiguity and the natural world. Meursault is often overwhelmed by the natural elements, light particularly. Meursault also often disassociates from his experiences, such as when he describes shooting the man at the beach. “The trigger gave,” he says, abstracted as he is from his own finger pulling the trigger. Such literary techniques can also be seen in the work of surrealist writers such as André Breton and Simone de Beauvoir. Further, the irrationality depicted in The Stranger echoes the visual irrationality present in the work of surrealist visual art, such as that of Salvador Dalí and Man Ray.
Publication History and Reception: Europe boasts a long tradition of philosophical literature, reaching from the Roman epic poetry of Lucretius and Ovid to the Christian allegories of medieval Europe to the tomes of Dostoevsky in 18th-century Russia. With Franz Kafka’s publication of The Metamorphosis in 1915 and Sartre’s Nausea in 1938, the character-driven novella became an established style through which a writer could convey cerebral, philosophical ideas to mass audiences. The Stranger was originally published in 1942 and translated into English for the first time in 1946. Though not an immediate seller, The Stranger was critically acclaimed thanks to a review written by Sartre that just preceded the novella’s publication. A prolific playwright, journalist, and essayist, Camus wrote a number philosophical novellas after The Stranger, most notably The Plague (1947) and The Fall (1956). Camus was awarded the 1957 Nobel Prize in Literature for his collected works.
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