It’s been quite sometime since I last have talked about Albert Camus, and his works that left a profound sense of transformation in my personal life. Lately I have begun going through some of his essays again and the critic which overlays. And what I’ve been seeing remind me how refreshingly pertinent the core of his thought remains to our everyday lives. Aspects of it are obviously dated, but – it seems to me – nowhere nearly as much as the grim, sour, mid-century theorizing so many of his Continental peers.
Probably a key underlying reason for that freshness is Camus’ literary gift. Jerry Delaney, who adapted La Chute for a stage production in Santa Fe in 1999, offers an especially discerning assessment for The American Scholar, reminding us of the writer’s claim that “all the great novelists are philosophical novelists.”
I retain strongly physical memories of my first time reading L’Étranger (The Stranger) – of summer, the heat around me, which melded with Camus’ descriptions of the beach and the merciless sunlight. But even the more challenging essays offered little explosions of insight and recognition similar in kind to the fiction.
Delaney describes how Camus’ idea of the “absurd” could move us so profoundly:
“It’s worth remembering that Camus meant something quite different from what the vast majority of people thought he was saying about the nature of absurdity. For him, the absurd was not something ludicrous or preposterous; the absurd was a confrontation between our deep-seated desire to know and an irrational world that defied knowing—in his words, “the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart” versus “the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principle.”
How astonishing it is to recall that Camus wrote the epochal Le Mythe de Sisyphe while still only in his 20s. From my teenage vantage point when I first encountered this essay, it seemed the scripture of a very wise man, of someone who had lived through more than I could begin to imagine. Delaney ponders why Camus’ essay has such staying power:
Camus’ idea is not particularly profound, but he states it with a compelling lucidity and force. Unlike most philosophical insights, which slip from our grasp even as we grip to hold on, the Camus observation sticks. What Camus did was give us a language to express what our experience in life had already prepared us to accept; he gave coherence to those inchoate ideas and unspoken assumptions that were roiling deep and unspoken in our minds.
Camus legitimizes us. We may wince to acknowledge that we are not endowed with the capacity to find an ultimate answer, that certain things are beyond our reach, but we are also reassured that our experience is universal, not a cause for despair: Quite the reverse, it is fruitful and full of passion.
We discover that being loyal to the truth means being loyal to oneself, and being loyal to oneself, the ultimate consolation in life, gives rise to an unspoken sense of pride and dignity—a hard-won self-esteem that comes unbidden from taking the more rigorous but truer path. By refusing to turn away from the absurd we are able, by a mere act of consciousness, to transmogrify the question of death into an inspiration to live.
“One must imagine Sisyphus happy” is Camus’ famous formulation – an existentialist update of Voltaire’s “il faut cultiver notre jardin”? But the context for this imagined Sisyphean contentment is far more reminiscent of Nietzsche’s version of eternal recurrence (in Zarathustra and elsewhere): the ceaseless cycle of life, repeatedly infinitely, without escape, as a “fate” to be affirmed with joy.
And what of the phantom of “engagement” that preoccupied Camus and his followers? Well, the wisdom arrived at in Sisyphus “is not a conclusion but a point of departure.” Delaney refers to L’Homme révolté, the essay which followed in 1951, as the political response to that wisdom: “Just as the absurd calls upon us to face the truth, the truth calls upon us to rebel” – in contrast to the posture of revolution. According to Delaney, for Camus the difference was that “rebellion brings to light limits, moderation, mesure. Rebellion is at odds with the excess of revolution.”
Revolution treats people as a means to an end; rebellion treats people as an end in itself. Revolution is top-down; rebellion is bottom-up. Revolution leads to terror; rebellion underscores the value of dignity in each individual, everywhere. Revolution is inspired by resentment, rebellion by love.
…More than any other writer, he enables us to expand our consciousness of freedom, to appreciate more fully the sanctity of life, and to recognize the honor of revolt in the face of cruelty and injustice.