Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Albert Camus

Albert Camus
It was 45 years ago today— January 4, 1960— that the French writer Albert Camus died in a car accident. He was 46.

I remember sitting one evening 30 years ago in a burger joint on Monroe Street in Madison, Wisconsin. I was a college sophomore. I sat at a table with an order of a burger and fries, nursing a Coke, as I read Camus' novel, The Stranger. Or rather, L'Étranger, since I was reading it for a college French course. I've read The Stranger several times since then. I've also acquired and read a great many other of Camus' writings, in dogeared paperback. There are certain writers who grow on you; for me, Camus has been one such.

Albert Camus was a native of French Algeria, and his writing and thinking were always infused with something of that Mediterranean sun, the same Mediterranean sun which shone also on the ancient Greeks. Camus was a writer, a playwright, a novelist, an essayist. In World War II he edited a newspaper of the French Resistance.

Camus has also been described as an existentialist philospher, which he was; but he was nothing like his one-time friend, the French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre was an ideologue and an apologist for Stalinism; Camus was made of better and more decent stuff than that. It was Camus' book-length essay, The Rebel— a study of Man in revolt, from the French Revolution to the present— which marked Camus' decisive break with Sartre and the French Left. Camus wrote: "Ideology today is concerned only with the denial of other human beings, who alone bear the responsibility of deceit. It is then that we kill. Each day at dawn, assassins in judges' robes slip into some cell: murder is the problem today."

Camus was not a religious believer; but an undercurrent of dialogue with Christian thought runs through many of his writings. His sticking point had to do with the problem of evil and suffering: he concluded that the world is without meaning. But at the same time, Camus rejected the trendy thread of nihilism that has run through so much of modern Western thought: he stood firmly for truth and right, even if by his lights this was absurd. And he did so without odium and without rancor.

For some reason I find myself especially drawn to the essays of Camus. From "Helen's Exile":
The Mediterranean has a solar tragedy that has nothing to do with mists. There are evenings, at the foot of mountains by the sea, when night falls on the perfect curve of a little bay and an anguished fullness rises from the silent waters. Such moments make one realize that if the Greeks knew despair, they experienced it always through beauty and its oppressive quality. In this golden sadness, tragedy reaches its highest point. But the despair of our world— quite the opposite— has fed on ugliness and upheavals. That is why Europe would be ignoble if suffering ever could be.

We have exiled beauty; the Greeks took arms for it. A basic difference— but one that goes far back. Greek thought was based always on the idea of limits. Nothing was carried to extremes, neither religion nor reason, because Greek thought denied nothing, neither reason nor religion. It gave everything its share, balancing light with shade. But the Europe we know, eager for the conquest of totality, is the daughter of excess. We deny beauty, as we deny everything that we do not extol. And, even though we do it in diverse ways, we extol one thing and one thing alone: a future world in which reason will reign supreme. In our madness, we push back the eternal limits, and at once dark Furies swoop down upon us to destroy. Nemesis, goddess of moderation, not of vengeance, is watching. She chastises, ruthlessly, all those who go beyond the limit.

The Greeks, who spent centuries asking themselves what was just, would understand nothing of our idea of justice. Equity, for them, supposed a limit, while our whole continent is convulsed by the quest for a justice we see as absolute...

It was Christianity that began to replace the contemplation of the world with the tragedy of the soul. But Christianity at least referred to a spiritual nature, and therefore maintained a certain fixity. Now that God is dead, all that remains are history and power. For a long time now, the whole effort of our philosophers has been solely to replace the idea of human nature with the idea of situation, and ancient harmony with the disorderly outbursts of chance or the pitiless movements of reason. While the Greeks used reason to restrain the will, we have ended by placing the impulse of the will at the heart of reason, and reason has therefore become murderous.
A writer still very much worth reading today.

Albert Camus, November 7, 1913 — January 4, 1960.



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