Albert Camus was an extremely handsome, mid 20th century French Algerian philosopher and writer whose claim to our attention is based on three novels:
The Outsider, The Plague, The Fall and two philosophical essays: The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel.
Camus won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957 and died at the age of 46, inadvertently killed by his publisher Michelle Gallimard when his Facel Vega sports car they were in crashed into a tree. In his pocket was a train ticket he had decided not to use last-minute.
Camus’ fame began with and still largely rests upon his novel of 1942: The Outsider also called The Stranger.
Set in Camus’ native Algiers, it follows the story of a laconic detached ironic hero called Meursault. A man who can’t see the point of love or work or friendship, and who one day, somewhat by mistake, shoots dead an Arab man without knowing his own motivations and ends up being put to death partly because he doesn’t show any remorse but not really caring for his fate one way or the other.
The novel captures the state of mind, defined by the sociologist Emile Durkheim, as “Anomie,” a listless, affectless, alienated condition where one feels entirely cut off from others and can’t find a way to share their sympathies or values. Reading The Outsider has long been a well-known adolescent rite of passage among French and many other teenagers, which isn’t a way of doing it down for a lot of the greatest themes are first tackled at 17 or so.
The hero of The Outsider, Meursault, cannot accept any of the standard answers for why things are the way they are. He sees hypocrisy and sentimentality everywhere and can’t overlook it. He’s a man who can’t accept the normal explanations given to explain things like the education system, the workplace, relationships or the mechanism of government. He stands outside normal bourgeois life highly critical of its pinched morality and narrow concerns for money and family.
As Camus put it in an afterword he wrote for the American edition of the book:
“Meursault doesn’t play the game. He refuses to lie…”
“…he says what he is, he refuses to hide his feelings…”
“…and so society immediately feels threatened.”
Much of the unusual mesmerizing quality of the book comes from the coolly distant voice in which Meursault speaks to us, his readers. The opening is one of the most legendary in twentieth-century literature, and sets the tone. “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas.” The ending is a stark and is defiant. Meursault condemned to death for a murder committed almost off hand, because it could be interesting to know what it’s like to press the trigger, rejects all consolations and heroically accepts the universe’s total indifference to human kind.
“My last wish was that there should be a crowd of spectators at my execution…”
“…and that they should greet me with cries of hatred.”
Even if we’re not killers, and we’ll ourselves be really quite sad when our mother dies, the mood of The Outsider is one we’re all liable to have some experience of.
When we have enough freedom to realize we are in a cage but not quite enough freedom to escape it. When no one seems to understand and everything appears a little hopeless, perhaps in the summer before we go to college.
Aside from The Outsider, Camus’ fame rests on an essay published the same year as the novel called The Myth of Sisyphus. This book, too, has a bold beginning:
“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem…”
“…and that is suicide.”
“Judging whether life is or is not worth living,”
“…that is the fundamental question of philosophy.”
The reason for this stark choice is in Camus’s eyes because as soon as we start to think seriously, as philosophers do, we will see that life has no meaning and therefore we will be compelled to wonder whether or not we should just be done with it all. To make sense of this rather extreme claim and thesis, we have to situate Camus in the history of thought, his dramatic announcement that we have to consider killing ourselves because life might be meaningless, is premised on a previous notion that life could actually be rich in god-given meaning.
The concept which will sound remote to many of us today and yet we have to bear in mind that for the last two thousand years in the West a sense that life was meaningful was a given, accorded by one institution above any other – The Christian Church.
Camus stands in a long line of thinkers, from Kierkegaard to Nietzsche, to Heidegger and Sartre who wrestle with a chilling realization that there is in fact no preordained meaning in life.
We’re just biological matter spinning senselessly on a tiny rock, in a corner of an indifferent universe. We were not put here by a benevolent deity and asked to work toward salvation in the shape of the Ten Commandments, there’s no roadmap and no bigger point and, it’s this realization that lies at the heart of so many of the crises reported by the thinkers we now know as the existentialists.
A child of despairing modernity, Albert Camus accepts that all our lives are absurd in the grander scheme but, unlike some philosophers, he ends up resisting utter hopelessness or Nihilism. He argues that we have to live with the knowledge that our efforts will be largely futile, our lives soon forgotten, and our species irredeemably corrupt and violent and yet we should endure nevertheless.
We are like Sisyphus, the Greek figure ordained by the Gods to roll a boulder up a mountain, and to watch it fall back down again in perpetuity.
But ultimately, Camus suggests we should cope as well as we can at whatever we have to do, we have to acknowledge the absurd background to existence, and then triumph of the constant possibility of hopelessness.
In his famous formulation “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” This brings us to the most charming and seductive side of Camus, the Camus wants to remind himself and us of the reasons why life can be worth enduring, and who in the process writes with exceptional intensity and wisdom about relationships, nature, the summer, food, and friendship.
As a guide to the reasons to live, Camus is delightful. Many philosophers have been ugly and cut off from their bodies, think of sickly Pascal, crippled Leopardi, sexually unsuccessful Schopenhauer or poor peculiar Nietzsche. Camus was by contrast very good-looking, extremely successful with women for the last ten years of his life, he never had fewer than three girlfriends on the go, and wives as well and had a great dress sense, influenced by James Deen and Humphrey Bogart. It isn’t surprising that he was asked to pose by American Vogue.
These weren’t all just stylistic quirks, once you properly realize that life is absurd you’re on the verge of despair perhaps, but also compelled to live life more intensely. Accordingly Camus grew committed to and deeply serious about the pleasures of ordinary life.
He said he saw his philosophy as “A lucid invitation to live and to create in the very midst of the desert.” He was a great champion of the ordinary which generally has a hard time finding champions in philosophy and after pages and pages of his dense philosophy, one turns with relief to moments when Camus writes with simplicity in praise of sunshine, kissing or dancing.
He was an outstanding athlete as a young man, once asked by his friend Charles Poncet which he preferred, football or the theater. Camus is set to have replied: “Football, without hesitation.” Camus played as goalkeeper for the junior local Algiers team Racing Universitaire de Algier, which won both the North African Champions Cup and the North African Cup in the 1930’s. The sense of teamspirit fraternity and common purpose, appeal to Camus enormously. When he was asked in the 1950s by a sports magazine for a few words regarding his time with football, he said:
“After many years during which I saw many things…”
“what I know most surely about morality and the duty of man…”
“I owe to sport.”
Camus was also great advocate of the Sun, his beautiful essay Summer in Algiers celebrates the warmth of the water and the brown bodies of women.
He writes “For the first time in two thousand years the body has appeared naked on beaches, for twenty centuries men have striven to give decency to Greek insolence a naivety to diminish the flesh and complicate dress but today young men running on Mediterranean beaches repeat the gestures of the athletes of Delos.” He spoke up for a new paganism, based on the immediate pleasures of the body.
This extract from Summer in Algiers:
“I recall a magnificent, tall girl who danced all afternoon. She was wearing a jasmine garland on her tight blue dress wet with perspiration from the small of her back to her legs she was laughing as she danced and throwing back her head as she passed the tables she left behind her a mingle scent of flowers and flesh.”
Camus railed against those who would dismiss such things as trivial and longed for something higher, better, purer.
“If there is a sin against this life…” he wrote
“it consists perhaps not so much into sparing of life,”
“as in hoping for another life and eluding the quiet grandeur of this one.”
In a letter he remarked:
“People attract me insofar as they are impassioned about life and avid for happiness…”
“There are causes worth dying for, but none worth killing for.”
Camus achieved huge acclaim in his lifetime, but the Parisian intellectual community was deeply suspicious of him. He never was a Parisian sophisticate, he was a working-class Pied-Noir, that is someone born in Algeria but of European origin, whose father had died of war-wounds when he was an infant, and whose mother was a cleaning lady.
It isn’t a coincidence that Camus’s favorite philosopher was Montaigne, another very down to earth frenchmen,
and someone one can love as much for what he wrote, as for what he was like. Someone one would have wanted as a wise and a life-enhancing friend.