I first met Albert Camus in the fall of 1980, when I was a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania. I say met because it felt that personal to me. His 1942 provocation “The Myth of Sisyphus” was the lead-off text in a course I was taking on 20th century European intellectual history, and with its electrifying opening statement — “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem,” Camus writes, “and that is suicide” — I thought it was the most profound thing I’d ever read.
I still do. Although it’s fashionable to knock Camus as a gateway writer who we encounter when young and then outgrow, I continue to be drawn by the relentless clarity of his thinking, his refusal to veer away from the concrete.
Even the suicide question, so easy to dismiss as adolescent, remains for me the key. “Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy,” Camus argues. “All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer.”
Yes, yes, I think, if not quite comforted then somehow validated by this idea. We go through so many days almost willfully unconscious of the conundrum of existence, the notion that all this is leading nowhere, to the grave. What’s the point? I find myself asking, as much as (or more than) I ever did. Back in college, I felt certain I’d eventually find some resolution to this question.
But, of course, just the opposite has been true.
Today marks 100 years since Camus was born in French Algeria, a pied-noir, or African-born European, which defined him as an outsider from the start. “I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice,” he said after winning the 1957 Nobel Prize for literature, referring to the uncomfortable middle ground in which this left him, caught between his principles and his past.
For Camus, this was no abstract consideration; in the late 1950s, he found himself marginalized (if not outright ostracized) by the French literary establishment, which saw his positions on two key issues, the regime in the Soviet Union and the war of independence in Algeria, as unacceptably naïve.
“[I]n denouncing totalitarianism,” his daughter Catherine observes in an editor’s note to his unfinished novel “The First Man,” “and in advocating a multicultural Algeria where both [European and Arab] communities would enjoy the same rights, Camus antagonized both the right and the left. At the time of his death he was very much isolated and subject to attacks from both sides designed to destroy the man and the artist so that his ideas would have no impact.”
By now, of course, this is ancient history; it’s been half a century since Algerian independence and a generation since the Soviet Union fell. But in Camus’ moral absolutism, there is, I think, a lesson in how we might engage with the contemporary world. It’s not for nothing that Kurt Vonnegut called him his favorite Nobel Laureate (he is mine, also) — because Camus recognized that the only ethical choice in an absurd universe was to be a force for good.
“One must imagine Sisyphus happy,” he writes at the end of “The Myth of Sisyphus,” and the image is compelling: all of us, condemned to go through the motions of a world without recognizable meaning, and yet finding meaning (or, at least, a temporary solace) in the endeavor all the same.
For Camus, such a rigorously existential posture came out of his upbringing: exile and identity are at the heart of his work. But his genius resides in how he took these particulars and made them universal, using his experience to get at more fundamental human concerns.
When, in “The Stranger,” Meursault — sentenced to death for having killed an Arab on the beach — argues with the prison chaplain about the absurdity of existence, he is speaking for every one of us.
“I insulted him,” Camus writes, “and told him not to waste his prayers on me. … He seemed so certain about everything, didn’t he? And yet none of his certainties was worth one hair of a woman’s head. He wasn’t even sure he was alive, because he was living like a dead man. … But I was sure about me.”
Camus (or Meursault) continues: “The others would all be condemned one day. And he would be condemned, too. What did it matter if he were accused of murder and then executed because he didn’t cry at his mother’s funeral? Salamano’s dog was worth just as much as his wife.”
It’s tempting to read such a passage as reductive, nihilistic even, but that overlooks its humanity. This is no dry expression of theory, but rather a vivid expression of existential malaise, the testimony of someone who finds it hard to bridge the distance he feels between himself and the world.
Meursault, in other words, is no sulky adolescent; he is a grown-up facing the inevitable burden of living. Not only that, but he embraces it, after a fashion: “Everyone was privileged. There were only privileged people,” he proclaims.
Such a sentiment is echoed by “The Myth of Sisyphus,” with its declaration that “[o]utside of that single fatality of death, everything, joy or happiness, is liberty. … Not the divine fable that amuses and blinds, but the terrestrial face, gesture, and drama in which are summed up a difficult wisdom and an ephemeral passion.”
Difficult wisdom? Ephemeral passion? Sounds to me a lot like adult life.
I didn’t understand that as a college student, but then, the best, the most important, writers grow with us. Camus is such a figure, essential, transforming, a writer who rearranged, at the most basic level, the way I think about, and move within, the world.
He could do this with humor: In “The Plague,” he gives us two of the most ridiculous characters in modern literature, one a writer who reworks the first sentence of his novel over and over, believing that only when he gets it right can he move on, and the other a man who spends his days counting peas so as to be acutely aware of every passing moment of his life. And yet, even here, it all goes back to that core belief, the tension between absurdity and meaning, and how (or if) we can sustain ourselves in something as fleeting as a life.
This is why Camus can be misread as simplistic — not because of him but because of us. What we are reacting to is our inability to live up to the standards from which he consistently refused to back down.
Think of “The Fall,” in which tragedy (the narrator confesses that he once did nothing as a woman leapt to her death from a bridge over the Seine) leads not to responsibility but to corruption. Or “Exile and the Kingdom,” the final book Camus published in his lifetime, a collection of six short stories about the impossibility of belonging; “In this vast country he had loved so much,” he writes there, “he was alone.”
Camus died young, in a car crash on Jan. 4, 1960; he was 46. And yet, his writing — and his example — remain. What does it mean to live with uncertainty, with evanescence, and really hold it? How does this make us not disconnected, but, paradoxically, more engaged? That is the struggle, his and ours, and it is no less pronounced now than it ever was.
“The water’s so cold,” Camus writes. “It’s too late. It will always be too late.”
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